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Belarus: New Europe Battles Lukashenka

  • Brian Whitmore --> Vaclav Havel has spoken out against rights abuses in Belarus (AFP) PRAGUE, June 21, 2007 -- When Yauhen Skrabatun volunteered to work on Belarusian opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich's presidential campaign in early 2006, he was promptly expelled from university.

That's when the Polish government stepped in and offered him the opportunity to continue his studies in Warsaw.

In addition to getting a good education in Poland, where he is studying linguistics, Skrabatun is also learning a thing or two about opposition politics -- from activists who successfully fought against communist rule there two decades ago.

"I meet with people in Poland who fought against the communist regime and I gain experience from them," Skrabatun said. "They tell me how it was for them and they understand how it is for me. They know what I am talking about because they had the same situation."

"They are our ambassadors to old Europe, because there people don't always know what it is to live in a society of fear."

His experience in Poland, Skrabatun says, has helped him to more effectively battle Alyaksandr Lukashenka's authoritarian regime:

"Every week I go to Belarus and do the same things I was doing before I left for Poland," Skrabatun said. "Perhaps now I have even more strength and more possibilities because in Poland I made new acquaintances and contacts with international organizations that can help us."

Safe Haven For Students

Skrabatun is among hundreds of Belarusian students who were kicked out of school for political reasons and taken in by Polish universities.

Other former communist countries who are now EU members -- like the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Estonia -- are also admitting Belarusian students who have run afoul of the regime. When Lukashenka closed down Minsk's European Humanities University in 2004, for example, Lithuania agreed to host the EU-funded institution in Vilnius.

Giving opposition-minded students a safe place to study -- and a safe haven for their political activism -- isn't the only way Europe's newest democracies are battling the continent's last dictatorship.

From taking in political asylum seekers, to financing independent media, to pressing the European Union to take a stronger stand on human rights violations, the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe have become the beleaguered Belarusian opposition's best friends on the continent.

"On the one hand there is moral assistance, moral support," said Ilya Hlybouski, a native of Belarus who works for the Prague-based humanitarian organization People In Need.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (TASS)

"For example [former Czech President] Vaclav Havel is always writing letters regarding events in Belarus and is always trying to morally assist the Belarusian opposition," he said. "The same is true of the [communist-era] opposition and dissidents in Poland. On the other hand, there is technical and material aide for the Belarusian opposition and Belarusian democrats."

The Czech Republic, for example, has taken in nearly 300 political asylum seekers from Belarus.

The Polish government last year began financing Radio Racja, which broadcasts uncensored news into Belarus in both the Belarusian and Russian languages. Warsaw is also preparing to begin satellite television broadcasts into Belarus.

Moreover, the Polish, Czech, and Lithuanian governments have become increasingly outspoken inside the European Union about opposing human rights violations in Belarus.

Old Vs New Europe

Belarusian opposition activists say such lobbying is important, especially since Europe's old powers like France and Germany have often been wary of alienating Minsk's ally Russia.

"They are...our ambassadors to old Europe, because there people don't always know what it is to live in a society of fear. They haven't lived in such a society in a long time, and some never have," Belarusian opposition politician Alyaksandr Milinkevich told RFE/RL on the sidelines of a recent conference in Prague.

"So when I talk to leaders of these countries, I ask them, 'Be our ambassadors there. The time will come when we will have our own people, but for now we need you,' and they fulfill this function."

A specialist in the former Soviet Union at the German Council on Foreign Relations, Alexander Rahr, says the new EU members have sparked a "heated debate" in Brussels about its policy toward Russia -- and by extension toward Belarus, and Ukraine.

"I must say that they do it very intelligently. They bring their arguments forward," Rahr said. "They have maybe what the old West does not have, they have moral political arguments having been victims of the Soviet past, of communism, which they bring to these discussions, where of course the old Europeans cannot contradict."

Strategic Concerns

Eugeniusz Smolar, head of the Warsaw-based Center for International Relations, says that his government and others in the region are motivated by a strong sense of moral obligation.

"We had been enjoying the help of the Western trade unions, the American Congress and President [Ronald] Reagan and President [Jimmy] Carter before, and the Polish hero [former U.S. National Security Advisor] Zbigniew Brzezinski," Smolar, who himself was imprisoned by Poland's communist regime in 1968 after protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, said.

"As you know, they were very active in applying human rights as a measure of success in international relations, or let's say as a measure of decency," he added. "So the same goes with us. Generally speaking, the Poles are democratically inclined people and they would like to help and they accept that such help is being offered to people less fortunate, especially those who are our neighbors."

But Smolar says Poland's stance is also partially pragmatic -- the desire to have a stable and democratic neighbor to the east.

"I believe it is pretty natural to have a neighbor, which is democratic, prosperous, predictable, not showing signs of behaving like the old Soviet type of state. Because there is always increased insecurity [about] what they might do, not only to their own population, but also in terms of foreign relations," Smolar said.

But despite the support abroad from the new EU members, Smolar said sooner or later Belarus's deeply divided opposition will need to show results at home.

"You know, success breeds success. If the Belarusian opposition cannot show positive results it is very difficult to gather support in Europe."

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

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