News, opinion, sports and culture E-mail:

Today's Headlines for:
Wednesday, September 17, 2008

President Visits Pinsk, Election Commission, US/EU sanctions, World Bank, Harvest; Champion's league, China, Russia, Ukraine, Iran and Polish scandal

  • From the Top...
  • #343

    President Visits Pinsk and the Brest Region

    From: BelTA and the Office of the President
    The President visiting the Volna Univeral Sport complex at the Polesskie State University Campus yesterday
    Polesie State University should stimulate regional development.

    The corresponding statement was made by President Alexander Lukashenko as he visited Brest region. The head of the state stressed that the money devoted to the university should pay off. While visiting a sport center 'Vesna", the President approved of the facilities for PT and sports.

    President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko demanded that urgent measures should be taken to address the Pripyat floodplain management issues. On September 16, the President visited the sports complex Volna at Polessye State University in Pinsk.

    “By the spring of the coming year you should elaborate a plan of the efficient use of this vast biological resource of our country which should bring money. Test this plan during the summer and in autumn make the final decision,” the Head of State noted.

    “If you fly from Pinsk to Mozyr, you will see huge unused, mismanaged territories on your way. You should deal with this situation,” the President said addressing the Brest oblast top officials.

    According to the President, agrotourism may be a good solution for the Pripyat floodplain management. “It is a worthwhile undertaking. Agro villages can be built here to host people who come for vacations, fishing and hunting. Picturesque landscape, fresh air, rich natural resources are a good base for the development of tourism, Alexander Lukashenko noted. In his opinion, there is no need for luxurious facilities here; everything should be simple, comfortable and convenient. What matters most is to preserve the balance of nature.

    Apart from that, the Pripyat floodplain can be used as grazing land.

    The state views the efficient Pripyat floodplain management as a crucial issue. It should be solved together with the specialists of Polessye State University and other institutions of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko underlined.

    President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko also instructed the government to increase annual melioration expenses for the Brest and Gomel oblasts up to Br70 billion per oblast as he visited agricultural company Fedorsky (Stolin region) on September 16.

    At present melioration funding of the Brest oblast stands at Br30 billion.

    Sport in Pinsk

    The Belarusian Head of State heard the report on the development of the sports facilities in the Brest oblast. At present, the oblast is home to 39 stadiums, 3 Ice Arenas, 780 gyms and 33 indoor pools. Among the sports facilities put into operation in 2007 are the Ice Arenas in Pruzhany and Pinsk, a sports complex in Tomashovsky agrotown in the Brest region. The sports complex Lokomotiv in Baranovichi and Dinamo in Brest were reconstructed.

    The 152 sports facilities of Pinsk include 7 sport schools specializing in 15 sports, 10 sport clubs, a branch of the Olympic school and branches of the weightlifting, wrestling, ice hockey and rowing schools. About 30 thousand children attend sport schools. Many of them became the prize holders of the national artistic gymnastics, chess, athletics and swimming competitions.

    The participation of 5 Pinsk athletes in the Beijing Olympics attests to the high level of training of sportsmen in Pinsk. These athletes include Anna Batyushko, Yulia Novakovich (weightlifting), Viktor Vabishchevich (swimming), Alexander Kozubovsky (rowing), Piotr Litvinchuk (shooting).

    Alexander Lukashenko got familiar with the sports facilities of the complex: Ice Arena, choreography room, swimming pool, healthy lifestyle laboratory, gym for team sports.

    A science and production association Zdorovye was established at Polessye State University. The association is composed of scientific laboratories, training medical centre, centre for physical culture and sports, healthy lifestyle department. This institution allows to test and implement new technologies and combine scientific research with training.

    The sports complex Volna of Polessye State University is open not only for the students, but for all the citizens of the town.

  • Other Belarusian News...

    Info centre of Belarus’ Central Election Commission to open in Minsk September 26

    From: BelTA
    A presentation of the info centre of Belarus’ Central Election Commission will be held in the Palace of Republic of Minsk on September 26, BelTA learnt in the Central Election Commission.

    The info centre will help journalists and international observers to receive on-line information about the results of voting and turnout. The information will be displayed on video monitors.

    The info centre will provide journalists with all the necessary equipment: Internet, phones.

    A reminder, the elections of deputies of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of the fourth convocation will be held on September 28, 2008.

    56 contenders nominated for deputies of Belarus’ Council of Republic

    Some 56 candidates were nominated for the deputies of the Council of the Republic of the National Assembly of Belarus of the fourth convocation. The candidates will be registered at a session of the Central Election Commission on September 18, BelTA learnt from Nikolai Lozovik, Secretary of the Central Election Commission (CEC).

    In his words, checking of the documents and the order of the nomination is underway in the CEC. Nikolai Lozovik reminded that the Council of the Republic consists of 64 parliamentarians, with eight of them appointed by the president of Belarus. Seven regions elect eight people each to fill in the rest of the seats. The candidates are nominated by the presidiums of the regional and town councils of deputies and regional town executive committees, presidiums of the Minsk city council of deputies and Minsk city council. The Belarusian citizens over 30 who have lived in the corresponding oblast, the city of Minsk for at least five years are eligible to be candidates for members of the Council of the Republic.

    Among the candidates for the members of the upper chamber of the parliament are 19 women, 13 state officials, 22 heads of different organizations, three rectors of the higher educational establishments, 15 people who were the members of the Council of the Republic.

    Among the potential candidates is Chairman of the National Assembly of Belarus Gennady Novitsky, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Belarusbank Nadezhda Yermakova, First Deputy Head of the Administration of the President of Belarus Anatoly Rubinov, Chairman of the House of Representatives Vadim Popov.

    Sessions of the local councils of deputies that are supposed to elect 56 members of the Council of the Republic will take place on September 21 — October 10.
    The deadline for appointing the election date is October 14, 2008.

    China Ambassador: Belarus’ domestic, foreign policy greatly appreciated in China

    From: BelTA
    The domestic and foreign policy pursued by Belarus is deeply appreciated in China, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of China to Belarus Wu Hongbin said on September 15 at the meeting with President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko on the occasion of the end of his diplomatic mission.

    The diplomat noted that the Belarus-China relations are successfully developing largely due to Alexander Lukashenko and his close contacts with the Chinese leadership. Wu Hongbin expressed his confidence that the relations between the two countries have great prospects.

    The Ambassador said that during his diplomatic mission in Belarus all the issues were settled on the grass-root level, no problems emerged between the two countries; they enjoyed total understanding and mutual trust.

    Wu Hongbin said that before being appointed Ambassador he had been in Belarus two times. In the 1980s, he visited Minsk on work experience, then in the first years of independent Belarus, he was Counselor of Embassy, after that he came to Belarus as Ambassador. Wu Hongbin stated that he has been witnessing the stable development of the Belarusian society in all the areas. According to him, the Chinese people have a good attitude to the Belarusians; he saw it during the celebration of the Days of Belarusian Culture in China and the Olympic Games in Beijing when the Chinese people warmly welcomed the Belarusians and supported them.

    The Ambassador expressed his appreciation to the Belarusian President for a high estimation of his diplomatic activity in Belarus for the development of the Belarusian-Chinese relations – the Chinese Ambassador was awarded the Order of Friendship of Peoples.

    EU attitude to Belarus changes, Andrei Popov says

    From: BelTA
    The Belarusian side has noticed changes in the attitude towards Belarus in the document adopted by the Foreign Ministers of the EU countries in Brussels on September 15, Press Secretary of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry Andrei Popov told reporters.

    “We have noticed a EU attempt to pursue the policy of improving the bilateral cooperation between Belarus and EU. This fact imbues us with optimism. Although EU was not able to get rid of its inherent inertia in the approaches to our state,” the official of the Foreign Ministry of Belarus said.

    “I would like to turn the attention to that part of the document that contains the information about the forthcoming parliamentary elections. The leadership of the country has repeatedly stated its intention to hold open and democratic elections. Belarus is not going to evade its commitments,” Andrei Popov added.

    “We would like to see concrete steps from the European Union,” he said.

  • Economics...

    World Bank praises Belarus advancement in reforming business operation rules

    From: BelTA
    Over the last few years Belarus has secured a substantial advance in reforming business regulations, representative of the World Bank Group in Belarusian Craig Bell told media on September 16.

    “Belarus has made quite major success in improving business environment. But there are still certain hindrances for businessmen. We hope these issues will be gradually resolved. The World Bank will continue providing the necessary support,” he said.

    Earlier Craig Bell noted, “This year Belarus’ impressive results in the Doing Business rating show attempts of the country to introduce reforms and improve the business and investment climate. Stable and versatile reform efforts will continue Belarus’ advancement in Doing Business rating”.

    He reminded, according to Doing Business 2009, the sixth annual report published by the World Bank and IFC, Belarus entered the list of ten top countries – regulatory reformers.

    From June 2007 to June 2008 Belarus carried out reforms in six out of ten areas surveyed by the report to take the fourth place in the list of the top ten regulatory reformers. The country moved up from the 115th to 85th position in the overall ease of doing business.

    According to the report, lending opportunities have been facilitated in Belarus thanks to removing the requirement for providing minimal loan records. Starting a business became easier thanks to the establishment of a unified register and the halving of the authorised capital minimum.

    Belarus became one of the leading reformers in real estate registration by introducing a unified state register for real estate, rights to and deals with real estate. Real estate registration time was decreased from 231 days to 21 days.

    The time required for getting construction permits shrank by 140 days on the average thanks to new official deadlines for giving pre-approvals.

    A new Customs Code simplified trade in Belarus. Belarus eased the tax burden by annulling some duties and streamlining small business taxation.

    According to the World Bank, the top 10 countries with the most active legal reforms are Azerbaijan, Albania, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Botswana, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Egypt. 23 countries of the 25 Eastern Europe and Central Asia countries implemented 62 legal reforms or over 25% of the total number of reforms worldwide.

    Singapore has been topping the global ranking on the overall regulatory ease of doing business for three years in a row. Singapore is followed by New Zealand and the United States. The top-ranked countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia are Georgia (15), Estonia (22), Lithuania (28), Latvia (29), and Azerbaijan (33).

    The Doing Business 2009 report ranks 181 economies with regard to the overall ease of doing business and uses 10 indicators highlighting business regulation by governments including the time and cost of business opening, transboundary trade, tax payment and business closing. The ratings leave out such areas as macroeconomic policy, the quality of the infrastructure, currency stability, investors and the crime rate.

    Belarus Finance Ministry suggests revising calculation methods of Doing Business rating

    The Finance Ministry of Belarus suggests that the World Bank should revise the calculation methods of individual indices in the annual Doing Business rating.

    Chief of the head department of tax policy and budget revenues of Belarus’ Finance Ministry Alexander Kozlyakov told the press conference on September 16, “In my opinion, there are objective and subjective disadvantages in the calculation methods of the World Bank. Doing Business 2009 report published by the World Bank and the IFC contains the information as of June 1, 2008, but the estimation of the taxation system did not take into account those changes that took place in 2008 and the ones expected to come into force in 2009.”

    He added that while studying the complexity of the taxation procedures, the range of interviewees should include the accountants working for large enterprises besides those ones who work for small and medium-sized business and often do not have a university degree and face a lot of difficulty dealing with taxation procedures. The representative of the Finance Ministry said that the report does not take into consideration the cut in the total number of taxes. As a result, the World Bank experts came to the conclusion that the taxation system in Belarus is the most complicated in the world.

    “The methods should be improved. I hope that the 2010 report will reflect the changes that took place,” he said.

    The representatives of the Ministry of Taxes and Dues and the State Standardization Committee share the skeptical views of the Finance Ministry on individual aspects of the rating.

    Deputy Economy Minister of Belarus Andrei Tur said, “What is the use of reforms for the sake of reforms when a certain system is successfully working in a country as it is? Georgia, for example, carried out reforms to rank 15th in the list of most favourable countries for doing business, according to the World Bank. Has it brought any benefits for the population?”

    “We appreciate that the World Bank points out to the areas we have to work on. But one should not forget that the Doing Business rating studies just the state of business in a country, not the state of the economy in general. The rating does not show how the country ranks in terms of its economic development. Such ratings should be taken objectively,” Andrei Tur underlined.

    Penelope Brook, Director of the Indicators Analysis Department, assured that the next report will take into consideration the taxation reforms that were carried out in Belarus. In her opinion, however, it is too early to say whether Belarus will rank higher or not in this rating, because everything will depend on what other countries will do in this area.

  • Cultural scene...

    Over 120,000 people partake in City Day festivities

    From: BelTA
    More than 120 thousand people took part in the celebrations of the Day of the City on September 13, BelTA learnt from Alexander Lastovsky, head of the press service of the Minsk main interior department.

    According to him, no incidents were reported during the celebrations in the Belarusian capital.

    The major festivities were held in the Maksim Gorky children’s park, Cheluskintsev park and the 900th Anniversary of Minsk park, at the National Library and the Palace of Sports. Attending the firework show at the Minsk City-Hero Monument were nearly 15 thousand residents and guests of the Belarusian capital.

    Dasha, Alina, Karina to present Belarus at Junior Eurovision 2008

    At the Junior Eurovision Song Contest 2008 Belarus will be presented by a trio Dasha Nadina, Alina Molosh and Karina Zhukovich with a song The Heart of Belarus, BelTA informs.

    The decision was made by a professional jury after the performance of the ten finalists of the national children’s contest Song for Eurovision that was broadcast on September 12.

    The song The Heart of Belarus was written by Darya Nadina. The trio is the pupils of Svetlana Statsenko, Honoured Figure of Culture of Belarus, Art Director of the National Music Center named after Vladimir Mulyavin.

    The international children’s song contest Eurovision 2008 will take place in Lemesos, Cyprus, on November 22. Partaking in the contest will be 16 countries.

    Belarus has been taking part in the contest for the sixth year in row. For the time being, Belarus has become the champion twice, with Kseniya Sitnik taking the first place in 2005 and Aleksei Zhigalkovich in 2007. In 2006, Andrei Kunets was the second.

  • From the International Press...

    EU ready to review sanctions against Belarus

    From: Ria Novosti
    European foreign ministers said on Monday that sanctions against Belarus could be lifted if the country holds its September 28 parliamentary elections in a "democratic" fashion.

    A statement released after a meeting of the 27 EU foreign ministers said the EU would "re-assess the situation in Belarus in light of the upcoming parliamentary elections and Belarus's progress towards democratic values and human rights, and is ready to start reviewing sanctions against Belarusian officials."

    Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, earlier dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by the West, and other top Belarusian officials are currently banned from visiting the EU due to a clamp down on political dissent and other human rights violations in the country. The EU has also suspended bilateral ministerial meetings with the country and expelled Belarus from the system of trade benefits.

    The document said however that a new approach to Belarus became possible after Belarusian authorities released three political prisoners last month.

    It also said the EU was ready to improve relations with Belarus and to take positive and concrete measures for this purpose, such as holding EU-Belarus foreign ministerial meetings.

    The EU also voiced its intentions to expand political, trade and cultural exchanges with Belarus, including opening up to the country its 'neighborhood' economic aid program.

    Some EU politicians have also said that it would be pertinent at the current time to hold out a hand to Belarus as the country is coming under pressure from Russia to join it in recognizing the Georgian breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

    Belarus Promises Vote Will Improve Its Image

    From: Moscow Times
    Belarus' top election official said this month's parliamentary elections, featuring dozens of opposition candidates, would do away with Western stereotypes that depict the country as undemocratic.

    "This election is intended to smash stereotypes," Lidia Yermoshina, head of the Central Election Commission, said at a news conference Friday. "Let the election prove to the international community that we are for cooperation and openness. … Let the campaign be as lively as possible."

    The European Union, which along with the United States still maintains sanctions against Belarus, will offer closer ties if the Sept. 28 elections prove to be clean, according to a statement to be issued Monday.

    The statement said ministers were ready to review "restrictive measures on Belarussian officials and take concrete, positive measures that could lead to a gradual reengagement with Belarus."

    It raised the possibility of a meeting of foreign ministers, increased trade and cultural exchanges and a boost in aid.

    The Belarussian opposition, split by internal disputes and shut out of the parliament in 2004 elections, has won approval to run about 70 candidates in 110 districts, far more than in past elections.

    Opposition politicians have said they were still being denied access to commissions that will oversee the count.

    A Sept. 21 meeting of a council grouping parties making up the opposition is to make a final decision on participating and many analysts predict a split.

    Belarus Opposition Parliamentary Candidate Permitted to Hold Rallies

    From: Red Orbit
    The Brest city executive committee has permitted opposition parliamentary candidate Ihar Maslowski to hold a series of rallies in his electoral district between 20 and 23 September.

    The daily rallies are to be held near the Lahuna market between noon and 3 p.m. and near the Uskhod shopping center and the Svitanak grocery store between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. and are expected to draw up to 20 people each.

    "Demonstrations in public places will enable me and my authorized representatives to meet with an even larger number of voters, give them my campaign materials with my election program, and discuss its most topical aspects, including public control over the government, the role of lawmakers as representatives of people and not the government, and the restoration of social benefits and privileges that were abolished by the outgoing House," Mr Maslowski told Belapan.

    The candidate said that his team would not stop its door-to-door canvassing campaign and that he would continue meeting with people at their workplaces. According to him, he had more than 30 such meetings last week.

    Mr. Maslowski, who is running in District No 3 in Brest, is first deputy chairman of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) and a member of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.

    Belarusian police break up opposition protest

    In a related IHT story, Belarusian riot police have broken up an unauthorized protest by opposition activists ahead of parliamentary elections set for later this month.

    About 50 activists gathered for about 10 minutes in a central square in Minsk on Tuesday before riot police moved in. About 10 people were slightly injured as police pushed them out of the square.

    The group was holding a remembrance for activists and journalists who have disappeared under President Alexander Lukashenko's regime.

    The Sept. 28 vote is being viewed in the West as a test of whether Lukashenko is serious about democratic reforms. Lukashenko released two political prisoners last month.

    The United States lifted some economic sanctions two weeks ago after their release.

    Iran and Belarus create joint Bank

    From: Press TV
    Iran's Tejarat bank and Belarus' Lada OMS Holding have set up a new bank in Belarus with an authorized fund of more than 5 million euros.

    The new bank, named Torgovy Kapital (TK Bank), is licensed by the National Bank of Belarus to establish and operate banking accounts by individuals and legal entities, conclude trust management agreements and to provide factoring service.

    In addition, TK Bank will be entitled to exchange currencies, issue bank guaranties and security papers to depositors, and issue bank cards.

    As of August 1, twenty-two out of 28 Belarus' banks involved foreign capital. Ten banks in Belarus operate with 100 percent foreign capital; in 16 of the remaining, the share of foreign investment is more than 50 percent.

    Iran's Tejarat Bank was established according to a government-proposed bill approved in September 1979 upon the combination of eleven private banks.

  • Agriculture...

    Belarus to increase gross oilseed rape yield up to 1 million tonnes in 2010

    From: Tred Az

    In 2010 Belarus’ gross oilseed rape yield is supposed to increase up to 1 million tonnes. Earlier the 2007-2010 oil and fat industry development programme set the target at 0.8 million tonnes, Chairman of Belgospischeprom Concern Ivan Danchenko told a session of the Council of Ministers Presidium on September 16, reported Belta.

    In his words, in view of the changed conditions the concern suggests correcting the 2007-2010 oil and fat industry development programme. The amendments will also touch upon the production capacity for processing oil-bearing crop seeds. The figure is supposed to increase by roughly 150% to 1,361,400 tonnes (589,000 tonnes earlier).

    The concern also intends to provide the country with protein stock in 2010 as much as possible. There are plans for ensuring rapeseed oil self-reliance as much as possible as well as import substitution of oil and fat products. In particular, in 2010 Belarus is expected to turn out 302,600 tonnes of vegetable oil instead of 207,000 tonnes specified by the present programme. Ivan Danchenko explained, scientists believe in order to optimise the fatty acid composition of consumed vegetable oils it is advisable to make rapeseed and flaxseed oil share as large as 60% and the share of sunflower oil and other oils — 40%. The draft corrected programme takes into account these figures and determines the minimum import of oil unavailable in Belarus as well as the maximum possible domestic production of rapeseed oil.

    The document also provides for commissioning modern equipment for refining, winterising and deodorising fats and oils, expanding the choice and beefing up the production of competitive fat and oil products.

    In 2008-2010 the planned funding for measures outlined by the programme is estimated at $232 million, including $161.7 million of proprietary funds and $27.5 million of bank loans.

    According to Ivan Danchenko, the present production of rapeseeds and the capacity for their processing do not meet modern requirements. Moreover, some goals specified by the 2007-2010 oil and fat industry development programme are not met. The rapeseed production capacity for processing this year’s harvest stands at 257,400 tonnes per annum while the target is set at 337,100 tonnes. Efforts meant to attract investments for increasing the capacity are insufficiently active. The situation is grave first of all in the Brest and Grodno oblasts. All in all, Br22 billion or 48% of the sum required for meeting the goal has been attracted.

    Over the first eight months of 2008 the failure to meet the production capacity targets has led to lower production of oil, oilcakes, and press cakes. In January-August oil processing companies secured 57.6% of the margarine production goal, 68.5% of the mayonnaise production goal, and 105.9% of the bottled vegetable oil production goal.

    Elite varieties of blueberry taking root in Belarus

    Elite varieties of blueberry are successfully grown by the number of farms in Belarus. According to the farmers, this trend comes from the fact that Belarus in particular sets the fashion for the berry business among other former Soviet countries.

    The laboratory on blueberry seedlings cultivation was created in Belarus two years ago. The seeds material is produced from a cell, using a meristem method, that excludes transfer of viruses and diseases. This is a know-how from the foreign agronomists.

    For the present, this is the only laboratory engaged in microclonal reproduction of blueberry, not only in Belarus, but also in Russia and Ukraine. Buds are transplanted into the nutrient solution in test-tube and those from sick plants- perish. Thus, only pure planting stock remains.

    Belarus sowed nearly 47% of winter grains

    In a related story, As of September 16, Belarus sowed grains throughout 657.800 ha, or 46.6% of planned territory, according to the Main Department of Plant Growing of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food.

    Also, winter wheat was sowed within 232.400 ha, or 79.6% of planned areas.

    Belarusian farmers prepared 1.05 mln ha of soil for winter grain sowing, or 74.7% of planned areas, as opposed to 84% on the same date in 2007.

  • From the Opposition...

    Belarus opposition leader urges EU caution

    From: EU Observer
    The EU should not be fooled by cosmetic political reforms in Belarus, opposition leader Alexander Kazulin warned on Tuesday (16 September), one day after EU foreign ministers expressed readiness to relax sanctions.

    "Today we have every proof that there have been no important changes concerning the democratisation of Belarus. They are only facade changes, not fundamental ones," Mr Kazulin told press after holding meetings in the European Parliament in Brussels.

    The fact that Minsk in August freed three political prisoners - including Mr Kazulin himself who had spent two and a half years in jail - is not enough to warrant a shift in EU policy as not much has actually changed in the country, the dissident added.

    "We [still] have no elections, but appointments by [Belarus president] Mr Lukashenko," Mr Kazulin explained, saying that his own daughter who is running for parliament in upcoming elections has no chance "because of her last name."

    The opposition leader said the EU should not ignore Minsk's offer of a rapprochement entirely and should upgrade relations to some extent, but getting the right balance without prematurely rewarding the regime will be hard.

    "I believe the EU will have enough wisdom to take the right decision, make the right conclusions."

    EU foreign ministers on Monday declared Brussels' readiness "to begin to review the restrictive measures against Belarusian leaders, and to take positive and concrete measures" if the 28 September parliament vote is conducted in a "democratic" way.

    The EU's sanctions - imposed in 2006 following rigged presidential elections - include a visa ban on 41 officials, with President Lukashenko and current electoral commission head, Lidziya Yarmoshyna, named as persona non grata.

    Following the EU ministers' announcement on Monday, Ms Yarmoshyna told Belarus' Euroradio that she was looking forward to the sanctions being dropped so that she could visit her favourite holiday spots in Europe.

    "I am afraid to suppose this happiness is possible, but when it is true, I will be able to choose a good trip next year," she said.

    "It is certainly Paris, certainly Venice and certainly Spain, somewhere in autumn. I dream about it. I am an educated person, I am interested in museums, so visiting museums would be the main thing."

    Minsk is still expecting «concrete actions» from the European Union, not hollow declarations, foreign ministry’s spokesman says

    From: Naveny
    Minsk is still expecting “concrete actions” from the European Union, not hollow declarations, Andrey Papow, spokesman for the Belarusian foreign ministry, said while commenting on EU foreign ministers’ conclusions adopted at an External Relations Council meeting in Brussels on September 15.

    “We have taken note of the changing attitude towards Belarus,” Mr. Papow said. According to him, the EU’s attempt to “outline possible avenues of improving” relations between the bloc and Belarus “opens ground for cautious optimism.” However, he added, the EU has not yet managed to completely get rid of its “inherent inertia” in its approach to Belarus.

    Mr. Papow stressed that the Belarusian authorities had repeatedly announced their desire to conduct the forthcoming parliamentary elections in a transparent and democratic manner. “Belarus does not intend to draw back from its commitments,” he said.

    In their conclusions, the EU foreign ministers made it clear that the European Union’s possible re-engagement with Belarus would depend on the nation’s September 28 parliamentary elections. The ministers pointed out that the forthcoming elections represent an opportunity for Belarus to demonstrate its respect for democratic values.

    The ministers noted that the EU “is prepared to begin to review the restrictive measures against Belarusian leaders, and to take positive and concrete measures that may lead to a gradual re-engagement with Belarus, including via a meeting between the European Union troika and the Belarusian Minister for Foreign Affairs.”

  • Around the region...

    Walking Carefully From Transdnestr to Yerevan

    From: Moscow Times
    Following the tumultuous events in the Caucasus, the struggle for influence in the former Soviet republics has turned into an open confrontation. Moscow has clearly articulated its policy toward its neighbors, calling those regions Russia's exclusive sphere of influence. By trying to create its own geographical sphere of influence, Moscow is essentially pushing for a multipolar world -- a global system of competing power centers with each attempting to strengthen and extend its reach.

    The very idea of establishing an exclusive sphere of influence is inherently confrontational since Russia's international partners would never agree to such a model. Western politicians' oft-repeated refrain is that it is inadmissible to apply 19th-century principles in the 21st century. At the outbreak of the current crisis, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington would not allow Moscow to achieve its strategic goals. Of course, the United States does not consider its own goals to be a return to the 19th century. After all, it does not have a regional sphere of influence in the classic sense. Its interests encompass the whole world.

    The European Union categorically rejects the rhetoric likening current events to the epoch of the Great Game, insisting that modern international relations are built upon a different foundation. But that has not stopped the EU from attempting to expand its model on its neighbors. Thus, the EU is effectively increasing its own exclusive sphere of influence.

    China is the third major participant in post-Soviet politics. Beijing views any discussion of spheres of influence as being attributes of Western -- including Russian -- colonialism, characterized by contemptuous and arrogant attitudes toward others. This is why it would be futile to expect China to support Russia's new course. Beijing portrays its own ambitions for expansion in terms of a desire for global harmony. In practice, this means the steady promotion of China's economic interests wherever and whenever possible. Central Asia is the region in which both Beijing and Moscow have strong interests. This region is the most valuable chunk of the post-Soviet landscape. Its huge energy deposits make it the choice prize in the larger geopolitical standoff.

    It is not difficult to imagine that Central Asia could become the focal point for future conflicts.

    Russia is taking active diplomatic strides in the Transdnestr territorial problem. The Kremlin wants to prove that it can resolve crises through diplomacy and not only through military force.

    In all likelihood, Moscow's terms for resolving that situation will involve neutralizing Moldova by forbidding it to join NATO and insisting that Russia maintain a military presence on its territory. It is hard to imagine that Washington would simply sit and twiddle its thumbs were such a resolution imminent. If the United States and Europe were unhappy with that possibility in 2003, they would hardly agree to it now, especially given the prevailing competition for influence in the region.

    If the United States and the EU do step in and disrupt the agreement again, it will prove that their motivation is not to preserve Moldova's territorial integrity, but to prevent Chisinau from falling under Moscow's sphere of influence.

    But Russia's frustration at seeing its efforts derailed for a second time could complicate the situation. Of course, recognition of Transdnestr's independence is not likely to be in the offing. In that case, it is unclear what to do with the territory Ukraine rudely severed from Russia, and any resolution of the conflict would remain only a theoretical possibility.

    Belarus is the second object of potential rivalry. The more the East-West conflict heats up, the more important Minsk becomes. For Russia, Minsk is the only exception to the number of ill-wishers that flank its western border. For Brussels and Washington, Minsk represents an opportunity to snatch from Moscow its ally. Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko is a master at squeezing an advantage out of any situation and now a huge opportunity has opened before him.

    From the West, the Belarussian leader wants official recognition of the legitimacy of his upcoming parliamentary elections, a thawing in political relations with the United States and greater contacts with the EU. From Moscow, it wants natural gas discounts and, if possible, other economic perks.

    Lukashenko has already made conciliatory gestures toward the West by releasing political prisoners -- including presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin -- and relaxed restrictions against the opposition during the election campaign.

    Belarus will probably offer Russia military cooperation and joint opposition to NATO -- for a price, naturally. Judging from the evasive language Minsk has used in describing its position in relation to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it is not planning to recognize their independence. But rejecting such a possibility outright is also not in its best interests.

    The West has already indicated that it is willing to be flexible. Washington anticipates a more democratic Belarus emerging and does not rule out repealing sanctions against the country's leadership. For now, sanctions have been lifted from two Belarus firms. The EU is likely to follow suit.

    The third possible cause of disagreement concerns Georgia's neighbors in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan is walking a fine line, exhibiting its readiness to cooperate with everyone, but being careful not to move too close to any one particular partner. Yerevan finds itself in a difficult position because of the Russia-Georgia conflict and not only because its oil pipeline passes through Georgian territory. Armenia worries that Moscow will require more concrete forms of support from fellow Collective Security Treaty Organization member countries. But if Yerevan were to spoil its relationship with Georgia -- an important economic partner and home to a significant Armenian population -- it would become more hopelessly isolated. At the same time, upsetting Russia could be dangerous because a great deal is riding on that relationship, including the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

    A possible breakthrough in the impasse between Yerevan and Ankara could change the situation. In this scenario, Turkey would become an independent regional power with interests that often differ from the United States and the rest of Europe. That would open up additional opportunities for Russia, but could also intensify existing rivalries.

    I have purposely avoided mentioning Ukraine. Nobody denies that Ukraine will be the main battleground in the impending geopolitical confrontation. The situation there is fraught with the possibility of wide-scale destabilization and intervention by foreign powers. The entire post-Soviet landscape increasingly resembles a minefield where the slightest sudden movement could lead to yet another explosion.

    Ukraine's "Orange" coalition over, tough talks ahead

    From: Kyev Post
    The speaker of Ukrainian parliament
    Arseniy Yatsenyuk announces the
    termination of the democratic coalition
    in the Verkhovna Rada ( parliament )
    during its session in Kyiv, Ukraine,
    Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008.
    Ukraine's pro-Western coalition was dissolved on Tuesday, opening the way to tough talks on finding a viable alternative to govern the country.

    If the talks fail, Ukraine faces its third election in as many years.

    The "orange" coalition, made up of groups led by President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, collapsed this month when the president's allies walked out.

    Tymoshenko and Yushchenko stood side-by-side in the 2004 protests that swept the president to power but, with Tymoshenko twice serving as prime minister, they have bickered constantly.

    Parliament chairman Arseniy Yatsenyuk proclaimed the coalition dead after 10 days of conciliation attempts.

    "This has been long expected, but for me it is extremely sad," Yatsenyuk told the chamber. "I would not call this a political apocalypse, though it is true that it is another challenge of democracy. I hope we can overcome it."

    The coalition's demise leaves unfulfilled the revolution's ideals of moving Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, out of the shadow of giant neighbour Russia and closer to the West, with four European Union states on its Western border.

    Experts saw little cause for optimism in 30 days now set aside for talks to restore it or find a new coalition able to assemble a majority in parliament.

    With all politicians focusing on their chances in a presidential election due by 2010, both the president and prime minister have remained entrenched in their positions.

    Tymoshenko vowed to keep on governing.

    "Let me assure you that the government is going to work for a long time and successfully too, regardless of these storms," she told a public presentation of the 2009 budget. "They are no more than a storm in a teacup."

    The hryvnia currency fell to 4.84 to the dollar from 4.78, trading on the small stock exchange was suspended due to a fall in the index and the cost of insuring against Ukraine defaulting on debt rose to 580-600 basis points from 570 on Monday.

    But market players said the reaction was in line with all emerging markets, squeezed by investors digesting news of the collapse of U.S. bank Lehman Brothers and plunging sentiment on Russia following its war with Georgia.


    A leader of the president's Our Ukraine party said the way was now free for Tymoshenko to join opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich, the main adversary of "orange" forces in 2004.

    Friendlier to Russia, Yanukovich was initially declared the winner of the 2004 presidential election, but lost a rerun when the result was overturned in the courts.

    Yanukovich, whose Regions Party has the most seats in parliament, renewed calls for a broad coalition to unite a country long divided into a nationalist west and centre and the Russian-speaking, industrial east and south, his power base.

    "No single party is in a position to overcome this crisis on its own. Any configuration leaving out the country's biggest political forces is doomed to fail," he told deputies.

    All major parties stand to gain little from a new poll.

    Eight months into Tymoshenko's second term, the country is gripped by annual inflation of 26 percent. Poor market prospects have prompted forecasts of a leap in the foreign trade deficit to $25.5 billion next year from $15.4 billion in 2008.

    Relations with Russia have deteriorated sharply, largely over the president's drive to win NATO membership for the country of about 47 million people and over his denunciation of Russia's military intervention in Georgia last month.

    Our Ukraine quit after denouncing a vote to cut presidential powers in which Tymoshenko joined Yanukovich and his party.

    Tymoshenko's group is the second largest in the 450-seat chamber after Yanukovich's Regions Party and says it is up to the president to preserve the legacy of the 2004 Revolution.

    Two polls published in recent days show Tymoshenko's bloc and Yanukovich's Regions Party vying for the lead with about 20 percent each, far ahead of Our Ukraine.

    Ukrainian PM questioned over president poisoning

    From: Kyiv Post
    Ukraine's fiery prime minister says the investigation into the unsolved dioxin poisoning of President Viktor Yushchenko has been completely politicized.

    Yulia Tymoshenko spoke as she arrived for questioning by prosecutors into the 2004 incident that nearly killed Yushchenko and disfigured his face.

    She suggested Thursday that she's being targeted because she's a potential competitor to Yushchenko in the 2010 presidential elections.

    The two were partners in the 2004 Orange Revolution that catapulted Yushchenko to the presidency.

    But their tug-of-war has now ruined their coalition and put the county on the brink of its third parliamentary election in as many years. Yushchenko has suggested the poisoning may have been orchestrated by Russia.

    In a related story, President Viktor Yushchenko has accused Russia of seeking to destabilize Ukraine by encouraging separatists on the volatile Crimean peninsula, but vowed that the Kremlin would not succeed.

    Yushchenko said in an interview with The Associated Press: "I will not be an idealist who says that there are not intentions to cause internal instability in this or that region of Ukraine."

    He said "for some of our partners instability in Ukraine is like bread with butter."

    He vowed that Russia would not do to Ukraine like he said it did with Georgia. Russia fought a short war last month with Georgia, invading the country, routing its military and occupying large swaths of its territory. Moscow has also recognized two breakaway Georgian regions as independent nations.

  • From the Polish Scandal Files...

    Chicago cop charged with aiding in Polish frame job

    From: Law Enforcement Corruption
    A Crystal Lake man didn't like his wife's parenting skills or her spending habits, and that's why he got a Chicago police officer to help him frame her with drugs and a gun, Cook County prosecutors said. The prosecutors said the man gave them another reason, too: He wanted her money. Bogdan Mazur, who is in the midst of a divorce, tried to set up his estranged wife by planting cocaine, marijuana and a gun in her vehicle in April 2007 and having Grand-Central District Officer Slawomir Plewa arrest her, according to Assistant State's Atty. Lynn McCarthy.

    Plewa, 30, was arrested Monday and charged with official misconduct, perjury, obstruction of justice, unlawful restraint and false reporting. Mazur of the 900 block of Wedgewood Drive in Crystal Lake was arrested Monday on charges of filing a false police report, obstruction of justice, conspiracy to manufacture or deliver cocaine and cannabis, and conspiracy to commit unlawful use of a weapon. Court testimony Tuesday indicated Mazur is 48, though police records indicate he is 47. Judge Adam Bourgeois Jr. ordered both men held in lieu of $250,000 bail. McCarthy said Mazur told police that he met Plewa met through a mutual friend in early 2007 and they planned the false arrest with an uncharged co-conspirator. On April 1, 2007, Mazur met with several police officers, included Plewa, at a parking garage near Belmont and Central Avenues, McCarthy said. There, Mazur told the officers he was certain drugs were in his wife's vehicle. Mazur then called his wife in the officers' presence and told her his car wouldn't start and she needed to come pick up their two young children, who were with him, McCarthy said. Mazur and the uncharged co-conspirator had put a .22-caliber pistol, cocaine and cannabis in the spare-tire compartment, McCarthy said. When the woman arrived, Plewa stopped her and asked if he could search her vehicle, McCarthy said. She said yes. Police found the plastic bag, which contained 44.5 grams of cocaine, 62 grams of cannabis and a gun, McCarthy said. The woman was arrested and charged with gun and drug offenses.

    Mazur told police he was angry with his wife and some of her "spending choices and disagreed with some of her parenting decisions," McCarthy said. He planned to split his estranged wife's assets with the co-conspirator after she was convicted. The co-conspirator also was going to help him with Immigration problems. Mazur is a Polish citizen in the United States illegally, McCarthy said. Plewa said in police reports, before the grand jury and in the woman's trial that an anonymous person gave him information that led to her arrest. The woman was acquitted of the charges in January. After the acquittal, the woman's attorney, Steven Messner, said he told Assistant State's Atty. Bob Milan he suspected the case was phony. Plewa had admitted he never made note of the meeting with the informant nor tried to verify the information with anyone else, Messner said. And a fingerprint taken from the packaging around the gun and drugs did not match the estranged wife's, Messner said. Plewa is a seven-year veteran of the department, assigned to the gang-narcotics team for much of that time, and has never before been disciplined, said Dan Herbert, Plewa's attorney. "Officer Plewa did nothing wrong in this case," Herbert told the judge during the bond hearing. "Officer Plewa received information from a confidential informant, and that confidential informant turned out to be Mr. Bogdan [Mazur]." As Herbert extolled the virtues of his client, the judge interrupted him. "These allegations strike at the heart of what we do here every day," Bourgeois said. "George Orwell wrote a book about this."

    The judge ordered Plewa to turn in any guns he owns. After the hearing, Herbert said Plewa had already done so. Herbert said Plewa was an aggressive police officer who trusted the word of someone he considered a confidential informant. Plewa was stripped of police powers Aug. 22 and is not being paid, police said. Chicago police said Plewa was the subject of an internal investigation that resulted in his arrest. He was the third officer arrested this year based on an internal investigation. "The actions of this officer do not represent the vast majority of honorable, hard-working police officers who risk their lives everyday," Deputy Supt. Peter Brust said in a statement. In 2006, Plewa was sued in federal court by a mentally handicapped man who claimed that the officer and others pulled him from a parked vehicle, beat him and dragged him in the street. In March 2007, the city settled the suit for $50,000.

    Poland considers castration of pedophiles

    From: Polskie Radio
    Poland seriously considers introducing coerced treatment of pedophile attraction as part of the sentence for child sex offenders. The country's statistics show about 850 recorded cases of pedophilia a year.

    Joanna Najfeld reports

    The debate over castration for pedophiles was sparked by the shocking case of a 45-year old man accused of repeatedly raping his 21-year old daughter since she was fifteen years old. Commenting on that scandal, Prime Minister Donald Tusk said that he supports introducing coerced castration for pedophiles. According to the current regulations, the court may, but does not have to order therapy for a convicted child sex offender.

    'I would like Poland to introduce chemical castration not on the criminal's request, but as part of the sentence. I know such an idea will meet with outrage of human rights defenders. What I am saying may be radical, but I don't think that we can classify as "human" those individuals, such creatures as pedophiles. I don't think defense of human rights applies in their case,' said Donald Tusk.

    The Prime Minister's idea met with strong support. One poll have shown that 94% percent of society want radically stricter punishments for child sex offenders. Only 17% oppose chemical castration. According to another poll, one third of society, mostly young people, are convinced the best punishment for child sex crimes would be coerced surgical castration, which is a medically more effective method, as it involves amputation of the offender's testicles. Among those who support this solution is well-known journalist and writer, Wojciech Cejrowski, who said: 'Castration serves three purposes: number one - punishment, number two - prevention, but you have to cut off all of the tools, right? And number three - castration allows the criminal to be accepted back by society. For he is safe now. No more tools.'

    President Lech Kaczynski has promised cooperation and support to introduce stricter law against pedophilia. Poland's Ombudsman Janusz Kochanowski suggested chemical castration could apply also in cases of adult rape.

    Health Minister Ewa Kopacz said she thinks many mothers are waiting impatiently for the introduction of the new regulations. In her opinion, human rights -based counter arguments are out of place here. 'Whose rights are we defending? These people may be sick, but this is not just sickness, it is dangerous, it leads to crime against children,' she said.However, voices skeptical of more severe punishment for child sex offenders, have been raised too, though in very clear minority.

    Head of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal said that the European Bioethical Convention, which he hopes Poland will ratify, bans treatment without consent of the patient.

    Grzegorz Napieralski, leader of the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance, accuse the Prime Minister of trying to gain political support. So do radical leftist feminist groups.

    Deputy head of the European Commission Jacques Barrot said Poland should forget about obligatory castration, as no European law will agree to that.

    Justice Minister Zbigniew Cwiakalski confirmed international law may indeed prevent Poland from introducing surgical castration. What is possible, though, is a solution based on pharmacological reduction of sexual attraction. 'It's obvious that we cannot accept a solution that goes against European Union law or international law,' said Cwiakalski.

    Coerced chemical castration for pedophiles is legal in eight American states. The radical American Civil Liberties Union lobbies against it, citing the rights of pedophiles. In the UK, an offender who agrees to chemical castration may have his sentence reduced. Some years ago an attempt was made to legalize coerced chemical castration for pedophiles and rapists in Italy - it failed however, having been ridiculed as too radical. Sweden, which has the highest rates of rape in Europe, bans coerced treatment of pedophile attraction.

    Polish government officials started working on the new bill on pedophilia prevention some months ago. The initial draft proposed castration only for repeat offenders. Now the Prime Minister wants it to be "the strictest possible law punishing criminals who rape children". The new draft is to be ready within two weeks.

    Builders take drunken ride in bulldozer

    From: Keye TV
    Two Polish builders left a trail of destruction when they drove to a store in a digger truck after running out of booze on the building site.

    Marek Cowalski, 27 and Tomasz Dzwonicki, 19, plowed into parked cars, garden walls and fences and a set of traffic lights on their way to buy more drinks for a birthday binge on a building site in Glogow, south-west Poland.

    Police detained the pair after they tried to pull into a parking spot and instead drove into the shop and got stuck.

    The men were cut out of the dozer by firefighters and taken to jail. They face up to five years.

  • Sport...

    Real Madrid to face Belarus minnows in Champions League

    From: AFP
    Real Madrid will face Belarus minnows BATE Borisov on Wednesday in their Champions League opener after losing their first league match and struggling to etch out a win against newly promoted Numancia over the weekend.

    Real's German coach Bernd Schuster, under pressure to improve on last season when his side was ousted from the European tournament by Roma in the last 16, said Sunday's 4-3 home victory over Numancia had revealed weaknesses that needed to be avoided against BATE.

    "There is no doubt about it. I'm concerned about the goals that we concede from dead balls," he said.

    "If that match can be a banana skin then we need to go carefully and handle the game better when we're ahead. Our problem has been not knowing how to manage the tempo of the game," he added.

    Numancia shocked the reigning Spanish champions by taking the lead twice.

    Juan Carlos Moreno and Jose Barkero twice put the visitors ahead only for first Guti and then Gonzalo Higuain to draw Real Madrid back level.

    Another goal from Rafael van der Vaart and an own goal from Domingo Cisma made it 4-2 to Madrid at half time with Moreno scoring his second of the match with half an hour remaining.

    It was a first win of the campaign for Real following their 2-1 loss at Deportivo La Coruna two weeks ago.

    BATE had to work their way through all three qualifying rounds but Schuster urged caution.

    "In theory they are the easiest opponent but we have to tread carefully," he said.

    Defender Sergio Ramos was rested for the match against Numancia because he aggravated an injury while playing for Spain last week and is uncertain for the match against BATE.

    The record nine-time European Champions have not advanced past the last 16 in the Champions League since 2004. The team has not won the tournament since 2002.

    Real's first tough Champions League challenge will come on September 30 when they travel to Russia to face UEFA Cup holders Zenit St Petersburg.

  • Endnote...

    Opening Statement On Democracy and Human Rights in Belarus

    From: US Government
    From David J. Kramer, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor;

    Mr. Chairman and distinguished Members of the Commission, I am honored to appear before you today to discuss the state of democracy and human rights in Belarus and commend the Commission for its engagement on this important subject. Your active interest has ensured that a strong message of solidarity has been sent to the Belarusian people from both the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. Government. The Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act, which some members and staff of this Commission have been instrumental in moving forward, has given the Administration a key tool in formulating policy toward Belarus. I also wish to applaud the vital work that the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute have done to help support democracy in Belarus from the grassroots.

    Mr. Chairman, given the recent release of all political prisoners and the upcoming parliamentary election September 28th, this hearing comes at a time of opportunity for Belarus. If the Government of Belarus shows that it is truly committed to democratic reform, we will have the possibility to develop a more robust relationship between our two countries. As we have said many times, we would like to have a different relationship with Belarus -- one that is based on mutual respect for internationally recognized norms and the human rights of the people of Belarus. For an improved relationship to be possible, Belarus must truly abide by its commitments as a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms and democratic norms.

    The release of all political prisoners in Belarus is an encouraging step in this direction. Former presidential candidate, Alvaksander Kazulin, was freed from prison on August 16th, over two years after his arrest and conviction on charges of alleged hooliganism at a protest after the fraudulent March 2006 presidential election. The Administration, from President Bush on down, including our Embassy in Minsk, pressed hard for his release and met numerous times with his late wife and daughters. I truly regret that Irina Kazulina, herself a brave fighter for human rights, did not live long enough to see her husband freed. And on August 20th, Belarusian authorities released the last two political prisoners: businessman Syarhey Parsyukevich and youth activist Andrey Kim. Mr. Parsyukevich and Mr. Kim had been imprisoned on charges stemming from a demonstration held in January 2008 to protest new government restrictions on businesses. Earlier this year, the Government of Belarus released five individuals, internationally recognized as political prisoners -- Andrey Klimov, Dmitry Dashkevich, Artur Finkevich, Nikolay Avtukhovich and Yuriy Leonov. Freeing all eight prisoners is a meaningful step forward. Of course, we also are looking to Belarus authorities to respect the human and civil rights of all Belarusian people, in particular the freedoms of assembly and expression, including respect for an independent media. We hope the Government of Belarus shows a true, sustained commitment to democratic reform and respect for human rights.

    As we have discussed many times with the Belarusian authorities, the release of Mr. Kazulin and the other two political prisoners provides the opportunity for the United States and the European Union to start a dialogue with the Belarusians about ways to improve relations. My colleague, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, David Merkel, traveled to Minsk August 21 to 23 to explore the possibilities for a real dialogue between our two governments, as well as to deepen our contacts with the democratic opposition. Merkel’s was the first visit at this level by a U.S. official since my last trip to Minsk in April 2007, when I held that same position. Following Merkel’s visit, the Department of State, in coordination with the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), approved a six-month suspension until March 2009 of sanctions against two subsidiaries of Belarusian state-owned-enterprise Belneftekhim. We will watch Belarus closely to determine whether to extend this suspension and take other such steps.

    The release of political prisoners shows that the United States and the European Union can be effective in bringing about change when we are united. We regularly coordinate with our European allies on the situation in Belarus (in fact Deputy Assistant Secretary Merkel has been in Brussels yesterday and today doing just that) and have been united in our desire for the unconditional release of political prisoners in Belarus and for the authorities to respect the human and civil rights of the Belarusian people. While we have had occasional tactical differences on how best to approach Belarus, there is no question that the United States and the European Union share the goal of seeing a democratic Belarus assume its rightful place as a fully integrated member of the international community.

    The United States and the European Union have had a dual-track approach to Belarus. We strongly support civil society, NGOs, and other democratic forces in Belarus, while we take action against those whom we hold responsible for electoral fraud, human rights abuses, and corruption. We also are working closely with the European Union to urge Belarus to live up to its obligations to its people to allow an open and transparent electoral campaign process and hold free and fair parliamentary elections later this month
    Free and fair elections depend only in part on the conduct of the actual balloting and vote tabulation. Both we and the European Union have emphasized the need for Belarus to make significant progress in improving conditions throughout the electoral process. Key concerns include full access for OSCE observers, including to the voting process and ballot count, registration of opposition candidates, access to the voters and media for all candidates, and participation of the opposition in electoral commissions at all levels.

    In previous Belarusian elections, OSCE concluded that fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression were disregarded. During its initial assessment of this election environment OSCE has found no evident progress in these areas. OSCE has numerous times also provided recommendations to the government to improve the conduct of elections in Belarus in line with OSCE commitments. However, the authorities have not taken any significant steps to address these recommendations.

    The lack of opposition representation on precinct election commissions, and allegations that employees of regime-named candidates serve on the commissions, are of serious concern to us. Candidate registration offers a somewhat better picture, with approximately 78 percent of opposition candidates being registered, albeit below the 83 percent opposition registration rate in the 2004 elections. However, the registration appeals process added only eight more registered parliamentary candidates out of a possible 52 denied registration.

    In addition to the conduct of elections in Belarus, another key issue in improving the relations between the U.S. and Belarus is Belarusian authorities’ treatment of imprisoned U.S. citizen Emanuel Zeltser. Mr. Zeltser was arrested in March of this year and later convicted in a secret trial on charges of using false documents and economic espionage. Despite our many repeated requests, we have been allowed consular access to Mr. Zeltser only five times and were denied access to his closed trial. And despite our many efforts, including facilitating an exam by an American doctor and even bringing his medications to prison officials, Mr. Zeltser reports he has not been allowed access to all his prescription medicines or their comparable Belarusian equivalents. Our consular officer and the American doctor reported such a severe deterioration to his health since his imprisonment that we have requested Mr. Zeltser’s release on humanitarian grounds. With a real possibility for a significant improvement in the relationship between U.S. and Belarus, we hope there will be a quick, humanitarian resolution in Mr. Zeltser’s case. We will continue to request consular access to Mr. Zeltser to monitor his welfare as well as press for his access to his prescribed medicines. And as long as Mr. Zeltser’s welfare remains endangered, we will continue our call for his humanitarian release.

    No matter what relationship we have with the Government of Belarus, we have and will continue to provide assistance to empower the Belarusian people so that they may determine their own future. We strive to build NGO capacity to increase public participation; bolster the capacity of democratic political parties to unify, strategize, organize and connect with constituents; and strengthen independent media and expand access to objective information. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Belarus Service remains a leading international broadcaster, providing programming in the Belarusian language. The Service's new television program has recently been placed on a Polish-led, satellite television channel. In addition, Voice of America broadcasts are available in Russian to audiences in Belarus. Recent assistance successes include our work with five Belarusian umbrella organizations, and our programs supported the development of an NGO “map” to analyze civil society trends, improve strategic planning and enhance donor coordination. We also have supported the ability of an external radio project to improve its program content and expanded its internet audience to over 16,000 hits per month – that represents a four-fold increase in the number of unique visitors each day to the site since 2006. And we are supporting a Polish-led effort to broadcast television to Belarus via satellite. It is with this assistance that the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and our other non-governmental partners have been so critically helpful.

    In closing, as President Bush has said, “The United States will continue to stand with the people of Belarus and all those who are working to help Belarus take its rightful place in the community of democracies.” Our policy toward Belarus has never been driven by Minsk’s relationship with Moscow, whether warm or cold. Instead, our policy has been driven by the Government of Belarus’s treatment of its own people. We have shown our determination to take action against Belarus officials responsible for human rights abuses, assaults on democracy, and state corruption. The targeted sanctions and penalties we have imposed are not directed against the people of Belarus. With the release of all political prisoners by the Government of Belarus, we have begun a review of these sanctions and are allowing certain transactions to move forward. We never have sought regime change per se, merely a change in regime behavior, and we hope we are seeing positive signs of such a change. Again, we hope the Government of Belarus shows a true, sustained commitment to democratic reform and respect for human rights, so that we have the opportunity to move our relationship forward. It is my hope that we will look back on this year as the time when relations between Belarus and the United States got back on track.

    Thank you, Mr. Chairman.