Belarus, Poland in diplomatic tit-for-tat

ISN SECURITY WATCH (20/05/05) - A diplomatic war has broken out between Poland and Belarus after the two countries expelled each other's diplomats earlier this week, in a conflict that began with Belarusian accusations that Polish diplomats were fomenting dissent.

Poland on Wednesday ordered the second-in-command at the Belarusian embassy in Warsaw out of the country after a Polish diplomat was given one month to leave Minsk.

"We have made a decision to expel a counselor of the Belarusian Embassy from Warsaw, from our country, in an identical procedure," Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Zalucki told reporters in response to the expulsion of Polish embassy first secretary Marek Bucko.

Minsk declared Bucko a persona non grata and accused him of attempting to destabilize Belarus by leading the country's Polish minority against the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

At the Polish embassy in Minsk, Bucko was responsible for maintaining contacts with Belarusian political parties, nongovernmental organizations, and the 400,000-strong Polish minority there.

Several weeks ago, Lukashenka accused the Polish embassy of engaging in subversive activities among the Polish minority. At the time, the authoritarian regime cracked down on the Union of Poles in Belarus, declaring the March election of its officials invalid.

The Polish Foreign Ministry harshly criticized the move, with Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld accusing Belarusian officials of "paranoia" of using intimidating tactics. He said those officials involved would be banned from entering Poland.

"They will be blacklisted with no right of travel to Poland and to other EU countries. Poland can take such a step at once. As for other EU members, the required procedures will take some time," Rotfeld said in a statement.

The Poland-Belarus diplomatic tit-for-tat comes amid increasing international pressure on Belarus ahead of presidential elections planned for next year. During recent visits to Europe, US President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have referred to Belarus as the "last European dictatorship", and the West is clearly eyeing a revolution there along the lines of those that have ousted veteran leaders in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

In related news, a former Belarusian dissident lawmaker, Syarhey Skrabets, who was detained in Minsk on 15 May, has gone on a hunger strike from his prison cell.

From 2000-2004, Skrabets was a member of the Respublika group, a dissident group in Belarus' Chamber of Representatives. He was arrested in May by men who introduced themselves as officers from a department for combating organized crime.

Skrabets is accused of attempting to bribe an official.

Before his arrest, Skrabets had appealed to Moscow for political asylum in October last year, saying he was being feared he would be thrown in prison for his opposition to Lukashenka's regime.

Moscow, a close ally to Lukashenka, denied Skrabet's request.