Saturday, July 30, 2005

Domino Theory Revisited? 

This is one to watch - there is a low level cold war developing between Central Europe's largest democracy and Eastern Europe's last remaining Soviet holdover quasi-dictatorship. One of Chrenkoff readers, Alex, takes a closer look.

Hidden from the front-pages of the mass-media, a struggle has been taking place between Poland and Belarus over the issue of human rights. It is focused on the fate of Belarus's large Polish minority of around 400,000 people, approximately 4% of the general population - and the organization representing it, the Union of Poles in Belarus (UPB).

The latest incident occurred early in the morning of 27 July when about 30 officers of the OMON special forces broke into the union's offices in the western Belarus town of Grodno. Around 20 persons inside were arrested, including the new chairman of the UPB and two journalists from the main Polish daily "Gazeta Wyborcza". As one witness recalled: "At first, the building was encircled by police cars. Then police demanded everybody leave the building. When nobody agreed, special forces stormed the building."

The former chairman of UPB, who had been supportive of the Belarusian autocrat-president Lukaszenko, and who had been dismissed by the last UPB Congress this past spring, has been given back the control of the building by OMON.

This incident caused the Polish government, on Thursday (28 July) to temporarily recall its ambassador to Belarus and to urge the European Union to impose sanctions on the leadership of the country.

The same-day response, from the Belarus Foreign Ministry's press service: "Today'’s decision of the Polish authorities to recall their ambassador from Minsk shows that Poland is pursuing a policy aimed at exacerbating and suspending its relations with Belarus"

The 27 July raid on UPB is just another action by the authoritarian regime of Belarus's president, Alexander Lukashenko, to maintain power at any cost. The regime's view is that everyone other than Russia is "out to get it", especially the "old enemy" of Russia's, Poland. This is a view shared by parties in Moscow.

Lukashenko is worried that Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine have been giving aid to the pro-Democracy forces in Belarus, and that his regime will be the next domino to fall.

A good summary of the historical and current background material has been assembled by Angry in the Great White North.

Chrenk adds: Says the Polish Foreign Minister Rotfeld (link in Polish, my translation):
Solving these internal Belarusian problems though diplomatic means would be an inadequate strategy. Those in power in Minsk are today defending their position, which they see as being under threat. What happened in Belarus is evidence not just of weakness, but also belief that power is slipping out of the government's grasp. To put it briefly, if the Belarusian president Alexander Lukaszenko says that he is acting in defence of the Belarusian nation, in reality he's defending that nation against itself. I have the impression that Lukaszenko believes that the government doesn't have as much support as it enjoyed a few years ago.
Pretty strong words; one doesn't hear often in the world of European diplomacy.

The Union of Poles in Belarus has been the virtually the last strong community organization with any degree of independence from the government. Lukaszenko has accused the Polish minority of "fomenting revolution". Democracy and the rule of law, more likely, but these are also dangerous concepts in Belarus today.

Says Poland's deputy Foreign Minister, Jan Truszczynski: "Belarus is one of the last bastions of authoritarianism in Europe. The European Union will have to deal with these crackdowns in a more effective way. There should be some form of sanctions imposed on the leadership, including a travel ban."

Poland is not happy, not just because it doesn't appreciate a crackdown on its minority in Belarus, but because it historically sees itself as the leader of the pro-democracy forces in the region. Poland has played an important international role in support of Ukraine's Orange Revolution last year; the presence of a Soviet throwback on its eastern border offends Poland's sense of historical progress.

The European Union has so far declined to go hard on Lukaszenko, opting for mild condemnations, as some of the member governments think economic concessions are the best ways to make the Minsk government respect democracy a bit more. That might change soon.


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