By Jan Cienski in Warsaw
Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian ruler of Belarus, faces a popular uprising such as those taking place in north Africa unless he changes course and stops his crackdown on the opposition, warned Poland's foreign minister.
"Mr President you are losing. Sooner or later you will be forced to flee before your fellow citizens and seek shelter in another country," Radoslaw Sikorski, Polish foreign minister, said on Wednesday during an international conference raising funds for Belarusian pro-democracy groups.
Mr Sikorski drew a direct parallel between Belarus and the events taking place in Tunisia, where Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown, and Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak faces a growing challenge to his rule. "Perhaps the experience of Mr Ben Ali and Mr Mubarak will make Mr Lukashenko reflect that the path he has chosen is not the best for him personally," said Mr Sikorski.
Mr Lukashenko crushed the political opposition after flawed presidential elections on December 19, which he claimed to have with almost 80 per cent of the vote in the ex-Soviet republic of 10m. Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in protest at the elections, but police broke up their march and hundreds of people, as well as seven opposition presidential candidates, were jailed.
Although the regime moved to loosen some restrictions over the weekend, releasing Vladimir Neklyayev, a presidential candidate badly beaten by police, from prison and placing him under house arrest, the EU and the US on Monday moved to impose sanctions against the government. About 150 officials, including Mr Lukashenko, are covered by a travel ban, and an asset freeze is also being implemented.
On Wednesday, the aid conference increased its support for independent media and civil society organisations in Belarus. The US is raising its annual aid contribution from $11m to $15m and the European Commission said it would quadruple its aid to ($21.5m). Poland said it would double its support to 40m zlotys ($14m).
Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, called the measures a test of Europe's credibility in enforcing principles of democracy and human rights, not just within the EU but around the region.
"This is a very important gesture of solidarity, showing the Belarusian people that they are not left alone in the face of the horror that is now happening," said Eva Neklyayev, the daughter of the presidential candidate.
Belarusian officials have threatened to take reciprocal steps against the EU and the US.
Poland, with long historical ties with Belarus as well as a large Polish minority in the country, has become a centre of opposition to Mr Lukashenko, hosting pro-democracy television and radio stations broadcasting into Belarus. Many senior Polish officials, including Mr Sikorski, cut their teeth on opposing the communists before 1989, and referred to that experience in encouraging resistance to Mr Lukashenko's rule.