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Belarus: Minsk Set To Rein In Ethnic Polish Organization

Belarus has a 400,000-strong Polish minority A Minsk-Warsaw diplomatic clash in May over the Union of Poles in Belarus (SPB) took a new turn earlier this month after the Belarusian authorities deprived the SPB of the possibility to print its weekly, "Glos znad Niemna," and produced two bogus issues of the publication. Warsaw, which sponsors the activities of the SPB, has reportedly suspended financing "Glos znad Niemna," demanding that Minsk recognize the SPB new leadership elected during a congress in March as well as the new editorial staff of the weekly that was appointed after the congress. Some Polish minority activists in Belarus believe that Minsk's recent steps against the SPB are being orchestrated by the KGB.

Last month the Belarusian Justice Ministry said the SPB congress in March was "nondemocratic" and invalidated its decisions, including the election of SPB Chairwoman Andzelika Borys, who replaced Tadeusz Kruczkowski. According to Justice Minister Viktar Halavanau, there were irregularities in both the nomination of delegates and the congress itself. However, SPB activists argue that the authorities invalidated the congress because they want to reinstate a group of loyalists to the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who are led by former SPB Chairman Kruczkowski, in the SPB leadership. According to this line of argument, Borys personifies a democratic and intellectually independent faction within the organization and therefore is disagreeable to the authorities.

The Warsaw-Minsk standoff over the SPB culminated in May in reciprocal diplomatic expulsions and Warsaw's demand that Minsk back down on its decision annulling the March congress. Moreover, the Polish government reportedly compiled a list of SPB activists who support the Belarusian government in the conflict, as well as of some Belarusian officials, who are to be barred from entering Poland. The list, however, has so far not been officially released or confirmed. In its turn, Minsk took more decisive steps in the conflict.

First, in late May a printing plant in Hrodna refused to print an issue of "Glos znad Niemna" prepared by the editorial staff headed by Andrzej Pisalnik, who became the weekly's acting editor in chief following the March congress. This month the same printing plant printed two bogus issues of "Glos znad Niemna," which carried articles presenting official Minsk's stance in the conflict over the SPB. Pisalnik said he knows none of the bogus issues' contributors, except for Kruczkowski. Pisalnik appealed to the police and prosecutors over the illegal use of the newspaper's nameplate, but there has been no reaction so far. The bogus issues are being disseminated among subscribers through the state postal service.

"It is a de facto nationalization of an independent publication," Andrzej Poczobut, another Polish minority journalist in Belarus, told RFE/RL. "This is the first time we see such an occurrence in Belarus. If you ask my opinion about who's behind [these bogus issues], I'm sure it is the KGB, the only institution in our country that is able to carry through such a special operation -- to issue an illegal newspaper and deliver it to readers."

Tadeusz Gawin, founder and first head of the SPB, is also convinced that some sinister hand is working behind the scenes in the standoff over the SPB. "Kruczkowski does not belong to himself any longer -- he is simply an object of manipulation," Gawin told the Polish regional daily "Kurier Poranny" last week. "Unfortunately, the morals of this man have proven to be very weak. Accusations [of Kruczkowski] have been suddenly circulated regarding bribery, fraud, and sexual exploitation of female students. But there were no formal charges [against him] during all these years [when he headed the SPB]. The authorities simply have a hold over him. I pity this man. He had a great chance to become a major figure in the Polish national renaissance in Belarus but he has lost everything."

Tightening The Grip

Both Belarusian and Polish observers agree that Minsk's behavior toward the SPB does not pursue the goal of ethnic discrimination but is motivated primarily by the regime's desire to have the country's largest nongovernmental organization under tight control. The SPB, which claims a membership of more than 10,000, represents the nearly 400,000-strong Polish minority, which lives mainly in Hrodna Oblast in the northwest of the country. President Lukashenka's annual address to the nation in April appeared to confirm such suppositions. In that speech, Lukashenka accused Warsaw of destabilizing the situation in Belarus ahead of the 2006 presidential election by putting pressure on the country's Polish community (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 25 April 2005). Ukraine and Lithuania were also categorized by the Belarusian president as inciters of instability in Belarus.

Furthermore, Lukashenka's concerns about a potential export of a "colored revolution" from abroad have quite recently been confirmed by a peculiar incident involving Georgia. Earlier this month the Belarusian Foreign Ministry announced the abolishment of visa-free travel for Georgians. The official explanation held that Minsk needed to coordinate its foreign policies with Russia (which introduced visas for Georgians five years ago) and thwart illegal migrations of Georgians who allegedly used Belarus regularly as a transit country for entrance into the Russian Federation.

The Georgian parliament reacted immediately with an ingenious, "asymmetrical" response, drafting a bill to ban Lukashenka from entering Georgia. Lukashenka apparently realized that he, a fervent proponent of CIS reintegration, lost in that propaganda duel -- Minsk banned all Georgians from traveling without visas to Belarus, while Tbilisi banned just him, thus differentiating between the autocratic leader and the people. Therefore, Belarusian Foreign Ministry Syarhey Martynau was given the task of backing off on that unfortunate decision. In a misty and unconvincing statement on Belarusian Television, Martynau claimed that Lukashenka only instructed the Foreign Ministry and law-enforcement agencies to look into the possibility of introducing visas for Georgians, but did not introduce them in actual fact.

At the same time, perhaps involuntarily, Martynau admitted that Belarus would not hesitate to introduce visas for Georgians should Tbilisi attempted to export "some revolutions or pseudo-revolutions" to Belarus. Many Belarusian commentators maintain that it is essentially the same fear of a "revolution" exported through the Polish minority from Poland that underlies the authorities' current efforts to rein in the insubordinate SPB. Georgia responded toughly, using the language Lukashenka normally uses with regard to his adversaries both at home and abroad. And Lukashenka had to back out. Will Poland be able to find an equally tough response to Lukashenka's clampdown on the SPB?

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