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angle-left null The wheel turning in a vacuum
17 September 2019

The wheel turning in a vacuum

Belarus – 2001-2019


Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR, the Council of Europe underwent a wave of expansion, unprecedented in its rhythm and scale, such that today almost all European countries are member states. Belarus is the one exception. Its application for membership has been frozen since 1996 due to the authoritarian nature of the regime and the state’s use of capital punishment. Nevertheless, co-operation between the Council of Europe and Belarus has never stopped. This is notwithstanding the ups and downs, promises and retractions, and the procession of hopes and disappointments that co-operation entails.

I was not expecting a carriage with rows of wooden benches and open windows. The train before, which had brought me and my expert to the border, had been nothing unusual for a regional train, with deep and comfortable first-class seats that were grey in colour – the colour that was still so dominant in that part of Europe at the time. Where were we headed? To the city of Brest, which some people still remembered by its old name of Brest-Litovsk, the place where the peace treaty between the German Empire and the young Russian Bolshevik republic had been signed on 3 March 1918.

While waiting for our connecting train, I had taken a stroll along the street opposite the station, enjoying the warmth of the sunshine while taking care to avoid the stalls set up on the pavement, which were piled up with household utensils and plastic toys made in China, containers and flasks of washing powder, soap and other cheap toiletries, second-hand clothes and, as if to brighten things up, the odd bucketful of freshly picked wild strawberries or blackcurrants. I had bought some fruit wrapped up in a newspaper cornet.

Back then in spring 2001, Poland had not yet been admitted to the European Union and entry visas were not required for citizens of the neighbouring country, who came there to buy basic necessities which were much cheaper than at home in Belarus. No visas were needed, but these two countries at the heart of Europe were worlds apart. While one had embraced the values championed by the Council of Europe, the other had moved away from them one day in November 1996 when President Lukashenko had de facto granted himself the possibility of never-ending rule and voters had confirmed their commitment to the death penalty in a referendum. The referendum was supposed to have remained purely advisory; instead, however, the president used it to amend the constitution without parliamentary approval.

I began my career at the Council of Europe in 1999 at the unit in the Human Rights Directorate which, at the time, was called the Activities for the Development and Consolidation of Democratic Stability (ADACS) section, set up to help central and east European countries, which were then new member states or still applicants for membership, to comply with the undertakings that stemmed from membership of the Organisation. The term used then was assistance but, over the years, assistance changed to co-operation. After an initial official journey to Minsk, where I had met women and men dedicated to transforming their country into a democratic state that respected human rights and officials who understood perfectly well, and perhaps with some regret, the consequences of the 1996 referendum, I had the slightly crazy and ambitious idea of holding a series of seminars to promote the abolition of the death penalty among judges, prosecutors, lawyers, investigators and civil society representatives. A human rights activist in Minsk, whose day job was research in the field of nanophysics, was the Council of Europe’s partner in this undertaking which would take me with a group of faithful experts to fairly unexpected places all over the country.

Hope and disappointments

Implementing an activity in Belarus was not an easy task, as the blinkered bureaucracy of the Council and the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the Lukashenko regime did not go well together. The finance officer had asked me why I wanted to transfer money to Belarus, when the activity I was arranging would be taking place in Brittany. And my partner had to go to the presidential administration on several days in succession to obtain the necessary stamp to release the funds which we had sent for holding the activities. The only person authorised to affix the stamp concerned had been an official who was away on a military exercise and nobody could say when he would be back in his office.

Our train was ready to leave, standing on tracks with a gauge that led resolutely eastwards. We managed to find two seats on one of the slatted benches that had been worn down by the thousands of people who had gone before us. We were quickly surrounded by women of all ages whose bags were full of shopping that would be sold to neighbours or colleagues. It was a completely female activity. The only men on board the train were in uniform and were checking passports.

Our bench had attracted a lot of people and curious gazes. My expert did not look very reassured and was cursing the Council of Europe travel agency for buying us tickets with which we had to change trains. For my part, I was laughing. The weather was fine, the wild strawberries had been delicious – my companion had refused to try them because they had not been washed and he thought Chernobyl was not far away – and the next day we were to be met by people whom we were going to win over to the Council of Europe’s values. The beginner that I still was believed that we were so close, and that they would listen to our unassailable arguments.

If you wish to continue your reading, you may buy the book "Europe: a human enterprise".

Tatiana is a Parisian, of former Yugoslav origin. A lawyer by training, she started her professional career in the United Nations in 1993 as part of the team led by Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Special Rapporteur for the former Yugoslavia. From 1995 to 1998, she worked for the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). She joined the Council of Europe in 1999 and took over responsibility for co-operation programmes aiming at supporting member states in the implementation of European standards. Tatiana is presently the Head of the Co-ordination and International Co-operation Division within the Council of Europe’s Directorate General of Human Rights and Rule of Law. Since 2017 her responsibilities have included co-ordination with other international institutions, notably the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights.