Regime promised to release political prisoners before end of February

The Belarusian regime had promised to release all political prisoners before the end of February this year. This statement has been made by the international coordinator of the Charter’97 press-center, one of the initiators of the campaign “European Belarus” Andrei Sannikov. “Representatives of European states who took part in the Brussels Forum have informed about such agreements. Now the sharp reaction of the United States and imposing sanctions against Belneftekhim become clear,” said Mr. Sannikov in an interview to the Charter’97 press-centre.

The 3rd Brussels Forum took place on March 14-16 in the capital of Belgium. The Forum was organized three years ago by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Ay once it showed itself to be a high-profile event of the international life. Participants include heads of state, senior officials from the European Union institutions and the member states, U.S. Cabinet officials, Congressional representatives, Parliamentarians, academics, and media. Among the participants are: NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, World Bank President Robert Zoellick, Secretary General of the Council of the EU and High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Foreign Affairs Ministers of Poland Radoslaw Sikorski, of Sweden Carl Bildt, Latvia ‘s Maris Riekstins, Deputy Secretary of U.S. Department of the Treasury Robert Kimmitt, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, Canadian Minister of Defence Peter MacKay, Chairman of the Russian Duma’s Committee Konstantin Kosachev, Boris Nemtsov, Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Hryhorij Nemyria, and Ukrainian Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Konstantyn Gryshchenko, Chech Deputy Prime Minister for EU Affairs Vondra, big businessmen, prominent journalists and many others. The head of the Foundation “We Remember” Iryna Krasouskaya and the international coordinator of the Charter’97 press-center Andrei Sannikov represented Belarus at the forum.

– What attracts world elite to such forums?

– Such forums are interesting by the fact that most pressing international challenges are addressed. Besides, this year the forum was held before the NATO summit, where significant decisions on further expansion of the Alliance and its cooperation with other states are to be adopted. The world economic situation was in the limelight, as well as the imminent election in the U.S., the E.U. reforming, the situation in separate regions of the world: Middle East, China, Russia and so on.

Undoubtedly, we were interested by issues related to Belarus, all the more so, as before the Forum relations of the official Minsk with Washington aggravated. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs David Kramer, U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Karen Stewart, high-ranking officials of the E.U. took part in the Forum. We had rather detailed consultations with representatives of the U.S. and the E.U. As we have informed before, their positions coincided completely. In other words, neither Europe nor the US sees a possibility of taking a course of rapprochement with Belarus without release of all political prisoners, and primarily of Alyaksandr Kazulin.

– What has impressed you at this Forum?

– A frank dialogue with Javier Solana, a statement of Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, the discussion on the EU and the NATO expansion, which was brilliantly moderated by The German Marshall Fund of the United States Brussels Office’s Executive Director Ronald Asmus; by an exciting discussion of relations between Russia and the West. By the way, an impression is that Russia gets more and more often isolated on many international problems, and the West is less and less interested by Russia’s position. And Russia becomes concerned by that. We followed the discussion on Ukraine with envy. A member of the government and a member of the opposition spoke from different positions, but the both from the point of view of reinforcement of Ukrainian statehood. By the way, they both notes that the government and the opposition have consensus on the issue of Ukraine’s integration to the E.U., and only on the issue of the NATO they still have a split-up. In general, the Forum was very intensive, and one still needed time to converse behind the scenes.

– Was the topic of Belarus brought up at the Forum?

– Belarus was mentioned, but wasn’t present as a separate subject. The situation in our country is rather clear, and no considerable changes in the policy of the regime are taking place. That is why more serious problems then the policy of self-isolation of the Belarusian regime are discussed at such high-status conferences. From Minsk they can threaten the whole world with fist, fight with the U.S., and there is a bit different vision of international relations in Brussels. However, it was very useful to discuss the situation in Belarus with representatives of international structures, certain states, analysts and journalists who are interested in this situation. We do not have objective information about what is going on in the government. We learn about some decisions only post factum. And logic of such events is not always comprehensible. Despite of the absence of highest level contacts officials of other states have a possibility to meet with medium-level Belarusian officials and get at least any explanations about what is going on in Belarus.

I must say, most of our interlocutors are in perplexity. It would seem, for the first time some steps followed conciliatory statements on the E.U.: a number of political prisoners were released. However, in February all this abruptly slowed down, and ‘war’ against the U.S. started. Interlocutors noted that both Europe and the U.S. had really serious intentions to find a solution for the long-drawn self-imposed isolation of Belarus. However, once again the Belarusian regime demonstrated their unpredictability. Representatives of the U.S. and Europe mentioned that they were ready to consider the question of reducing the black list of Belarusian officials, starting with Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and to take decisions as the progress on agreed guidelines would take place. On agreed guidelines namely, because, as it turned out, the Belarusian side had assumed certain obligations, in particular, concerning political prisoners.

– Did the Belarusian regime promise to release all political prisoners?

– Yes, and should have happened before the end of February this year. Representatives of European states who took part in the Brussels Forum have informed about such agreements. Now the sharp reaction of the United States and imposing sanctions against Belneftekhim become clear. The official Minsk has simply violated its own promises, and is trying to play on alleged differences between the U.S. and the E.U. It’s true, the U.S. and the E.U. have different approaches to solving world problems, however as for Belarus, their positions are practically uniform.

And the perplexity of interlocutors has been caused by the fact that Belarus is not using the unique chance for normalization of international relations, of taking a completely different level of political and economic relations with the West.

– Why our situation is unique?

– It’s unique because the circumstances have changed radically. On one hand, Belarus started to border on the United Europe, and on the other hand, the preferential economic period for Belarus created by Russia, is left behind. Besides, inside the country opposition started to offer the regime a dialogue. It includes Milinkevich’s letter addressed to Lukashenka, and the offer of the organizers of the European March, and the statement of Kazulin when he was temporarily released for his wife’s funeral. All that allowed expecting that for the sake of reinforcement of statehood, and creation of a stable economic basis for this statehood Belarusian regime would take real steps for rapprochement with Europe. It is clear that these steps could be made only after the beginning of changes inside Belarus itself. Nobody expected quickly and radical changes in the political situation. It was enough to abide by own promises and gradually move towards democratization. However what is going on today, reveals of the regime’s confusion, and leads to some absurd decisions, which do harm both to the state and to the government itself. For instance, as some analysts note, variants of “self-reliance”, a kind of Albanian or North Korean path of development, are seriously considered in Minsk today.

– Is the EU ready to join the U.S. sanctions against Lukashenka’s regime?

– I know that the European Union reflects on this issue. In any case, one could say that absence of the U.S. Ambassador in Minsk and a ridiculous demand to reduce the Embassy’s staff would not help to develop relations with Europe. Minsk won’t be able to drive a wedge between Europe and the U.S. Besides, public opinion in Europe is on the side of the democratic forces of Belarus, and it would be difficult for governments of European states to act in defiance of the public opinion of their countries. The Belarusian regime still has all chances to normalize the situation, but time is extremely pressed today, and every day of delay negatively influences our economy and the situation of Belarus in the world. March 25 could already become a step in the right direction. By the way, Brussels hopes that there won’t be any incidents during celebration of the 90th anniversary of the Belarusian National Republic in Belarus.