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The trouble in the east continues

Posted by Helen Sunday, August 28, 2005

President for life of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko is continuing in his merry way. As we have described before, his most recent target has been the Union of Poles, who had had the temerity to elect a leadership that was not subservient to President Lukashenko.

Before yesterday’s congress of the Union the police swooped again. According to Radio Polonia:

“An informal spokesman of the Polish Union Andrzej Pisalnik told Polish Radio that four independent Polish activists are in jail. One of them began a hunger strike. A journalist from the Polish Solidarnosc paper and a Belarussian reporter were arrested as well on charges of misdemeanour.”
The misdemeanour was the fact that they were heading to the congress and might report what happened there. Volkovysk, 170 miles west of Minsk, where the congress took place, was ringed by the police and cars (such as there are in Belarus) were stopped as they approached the town.

Having had their headquarters stormed by the police and its elected leadership removed forcibly, the congress this time complied with instructions and elected a new leadership in accordance with instructions. The new leader is Iosef Luchnik, a man who can be relied on to accept instructions from Minsk.

According to Reuter’s report:

“"I hope this congress will end the conflict," Tadeusz Kruchkowski,reinstated as union president after the police action, said after the meeting.

"Iosef Luchnik has long been linked to our organisation. He was behind the opening of schools with instruction in Polish. He is an authoritative figure able to talk with Belarussian and Polish authorities."”
Other members, the elected and ousted leadership as well as Polish politicians take a different view, predicting a split in the Union and further trouble between it and the Belarus government. That will probably mean further trouble between Belarus and Poland.

Poland's Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Truszczynski has already told private all-news channel TVN24 that his government will not recognize the new leadership of the Union.

The issue has had the interesting effect of uniting politicians of all colours in Poland ahead of the election next month.
“Popular centre-right leader Jan Rokita said Poland must tap into its 1980s Solidarity-era experience of toppling an oppressive regime and back a dissident movement in Belarus.

Conservative Ludwik Dorn went further, saying Poland should boycott the Union's new executive. "We should make it clear that (ousted leader Andzelia Borys) is the only partner for the Polish authorities," he told private radio Zet on Sunday.

Leftist Dariusz Szymczycha reiterated plans for Poland to set up a radio station broadcasting uncensored news to Belarus.”
One can but wonder why President Lukashenko should worry about an organization that has 400,000, hitherto largely unpolitical members. On the whole, the Polish population is in rural areas in the west of the country and has not been much involved with the ever decreasing opposition activity.

The answer is, of course, because the Polish population has links with the West through Poland, now a member of NATO and the EU. While Lukashenko would never dare to attack Poland directly, his persecution of the Union of Poles is an indirect challenge, probably approved by Russia.

There is no question but Lukashenko is afraid of western and Ukrainian influence seeping into his own country, undermining his own, as yet imperfectly established authoritarian rule. (Well, some of the opposition are still alive and even out of prison, so the rule is clearly imperfect.)

The likelihood is that he is being egged on quietly by Putin and it has been suggested, somewhat improbably, that the West should try to pressurize the latter into calling Lukashenko off. This seems an unlikely scenario, not just because the West is not much good at putting pressure on Putin but also because Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus have just announced that they are about to sign a series of documents that would create a common economic space between the three countries.

President Putin’s strategy of recreating the former Soviet political space is proceeding, though he has now lost the Baltic states, Ukraine and Georgia. Nor is Kazakhstan completely under control as it has recently announced that unlike some Central Asian republics, it was not going to ask the United States to remove its military bases.

What of the EU, one might ask at this stage. Is this not the sort of problem the common foreign policy was created for? Well, if not created exactly, at least proposed.

It seems not. Javier Solana, one assumes, is still on holiday and minor spats on the border of the EU, not to mention problems of human rights, a supposedly cardinal principle of the CFSP, remain of little concern.

The whole dispute has been described as being “bilateral”, a curiously old-fashioned term for a go-ahead, post-nation state organization like the EU. Is this not what the fragrant Margot warned us about in her infamous Terezin speech? Did she not say that such bilateral relations would bring about another Holocaust? Clearly, the fragrant Commissar was not consulted by the high panjandrums of the EU’s foreign affairs.

Eventually, prompted by Poland, the Commission did issue a statement that condemned “arbitrary use of force” and the “climate of growing political repression in Belarus”. It suggested no remedy and it is hard to see what can be done.

Economic sanctions could be imposed but there is always the argument, used with all left-wing dictatorships though not with, say, Burma, that these would hurt the population rather than the elite. There is already a half-hearted ban on visas for the leadership and all those concerned with the disappearance of opposition politicians, journalists and activists. And we all know how much that is worth. Just look at the EU’s relationship with Zimbabwe.

There is, however, no particular need to make matters worse. The EU could, for instance, stop spending money on ridiculous conferences and delegations of Young Federalists in Minsk.

Then there is the question of broadcasting to Belarus, as reported by Vladimir Socor a fortnight ago. It seems that the EU with its usual disregard for the niceties of specific situations, has allocated €138,000 a year for a radio project to broadcast unbiased news to Belarus.

Mostly it will consist of a daily 30-minute news and analysis programme, in, ahem, Russian. Nothing could please Presidents Lukashenko and Putin more than this denial of the Belarussian language. The programme is planned to be launched by Deutsche Welle in September through its own Russian-language service.
“That choice of language has been met with consternation and criticism from Belarusian democratic opposition and intelligentsia representatives. An appeal from those circles, penned by Popular Front leader Vintsuk Vyachorka and prominent analyst Vital Silitski, notes that the decision reflects a "complete misunderstanding" of the potential for revival of the democratic nation in Belarus.

Referring to the experience of post-Soviet transformation, the appeal notes, "The recovery of national identity is a key factor in the democratization of any nation."

President Alexander Lukashenka's regime understands this fact and is therefore discriminating against the Belarusian language in favor of Russian,telling the country and Europe "that the Belarusian language has no prospects and that there is no demand for it among Belarusian citizens."”
As Vladimir Socor continues:
“The EC is not known to have responded publicly. For their part, Deutsche Welle representatives defensively cite the terms of the EC's tender and contract,which only authorize funding for DW's Russian Service to launch Russian-language broadcasting to Belarus. That Service's chief, however, went further in an
interview with an independent Belarusian news agency, where she rationalized the
decision on three grounds.

First, DW has already been broadcasting a Russian-language program to Central Asia for four years. Second, broadcasting to Belarus in Russian is at least "doing something," and thus better than the alternative option of "doing nothing." And, third, "it is stupid to say that Russian is bad and Belarusian is good," the chief is cited as arguing (Belapan,August 8).

The first assertion implies that an undesirable precedent should be taken as point of reference. The second argument suggests that an inappropriate project is defensible simply for "doing something" merely because it "does something" -- a more appropriate justification for an EU-funded make-work project than for a worthy democracy-promoting effort. The third assertion would seem to obviate the need for seriously addressing the Belarusian democrats' concerns.”
So far as we know the plan is going ahead with magnificent disregard for the wishes and desires expressed by the courageous but ever weaker Belarus democratic movements.

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