Vaclav Havel: How the EU should treat Belarus

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The Independent Online

Eight countries of the former communist bloc are about to become new members of the European Union. Something that until recently hardly anyone could have imagined will thus becomes reality. Countries ruled just 15 years ago by totalitarian regimes suppressing basic human rights and freedoms;countries, whose fate was dictated by a narrow group of people and agoverning party backed by armed forces, will now become a part of the firstmultinational community based on truly democratic principles, sharing commonvalues as well as the responsibility for the future of the whole continent.The precondition for the states of Central and Eastern Europe to apply formembership in the Union was their adoption of the principles of democracyand the rule of law.

Eight countries of the former communist bloc are about to become new members of the European Union. Something that until recently hardly anyone could have imagined will thus becomes reality. Countries ruled just 15 years ago by totalitarian regimes suppressing basic human rights and freedoms;countries, whose fate was dictated by a narrow group of people and a governing party backed by armed forces, will now become a part of the first multinational community based on truly democratic principles, sharing common values as well as the responsibility for the future of the whole continent. The precondition for the states of Central and Eastern Europe to apply for membership in the Union was their adoption of the principles of democracy and the rule of law.

One of the eastern neighbours of the enlarged European Union will be Belarus, ruled by Alexander Lukashenko. Ten years of his autocratic reign have brought the country into deep political isolation. This isolation, however, should not be applied to those who wish to co-operate withEurope.

One of the hallmarks of a regime lacking in freedom is the resignation of citizens from public activity and their withdrawal when facing any expression of concern or responsibility for public affairs. This is the situation one sees in Belarus, where citizens are on a daily basis exposed to violations of their basic rights, such as the right to freely disseminate information or express their opinions. The criminalisation of freethinking Belarusians and their persecution at work or at school are facts of life and so are arbitrary changes in legislation that suit the whims of the administration.

The acceptance of repression and corruption as a social-politicalstandard in unfree conditions leads to the pervasive attitude that everyoneought to care primarily about his own good; that public activity is foolish,and the criminalization or even disappearance of fellow citizens is just aconsequence of their carelessness. However, the external view of Belarus asa society of citizens resigned to such a fate is balanced by a number ofactivist individuals and groups. These people are well-known by Lukashenkoto be the greatest opponents of corruption and the germs of truly freedecision-making that may gradually develop into free elections. In otherwords, a free future for Belarus depends on the present activity ofindependent civil initiatives.

Belarus apparently focuses its attention on the traditionally close tieswith Russia and is not much concerned about Europe. Nevertheless, there isan upcoming generation that sees its future precisely in the European Union.It includes mainly those who try to point out corruption and the lies anddistortions of official information, regardless of their own comfort andoften even their safety. Similar to the Czechoslovak, Polish, or Hungariandissent during communism, this is a minority, the influence of which mayseem to be marginal and its chances of achieving better conditions minimal.Perhaps this is the main source of the European citizens' misgivings,scepticism, and sense of helplessness about the fate of the Belarusians,their new neighbours.

Up to now Europe has primarily coped with the existence of Lukashenko"regime" through criticism and political isolation, but the time has cometo lend support to those who appreciate Europe's cooperation andpartnership. Quite clearly, in the case of Belarus this is not the officialpolitical representation but the democratic opposition, independentinitiatives, students, and citizens, for whom a democratic Belarus equals aEuropean Belarus.

It is my deepest conviction that the European Union should not onlyisolate official Belarusian representatives but should make available asmany of their programs and funds as possible to those who are keen tocooperate-- despite possible hindrances from the side of the ruling regime.This is the only chance for a change in the local conditions and theestablishment of prerequisites for free elections. Whether the Belarusiansthen decide to join Europe or not will be at their discretion, which shouldbe respected by all. However, the door must remain open.

I believe that the future of Belarus is firmly linked with the future ofEurope, as is the future of Europe with that of a democratic and independentBelarus. I believe that partnership with the pro-European part of theBelarusian society may lead to some thing hardly anyone could imagine today- that Belarus will become another of the former communist bloc countriesthat experiences a triumph of democracy and becomes a part of a unitedEurope.

Vaclav Havel is a former president of the Czech Republic.

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