Drawing on its own experience, Poland takes lead on Belarus crackdown

January 21, 2011

WARSAW -

With an authoritarian crackdown in Belarus showing no sign of letting up, neighboring Poland has emerged as a vocal counterweight to what strikes many here as a frightening return to a Soviet past.

In a historic twist, Warsaw, itself once a center of repression and of stirring resistance, has taken the lead in calling for a strong and concerted European response to the raids, arrests and other heavy-handed measures taken over the past month by a regime led by Alexander Lukashenko, who was sworn in Friday to a new five-year term as president.

With Belarus next door, Poland's concerns are immediate and deeply felt - even more so than those of the United States, which has sharply criticized Lukashenko and boycotted his inauguration but has not made the crackdown in Belarus a priority.

After a December election in which Belarusan officials reported that Lukashenko received 80 percent of the vote, police rounded up demonstrators, and seven of Lukashenko's nine opponents were arrested. Hundreds have been detained for 10 or 15 days; others face criminal charges that could bring up to 15 years in prison.

"We haven't witnessed such intense repressions for many, many years," said Richard Tyszkiewicz, chairman of the Polish parliament's House Group on Belarus. "And it seems as though it's becoming permanent."

A veteran of Poland's Solidarity movement who twice went to prison in the 1980s, he said it's impossible not to see parallels between Poland then and Belarus now.

"The key is to maintain space for the opposition," he said. "It's important for them to stay in Belarus and survive there. And it's important that they know they have European support, because they have to be ready for difficult times."

Actions and reactions

Poland is pushing its European Union partners to impose a travel ban on a long list of Belarusan officials, and on Thursday the E.U. parliament adopted a resolution calling on their governments to do just that. Poland also supports the freezing of overseas bank accounts held by those officials - much the way the United States has sought to bring pressure to bear on North Korea.

At an E.U. conference next month, Poland will unveil additional proposals, said Henryk Litwin, the Polish foreign ministry official in charge of Belarusan policy.

The government here is also supporting two radio stations and a satellite television channel that beam news and other information into Belarus, even as their in-country reporters face harassment and confiscation of equipment. Financial assistance for civil society organizations in Belarus has been doubled, and the visa fee has been dropped for ordinary Belarusan citizens - while Lukashenko and a large circle of officials under him have been barred.

Arts groups, too, have stepped up. Polish radio and several private organizations sponsored a benefit concert Sunday in Warsaw, called "Hear Belarus: Culture Against Dictatorship," featuring bands from across the border. One band set to music poems written by Vladimir Neklyayev, a defeated presidential candidate who was beaten on election night, hospitalized, then abducted from his hospital bed. He is now in jail and could face up to 15 years in prison.

"We don't need war, of course," Litwin said, "only a clear message that in the center of Europe in the beginning of the 21st century, it's impossible to use aggression against a people, against a society."

Taste of democracy

Poland, with Germany, engaged in months of talks with Lukashenko before the election, discussing ways to work toward better relations. During this time, Lukashenko allowed opposition candidates to campaign against him, even on Belarusan television.

Despite the crackdown that followed, Polish officials don't think that was a naive or wasted exercise on their part. It gave politicians outside the regime a chance to make their cases to the public. It gave Belarusans a taste of what a democracy could be like.

Lukashenko's government has since accused Poland and Germany of trying to topple the regime; that suggests that it isn't looking for dialogue anytime soon.

On Thursday, he was defiant, telling a political conference, "We are not going to bend for anyone, nor will I let anyone bend us," according to the Interfax news agency. "We have been there before. If Europe, America and someone else try to step on the rake for the second time - God help them."

But at his inauguration Friday, ignored by E.U. ambassadors as well as the U.S. charge d'affaires, Lukashenko talked about Belarus being a bridge between the United States and Western Europe on one side and Russia on the other. Belarus and Russia are in a dispute over taxes on oil shipments, and the state-owned Russian pipeline company Transneft said Friday that it was rerouting oil away from refineries in Belarus.

'Civil society will be dead'

Ales Byalyatski, who heads the Viasna Human Rights Center in Minsk, which was raided Dec. 19, said during a visit to Warsaw that the crackdown has vastly increased support among ordinary people for his and similar organizations.

But he also said he hopes that Poland and its Western allies, including the United States, will not be lulled into relaxing their guard, even if the worst of the government's repressions begin to ebb.

"In six months, at this rate, civil society will be dead," he said.

European Radio for Belarus, which, with support from Poland and six other donors, works out of a cramped townhouse in southern Warsaw, aims to keep that society going.

About half of the radio station's 29 employees are based in Minsk, the Belarusan capital; KGB agents raided their office there Dec. 25 and hauled away much of the station's equipment, said Dzmitry Novikau, the ERB president. Using a couple of laptops, ERB stayed on the air.

ERB transmits over the air to the western part of Belarus; listeners everywhere can stream it from the Internet or pick it up with a TV satellite dish. In addition to broadcasting reports by its staff, the station turns to "experts" in Belarus who have information to share.

On Dec. 19, after police broke up the big post-election demonstration in Minsk, ERB broadcast live phone calls from people in police detention.

Franak Viacorka, an independent blogger, was clubbed by a police officer at the demonstration, but friends spirited him away. He went into hiding but was found and arrested Dec. 29; he thinks that a cellphone call was traced.

Released last week, he made his way to Warsaw. He said he shared a 6-by-10-foot cell with up to 14 other people, sleeping by turn, with a hole in the floor for a toilet. When he got out, he said, the KGB warned him that it wouldn't let him off so easy the next time.

"What people now need is information," he said.

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