Wednesday August 31, 2005

Europe's last dictatorship spurns reform

Simon Tisdall

The Guardian

Hopes that Belarus, dubbed "Europe's last dictatorship" by US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, would be the next domino to fall following pro-democracy revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine collided with reality this week.

Defying Polish and international pressure, President Alexander Lukashenko completed the decapitation of the Union of Poles in Belarus, which represents many of the country's 400,000-strong Polish minority, by replacing its independent executive with regime-friendly figures.

Mistreatment of ethnic Poles in Belarus is an explosive issue in election season Poland. The harassment and arrest of the Polish-funded union's leaders has led Warsaw to withdraw its ambassador to Minsk.

Poland's president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, voiced alarm earlier this month. "We expect authorities in Belarus to follow international obligations regarding minority rights and freedom of speech," he said.

But others saw Mr Lukashenko's action as part of a pattern of silencing all opposition before a presidential poll next year.

Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president, said: "It is necessary to make use of every opportunity ... to take a stand against this post-Soviet autocrat and his efforts to totally suppress the remains of independent initiatives in Belarus."

George Soros, the billionaire founder of the Open Society Institute, which is active in former Soviet and Warsaw Pact countries, backed Mr Havel's call for a halt to the "daily abuse of basic human and civil rights".

The US and EU would also like to see the back of Mr Lukashenko. Last year's US-sponsored Belarus democracy act prohibits financial assistance to his government while authorising US funding for NGOs and independent media. A US diplomat was briefly detained by Belarussian police last week while trying to meet pro-democracy activists.

Alleging past electoral fraud, Brussels has imposed limited sanctions. Last Wednesday Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU external relations commissioner, announced radio broadcasts of uncensored news into Belarus from Germany. Poland is launching a similar move.

"We are using all the means at our disposal to support those striving for the development of a democratic and pluralist Belarus," Ms Ferrero-Waldner said, and added that the EU was ready to go "further" if necessary.

But Mr Lukashenko's unyielding response, reinforced by a reportedly improving economic outlook, suggests he will be a tougher nut to crack than other post-Soviet leaders. His refusal to modify his behaviour has intensified doubts in Poland about the effectiveness of soft-power policies and the so-called "small steps approach". His defiance also challenges Warsaw's aspiration as the EU and Nato-backed capital of the "new Europe".

The plight of Belarus's Polish minority has become an emotive issue in Poland's autumn elections.

After Donald Tusk, a presidential hopeful, offered his support at the Union of Poles' headquarters in Hrodna (Grodno in Polish) to the accompaniment of patriotic anthems, his poll ratings rose.

But according to Vitali Silitski on the website Transitions Online, Poland was not to blame for Belarussian intransigence. "Poland is far more involved in promoting change in Belarus than any other country in the western world ... Over the past 15 years, Polish civil society has invested huge efforts," Mr Silitski said. The problem was that the rest of the EU was asleep at the wheel, he said. "European policy is not coherent, proactive or sustained."

Mr Kwasniewski made a similar point. The EU lacked a "bold policy, free from double standards".

But if the EU grows coy, it may be for the same reason that Mr Lukashenko grows cocky: Russia.

Germany has no desire to pick a fight with the Kremlin over its ally, given Berlin's dependence on Russian energy. Other EU countries, including Britain, also seem to prefer rhetoric. Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, appears determined to avoid another Ukraine or Georgia on his western flank.

As a result, Mr Silitski said, "the range of [European] policy options is severely limited".