EU Aid Misuse FearsAuthorities are likely to adopt cynical approach to Brussels' planned education and culture programme.
There's growing concern that a substantial European Union assistance project could be misused by the Belarusian authorities.
Analysts fear that funds allocated for a project intended to promote culture and education in Belarus may be misappropriated by officials and that the government might seek to present the initiative as a sign that Brussels approves of its policies.
The European Commission - the supreme executive body of the EU - is currently examining the project, proposed by MEP Elizabeth Shroedter, who is the deputy chair of a group responsible for Belarus. A final decision is expected shortly.
The multi-billion euro programme includes educational, exchange and cultural schemes aimed at students, teachers and representatives of non-governmental organisations. The objective is to foster pro-European feeling in Belarusian society, especially amongst the country's youth.
"The exchange programme is a very important part of European cooperation. The European parliament is interested in Belarusian youth being freed from the isolation in which it has been artificially put into," said Shroedter.
Shroedter's initiative - which comes at the same time as the EU's new 10-year strategy for relations with countries on the margins of the union - will require Belarus to adhere to a range of fundamental democratic principles.
"Before the new [culture and education] programmes are realised, the Belarusian government must fulfil a series of conditions, such as creating transparent budget and supervisory procedures. Parliament must receive the right to control budget expenditure," said Schroedter in a recent interview with the Belarusian media.
Before Brussels grants Minsk funds for the planned projects, it is likely to want the government to pledge that the assistance will not be exploited for political purposes or mismanaged.
Analysts suspect that the Belarusian authorities will agree to such demands in theory but not in practice.
"The Belarusian authorities may portray the new strategy of the European Union and the programmes directed towards democratisation of society as confirmation that Europe approves of its political policies," said the director of the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Research, Oleg Manaev.
The authorities? failure to comply with EU assistance conditions was in evidence in the Nineties. Most of Brussels' TACIS programme for Belarus was closed down in 1997 after Minsk repeatedly failed to comply with union requirements.
"The European Union already has experience of working with Belarus," said Igor Lyalkov, an historian and expert on non-governmental organisations. "The TACIS programme [was] frozen because the Belarusian side could not fulfil the requirements on democratisation made by the EU."
Analysts are also concerned that the government will use the EU?s planned education and culture funds for other purposes.
"The European programmes involve a great deal of money,? said Lyalkov. ?It is EU practice to ensure this money is implemented through official structures. Through this procedure the state gets an excellent channel to receive money. But we know full well [from past experience] what the state will use the money for."
Lyalkov was referring to frequent allegations that such projects invariably fall victim to nepotism and other forms of corruption.
The Belarusian authorities have given a cautious approval of the planned scheme, clearly wary of the strings that Brussels has attached to the initiative. "The proposals which are being developed by the EU are cause for analysis and doubt from our side," said the speaker of the lower house of parliament Vadim Popov.
The government wariness reflects its rather strained relations with the West.
Last week, the Belarus interior ministry rejected a visa application from the OSCE?s media representative, Freimut Duve. He had planned to meet representatives of privately owned newspapers and public organisations.
"It is well know that our organisation is disliked in Minsk," said Duve in an interview with the Belarusian news agency BelaPAN. "I have also never hidden my disappointment about the development of the situation in Belarus."
In early August, German citizen Jan Busch, a member of Germany's ruling Social Democratic party, was deported. He had led a youth project in Belarus financed by the EU. The charges against him included attempting to destabilise Belarusian society.
Brussels? education and culture initiative is all about trying to draw Belarus into the European family. But Minsk, which is comfortable with its isolationism, is little interested in this, although it is quite happy to receive technical and financial assistance so long as it doesn't have to comply with too many conditions.
"Integration programmes that bring the country closer to the European community are not profitable to the current government of Belarus," said political scientist Vladimir Podgol.
"It only welcomes projects which increase control and raise additional barriers with EU countries. The authorities are proud to fence themselves off from a united Europe."
Irina Levshina is a journalist for the information agency BelaPAN.
This article originally appeared in Belarus Reporting Service, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, http://www.iwpr.net/on September 3, 2003.
By Irina Levshina in Minsk This article appeared in
Belarusian Review, Vol. 15, No 4
Copyright 2003 Belarusian Review
All rights reserved.