WARSAW, Poland — A basement meeting room was crowded with Belarusian opposition activists. They listened intently to the stories of people who had been beaten and jailed following President Alexander Lukashenko's crackdown after Belarus' Dec. 19 elections.
The gathering was taking place not in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, but in Warsaw, in the buildings of the Polish parliament — a sign of the importance that Poland is placing on the struggle for democracy taking place in its eastern neighbor.
“Poland has been a huge help to us,” said Alexander Milinkievich, a presidential candidate in the 2006 elections and one of the few opposition leaders still able to function more or less openly in Belarus.
Warsaw is also organizing a donors conference Wednesday that will gather EU and U.S. officials to discuss ways of funding the Belarusian opposition. The meeting will come just after a Brussels summit looking at extending sanctions against key members of the Minsk regime by forbidding them from traveling to the EU and the United States and possibly by freezing their foreign assets — another area where Poland is pushing hard for a tough stance.
“We have to get the message to Belarus that this sort of behavior is simply unacceptable in the center of Europe in the 21st century,” said a western diplomat stationed in Warsaw, adding that following the revolution in Tunisia and unrest in Egypt it was vital for the West to make its position on human rights clear to Lukashenko, often dubbed Europe's last dictator.
After the polls closed on Dec. 19, demonstrators gathered in Minsk. Security forces responded by arresting members of the opposition (including seven presidential candidates), searching the offices of activists and journalists, and shutting down the Minsk office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In recent days, Belarus has released some of the opposition leaders jailed in December, showing that foreign condemnation of Lukashenko might be having some effect.
Poland has long taken the lead in trying to undermine Lukashenko. The government gives about $14 million a year promoting initiatives like an independent radio station and the Belsat satellite television network, which broadcasts a combination of entertainment and news to Belarus from its Warsaw studio.
It is difficult to calculate the exact viewership because the channel is picked up by dishes which are not always legal, but Alaksei Dzikaviski, a station's news director, insisted that Belsat has become a vital source of unfiltered news in the country of 10 million. In the immediate aftermath of Lukashenko's crackdown, the channel's Minsk offices were raided by police.
Poland has long kept a close eye on events in Belarus. Warsaw has been keen to support the ex-Soviet republic's independence and to prevent it falling completely under Moscow's control, part of Poland's long-term strategic goal of pushing Russian influence as far from its borders as possible.
There are also about 500,000 ethnic Poles living in western Belarus, a reminder of the time before World War II when half of Belarus belonged to Poland. Poland and Belarus also formed one state in early modern times together with Ukraine and Lithuania, and the memories of that period continue to exist in Belarus. The history continues to be important today, with Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, acting as a smaller refuge for Belarusian opposition activists.
Many Belarusian opposition leaders, including Milinkievich and Stanislav Shushkevich, who led Belarus to independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, speak fluent Polish.
In the run-up to the election, Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, traveled to Minsk together with his German counterpart to spell out the benefits that would flow to Belarus if Lukashenko conducted a fairly free vote, and the price he would pay if he did not.
The ties work both ways. In the heady couple of hours during which thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Minsk following the election that Lukashenko claims to have won with almost 80 percent support, many protesters were aware of how Poland broke the back of the communist dictatorship in the 1980s with the Solidarity labor union.
“The Poles did it and so can we,” said Alina, a blond student waving an outlawed red and white Belarusian independence banner as she marched toward Minsk's government headquarters.
Just before hundreds of riot policemen broke up the Dec. 19 protest, the loud-speakers strung up around the enormous statue of Lenin that dominates Minsk's main square rang out with the song “Walls,” originally written by Catalan singer Lluis Llach, which became the anthem of the Polish opposition following the communist declaration of martial law in 1981.
“We can make the walls fall here too,” yelled the singer.
Lukashenko is well aware of the danger that Poland poses to his regime, and is trying to whip up anti-Polish feeling in Belarus, a tactic that he has tried before, without much success. Last week he accused Poland of plotting to shift its border eastward to encompass territory that was Polish before 1939.
“Maybe they'll kill us or wring our necks, but we won't surrender,” Lukashenko told parliament.
He also accused the Polish of financing attempts to overthrow his government — and in that he was actually correct.