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Belarus: Why Is Poland So Interested In Belarus' Fate?

In the 12 months leading up to today's presidential elections, Polish citizens have taken a strong interest in the fate of their neighbors, the Belarusians. Some say this is because the two countries are geographically linked and it is in Poland's best interest to be surrounded by democratic friends. Others say it is because of Poland's own strong history fighting against oppression. Regardless of the reason, one thing is indisputable: Poland is almost as invested in the results of the March 19 election as Belarus is. The following report was prepared by RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Of all of Belarus’ neighbors, Poland is the most active supporter of the country’s democratic aspirations.

This is abundantly clear from the demonstrations of solidarity on the streets of Polish cities, as well by Poles in the international arena; no one is as adamant about human rights issues in Belarus as Polish politicians and activists are.

Why do the Poles feel so strongly about the fate of their neighbor? Is it largely the political elite who want this dictatorial country to move along the road to democracy and rule of law, or is it ordinary Poles, as well?

The Masses Take An Interest

Ten days before today's presidential elections in Belarus, Poland conducted the first of a series of sociologic polls about citizens’ attitudes toward their neighbors.

The poll revealed that 59 percent of Poles believe it would be better for their country if Belarus become a free, democratic country. Only 6 percent believe it would be worse for Poland. About half of those surveyed said they support the democratic movement in Belarus and believe Poland must help pro-democracy Belarusians.

But are democratic changes in authoritarian Belarus realistic to hope for in the near future? Only a third of Poles surveyed answered "yes."

Thousands of Poles have participated in demonstrations of solidarity with democracy activists in their neighboring country. They enthusiastically and widely participate in forms of aid, like admitting to Polish universities Belarusian students who have been expelled from their own universities for political reasons.

The results of the Polish survey revealed a new reality: A few years ago, it was only politicians who spoke about the need to help Belarus. Now the masses agree.

Demonstrating Their Discontent

Grzegorz Markowski, leader of the legendary rock group Perfect, joined many Polish music stars who agreed to play at a recent concert in Warsaw devoted to solidarity with Belarus, without pay. When asked why, his answer was matter-of-fact.

“I really wanted to do it,” he said. “You know, you can wake up with a hangover after a party -- you can be hungry or tired -- but you have to be free.

A  Polish student, who participated in a protest in front of the Belarusian Embassy in Warsaw, said he and his friends were doing what their fellow students in Belarus could not.
“We came to the embassy to protest what is happening in Belarus. There, even the slightest preparation for such a protest is punished – the police just come and round everybody up,” he said. “We cannot let this happen and are protesting against repressions and this kind of treatment in general. We hope that the Belarusians hear us.

“There is a point to this,” he continued. “Poles are becoming increasingly interested in what is happening in Belarus. They know that elections are coming up. We generally support freedom, and when we have information that our neighbors are limited in that regard, we mobilize ourselves and do the best we can to help.”

A bus driver from Warsaw said he came to the concert to show his opposition to the lack of freedom in Belarus.

“I can freely leave my house and come to this kind of concert,” he said. “It only depends on whether or not I want to. In Belarus, though, this is impossible. The musicians that are performing here today are not allowed to play there. This is wrong and I came to demonstrate my discontent.”

A Sea Change In Five Years

The former speaker of Poland’s Sejm, Marek Borowski, is a familiar face at Belarusian solidarity events.

“Belarus is a country that is very close to ours,” he said. “Just look at the flags: ours is white and red, theirs is white, red, and white. We’re not trying -- as Lukashenko claims -- to finance some sort of revolution. We simply want the Belarusians to be able to make a free choice.”

Less than five years ago, Belarus was not often spoken of in Poland’s political arena. This was partly because of the terrorist acts on September 11, 2001, in the United States,  which diverted the world’s attention to different kinds of problems. But few leaders in the European Union, or other pan-European organizations, were interested in keeping Belarus at the forefront of people’s minds. 

Even though the 2001 Belarusian elections were declared undemocratic and not free, nothing was done.

Four years later, the situation was radically changed. Poland, which joined the European Union on May 1, 2004, has argued strongly that it should be the principle voice in determining Brussels’ policy toward its eastern neighbor. Polish diplomacy, having accomplished its key goals – joining NATO and the EU – has partially redirected its attention eastward.

The success of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution proved to the Poles that their country can be one of the key players in a unified Europe when it comes to dealing with not only Ukraine, but also Belarus, and to some extent, Russia.

A History Of Solidarity

Beginning six to 12 months before the 2006 Belarus elections, European institutions became conspicuously more active. In 2005, at the insistence of Polish deputies, the European Parliament (EP) discussed the Belarusian question no less than five times. No non-member country has ever received so much attention from the EP, which has gone as far as appointing a special delegation for Belarusian Affairs, led by Poland’s Bogdan Klich.

A January 2006 meeting between the EU leadership and the presidential candidate from the united democratic forces, Alyaksandr Milinkevich -- largely due to the effort of Polish politicians – was considered huge progress, considering how conservative Brussels usually is in matters of foreign policy.

Polish president Lech Kaczynski also met with Milinkevich. The leader of the Belarusian opposition had an opportunity to speak before the Sejm – the first Belarusian to do so since World War 2. The Polish government has also provided funds for a Belarusian-language radio to broadcast from Poland into Belarus.

Finally, support rallies -- which in the past were attended by a few dozen people at most -- have now become truly mass gatherings. Politicians pay close attention to them and they even receive live coverage on national television.

At one such rally, a popular Polish band called Big Cyc performed a politically-minded song, eloquently titled “Dictator,” which they wrote in Belarusian in support of the opposition movement.

Bronislaw Komorowski, former political prisoner and active member of Solidarnost, who is now the Sejm’s vice speaker, said it would be strange if Poland was not supporting the pro-democracy movement in Belarus.

“The Belarusians are our closest relatives. They are geographically, culturally, and historically so close to us that it would be surprising if we didn’t support them,” he said. “Actually, Belarus’ most ardent supporters are those Poles who fought for democracy and independence in Poland, for whom the message of ‘Solidarnost’ to the subjugated peoples of Central and Eastern Europe – when in 1981, they called on them to fight for their freedom – is still relevant.

“For me, a man of Solidarnost, that message and those ideas are only just materializing," he continued. "It is still too early to say that we’re at the end of our journey. One of the last standing bastions of the old regime is Belarus. Democratic countries supported us in communist times by helping us publish prohibited newspapers and books, supporting political prisoners. Now it’s time for us to do the same for those who need it. We are fighting so that a normal life of democracy and freedom – one that we currently enjoy – can become a reality for our Belarusian brothers.”

A Bridge Between The EU And Russia?

In 2005, officials in Minsk did not recognize the new leadership of the Union of Belarusian Poles, a public organization whose headquarters are in Grodno. New elections had to be held and a new leadership was elected, which were then not recognized by Warsaw. Until this scandal erupted, Polish politicians often said that Poland’s policy towards Belarus was limited to the interests of the Polish minority in Belarus. It is difficult, the thinking went, to be strict with Minsk when there are hundreds of thousands of Poles living there who could have problems as a result.

But the minority has not been the only obstacle to Poland's expression of its true feelings. Diplomatic and business relations have also begun to deteriorate, lending weight to the theory that Poland’s interest in supporting the Belarusian opposition is driven by economics.

Bronislaw Komorowski dismisses that idea, saying that a democratic Belarus is in Poland’s best interest for many reasons.

“What can Poland get from this? Besides a feeling of self-worth, there is also the greater goal of expanding European democracy,” he says. “Belarus, as our close neighbor, can either stay under the influence of its eastern neighbor, or join a political group, where democratic mechanisms characteristic of Western civilization function. The latter is in Poland’s interests. The conditions necessary for a normal economy require that there is economic cooperation between our countries. Restoring normality in other spheres also requires the building of bridges between Poles and Belarusians. Things like mutual cultural exchange are important to any free man.”

But Poland’s interest in Belarus’ fate is not welcomed by Russia. Indeed, Moscow and Warsaw view Belarus’ condition completely differently: Russia’s new ambassador to Minsk has declared the state of democracy in Belarus “normal,” while the most flattering description Polish politicians can summon up is “authoritarian.”

But the question arises: Is Poland risking its relations with Russia – as Ukraine did with its Orange Revolution – by supporting the Belarusian opposition?

"In their day, Lenin and Stalin also used the cover of “democracy,” but with the adjective ‘peoples,’” Bronislaw Komorowski says. “There must be some sort of democracy that can be called ‘Lukashenkian,’ and of course, it can be lauded by the Russian ambassador. This, however, does not alter Poland’s position, which is that we want such a democracy in Poland that is accepted by international standards – a normal democracy. Russia, of course, has its own interests in Belarus and we don’t know how long Moscow will support Lukashenka."

Then he poses another question.

“What will happen in Belarus after Lukashenka? It is not necessarily true that any change will lead to a freer and more independent country. Perhaps it will become a puppet government in Russia’s ‘empire.’ Generally speaking, the Poles don’t care what political forces the Belarusians will choose to govern themselves. Belarus will decide for itself where it will head and whom it will cooperate with – the east or the west. The important thing is that they make that choice independently. This is what we care about.”

Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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