Tuesday, September 13, 2005

wilder europe Poland worries

The less-than-august omens for Poland

By Edward Lucas

If your job involves Eastern Europe, August looks like a good time for
holidays. As in most of the continent, it is a month when officials
are unavailable, government shuts down and people leave the cities to
the tourists.

But history suggests that it is a very good month if your job is
journalism. Among the stories you might have missed if you regularly
take holidays in August are the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the building
of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the birth
of Solidarity, the first big hole in the Iron Curtain, the botched
coup in Moscow that marked the end of the evil empire, the collapse of
the Russian financial system and the sinking of the Kursk submarine.
Against that background, how did August 2005 measure up? There have
been interesting rumblings from Transdniester, and worrying ones from
Macedonia; a Serbian army helicopter planted a church on the top of a
mountain in Montenegro and the Czech prime minister apologised for the
deportation in 1945 of Sudeten German anti-Nazis. But the month's
really big news has been from Poland.
I don't mean the 25th anniversary of Solidarity's founding, or the
opening salvos in the two upcoming election campaigns. Far more
important are Poland's rows - a Cold War in miniature - with Russia
and Belarus.
Belarus is Europe's only remaining dictatorship, where the regime's
latest target is the country's biggest ethnic minority organisation,
the Union of Poles (UPB). This might seem an odd target. Poles in
Belarus are not highly politicised and the UPB's activities are
inoffensive: chiefly Saturday schools for children, and folk-dancing
events. But the Belarusian authorities are not worried about the
intellectual firepower of their opponents. They just dislike the fact
that they exist at all. Any independent organisation, especially one
with foreign financial and other support, is a direct challenge to the
closed, monolithic society that the regime desires. So it has
dissolved the UPB and installed a more compliant leadership. It has
jailed Polish-language journalists, harassed activists, and denied
entry to, or deported, visitors from Poland.
Although the regime has murdered people in the past, it has not used
force this time. That's not the case in Poland's row with Russia,
which began with the mugging in Warsaw of three teenagers from the
Russian embassy. Russia treated this as a diplomatic incident
resulting directly from Poland's Russophobia, and demanded a formal
apology. The verbal outbursts were followed by physical retaliation:
in quick succession, two Polish embassy officials, and then a Polish
journalist, were beaten up in Moscow.
What's ominous here is not that Russia and Belarus are behaving, as
usual, unpleasantly. It's that the EU seems to have given up trying to
defend its members, like Poland, who most need support. Where were the
protests from other European embassies when Poles were being beaten up
in the streets of Moscow?
When the new member states joined the EU last year, the bold aim was
to convince Russia that it could be friends with Western Europe only
if it dropped its historical grudges against former captive nations in
the continent's east. That policy has, so far, failed totally.
Instead, Russia is enjoying the sight of the powerful countries of
Western Europe scurrying away from any possible conflict. It would be
nice to think that this is just an August blip; that when the
important people return from their holidays, the EU will come out
toughly in defence of Poland.
But I expect they'll play safe. And that, of course, is far more

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