Poland calling on US to aid Belarus dissidents


The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Poland is asking the United States to help fund dissidents in Belarus following a widely condemned election and a crackdown on dissent.

In an interview, Poland's ambassador Robert Kupiecki compared the struggle of democratic activists in Belarus to his country's solidarity movement under communist rule. He urged the United States to match the support Polish dissidents received during the Cold War.

"What also comes to mind is the role that Western free institutions played in bringing about freedom to Poland," he said Tuesday. "And this is why Belarus needs our solidarity today."

He says that Poland will be inviting other countries, including the United States, to a donors conference in Warsaw early next month aimed at raising money for the opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko and Democratic activists that Poland has long supported.

"We expect political and democratic pressure on the Belarusian authorities," he said. "This means all forms of support for democratic society to direct help for those brave people in Belarus who have the courage to oppose the oppressive government."

The United States and other Western countries have called the Belarus's elections last month illegitimate and condemned the crackdown on Lukashenko opponents. More than 700 people, including seven candidates who ran against Lukashenko, were arrested after the voting, most of them at a massive demonstration protesting alleged vote fraud. Belarus also ordered the closure of the local mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose monitors strongly criticized the election as unfair.

The State Department's top official on Europe, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon said in an interview Wednesday that the U.S. is considering how to respond to the developments in Belarus.

"We are actively looking at all of our options, including additional sanctions," he said.

Last year, U.S. agencies provided $11 million for democracy promotion in Belarus. That included $1.4 million for training political parties through non-governmental organizations and U.S. funded groups, such as the International Republican Institute.

Poland has doubled its aid to independent groups and media in Belarus to $14 million.

It is unclear how much influence Western countries have on Lukashenko.

"There is not much the United States can do as far as punitive measures," says David Kramer, the executive director of the watchdog organization Freedom House. He added that European countries might have more leverage with sanctions and restrictions on Belarusian officials.

In recent years, the European Union and the United States have imposed travel bans on senior Belarusian officials and frozen some assets.

Some of the sanctions were suspended with the aim of encouraging Lukashenko to reform.

The European Union last year promised 3 billion euros in aid if the presidential elections were deemed free and fair. Those enticements came as Lukashenko feuded with Russia, its traditional patron, over price hikes for the below-market Russian oil and gas that is the linchpin of Belarus' economy. Shortly before the election Russia agreed to drop oil export tariffs. Afterward, Lukashenko appeared to brush off the West.


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