MINSK, 1 November 2003 - The Chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Working Group on Belarus, Ms. Uta Zapf (Germany), visited Minsk from 30 October - 1 November. This visit was organized with the assistance of the OSCE Office in Minsk, which, while experiencing some difficulties, has been able to establish working relations with government structures and civil society organisations. The Working Group looks forward to continuing its close cooperation with the OOM during forthcoming visits.
The visit aimed to continue the task established during the previous visit in May of looking ahead to preparations for the 2004 parliamentary elections and exploring ways to promote dialogue between Members of the National Assembly, opposition voices within the National Assembly, opposition political parties and civil society representatives. Ms. Zapf also sought ways in her discussions in which Belarus' participation in the European Union's "Wider European Neighborhood" could provide a basis for further steps toward democratisation in Belarus and correspondingly, a greater degree of integration into European structures.
During the course of the visit, the delegation met with Mr. Konoplev, Deputy Chairman of the House of Representatives and Head of the Belarusian Delegation to the OSCE PA, as well as other parliamentarians, including from the Respublika group. From the government, the delegation met with Mr. Latypov, the Head of the Presidential Administration, Mr. Martynov, the Foreign Minister, Mr. Rusakevich, the Information Minister, and Mr. Golovanov, the Justice Minister. The delegation also met with representatives of opposition parties and civic organizations, as well as OSCE Ambassadors. Finally, the delegation met with family members of those who have disappeared and been imprisoned in circumstances widely believed to be politically motivated. Ms. Zapf expressed her satisfaction with having had the opportunity to meet with such a broad spectrum of government officials, parliamentarians and civil society representatives.
In official meetings, Ms. Zapf reiterated the Working Group's position as stated during previous visits and as adopted by the OSCE PA in its 2003 Rotterdam Declaration regarding the need for changes to the electoral legislation. She was pleased to learn from Mr. Latypov and Mr. Martynov that such changes are currently being considered by the government. The Working Group believes that a properly-amended electoral code is one of the fundamental elements which could form the basis for a free and fair electoral process to which Ms. Zapf would highly recommend that international observers be dispatched upon invitation from the Belarusian government.
In another legislative development, Ms. Zapf also reacted with some optimism to the expressed desire of Mr. Rusakevich to encourage public dialogue of the long-outstanding draft press law, due to be presented in the coming weeks by the government to the National Assembly for consideration. She was also pleased that he agreed to send the draft law to the Council of Europe and the OSCE for comment by international experts. It is hoped that the result of this wide dialogue will be a law meeting both international standards and local needs, thus contributing to the development of independent media outlets which are at present barely able to function due in large part to repressive measures by the authorities. Ms. Zapf was also pleased by the willingness of government officials, parliamentarians and civil society representatives to participate in a proposed round table discussion on this law and on the role of the media more generally, to be organised by the Working Group in early 2004 in close cooperation with the OOM.
While these legislative developments, if followed through properly, could be considered steps in the right direction, the delegation was most discouraged to learn of what appears to be a systematic crackdown on the work of a number of civil society organisations. In recent weeks and months, numerous non-governmental organisations have been closed down for largely technical violations of the legislation, although the sheer number and timing of these closures leads one to suspect a political motivation behind the actions of the authorities. Among the organisations concerned are Youth Christian-Social Union, Civil Initiatives, Varuta, Kontur, IREX, Belarusian Trade Union of Air Traffic Controllers, Ratusha, Legal Assistance to the Population, Women's Response, Vesna and Independent Society for Legal Research. Others organisations such as the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and the Lev Sapega Foundation have recently received warnings from the Justice Ministry and are in danger of being liquidated. In this regard, it is important to recall the conclusion of the report of the 2001 international election observation mission which "welcomed and acknowledged the emergence of a pluralist civil society, being the foundation for the development of democratic political structures, representing all segments of the population." The Working Group views these latest actions of the Belarusian authorities as a most negative step away from the development of civil society and urges the authorities to seek out a genuine cooperation with such organisations rather than undermine their very existence.
Finally, the delegation must once again express its deep disappointment that the authorities appear to have completely abandoned the cases of the disappeared political figures without having ever provided any satisfactory answers as to the circumstances surrounding these disappearances. The Working Group does, however, welcome the arrival in the coming days of Mr. Pourgouridas, a Member of the PACE Legal Affairs Committee mandated to look into these disappearances, and urges the Belarusian authorities to fully cooperate and seize this opportunity to make a genuine effort to shed light on these cases.