March 25, 2010

Intel Brief: Leverage Over Lukashenko

5 Mar 2010

A recent Polish-Belarusian row brings with it the opportunity for a successful dialogue with Belarusian President Aleksandar Lukashenko, Anna Dunin writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Anna Dunin for ISN Security Watch

The campaign of repression targeting the Polish minority in Belarus has significantly intensified in recent months, straining relations between the two countries, and forcing the hand of high-ranking Polish diplomats.

But sometimes, where there is conflict, there is opportunity, and here, skillful diplomacy exercised by Poland, supported by the EU and combined with an appealing package of economic incentives could win some concessions from the Belarusian strongman.

Targeting an influential minority

In recent months, Belarus authorities have noticeably stepped up the persecution of civil society activists. The Union of Poles in Belarus (ZPB) - an independent cultural organization set up to promote the Polish language and culture among ethnic Poles living in Belarus and representing a minority ranging between 400,000 - 900,000 people - has been the main target of this wave of attacks.

The crackdown reflects a wider problem of violations of human rights and rule of law in Belarus, with Lukashenko threatened by civil society groups which depict a potential for independence from or disloyalty to his regime. To this end, the Belarusian leaderhas accused Poland (and the EU) repeatedly of using the Polish union to stir up societal grievances and orchestrate a revolution.

Lukashenko appears to view the ZPB as a fairly powerful and influential organization, while Polish officials insist that the group has no irredentist inclinations and poses no threat to the country or to Lukashenko’s authority. Moreover, Poland says it does not support any type of separatism in that area.

The most probable scenario is that Lukashenko's campaign is linked to looming local elections scheduled for April, which will be a barometer of the public's attitude prior to 2011 presidential elections. The persecution of a popular organization could serve as a deterrent for other groups opposing the regime, while lack of its efficient pacificationcould lead to increased activity on the part of Belarusian opposition and effectively weaken the administration’s hold on power.

Divide and conquer

The ongoing conflict with the ZPB dates back to March 2005, when Angelika Borys was elected chairwoman of the group. Minsk declared the results of the elections non-binding and ordered the Union to repeat the convention. Supporters of Borys rejected this decision and subsequently refused to recognize the newly appointed leader, effectively installed by Minsk.

The Polish government unanimously recognized Borys as the sole legitimate leader of the Polish minority. As a result, since 2005, two parallel ZPB organizations have been active – one led by Angelika Borys and deemed illegal by Minsk, and the other led by Stanislaw Siemaszko, which is legal, but unrecognized by Belarusian Poles and Warsaw. While the group led by Borys has a high membership of approximately 20,000 people, only 52 members took part in the last convention of the official ZPB.

In recent months, members of the unofficial union have been accused of illegal activities. There have been a number of detentions and arrests, often carried out ondubious grounds. Incidents of physical assaults, property damage, vandalism, black propaganda as well as evictions and seizures of property targeting the unofficial ZPB and its activists have become more frequent in recent weeks.

In early February, police along with the leadership of the official ZPB, took over the Polish House in Ivenets, a cultural center that had belonged to the group led by Borys. The building, whose renovation had been completely funded by the Polish Senate, was the 14th consecutive House nationwide taken over by the police and given to the official ZPB, which left only two of them in the hands of the Borys-led Union. The decision created outrage in Warsaw, as the Polish government had paidapproximately PLN 30 million ($10 million) for the renovation and furnishing of 16 Polish Houses in Belarus.

A few days later, police detained a group of ZPB activists en route to a court proceeding, attempting (unsuccessfully) to appeal the seizure of the House. On 8 March, police detained 40 more activists and pressed charges against the leadership of the persecuted ZPB - Borys, Igor Banker and Andrzej Poczobut - for taking part in an illegal demonstration.

In February, a court imposed another fine of over $42,000 on Borys' firm Polonica, having found it guilty of financial irregularities. Polonica brought in funding for educational and cultural activities for the Polish Houses. Their educational activity will be further threatened with Belarusian Education Ministry plans to introduce new laws to criminalize teaching in any language other than Russian and Belarusian. This decision, if codified, will result in the closure of two Polish schools in Grodno and Wolkowysk.

Opportunity in compromise

While the crackdown seems to be a distant problem for Brussels, it is a very close concern for Warsaw. In late February, Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski met with Lukashenko in Kiev to discuss the escalating conflict. Both politicians agreed to establish a group of experts to work toward a resolution.

Poland set down two conditions for a compromise, including official recognition for both Polish unions and an equal split of all assets between the two.

In the response to the brewing tensions, the European Parliament (EP) passed a resolution on 10 March condemning acts of repression in Belarus targeting civil society and democratic opposition, based on a strategy of sticks and carrots. It threatens that further violations will lead to economic and political sanctions, and suggests a package of economic incentives from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), European Investment Bank (EIB) or International Monetary Fund (IMF), if such a record is improved.

While Lukashenko has not bowed to such threats in the past, delicate behind-the-doors diplomacy and appropriate political pressure, supported by Brussels and international organizations, have the potential to mitigate Minsk's attitude. The EU, while ineffective with aggressive sanctions, has the ability to make it easier or harder for Belarus to receive financial assistance.

Belarus’ geopolitical situation and its dependence on Russia's economy have created room for conditionality that could be used by both Warsaw and Brussels. In the aftermath of its recent conflict with Georgia, Russia increased political pressure on its satellite neighbors. Moreover, in light of the global financial crisis, Russia has stopped assisting the Belarusian economy with low-priced crude oil and natural gas, which has forced Minsk to turn to the West for loans. Assistance from the IMF, EBRD or the EU would allow Lukashenko to reduce the country’s dependence on the Kremlin and avoid growing debt. Western institutions, therefore, do have leverage, but consistency is generally lacking.

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