Union warns Minsk against further repression

By Joanna Sopinska

The EU's foreign ministers condemned, on 22 February, the repression against the Polish minority organisation Union of Poles in Belarus (ZPB) by President Alexander Lukashenko' s regime and warned that if human rights continue to suffer, bilateral relations with Belarus will be put back on ice. "It is a step back," said High Representative Catherine Ashton, referring to the harassment of the Polish minority in Belarus. She added the EU will monitor the situation and come back to this issue in April.

Prior to the foreign ministers' meeting, Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said Warsaw was expecting the EU to reaffirm conditionality as the core element of its relations with Lukashenko's regime. "I'm not going to advocate sanctions," he told a group of journalists, on 21 February. After the meeting, Sikorski said, however, that if repression continues, the invoking of sanctions - namely a visa ban on Lukashenko and a handful of his closest aides - cannot be ruled out in April.

On 15 February, Belarusian police arrested the leader of the ZPB, Angelika Borys, along with some 40 other activists on their way to a rally in Valozhyn, in the West of the country. Poland has strongly condemned the crackdown and in response sealed off its border to the individuals responsible for the harassment. Warsaw also warned that it might block Belarus' applications for IMF and EBRD loans as well as its participation in the Eastern Partnership if Lukashenko's regime does not back off and stop its attacks on civil society.

The Lukashenko's authoritarian regime recognises a pro-government organisation as the only legal representative of Belarus' entire Polish minority. Poland, meanwhile, backs an independent group, the ZPB. Ethnic Poles make up an estimated 10% of Belarus' population of ten million people.

Ashton issued a declaration, on 17 February, warning Belarus' relations with the EU were at risk. She said she was "disappointed by the recent arrests of 40 members of the Union of Poles and other civil society representatives in Belarus," adding that these moves "undermine our efforts to strengthen relations between the European Union and Belarus".

During a press conference after the foreign ministers' meeting, Ashton pledged to raise the issue at a meeting with Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov on the occasion of her visit to Kiev, on 25 February, where both politicians will attend the inauguration ceremony of the newly elected Ukrainian president.

Until last year, EU-Belarus relations had been in limbo following the undemocratic parliamentary elections of November 2008. In 2009, after the Georgia-Russia war in August, the EU changed its policy towards Minsk into a 'conditional engagement'. The EU has suspended a visa ban on Belarusian leaders, admitted the country into its Eastern Partnership project and offered tentative talks on further assistance in response to assurances from Minsk to allow some democratic reforms.


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