Wolfgang Behrendt (SPD), the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s Rapporteur on Belarus, is fiercely critical of the way in which President Alexander Lukashenko and his regime are stamping on freedom of the press. The leader of the German delegation to the Strasbourg Assembly is indignant at the prison sentences passed on journalists and the banning of independent papers. The Assembly will be discussing his report for the Political Affairs Committee on Friday, and he wants it to send a special committee to Minsk, to investigate the fate of several missing politicians – something the Council of Europe has never done before. He complains that, recently, political repression in Belarus has actually worsened.
Question : Your report comes out against Council membership for Belarus. What are the main problems?
Wolfgang Behrendt: The situation in Belarus has not simply failed to improve – it has actually become worse. Things are particularly bad with regard to press freedom. A number of journalists are in prison, various papers are being hounded by the authorities, and some have even been banned. The influence of the independent media is visibly declining. Now, Lukashenko even wants to stop people watching Russian television. And the regime is still going after its opponents. Mikhail Chigir, the ex-Premier, has been given a three-year prison sentence and banned from politics – which puts him well out of the running as a rival to Lukashenko. And there’s no mistaking the way that the trade unions, which used to be part of the opposition, are being made to toe the line.
Question: In spite of countless appeals by the Council of Europe and your own repeated criticisms, political progress in Belarus is minimal. Now, with the Assembly’s autumn session coming up, Viktor Ivashkyevich, another journalist, has been sent to prison for two years for allegedly insulting President Lukashenko. Does Minsk take the Council seriously?
Wolfgang Behrendt: I think Lukashenko takes it seriously enough. After all, he hopes to get some kudos from joining it. But he’s trying to force his way in by confrontation – he probably thinks we can’t say no forever. He’s obviously betting on the Council’s giving way. But he’s wrong there – he’ll have to come some way to meet us.
Question: You want the Assembly to send a special committee to Belarus, to find out what has happened to the people who have gone missing. The Council has never sent a committee like this to any other country. Why Belarus?
Wolfgang Behrendt: The authorities in Belarus claim they have no way of finding out what has become of the half-dozen missing politicians – all of them former leading figures in the country. The supposed murderers of one of them were put on trial - but behind closed doors, which suggests a cover-up. Our feeling is that Lukashenko knows something about the disappearances. We have indications, some of them from police and secret service sources, that these people have been murdered, with connivance in some very high places. There’s no comparison with the numbers, of course, but this kind of thing in Belarus makes one think of the people who disappeared in Chile and Argentina under the dictators. Throwing light on all of this would be our committee’s job.
Question: In spite of all the critical things you say about the situation in Belarus, you want to keep the contacts open, and you even suggest that the Assembly might consider restoring the Minsk Parliament’s special guest status. Why?
Wolfgang Behrendt: You have to make a distinction between Lukashenko’s repressive regime and the Belarus Parliament. The Parliament is still trying to pursue an independent policy, even though its powers have been curtailed. The Council of Europe can support its efforts morally and politically by staying in touch, and it can use special guest status to encourage them. But we want to see a whole series of improvements first. For example, we’d expect the Parliament to liberalise the media laws, appoint a human rights commissioner, make the electoral laws democratic, and push for a moratorium on the death penalty.