Opposition groups in Belarus hold their meetings in bugged offices amongst colleagues and friends who risk harassment, fines and unemployment simply for showing up. Often, the walls of the offices and apartments where these meetings take place are adorned with posters displaying the Polish Solidarity slogan, etched in its iconic blood-red script. The democratic revolution that toppled authoritarian Communist regimes across Eastern and Central Europe two decades ago began in Poland. Today, Belarusian democrats hoping to unseat their country’s long-entrenched dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, look to Poland and the example it set for inspiration.
Lately, they have also received concrete help. Polish aid to Belarus has almost tripled since 2006, to about $14 million a year. None of this money goes to the Belarusian government. It is spent supporting the democratic opposition through projects that pay the legal fees of detained activists, allow Belarusian students who have been kicked out of university to study in Poland, and fund Belarusian radio and television stations that are based in Poland and broadcast into Belarus. Poland has also waived visa fees for most Belarusians, while banning many regime officials from entering Poland. (Canada recently pledged $400,000 for democratic initiatives in Belarus, including $100,000 for Belsat, a Belarusian television station headquartered in Warsaw—though as of late March the station had not received the money. Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs refused to say when the promised funds would be dispersed.)
In December, President Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, was allegedly re-elected with 80 per cent of the vote. Observers said the election was flawed, and thousands of Belarusians took to the streets to protest the results. At least 600 were detained in the ensuing crackdown, and many were beaten. According to Zenon Kosiniak-Kamysz, Poland’s ambassador to Canada, this latest round of repression eroded any hope Poland had that Lukashenko might democratize on his own. The Polish and German foreign ministers had met with Belarusian authorities before the vote. “We expected really fair and democratic elections, which wasn’t done,” Kosiniak-Kamysz says. “So the only way is to prepare the democratic opposition, to give assistance to the democratic opposition in Belarus.”
This process can be delicate. “Democracy cannot be built by outsiders, but democratic aspirations of the society could and should be strengthened by those for whom democratic values and rules are of primordial importance,” says Miroslaw Sycz, deputy director of the development co-operation department in Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Poland—and other countries hoping to unseat Lukashenko—don’t pick and bankroll individual candidates or parties. Their actions are tailored more toward trying to strengthen Belarusian civil society and protect democratic activists. “If someone goes to jail, we don’t really care if he was representing Communists or social democrats or nationalists,” says Tomasz Pisula, chairman of the Freedom and Democracy Foundation, which is funded by the Polish government. The foundation’s activities include providing financial support to the families of Belarusian political prisoners, as well as conducting workshops on political organization and civil disobedience.
“What is important is to break this isolation,” says Kosiniak-Kamysz. “Many people living in Belarus are not aware of the realities existing in neighbouring countries. They don’t know that it is possible to live under totally different and better circumstances. So the main issue now is to give this information to the people. There is another world very close to Belarus, and you should have the opportunity to see that, to be familiar with the realities in other countries and to try to implement this in your country.”
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