A licence to unleash repression

http://www.dw-world.de/image/0,,2821891_4,00.jpgBy Vitali Silitski

In targeting ethnic Poles, the Belarusian authorities are testing how far they can go before the EU takes a tougher line.

When the Belarusian authorities launched an offensive against the country's ethnic-Polish community five years ago, it proved a prelude to an all-out campaign of political repression that culminated in the notoriously fraudulent presidential ballot of March 2006.

Since January, the Belarusian authorities have again been targeting opposition-minded ethnic Poles, using similar methods - jailing leaders, detaining supporters, breaking up rallies and confiscating property. Again, a presidential ballot is just a year away. Could this new offensive on Belarus's 'Polish Front' be a sign that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is intending a broader rollback of the feeble process of liberalisation begun in 2008, when he released all political prisoners?

It is not clear yet if that is his intention, but this campaign is undoubtedly an effort to control a group of disloyal, democratically minded citizens at a sensitive time.

Belarusian Poles are well integrated into Belarusian society (see box), but they differ from the majority in one key respect: their civic culture is more westernised.

But crackdowns against Poles inevitably assume an international dimension. In 2005-06, Lukashenka was provoking Poland, in order to prevent Poland emerging as an honest broker in another 'colour revolution', as it had in Ukraine, when Poland's then-president Aleksander Kwasniewski negotiated an end to the Orange Revolution. This time, the context is radically different. Belarus is engaged in a political dialogue with the EU and has joined its Eastern Partnership programme. It also needs the EU: Belarus has requested financial assistance from the EU to supplement International Monetary Fund programmes. So why is Lukashenka doing something that riles Poland and threatens Belarus's relationship with the EU?

In the case of Poland, a simple rationale can be extracted. The current government in Poland has been a strong advocate of dialogue with Belarus. The harassment therefore marks a defeat for Polish diplomacy, for the governing Civic Platform (PO) and personally for its foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, a frontrunner to become Poland's next president. It is a defeat that critics are now harping upon and that opponents of PO will use this autumn or winter when President Lech Kaczynski, a leader of the opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party and critic of dialogue with Minsk, stands for re-election.

This demonstrates Minsk's objections to Poland's current leadership. But it does not mean it is rejecting dialogue with the EU.

Search for compromise

During much of the diplomatic sparring with Poland, Lukashenka was secluded somewhere in Switzerland (holidaying or undergoing medical treatment, the speculation ran). Since his return in late February, he has commented on the issue only sporadically, and in an unusually calm manner. Moreover, at Viktor Yanukovych's inauguration as Ukraine's president on 25 February, Lukashenka met Sikorski and agreed to establish a bilateral group to find compromise solutions.

Lukashenka's decision to show some willingness to compromise suggests one of two things about this episode. First, that some elements in the regime acted without Lukashenka's full sanction (unlikely perhaps, given Lukashenka's authority, but not impossible). Or, secondly, that Lukashenka's game against the EU is not working out quite as planned.

But, if the latter applies, what was Lukashenka's game-plan? And what has gone wrong?

Lukashenka does not want to irritate the EU so much that Belarus is plunged back into isolation, but he has always maintained that Belarus's dialogue with the EU is unconditional and imposes no obligations. At the very least, his attack on the Union of Poles is intended to test, early in the pre-election phase, how far he can go before the EU reacts.

He does not expect the EU to break off its dialogue. He expects the EU once again to be divided and indecisive in its response - and if it is indecisive, he will have gained: dialogue will continue without pre-conditions and he will have restricted domestic opponents. Experience suggested that taking a step that would prompt Warsaw to beat the drum for sanctions would be an ideal means of dividing the EU: in 2005, every statement from Warsaw - from Lech Kaczynski, his twin brother Jaroslaw and their PiS party - seemed to be met with irritation and frustration further west.

However, this attempt to divide the EU is not playing so well this time. Poland has recovered credibility and respect on the European scene under its new government. Secondly, there are signs that the EU may be nearing a united position - tellingly, the first EU country to express complete solidarity with Warsaw's position was France, the archetypal representative of 'old' Europe. If Lukashenka is seeking to split 'old' and 'new' Europe, he may fail on this occasion.

Unusual co-operation

Lukashenka may have understood the signs. Atypically, he personally is not publicly lambasting Poland. And, remarkably, Minsk's general tendency in recent weeks has been to accommodate its EU neighbours. For example, at the request of Lithuanian prosecutors, the Belarusian authorities have interrogated a serving general, Valery Uskhopchik, for his role - as commander of the Soviet garrison in Vilnius - in the massacre of January 1991 during the Moscow-backed attempt to end Lithuania's self-declared independence from the Soviet Union.

Such unusual co-operation suggests Minsk needs more friends in the EU. And no wonder, since financial assistance from the EU to Belarus requires the unanimous backing of the EU's member states. Moreover, the current conflict has already cost Belarus money: the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development put all projects in Belarus on hold until this episode is resolved.

This episode does not mean the EU's policy of dialogue has failed. It does, though, show that Belarus takes the EU's current strategy - dialogue coupled with concessions and soft, cajoling words - as a licence to unleash repression whenever it wants or needs.

The EU should show Minsk it is wrong. The EU has unprecedented leverage now, as Lukashenka's signs of hesitation and uncertainty underline. It should use that leverage. It should in essence re-launch its strategy with Belarus, this time with real conditions.

Vitali Silitski is the head of the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies, an independent think-tank.


The Belarusian authorities' battle with the Union of Poles in Belarus is not, and never was, an ethnic issue, but rather a civic one. Lukashenka's government has not abused the linguistic and cultural rights of the Belarusian Poles (who, in fact, tend to speak Belarusian between themselves; indeed, they do so much more often than other Belarusians do). Belarus's 400,000 or so ethnic Poles, about 4% of Belarus's 9.7 million people, are a vital part of the opposition leadership, media and cultural elites - but they are also fully integrated into the mainstream of society, government and business.

To weaken the Poles' non-conformist civic ethic, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2005 orchestrated the removal of the opposition-minded leader of the Union of Poles of Belarus (ZPB), Andzelika Borys, closed the ZPB down and cloned a loyalist faction in its stead, the Union of Belarusian Poles (ZBP).

The ZPB survives as an organisation under Borys's leadership and Warsaw recognises it as the sole legitimate representative of Belarus's ethnic Poles. But the ZPB is not recognised by Minsk and its members have routinely been harassed, arrested and interrogated. The 2005conflict reduced contacts between Minsk and Warsaw to almost zero, and was one of the reasons why in 2006 the EU froze the assets of top Belarusian officials and imposed a visa ban on them.

The clash flared up again in January when the pro-government ZBP demanded that the ZPB hand over a building acquired in 1999 by the ZPB in the town of Ivyanets, near Minsk. Riot police took over the court building before the hearing and the court promptly satisfied the ZBP's suit. In addition, Borys and her company have been fined (on unrelated and questionable charges), three other ZPB officials have been jailed, dozens of others have been detained briefly, and ZPB rallies broken up.

One compromise proposed by some politicians in Warsaw is to give both Unions of Poles the same right to exist.
European Voice