Alexander Lukashenko has a lot of opponents at home, so now he’s making even more enemies abroad.
The authoritarian leader of Belarus has unleashed law enforcement against leaders of the country’s small ethnic Polish minority — accounting for about 3 percent of the country’s population of 9.5 million. Last week, Belarus ordered the arrests of four prominent ethnic Polish activists. Prosecutors cite “illegal mass undertakings” which purportedly honored “anti-Soviet gangs operating during and after the Great Patriotic War” who “plundered and murdered civilians and destroyed property” — in a likely reference to Polish partisans who resisted the introduction of communism after World War II. They said the community’s activities “aimed at rehabilitating Nazism and justifying the genocide of the Belarusian nation.”
It’s part of a ploy by Lukashenko to buttress his support at home. Before 1939, the western half of Belarus belonged to Poland, and Lukashenko regularly warns his countrymen about the military threat posed by Poland and about Polish nationalist aspirations to recover its lost territories, although no such movement exists in Poland. “There is a continuous buildup of military presence close to our western and northern borders. Poland and the Baltic states have become a training ground for regular drills and exercises of NATO troops,” Lukashenko warned in December.
In response to the arrests, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki accused Lukashenko’s regime of taking “hostages”. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, called on Belarusian authorities “to immediately and unconditionally” release them. “Targeting Polish minority violates [Belarus’] international commitments for the protection of national minorities,” wrote Gitanas Nausėda, president of Lithuania.
Poles in Belarus are increasingly nervous. “It is anyone’s guess how wide the group of people [up for arrest] is. For now, we know of five, but each of us is entertaining the possibility that we could be next,” said Pisalnik.