'Solidarity with Belarus' meet to bolster opposition aid

WARSAW - Agence France-Presse

Thirty-six states were set Wednesday to bolster financial support for Belarussian opposition groups at a donors' conference spearheaded by Poland - the first initiative of its kind.

The "Solidarity with Belarus" conference was called in response to a crackdown by Belarus's strongman President Alexander Lukashenko in the wake of his Dec. 19 re-election which has been disputed by the opposition and the West.

"Belarussians deserve reasonable government by reasonable people. You are in Europe and you have Europe's support... and we are here to increase our support," Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told some 200 delegates at the conference in Warsaw.

"President Lukashenko you are losing. Nobody believes in the declared election result of 80 percent voter support for you. Your methods (of repression) have no place in modern Europe," Sikorski added.

Alexander Milinkievich, a leading Belarussian activist, told the gathering the opposition had high hopes. "We want our country to become a democratic and independent European country," he said.

The meeting comes just days after the European Union and United States slapped a new raft of sanctions -- including a travel ban and asset freezes - on Lukashenko and 157 associates as punishment for election-rigging and the crackdown which saw mass arrests in the ex-Soviet state.

In Warsaw Wednesday Stefan Fule, the member of the EU's executive Commission responsible for ties with the bloc's neighbors, said it had decided to quadruple support for Belarussian campaign groups, free media and students to 15.6 million euros ($21.6 million) this year.

Some 200 representatives from all 27 EU members, Canada, the United States, EU candidates Croatia and Macedonia, plus ex-Soviet Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine were attending the fundraising drive.

Besides the European Commission, other donors are also expected to pledge cash, scholarships and expert assistance. This year Poland doubled its aid to independent Belarussian groups and media, earmarking 42 million zloty (10.7million euros, $15million) in support, officials said.

The funds cover the operating costs of the Warsaw-based Belast TV, the only Belarussian-language station broadcasting in Belarus which is not controlled by the authorities there. Poland also funds three independent Belarussian-language radio stations. All four stations complain their reporters inside Belarus have been refused official accreditation and are regularly harassed by the authorities.


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