Ethnic Poles to defy ban in Belarus

The Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus: Once again, ethnic Polish activist Andrzej Poczobut expects to be arrested in Belarus, a former Soviet republic whose authoritarian president sees his country's ethnic Poles as agents of a hostile West.

Poczobut belongs to a banned organization claiming to represent the nearly half million ethnic Poles living in Belarus along the border with Poland. Since the Union of Poles was banned four years ago, its activists have been arrested, fined, kept under surveillance and smeared in the official press.

This weekend the group is planning to defy the ban and hold a congress, the first since riot police were sent in to take over its headquarters in March 2005.

The ethnic Polish activists are portraying the congress as a test of President Alexander Lukashenko's stated commitment to improve relations with Europe and the United States, which imposed economic sanctions on Belarus in response to his repressive rule.

The congress also is being closely watched by the European Union. EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who had been expected to visit Minsk on Friday, delayed her trip until after Sunday's congress.

In an effort to reach out to the West, Lukashenko last year freed all political prisoners and allowed opposition candidates to run for parliament. None won seats. But he has continued to crack down on opposition protests and resist calls for more democratic reforms.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, during a visit to Minsk last month, said although Belarus has taken important steps, more needed to be done before the EU would be willing to strengthen trade and lift travel restrictions on Lukashenko and other officials.

Ethnic Poles, who watch uncensored Polish television and visit relatives across the border, are among the strongest proponents in Belarus for democratic reform and closer ties with Europe.

They make up 5 percent of the Belarusian population of 10 million and live primarily in western regions of the country that were part of Poland before World War II.

Lukashenko's government is highly suspicious of the Union of Poles, which receives funding from the Polish government.

"There is no doubt that the West would like to use the Poles as a driving force for repeating Ukraine's Orange Revolution in Belarus," said Sergei Kostyan, a pro-presidential parliament member.

The mass protests of the 2004 Orange Revolution brought pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko to power.

The Union of Poles denies any intention of overthrowing the government of Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994.

"We are not a Polish ghetto, we are not terrorists or separatists," said Union of Poles leader Andzelika Borys. "We are citizens of Belarus who want to have their own organization and function normally."

Group members have been arrested on charges of holding an unsanctioned assembly after organizing concerts of Polish music or meeting with prominent Polish citizens, she said.

"The government reacts to any manifestation of dissatisfaction or social activeness with repression and bans," Borys said.

The group appealed to Lukashenko's administration for permission to hold Sunday's congress in the western city of Grodno, but said it received no response.

Many of the 174 delegates to the congress say they have come under official pressure not to attend. Some have been called in for questioning by the KGB or police. Others say they have been threatened with being fired from their jobs.

"I was threatened with criminal charges for participation in an unregistered organization," said Tereza Sieliwonczyk, a resident of the town of Baranovichi, who said she received a warning from the prosecutors' office.

The government's nationalities committee refused to comment on the situation.

Poczobut, a correspondent for the major Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, who has been detained more than 10 times in the past, said he is no longer intimidated by the official threats and see the repression as the price of fighting for a more democratic Belarus.

"Poles know how to fight for the ideals of freedom," said Poczobut, who this month was stripped of his journalistic accreditation by the Belarusian Foreign Minister. He has already packed a bag with warm clothes, just in case he ends up back in jail.



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