By JUDY DEMPSEY
BERLIN - Since Belarus's security forces cracked down on the opposition last month, the Polish government has been pursuing a strategy aimed at increasing its support for civil society and non-governmental organizations while isolating the top leadership in Minsk, officials in Warsaw said Wednesday.
Instead of waiting for the European Union to adopt a united policy toward Belarus, Poland is moving quickly with its unusual unilateral effort. The steps include extending its Belarussian-language television to Belarus, opening its universities to Belarussian students who can no longer complete their studies back home because of their political activities and establishing a center in Warsaw for the Belarussian opposition.
Last Saturday, Poland waived a EUR20, or $26, visa fee for any Belarussian wishing to travel to Poland; other E.U. countries have retained charges for visiting Belarussians.
"We want to help our neighbors strengthen their European identity by enabling them to have more frequent contacts with the Poles and other citizens of the European Union," Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said in Warsaw last weekend. He added that Poland would take measures to "prevent officials of the Republic of Belarus responsible for organizing the recent wave of repression against the civil society from entering the territory of Poland."
Mr. Sikorski also announced this week that Poland would double its assistance this year to non-governmental organizations in Belarus to over ?10 million, or $13 million.
Belarussian security forces cracked down on the opposition last Dec. 19 and 20 following a presidential election that international observers called flawed. After President Alexander Lukashenko was elected to a fourth term, protesters took to the streets, and more than 700 people, including seven candidates who ran against him, were arrested.
Poland's unequivocal support for Belarussian civil society reflects a deep commitment to the expansion of values of freedom and democracy to those countries sandwiched between the European Union and Russia. And because Belarus is its direct neighbor, with a sizeable Polish minority, Poland feels a special responsibility for making the country an important foreign policy issue for the European Union as a whole.
E.U. officials are expected to discuss relations with Belarus in the next few days in Brussels. Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, was among E.U. leaders pushing for sanctions against Belarus, but government officials in Berlin say Germany also wants to support civil society and press freedom.
In a joint statement on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Catherine Ashton, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs, said they regretted the decision by the Belarussian authorities to halt the work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors elections. The statement also called on Belarus to release candidates and others detained after the elections.
In Poland, the Foreign Ministry said it was also providing aid to those beaten by the Belarussian security forces or those seeking shelter in Poland. The aid consists of legal assistance, accommodation and official space.
The Belarussian authorities said Wednesday that Poland was free to do what it wanted.
"Don't expect me to criticize our Polish partners. We consider it a sovereign Polish right. They are free to take actions they feel appropriate," said Andrei Savinykh, a Belarus Foreign Ministry spokesman. "But the problem is that there is quite a lot of our partners which have a distorted impression of the realities of the political and social life in Belarus."
Until last month's crackdown, the European Union, in a policy initiated by Poland and Sweden, was prepared to offer Mr. Lukashenko incentives, including closer ties with the bloc in return for gradual democratization. But the repression against the opposition appears to have convinced Warsaw that a differentiated policy toward Belarus must now be pursued.
"Clearly this is the time to do even more for civil society," said Agnieszka Romaszewska-Guzy, director of Belsat TV, a satellite television channel that is supported by the Polish government and located in Warsaw. "We are needed more than ever in Belarus," Ms. Romaszewska-Guzy said by telephone.
Belsat TV, with its slogan "Your Right to Choose," began broadcasting to Belarus in December 2007. It is now watched, regularly or occasionally, by nearly 761,000 people, according to the Polish Zerkalo-Info Research Center. The population of Belarus is estimated at nearly 10 million people.
Ms. Romaszewska-Guzy said the channel employed 37 full-time journalists and had over 100 freelancers in Belarus, several of whom had been imprisoned; the offices of Belsat TV were raided in the days following the crackdown.
Poland also supports Radio Racja, a Belarussian-language station, and European Radio for Belarus.
The Polish government said Wednesday it wanted other E.U. governments as well as non-governmental organizations and media outlets to support these broadcasting networks to Belarus. "We want to work with other partners," the Foreign Ministry said Wednesday.
Support from other E.U countries is essential, said Andrew A. Michta, a professor of international studies at Rhodes College in the United States and the first incoming director of the Warsaw Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
"Poland cannot pursue this policy alone" he said. "Poland has limited resources, and it is also vulnerable in its policies towards Belarus. It is trying to persuade the E.U. to impose sanctions but not at the expense of isolating the Belarussian population. At the same time, Poland has to consider the Polish minority in Belarus, which can come under pressure from the regime.
An estimated 400,000 ethnic Poles live in Belarus. Last February, the Belarussian authorities arrested more than 30 activists from the Union of Poles in Belarus, including its chairwoman, Andzelika Borys. Warsaw reacted by threatening to close its borders to some top Belarussian officials.