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.