Belarus opposition regroups in Poland

By Jan Cienski in Warsaw

A dozen journalists at Belsat, an independent Belarusian television channel, crowd around a large screen showing the latest news from the government's crackdown on the opposition as they plan that day's coverage - but they face no threat of arrest from the KGB.

The reason is that Belsat's newsroom lies on the fourth floor of a nondescript office building in central Warsaw, far beyond the reach of the secret police employed by Alexander Lukashenko as he tries to stamp out the opposition to his 16-year rule of the ex-Soviet republic of 10m people.

"There are no independent TV and radio stations inside Belarus, so we perform a vital function in providing the truth," says Alaksei Dzikavitski, the news director of Belsat, which receives about 90 per cent of its 23m zlotys ($7.9m) funding from the Polish government.

Under threat from Mr Lukashenko's KGB security services and police, the Belarusian opposition has been driven underground or abroad. Activists avoid large meetings - public demonstrations result in swift arrest. Instead, they are using technologies such as Skype and Facebook to try to organise inside the country, while those most at threat flee to Poland.

Those leaders not under arrest are touring European Union capitals, lobbying in favour of a re-imposition of a travel ban on senior members of the Lukashenko regime to press it to release political prisoners.

Belsat is not the only media to find a haven in Poland. Radio Racyja broadcasts from Poland to eastern Belarus, and last week the city of Warsaw promised free office space and equipment to Charter'97, an independent website that was raided by Mr Lukashenko's secret police, had its equipment confiscated and many of its staff arrested.

"It is almost impossible to work or organise on a large scale inside Belarus," says Dmitri Barodka, an opposition activist who escaped Belarus on Christmas day.

Mr Lukashenko cracked down after thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets of Minsk to protest against December's flawed presidential election. The demonstration undercut his claim that he had won almost 80 per cent in the poll, and Mr Lukashenko, known for his short temper and his large fists when he was a Soviet-era collective farm director, has returned to using force against his opponents.

In his early years in power some of Mr Lukashenko's most inconvenient opponents simply disappeared. But since 2008, in an effort to improve relations with the EU, many of the controls on the opposition were loosened. Opposition candidates even had limited access to the state media during the campaign.

But the size of the demonstration evidently spooked the regime.

Andrei Sannikov, a presidential candidate, and his wife are both under arrest and the authorities are threatening to put their three-year-old son in an orphanage. Students caught up in the demonstration face expulsion, and ordinary workers may lose their jobs in the state companies that dominate the economy.

"It looks as though the authorities have decided to deal with all of the opposition," says Ales Bialiacki, a member of the Viasna human rights group which also had its Minsk offices raided.

In response, the opposition is breaking up into smaller groups and trying to create an active underground similar to what the Poles managed to do after the declaration of martial law in 1981. "It is very popular in Belarus to make that comparison," says Alexei Yanukievich, a leader of the opposition Belarusian National Front party, speaking at a conference held at the Polish parliament.

However, the Polish opposition of the early 1980s was integrated in a single organisation, Solidarity, while the Belarusian opposition is fragmented among a dozen leaders and parties.

"We are still active, but like resistance partisans," adds Lidia Chestova, an opposition activist who fled to Poland after receiving four stitches to the head when she was beaten up by police.

Poland has deep historical ties with Belarus. The two formed one state in early modern times, and half of Belarus was in Poland before the war. Warsaw has tried to ensure that Belarus did not fall under Moscow's sway, and has also kept a close eye on the half-million strong Polish minority there.

Poland is leading calls in the EU to impose travel sanctions on Mr Lukashenko's lieutenants, while making it easier for ordinary Belarusians to travel west - a roundabout way of promoting democracy.

"Poland was the first to come and help us, and we will never forget this," says Mr Barodka.


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