Swiss aid to Belarus continues despite misgivings

Belarus activists with pictures of people who have disappeared under Lukashenko's regime Keystone Archive

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) is pursuing its humanitarian work in Belarus despite misgivings about the country's regime.

This content was published on April 13, 2003 - 10:43

The agency says the need to help the population, particularly in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, overrides any political considerations.

Belarus has been described as Europe's "last Stalinist dictatorship" by the Wall Street Journal, but the SDC believes it must continue its work in country.

President Alexander Lukashenko has been accused of using strong-arm tactics to remain in power and of silencing any opposition. According to the US State department, widespread human and civil rights violations were committed in the lead-up to the 2001 presidential election.

Opposition political figures have also disappeared without a trace, and security forces have regularly detained citizens arbitrarily.

Amnesty International says that hundreds of people have been held for peaceful opposition activities, adding that many detainees suffer ill treatment.

Humanitarian aid

Walter Fust, head of the SDC, told swissinfo that Switzerland was only offering humanitarian aid to Belarus.

"So far, there is no programme for technical cooperation and financial aid," he said. "The necessary conditions for sustainable development and transition haven't been met so far, and that has a lot to do with politics."

Humanitarian and disaster cooperation, prevention and relief - the current focuses of the SDC's activities in Belarus - are on the other hand not bound to political considerations, according to Fust.

"Helping people is foremost in our minds, and not the political system," he said.

The head of the SDC, who travelled recently to Belarus, adds that many people there have trouble understanding Western hostility towards their country, since Lukashenko seems to be quite popular at home.

Fust believes that Europe and the rest of the world shouldn't focus on the person of the president, but look at the country's role in a wider context.

"Sooner or later, Belarus will have to clarify its relationship with its neighbours and adapt its economy," he told swissinfo. "I think it will be in the interest of all of Europe to assist Belarus rather than be against it."

Chernobyl disaster

One of the main focuses of the SDC's work in Belarus has been helping the population overcome the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in neighbouring Ukraine in 1986.

Last year, the agency spent SFr1 million ($720,000) on various projects related to the Chernobyl catastrophe. It supported the activities of the Green Cross in the areas contaminated by radioactivity, and offered financial aid to a district hospital.

The SDC also helped to launch a Chernobyl information website, which is supposed to be "a manifesto against forgetting".

The agency has also lent its support to Belarus' disaster management training centre.

Dealing with disasters

"All the former Soviet republics need to build up their capacities to deal with disasters," said Fust. "Belarus has an excellent training centre, so that's why we decided to support it."

The SDC expects to continue supporting these various activities, and could even consider expanding its presence in Belarus, according to its director.

"We have every reason to increase our activities, especially if you consider Chernobyl," Fust told swissinfo. "We have only reached the halfway point as far as the consequences of that disaster are concerned.

"The international community has to show more solidarity, so we are going to expand our efforts to mobilise international support for the population."

Remembering Berezina

Recently, the SDC also helped to set up new monument to the victims of the battle of Berezina, which took place during Napoleon's failed attempt to invade Russia. At least 1,000 Swiss soldiers were among the dead.

Fust says this type of action fits well with his agency's work in Belarus.

"Berezina was the battle with the most victims in such a small area," he said. "And while there a whole series of monuments, there was none paying tribute to the dead in a humanitarian spirit, so we decided to make a contribution."

Fust points out that all the victims from all sides are buried in one spot, soldiers and civilians side by side.

"This makes it not just a Swiss-Belarus issue, but a highly international one," the agency director told swissinfo.

"People from all over Europe are interested in Berezina. If they are prepared to meet and discuss the past together, then perhaps there's a chance they will also talk about the future."

swissinfo, Scott Capper

Key facts

Belarus has been independent since 1991.
The SDC has been working with local partners there since 1993, and set up a field office two years ago.
The agency spent SFr1 million last year on various Chernobyl-related projects.

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In brief

Western governments and non-governmental organisations have accused the Belarus authorities of not respecting democratic rules and human rights abuses.

President Alexander Lukashenko is believed to have done away with some of his political opponents.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation has said it will pursue its humanitarian and disaster relief work in Belarus despite political misgivings.

The SDC's work there focuses mainly on helping the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear accident and disaster prevention for the region.

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