Sunday 30 April 2017 | 00:12

Council of Europe: A potential controversial membership for Belarus

15.03.2015  |  Politics
Council of Europe: A potential controversial membership for Belarus

Belarus is the only European state that is outside the Council, and until recently Belarus President showed little interest in joining. But now official Minsk needs to improve its international image.

On 24-27 February, Andrea Rigoni, rapporteur of the Political Affairs Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), visited Minsk for the first time since 2009. Rigoni has a reputation of being especially friendly toward the administration in Minsk, for which he is criticized by the Belarusan opposition.

Belarus remains the only country in greater Europe that is not a member of the Council of Europe. President Aliaksandr Lukashenka has never shown much interest in joining. Being an organisation of values, PACE does not offer its members financial rewards, but requires them to commit to democracy and human rights.

However, Belarusan authorities need to improve their international image, and gaining a special guest status in PACE would help. The problem is that allowing Belarus to obtain this status effectively legitimises its "puppet parliament" and provides Belarusan authorities with an additional platform to disseminate their views abroad. Importantly, PACE is approaching Belarus at a time when the Russian delegation's rights in the organisation have been restricted because of Moscow's intervention in the Ukraine conflict.

A Hole in the map of Europe

The Council of Europe is an international organisation formed in 1949 uniting all European states, Russia, Turkey and the Caucasian republics. The organisation works to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Although its decisions carry only advisory power, the European Court on Human Rights, one of the bodies under the Council, has jurisdiction over human rights protection in all of the Council's member states.

The Parliamentary Assembly is one of the two statutory bodies of the Council, where Members of Parliament (MPs) from the national parliaments work together.

Belarus is a hole on the PACE membership map Belarus obtained special guest status in PACE in September 1992 and later applied for membership. However, in 1997 the organisation suspended the special guest status “because the way in which the new legislature had been formed deprived it of democratic legitimacy.” This happened after Lukashenka had dissolved a parliament that included some of his staunchest opponents, and appointed a new parliament loyal to him.

In 2004 rapporteur Christos Purgurides presented to PACE his report on the disappeared politicians, which led to a break in contacts between PACE and the Belarusan parliament. But the 2007-2010 period saw a warming in diplomatic relations. This happened to coincide with Rigoni's appointment as PACE rapporteur to Belarus. Despite the improved relationship, Belarus did not obtain special guest status, because Minsk refused to fulfill PACE's only remaining demand - a moratorium on the death penalty. Nevertheless, Belarus joined a number of the Council's conventions during this time.

Another “normalisation visit” from the West

PACE special rapporteur visits have become a rarity for Belarus – the last one took place in 2009. The subsequent worsening of Belarus-EU relations brought cooperation with this organisation to a halt. In September 2014 Belarusan MPs suggested Lukashenka re-engage with PACE in order “to promote the national interests of Belarus through parliamentary diplomacy." They received a positive response from the Belarusan leader.

During his recent visit, Rigoni met a number of high-level officials, including speaker of the parliament Uladzimir Andreichanka, head of the Council of the Republic Mihail Miasnikovich, Minister of Information Lilija Ananich, Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei and others. Afterwards, he also talked to opposition and civil society leaders. The visit occurred in the context of improving relations between Belarus and the EU, and on the heels of several visits by other western officials to Minsk.

“We have come to Belarus to resume and renew the dialogue," Rigoni said upon his arrival in Minsk. "Our cooperation should be continued. We are ready for it and expect return moves from Belarus.” During the meetings, Belarusan officials repeatedly credited Rigoni for his important role in promoting diplomatic relations. This unusual praise of a foreign official has a particular background.

The opposition is concerned about Rigoni

In 2014 Rigoni was appointed PACE rapporteur to Belarus for the second time, following his first tenure in 2007-2010, the period of rapprochement between Belarus and the West. Both times, he took over from Estonian MP Andres Herkel, who had a more critical stance towards the Lukashenka regime. Rigoni has gained a reputation within the Belarusan elite as a pragmatist.

In 2009 Rigoni recommended that PACE restore Belarus’ special guest status without the country's fulfilling any of the conditions imposed by the Council. He almost succeeded, as PACE left only one condition on the table – that Belarus terminate the death penalty. This de facto legalisation of the Belarusan authorities’ undemocratic conduct obviously irritated the opposition and civil society, who came to view Rigoni as an undesired appointment.

Opposition leaders expressed their concerns during their recent meeting with Rigoni. Anatoly Liabedzka, Siarhei Kaliakin, Paval Sieviarynec and others opined that the authorities only want Belarus to gain special guest status in PACE and make no further moves, because this status does not impose any serious obligations but allows them to participate in the organisation's work. The activists advised Rigoni not to make any major concessions to Lukashenka before the Belarusan elections, as the nature of the elections will demonstrate whether Minsk is truly committed to European values.

The rapporteur assured the opposition that the Council of Europe will not compromise its values, and that Belarus will have to assume certain obligations if it wants special guest status.

Is Belarus interested in PACE?

Minsk seems to have little interest in Council membership. On one hand, membership does not confer any financial assistance or other economic support, while on the other, it imposes precisely the type of political obligations that the Belarusan leadership finds so deplorable. Minsk has also learned from the example of Russia, which has had to pay substantial sums to people who sued the state in the European Court on Human Rights.

However, according to Ihar Gubarevich, a former senior diplomat at Belarus' Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Belarusan authorities pursue several objectives in their relations with PACE. First, they seek to legitimise the Belarusan parliament and to reward the handpicked Belarusan MPs with respectable status and foreign travel. More important, they want full access to the Council of Europe's lobby, meeting rooms, and microphones, which can act as a powerful tool for promoting the government's views among European parliamentarians and other officials.

PACE's renewed interest in Belarus fits into the latest trend of normalising relations between Belarus and Europe. This particular track of diplomacy is a dead-end, however. Europe will gain nothing from legitimising the Belarusan "parliamentarians." Unlike the executive branch, they have no real leverage in the government and no say in Belarus' domestic and foreign policy. At the same time, in order to integrate Belarus into pan-European structures, Europe will have to turn a blind eye to the country's many domestic issues.

Originally published at BelarusDigest

Vadzim Smok, BelarusDigest

Other news section «Politics»

Uladzimir Matskevich: The sooner the "Union State" is denounced, the better for Belarus
Uladzimir Matskevich: The sooner the "Union State" is denounced, the better for Belarus
Not only does the "Union State" undermine the establishment of civilized relations with Europe, but it hinders the possibility of normal relations between Belarus and Russia.
Uladzimir Matskevich: The regime can no longer control the situation in the country
Uladzimir Matskevich: The regime can no longer control the situation in the country
The authorities are unable to prolong the social contract with the people: there is no way out of the social crisis.
Press release in connection with the dialogue in the format of the EU-Belarus Coordination Group
Press release in connection with the dialogue in the format of the EU-Belarus Coordination Group
Belarusan National Platform of the EaP CSF welcomes the dialogue process in the format of the EU-Belarus Coordination Group, the third round of which was held in Minsk on 3-4 April 2017.
Statement of the BNP in connection with the events of March 25-26, 2017 in Minsk and other Belarusan
Statement of the BNP in connection with the events of March 25-26, 2017 in Minsk and other Belarusan
Belarusan National Platform of the EaP CSF issued a statement in connection with the events of March 25-26, 2017 in Minsk and other Belarusan cities.
Statement by the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum on mass repressions in Belarus
Statement by the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum on mass repressions in Belarus
The EaP CSF Steering Committee issued a statement on repressions against civil society activists and journalists in Belarus, in view of the demonstrations planned on 25 March 2017.
Uladzimir Matskevich: Belarus-Ukraine relations need to be re-established
Uladzimir Matskevich: Belarus-Ukraine relations need to be re-established
"Case of Zhadan" demonstrated that Belarus does not actually have a clear policy - neither domestic nor foreign.
Belarus
Belarus's Lukashenko alleges “fifth column” plot as unrest continues
Belarusan President Lukashenko said on Tuesday a “fifth column” was plotting to overthrow him with the help of foreign-backed fighters, days before a planned street protest in Minsk against a new tax.
In Belarus, a rising fear: Will we be the next Ukraine?
In Belarus, a rising fear: Will we be the next Ukraine?
The relationship between Russia and Belarus has never been an easy one.
Andrei Yahorau: European window of opportunity is slowly closing, relations take form of fatigue
Andrei Yahorau: European window of opportunity is slowly closing, relations take form of fatigue
The Belarusian regime is not able to pursue a truly multi-vector policy, and the EU cannot decide what it needs in the region on the whole and from Belarus in particular.
Uladzimir Matskevich: Today Belarus is in a very difficult situation
Uladzimir Matskevich: Today Belarus is in a very difficult situation
But even under the circumstances the authorities have various ways out.
Uladzimir Matskevich: Lukashenka does not disrupt Russian plans to annex Belarus
Uladzimir Matskevich: Lukashenka does not disrupt Russian plans to annex Belarus
But Lukashenka is afraid for his fate and position - he needs Belarus to be sovereign to fully exercise his power.
Andrei Yeliseyeu: Russia is taking drastic unconstructive steps  
Andrei Yeliseyeu: Russia is taking drastic unconstructive steps  
There should be no actual passport control for the Belarusians arriving in Russia within the framework of the existing Belarusian-Russian agreements.
Uladzimir Matskevich: Visa-free regime is not a political concession to the West
Uladzimir Matskevich: Visa-free regime is not a political concession to the West
It is a process of normalization of Belarus-EU relations. Belarus just fulfils its international commitments.
Andrei Yahorau: Belarusian regime is self-improving, the only threat so far is the economy crisis
Andrei Yahorau: Belarusian regime is self-improving, the only threat so far is the economy crisis
Political analyst emphasizes that Belarus is the first modern authoritarianism in the European space, a phenomenon not yet studied by anyone.
Andrei Parotnikau: Russia will return to the issue of an air base in Belarus
Andrei Parotnikau: Russia will return to the issue of an air base in Belarus
However the military base is only image-building for the Kremlin and has no practical use.
Uladzimir Matskevich: Antibelarusian mood in Russia is a part of a trend, it will continue to grow
Uladzimir Matskevich: Antibelarusian mood in Russia is a part of a trend, it will continue to grow
So far the information attacks at Belarus may not be a thought out campaign, but they correspond to the "general policy of the Kremlin."
Andrei Yahorau: Terrorist attack in Berlin should not influence the German migration policy
Andrei Yahorau: Terrorist attack in Berlin should not influence the German migration policy
However, it gives new arguments to the opponents of the migration policy of Angela Merkel.
Leanid Spatkai: It’s too early be alarmed,the agreement between FSB and KGB have not yet been signed
Leanid Spatkai: It’s too early be alarmed,the agreement between FSB and KGB have not yet been signed
Agreement on the participation of Special Forces in counter-terrorism operations conducted on the territory of Belarus and the Russia should include reciprocal commitments and guarantees.
Uladzimir Matskevich: nationalism grows in Europe due to the weakness of the Brussels policy
Uladzimir Matskevich: nationalism grows in Europe due to the weakness of the Brussels policy
Europeans has realized the threat posed by the Russian propaganda machine, but Russia freely continues its information war so far.
Uladzimir Matskevich: there is an urgent need to organize informational resistance against Russia
Uladzimir Matskevich: there is an urgent need to organize informational resistance against Russia
If information war of the same strength as in Ukraine comes to Belarus, it will crumple and crush the country.
Gintautas Mažeikis: The relation of political field and arena in the framework of information war

In his report, philosopher Gintautas Mažeikis discusses several concepts that have been a part of the European social and philosophical thought for quite a time.

Nasta Loika: We returned to strict measures towards the dissentient

The Belarusian authorities violate human rights and the state obligations by suppressing  protests, violent arrests and sentences.

Belarus's Lukashenko alleges “fifth column” plot as unrest continues

Belarusan President Lukashenko said on Tuesday a “fifth column” was plotting to overthrow him with the help of foreign-backed fighters, days before a planned street protest in Minsk against a new tax.

Uladzimir Matskevich: The sooner the "Union State" is denounced, the better for Belarus

Not only does the "Union State" undermine the establishment of civilized relations with Europe, but it hinders the possibility of normal relations between Belarus and Russia.