Poland seeks EU backing in spat with Belarus

Source: Reuters

By Justyna Pawlak

BRUSSELS, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Poland urged the European Union on Monday to help persuade Belarus to end a crackdown on its ethnic Polish minority and suggested Minsk's hopes of ending its international isolation could be at stake.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said he would ask fellow EU foreign ministers for their support following the detention of dozens of ethnic Polish activists in the former Soviet republic.

"I will talk to my colleagues here and ask them to show solidarity in helping make Belarus realise what important opportunities it may pass up if she continues the policy of persecution," Sikorski told reporters before a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

"There is still time for Belarus to step back and I hope that happens."

Warsaw recalled its ambassador from Minsk last week after police seized a building used by the Union of Poles, an organisation which split in 2005 into a branch supporting President Alexander Lukashenko and an opposition movement.

Police have also detained a number of Union of Poles activists, some of them during a protest rally last week, and Minsk has accused Polish media of "indulging in an anti-Belarusian campaign".

The EU condemned the arrests last week, saying they undermined efforts to strengthen relations with Belarus.

Belarus has long been long ostracised in the West over its suppression of dissent but, hoping to improve ties and reduce its economic dependence on Russia, Minsk has sought to improve its human rights record and has freed some political prisoners.

Further damage to its human rights record could have an impact on Belarus's hopes of joining the World Trade Organisation and boosting trade with the West, diplomats say.

Minsk may also seek EU help in talking to the International Monetary Fund, which has a $3.5 billion loan programme for Belarus.

"We should continue and strengthen our policy of conditionality towards Belarus, which is to say that Belarus may aspire to join various Western institutions, provided there is an improvement in the treatment of human rights, national minorities and the opposition," Sikorski said.

He said there was no talk of new sanctions on Minsk.

The EU prolonged a freeze on restrictions against Belarus, including a visa ban against Lukashenko, last November as an incentive for it to carry out further reforms.

Poland's relations with Belarus have soured periodically over the treatment of the Polish minority, which numbers about 400,000 people in the country of 10 million.

Warsaw has taken steps to support dissidents in Belarus, running a radio station with Belarusian newscasts and offering scholarships to students expelled from Belarusian universities. (Editing by Jon Hemming)


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