Belarusian emigres, exiles back Baltic NATO bid

  • 2002-07-18
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis

Leaders in the Belarusian emigre community endorsed Baltic NATO membership at a meeting in Vilnius last week but said they hoped it would not create a new Iron Curtain that further stymies democratic development in Belarus.

Belarusians from the three Baltic states, Europe and North America - most active members of the opposition to President Alexander Lukashenko's authoritarian regime - adopted a resolution at the July 13-14 conference condemning Lukashenko's hold on power and one that calls for a Belarusian museum to be established in Vilnius.

They also adopted a resolution proposed by Fiodor Niunka, chairman of the Belarusian Cultural Society in Lithuania, which says that NATO is the only real guarantor of security for Belarus' neighbors, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

"We support Baltic membership in NATO because NATO is a guarantee of security from Moscow's imperialism," said Anatol Grickevich, chairman of the World Belarusian Community, an emigre group united in its opposition to Lukashenko.

At the same time, Zenon Pazniak, one of the leaders of the Belarusian anti-Lukashenko opposition who sought political asylum in the United States in the late 1990s, said he hoped Belarus would not become even more isolated than it already is.

"I'm in favor of Baltic membership in NATO and EU, but I hope it doesn't mean the creation of a new Berlin Wall between Belarus and Lithuania," he said, adding that he would prefer to see visa-free travel for those who live near the two countries' border.

Lithuania and Belarus have a strict visa regime that is expected to become even stricter in 2004, when Lithuania expects to enact the European Union's visa policy in preparation to join the trading bloc.

Lithuania's Belarusian community joined a number of other ethnic communities, including Russians, Poles, Ukrainians and Jews, who have endorsed the country's NATO bid.

Belarusians comprise roughly 1.2 percent of Lithuania's 3.5 million people.

On the eve of the conference, rival Lithuanian-Belarusian organizations clashed when the Association of Belarusian Organizations learned it was not invited to participate.

The Belarusian Cultural Society that organized the conference has been at odds with the association for its close relations to the Belarusian Embassy in Vilnius. The former is more critical of the Lukashenko regime, actively supports opposition in Minsk and often demonstrates in front of the embassy in Vilnius.

Niunka, of the Cultural Society, has even called association President Leonid Muraska "a collaborator of the regime in Minsk."

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, Social Democrat leader Ceslovas Jursenas and Vytautas Landsbergis, chairman of the opposition Conservatives, attended the two-day conference.

Stanislav Shushkevich, chairman of the Belarusian Parliament in the early 1990s who went into hiding in Lithuania after Lukashenko came to power, was a special guest.