Ulad Vialichka: The Coordination Group is an informal negotiation platform between EU and Belarus

Aliaksei Yurych, EuroBelarus Information Service

The next meeting of the EU-Belarus Coordination Group might take place in August-September, probably in Minsk.

In the first decade of April Brussels hosted the first meeting of the EU-Belarus Coordination Group, which is in a way the development of the so-called “intermediate phase” of EU-Belarus dialogue. For the first time in many years, civil society representatives participated in the trilateral consultations EU—Belarusian government—civil society, whereas the main part of the negotiations took place without the civil society in the two-way mode.

Ulad Vialichka, the co-chair of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum Steering Committee, told the EuroBelarus Information Service about the results of work and future prospects.

— On April 6-7 Brussels hosted the first meeting of the EU-Belarus Coordination Group. What does the new structure look like and what was the purpose for its establishment?

— The EU-Belarus Coordination Group is an informal negotiation platform between the European Commission and the Belarusian government. On April 6-7 the first meeting of the Coordination Group, where for the first time in many years four people from civil society organizations, including me as a representative of the Belarusan National Platform of the EaP CSF and International Consortium “EuroBelarus”, were invited.

In fact, we didn’t participate in the entire coordination group meeting that lasted one and a half days but only in a two-hour session. The main format of the meeting is the negotiations between the Belarusian government and the European Commission on a number of issues on the agenda, which was previously agreed on by the parties. To some extent the Coordination Group developed from the so-called “intermediate phase” of EU-Belarus dialogue. After the release of political prisoners, abolition of sanctions and a certain thaw in relations, the European Union and Belarus are looking for further cooperation formats.

This meeting was the first to take place in a new format, so no one put much hope on it and didn’t expect concrete results. After over 20 years of my work in the civil sector the participation in the EU-Belarus Coordination Group was one of the few opportunities to communicate directly, at the same table with the representatives of our Foreign Ministry and other ministries in the frames of trilateral consultations.

— But anyway, civil society is deprived of the opportunity to participate in the negotiation process.

— It depends on what do you call participation, and what do you call negotiations. Previously, civil society representatives didn’t even have opportunities to convey their opinions; so that the meeting in Brussels can be called a certain progress. However, no one promised the Belarusian civil society participation in the negotiations, the negotiations are still a two-way process limited by the participation of official representatives. By the EU’s initiative and by Belarus’ agreement, the civil society can express their views, comments, suggestions, and criticism, though primarily this format is meant to be constructive.

— What were the issues raised at the bilateral negotiations? Did you get the general impression of the spirit of negotiations?

— Of course. The agenda of the meeting consisted of 11 items, which concerned a very wide range of issues — from the technical and technological, to those that have closer relation to the civil society issues — the green economy and public access to environmentally relevant information. Besides, even though in outline, we still raised the issue of a national institution on human rights.

— BelTA reported that the current state and prospects of EU-Belarus relations within the frames of the Eastern Partnership were considered at the meeting in Brussels. How deeply was it analyzed?

— The problem of the Eastern Partnership wasn’t discussed during the consultations, which were attended by the civil society representatives.

— It may be assumed that the meeting of the Coordination Group will be standing. Does this mean that the civil society representatives will become the permanent participants in the consultations?

— This is the key question that bothers me, too. The Coordination Group as a mechanism works in accordance with a specific format and should gather every six months. Thus, the next meeting could be held in August-September, perhaps even in Minsk.

During that meeting I tried to present civil society as a constructive party in the negotiation process, a party that can, along with criticism, offer certain expertise, innovation, and solutions that the civil society has in abundance, as part of the progress of EU-Belarus relations. We should try to get rid of prejudices about each other: civil society — about the government, and vice versa. Of course, not forgetting the important and fundamental things.

Will civil society be invited to such meetings? It depends a lot on the assessment of the meeting that has already taken place. I would really like to have this platform available for non-governmental organizations — we have too few of them. Though we shouldn’t overestimate the value of the new platform either.