04 August 2005

Belarus Jails Ethnic Poles as Dispute with Poland Escalates

By Stefan Bos


A diplomatic dispute is escalating between Poland and neighboring Belarus, where members of the ethnic-Polish minority say they are being harassed by the government.

On Thursday, Andrzej Pisalnik, informal spokesman for an ethnic Polish group in Belarus, was found guilty of taking part in an unlicensed demonstration and sentenced to 10 days in jail. The action is the latest development in a dispute between the Polish minority in Belarus and the government of President Alexander Lukashenko. Earlier this week, another official of the group, Veslaw Kewlyak, received a 15 days jail term on charges of "illegally" meeting a visiting Polish parliamentarian.

About 400,000 ethnic Poles live in Belarus, mainly in areas that were part of Poland until World War II. Presidential elections are expected as early as 2006, and Polish political analyst Krzysztof Mularczyk says Mr. Lukashenko fears growing resentment toward him among Poles and other groups.

"He is [beginning] to feel encircled and he, like many authoritarians, wants to have an enemy that he can fight," he explained. "And I think he has identified the Polish minority as something that he can sell as an internal threat within Belarus and try to build up some kind of false national unity against [influence] from the West."

President Lukashenko has reportedly accused Poland of plotting to overthrow his government through the ethnic Polish minority. In recent weeks, Belarus expelled three Polish diplomats, while Poland ordered three Belarusian diplomats to leave. Poland has withdrawn its ambassador from Minsk, the capital, for what it calls consultations.

Poland, which joined the EU last year, has asked the European Union to intervene. The EU has already expressed concern about the situation in Belarus and its human rights record, and says it supports the Polish minority.

Belarus accuses Poland of working with other countries to try to topple President Alexander Lukashenko. Mr. Lukashenko says he will not allow pro-democracy revolutions like the recent Rose Revolution in nearby Ukraine, which he says was actively supported by Poland.