Belarusian Opposition Eyes Poland, Putin, Itself

WARSAW, Poland — The Palace of Culture and Science, Stalin’s towering gift to a war-ravaged Warsaw, was illuminated in vertical stripes of white, red, and white this summer. Few Varsovians noticed—white and red are, after all, the colors that form the Polish flag. To Belarusian activists in exile here in the Polish capital, however, it was unmistakable: the national flag that Aleksandr Lukashenko, Belarus’s unchallenged leader, banned when he seized power two decades ago.

Poland has long been a model for post-Soviet rehabilitation. The country’s successful transition to democracy has made it a longtime friend of reformers from countries of the former USSR. Here, out of reach of their country’s KGB (Belarus’s spy network, unlike Russia’s, retained its Soviet moniker), Lukashenko’s dogged oppositionists work to topple the man dubbed Europe’s Last Dictator.

Twelve years ago, Ales Zarembiuk, now 32, was Belarus’ youngest elected local council deputy. Over time, his popularity drew the regime’s wrath and in 2010, a week before elections, KGB agents knocked on his door brandishing legal papers. Zarembiuk fled Belarus, via Russia and Ukraine (for a while he contemplated staying in Kyiv but soon realized there was no place for him in Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukraine) and settled in Warsaw. “Lukashenko is scared of revolution,” he says. “Even I, a young, a low-ranked politician from little Grodno, was a threat to him.”

But times are changing for the mustachioed Belarusian strongman. The war in Ukraine has rocked the post-Soviet world, revealing the Kremlin’s neo-imperialist ambitions and threatening the futures of all of Russia’s neighbors. Lukashenko’s fiefdom sits north of war-torn Ukraine, west of vulnerable young democracies in Poland and the Baltics, and east of Vladimir Putin’s revanchist Russia. Belarusians in Warsaw have watched the Ukraine crisis—Putin’s Crimea landgrab and stirring irredentism in Ukraine’s Russophone east—in despair.

“After Ukraine, Belarusian politicians understood the fight for freedom will be bloody,” says Dzmitry Barodka. The 40-year-old fled Belarus in 2011, driven out by threats for participating in the opposition’s presidential campaign the year before. From Warsaw, he set up the opposition-fundraising platform “Together for Belarus.”

“Putin will not stop at Ukraine,” warns the (similarly named) Dzmitry Bandarenka. After serving 16 months in prison for managing the opposition leader’s presidential bid, he too fled to Warsaw in 2011. “I wouldn’t rule out that we will have to go to war for a free Belarus,” he says.

Needless to say, Moscow’s meddling in Ukraine worries the Belarusians of Warsaw. The nearly 1,000-mile border between Russia and Belarus is virtually uncontrolled, and Russia’s FSB security agency works closely with the Belarusian KGB. Bandarenka, who spent five months in a KGB prison, says the KGB, although staffed by Belarusians, is so Russified that many of its officers “know nothing about Belarus.” (Most dictators are nationalists; Lukashenko is not. During his 20 years of rule, he systematically repressed Belarusian national identity. Lukashenko long dismissed Belarusian as an inferior language and clamped down on Belarusian language schools, favoring Russian and Soviet culture instead. State employees, first and foremost the KGB recruits, have been most affected by this Russification.)

Some opposition members say reform is not enough—they want popular movements to remove Lukashenko’s regime from its roots. “There are revolutions on the EU’s borders,” Bandarenka says, referring to Ukraine. “Belarus will not sit quietly and watch them.” After all, Belarusians have been protesting for years: “We came out in 1996, in 2000, 2006 and 2010—even when the state said it would treat us as terrorists.”

But the bloodshed of the crushed 2010 protests, the war in Ukraine, and the effect of Russian propaganda have forced many Belarusians to favor the regime’s illusion of stability. Having watched Ukraine, they know that any attempts at reform will likely lead to Russian intervention. “We know that nobody will fight for us,” Barodka sighs.


The world seems to have forgotten about Belarus. The West says it will support a free Ukraine and a free Belarus, but unlike Europe and America, Russia is ready to go to war to keep the country in its fold. Europe, while assuaging its guilt with the occasional tough talk, has consistently helped sustain Lukashenko’s grip on power. Warsaw’s Belarusian activists fear Europe’s flirtation with Lukashenko may grow more brazen still—next to Putin, after all, the Belarusian is practically a gentleman.

Nonetheless, Europe remains a goal and a model for Lukashenko’s opponents. “We criticize the West because we feel part of it,” Bandarenka says. “We were once one country with Poland and Lithuania—now they are in Europe and we are not.” Still, the activists recognize that change needs to come from within. “We can’t just ask for help from Europe,” says Barodka. “There needs to be a fight.”

The Belarusian opposition, however, often appears too divided to put up a fight. “We constantly send different delegations to Europe—we need a single leader for it to talk to,” says Zarembiuk. Activists have also been unable to put forward a candidate for next year’s presidential election—partly because many were in prison. KGB infiltration, Zarembiuk tells me, is also to blame: whenever the opposition forms a coalition, it suspiciously falls apart at the last moment. Pro-EU sentiment is a unifying factor, but it is not a plan.

The more radically inclined opposition members, like Bandarenka, call for a complete boycott of the state. Any co-operation by activists or other governments with the Lukashenko regime, in their view, leads to nowhere. They dream of a Belarus free of Lukashenko’s allies, where lustration would allow a European Minsk to follow the path of democracy. Others advocate dialogue with its relatively reasonable members. In a post-Lukashenko Belarus, Zarembiuk believes, some of Lukashenko’s men could remain in Parliament in Minsk, much as ex-communists still sit in the Polish Sejm here. However, the path toward that result is more problematic. In 1989, the entire Polish population opposed communist leadership; today, Belarusians show little support for Lukashenko’s opponents. And Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland’s last communist leader, sat down with the opposition in the Round Table Talks that ultimately led to autonomy. Lukashenko, however, is not a man of compromise.

Others believe the road to democracy runs through Moscow. A democratic Kremlin, their argument goes, would in turn allow a free Belarus to prosper. But relations with Russia run deeper than Putin—even Russian liberals often refer to Belarus as Moscow’s historical backyard.

Naturally, with emigration comes criticism. Opposition activists who stayed behind in Belarus tend to look at diaspora dissidents with suspicion. Warsaw’s oppositionists see it differently: here they can speak openly and work unimpeded. Those who stayed are within reach of the KGB, which inevitably limits their ability to protest.

In any case, they say, their stay in Warsaw is only temporary. It is only a matter of time—they are convinced—before Belarus rejoins the world. Whether that transformation happens peacefully is largely up to the Kremlin.

Ola Cichowlas is a journalist covering Russia and Eastern Europe. Follow her on Twitter: @olacicho.

Photo Credit: www.kremlin.ru

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