Living in a time warp

Relations between Poland and the neighbouring former Soviet republic of Belarus have taken a turn for the worse after a series of expulsions of diplomats by both sides and the outlawing of an ethnic Polish organisation in Belarus. The Polish government has called on the European Union to look into developments in that country, whose controversial president Alexander Lukashenko has long been blamed for human rights violations.


Belarussian refugees in Warsaw, joined by Polish human rights campaigners, chanting 'Down with the Lukashenko regime' in front of the Belarussian embassy in the Polish capital. That was in response to the latest move by the Belarussian government to forcibly close down the offices of the ethnic Polish organization in the city of Grodno, right on the Polish border. The newly, democratically elected leader of the Polish organization, Anzelika Borys, was arrested under a pretext, to allow her replacement, a man handpicked by the Belarussian president, to take control of the union. The controversy over the election of the Polish organisation's leadership has been simmering for several months now. The government in Minsk first tried to intimidate the community leaders, then it ordered the printing of false Polish language newspapers bearing the organisation's logo, to discredit it. With the Polish ethnic community in Belarus numbering more four hundred thousand, and human rights abuses mounting in number, Polish politicians feel it is time that not just Poland took a stance on what's going on in that former Soviet republic. Polish Speaker of Parliament Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz doesn't mince words when he talks about the present state of Polish-Belarussian relations.


'I don't want to paint an extreme scenario, but it's not impossible that we could end up with Poland and Belarus breaking diplomatic relations.'

The Polish government has repeatedly asked the European Union to put pressure on Belarus to observe democratic principles that are respected in all other European countries. However, Polish leaders were surprised to hear the views of senior Brussels officials, who suggested that the deterioration of Polish-Belarussian relations was just a matter between the two countries, and that Poland should try to settle the dispute on its own. Polish commentators argue that just like in Ukraine, only with the EU's help could democracy be restored in Belarus. Polish politicians have been arguing that with Ukraine now firmly on its path toward integration with western structures, Moscow may be trying to keep the maverick Belarussian government within its sphere of own interests. Meanwhile, Poland is attracting more and more Belarussian refugees, like this teacher in his thirties. He says that in his country, it is just not possible to speak your mind.


'Belarussian dissidents live in terror. There's high unemployment in Belarus, but if you openly say you are against the Lukashenko regime, you simply lose your job, the Belarussian refugee says.

But there are those who wonder whether the latest series of tit for tat moves between Warsaw and Minsk can in any way lead Belarus toward democracy. Critics of the Polish government's tough stance on Belarus point out that, while in Ukraine's case, the pressure put on the former Ukrainian regime worked, because the majority of the Ukrainian nation was ready for reform, things may not be that simple in Belarus. Even Belarussian refugees in Poland admit that the Belarussian opposition is weak, and the very identity of the Belarussian nation is under threat. The Belarussian language, they say, had been virtually wiped out under Stalin's rule, and it was replaced by a very similar Russian language. Since the vast majority of the republic's population are Russian speakers, they now admit they feel just as much at home in Russia.