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European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
International Donors’ Conference “Solidarity with Belarus”
International Donors’ Conference
Warsaw, 2 February 2011
Ministers, Ambassadors, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I welcome the opportunity to address you today. This conference is an occasion to send a strong sign of support from the EU to Belarusian civil society during this difficult period.
As outlined by Minister Sikorski, the EU took an important decision on Belarus on Monday. The most visible part of our decision was to put nearly 160 people under sanctions. This includes some of Belarus’ leadership and those close to the post-election repression, including President Lukashenko. This was a decisive step to mark our disapproval, and this is what the press has focused on. The US also followed suit by adopting similar sanctions on Monday evening.
High Representative/Vice President Cathy Ashton and I have clearly deplored the violence. We have demanded the immediate and unconditional release of all detainees. And we have called for an end to the ongoing persecution of civil society.
We were left with no alternative but to apply sanctions. They could only be reviewed if Belarus took real and convincing steps towards the release and rehabilitation of all detainees, as well as ending the repression of democratic forces.
While the sanctions have attracted a great deal of political and media attention, we must not lose sight of the other, equally important component of our decision. I refer to our decision to reinforce our links with, and support for, civil society. With these measures, we are seeking to avoid isolating the Belarusian population. I believe we have an important responsibility in this regard.
The European External Action Service and the Commission have been working closely in recent weeks to identify ways that we can intensify our support to the people of Belarus.
Our first step was to develop measures designed to provide urgent support to the victims of repression and to increase assistance to civil society. Our indicative budget for this activity – financed through the Instrument for Stability – is €1.7 million. This includes urgent support to the families of those who have been detained on political grounds, as well as to civil society, including students and independent media. Such support includes legal and social assistance, as well as counseling.
We will also make financial support available for Belarusian NGOs and independent media outlets willing to organize awareness and advocacy campaigns in Belarus and in the EU, such as conferences and workshops. This support should be available in the next few weeks.
As regards medium-term support, we are currently reviewing our funding support for the period 2011 – 2013. In light of recent events, I am pleased to announce today that the Commission intends to increase its funds and support for civil society fourfold.
As a clear demonstration of our unequivocal support to civil society in these difficult times, we will increase our funding from the currently available €4 million to €15.6 million. Our support will target primarily Belarusian NGOs, independent media and students who are subject to the regime’s repression.
We will provide support in three main ways:
First, we will provide increased funding under the Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights and the Non State Actors programme. Our goal here is to strengthen civil society’s capacity to promote democratic reform and small-scale local development activities.
Second, we will maintain our annual one million euro funding to the European Humanities University in exile in Vilnius for the young generation in Belarus to pursue high quality, free education.
Third, we will provide scholarships and promote student mobility and exchanges between education institutions from Belarus and the EU more generally. We intend to draw on our experience from the Erasmus Mundus and Tempus programmes. I would like to take this opportunity to invite you all to pool efforts and increase your own assistance to students. Students are a particularly vulnerable group but they have a crucial role to play in the future development of their country.
In addition, it is important that we work together to reinforce links between civil society in EU Member States and civil society in Belarus. This can be done by facilitating travel to the EU for Belarusian people through visa facilitation agreement. In the meantime, we need to better coordinate the possibilities that Member States already have to waive or reduce visa fees for certain categories of citizens. The Commission is ready to assist in this process by sending an expert mission to Minsk to coordinate Member States' actions.
We also intend to make the best use of the Eastern Partnership multilateral track, and in particular the Civil Society Forum to strengthen and empower Belarus’ civil society. We will shortly be making proposals in this regard. As a regional forum, the Eastern Partnership multilateral track provides a unique vehicle to strengthen our civil society contacts with partner countries - particularly in such difficult times, as witnessed in Belarus.
Our success in facing challenges that lie ahead will rest to a large extent on the level of coordination between the Member States of the European Union and other international donors. As a family of democratic countries, we interact on both policy and funding priorities. Accordingly, we strengthen our original individual contributions. For maximum impact, it is also necessary to co-operate with some of the most engaged stakeholders such as the Nordic Council of Ministers and the community of non-governmental organizations.
Before we begin our detailed discussions on how to support civil society, let me conclude with a proposal. I believe that we should follow this meeting with one of our regular EU-led informal Donors' Coordination Meetings on Belarus. We have successfully used this platform several times a year since 2006. Indeed, most of you have been regularly represented there and provided valuable input.
Drawing on the expertise of this well-established forum, we can prepare the implementation and coordination of the planned contributions announced today. I propose that this follow up meeting take place in late February / early March, when most assistance policies are ready for implementation.
I believe that providing increased funding to support civil society is of vital importance. And it's even more important to create the conditions and environment to allow this funding to bring real change for those working and struggling in Belarus. Let's use this Donor's Conference and the follow-up meetings as an ongoing dialogue to explore the best ways for us to support Civil Society in Belarus.