Poland warns Belarus on crackdown

By Jan Cienski in Warsaw

A crackdown by Belarusian authorities against the leaders of the former Soviet republic's Polish minority is prompting Warsaw to warn that the wave of arrests could harm the recent warming between Belarus and the European Union.

Belarus has arrested several dozen Polish activists, sentencing some to five-day jail terms, and levying a 1m rouble ($360) fine against Andzelika Borys, the leader of the delegalised Union of Poles in Belarus, after the activists protested the confiscation of a Polish cultural centre in the Belarusian town of Ivyanets.

Andrzej Kremer, Poland's deputy foreign minister, warned on Monday that if repressive measures were not halted, Belarus would isolate itself from the EU.

"People directly responsible for repressions against Poles in Belarus will not have the right to enter our country," he said.

Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland's foreign minister, met on Friday in Warsaw with his Belarusian counterpart, Sergei Martynov, and reportedly warned him about the consequences of the anti-Polish measures.

Until recently, Poland had been a strong advocate of improving ties with Belarus, frequently dubbed Europe's last dictatorship for the authoritarian government of Alexander Lukashenko, the president.

Mr Kremer's concerns were echoed by Jerzy Buzek, the president of the European Parliament, who called Minsk's actions "unsettling" and noted that they seemed to be aimed at the political opposition in general, and not just against the Polish minority. A parliamentary mission is scheduled to travel to Belarus next week to investigate.

Belarus, a country of about 10m, has a Polish minority of about 400,000, a remnant from pre-war times when western Belarus was a part of Poland. The Union of Poles in Belarus became the country's largest nongovernment organisation after most opposition groups were driven underground by Mr Lukashenko, prompting the government to form a pro-regime Polish organisation in 2005 which took over the assets of the independent group.

Mr Lukashenko's government was pushed to warm ties with Europe when his Russian allies tired of propping him up through cheap oil and gas and began to demand world prices for energy. Belarus's ramshackle economy needed investment and new markets to survive, and Mr Lukashenko released all of his political prisoners in 2008 as a way of improving relations with the west.

However, in recent months the government seems to have changed tack, occasionally arresting Belarusian dissidents as well as clamping down on the Polish minority.


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