Poland's Relations With Belarus Fray After Raid on Ethnic Poles

Aug. 4 (Bloomberg) -- Poland's relations with neighboring Belarus, a country the U.S. calls Europe's last dictatorship, have slumped into crisis as the former communist allies trade insults over the arrest of ethnic Poles and expulsion of diplomats.

Security forces in Belarus on July 27 raided the offices of an association of ethnic Poles in Grodno, 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from the border, creating a ``serious crisis,'' said Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld. Poland's ambassador in the Belarus capital Minsk was recalled. Belarus says the group's leaders are guilty of embezzlement and illegal gathering.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, an ally of Russia's Vladimir Putin and set to run for a third term in 2007, is wary of the influence of Poland, a former communist ally and now a member of the European Union and NATO, said Warsaw Mayor Lech Kaczynski. Lukashenko accused Poland of ``efforts to spark a revolution in Belarus'' through 20,000 members of the Polish association, Warsaw-based daily Gazeta Wyborcza said July 27.

``Lukashenko is terribly afraid of a repeat of what happened in Ukraine,'' said Kaczynski, a Polish presidential candidate, in a July 30 interview.

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski helped mediate between the Ukrainian government and opposition leaders when hundreds of thousands protested a Russian-backed candidate's victory in November presidential elections. Viktor Yushchenko, who wants Ukraine to join the EU, won the rerun in December.

Lukashenko, in power since 1994, is eligible to run for a third term after winning a referendum last October that scrapped a constitutional two-term limit.

`Last True Dictatorship'

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Belarus the ``last true dictatorship in the center of Europe'' in April. President George W. Bush in May called for ``free and open elections'' in Belarus. International monitoring organizations say Lukashenko has rigged elections.

After communism fell in Poland in 1989, that nation focused on catching up with its western neighbors. The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 prompted Belarus to strengthen ties with Russia. Relations between Poland and Belarus cooled further when the former joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999, and took a turn for the worse in March when Belarus said the Association of Poles elected a new leader illegally.

In July, Lukashenko said his priority is to gain Russian support as he runs for re-election, reported U.K.-based news service Oxford Analytica Ltd. The two countries have discussed a political union and a common currency for several years.

Hunting Poles

Many Poles are calling on their government to take stronger action in response to the arrests of dozens of the independent association's members in recent weeks. About 400,000 ethnic Poles live in Belarus, or about 4 percent of the population.

Headlines on the front page of Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza since the July 27 raid include ``Belarus: Hunting Poles'' and ``Poles Under Lukashenko's Whip.'' Rzeczpospolita said ``Lukashenko Terrorized Poles.'' On Aug. 2, 500 ethnic Poles gathered in front of a church in Grodno to protest the arrests.

``Lukashenko isn't interested in things like human rights,'' said Mariusz Chodzen, a 27-year-old Polish hairdresser in Warsaw. ``We should break all diplomatic ties with Belarus, evacuate the Polish minority and close the border.''

Polish Foreign Minister Rotfeld said July 28 that the ambassador to Belarus was recalled until relations ``normalize.''

Lukashenko `Afraid'

Belarus has shut down more than 100 organizations on suspicion they may encourage opposition to the regime, said political analyst Pawel Kazanecki in a phone interview.

``Lukashenko is afraid of international organizations,'' Kazanecki, president of the Warsaw-based East European Democratic Center, said. ``Russia was not happy about Poland and its role in Ukraine last year. As far as it is concerned, these pro- democratic movements are not the way forward.''

Belarussians living in Poland said Lukashenko is concerned Poland may show support for the opposition movement in Belarus.

``Lukashenko is mainly concerned with taking care of himself, and what Poland could bring is a threat to him,'' said Siarzuk Wolkowycki, a 26-year-old Belarussian student in Warsaw.

Belarus has expelled three Polish diplomats, with the first two leaving in May. Poland has retaliated by kicking out three Belarussian diplomats. Belarus says it didn't start the troubles.

``We are having a crisis at the moment but it began with the Association of Poles breaking the law when it voted for a new president this year,'' said Andrzej Frolkow, Belarussian consul in the Polish city of Gdansk, in a July 28 interview.

The association voted for Angelika Borys as president in March after members protested the previous head, Tadeusz Kruczkowski, was put in place to carry out government orders.

``The election was carried out legally,'' said Kazanecki of the East European Democratic Center. ``But the Justice Minister refused to accept the registration of the new board.''

To contact the reporters on this story:

Katya Andrusz in Warsaw at