Belarus targets ethnic Polish group

Some analysts say Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko's crackdown on the Union of Poles in Belarus has to do with his determination to stamp out political dissent, his search for targets for anti-Western rhetoric, and his desire to please Russia.

By Jeremy Druker for ISN Security Watch (11/08/05)

At first glance, the current spat between Belarus and Poland over Belarus' treatment of an ethnic Polish organization might appear to be just another in a long line of ethnic disputes that have befallen Eastern Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The disagreement, however, has more significant dimensions, with the ethnic angle perhaps the least important. Various interpretations have surfaced over the past several weeks, all of them attempting to explain the actions of the Belarusian authorities, in particular authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Among other explanations, analysts have pointed to Lukashenko's determination to stamp out potential dissent, his search for targets for populistic, anti-Western rhetoric, and his desire to please an on-again, off-again, suitor, Russia. The latest incidents have also illustrated the continuing challenge for the EU of coming up with a coherent Belarus policy, highlighted as dramatically as ever with the repression against the ethnic kin of a member state.

The persecution began this spring after the authorities claimed that the Union of Poles (UoP) had elected its new leader illegally. Except for a period early in Belarus' post-1991 independence - before Lukashenko took power in 1994 - the UoP has been a thoroughly docile organization, concentrating on the promotion of Polish culture and heritage. Until the recent election, the long-time leader of the UoP was a Lukashenko supporter. Estimates vary, but probably around 400,000 ethnic Poles live in Belarus (between 4-5 per cent of the population), predominantly in the Western parts that belonged to Poland until World War II. Around 20,000 are members of the UoP.

Following the change in the UoP leadership, the authorities began a crackdown that has culminated in the arrest of officials and other regular members of the group. They have been jailed under charges ranging from participating in an unsanctioned demonstration to illegally meeting with visiting foreign dignitaries (in this case a Polish member of parliament). The Belarusian authorities have also forcefully reinstalled the previous, loyal leader of the UoP. In the ensuring controversy, both Poland and Belarus have expelled three of each others' diplomats, while Poland recently recalled its ambassador in Minsk for consultations.

Not an ethnic issue

Despite news reports that have stressed the ethnic issue, Belarusian analysts warn against viewing the conflict through that prism. "Initially it was not and it has remained not an ethnic conflict," says Alex Znatkevich, who works in the Belarusian service at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). He points out the generally good relations between normal Poles and ethnic Belarusians, despite the government's heavy-handed treatment of the minority.

Znatkevich and others interpret the UoP as simply another in a long line of supposed enemies that Lukashenko routinely trots out to boost his own political fortunes. Targets have included the independent media, opposition politicians, trade unions, and nongovernmental organizations. "Lukashenko doesn't want any NGO - especially such a big one - not under his control," says Znatkevich. "He has used the situation [the change in leadership] to have both things: to take the Union under control and to whip up anti-Western, anti-Polish feelings."

"The Union of Poles did not really play a political role and its deposed leadership was not really going into politics of any sort before it [the crackdown] started," agrees Vitali Silitski, a Belarusian who is currently a Reagan-Fascell democracy fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. "Most Poles are just ordinary Belarusian citizens with a generally strong sense of ethnicity/Catholicism but most of them are still apolitical - like ordinary Belarusians." They also live mainly in the countryside, isolated from the more urban independent press and nongovernmental sector. "The Union's destruction is just one of various precautionary or preemptive measures taken just in case," adds Silitski.

Similar to Znatkevich, Silitski also noted Lukashenko's calculated use of these attacks to foment anti-Western hysteria, a key factor in his appeal to certain segments of society. A frequent refrain, expressed by the president and then parroted by the state-run media, is the West's secret financing of internal enemies (NGOs, the opposition, etc.) to undermine the regime and incite a "revolution" such as those that recently occurred in Georgia and Ukraine. With presidential elections looming next year (and Lukashenko planning to run after the approval of a referendum that erased the two-term limit from the constitution), such rhetoric will only increase in coming months.

The attacks on the UoP have also represented a convenient way (and one of the only ways) for Lukashenko to strike back at the Polish government, which the president has accused of helping to instigate the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine and to fund groups (including the UoP) within Belarus that supposedly seek to overthrow the government. Lukashenko fears Poland's growing role as a regional leader, determined to wrest control over the EU's Eastern policy and to use its own experiences to promote democratic reform in the Union's "new neighbors".

Ukraine, for example, has been a central target of Poland's assistance and support, with Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski helping broker a settlement after last December's flawed presidential elections and Warsaw consistently pushing for the future possibility of EU membership for Ukraine.

"Lukashenko has a paranoid fear of the 'Orange Revolution' next door and this is the primary reason behind his moves," says John Micgiel, director of the East Central European Center at Columbia University.

Unable to launch any physical attack against NATO-member Poland, Lukashenko has chosen one of his only available options: lashing out against a weaker, defenseless member of the family.

Lukashenko's reaction has also convinced some Poles that Russia may be urging on the Belarusian president behind the scenes. In a cover story last week, the Polish right-wing weekly Wprost suggested that Russia had a hand in the crackdown on the UoP, the supposed first stage of a Belarusian/Russian cold war with Poland. One of the aims of the repression of the UoP, the magazine wrote, was to test the EU's reaction in the lead-up to other attacks on the Baltic states - EU members where Russia has frequently complained about discrimination against the Russian minorities.

Polish-Russian relations have long been strained, and took another blow recently when three sons of Russian diplomats were robbed in Warsaw. While the Polish authorities insisted the attack was not political, Russian President Vladimir Putin called it an "unfriendly act" and other Russian officials claimed the Polish government had helped create a climate that supported such attacks, the Associated Press reported. This Sunday, unknown assailants beat an employee of the Polish embassy in Moscow.

Russian interference?

Under the scenario envisioning Russian interference, Lukashenko has also manipulated his own need to quash internal dissent to curry favor with Putin - in effect, to do things that the Russian president might like to do (i.e. intimidate an EU member state) but cannot without jeopardizing the ever-closer relationship between the EU and Russia. RFE/RL's Znatkevich says Lukashenko often invokes Belarus as a buffer between the West and Russia, "shielding" Russia from Western influence.

Yet the idea that Putin is pulling the strings seems confined to a small minority. "I do not think that these are concerted activities of Lukashenko and Putin," says Jacek Kucharczyk, director for programming at the Warsaw-based Institute of Public Affairs. "There seems to be a kind of consensus in Poland that Lukashenko is acting independently, although everybody thinks that Putin derives a lot of satisfaction from the current poor state of Polish-Belarusian relations."

"On the other hand, there are - as Wprost rightly points out - similarities," Kucharczyk says. "Both leaders whip up their propaganda against Poland in search of an enemy on whom they could focus the negative emotions of the people - the well-known mechanism of searching for scapegoats."

If some part of the plan, whether hatched in Minsk or Moscow, was actually to test the EU, the result has not been impressive. The EU, accused by many Belarus-watchers of failing to develop an effective policy of dealing with Lukashenko, has done little. Upon prompting from Warsaw, Brussels issued a strongly worded statement condemning "a climate of growing political repression in Belarus".

"This arbitrary use of force is unacceptable and we extend a message of solidarity to the people who are arbitrary victims of the use of force," read the statement. But EU officials initially labeled the dispute only a bi-lateral affair between Poland and Belarus and then said it was too early to implement stronger sanctions against Belarus.

Little leverage over Lukashenko

While the issue has been making front-page news in Poland over the past month, Brussels may be viewing the latest episode as nothing new for Lukashenko, another crackdown against opponents, another disregard for "normal" diplomatic propriety. "The latest belligerence from Minsk is in fact just the latest in a decade long string of boorish diplomatic episodes," says Christopher Walker, director of studies at Freedom House,. "For example, in 1998, the Belarusian regime precipitated the Drazdy diplomatic compound fiasco, where Western diplomats in Minsk were uprooted from their diplomatic residences. In 2002, OSCE representation in Minsk was similarly abused and effectively shut out of that country. This terse and unconstructive behavior from the regime in Minsk all fits within a very clear and well established pattern."

Silitski even questioned how motivated Brussels might be to act, given the Poles' consistent support for US foreign policy on a wide variety of issues, especially Iraq. "I wonder whether some at the EU will be happy with the situation because the pro-American Poles were finally whipped by someone," he said. "The EU is totally clueless about how to deal with Belarus so I believe Lukashenko will be the clear winner."

To be fair, the issue of sanctions is complicated. Trade with the EU has risen significantly, meaning the effect of trade sanctions would be felt by the regime and represents a tool that the US, for example, cannot effectively employ against Lukashenko. The question, as always, with trade sanctions is how to ensure that the Belarusian people do not suffer instead of the political elite.

"Ultimately, neither Poland nor the EU has much leverage with Lukashenko," says Columbia University's Micgiel, "and pressure from the West merely drives him closer to Moscow. Change will come either from below, or ... from the East."

Jeremy Druker is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent for Central and Eastern Europe. He was one of the founders of Transitions Online (TOL, in 1999 and has been the executive director and editor in chief since then. Mr. Druker has contributed to publications such as U.S. News & World Report, TI's Global Corruption Report, and Oxford Analytica. He is also the author of the chapter on the Czech Republic in the forthcoming Freedom House book, Nations in Transit 2005. He holds an undergraduate degree from Harvard College and a masters in international affairs from Columbia University. A native of New York, he has lived in the Czech Republic for most of the past dozen years.