04.02.2011 | Rikard Jozwiak

The West steps up aid to Belarusian civil society


Belarusian opposition movements have received pledges of 87 million euros ($120 million) from 36 donor states at a fundraising conference in Warsaw. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski made the announcement at the end of the gathering, which followed a crackdown on antigovernment activists protesting President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s reelection in December.

Belarusian opposition figure Alyaksandr Milinkevich told journalists at the conference that outside support was crucial to the success of the democracy movement in Belarus. Milinkevich added that the conference in Warsaw was "not typical. I have been to many conferences in my lifetime, but the fact that this conference is devoted to Belarus with representatives from a high level, from 40 countries is very important for us."
"This solidarity gives us assurance that Belarus is in the European family and that we have common values, although the main thing is our work," he continued. "We need help, concrete help. We must bring democracy to our country."

Drawing a parallel with recently ousted Tunisian president and Egypt’s embattled leader, Sikorski said, "Perhaps the examples of Mr. Ben Ali, Mr. Mubarak, and others will make President Lukashenka reflect that the path he has chosen is not the best one for himself personally."

Sikorski added that Lukashenka’s methods "have no place in modern Europe," and warned the Belarusian leader that "sooner or later you will have to flee from your citizens and find shelter in a country which professes even lower standards than you do."

Attending the meeting were the foreign ministers of Estonia, Sweden, and Romania as well as representatives from most EU member states, the European Commission, the United States, and Ukraine. Attendees discussed how best to assist Belarusian NGOs and independent media.

’Helping Civil Society’

Jerzy Buzek, the speaker of the European Parliament, said the aid was part of a dual-track policy of helping the Belarusian people while sanctioning the country’s leaders.  "This conference is crucial because it exemplifies the new stance of the free world towards Belarus: a rigorous approach to the regime and a strong support for civil society and the Belarusian people," Buzek said. "We are living a momentous period for democracy and we should not let it pass -- we need to seize it."

The Warsaw meeting came days after the European Union and United States slapped a new raft of sanctions -- including a travel ban and asset freeze -- on Lukashenka and 157 associates.

"This conference was a success," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told RFE/RL. "To help the civil society in Belarus is the second leg of the EU’s policy towards the country after the first phase, which included imposing visa sanctions on the authorities." Sweden is the largest national donor to Belarus and Bildt added that the annual sum of aid, reaching a total of 11 million euros ($15 million), is likely to be increased for this year.

Increasing Funding

For its part, the European Commission announced it would quadruple its aid to Belarus in order to support human rights and democracy there, to 15.6 million euros over 2011 to 2013.
Eva Nyaklyaeva, the daughter of former presidential candidate Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu, told journalists that the conference underscored that the country’s best hope for the future lies with the Belarusian people, not their leaders.

"A conference like this shows that they finally understood that their partner is not Lukashenka and the government," she said, "but their partner is the people of Belarus, the normal Belarusians, the civic society with whom they should plan the future for the country, not with the government."

Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele also announced that the EU was pledging an additional 1.7 million euros for urgent support to the "victims of repression and to increase assistance to civil society." "I believe that providing increased funding to support civil society is of vital importance," Fuele said. "And it’s even more important to create the conditions and environment to allow this funding to bring real change for those working and struggling in Belarus."

He also added that he favored a follow-up meeting in late February or early March in the framework of the EU-led informal Donors’ Coordination Meetings on Belarus that has been in place since 2006.
The U.S. government pledged earlier this week to boost its annual aid contribution to Belarusian civil society groups, currently 8 million euros ($11 million), by 30 percent. Poland said it was doubling aid to 10 million euros ($14 million).

’People-To-People Contacts’

Additionally, Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet urged the EU to continue its practice of easing visa requirements for ordinary Belarusian citizens, even as it restricts travel for high officials. "For its part, Estonia plans to waive the visa fee for Belarusian citizens in order to promote people-to-people contacts," Paet said. "Current visa fees are very high and limit Belarusian citizens’ chances to travel to the European Union."

Belarusians are currently paying 65 euros for a visa to the EU’s Schengen zone, almost twice the price compared to Russians and Ukrainians.

There was also widespread support for the European Humanities University (EHU) in Vilnius, Lithuania, which hosts several Belarusian students who were arrested during the election. The Nordic Council of Ministers pledged an immediate 20,000 euros ($27,500) to the university and announced that they also would allocate a further 631,000 euros ($870,000) throughout the year. The secretary-general of the intergovernmental forum, Halldor Asgrimsson, said that "investing in education is the best way to invest in the future. Many of the students at the EHU are potential, future leaders who are the building block of a future, democratic Belarus."

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