Poland proposes billion-euro EU fund for Belarus

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaks during a ceremony marking the 81st anniversary of the country's invasion by the Soviet Union, in front of the Monument to the Fallen and Murdered in the East in Warsaw, Poland, 17 September 2020. [Leszek Szymanski/EPA/EFE]

Poland on Thursday (17 September) proposed an EU stabilisation fund for Belarus worth at least one billion euros, as a top opposition leader prepared to meet EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

Warsaw’s call for financial support comes days after Russian President Vladimir Putin backed embattled Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko and promised a $1.5 billion loan.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called it a “new Marshall Plan” — a reference to the US programme that pumped vast financial aid into western Europe to rebuild after World War II.

“The fund should really be significant… so at least a billion euros at this stage,” he said at a joint press conference with his Lithuanian counterpart in Vilnius.

The plan would be for funds to go to small and medium-sized enterprises in Belarus, while facilitating access to EU markets for Belarusian exporters and opening up the Belarusian economy.

Morawiecki said he would formally present the plan at the September 24-25 European Council, adding that several fellow EU eastern members have already endorsed it.

The proposal comes after weeks of unprecedented protests against Lukashenko’s 26-year rule that have been met with a violent crackdown.

Journalists have also been targeted and on Thursday a number of independent Belarusian media ran with blank spaces instead of images on Thursday to protest the jailing of two photographers for 11 days for covering protests.

“We are demanding that pressure on journalists be halted,” said tut.by, a top independent Belarusian outlet. “We will fight for our rights.”

The protests followed a presidential election on August 9 in which Lukashenko and his rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya both claimed victory.

‘Stop the violence’

Tikhanovskaya, who has since fled to Lithuania, will travel to Brussels to meet EU foreign ministers on Monday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s spokesman said.

She warned last week that Belarus was on the “threshold of an economic abyss” as private Belarusian companies, notably in its vibrant tech sector, have begun to seek out opportunities in neighbouring EU states.

On Thursday, she said the opposition was drawing up a blacklist with the names of Belarusian officials and police officers responsible for repression who could face prosecution.

“I urge the security forces to stop the violence and join the Belarusian people. If you do not, you will not escape a fair trial and punishment,” Tikhanovskaya said in a statement.

The European Union is preparing sanctions later this month against those it holds responsible for rigging the vote and putting down protests.

The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have already blacklisted Lukashenko and 29 other high-ranking officials from the election commission, ministries and police.

Constitutional reform? 

Still refusing any dialogue with the opposition, Lukashenko on Thursday accused Warsaw and Vilnius of being ready to provoke war.

“That is why we are forced to take the army off the streets, put half the army under arms and close the state border to the west — primarily with Lithuania and Poland,” he was quoted as saying by the official Belta news agency.

Lukashenko has looked to Russia for support in the current crisis and vowed to strengthen ties with Moscow at an in-person meeting with Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Putin has been keen to unify Russia and Belarus, and Moscow has accompanied its offers of aid with calls for tighter integration.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Thursday said Lukashenko had also promised a consitutional reform aimed at “liberalising the political system”.

“We know that practical work in this direction is already being done,” Zakharova said, adding that the Russia expected the situation in Belarus to normalise “as soon as possible”.

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