- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

GRODNO, BELARUS (AP) - Belarus’ authoritarian president allowed a banned organization of ethnic Poles to meet Sunday for the first time in four years, sending a tentative signal of his willingness to relax his tight hold in exchange for warmer ties with the West.

But the Union of Poles’ congress took place under a heavy police presence, and 16 of the 174 delegates stayed away.

Ahead of the congress, many delegates said they had been called in for questioning by police or the KGB security agency and warned that they could face criminal charges for participating in an unregistered organization. Some said they had been told they would lose their jobs if they attended.

Ethnic Poles make up about 5 percent of the former Soviet republic’s population of 10 million and live primarily in western regions of Belarus that were part of Poland before the border shifted after World War II.

Able to watch uncensored Polish television and visit relatives across the border, ethnic Poles are among the strongest proponents in Belarus for democratic reform and closer ties with Europe.

They tend to support the opposition to President Alexander Lukashenko, who has accused ethnic Polish activists of being agents of a hostile West determined to oust him.

The Union of Poles has been banned since riot police were sent in to take over its headquarters in March 2005. The crackdown came only months after the Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine brought pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko to power and raised fears of further Western-supported popular uprisings in former Soviet space.

The Union of Poles, which receives funding from the Polish government, denies any intention of overthrowing Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994.

Lukashenko has tried in recent months to reach out to the European Union and United States, which imposed economic sanctions on Belarus in response to his repressive rule.

Sunday’s congress was seen as a test of his commitment to democratic reform. It was closely watched by the European Union and EU member Poland, which sent lawmakers to observe the gathering in Grodno, a city near the Polish border.

The president’s willingness to allow the congress to take place was a “positive signal,” said Tadeusz Zwiewka, a European Parliament member who attended.

“It means the Belarusian government wants to continue the dialogue with Europe,” he told the AP.

The city was heavily patrolled by police, who stopped an Associated Press reporter and photographer three times for document checks as they drove to the congress. Police filmed participants as they arrived.

The organizers were pleased that 158 delegates made the trip.

“This is a victory of people over fear, intimidation and pressure,” Union of Poles leader Andzelika Borys said at the opening of the congress. “I want to believe that the Belarusian government will conduct itself well (during Sunday’s congress).”

Outside the hall, about 200 ethnic Poles listened to a live transmission of the proceedings and sang Polish songs.

The congress appealed to Lukashenko to hold talks on legalizing the Polish organization.

Lukashenko last year freed all political prisoners and allowed opposition candidates to run for parliament. None won seats in the September election, which international observers said fell far short of meeting democratic standards, and the government has continued to crack down on opposition protests.

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