Central European leaders pledge to back democracy in Belarus

Bratislava - Four Central European countries that make up the Visegrad alliance on Tuesday made supporting democracy and human rights in Belarus one of its leading joint concerns.

The European Union had in January agreed to impose sanctions on the Belarusian government because of the disputed re-election of President Aleksander Lukashenko and a subsequent crackdown on opposition politicians and activists.

The Visegrad group, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, has proven to be an ideal forum for exactly such topics, as a bridge to the European Union countries further west, its leaders said.

'The V4 has become a group in the EU that again and again reminds us that democracy and human rights are not self-evident,' German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in the Slovak capital Bratislava, where she joined in the group's jubilee celebration.

Merkel noted that the Visegrad countries - Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland - are themselves the best examples of the road from dictatorship to stable democracies.

The former Communist countries founded the group on February 15, 1991 in the northern Hungarian town of Visegrad. Also joining in the anniversary celebration on Tuesday were Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Asarow.

Initially modeled on the Benelux economic union that joins Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, the Visegrad alliance was meant to coordinate its members' applications for EU membership.

Since the four nations joined the bloc in 2004, the group has served to coordinate regional cooperation and speak as one voice within the EU on key issues.

On Tuesday, the Visegrad group argued that only concerted solidarity across the EU will allow the bloc to address the global challenges facing the populations of its member states.

Precisely global problems such as food, energy and commodity price hikes that are 'no longer endurable for many people' are easily overwhelming individual states, Slovak Prime Minister Iveta Radicova said at a joint press conference with her Czech, Hungarian and Polish counterparts - Petr Necas, Viktor Orban and Donald Tusk.

The four leaders had met earlier in the day for deliberations about issues relating mostly to the EU and energy security.

Linkages between its members' national energy grids, particularly when it comes to gas and electricity, currently dominate the group's agenda. Slovakia and Hungary took the first step in January by signing a contract for the construction of a shared gas line.

The project is meant to eventually result in a closed gas network that will stretch from the Baltic states to the Adriatic Sea, making it an issue with great strategic significance for all of the EU.

The environmental protection organization Greenpeace used Tuesday's event to make demands of its own for more commitment to reducing polluting emissions. The activists accused the Visegrad nations of not attaching enough importance to renewable energies.


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