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Poland Recalls Ambassador From Belarus

  • Jeremy Bransten --> Prague, 28 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Poland today recalled its ambassador from Belarus, sending diplomatic relations between the two neighbors into a tailspin.

For the past two months, Poland and Belarus have been locked in a round of diplomatic expulsions. But today’s decision by Warsaw to recall its ambassador takes the crisis to a new level.

Poland’s move comes after Belarusian police and OMON special forces in the city of Hrodna yesterday stormed the headquarters of the Union of Poles in Belarus (SPB).

Andzhelika Borys, chairwoman of the SPB, described what happened, in a telephone interview with RFE/RL.

"Yesterday, at around 9:00 p.m., the police and OMON forces, carrying weapons, broke into the building of the Union of Poles," Borys said. "They began to demand that members of the Union of Poles, who were inside, leave the building. People were indignant. There were about 20 of us. On what basis was the order issued? Why were the police there? Why was OMON there? Without any explanation they began to throw people out by force."

Borys said she and her colleagues were driven to a local police station, where they were interrogated for several hours before being released at around 1 a.m.

The SPB, which represents the nearly 400,000-strong Polish minority in Belarus, has been at the center of worsening relations between Poland and Belarus. It claims an active membership of 10,000 people, making it the largest nongovernmental organization in the country. It also publishes a newspaper, “Glos znad Niemna" (Voice From Over The Niemen.)

The SPB receives financing from the authorities in Warsaw. At a congress in March, SPB members elected a new leadership as well as a new editorial staff for their newspaper.

But the Belarusian authorities invalidated the results of the congress, claiming voting irregularities. At that point, SPB members accused Minsk of seeking to subvert the organization by trying to pack its leadership with loyalists to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

The authorities in Warsaw expressed their concern at what they called the Belarusian government’s interference with a private organization.
Borys said the building was built with Polish funds and said the Belarusian government has no right to seize the building.

Lukashenka accused Warsaw of meddling in Belarus’ internal affairs. He ordered the expulsion of a Polish diplomat and the tit-for-tat began.

Today, the SPB’s headquarters in Hrodna are being guarded by police, OMON forces and the KGB, according to Borys.

Tadeusz Kruczkowski, the former SPB chairman, whom the Belarusian authorities recognize as the organization’s sole legitimate leader, is inside.

Borys described the situation as “insane.” She noted that the building was built with Polish funds and said the Belarusian government has no right to seize the building.

She added that Kruczkowski, despite the government’s claims, has no legitimate supporters. She noted that he was only able to force his way into the building with a police and OMON escort and she ridiculed the authorities’ claims that there is a split in the SPB leadership.

"In the union, there is only one division: between Poles and the authorities, who are doing everything to block us," Borys said. "They used the force of arms to bring someone into the building, to install him [as chairman]. Today, none of Mr. Kruczkowski's allies were present, aside from the police, the OMON, and the KGB."

Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Jakub Wolski told the Polish parliament in Warsaw today that his government continues to recognize Borys’ leadership.

"I want to declare from this podium that we recognize the legitimately elected leadership [of the Union of Poles in Belarus], and the Belarusian authorities obviously don't like it, because this organization has gone out of their control," Wolski said.

His boss, Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld, said Poland’s ambassador will not return to Minsk “until the situation changes.”

A spokesman for the European Commission, Altafaj Tardio, told a news briefing in Brussels today that the EU is very concerned about the storming of the SPB's headquarters.

Tardio noted what he termed the “growing repression” by the Belarusian authorities of the media, political parties, and nongovernmental organizations.

“We call on Belarus to ensure full compliance with its OSCE obligations, including the protection of minority rights,” Tardio said.

There has been no official reaction from Minsk.

(RFE/RL's Belarusian Service contributed to this report.)