The European Parliament today was the epicenter of an ongoing campaign in which Belarusian civil-society activists are seeking greater EU support in their struggle with that country's autocratic authorities.
The EU-Belarusian relationship has soured in recent weeks as a result of intense pressure by Minsk on the independent leaders of the Polish minority.
Poland, an EU member state, is now lobbying other member states in the bloc for a reversal of the policy of engagement which the EU has pursued towards Belarus for the past two years.
Alyaksandr Milinkevich, a Belarusian opposition leader, and Andzelika Borys, chairwoman of the Union of Poles in Belarus (ZPB), held a series of meetings in Brussels this week with representatives of political groups.
The two activists also met the president of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek -- a Pole -- who came out strongly in their support.
Buzek warned democratic freedoms were being trampled underfoot in Belarus. "Prisons are filling up again in Belarus -- and not only with members of the Polish minority who were recently temporarily arrested but also by regular opposition activists," he said.
Milinkevich today echoed that assessment.
"In the economy, thanks to dialogue, reforms are happening," Milinkevich said. "There is a certain modernization ongoing and a switch to market mechanisms. But as regards human rights and freedom in Belarus, the situation has not improved. In fact, it has significantly worsened."
At today's press conference, the Belarusian activists were flanked by leading Polish members of the European Parliament. Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, former head of the parliament's foreign affairs committee, and Jacek Protasiewicz, head of the parliament's delegation for Belarus, were both instrumental in securing Borys and Milinkevich a hearing.
Both were expected to meet the new EU enlargement and neighborhood commissioner, Stefan Fule, a few hours later.
At the European Parliament, Saryusz-Wolski told reporters the democratically elected leadership of the ZPB under Borys has been "brutally repressed" by the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and the nearly 1 million-strong Polish minority has been denied all rights. Up to 40 activists have received brief jail sentences in recent weeks and a community building in Ivanyets has been seized by the government.
But Borys said it was not just her group that is being pressured.
"The case of the Union of Poles is not a case of problems between Poles and Belarusians, it is a case which entails a violation of human rights and the destruction of an independent organization of the Polish minority which wants to function normally. It is not just our issue," Borys said. "In Belarus, other civic groups are pursued and cannot gain registration in order to operate. The authorities try to present it as an internal conflict in order to distract peoples' attention, so that the issue is not seen in the context of human rights."
Saryusz-Wolski said EU-Belarus ties could now be called into question. A European Parliament fact-finding mission will travel to the country on February 25, and a parliamentary resolution is expected in two weeks' time. EU foreign ministers discussed the issue on February 22 and will revisit it next month.
Steering clear of calls for a complete break-off of relations, Milinkevich today called on the EU to make better use of the instruments at its disposal.
He said funds disbursed under the Eastern Partnership project -- of which Belarus is a member -- are too focused on promoting economic cooperation. The purpose of the money that is available to civil society bodies tends to be defeated because the EU has so far preferred to deal with officially recognized organizations. Anyone heading up an unauthorized group -- like Borys -- Milinkevich said, risks a three-year prison sentence.
Speaking Polish and facing an audience of mostly Polish journalists, all speakers were at pains to stress that this was not a mere Polish-Belarusian spat but an issue for the entire EU. Protasiewicz evoked the 1975 Helsinki accord, which made human rights violations an international concern. He said the Belarusian ambassador to the EU who had attended one of this morning's meetings had said the issue is an "internal matter."
The Belarusian representatives appeared to follow a strict division of labor. Borys repeatedly said she is not a politician, saying the ZPB's activities are limited to cultural and educational matters, leaving political demands to Milinkevich, an ex-presidential candidate.
Under EU rules, the European Parliament has no direct foreign policy-making powers. Its resolutions are not binding on the member states, who retain full sovereignty.
Although Poland's lead role on Belarusian issues is widely recognized within the EU, other member states have so far refrained from open involvement in the issue. Diplomats say Monday's discussion of Belarus among EU foreign ministers was very brief, amounting to little more than a Polish briefing on the situation.
The EU's larger member states tend to view relations with neighbors through the prism of the bloc's partnership with Russia. Older EU members have also learnt to be wary of the newcomers' potential domestic agendas -- in evidence most recently in Romania's very close interest in Moldova's problems.
Interests among the newer member states may also diverge -- the Baltic countries with their large Russian populations are quietly leery of EU involvement in minority issues, fearing damaging precedents.