Question: How do you assess the state of local and regional self-government in Belarus today?
Miroslav KOBASA: In Belarus the concept applied is one of state-run local self-government. Local councils are the representative state authorities. Overall state interests prevail over the interests of the citizen. In reality citizens are kept out of the process of preparing and taking decisions at local level. Local councils and territorial public self-administration bodies have no proper influence over questions of local importance. All matters of the everyday life of citizens are decided by bodies of state administration (executive committees), which are not supervised by or accountable to citizens. The process of preparing and adopting decisions is not transparent, and people receive very little in the way of information on the activities of local authorities. In many fundamental aspects Belarus legislation on local self-government does not comply with the principles and standards of the European Charter of local self-government.
Question: In your view, what steps need to be taken to improve the situation at local and regional levels, and what help can the Congress of the Council of Europe provide in this connection?
Miroslav KOBASA: In our view, Belarus needs a reform of its system of local self-government based on the principles and standards of the European Charter of local self-government. This is a strategic, long-term task, and a corresponding political decision will be required.
The reform could begin with three initial steps:
1) Drawing up and adopting a Blueprint for the reform of local self-government in the Republic of Belarus
Such a document must include the following sections:
· description of a model system of local self-government;
· justification and arguments for the solutions proposed;
· phases, mechanisms and financing of the reform.
As an official document the Blueprint would have all-round impact and importance:
· clearly designated aims, tasks and means of achieving them in the short, medium and long term will help make the transformation process evolutive and manageable;
· it will generate a comprehensible, transparent policy of the Republic of Belarus in the area of local self-government, enhancing the country's international image and broadening and strengthening its political and economic potential;
· it will activate the country's domestic academic, economic and human potential, and society will be given impetus for progressive development.
To prepare the Blueprint we need a real assessment of the state of local self-government in the Republic of Belarus as compared with the principles and standards of the European Charter of local self-government, and we believe we need assistance from the Congress here. Congress experts could prepare the corresponding report on Belarus.
The Congress could also provide assistance with preparing the Blueprint in the form of information and consultancy.
2) Creating an Association of local and regional authorities of Belarus
For this we need to create the corresponding legislative basis and also run a series of seminars, conferences and round tables to discuss the aims, tasks, working methods and funding of the Association. The experience accumulated by Council of Europe member States is of great relevance and interest to Belarusian specialists. Congress assistance in passing that experience on through consultancy, exchanges of information and the organisation of study visits would be both desirable and useful.
3) Guaranteeing openness and transparency in local authority activities
The closed nature of the process of preparing and taking decisions at local level creates an artificial barrier between authority and citizens, facilitates corruption and other abuses of power, deprives citizens of social and public involvement and gives rise to mistrust and discontent.
We believe that one of the first steps has to entail action geared to guaranteeing the principle of openness and transparency and also to practically implementing the right of citizens to receive and disseminate information. It is necessary to improve legislation in this respect but also to work with both local officials and citizens to heighten their legal knowledge and legal culture.
The Congress has taken a whole host of decisions aimed at these issues. Expert assistance would be most useful for Belarusian specialists.
Question: Where do you see possibilities for cooperation between the Congress of the Council of Europe and local and regional authorities in Belarus? What can the municipalities and regions of your country gain from this cooperation?
Miroslav KOBASA: When answering the previous question I mentioned a number of possible thrusts for cooperation and I would like to add another one here, involving at least political and mental aspects.
Politically speaking, cooperation must ultimately lead Belarus to membership of the Council of Europe. And, in my opinion, this is a real and fairly short-term prospect.
Regarding the mental aspect, the essence of the problem lies in a different understanding of certain phenomena (such as the genesis of local self-government and the idea behind it). And that is quite a major issue as it requires us to rethink certain tenets that were previously hard and fast and not open to dispute.
Nevertheless, I believe that there is no alternative to cooperation. Time and patience are needed, and there will be results, including real and effective local self-government in which citizens' interests come first!