27 Aug 2005 16:40:33 GMT

Poles in Belarus elect new leader, but split looms

Source: Reuters

By Vasily Fedosenko

VOLKOVYSK, Belarus, Aug 27 (Reuters) - Belarus's Polish community on Saturday elected a leader committed to working with President Alexander Lukashenko after weeks of tension which has damaged the ex-Soviet state's ties with Poland.

Lukashenko accuses EU member Poland of exploiting the Poles, one of Belarus's largest minority groups, to foment upheaval in the style of ex-Soviet Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

The Union of Poles chose Iosef Luchnik as its leader just weeks after Belarussian police stormed the group's headquarters and removed the previous independent executive.

The Union's ousted leadership said Saturday's election, organised with the backing of Lukashenko's administration, would split the Union between opponents of the veteran president and those prepared to be compliant.

The row over the leadership of the 400,000-strong Polish community has once more highlighted Western accusations that Lukashenko denies basic human rights by cracking down on opponents, silencing the media and rigging elections.

Dozens of police ringed the district of Volkovysk, 240 km (170 miles) west of Minsk, where the Union's congress took place and stopped cars approaching the town.

Opposition groups said a bus carrying 45 activists from various groups was stopped and turned back, and two members of the Union's ousted leadership were detained on Friday.

"I hope this congress will end the conflict," Tadeusz Kruchkowski, reinstated as union president after the police action, said after the meeting.

"Iosef Luchnik has long been linked to our organisation. He was behind the opening of schools with instruction in Polish. He is an authoritative figure able to talk with Belarussian and Polish authorities."

Andrzej Pisalnik, a member of the Union's ousted executive, said his comrades were resolved to pursue activities independent of Lukashenko's administration. That inevitably meant a split.

"After this congress, there is no chance of ending the conflict." he said. "There are now two organisations."

Poland withdrew its ambassador from Belarus after the police action against the Union's headquarters. Belarus denied entry to a group of parliamentarians from Poland and each country has thrown out diplomats from the other.

Belarus's small, disunited opposition says the row amounts to an attempt by Lukashenko to secure control over one of Belarus's few well-organised non-government organisations ahead of presidential elections.

Lukashenko is expected to seek re-election next year after winning a referendum -- denounced as fraudulent in the West -- enabling him to change the constitution and remain in office.