WARSAW, Poland – Belarus is "Europe's Cuba" and its people are yearning for freedom just like the tens of thousands who have taken to the streets in Tunis and Cairo, Poland's foreign minister said Thursday.
Radek Sikorski warned that the same sudden leadership change that hit Tunisia — whose dictator was ousted in January after 23 years in power — could happen in Belarus, Poland's neighbor to the east.
Poland is taking the lead in organizing the European Union to support democratic change in Belarus, a country of 10 million that held widely disputed elections in December which kept strongman President Alexander Lukashenko in power.
Lukashenko claimed 80 percent of the vote but independent observers rejected the election as flawed. After polls closed, the government jailed hundreds of dissidents, including seven of the nine presidential candidates who had challenged Lukashenko.
Sikorski was interviewed by The Associated Press at his office a day after he hosted a donor conference that pledged $120 million from 40 countries to support democratic change in Belarus.
Poland's leading role has put it in a delicate position with Russia, which so far has not overtly withdrawn its support from Lukashenko's regime.
"It's true that it's an intractable problem," Sikorski said of Lukashenko's hard-handed rule, which has squelched most opposition in the former Soviet republic over the past 16 years.
"All kinds of things have been tried and yet the problem persists. But I think Tunisia and Egypt show how explosive an apparent state of stability can be," he said.
This week's donor conference aimed to keep up support for the opposition, including financial support for the pro-democracy forces and the families of arrested dissidents, for independent media outlets and for education and youth exchanges for young Belarusians.
As part of the $120 million, Poland alone pledged $14 million.
Sikorski displayed pride in Polish support for the cause of greater democracy in Belarus, a country that has a Polish ethnic minority and was historically linked to Poland.
"It was Poland, Germany and Sweden that got those sanctions moving at the EU" against Belarus, he said. "Give me a country that is doing more."
The conservative-leaning, Oxford-educated Sikorski, who since becoming foreign minister in 2007 has worked to forge stronger ties to the United States, Germany and Russia, appears to have made Belarus one of Poland's highest foreign policy priorities.
"Poland is the country that, I feel, cares the most about Belarus becoming more European and more democratic," Sikorski said, but he emphasized that Poland still extends a hand to Lukashenko if he introduces political reforms and allows pluralistic politics.
The issue of freedom in Belarus seems to touch an emotional and ideological chord with Sikorski, as much as realpolitik, recalling Poland's own struggles throughout the centuries to escape despotic rule and foreign influence.
"Like Americans, we are a revolutionary people and we sympathize with those who struggle for democracy," he said.
The topic is important to Europe, too, he said.
"This is a moment when Europe has really noticed the aspirations of the Belarusian people to be a European nation," he said, praising the nations at Wednesday's conference, which included the United States, Norway, Switzerland and other European Union nations.
Sikorski was more rueful when it came to Russia, the country that Belarus relies on for cheap energy subsidies. He said he had hoped Russia would align itself with the independent election observers who considered the last presidential vote a sham.
"Unfortunately, that did not come to pass," he said. Instead, Russia declared the results "an internal matter."
In spite of that official Russian stance, said Sikorski, "I have not yet met a Russian leader who believes in the declared result."
Although Russia traditionally has supported Lukashenko's regime, the recent arrests of dissidents appear to have offended Moscow — even though Russia itself routinely breaks up unauthorized opposition demonstrations.
"Belarus is our brotherly country, a strategic partner, but this doesn't mean that we are closing our eyes to violations of basic rights and freedom," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the Kremlin-funded Russia Today satellite TV channel. Excerpts of the interview were released Thursday.
For his part, Lukashenko has told supporters that Poland's moves to help the Belarusian opposition is part of a campaign to break up Belarus and annex part of it back under Poland's borders, as it was before 1939.
Sikorski scoffed at that accusation, saying, "That's as true as the 80 percent" — Lukashenko's claimed share of the vote.
The austere minister, 47, failed to win a primary campaign last year to run for president as a candidate for the governing Civic Platform party, but polls show he remains popular.
"Even now we are not in favor of isolating Belarus, we are not in favor expelling it from the Eastern Partnership. We are not in favor of cutting all links," he said. "Our conditional policy, both as Poland and as the EU, means that if conditions in Belarus change, our offer, our relations can also change."
Associated Press writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.