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Thursday, April 22, 2021

Belarus strongman picks combat with Polish neighborhood

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Within the eight months since he was practically toppled by huge street protests after claiming victory in a fraud-tainted election, Belarus’s authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko has by no means struggled to conjure up enemies. However in current weeks, he has discovered a brand new one: Belarus’s Polish minority.

Two weeks in the past, Belarusian authorities arrested 5 members of the native Polish neighborhood, together with the pinnacle of the Union of Poles in Belarus, Andzelika Borys. Prosecutors stated that they had opened a felony case in opposition to Borys and different unnamed residents for “inciting ethnic and spiritual hatred”, and accused them of participating in “unlawful mass occasions” and actions aimed on the “rehabilitation of Nazism”.

The arrests have been accompanied by anti-Polish propaganda on state TV, in addition to stress on Polish language faculties, which in current weeks have obtained calls for from prosecutors to offer particulars about their academics and pupils, together with minors. Yesterday Lukashenko launched one other salvo, accusing Poland of giving assist to “our fugitives and their corporations” in addition to to “traitors and extremists”.

“We don’t need to combat anybody, but when they deal with us like they did on the finish of final 12 months and like now, they may get a smack within the face — and really laborious,” he stated, in an obvious reference to Poland’s criticism of the election and subsequent assist for worldwide sanctions imposed on the regime in Minsk.

The strikes, which come amid a broader crackdown on impartial teams as Lukashenko tries to consolidate his maintain on energy following final 12 months’s protests, have drawn an offended response from Warsaw. Prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki accused Lukashenko’s regime of persecution and demanded that it cease “taking hostages”. Human rights teams have declared the detainees political prisoners.

“That is the very lowest second” in relations between Minsk and Warsaw in recent times, stated one western diplomat coping with Belarus. “A relationship that was first rate for 4 or 5 years has develop into insufferable simply due to one man wanting to remain in energy.”

Belarus’s Polish minority, which makes up at the very least 300,000 of the nation’s 9.5m inhabitants, is a legacy of the redrawing of Europe’s borders in the course of the turbulent first half of the twentieth century. Within the interwar interval, the western half of what’s now Belarus, together with cities equivalent to Grodno and Brest, was in Poland. However after the second world battle, the territory grew to become a part of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, and, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a part of impartial Belarus.

Andzelika Borys, head of the Union of Poles in Belarus, is amongst members of the Polish neighborhood to be arrested and accused of participating in “unlawful mass occasions” © Sergei Grits/AP

Marcin Przydacz, Poland’s deputy overseas minister, stated that Lukashenko was attempting to use this historic backdrop to conjure up a handy “scapegoat” to clarify away his home issues.

“From the start [of the protests after the election] there was this narrative that the Polish minority has some plan along with Warsaw to recapture the territories of Grodno Oblast . . . It has nothing to do with actuality,” he advised the Monetary Occasions.

“It’s this post-Soviet mentality the place you need to discover a motive for why issues are so dangerous in your nation. And naturally it’s by no means dangerous choices by politicians, it’s by no means the financial disaster, it’s at all times overseas brokers, the fifth column, somebody from overseas.”

Different observers argue that Poland’s assist for the Belarusian opposition has infuriated Lukashenko. Warsaw has offered a protected harbour for opposition leaders equivalent to Pavel Latushko. And the Polish capital can be residence to Nexta, the impartial media group whose Telegram channels performed a crucial role in organising the massive protests in opposition to Lukashenko.

“The mere indisputable fact that Nexta nonetheless exists and works and is posting and lively on Telegram and that the Polish authorities de facto defend Nexta is a serious supply of annoyance for the Belarusian authorities, as a result of they like to have every little thing underneath management,” stated the diplomat. “That is massively annoying them.”

Veronica Laputska, from the German Marshall Fund of the US, a think-tank, stated that she thought Lukashenko might attempt to use the Polish minority as a method of gaining some leverage over Warsaw, and to forestall it pushing for a more durable line in opposition to his regime.

“I feel on the one hand he’s in search of extra political prisoners with whom he can cut price, together with with the Polish authorities, subsequent time they converse up in opposition to him,” she stated. “I feel that he may also attempt to distract Poland . . . in order that they really have to start out lobbying extra for the Polish minority and never for democracy in Belarus.”

Warsaw has already imposed a journey ban on the decide who handled Borys’s case, and Przydacz stated that anybody who was concerned in “repressing harmless individuals can have the identical reply from the Polish aspect”.

Nevertheless, he stated {that a} simpler approach to put stress on Lukashenko can be by means of multilateral motion. The EU, US and UK have already imposed a number of rounds of sanctions on Minsk within the wake of final 12 months’s election and crackdown. Final week the EU’s overseas coverage chief, Josep Borrell, demanded the discharge of Borys and different political prisoners. Polish leaders have additionally referred to as on the Organisation for Safety and Co-operation in Europe and UN to handle the difficulty.

“The extra united we’re because the Euro-Atlantic neighborhood, the stronger we’re. So I’d say that it’s higher to do it by means of worldwide channels, to agree on sanctions and choices not solely amongst EU nations but in addition with our British, American and Canadian mates,” stated Przydacz. “It should once more be a check for the unity and the credibility of the EU and the western neighborhood.”

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