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Unquiet in the east

Posted by Helen Friday, August 05, 2005

Unnoted by most of the British media and, indeed, by the high panjandrums of the EU common foreign policy (it is August, I suppose) a potentially very difficult situation has been developing in the east, specifically between Poland and Belarus.

Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarus President probably for life, is generally described as Europe’s last dictator, though there are still one or two runners up for that position.

Certainly, he has been cracking down on all possible opposition to his rule. Prominent opposition personalities have been disappearing for some time, organizations have been closed down and, according to Agata Wierzbowska-Miazga, an expert on Belarus at the Warsaw Centre for Eastern Studies:

“The state administration of Belarus owns nearly all office spaces in the country and refuses to rent them to the opposition.”
Or anyone they consider to be the opposition. The latest crack-down came on the Union of Poles. There are about 400,000 Poles in Belarus, which amounts to something like 5 per cent of the population. About 20,000 of them belong to the Union, there to foster cultural, linguistic and ethnic identity.

The problem from President Lukashenko’s point of view is that part of that identity are links with Poland, that has become a democratic country, a member of NATO and, more recently, of the EU. Not that the latter makes any difference. The Poles, having had to fight for their own freedom, are ready to lend a hand to other people in the area.

Last year, during the momentous events in Ukraine it was Presidents Kwasniewski of Poland and Adamkus of Lithuania who helped to negotiate the transition. Chancellor Schröder refused to intervene, calling upon Javier Solana to represent the EU and he merely ran around wringing his hands and calling for stability.

At the time Lukashenko announced firmly that these nasty ideas of freedom and democracy will never penetrate the border of Belarus but now he is finding that the borders are a little too porous to ideas.

Having destroyed most of the Belarussian opposition, Lukashenko’s KGB turned its attention to the Poles, who had the temerity to vote out its Minsk “quisling” leader of the Union and elect one that was more in tune with the members’s opinions. Up with this Alexander Lukashenko would not put.

The KGB swooped down and tried to harass the members of the Union, arresting Veslaw Kewlyak, the deputy chairman, for “illegally” meeting a visiting member of the Polish parliament. The chairman, Angelica Boris, protested and the protest was taken up by Uladzimir Kobets, one of the leaders of an independent movement campaigning for democracy and freedom.
“Lukashineo is cracking down on any independent voices just as the opposition is trying to agree on a single cnadidate to run in the elections next year. The authorities are also trying to create ethnic divisions to break the unity of the opposition.”
Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Jan Truszczynski, condemned the crack-down and Poland recalled its ambassador. There have been a few tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats.

Lukashenko is looking to Russia for support against the wicked West and he may not look in vain, though President Putin is not likely to risk an outright breach with other European countries over Belarus.

But his own politics is going towards the more authoritarian. Having effectively gained control over the entire media in Russia, abolished elections for regional governors, ensured that no independent member of the Duma can be elected, President Putin has been rounding up any potential opposition candidates.

Having successfully imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky, he has turned his attention to former Prime Minister Kasyanov, who is being accused of various financial misdemeanours. His real crime is a vaguely expressed possibility of standing in the next presidential elections.

In a gesture somewhat reminiscent of the old days, the Russian government has expelled the American broadcasting company ABC, for televising an interview with the Chechen terrorist leader Shamil Basayev. Given the Russian lack of success in dealing with Chechnya, they might be better advised to listen to the interview and try to understand how to overcome the problem. Assassination of more moderate leaders who were inclined to negotiation has not proved to be the answer. Neither has massacre of whole villages or dubious rescue operations that leave more dead bodies in their wake.

Meanwhile, Poland has called on the EU to express its opinion about Belarus and to impose some sanctions. And, indeed, according to Gregory Quinn, Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy in Minsk, the EU is on the job:
“The EU is keeping a close eye on the issue. It is very concerned about what is going on.”
Good-oh. To be fair, it must be a rotten job to be a diplomat in Minsk.

Others in the EU have described the whole palaver as being bilateral. Excuse me? I thought the concept of bilateral foreign relations between EU member states and other countries is disappearing and we are all going to have the jolly old common foreign policy, having a stronger voice in the world, don’t you know.

Apparently not. As with Ukraine or Moldova, so with Belarus, when it comes to countries on the border of the EU, it has nothing to say. This takes one back to the whole problem of the common European foreign policy, which is impossible to define as there are no common foreign European interests.

The new East European members know how they feel about the post-Soviet republics and where their interest lies. The rest of the EU is not so clear on the subject, being rather too inclined to be nice to President Putin, who is, after all, a power in the land and a force for “stability”.

The EU and its foreign policy high panjandrum, Javier Solana, are good at pronouncing on subjects that are of little concern and at making vast plans for European rapid reaction forces that will take peace and prosperity to many different parts of the world. So far there are 800 troops in DR Congo and their role remains of doubtful benefit.

However, when it comes to matters close at hand, such as developments in the former Soviet empire, a silence descends, broken by the odd murmur of “there, there, I am sure it can all be sorted out”. Beyond wishing to stand up to the Americans, the EU continues to have no foreign policies, which would not matter, if it were not the case that the desire to build up this wretched structure is stifling our own foreign policy and breaking up anything remotely resembling a Western alliance.