Ethnic Poles to defy ban in Belarus


The Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus -- Once again, ethnic Polish activist Andrzej Poczobut expects to be arrested in Belarus, a former Soviet republic whose authoritarian president sees his country's ethnic Poles as agents of a hostile West.

Poczobut belongs to a banned organization claiming to represent the nearly half million ethnic Poles living in Belarus along the border with Poland. Since the Union of Poles was banned four years ago, its activists have been arrested, fined, kept under surveillance and smeared in the official press.

This weekend the group is planning to defy the ban and hold a congress, the first since riot police were sent in to take over its headquarters in March 2005.

The ethnic Polish activists are portraying the congress as a test of President Alexander Lukashenko's stated commitment to improve relations with the European Union and the United States, which imposed economic sanctions on Belarus in response to his repressive rule.

The congress, to be held Sunday in the western city of Grodno, also is being closely watched by the European Union and EU member Poland.

Poczobot and Union of Poles leader Andzelika Borys were in Warsaw on Friday and met briefly with Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his chief of staff, the president's office said. No details of the meeting were released.

Polish lawmakers and members of the European Parliament plan to travel to Grodno to help ensure the congress takes place peacefully, the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita reported.

As part of his effort to reach out to the West, Lukashenko last year freed all political prisoners and allowed opposition candidates to run for parliament. None won seats. But he has continued to crack down on opposition protests and resist calls for more democratic reforms.

Ethnic Poles, who watch uncensored Polish television and visit relatives across the border, are among the strongest proponents in Belarus for democratic reform and closer ties with Europe. They make up 5 percent of the Belarusian population of 10 million and live primarily in western regions of the country that were part of Poland before World War II.

Lukashenko's government is highly suspicious of the Union of Poles, which receives funding from the Polish government.

"There is no doubt that the West would like to use the Poles as a driving force for repeating Ukraine's Orange Revolution in Belarus," said Sergei Kostyan, a pro-presidential parliament member.

The mass protests of the 2004 Orange Revolution brought pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko to power.

The Union of Poles denies any intention of overthrowing the government of Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994.

"We are not a Polish ghetto, we are not terrorists or separatists," said Borys, the group's leader. "We are citizens of Belarus who want to have their own organization and function normally."

Group members have been arrested on charges of holding an unsanctioned assembly after organizing concerts of Polish music or meeting with prominent Polish citizens, she said.

The group appealed to Lukashenko's administration for permission to hold the congress, but said it has received no response.

AP correspondent Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, contributed to this report.



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