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Senior Polish Diplomat Talks to VOA on Ties, Hopes for Belarus

Polish Ambassador Piotr Wilczek testifies before the Senate Appropriations State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 7, 2017.

Piotr Wilczek assumed his post as Poland’s ambassador to the United States in 2017. Prior to this position, he taught for many years as a liberal arts professor at universities both in Poland and the U.S. Below is a transcript of a recent written interview, centered on the question of Belarus.

VOA: Why does Belarus matter?

Wilczek: Belarus shares with Poland not only a border, but extensive historic and cultural heritage as well. Our countries have a common history; we were once part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, later were forced into being dominated by the USSR. Poland was also one of the first countries to recognize Belarusian independence. Our relations have had ups and downs during the last 29 years, yet Poland has played an important role in strengthening the ties between the EU and Belarus, introducing the Eastern Partnership program together with Sweden in 2008. It was intended to strengthen the economic and political ties shared by the EU and six eastern European countries, including Belarus.

As Belarus’ neighbor, Poland has always been the most active supporter of the country’s democratic aspirations. Polish citizens are strongly invested in the fate of their Eastern neighbors, evidenced by demonstrations on the streets of Polish cities in solidarity with the protesters.

VOA: What potential scenarios could result from the current situation?

Wilczek: We hope that the state authorities will agree to open a dialogue with the protesters. Protests in Minsk and in other cities across the country, general strikes at workplaces and prominent figures abandoning the regime indicate that Belarusian civil society has markedly matured. The massive presence of the white-red-white flags at all protests also indicates that Belarusians long for an independent and sovereign Belarus.

Searching for peaceful solutions to the crisis must take place within the framework defined by the Belarusian constitution. Presidential elections must be repeated in accordance with applicable procedures and under international observation. The OSCE ODIHR [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights] should be asked to send an expert mission to assist in their preparation.

A solution to the crisis facing Belarus is possible only within Belarus itself and only through genuine, constructive dialogue. The result of this intra-Belarusian dialogue should be a plan of systemic transition.

VOA: How influential are EU sanctions?

Wilczek: On August 14, EU countries agreed on the need to sanction those responsible for violence, repression and falsification of the election results, and called on the Belarusian authorities to stop the disproportionate and unacceptable violence against peaceful protesters and to release those detained.

In 2016, the EU decided to lift sanctions imposed on Belarus in 2011. This decision was a signal to the Belarusian authorities that the EU was ready for the next stage in political dialogue. For the past four years, EU-Belarus cooperation has increased. EU assistance to Belarus has doubled to around $35 million annually, and we’ve made progress in liberalizing travel to the EU for Belarusians. It would be a shame if these achievements were squandered by Minsk’s reckless actions.

VOA: What more can the EU and the US do?

Wilczek: We should do everything to facilitate peaceful negotiations between the Minsk authorities and the protesters, with the eventual goal of a plan for systemic transition. First, the presidential elections should be repeated under international observation and in accordance with democratic standards.

Poland, together with the Baltic states, proposed a mediation that would help establish a dialogue between the Belarusian authorities and civil society. However, we should promote multilateral solutions first. In this case, the OSCE has the strongest mandate to join in [in] resolving the crisis in Belarus – the members of the organization are EU countries, Russia and Belarus itself. During [this past] week, the minister of foreign affairs of Poland spoke with all representatives of the troika of OSCE chairmen (the prime minister of Albania and the ministers of foreign affairs of Slovakia and Sweden), declaring his full support for the OSCE mission and his readiness to engage on the matter.

The situation in Belarus was also discussed during the meeting between the minister of foreign affairs of Poland and U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in Warsaw on August 15, 2020. During a joint press conference, they presented a negative assessment of the election process and expressed hope that a peaceful solution to the situation will be found soon while respecting the independence and sovereignty of the Republic of Belarus. Poland and the USA appealed to the Belarusian authorities to open a dialogue with the opposition and civil society.

We should be ready (as we did in 2010) to assist the Belarusian people. Poland has already adopted a five-point plan worth almost $20 million to support Belarus; it is aimed at supporting the repressed, providing scholarships for academics as well as funding for independent media, facilitating entry to Polish territory and accessing the labor market. It also includes a new program for nongovernmental organizations. Here, we [also] have the opportunity to reinstate the mechanisms we once operated jointly with Poland and US support — the funding of Belsat TV, other independent media and human rights activists, as well as providing financial and material assistance to those affected by the regime. Of course, should a positive scenario develop and Belarus enter a peaceful and systemic transition, we will also be ready to provide technical and financial assistance to modernize the country in order to strengthen their resilience, sovereignty and independence. The reason for Poland’s activity is our moral obligation. We simply owe help to our neighbors.

VOA: Does NATO have a role in this crisis?

Wilczek: NATO should, of course, monitor the situation very closely. Other multilateral organizations such as the OSCE, however, have a stronger mandate to deal with the crisis. The members of this organization include EU countries, Russia and Belarus itself.

VOA: Which factors are in play for (Russian President Vladimir) Putin to decide whether to send armed forces into Belarus? What options does the West have if he did send armed forces into Belarus?

Wilczek: We can be sure that Russia is considering various scenarios in Belarus. We hope that Moscow joins the international community’s efforts to peacefully resolve this crisis (including the OSCE process) and will not consider unilateral actions. Nevertheless, the West and Russia’s long-term goals towards Belarus differ. While we (the West) are striving for a more democratic Belarus, Russia’s priority remains the provision of guarantees for the further integration of both countries, as well as respect for its own long-term interests.

VOA: What could be learned from the Ukrainian experience when we look at Belarus today? Is the fate of Ukraine unavoidable if the current president of Belarus is removed from power?

Wilczek: Current Belarusian protests and Euromaidan were of an unprecedented scale and were triggered by the authorities’ machinations. Both were signs of a new awakening in emerging civil societies and for democratic aspirations. Both show that street democracy and direct action remain the only effective means for citizens to influence the decisions of the authorities. Similarly to Ukraine, it seems Belarusians still do not have any clear-cut or politically experienced leaders who could formulate a clear plan of action. I see one major difference — while Ukrainians have demanded closer integration with the EU, this demand is somehow absent in Belarus. But what is abundantly apparent after seeing those peaceful protests is that the Belarusian people wish to determine the course of their own country - that they long for a sovereign and independent Belarus.

VOA: Does the recent development involving US forces in Germany and Poland have any implication for the situation in Belarus?

Wilczek: The U.S. military presence in Europe is transforming in accordance with Washington's perceived interests and threats. Poland and the eastern flank states and Germany are positioned to use this transformation to maintain both the strongest possible European-American ties as well as the participation of the United States in ensuring the security of Europe. It is also necessary to start a discussion on how, within NATO, European allies should adapt to the transformation of the U.S. presence in Europe in order to maintain a credible defense and deterrence policy on the eastern flank, and whether and how Europe should engage in crises and conflicts in its own neighborhood.