Civil Society, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

BELARUS: Crackdown on Dissent Feared Ahead of Elections

Pavol Stracansky

WARSAW, Mar 22 2010 (IPS) - Civil rights leaders in Belarus are facing a campaign of persecution and harassment as autocratic President Aleksandr Lukashenko looks to crack down on the opposition ahead of local and presidential elections over the next year, rights activists warn.

They say a riot police crackdown on protests last month, amid a row over the confiscation of property belonging to an opposition group representing the Polish minority, was part of a new wave of repression that will last until Lukashenko confirms his dictatorship once again early next year.

Olga Stuzhinskaya, director of the non-profit organisation Office for a Democratic Belarus based in Brussels, told IPS: “The Polish minority in Belarus is a traditional target whenever elections loom. With local elections in April, Lukashenko will be looking to put a stop to the opposition before they have a chance to put forward their ideas and make political gains.

“The Polish minority and the entire civil society in Belarus can expect to be under pressure up to the presidential elections at the start of next year.”

Last week, police raided the offices of the opposition website ‘Charter 97’ and the independent newspaper ‘Narodnaya Volya’ as well as the homes of three journalists associated with the publications. The action drew protests from the New York-based Campaign for the Protection of Journalists and other international rights groups.

Former Soviet state Belarus has been condemned by international governments and third sector campaigners for human rights abuses since Lukashenko, often described as Europe’s last dictator, came to power in 1994.

Opposition leaders have been jailed, presidential elections have been widely condemned as frauds and dissent against the regime has often been brutally repressed by the state.

Minsk and Warsaw have been at odds over Belarus’s 400,000-strong Polish minority for much of the last decade.

Lukashenko has been angered by Warsaw’s support for the pro-democracy opposition in Belarus and experts say that in retaliation he has targeted the Polish minority’s civil rights groups and important figures, some of whom hold key posts in the opposition leadership and media.

He has accused the Union of Poles in Belarus (UPB), which is recognised by Warsaw as the official voice of the Polish minority in Belarus, of being a “fifth column” used by hostile Western powers to try and foment a revolution to bring down his regime.

Polish minority leaders in Belarus say there has never been a cultural repression, but overwhelmingly, the minority is pro-Western and pro-democracy and experts say they have suffered years of civil rights repression.

“Lukashenko has never repressed the Polish minority out of any nationalist or ethnic aims and Belarusians are generally very tolerant to minorities, but the moves against them have been driven by political desires to maintain power,” said Stuzhinskaya.

Some of the worst, and most internationally visible, repressions came in 2005, ahead of presidential elections. Lukashenko ordered the expulsion of a Polish diplomat, the shutting down of a Polish-language newspaper and the setting up of a rival Polish minority union with its own appointed leaders sympathetic to the regime.

There are now fears that another campaign of repression has started. In January, riot police were sent in to secure the court where a ruling was made to confiscate the UPB’s property.

Protests by UPB leaders over the confiscation led to harassment and arrests with its head, Andzelika Borys, having to go into hiding for fear of being arrested. She and another 40 UPB members were later arrested on their way to a protest meeting in February. A day later, a solidarity demonstration with dissidents, political opponents and UPB members ended up being brutally crushed by police with more than 20 arrests made.

Warsaw has tried pressuring Lukashenko’s regime into better treatment of its Polish minority and warned Minsk that it could face EU sanctions if it continues with its repressions.

But analysts say that the Polish minority is suffering not just another example of human rights abuses but is being used as a pawn in a political game Lukashenko is playing, and winning, with the European Union (EU).

Last year Belarus was invited to join the EU’s ‘Eastern Partnership’ programme, designed to foster closer ties with non-EU states in Eastern Europe. Western diplomats saw the invitation, which included trade and financial aid programmes, as a way to engage the former Soviet state amid fears that years of international isolation would only drive it further towards its historical ally, Russia.

Lukashenko accepted the invitation as the economy in Belarus, one of Europe’s poorest states, reeled under the global financial crisis. The move infuriated Moscow and previously-guaranteed political support from the Kremlin disappeared while trade between the two countries slumped.

It had been hoped that since then the human rights situation would improve in the country and there had been tentative reports from foreign NGOs that civil rights groups in Belarus were enjoying more freedom.

Following the problems with the UPB, though, Minsk has completely dismissed EU concerns over its treatment of the Polish minority. In an official statement released by the Belarusian Foreign Ministry earlier this month it said EU condemnation of recent events had “nothing to do with the real situation” and accused Brussels of being biased on the issue.

Brussels said last week that the parliamentary assembly of the Eastern Partnership programme would not include any representatives from the Belarusian authorities. Instead its Belarusian delegation will be made up of people from opposition organisations and civil groups, including the UPB.

Wojtek Borodzicz-Smolenski, analyst at the Centre for International Relations in Warsaw, told IPS that the crackdown on the UPB has shown Lukashenko is prepared to breach human rights in Belarus at will without fear of concrete reprisals from the EU.

He said: “Lukashenko is showing the EU that they can do nothing to touch him on rights abuses. They cannot act dynamically against him and he can expose the double standards of its Eastern Partnership [if they challenge him].

“They cannot exclude Belarus from the Eastern Partnership without bringing up the question of other dictatorships in Armenia and Azerbaijan, which are also part of the partnership.

“MEPs will say they do not want Belarusian MPs involved in the Partnership’s parliament because the Belarus assembly is not democratically elected, but Minsk can bring up that that is exactly the same case in Armenia and Azerbaijan and nothing is said against them.

“This is all a big political game for him and it will show he can get what he wants from the EU.”

Rights campaigners say Polish minority civil rights campaigners will continue to bear the brunt of government repression as Lukashenko ignores any diplomatic rebuff from Brussels.

Katerina Spacova, director of the Civic Belarus NGO based in Prague, Czech Republic, told IPS: “Life for all independent groups is going to get much more difficult in the next year.

“Lukashenko is more interested in power in his own state than improving relations with the EU. It is a matter of priorities for him. He is the king in his own country and wants to stay that way and will do what he has to to stop any opposition before the elections. There will be restrictions on NGOs, media and all parts of civil society.

“The EU has nothing it can lever against him and he knows this. They are pretty powerless.”

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