The Associated Press
GRODNO, Belarus: A banned organization of ethnic Poles in Belarus met Sunday for the first time in four years, testing the authoritarian president's commitment to democratic reform as he seeks warmer ties with the West.
Despite a heavy police presence, the Union of Poles' congress began peacefully, with 158 of the 174 delegates present. The group has been banned since riot police took over its headquarters in 2005.
Many delegates said they had been called in for questioning by police or the KGB security agency and warned that they could face criminal charges for participating in an unregistered organization. Some said they had been told they would lose their jobs if they attended.
Ethnic Poles, who make up 5 percent of the former Soviet republic's population, are among the strongest proponents of democracy and closer ties with Europe. They form part of the opposition to President Alexander Lukashenko, who has accused them of being the agents of a hostile West determined to see him ousted.
Lukashenko tried in recent months to reach out to the European Union and United States, which have imposed economic sanctions in response to his repressive rule. Sunday's congress was seen as a test of his commitment to reform.
Polish lawmakers and members of the European Parliament attended the congress in the western city of Grodno near the border with Poland.
The city was heavily patrolled by police, who stopped an Associated Press reporter and photographer three times for document checks as they drove to the congress. Police filmed participants as they arrived.
"This is a victory of people over fear, intimidation and pressure," Union of Poles leader Andzelika Borys said at the opening of the congress. "I want to believe that the Belarusian government will conduct itself well."
Lukashenko last year freed all political prisoners and allowed opposition candidates to run for parliament. None won seats in the September election, which international observers said fell far short of democratic standards.