Opposition figure compares Belarus protests to Polish struggle

Warsaw (AFP) –

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Leading Belarusian opposition figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on Wednesday voiced hope that Belarus's path to democracy would be "much shorter" than it was for Soviet-ruled Poland.

Speaking on a visit to Warsaw, Tikhanovskaya compared the protests in her homeland to the years of struggle of Poland's Solidarity trade union, which helped topple communism in 1989 after nearly a decade.

"It was a long road for Solidarity but I hope that for us it will be much shorter," she told students at the University of Warsaw.

"We are witnessing something historic," she said.

Tikhanovskaya warned that Belarus was on the "threshold of an economic abyss" speaking earlier at a joint press conference with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

His government on Wednesday launched a programme offering support for Belarusian tech companies keen to set up in Poland, while Morawiecki himself presented Tikhanovskaya with keys to a new building in Warsaw for the Belarusian opposition.

She later held talks with current Solidarity leader Piotr Duda who had visited Belarus this week for to meet Belarusian trade unionists.

Duda told Tikhanovskaya the trade union was "with all those who are fighting for a free democratic Belarus and for free elections".

- 'Terrifying' -

Poland last week celebrated the 40th anniversary of a landmark deal that gave official recognition to Solidarity and made it the first and only independent trade union in the Soviet bloc.

Tikhanovskaya fled to neighbouring Lithuania after an August 9 election in which she claimed victory against President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled with an iron fist for 26 years.

The trip to Poland, which along with Lithuania is an EU and NATO member supportive of the pro-democracy protest movement in Belarus, was the first by Tikhanovskaya since she fled.

Speaking after masked men detained one of the last high-profile opposition figures still free in Belarus on Wednesday, she said the current situation in the country was "terrifying".

Maxim Znak had worked as a lawyer for jailed presidential hopeful Viktor Babaryko.

Tikhanovskaya's husband Sergei was also jailed ahead of the election, pushing the 37-year-old political novice to declare her candidacy.

"I became a leader only for my husband," she said at Warsaw university, underlining the leading role taken by women in the Belarus protest movement.

"Belarus has never seen such involvement of women at all levels," Tikhanovskaya said. "Women realised that our role in life is much greater than we previously thought."