Leading Belarusian dissident Aljaksandr Milinkevic speaks in Prague

Vaclav Havel and Aljaksandr Milinkevic, photo: CTK

This week, Prague has been playing host to leading Belarusian political dissident Aljaksandr Milinkevic as part of Forum 2000. The leader of the country's suppressed opposition movement 'Za Svobodu', or 'For Freedom' received a prestigious human rights prize from former president Vaclav Havel, and spoke to an audience consisting largely of Czech students about human rights in Belarus. The visit highlights the activism of Czech non-governmental organizations in promoting human rights in Europe's last dictatorship.

Vaclav Havel and Aljaksandr Milinkevic, photo: CTK
During his visit, Mr Milinkevic received the Hanno R Ellenbogen citizenship award form Vaclav Havel. The prize was established in 2000 by the Prague Society for International Cooperation, which promotes democracy and an international approach to politics within Central European states. Mr Milinkevich also spoke at a conference with former Czech dissident Daniel Kroupa on human rights in the European Union. With Czech national figures showing such public support for a foreign opposition leader, what are Czech organisations actually doing to promote human rights in Belarus itself? Rostislav Valvoda is from the Czech NGO 'Clovek v Tisni' (People in Need).

Aljaksandr Milinkevic, photo: CTK
'There is this People in Need foundation which is one of the biggest NGOs in Eastern Europe nowadays and we specialise on Belarus. We focus on it with a couple of projects some of them are focussed on journalists, some are focussed on civil society in general, be it environmental movements be it architectural movements, because there are some troubles in cities for instance like Grodno, that the current city council want to actually demolish the city centre, the historic city centre that actually connects the city with its past.'

People in Need organised a number of conferences to try and aid people in Grodno in opposition against the plan, but unfortunately they were unsuccessful. In this case, the violation of rights only concerned buildings, but in other cases, the effects can be more severe. At the conference on human rights, one Belarusian student told of how, after two months of study in Prague, she returned to university in Belarus only to be accused of lack of patriotism and expelled from her studies; she appealed to Mr Kroupa for help in attaining a Czech visa, so that she could continue her studies in Prague. Similarly, students within Belarus who express support for the opposition are expelled from their studies, and later their jobs.

So with this in mind, does more need to be done to put pressure on the regime in Belarus to reform?

"Well quite recently there's been an official proposition of the European Council towards the Belarusian government, saying that they can't take place in our European neighbourhood policy in which Ukraine participates and Moldova participates and they all receive a lot of funding actually but with one condition, and that is that you release political prisoners and that you will follow basic human rights which you currently oppose and that is the message the EC sent to Minsk and they did not respond actually, officially."

This increasing isolationism on the part of the Belarusian government from the rest of Europe is something to which many of the country's more informed citizens are opposed, but there is a lingering uncertainty within the country as to where it belongs; within the new expanding Europe, or Russia. It is a decision which, after many years of authoritarianism, was easy for the Czech Republic and other countries formerly in the Soviet sphere. But in Belarus it is still unresolved.

Rostislav Valvoda is in no doubt as to which direction the country should take:

"We want to ask the commission to do more and to be more strict, because we certainly have different values than Russia, which is the rival here. I think it's better for people in Belarus to be European, to share European values, because it's simply a better life."