By Rikard Jozwiak
BRUSSELS -- After listening to testimony from Belarusian opposition figures, the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee has called for a revision of Brussels' policy toward Minsk.
The committee met January 12 in advance of a session of the full parliament scheduled for later this month. The chamber is expected to adopt a resolution condemning the violent crackdown following the disputed December 19 presidential election.
Jerzy Buzek, the parliament's president, underlined that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's government lacks democratic legitimacy.
"The first priority is to demand from the authorities to free all those remaining in prison and also to drop the heavy charges brought against 31 activists," Buzek said.
Eva Nyaklyaeva, daughter of imprisoned presidential candidate Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu, urged Brussels to come up with concrete steps to free the activists. She added that the EU "holds the keys" that could free her father from prison.
Four presidential candidates and many demonstrators remain imprisoned in Belarus, accused by the authorities of sparking postelection violence.
In his remarks to the committee, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said the timeframe for a releasing those detained must be "measured in hours and days, not weeks."
Fuele added that the European Union is aiming to follow a dual-track approach -- imposing visa restrictions on top Belarusian officials while making it easier for ordinary citizens to travel to Europe.
"I want to stress from the outset the fundamental need for a balanced approach which sets enhanced openness toward civil society and citizens as a counterweight to targeted measures against the Belarusian authorities, including a review of sanctions," Fuele said.
In his remarks to the committee, Belarusian opposition figure Alyaksandr Milinkevich advocated just such an approach.
"The most effective sanction against the totalitarian regime is to provide broad support for Belarusian civil society and independent media," he said. "It is very important that the European Union takes concrete steps. I think it should revise its Belarus policy and develop concrete mechanisms that will enable us to continue the democratization of society."
Lawmakers also called on Minsk to reopen the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Belarus office, which was shut down after the December 19 poll, which was won overwhelmingly by Lukashenka but criticized internationally as fraudulent.
The World Is Watching
Lithuanian Deputy Foreign Minister Evaldas Ignatavicius, representing the OSCE's current chairman in office, stressed that the authorities in Minsk need to be made aware that the international community is watching their actions closely.
"International awareness needs to be felt in Minsk in order to stop the Belarusian government's pressure on the civil society," he said. "As already mentioned, unlawful searches of NGOs and private people still continue and the backward movement of human rights is obvious."
Some in the parliament want to suspend Belarus from the EU's Eastern Partnership program and to ban the country from international sporting events, but Fuele was cool to such ideas.
The full European Parliament is due to convene later this month to vote on a resolution recommending sanctions against Belarusian leaders. A final decision on what steps to take will ultimately be made by the European Commission.
There are 34 Belarusian officials on the current visa-sanctions list, which the EU imposed following a disputed election in 2006. The ban was suspended in 2008 as Brussels tried to convince Lukashenka that democratic reform would bring benefits to his country.
Key EU member states, meanwhile, appear to be edging closer to reimposing travel bans on Lukashenka and other top officials involved in the violent postelection crackdown.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said today that sanctions are "likely" after a meeting with Italy's President Silvio Berlusconi. Italy has been the EU member state most reluctant to introduce punitive measures.