Thursday September 1, 2005

Solidarity anniversary turns focus on Belarus

Call for peaceful revolution in Europe's last dictatorship

Ian Traynor in Gdansk

The Guardian

Leaders from across central Europe yesterday called for the export of Poland's peaceful revolution to the neighbouring country of Belarus, described as Europe's last dictatorship.

Gathered to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the birth of Solidarity, the presidents of Georgia and Ukraine, Mikhail Saakashvili and Viktor Yushchenko, were greeted with standing ovations as they declared that Solidarity's example should inspire democracy activists in Belarus to topple the authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, who expects to be re-elected next year.

Mr Saakashvili and Mr Yushchenko, leaders of "rose" and "orange" revolutions in their countries in the past two years, called for August 31 - the day in 1980 that the communist bloc's first free trade union was born in a Gdansk shipyard - to be declared an international day of freedom and solidarity.

The Polish government is embroiled in a bitter tussle with the Lukashenko regime and in a battle of wits with Moscow.

As the biggest of the EU's new members, Poland is seeking to flex its foreign policy muscles and prod Brussels, Germany, and France towards a more assertive and critical policy towards Mr Lukashenko and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

To rousing applause, Mr Saakashvili said that following the Solidarity-led revolutions of 1989, the post-Soviet region was in the throes of "a second wave of liberation of Europe".

"I am sure there will be more. Freedom and democracy will prevail everywhere, including in Belarus," he said.

Poland is trying to carve out a role for itself as the architect of a more muscular EU policy on democracy and human rights towards Russia and other post-Soviet regimes.

Poland helped to mediate last year's election crisis in Ukraine, earning the Kremlin's hostility by helping to secure the triumph of Mr Yushchenko against the Moscow-backed presidential candidate.

"We're hoping to Europeanise our policy," said Janusz Onyszkiewicz, a former Polish defence minister who is now vice-president of the European parliament. "That was the case with Ukraine and we hope it will be the same with Belarus. The aim is to bring an end to this anomaly, the dictatorship in Belarus. The EU can't have a country like Belarus on its doorstep."

Polish relations with Belarus and Russia are in free fall, characterised in recent weeks by the expulsions of diplomats from Minsk and Warsaw, the beating of Polish diplomats and journalists in Moscow, and the arrests of ethnic Poles in Belarus.

The Poles, however, face other problems, not least because the German and Russian governments have a close relationship. Mr Putin is due in Berlin next week to finalise a gas pipeline project which would carry Russian gas across the Baltic Sea to Germany, Norway and Britain, bypassing Poland and Ukraine.

Polish and German analysts say the scheme is political rather than economic, enabling Moscow to blackmail the central Europeans by turning off gas supplies without jeopardising lucrative deliveries to western Europe.

"I'm not optimistic," said Janusz Reiter, a leading Polish foreign policy analyst. "Belarus is a European problem, but there is no awareness of it in western Europe and the west Europeans are not interested in a common position on Russia."

Suspicious of Moscow's intentions, the Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Georgians are seeking to establish "a new democratic coalition of states".

"Because of Solidarity," said Mr Saakashvili, "the Soviet Union started to disintegrate, the best thing that happened in the 20th century. Any attempt to revive imperial thinking could not and should not survive."

Steps to freedom

August 1980

Workers at a Gdansk shipyard down tools in protest at the sacking of a colleague.

The strike sparks protest across Poland. Lech Walesa, a shipyard electrician, clambers over the fence to seize leadership of the protest movement. Two weeks later Solidarity is born as the communist bloc's first free trade union.


For 500 days, inspired by the new Polish pope, John Paul II, Solidarity engages in the biggest ever challenge to Soviet communism and Russian control of eastern Europe.

General Wojciech Jaruzelski, is installed. In December 1981 he declares 'a state of war', imposing martial law, outlawing the union and jailing thousands of activists.

June 1989

After Solidarity is relegalised, it wins almost every seat it is allowed to contest in the partially free elections. Two months later, Tadeusz Mazowiecki becomes prime minister, the first non-communist leader in the bloc.

December 1989

Communism collapses, from Berlin to Bucharest.