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The current sanctions against the Lukashenko regime do not correspond to the scale of repression


П. Латушка
П. Латушка

According to Pavel Latushka, one of the leaders of the Belarusian opposition, the pressure on Lukashenko is coming from China, and the Chinese are not pleased with the current situation on the Polish-Belarusian border due to the potential disruption to their goods transit. Latushka states that even the closure of a single railway crossing would deal a significant blow to Lukashenko and Putin, as reported in an interview with Gazeta Wyborcza.

Pavel Latushka, a Belarusian opposition figure and former Belarusian ambassador to Poland, as well as the deputy head of the United Transitional Cabinet led by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the head of the National Anti-Crisis Management, met with the Podlasie voivode on Tuesday (January 16). The day before, he had discussions with the Marshal of Podlasie, accompanied by representatives of the Belarusian diaspora and the Belarusian minority.

Is Podlasie a frontline region?

This time, Latushka visited Białystok after Belarusian President-elect Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya's meeting with the Warsaw mayor, Rafał Trzaskowski, the Ministers of Foreign and European Affairs, President Andrzej Duda, and the Speaker of the Sejm, Szymon Hołownia, last week. Tsikhanouskaya also chaired a meeting of the United Transitional Cabinet in the Polish capital. Discussions were held regarding plans for 2024, including finding ways to release political prisoners and promoting the “European choice among Belarusians” in this year's campaign. In Warsaw, Tsikhanouskaya called on the new Polish authorities to “do everything possible so that Belarus does not become a consolation prize for the Kremlin.”

After the meeting between Pavel Latushka and the Marshal of Podlasie, Artur Kosicki (PiS), on Monday (January 15), the Marshal's Office issued a statement: “Until recently, EU funds from cross-border programs allowed for the implementation of valuable but costly Polish-Belarusian projects. However, since Russia's aggression against Ukraine and Alexander Lukashenko's alignment with the aggressor, these funds have been suspended. This has resulted in losses not only for Belarus but also for Podlasie. Nevertheless, the voivodeship authorities see an opportunity for long-term financial assistance from the European Union, specifically for projects related to Poland's engagement with Belarus. Marshal Kosicki, who also chairs the Commission for Eastern Poland (an association of five voivodeships in the eastern region and the Masovian Voivodeship), presented this perspective.”

“The point is to recognize these voivodeships [in eastern Poland] as frontline regions. If we were granted such status, we could expect systematic cooperation with the EU. The current financial programs aimed at national minorities are not the main issue here. What is needed is a larger scale of both funding and action. Furthermore, we should differentiate between national minorities and the diaspora as two distinct matters,” Marshal Kosicki stressed.

It has been reported that the position regarding the recognition of the voivodeships in the eastern wall as frontline regions has already been prepared. This involves providing special support at the EU level for four Voivodeships in eastern Poland: Podlaskie, Lublin, Podkarpackie, and Warmia-Mazury. 

In this context, the announcement from the Marshal's Office after the meeting with Latushka stated: "The Marshal also received a promise from Pavel Latushka that the leaders of the Belarusian opposition will support these efforts with the EU authorities."

Death of another political prisoner

Vadym Hrasko
Vadym Hrasko. Photo: prisoners.spring96.org

Meanwhile, last week, yet another political prisoner died in Belarus. Vadzim Khrasko, aged 50, passed away in the Vitebsk penitentiary facility. He was seriously ill and did not receive timely medical assistance while in prison. This marks the fourth known death of a political prisoner in Lukashenko's prisons. The Lukashenko regime currently holds around 1,500 political prisoners in inhumane conditions, subjecting them to daily torture and forced labor. Among them is Andrzej Poczobut, an activist of the Union of Poles in Belarus and correspondent for Gazeta Wyborcza, who was arrested in March 2021. In February of the previous year, he was sentenced by a court in Hrodna to eight years in a penal colony on charges of "inciting hatred" and "terrorist activities," despite the fact that his arrest and the subsequent political trial orchestrated by the Belarusian authorities were based on his journalistic and social activities. He is currently imprisoned in Navapolack, from where sporadic information about his situation, including his health, has been obtained.

It is estimated that approximately 250,000 Belarusians currently reside in Poland, with nearly half of them employed under civil law contracts. Many Belarusians also own their own companies. Additionally, around 26,000 Belarusian children attend Polish schools, and over 20,000 Belarusian students study at Polish universities. The Podlaskie Voivodeship is home to a significant portion of Belarusian emigrants, housing the largest Belarusian minority in Poland. According to the latest census, a total of 54,300 individuals in Poland declared their Belarusian nationality.

A specific action strategy is needed

During our conversation with Pavel Latushka on Tuesday (January 16) regarding his meeting with the Podlasie Voivode, Jacek Brzozowski, we inquired about the specific actions that the United Transitional Cabinet is counting on in relation to Belarus and the new government in Poland.

Maciej Chołodowski: What specific actions does the United Transitional Cabinet expect regarding Belarus from the new Polish government?

Pavel Latushka:  “First and foremost, it is crucial to develop a specific action strategy. While support expressed through media statements or the adoption of resolutions is important, concrete actions carry the most weight. This strategy should prioritize holding Lukashenko accountable for his criminal actions. Throughout his thirty-year rule, he has been responsible for numerous crimes for which he has not faced charges. Following the events of 2020 [referring to the rigged presidential elections], he should be held accountable primarily for the crimes committed as a result of his actions, numbering at least 136,000. These include cases of rape and political murders. We have provided evidence that Lukashenko has committed war crimes, such as the deportation of Ukrainian children from occupied territories. He must be brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague for these crimes, and the actions that the Polish government, which can act as our legal representative if necessary, can take are of great importance. An arrest warrant is necessary. Furthermore, we expect the implementation of severe sanctions against Lukashenko's Belarus. The current sanctions have been mild and prolonged, allowing Lukashenko to adapt and even profit from loopholes. Given the human rights violations in Belarus, it is imperative to impose a comprehensive package of sanctions, including on all products manufactured in Belarusian prisons, where political prisoners, among others, are dying.

In the 21st century, Lukashenko is allowing prisoners to work as slaves in prisons, and the goods produced from such labor are also sold in the EU. Proposals for a sanctions package in this regard have already been submitted to the Polish side. It is also crucial to support independent Belarusian media operating outside of Belarus, which are currently lacking funds. Additionally, sanctions should be imposed in relation to the union state, meaning the Union of Belarus and Russia, with Lukashenko as chairman and Putin as his deputy. This is important to us because the union state is being exploited to undermine the independence of Belarus.”

What should Poland do to free political prisoners in Belarus, including Andrzej Poczobut?

“First and foremost, Poland should lead a group of lobbyists within the EU to push for sanctions against Belarus. Talks are currently underway regarding the post-war situation in Ukraine, and the idea is that the United Transitional Cabinet should be recognized as a party in these discussions, or else, represented by our partners like Poland. Otherwise, Belarus will be sold to Russia.

Regarding the release of political prisoners, Lukashenko has shown no intention of freeing them. Every day, more people are being sent to prison. Their release can only be achieved through confidential talks with intermediaries to establish a humanitarian list, prioritizing seriously ill prisoners, including those with cancer, women, and minors. Additionally, pressure on Lukashenko needs to be increased to make it hurt him. The current sanctions do not match the scale of the repression. It is important to remember that Lukashenko cannot be relied upon as a guarantor of Belarus's independence. Official talks with him at this stage would likely result in betrayal and would demotivate Belarusians who are against him, currently in prison, and experiencing torture. This could hinder their willingness to take to the streets again when needed.”

Apparently, there are issues with legalizing the stay of Belarusians in Poland. Could you elaborate?

“We have discussed this matter with the Ministry of the Interior and Administration, as well as with voivodes, including the Podlaskie voivodeship. The most significant problem concerns passports. Lukashenko has prohibited Belarusians from extending the validity of their passports outside the country. Consequently, people are left without documents or are forced to return to Belarus, where they face detention and prison sentences upon arrival. Lukashenko wants to isolate and reject this segment of society, signaling that he does not need them and that they have betrayed him. To address this, three-year travel documents should be issued to Belarusians residing in Poland, as well as appropriate documents for children born outside Belarus. Visa facilitation should be introduced for those wanting to leave Belarus, while assistance should be provided to those who want to reach Poland, such as individuals from Georgia whose legal stay is expiring, potentially leading to their deportation to Belarus.

We have established a working group with the Ministry of the Interior and Administration to address these problems. The new head of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Radosław Sikorski, has also offered assistance. Poland can play a leading role in developing a new strategy towards Belarus, given Sikorski's extensive experience in European and Eastern policy.”

In your opinion, how will Lukashenko continue to play the card of the migration crisis on the border with Poland?

Belarusian demonstration on Freedom Day, Warsaw, 2023
Belarusian demonstration on Freedom Day, Warsaw, 2023. Photo: Andrew Keymaster, Unsplash

“Lukashenko is facing pressure from China, and the Chinese are displeased with the current situation on the Polish-Belarusian border as it poses a threat to the transit of their goods, particularly to Germany, with the China-Germany trade estimated in the hundreds of billions of euros annually.

Continuous pressure must be exerted from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and even Finland in this regard. The ultimate decision regarding the situation on the border rests with Putin. If he wishes to escalate the situation further, Lukashenko will continue to act as his puppet. Closing road and railway border crossings with Belarus, even if it's just one crossing, would strike a blow against Lukashenko and Putin. Imposing sanctions on the trade of goods, rather than restricting the movement of ordinary citizens, is crucial.”


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