Delivered in Plenary - February 11th 2003
Belarus is the last surviving European bastion of neo-soviet ideology. It is now politically important, as, in 2004, it will become a neighbouring country of the European Union. One can say in its favour that, unlike some of its neighbours, it remains free of inter-ethnic strife and has unilaterally renounced its nuclear arsenal, as well as much of its conventional weaponry. It is also rather surprisingly still enjoying an economic growth rate of 4%.
Unfortunately, the country deteriorated into authoritarianism and the repression of linguistic and religious rights after the election of Lukashenko as president in 1994. However, he is no Saddam Hussein. The election led initially to the hope that authority would be upheld, corruption rooted out and the economy put back on track, in particular stopping the asset-stripping and tax evasion seen in other CIS countries.
Belarus is currently under enormous pressure to reinforce its borders with Russia and the Ukraine to avoid any further influx of immigrants, and the European Union must cooperate in this area, irrespective of the nature of the government in Minsk. Private enterprise in Belarus cannot function efficiently, and the effects of the Chernobyl disaster are still of grave concern. There is alleged harassment of the opposition, the silencing of critical voices and the establishment of a network of patronage throughout the country.
The forthcoming municipal elections in March 2003 will be a test of the potential for favourable political developments in Belarus, and we hope that observers from this Parliament will be invited. The European Union should await the election results and respond towards Belarus accordingly, in line with a step-by-step policy.
There is growing appreciation within Belarus of the need for democracy; hence the need for greater western contact with pro-democracy parliamentarians to avoid the risk of self-imposed isolationism.
Finally, if the people of Belarus so wish, we must also offer them the prospect of possible EU membership in the longer term.