Poland warns Belarus: Change or risk overthrow

Lukashenko, often called "Europe's last dictator," has ruled Belarus with an iron hand, Soviet-style control, for more than 16 years.

Belarus 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Belarus 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
WARSAW, Poland — Poland's foreign minister warned Belarus' autocratic president on Wednesday that he is at risk of being overthrown by his own people if they decide to follow the example of protesters in Tunisia and Egypt.
"Soon a jet plane will have to be kept on standby in Minsk," Radek Sikorski said, referring to the capital of Belarus.
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Sikorski spoke at international donors' conference in Warsaw where governments were pledging money and other forms of support for the democratic opposition in Belarus, which faces censorship and the constant threat of arrest under President Alexander Lukashenko.
The foreign minister pledged Europe's continuing support to the people of Belarus and said he had a clear message for Lukashenko: "You are losing. ... Sooner or later you will have to flee your own country, your own people."
"The people in Belarus have the right to have a reasonable government," he said at the conference attended by some 200 representatives from the United States, Canada, European governments and pro-democracy groups.
Lukashenko, often called "Europe's last dictator," has ruled the 10-million nation with an iron hand for more than 16 years. He has kept industry under Soviet-style state control and suppressed opposition with police raids and pressure, but his fiery populism and efforts to maintain a Soviet-style social safety net have kept him popular with the working class and the elderly.
The warning comes from Poland comes after mass election protests in Belarus were brutally dispersed and opposition candidates arrested in December following a presidential election that international monitors regarded as fraudulent. Lukashenko was declared the winner, claiming almost 80 percent of the vote.
The European Union's enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fuele, announced that the EU would quadruple its previous aid to the families of those facing repression in Belarus: expelled students, independent media outlets and opposition organizations. That raises the EU aid to €15.6 million ($21 million) annually.
The U.S. government pledged earlier this week to boost its annual aid contribution of $11 million by 30 percent, and Poland said it was doubling aid from 20 million zlotys to 40 million zlotys ($14 million).
Lukashenko's grip on power appeared shaken in the run-up to December's election amid a falling out with his main sponsor and ally, Russia. Moscow, however, hasn't followed up on its threat to stop supplying Belarus with the cheap energy that kept its economy afloat and recently warned the West against trying to isolate Belarus, a former Soviet republic.
Activists said they hope the conference in Warsaw will help maintain international interest in the plight of the struggle for democracy in Belarus.
"We would very much like for the world to remember the events in Belarus for as long as possible because now the attention is being directed to other events in the world, like the unrest in Egypt," said Dzmitry Novikau, president of the board of the independent European Radio for Belarus, which transmits news into the country from Warsaw.
Poland has taken a leading role in trying to promote democracy in Belarus, considering it a matter of strategic importance to have democracies along its eastern border. Poland is wedged between western European democracies on one side, and Belarus and Ukraine to its east.
Also, many of Warsaw's leaders today are former democratic activists who helped topple Poland's Soviet-backed communist regime in 1989, and they sympathize with those who have suffered in the Lukashenko's crackdown on Belarusian media and opposition.