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Belarus: Mixed Feelings About Poland's Interest

Belarusian opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich is ushered into the Polish parliament by the speaker of the Sejm, Marek Jurek, on January 25. (epa) Poland's government and NGOs have been among the most outspoken critics of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime in Belarus. But what do Belarusians think? Do they take this as Poland extending a brotherly hand? Or as the unwelcome meddling of a foreign state?

PRAGUE, March 17, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Poles as a whole seem enthusiastic about supporting democracy in Belarus, and not just its political elite. Last week, the Polish parliament adopted a resolution condemning the Belarusian authorities for their intimidation of opposition candidates and activists, and on March 12 thousands of ordinary Poles attended a "Solidarity with Belarus" rock concert in the Polish capital, Warsaw, featuring Belarusian rock groups banned in their homeland.

Agnieszka Komorowska, the coordinator of the European Choice for Belarus program at the Warsaw-based Stefan Batory Foundation, says Poles' interest is inevitable.

"The West is a kind of abstraction -- Germany, France, Great Britain are far away -- but Poland is nearby."

"Every country wants to have neighbors with which it can have a dialogue and discuss different issues and problems that crop up," says Komorowska, whose foundation's mission is to support the development of open, democratic societies in Central and East Europe. "And in the case of Belarus, we do not have such a partner and we do not have a dialogue. So democracy seems to be a guarantee of change and of having someone in power with whom we can work."

That is a notion that the Polish government subscribes to. It has sponsored a number of initiatives in Belarus, including Radio Racja (Radio Reason), which broadcasts from eastern Poland and Lithuania into Belarus. Initially launched in 1999, the radio suspended operations in 2002 due to lack of funding. However, in February, the station was brought back onto the air.

Polish universities have also extended a hand across the border, offering Belarusian students and scholars internships and scholarships.

As for Polish NGOs, they will remain intent on helping Belarus in the long term, Komorowska believes. "There is a group of Polish nongovernmental organizations for whom Belarus is a priority, or has been for many, many years," she says. "And that is not going to change."

For their labors, Polish NGOs have sometimes run into trouble with the Belarusian government. In July 2005, Minsk accused the Dialogue European Fund of spying and ordered it out of Belarus, though the Fund's remit is apolitical: it promotes cooperation between scientists across Central and Eastern Europe.

Views Across The Border And Political Divide

Belarusian united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich met with Polish President Lech Kaczynski in Warsaw on January 25 (RFE/RL)

But how do Belarusians view these Polish initiatives?

Valery Karbalevich, an analyst with the Minsk-based Strategy Center for Political Analysis, says people differ in their attitudes toward Poland as much as they differ in their attitudes toward reforms.

He says that Belarusians who live in the western part of the country are generally positive about Poland. Many of them have been to Poland, or can watch Polish television programs .

However, many others are influenced by the authorities' anti-Western stance.

"Official propaganda uses all the means available to foment hatred for the West in general and for Poland in particular," says Karbalevich. "For many Belarusians, who support Lukashenka and his policies, the West is associated with Poland. The West is a kind of abstraction -- Germany, France, Great Britain are far away -- but Poland is nearby."

Karbalevich says that the Belarusian authorities' official line is that Poland is a NATO country and NATO will soon have military bases there. That would pose an imminent threat to Belarus, the line goes.

At times, relations between Minsk and Warsaw have become heated. In early February, an unnamed official of Belarus's State Security Committee (KGB) said on Belarusian state television that the embassy had become a headquarters for foreign secret services. The KGB provided no evidence and Poland denied the accusations.

The Belarusian authorities also say that, as well as helping the country's opposition, Poland is encouraging the country's large Polish minority to be unpatriotic. There are estimated to be 417,000 ethnic Poles in Belarus.

Outlook Unchanged?

So, is all this making Belarusians more hostile toward their neighboring Poles? A recent survey certainly supports that notion.

"A poll conducted by Professor [Oleg] Manayev and his group [of sociologists] shows that the number of people in Belarus who have negative attitudes both towards Poland and Lithuania is increasing," says Karbalevich.

With the March 19 presidential election now just hours away, the Belarusian authorities are particularly jumpy at present.

Still, Lukashenka seems certain to win the vote. If so, relations between Minsk and Warsaw are unlikely to improve any time soon.

Belarus Election Preview

Belarus Election Preview

A protester in Vitsebsk calls for a boycott of the 19 March vote (RFE/RL)

ALL EYES ON BELARUS: No matter the outcome, the presidential election to be held on 19 March is an important event for the future of Belarus, according to three experts on the country who spoke at an RFE/RL briefing in Washington, D.C., on 14 February.

Listen to the complete panel discussion (about 60 minutes):
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ROBIN SHEPHERD, adjunct fellow with the New European Democracies Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said that civil society has been seriously weakened in Belarus as a result of the current regime's self-isolating and corrupt policies. Shepherd believes incumbent Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has decided he needs a democratic election to legitimize his regime. Shepherd cautioned that opinion polls be read accurately when evaluating the election results when they become available. For example, he predicted that the true level of support for Lukashenka will probably be from 10 to 12 percentage points less than the actual reported vote count, because of a "fear factor" within the Belarusian electorate -- that some voters will fear that Lukashenka can determine how a person voted. Shepherd said he cannot predict the outcome of the election, but does believe the opposition could win a fair vote in Minsk.

JAN MAKSYMIUK, RFE/RL's Belarus and Ukraine regional analyst, noted several differences between Belarus on the eve of its presidential election and Ukraine just prior to its "Orange Revolution" in December 2004. He said that, in Ukraine, no incumbent was running for president, putting both candidates on a more equal footing. Unlike Ukraine, the opposition is not represented in the Belarus parliament or in local governments, Maksymiuk said. The primary opposition candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, will not receive any positive media coverage due to state control of the Belarusian media, Maksymiuk said, and the relative economic prosperity of Belarus is another contributing factor to Lukashenka's likely re-election.

ALEXANDER LUKASHUK, RFE/RL Belarusian Service director, emphasized the government's control of the media in Belarus, saying that the Belarusian people are being deprived of both information and public discussion about election issues.

Listen to the complete panel discussion (about 60 minutes):
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Click on the image to view a dedicated page with news, analysis, and background information about the Belarusian presidential ballot.

Click on the image to view RFE/RL's coverage of the election campaign in Belarusian and to listen to RFE/RL's Belarusian Service.

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