Belarusians get a little help from their Polish friends

The Polish government helping fight strongman Alexander Lukashenko

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.”

According to Mitchell Orenstein, a professor of European studies at Johns Hopkins University, countries that want Belarus to democratize should also keep open lines of communication to officials inside the country. Successful transitions to democracy are often negotiated, he says. The European Union and the United States have imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and more than 150 members of his regime. But there is another layer of power brokers below these men—military and government-linked business leaders, among others—who may eventually need to be engaged.

Whether outside powers can help guide democratic development in authoritarian regimes is increasingly relevant given recent and ongoing uprisings against dictatorships in the Middle East.

A little help from their friends
Sergei Grits/AP

There is the argument that freedom is more dearly held and protected when a country achieves it on its own. This is no doubt true. Yet Poles who lived through the country’s democratic transition say the support they received from the West during their own struggle against Soviet Communism was crucial. “Without this assistance, our changes wouldn’t go as successfully as they did,” says Kosiniak-Kamysz. “We prepared ourselves, for sure. But it’s like driving a train in one direction and then trying to go the opposite way. Sometimes people need advice.”

It’s not surprising that Poles were active supporters of recent mass uprisings in Ukraine and Georgia. Some Poles feel obligated by their country’s past. “Polish experience tells us very clearly that if this is the will of the people, everything can be achieved,” says Artur Michalski, head of the eastern policy department at Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to Ambassador Kosiniak-Kamysz, “Our example showed the world that the impossible was possible.”

Polish attempts to promote democracy abroad are spreading to the Middle East. Last year, the Freedom and Democracy Foundation co-operated with an American NGO to host a training session for 20 Egyptian opposition activists, bringing Egyptian trade unionists, politicians, lawyers and human rights workers to Poland to meet and strategize with veterans of Poland’s Solidarity movement. “We actually had lectures on how to organize big demonstrations,” says Pisula.

In the past, Egyptian authorities pressured activists to gather outside the downtown core of major cities, where demonstrations are not so disruptive and where state media can easily ignore them. But if you cannot guarantee media coverage, says Pisula, “then perhaps you should take the risk and congregate in one of the city squares so that traffic is stopped and the whole city is paralyzed. Then, if it is not covered by the media, eventually people will know that something is happening in the city.”

Pisula doubts the Poland conference had much impact on the recent revolution in Egypt. But he does recall the Egyptians in Poland discussing where in Cairo to hold a mass demonstration. In January, activists in that city took over Tahrir Square, shutting down Cairo and forcing the rest of the country and the world to pay attention. After 18 days, Hosni Mubarak, president for three decades, bowed to public pressure and resigned.