Tense relations between Poland and Belarus see no sign of abating


Tensions between Poland and its neighbour Belarus have sharply increased as the authoritarian regime of Belarus President Viktor Lukashenko steps up its campaign against the Polish minority living in the country. Belarus police have arrested leaders of an ethnic Polish organization and Polish politicians have been warned against travelling to the country. Belarus under Lukashenko is often described as Europe's last dictatorship.

Relations between Poland and the neighboring ex-Soviet republic Belarus have taken another plunge after a series of expulsions of diplomats by both sides and the outlawing of the Union of Poles in Belarus. The controversy over the organization's new, democratically elected leaders has been simmering for several months now, with Minsk determined to replace them with people handpicked by the Belarus president and Warsaw responding with support for the union and the 400,000 strong Polish minority in Belarus. The latest spate of arrests shows how determined the Lukashenko regime is to make the ethnic Poles toe the line and intimidate the independent-minded people. That is why Polish politicians feel it is important that not just Poland took a stance on human rights abuses in Belarus.

Polish Speaker of Parliament Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz doesn't mince words when he talks about the present state of Polish-Belarus relations:

"We try not to over react, but on the other hand, some steps are unfortunately necessary when they expelled more and more Polish diplomats. I hoped this would be stopped, but I cannot exclude a pessimistic negative scenario which may even result in closing diplomatic representations of both countries in our capitals."

The European Union shares Poland's view that the situation is serious and requires an international reaction. The EU Commission spokesman Amadeu Tardio conveyed this message of concern about Belarus human rights record and support for the Polish minority:

"This is a very clear and strong message to the centre, to the Belarus authorities and also to the Polish minority. It is a message of support, it is a message of concern. It is a message addressing the fundamental rights that are being questioned there."

The EU may finance independent broadcasts to Belarus to give its people a source of information not controlled by the state, which has stepped up a campaign against Poland and the West accusing them of plotting an uprising in Belarus and attempts to overthrow president Lukashenko. Political analyst Krzysztof Mularczyk says it is not surprising that Poland is such a thorn in Lukashenko's back:

"It's all about the influence that Poland and Poles can exercise. He's already got a country that he feels unfriendly towards - Poland - on his borders. Now he's got the Ukraine, which also he will have poor relations with. And he's beginning to feel encircled and he, like many authoritarians, wants to have an enemy who he can fight. I think he's identified the Polish minority as something that he can sell as an internal threat within Belarus and try to build up some kind of false national unity against encroachment from the west."

Belarus does not have a strong civil society and its dissidents are few. Today, those opposed to the regime are increasingly seeking refuge in Poland, like this teacher in her thirties. She says that in her country it is just not possible to speak your mind.

"Belarusian dissidents live in terror. There's high unemployment in Belarus, but if you openly say you are against the Lukeshenko regime, you simply lose your job."

Krzysztof Mularczyk says that there are things that can be done to make president Lukashenko think twice before continuing his present line.

"Obviously they are connected with finding forms of sanctions that would hurt the current regime and also things that will help the democratic opposition in Belarus such as funding and assisting in independent broadcasting into Belarus."

But there are those who wonder whether the latest series of tit for tat moves between Warsaw and Minsk can in any way lead Belarus toward democracy. Even Belarusian refugees in Poland admit that the opposition is weak in Belarus and the very identity of the Belarusian nation is in danger. The Belarusian language, they say, had been virtually wiped out under Stalin's rule and it was replaced by a very similar Russian language. Since the vast majority of the Republic's population are Russian speakers, they now admit they feel just as much at home in Russia.