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Štefan Füle

European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy

Towards a European future for the citizens of Belarus

Carnegie Europe event "Transforming Belarus – Ways Ahead"

Brussels, 7 December 2011

Dear colleagues, distinguished guests,

I would prefer to have this discussion in Minsk but Belorussian authorities had different ideas about the time and the place of this event.

I am very grateful for the invitation to address you today on this most important of issues.

As we all are aware, this event takes place just a few days before the first anniversary of last year's Presidential elections, which marked the beginning of a new wave of repression against civil society, the political opposition and the independent media. It is therefore a very timely opportunity for us to take stock of developments, and to discuss our approach.

I recognise many well-known experts in the audience – from respected academics to leading human rights figures. We are all very used to discussing the situation in Belarus. But I am sad to say that we have also become very used to hearing about the serious challenges facing the country, and the plight of the Belarusian people.

Violations of basic human rights and freedoms have become commonplace. Politically-motivated prosecutions are all too frequent. And new legislation will limit the fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression still further.

There is a fear which has taken hold of the country. It is a fear which is silent, and almost invisible. But it has taken away that which is most important – the vision of a better future.

Today, therefore, I want to set out my positive vision for the future of the country. A clear democratic alternative to the political repression and economic hardship of the current regime. And a clear signal to the Belarusian people of the real benefits that would result from a European future.

This vision is based not on empty words, but on concrete EU support and assistance. Our current approach paves the way for these changes, and I will turn to this shortly. But our ultimate vision is for a far more significant transformation in the country. Together, I believe that we can achieve this. But it will be essential for Belarusian society to come together to support the drive towards transformation and modernisation.

Dear colleagues,

Our current approach

We are already building the foundations for this shared vision.

Our approach has two strands. Firstly, a tough approach to the current repressive regime.

Following the crackdown since the Presidential elections last December, the EU has been absolutely clear that further bilateral engagement with the Belarusian authorities will not be possible until significant progress is made to establish basic rights and freedoms.

We have been strong in our condemnation of this repression, and strong in targeting sanctions at the heart of the current regime. These include a visa ban and asset freeze on a number of specific individuals and economic entities, as well as an embargo both on arms, and equipment that could be used for internal repression.

In addition, we have strongly condemned the politically-motivated trials of former Presidential candidates and key human rights figures, including the recent case of Ales Byalyatski. His conviction was clearly flawed, and we have called on the Belarusian authorities to ensure his immediate release and rehabilitation, along with all other political prisoners in the country. Amongst others, the former Presidential candidates, Sannikau and Statkevich, still remain in prison. We offer our support to the suffering families of these political prisoners who have been subjected to torture, both physical and psychological. And we also condemn those other cases of repression which may be less well-known publicly, but which are no less serious in their nature.

We are maintaining our cooperation with the authorities only in areas where we consider that withdrawing our support would impact on the Belarusian people rather than the regime. On these issues, our technical dialogue and cooperation will continue.

We are also convinced that Belarus should continue to participate in the multilateral part of the Eastern Partnership, where it can gain substantial understanding in areas such as civil society development, culture, and youth exchanges.

And let me be clear that further bilateral cooperation with the authorities is impossible until they meet a set of non-negotiable political conditions – namely progress on human rights and freedoms, and the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners.

Yet a country is about more than just its government, and our approach towards Belarus has always reflected that.

Dear colleagues,

The vision for a European future

The second strand of our approach is to engage with all those in Belarus who support reform and modernisation. We know that this multi-dimensional approach is essential if we are to bring about lasting change.

We must reach out to all Belarusian citizens if we are to sow the seeds for far more significant change. There are many new groups emerging who are becoming increasingly frustrated with the current regime, including a number within the government itself.

Both civil society and the political opposition must play a crucial role if we are to achieve our aims.

Civil society organisations are at the forefront of the vital work to secure democracy, basic rights and freedoms in the country. Many of them are represented here today, and I will continue to give them my full support.

This support takes a number of forms. The Nordic Council of Ministers has been leading efforts to provide support to the victims of repression and their families in the wake of the recent crackdown. We are also supporting the essential activities of the EU-funded 'Clearing House' project, led by the Office for a Democratic Belarus, one of the co-hosts of today's debate.

There are a number of opportunities for financial assistance. I am pleased to say that we have significantly stepped up our financial support for civil society and the independent media in Belarus, and have even gone beyond our pledge to quadruple our funding. The assistance available to civil society now stands at a total of €19.3 million for the period 2011-2013.

There is funding to support those working on issues such as human rights through the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights. There is financial support for those working in areas such as economic development and capacity-building through the European Programme for Non-State Actors and Local Authorities. And we are also holding regular meetings to coordinate the work of international implementers and donors in Brussels.

We also recently launched the first call for proposals under the newly-created Neighbourhood Civil Society Facility. And we are working to establish the new European Endowment for Democracy, which will offer a further means of supporting the work of these organisations to achieve democracy.

We are also working to strengthen the role of civil society organisations at the regional level. Last week, for example, saw the third annual assembly of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, at which civil society representatives from across the region agreed a clear strategy for the role of civil society in implementing our goals. They also united in condemning the ongoing repression in Belarus.

In addition to civil society, we will also continue our cooperation with the Belarusian political opposition. I believe that they have an important role to play if we are to achieve our shared ambitions. This was reflected in a joint letter from the EU High Representative Ashton and myself to key opposition figures earlier this month. And I was also pleased to meet with representatives of seven of the major opposition parties and movements only last week.

We will continue to work with these opposition movements to discuss the potential European future for the country, and to support them in becoming increasingly relevant to the people of Belarus. In turn, they must continue to work closely with each other, and with the rest of Belarusian society. They must set out a clear democratic alternative to the current regime. And they must engage with all those who support reform in the country.

Through civil society and the political opposition, we will therefore continue to reach out to all key parts of Belarusian society, and to encourage a strong and unified approach in the drive towards transformation and modernisation. The dividing line which some try to draw between civil society representatives and the political opposition on the one side, and Belarusian citizens on the other, is completely artificial.

After all, civil society, the independent media, and the political opposition cannot achieve this alone. They need the support of an intelligentsia to give their approach intellectual shape and direction. And they need to tap into the wider frustrations in the country, including amongst the 'nomenklatura'. This was a key lesson of the transformation in central Europe. While creating the external conditions for change is very important, autocracies always get eroded from within.

Dear colleagues,

The vision for a European future

These are some of the ways in which we are already helping to lay the foundations for change.

Yet our vision for a European future for Belarus is far greater than this. The EU has an array of tools which can support a far more significant transformation in our partner countries, but the political conditions must be right.

Our vision is to work with a strong and unified Belarusian society to bring about lasting change in all of these key areas.

Firstly, strengthened political links between partner countries and the EU can help to cement the central importance of democracy, human rights and freedoms. We have a range of tools which can help to achieve this, including bilateral assistance and action plans for reform.

These political ties also help to build the role of partner countries internationally. After all, a key part of our vision for a European future for Belarus is about Belarus playing its vital role in shaping the future of Europe. It has always been an important country, and it can play a key role in influencing the Europe of tomorrow.

Secondly, we have tools to support the development of far greater prosperity in partner countries. Enhanced economic integration with the largest trading bloc in the world has the potential to open up important markets, and set countries on the course to achieving their full economic potential. For Belarus, economic links would also help the country to become more competitive, rather than simply relying on cheap oil and gas.

Thirdly, the EU can provide significant investment and assistance to support the broader development of partner countries. We have many important facilitating tools at our disposal, including the Neighbourhood Investment Facility, the Comprehensive Institution Building Programme, and the Pilot Regional Development Programmes. These all have the potential to help bring about major changes in a country.

We also have a number of means of supporting countries at times of financial or economic stress. These include the expansion of EBRD lending, inclusion in the EIB lending mandate, and EU macro economic assistance. These have the potential to provide very significant support – for example, EBRD loans to Eastern Partnership countries in the period 2007-2010 were in excess of €4 billion.

Fourthly, we can offer the prospect of far greater mobility to citizens of partner countries wishing to visit the EU. The first step is to establish visa facilitation and readmission agreements. Indeed, I should note that we have been awaiting the response of the Belarusian authorities to our request to negotiate such agreements for many months. This alone would be a significant step, helping to facilitate greater interpersonal contact and an increased exchange of ideas between our citizens. But once such an agreement is achieved, there is no reason to say that we could not go even further, with a visa-free regime as our eventual goal.

We are therefore keen to support people-to-people contact. We are ready to support it and have a vision for how to achieve it. Yet, of all of our partner countries, the Belarusian authorities are the only ones who are not interested in this prospect. The question of why must be raised not just by us, but also by the Belarusian people.

Finally, we can support countries to fulfil their potential in a range of other key sectors where they might find cooperation particularly valuable, such as energy security or transport. For this too, there are a range of EU programmes and agencies which can support collaboration.

Dear colleagues,

Achieving our vision

Together, we must now build on our current foundations to achieve this shared vision.

This means continuing our pressure for the reforms that will unlock this additional support. It means continuing our crucial fight for the core values of democracy, rights and freedoms. And it means continuing our work towards securing the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners.

Lukashenko may believe that, by repressing his own people, he is helping to cement his rule. He may believe that, by adopting new laws against his own citizens, he is acting to make our interaction with them more difficult. But I can tell you that when a regime begins to act in such a way, it is truly the beginning of the end. I know this from my own experiences in central Europe.

It is an illusion to have a stable country and society without ongoing democratic reforms, and it continues to be an illusion even if those reforms are being substituted by cheap oil and gas. Without addressing this issue, we are headed towards a future black hole in Europe.

Dear colleagues,

I therefore believe that the opportunity will come to achieve our shared ambitions.

But the key parts of Belarusian society, including civil society, the independent media, and the political opposition, must play an even stronger role. They must work closely together to reach out to the broader Belarusian population, to offer a clear democratic alternative to the current regime, and to ensure that they engage with all those who wish for reform. A strong and unified approach will be crucial, particularly in pressing for free and fair parliamentary elections next year.

The Eastern Partnership project has already shown its ability to grow. I now call on Belarus and its society to grow with it. You should take all of the benefits that it can provide today, and together we can discuss and shape those that it will provide in the future.

In all of this, we do not underestimate the significant challenges that you will face. I salute your courage and will continue to offer you our full and unwavering support. And I will continue to reach out to all those who share our ambitions for a prosperous and successful Belarus, with the core values of democracy, human rights and freedoms at its heart.

I am looking forward to a Belarus of freedom and democracy. A country where it is the people who determine their future and not the authorities. A country benefitting from its traditional ties with Russia and its other neighbours. And a country benefitting even more from erasing the last dividing line on the European continent.

Thank you for your attention.

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