Ulad Vialichka: Relaunch of the Belarus-EU dialogue is taking place without civil society participate

Aliaksei Yurych, EuroBelarus Information Service

Belarus, i.e. Belarusan authorities and to some extent — the civil society has all leverages for relaunching Belarus-EU relations.

Will it be possible for the civil society to win a place in the possible Minsk-Brussels dialogue? Can the Belarus-Europe dialogue instill new life into the social processes?

Ulad Vialichka, the head of the International Consortium “EuroBelarus”, answered the questions of the EuroBelarus Information Service.

— Even if without any breakthrough, the new dialogue between Minsk and Brussels is under way. What place in the Belarus-Europe dialogue is given to the civil society?

— So far, very insignificant. Europeans declare and indicate the place for the civil society, which is not true when we talk about the Belarusan side, which not only ignores the civil society participation, but also prevents it. The last example when independent human rights organizations, in particular, the representatives of the HRC “Viasna”, were not allowed to the conference on the death penalty is yet another proof of that.

Unfortunately, the European side isn’t yet ready to insist on the mandatory nature of the principle of civil society participation, which makes our cooperation with the European Union look like an intent rather than actual practice.

One cannot but agree that in its rhetoric, the European side strongly emphasizes the importance of civil society participation in the dialogue; however, when it comes to guarantees of such participation, the process goes in accordance with the scenario of the Belarusan authorities.

— How is it possible to reverse the current trend, if it is possible at all?

— Nothing is impossible. Stronger European politicians of former times — Štefan Füle, Radosław Sikorski, Karel Schwarzenberg — managed to insist on the civil society involvement in the dialogue in times that used to be even more difficult. Today's situation has emerged due to the weakness of European policy makers, not due to the power of the Belarusan authorities. We need politicians who have strong principles and who believe that civil society is an indispensable element and a participant in the dialogue; politicians, who would offer concrete steps and mechanisms of such participation, rather than repeat bureaucratic mantras about its importance.

— What role and place would the civil society itself like to have in the possible dialogue?

— Civil society has repeatedly declared its intentions.

First, the possibility to communicate an alternative point of view. “Alternative” doesn’t necessarily mean “against”, but independent from the political situation. This is one of the main functions.

The second function is an expert one: apart from opinion, qualified and experienced people from an independent public sector also have some suggestions that we are not able not only to implement, but even voice at the corresponding venues.

Thirdly, the opportunity to be heard, not only by the European side, but also by the Belarusan authorities. Civil society’s place is at the round table, where the parties can at least openly and publicly present their arguments. Today the Belarusan authorities are doing everything possible to make the dialogue bilateral: the Belarusan authorities and the European Union without the participation of the civil society. Unfortunately, the European Union rather supports this trend than overcomes it.

— Civil society is extremely diverse: there are independent entities and pro-government organizations. At the request of the Belarusan authorities the independent civil society has been thrown out of the dialogue on modernization. Can this scenario happen again now?

— The situation is somewhat different. European Dialogue on Modernization with Belarusan society (EDoM) ended with non-participation of the Belarusan authorities, who insisted on a different dialogue, which won’t include unwanted participants. Thus, we cannot say that the independent part of the civil society was excluded from the dialogue.

As a result, EDoM has grown into an expert dialogue, which didn’t result in the dialogue even at the expert level. Belarusan authorities ignored the EDoM.

Today Minsk is trying to start a dialogue in accordance with its own rules, bypassing the principles of transparency and participation of all stakeholders; and for now Minsk does it successfully. An attempt to restart the dialogue without the civil society participation is still unsuccessful. We raise the alarm and draw Europe’s attention to the fact that such approaches of having the dialogue with Belarus are disastrous for the country. As a result, they will lead to negative consequences, even if in the short-term perspective the relations with the Belarusan authorities will improve. They also have detrimental impact on the relations between the civil society and the authorities, because the EU has been sending them the wrong message: it appears that it is possible to talk with Europe without the civil society participation.

Therefore, we expect smart, balanced, politically far-sighted approach of European politicians to building Belarus-Europe relations, civil society participation in which will become mandatory.

— In general, the assessments of the state of the civil society in Belarus — a country, where all political processes are frozen — are very pessimistic. Is the Minsk-Brussels dialogue able to instill new life into the public processes?

— It is the orientation at reforming and changes in the country that is able to instill new life in public processes. In this case, the dialogue with Brussels can serve as a tool for reform. If the dialogue with Brussels is needed for political prospects and short-term benefits, then such dialogue won’t result in positive changes.

Brussels can act as a catalyst or, rather, an indicator of the processes, but not the initiator. Belarus, i.e. Belarusan authorities and to some extent — the civil society has all leverages for relaunching Belarus-EU relations. We observe the inconsistency of the message from the authorities and a certain split between the conservative line declared by the political leadership of Belarus — no reforms, and the obvious need of modernization, which the professional part of the authorities talk about. If such chance appears, then there’ll immediately appear a window for a minimal dialogue, where the European Union acts as an intermediary and a “carrot” for the Belarusan authorities.