PACE’s September 27 resolution on Belarus

Belorusskiye Novosti has already commented on PACE’s September 27 resolution on Belarus. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe then reaffirmed its intention not to restore Belarus’ special guest status.

Following is the full text of the resolution.

Situation in Belarus

I. Draft resolution

1. The Assembly recalls that the question of Belarus has been on its agenda since September 1992. The special guest status granted to the Parliament of Belarus was suspended in January 1997. The Assembly however decided at that time to keep the channels of contact open with all the political forces in Belarus and to closely follow developments in that country. In January 2000, in its Recommendation 1441, the Assembly considered that the political evolution in Belarus was not yet of a nature to allow a change in the relations with the Council of Europe.

2. The Assembly has since continued to do its best in order to maintain dialogue with Belarus. The isolation of this country was not considered a good policy and the Assembly has carefully avoided applying double standards in its evaluation of the situation in Belarus. The Council of Europe standards as regards pluralist democracy and the protection of human rights and individual freedoms have constituted the principle yardstick in its evaluation.

3. Today, despite some progress in a number of areas, the democratisation process in Belarus appears to stagnate. Moreover, the relations between Belarus and the international community remain strained. A key example is the tension between Belarus and the OSCE due to a crisis over the mandate of the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) which culminated in the refusal by the Belarussian authorities to issue visas to and accredit officials of the AMG. The Ad Hoc Committee on Belarus of the Bureau expressed its extreme preoccupation concerning the situation after its visit to the country in June 2002.

4. The Assembly is seriously concerned about the lack of progress regarding the cases of missing people. Despite assurances by the Belarussian authorities about ongoing investigations into their cases no reliable information let alone any concrete results are available at present. The Assembly encourages the creation by its Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of an ad hoc sub-committee in order to help clarify the circumstances of these disappearances and appeals to the Belarus authorities to provide this ad hoc sub-committee with all necessary information.

5. Recent developments in Belarus also give rise to growing concern regarding freedom of expression and of the media. The independent media continue to be subject to increasing pressure and harassment from the Belarussian authorities. As regards the audiovisual media, the creation of a second semi-independent television channel has not yet delivered the results expected by the public. The new draft media law has not yet been adopted by the Parliament and the proposals made by the Assembly to the authorities to submit the draft law to the expertise of the Council of Europe has not been followed-up.

6. The Assembly notes with satisfaction the release from prison of Mr Andrei Klimov, prominent businessman and opposition politician, in March 2002, and urges the authorities to reconsider other cases of imprisonment on political grounds.

7. Having welcomed the earlier release from custody of Mr Mikhail Chigir, former Prime Minister of Belarus, in its Resolution 1441 (2000), the Assembly notes with concern that Mr Chigir has been sentenced in July this year by a district court in Minsk to a suspended prison sentence of three years with the confiscation of his property. The Assembly continues to be worried about the fairness of the trial of Mr Chigir as well as the treatment of political opponents by state authorities in general. It also expresses its concern regarding the situation of independent trade unions.

8. The Assembly notes that a new awareness seems to be developing in Belarus, in particular in parliamentary circles, on the question of the abolition of the death penalty. It welcomes the hearing on this issue organised by the Parliament of Belarus in May 2002 and notes the recommendations addressed by the Parliament to the Government on the possibility of a step-by-step approach from a moratorium regarding the death penalty to its eventual abolition with the exception of some specific grave crimes.

9. At present, Belarus shows severe democratic deficits and it does not yet meet the Council Europe's relevant standards. The electoral process is imperfect, human rights violations continue, civil society remains embryonic, the independence of the judiciary is doubtful, local government is underdeveloped and, last but not least, Parliament has limited powers. Although there is now a new awareness among a group of parliamentarians as to an increase of parliamentary competences, relations of the regime with foreign powers, the EU and other international organisations remain tense.

10. Against this background, the Assembly considers that for the time being, a discussion on full membership of Belarus in the Council of Europe cannot be put on the agenda. However, depending on future developments regarding the competences of the Belarussian Parliament and its commitment to fostering democratic development in Belarus, the Bureau may reconsider the restoration of special guest status of the Parliament of Belarus in the Assembly.

11. In the meantime, co-operation between the Council of Europe and Belarus should continue and develop in specific areas such as parliamentary co-operation in the form of dialogue and organisation of joint seminars on specific topics, co-operation programmes targeted at local elected representatives regarding especially policy issues on education, employment, social security; co-operation with the Venice Commission with a view to improving concepts of governance; co-operation projects for the development of the civil society; legislative assistance on the media law and training programmes for journalists. In this connection the Assembly also draws the attention of member states to the importance of bilateral contacts between member states and Belarus.

II. Explanatory memorandum by the Rapporteur

I. Introduction

1. A former foreign policy advisor to the US President, Mr Zbigniew Brezinski, once named the regime in Belarus an “archaic neo-Soviet one”. However, despite similar views expressed and pessimistic forecasts, the indeed authoritarian regime has not turned into a Soviet style dictatorial regime.

2. Elements of democracy and freedom of expression, though limited in many ways, exist. Several elections, local, legislative and presidential have taken place in the last few years, and in spite of shortcomings in the pluralist system, 18 political parties are registered, 12 of which represent the political opposition. If the united democratic opposition had not decided to boycott the elections to the House of Representatives in 2000, they might now be represented in Parliament.

3. Some of the problems the country faces stem from several years of soul-searching, which followed the independence. The confusion, as a result of the quest for a new cultural, political and international identity absorbed the energies and reduced focus on institutional and democratic reforms. President Lukashenko, an able, populist politician filled the vacuum and shaped political life as he understood right. Today, politics in Belarus is a succession of ups and downs and leads to a stalemate between the forces of democratic progress and the bastions of status quo. In other words, the democratisation process appears to stagnate, if it has not deteriorated in some areas.

4. Recently, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs Mary Robinson, joined others before her, including President Bush, President Havel, and said that she was “deeply concerned about the isolation and the fact that Belarus is not making progress and the situation is worsening”. It is true that the relations of Belarus with the international community is not at its best at present, and there are tensions between Belarus and the EU, USA, OSCE and even Russia. The reasons for this state of affairs will be examined in this paper with a view to drawing conclusions as to the future of the dialogue between the PACE and the Parliament of Belarus.

II. Background of relations: PACE/Belarus

5. The question of Belarus has been on the agenda of the Parliamentary Assembly and its Political Affairs Committee since September 1992, when that country’s Parliament was granted special guest status. Ever since, a considerable number of documents have been considered and decisions taken, whose references are reproduced in the Appendix. However, for the non-initiated reader the evolution of the question is summarised below:

i. The Belarus authorities submitted an application for membership of the Council of Europe on 12 March 1993. In April 1993 the Committee of Ministers forwarded this application to the Parliamentary Assembly for opinion;

ii. On 7 November 1996, in response to President Lukashenko’s proposals for constitutional change, the Standing Committee adopted Resolution 1102 (1996) on the Belarus situation. In this resolution, the Assembly called for “the organisation of a round table of all interested parties and institutions to provide an opportunity for productive political dialogue and a more consensual approach to constitutional reform”;

iii. After the referendum of 24 November 1996, the Bureau of the Assembly suspended the Belarus Parliament’s special guest status on 13 January 1997. The President of the Assembly stated that the new Constitution was illegal and that the way in which the new Parliament had been set up deprived it of democratic legitimacy;

iv. On 23 June 1997, the Political Affairs Committee held a hearing attended both by representatives of the political groups opposed to the constitutional changes and those in favour of them. On 27 January 1998 the Political Affairs Committee further discussed the Belarus situation and concluded that the requirements for restoring special guest status were still unmet;

v. On 25 May 1998 and on 17 December 1998, the Bureau of the Parliamentary Assembly discussed the situation in Belarus and noted that Belarus still fell seriously short of Council of Europe standards regarding pluralist democracy, the rule of law and human rights, and it therefore decided:

- to maintain the suspension of the Belarus Parliament’s special guest status;

- to suspend the procedure in the matter of the Statute-required Assembly opinion on Belarus’ membership application but continue presenting situation reports periodically;

- to re-establish contacts with all the political forces in Belarus with the aim of supporting any positive developments in that country;

vi. On 7 April 2000, at the approach of the legislative elections, the “1st Technical conference on international election observation in Belarus in 2000” was held in Vienna which issued guidelines defining the framework conditions for international election observation;

These conditions were as follows:

- transparency of the electoral process;

- regular access for political parties to the media, especially electronic media;

- establishment of meaningful powers for the Parliament to be elected;

- creation of a meaningful pre-election “atmosphere of peace”;

- At the end of a visit to the country by a three member delegation, composed of the Chairman and Rapporteur of the Political Affairs Committee and the Rapporteur for opinion of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, it was recommended to the Bureau that the criteria were not fulfilled and no observers should be sent to the elections;

vii. In October 2000, the elections took place, although boycotted by the opposition. The Parliamentary Assembly pursued its dialogue both with the new Parliament, as well as the extra-parliamentary opposition, whereas the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) did not recognise the new Parliament and continued to have formal working relations with the out-going 13th Soviet.

viii. More than one year later, in November 2001, the Parliamentary Assembly decided to be present during the presidential elections, together with the OSCE PA, the EP and other international observers. In the conclusions of the delegation it was stated that though the elections process “failed to meet the standards of the Council of Europe, some positive tendencies were observed such as the emergence of civil society”. Finally, the delegation agreed that “the isolation policy of the last ten years had indeed proved not to be effective”.

ix. Since, a delegation of the Belarus House of Representatives (Lower Chamber), headed by Deputy Speaker, Mr Vladimir Kanoplev, continued to follow sessions of the Parliamentary Assembly. A delegation of the Council of Opposition Parties was also regularly present in Strasbourg during Parliamentary Assembly session weeks. They had contacts with the Parliamentary Assembly’s committees and political groups, and, of course, rapporteurs.

x. More recently, in June 2002, an Ad Hoc Committee of the Bureau travelled to Minsk to discuss political developments. I have presented a brief report on that very comprehensive visit as an addendum to the progress report of the Bureau of the June part-session. Perhaps the most innovative feature of that visit was the holding of a seminar with representatives of the Belarus Parliament on issues such as: the enlargement of the powers of the Parliament, the abolishment of the death penalty, the development of the civil society, draft laws on the media and on the establishment of a commissioner for human rights (Ombudsman). The opposition parties did not participate in the seminar because it would be interpreted as a sign of recognition of the Parliament.

III. Recent developments

Release of Andrei Klimov

6. Prominent businessman and opposition politician, Andrei Klimov was released from prison on 25 March 2002, following a district court. He will have to give part of his income to the State for the remainder of the term of his sentence. As Rapporteur, I can only express satisfaction for this decision, for, time and again, either as part of the parliamentary Troпka or as part of a Parliamentary Assembly delegation, I have raised this question insistently with the Belarus authorities and visited Mr Klimov in prison on several occasions.

Economic Situation

7. The high expectations created during the campaign for the presidential elections were not fulfilled and most promises were not kept. The economic performance of the country remains low, the delay in payment of wages and pensions continues to be a problem. At present, over one million people are not paid their salaries on time. The privatisation programmes are in stalemate. The country will have to pay huge bills for electricity, gas and debts, mainly to Russia. As a result, President Lukashenko fired five and reprimanded several high-ranking officials. The Minister of Health, Mr Vladislov Ostapenko was dismissed, together with the directors of the Belarussian State Light Industry Concern, State Food Industry Concern, State Timber, Woodworking and Paper Concern and State Pharmaceutical and Microbiological Concern. The directors of State enterprises are seemingly paying the price for the regime’s incompetence to improve the economy. The numerous warnings against and investigations into public and private companies do not help to create a favourable environment for business and trade and are detrimental to the image of the country. In May 2002, the EBRD stated that the investment climate remains one of the most difficult in the region and decided to reduce its funding programmes.

Political opposition

8. The boycott of the 1999 local elections and the elections to the House of Representatives in 2000 could be considered as a political mistake of the opposition in terms of strategy. Most of the opposition parties admit this now. During successive visits to the country we have observed and welcomed the opposition’s intent to take part in the forthcoming local elections in March 2003. However, some of their grievances as regards the electoral process are still valid. They insist on more transparency, a better representation of the opposition in the electoral commissions and improvements regarding the role and rights of domestic and international observer delegations. The improvement of the media law remains a paramount condition for a fair representation of opposition parties.

9. Despite tentatives to create more unity, the opposition basically remains dispersed and strategies used until now have not gained sufficient public support. According to recent opinion polls conducted by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) opposition parties rank well below other institutions as regards public "confidence", such as the educational institutions, the army, the church and the media. Their influence upon public consciousness seems limited. The opposition parties are now beginning to seek closer relations with their counterparts in Europe and also with superstructures such as the Socialist International and similar structures. Their authority is likely to grow as their policies become constructive rather than a blunt denial of every aspect of political and social life. At the same time, we can observe that only recently the Belarus authorities made an open attempt at breaking up independent trade unions. This development, which would be a step back in terms of a slow but continuous emergence of a civil society in Belarus, should be closely observed.

Relations with Russia

10. A treaty of union was signed between Belarus and the Russian Federation in 1996. The treaty, which entered into force on 26 January 2000, had ambitious objectives and was looked upon at that time with concern in Western Europe. However, this treaty has not lived up to the expectation of its initiators, and no meaningful economic or political alliance has been forged so far. The hesitant approach Russia has recently been taking to the integration process seems to indicate a growing awareness of the risks involved in a comprehensive integration with a regime as resistant to reforms as the Belarus system.

11. Following President Lukashenko’s new proposals to introduce a joint currency, after an initial period of the use of the Russian Rouble in both countries, relations have shown a clear deterioration. Moscow grew sceptical about the implementation of the agreements and feared that the advantages would be outweighed by the chronic economic problems in Belarus. Additionally, Presidents Putin and Lukashenko differ considerably in their opinions as to economic reforms in Belarus or the responsibility for the emission of a common currency. In June 2002, President Putin formulated a rather harsh criticism towards President Lukashenko’s attempts to reform Soviet style leadership. He said that this would be "to the detriment of Russia’s economic interests and would aggravate centrifugal tendencies". Although it is too early to assume that the two parties might bury the idea of a union the deadlock in relations between the two countries is likely to last for a while, perhaps until a breakthrough occurs in the domestic policies of Belarus.

Relations with the OSCE

12. Relations between the OSCE and the Belarus authorities have been somewhat turbulent in recent years. However, the underlying, manageable tensions reached a peak in spring 2002 and led to public accusations by both sides over the activities of the Advisory and Monitoring Group of the OSCE (AMG). In March 2002, following criticism expressed by President Lukashenko, the Minister of Foreign Affairs made a public statement declaring that Belarus would ask the OSCE to withdraw the AMG unless it agreed to review the mandate. This declaration was followed by a refusal to extend the visa and accreditation of Mr Michel Rivollier, the acting Head of the AMG; accreditation has not been given yet to the successor of Ambassador Wieck.

13. The mandate of the AMG was laid down by a Permanent Council Decision N°185 of September 1997 of the OSCE, and it became operational in February 1998. According to a memorandum of understanding between the OSCE and the government of Belarus, its task was to assist the Belarus authorities in promoting democratic institutions and in complying with other OSCE commitments and to report on this process. The authorities accused the AMG of co-operating only with the opposition, of pursuing the objective of overthrowing the existing government and of lacking transparency in their activities. Of course, the non-recognition of the Belarus Parliament by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, as it was requested insistently by the government, did not ease the tensions. Finally, the President, in his annual address to the Parliament said that the Belarus government had displayed "extreme self-restraint" vis-а-vis the AMG and that the latter had "nothing to monitor".

14. The Ad Hoc Committee of the Bureau expressed its extreme preoccupation concerning the difficulties in relations between Belarus and the OSCE. It stressed that these developments do not help the integration of Belarus in the European structures and urged the Belarus authorities to co-operate with the OSCE to find a mutually acceptable solution as soon as possible. In this context, a recent initiative of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Portugal, Mr Martins da Cruz, Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE, to send a delegation to Minsk to overcome the difficulties carries some hope and should be supported by the Council of Europe.

IV. Main indicators for fulfilment of Council of Europe standards

Death penalty

15. The Parliament organised, on 30 May 2002 in Minsk, a hearing on ‘Legal and political problems concerning the abolition of the death penalty in Belarus’. Mr Stankevic (Lithuania, LDR) represented the Parliamentary Assembly at this hearing. The Recommendations contain two points which confirm a new awareness on this matter: the House of Representatives recommends:

- to the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus:

"to scrutinize the issue of the abolition of capital punishment in the Republic of Belarus proceeding from the possibility of a step-by-step transition: from declaring a moratorium on the enforcement of capital punishment for specific crimes through declaring a moratorium on the pronouncement of capital punishment sentences by courts to the eventual abolition of capital punishment".

and to

- the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Belarus:

to “summarize the practice of application by courts of the capital punishment for the gravest crimes, as well as conviction to life imprisonment and long-term sentences”.

16. Meanwhile, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Commission for Human Rights, Inter-Ethnic Relations and Media, Mr Valery Lipkin, thinks that the abolition of the death penalty in Belarus “is a matter of the near future.” He referred to a poll carried out in the Belarus State University, in which 19 % of the respondents called for the abolition of the death penalty, and 23 % supported a death penalty moratorium.

17. On 11 June 2002, a seminar was held with members of the Belarus Parliament. The Belarus parliamentarians explained to the delegation that the mainstream opinion in the country appears to be that the death penalty should be maintained as a transitional measure for the time being, given that public opinion is in favour of it. It should only be applied in cases of exceptionally serious crimes. All crimes punishable by the death penalty must be liable to an alternative sentence of life imprisonment (this was introduced by the new Penal Code in 1999). The final objective was abolition, but conditions in the society must be ripe for it, which was not the case now. A "step by step" approach towards abolition was suggested. According to the authorities, this "step by step" approach has already started, in particular with the adoption of the new Penal Code in 1999 (less crimes are punishable by the death penalty, life imprisonment is always an alternative punishment, some categories of criminals such as pregnant women, minors and old people are not liable to the death penalty). Some also suggested that a temporary moratorium be envisaged.

18. The Ad Hoc Committee welcomed the efforts of the Parliament to open a public discussion on the abolition of the death penalty. It stressed that, on this issue, parliamentarians must lead, not follow, the public opinion and encouraged the Parliament to call for a moratorium on the death penalty. During the seminar in Minsk, jointly organised by the Parliament and the Ad Hoc Committee, several members of the Belarus Parliament had a rather positive approach to the question. The representatives of the opposition, at the meeting with the Council of the Opposition parties, declared that they were against the death penalty.

Freedom of the media

19. The independent media is still subject to pressure and harassment from the authorities. The new draft media law has been transferred to the parliament but was not yet submitted to the expertise of the Council of Europe as requested by the Committee on Culture and Education of the Parliamentary Assembly, following a hearing on the situation of the media in Belarus on 24 January 2002. The main problems which the press would seem to be exposed to are: direct censorship (especially during the election campaign), seizure of equipment, massive inspections, interference with the editorial independence and, above all, criminal charges and reprimand (closure of the newspaper after two reprimands).

20. A recent example of criminal charges of slander against the President involved the Chief Editor of the newspaper "Pagonya", Mr Nikolai Markevich and a journalist, Mr Pavel Mazheiko. The newspaper was shut down in November 2001. Later on 14 journalists who had demonstrated in support of the newspaper were arrested and were given fines of 20 – 30 minimal wages or sentences of 3 – 10 days administrative arrest. In June 2002, Mr Markevich and Mr Mazheiko were convicted. The conviction of the two journalists by a criminal court was condemned by the OSCE as well as by international bodies such as the Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

21. In April, the newspaper "Narodnaya Volya" received an official reprimand and later was threatened with liquidation for "distribution of groundless statements" concerning arms trade of Belarus with suspicious regimes. The examples can be multiplied. Representatives of the independent media believe that the new law on the media will not remedy the situation as long as the corresponding provisions of the "Penal Code" have not been reformed.

22. The independent press also faces other types of problems such as high postal fees (higher cost than those applied to State newspapers), lack of a distribution network, reduced advertising (firms fear reprisals) and negligible subscriptions by readers. The foreign press is not existent in the country.

23. The access of opposition parties and politicians to the electronic media is still inadequate. There had been some hope that access would improve after the opening of the second television channel, but as the Minister of Information told us some time will be needed for the new channel to operate in a different and desirable fashion. However, it should be taken into account that the State will hold 51 per cent of this new TV channel. Additionally, the new channel will use the frequency of the Russian channel NTV. This means that the most frequently viewed Russian channel in Belarus would be replaced by another State-controlled channel of Belarus.

24. In a Resolution adopted on 2 July 2002, on the "Freedom of the Press in Belarus", the EP expressed "its deep concern at the persistent lack of freedom" and urged the Belarus authorities "to stop their harassment of independent newspapers" and called on the President and the government "to amend legislation on the mass media in the light of international standards".

Freedom of association

25. There are still good reasons for concern about restrictions of the freedom of assembly and association. On Sunday, 24 March 2002, approximately 600 people gathered in Minsk to celebrate the 84th anniversary of the establishment of the Belarus National Republic in 1918. This Freedom Day demonstration was organised by some opposition parties (BPF, United Civil Party, Charter 97) and some other groups. Police carried out 59 arrests. On 19 April, 3000 people in Minsk participated in a protest march called “You cannot live like this” in reaction to current human rights violations. It was violently dispersed by special police units and more than 100 people were arrested. Most of them face fines and up to 15-day prison sentences. People arrested during the above-mentioned and other pro-democracy rallies included opposition leaders such as Mrs Lyudmila Graznova and Mr Nikolai Statkevitch.

Missing people

26. The lack of progress regarding the cases of the politicians and a journalist, Mr Zavadski, who have disappeared is disappointing. Despite assurances by the authorities about the smooth running of investigations, there is, at present, no reliable information. The impunity of the perpetrators may lead to new disappearances. The disappearance, on 19 January 2002, of Mr Yuras Korban, 24 years old, Deputy Chairman of the Belarus Popular Front Adrazhenne and Head of the Centre for Civic Initiatives, is the most recent example.

27. The Ad Hoc Committee and myself, as Rapporteur, give our full support to the initiative for an independent committee to be set up by the Parliamentary Assembly in order to help clarify the circumstances of these disappearances. The Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights has now decided to move forward with this proposal and set up an Ad Hoc Committee. It would be most appropriate if the parliamentarians were helped in this undertaking by high level professional expertise.

Repression of opponents – Bandazhevski case

28. In comparison to a few years ago, when I first drew the attention of the Parliamentary Assembly to the persecution of the opponents of the regime in my first report, the situation has improved slightly. International pressure combined with the eagerness of the regime to improve its image have led to the release of some known figures or to the review of their cases on rare occasions, as for instance Mr Vladimir Koudinov and Mr Andrei Klimov. At the same time, other critical minds are being arrested and given disproportionate prison sentences, such as Professor Iury Bandazhevski, founder and director of the Gomel medical institute and a scientist of international renown (specialist in medical research on nuclear radioactivity). In June 2001, he was given an eight-year prison sentence on the grounds that he had allegedly received bribes from students’ parents. Despite vigorous denials by the authorities the truth is more likely to be found in his publications which reveal the harmful effects of the Chernobyl disaster on the population of Belarus and the incompetent fashion the problem had been dealt with. The institute’s Deputy-Director, Mr Vladimir Ravkov, also received an eight-year prison sentence.

29. Professor Bandazhevski’s lawyer claimed that he had been condemned on the basis of two testimonies made under duress, without any material evidence. As regards Mr Bandazhevski’s conditions of detention, he had, until recently, received the same treatment as other prisoners and shared a room (called a “section”) with 60 to 70 other persons. In these conditions, it was very difficult for him to pursue his scientific work. Having received the information that I intended to visit Professor Bandazhevski in prison in the course of the delegation’s visit to Minsk, his conditions of detention suddenly improved. He is now in a room with two other persons, has a desk to work at and, at my request, has been given a computer. His health, however, remains rather poor. A presidential reprieve was rejected. The Ad Hoc Committee called on the authorities to review Mr Bandazhevski’s case and I, as Rapporteur, will continue to follow this case with particular attention.

V. Conclusions

30. It can be clearly understood from the afore-mentioned observations that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has done its best in order to maintain dialogue with Belarus. The total isolation of this country was not considered as good policy and therefore channels of contact have been kept open. Also, when evaluating the situation in Belarus, double standards have been carefully avoided. The Council of Europe’s democratic and human rights standards have been the yardstick in any judgemental effort, no more, no less.

31. Both the National Assembly and the extra-parliamentary opposition seem to have understood today how important their role could be in the transition to full scale democracy and a successful market economy. Many members of the National Assembly, which is certainly a relatively more democratic body than its predecessor, work in good faith and would genuinely like to see the competency of the Parliament increased. The stumbling block to the efforts and hopes of the democratic forces in Belarus is no doubt the anachronistic vision of its President and his close team about how a modern country should be run.

32. At present, one cannot say that the functioning of democracy has reached the standards acceptable in the free world. The electoral process is imperfect, human rights violations continue, civil society is embryonic and has little impact, the independence of the judiciary is doubtful, there is a de facto monopoly of the State-run media, local government is underdeveloped. A structure called the Presidential Administration (a mixture of department for co-ordination, ideological issues and public relations) has disproportionate powers as opposed to government and other elected representatives. The relations of the regime with foreign powers, the EU and other international organisations remain tense.

33. Under these circumstances, and having scrupulously examined past Parliamentary Assembly texts and decisions, I am unfortunately not in a position to recommend the restoration of special guest status of the Belarus Parliament in the Parliamentary Assembly. The situation can, of course, change in the course of the autumn, when the National Assembly restarts its legislative activity and hopefully adopts a number of laws which can convince us.

34. What is needed in the meantime is to extend and specify the issues on the road map by which the Council of Europe assists Belarus in achieving progress in selected areas. This could be realised through Parliamentary Assembly / National Assembly joint seminars hopefully including representatives of the opposition, and local elected representatives regarding specific policy issues such as education, employment, social security with a view to promote exchange of views on such concrete subject matters and to improve concepts of governance through the Venice Commission’s expertise, co-operation programmes for the development of the civil society, legislative assistance on the media law by the Council of Europe’s Media Division, training programmes for Belarus journalists and, last but not least, through possible actions of local democracy agencies of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe. Mention should also be made to the importance of bilateral contacts between Member States and Belarus.