Be­larus and Poland: a dif­fi­cult balance

Why are Minsk and War­saw still avoid­ing bit­ter his­tor­i­cal polemic

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Syarhey Pul­sha

Pol­ish-Be­laru­sian re­la­tions are a para­dox­i­cal ex­am­ple of how it is pos­si­ble to build a prag­matic and in some ways even re­spect­ful re­la­tion­ship on var­i­ous mu­tual griev­ances. Re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries have never been easy, but at the same time they can­not cur­rently be called con­fronta­tional. It might not be a friend­ship, but it is surely a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial part­ner­ship.


Be­larus and Poland have a lot of com­mon his­tory. They were to­gether as part of the Grand Duchy of Lithua­nia, which the Be­laru­sians rea­son­ably con­sider to be their own state (at least Be­laru­sian was its state lan­guage and the 1588 Third Statute was writ­ten in it). Later, these lands came un­der the con­trol of the Pol­ish kings. Fol­low­ing the three par­ti­tions of the Pol­ish-Lithua­nian Com­mon­wealth, Be­larus and Poland ended up as part of the Rus­sian Em­pire, which col­lapsed in 1917. The Poles man­aged to build their own state, while the Be­laru­sians were ab­sorbed into the USSR with much of Be­larus re­main­ing in Poland: the bor­der was 30 km from Minsk. Af­ter the "Red Army lib­er­a­tion" of 1939, or rather the par­ti­tion of Poland be­tween Ger­many and the USSR (re­mem­ber the Molo­tov-Ribben­trop Pact?), the west­ern re­gions of Be­larus (or the Kresy [Eastern Bor­der­lands] of Poland) were an­nexed into the Be­laru­sian Soviet So­cial­ist Re­pub­lic (BSSR). In 1944, Stalin handed the city of Bi­ałys­tok over to Poland, as a re­sult of which a "pop­u­la­tion ex­change" took place: eth­nic Poles were sent from the USSR to Poland, while Rus­sians, Ukraini­ans, Be­laru­sians and Lithua­ni­ans went in the op­po­site di­rec­tion (which, by the way, can be called a "re­hearsal" for the no­to­ri­ous Op­er­a­tion Vis­tula).

Fol­low­ing such his­tor­i­cal per­tur­ba­tions, it seems im­pos­si­ble to de­ter­mine any "his­tor­i­cal bor­der" be­tween the two states at all. This, it would seem, should give grounds for lengthy ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes be­tween the two coun­tries. But they sim­ply do not arise.

The Poles are very for­tu­nate that the leader of Be­larus re­mains Alyak­sandr Lukashenka. For this "his­to­rian by ed­u­ca­tion", the his­tory of his coun­try be­gan at best in 1921 with the for­ma­tion of the BSSR and on a broader scale from vic­tory in the Great Pa­tri­otic War in 1945. It is no ac­ci­dent he moved In­de­pen­dence Day to 3 July – the an­niver­sary of the lib­er­a­tion of Minsk. Lukashenka only forced him­self to men­tion the Be­laru­sian Peo­ple's Re­pub­lic (BPR), es­tab­lished in 1918, when the gen­eral pub­lic widely cel­e­brated its 100th an­niver­sary this year. Pre­vi­ously, such a phe­nom­e­non as the BPR sim­ply did not ex­ist for him.

There­fore, Be­larus does not of­fi­cially raise any ter­ri­to­rial or cul­tural claims to­wards Poland. Na­tional­minded Be­laru­sians qui­etly grum­ble about the Pol­ish "ap­pro­pri­a­tion" of com­mon his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural heroes, such as Koś­ciuszko, Ogiński and Mick­iewicz, but they are un­able to do any­thing about it. From time to time, "his­tor­i­cal maps" are pub­lished in Poland that des­ig­nate the Kresy as part of Pol­ish ter­ri­tory. Of­fi­cial Minsk turns a blind eye to such in­ci­dents that would pro­voke a painful re­ac­tion from any other state. Nor does it de­mand the re­turn of Bi­ałys­tok. All be­cause his­tory is not of great value for Lukashenka.


Re­la­tions be­tween Be­larus and Poland were se­ri­ously ag­gra­vated in the 2000s as Alyak­sandr Lukashenka strength­ened his au­thor­i­tar­ian rule. One of the as­pects of this was cre­at­ing a con­trol­lable pro-gov­ern­ment "vol­un­tary sec­tor". The of­fi­cial Be­laru­sian Repub­li­can Youth Union was es­tab­lished, trade unions were taken un­der con­trol and the pro-pres­i­den­tial as­so­ci­a­tion White Ruthe­nia was founded. "Par­al­lel struc­tures" to these also emerged.

Of course, the Union of Poles in Be­larus (UPB) – a large eth­nic or­gan­i­sa­tion boast­ing more than 20,000 mem­bers – at­tracted at­ten­tion from the au­thor­i­ties The UPB ac­tively pro­moted the Pol­ish lan­guage and cul­ture, as well as open­ing Pol­ish schools and classes, with strong sup­port, par­tic­u­larly of a fi­nan­cial na­ture, from Poland. Among other things, 17 Pol­ish House cul­tural cen­tres were con­structed with Pol­ish funds. At the same time, the UPB looked at Lukashenka's poli­cies with scep­ti­cism, to put it mildly.

As early as in 1999, the Com­mit­tee on Re­li­gious Af­fairs and Na­tion­al­i­ties rec­om­mended that the Min­istry of Jus­tice re­frain from re-reg­is­ter­ing the Union of Poles, ac­cus­ing its lead­er­ship of "play­ing an ac­tive part in po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity on the side of rad­i­cal op­po­si­tion forces". The peak of the con­flict came in March 2005, when the au­thor­i­ties did not recog­nise the out­come of the UPB's Congress, which au­to­mat­i­cally brought the or­gan­i­sa­tion's state reg­is­tra­tion into ques­tion. In Au­gust of the


same year, an al­ter­nate Pol­ish congress in­volv­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the au­thor­i­ties took place and elected pro-gov­ern­ment lead­er­ship. The Be­laru­sian Min­istry of Jus­tice, of course, ac­knowl­edged its re­sults.

Poland ac­cused of­fi­cial Minsk of in­ter­fer­ing in the in­ter­nal af­fairs of its mi­nor­ity, putting pres­sure on Poles and vi­o­lat­ing the right to free­dom of assem­bly and as­so­ci­a­tion. In re­sponse, War­saw was ac­cused of in­ter­fer­ing in the in­ter­nal af­fairs of Be­larus, es­pi­onage and at­tempt­ing to claim the right to speak on be­half of all Be­laru­sian Poles.

This sit­u­a­tion pro­voked the largest diplo­matic con­flict be­tween Minsk and War­saw, which lasted for al­most a decade. In 2005, Pol­ish Pres­i­dent Alexan­der Kwas­niewski even promised to avoid the Baltic-Black Sea sum­mit in Yalta if Lukashenka at­tended. The event's or­gan­is­ers can­celled their in­vi­ta­tion to the Be­laru­sian pres­i­dent. In 2007, Be­laru­sian au­thor­i­ties re­fused en­try to Deputy Speaker of the Pol­ish Se­nate Krzysztof Pu­tra, Chan­cellery of the Se­nate Deputy Head Ro­muald Łanczkowski, then leader of the Civic Plat­form party Don­ald Tusk and Robert Tyszkewicz, leader of the Sol­i­dar­ity with Be­larus group in par­lia­ment, as "per­sons un­wel­come in Be­larus".

The in­ci­dent at the bor­der was com­mented on not only by the For­eign Min­istry, which con­demned "trips for po­lit­i­cal spec­u­la­tion" and "us­ing the Pol­ish na­tional mi­nor­ity in Be­larus to score ad­di­tional po­lit­i­cal points at home", but also by Lukashenka him­self. "They got it in the neck and rightly so," the Be­laru­sian leader said in his typ­i­cal man­ner, say­ing that the Poles were plan­ning to take part in "acts of provo­ca­tion".

That year, the same Don­ald Tusk who "got it in the neck" be­came the prime min­is­ter of Poland and by 2014 he was Pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Coun­cil. In re­sponse, War­saw sup­ported all Euro­pean sanc­tions against Be­larus, in­un­dated of­fi­cial Minsk with protest let­ters and turned into one of the cen­tres for sup­port­ing democ­racy in Be­larus. Large rad­i­cal op­po­si­tion web­site Char­ter'97 op­er­ates from Poland. Along­side Euro­pean struc­tures, War­saw fi­nances in­de­pen­dent Be­laru­sian satel­lite TV chan­nel Bel­sat, which also broad­casts Be­laru­sian ra­dio sta­tions Ra­cyja and Euro­ra­dio. The Pol­ish gov­ern­ment ap­proved and sup­ports the Kali­novsky Pro­gramme, which gives Be­laru­sian stu­dents ex­pelled from their na­tive uni­ver­si­ties for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons (par­tic­i­pat­ing in protests) the pos­si­bil­ity to study in Poland.

In Be­larus, there are two Unions of Poles. One does not have for­mal reg­is­tra­tion but is recog­nised by War­saw. The other is recog­nised by of­fi­cial Minsk, but not the Poles.

Minsk oc­cu­pies a sim­i­larly ir­rec­on­cil­able po­si­tion to­wards the Catholic Church. There have been cases when Pol­ish priests serv­ing in Be­larus were ex­pelled from the coun­try on spu­ri­ous pre­texts, which, of course, could not pos­si­bly please War­saw ei­ther.


It would seem that of­fi­cial Minsk should fear that, in re­sponse to its ac­tions, Poland could "crack down" on its large Be­laru­sian di­as­pora. But such fears are alien to Lukashenka. Per­haps he un­der­stands that Poland is a Euro­pean state and will there­fore not put pres­sure on its own ci­ti­zens of Be­laru­sian ori­gin.

How­ever, it is more likely that the Be­laru­sian au­thor­i­ties sim­ply do not care about the di­as­pora in Poland. The di­as­pora is made up of Euro­peans and Pol­ish ci­ti­zens who do not pay taxes to the Be­laru­sian trea­sury, do not vote for Lukashenka and do not usu­ally sup­port his poli­cies. So why worry about them?

The Be­laru­sian For­eign Min­istry did not even re­act with a note of protest or ex­press con­cern about a march of Pol­ish na­tion­al­ists in Ha­jnówka, many in­hab­i­tants of which have Be­laru­sian roots, but only "shared the con­cern" of Be­laru­sian MP Va­leriy Voronet­ski (in­ci­den­tally the ex-am­bas­sador to Aus­tria and for­mer per­ma­nent rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Be­larus at the OSCE).


The same sit­u­a­tion oc­curred with the Pole's Card. The law on this doc­u­ment spec­i­fies that any­one with Pol­ish an­ces­tors can re­ceive it. Given that half of Be­larus was part of Poland un­til 1939, that coun­try seemed to have the most to worry about. But that, some­what sur­pris­ingly, was not the case. As soon as it be­came clear to Minsk that the Pole's Card in no way threat­ened the sta­bil­ity of its au­thor­i­ties, all talk about it died down.


A warm­ing in Be­laru­sian-Pol­ish re­la­tions came only in 2014-2015. On the one hand, Pol­ish pol­i­tics are linked rather strongly to the gen­eral pol­icy of the Euro­pean Union. Thanks to the ef­forts of Be­larus, the EU de­cided to weaken and then com­pletely lifted the sanc­tions that were im­posed in re­sponse to the bru­tal dis­per­sal of a protest rally fol­low­ing the 2010 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. On the other hand, the war in Ukraine greatly in­flu­enced the out­look of Poland to­wards Be­larus.

Poland has de­cided that its main threat is Rus­sia. At that time, lo­cal an­a­lysts did not hes­i­tate to call Be­larus a "buf­fer state" be­tween their coun­try and the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion in the me­dia. Ac­cord­ingly, Poland was in­ter­ested in keep­ing that buf­fer as strong as pos­si­ble. Now, the Poles are in­clined to think that by en­gag­ing with Lukashenka and draw­ing him into the Euro­pean po­lit­i­cal vec­tor, it will be pos­si­ble to make him drift away Rus­sia and pre­serve the afore­men­tioned "buf­fer" as an in­de­pen­dent Be­laru­sian state.

As prac­tice shows, such an ap­proach is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. In the early 2000s, the opin­ion pre­vailed in some West­ern cir­cles that "we should leave Lukashenka to Rus­sia and maybe it will democra­tise him". How­ever, in­stead of the democrati­sa­tion of Be­larus, there has been the "dic­ta­tori­sa­tion" of Rus­sia. Some­thing sim­i­lar is hap­pen­ing now with Poland: as soon as the coun­try moved closer to Be­larus, its level of democ­racy sharply de­creased.

To­day, Poland is tak­ing a lot of its do­mes­tic pol­icy from Be­laru­sian prac­tices. For ex­am­ple, gov­ern­ment pres­sure on the me­dia started with at­tempts to dis­miss the chief edi­tors of publi­ca­tions – an ob­vi­ous copy of Lukashenka's early be­hav­iour.

The cur­rent pol­icy of the coun­tries to­wards one an­other is based less on val­ues and more on pragmatism. Es­pe­cially in light of the Be­laru­sian leader's “hu­man rights”: in his opin­ion, the most im­por­tant ones are the right to work, hous­ing, ed­u­ca­tion and med­i­cal care. Free­dom of speech, assem­bly, as­so­ci­a­tion, etc. are all the work of the devil.

In ad­di­tion, it is not worth count­ing out Pol­ish eco­nomic in­ter­ests in Be­larus. Of course, Be­larus it­self as a mar­ket is of lit­tle in­ter­est: the trade turnover be­tween the coun­tries in 2017 was about $2.5 bil­lion, of which Be­laru­sian ex­ports ac­counted for slightly more than $1 bil­lion. But the coun­try is im­por­tant for Poland as a "tran­ship­ment base" for ex­port­ing sanc­tioned goods to the Rus­sian mar­ket. It is no se­cret that Pol­ish ap­ples banned in Rus­sia are con­verted into "Be­laru­sian" ones as soon as they cross the bor­der.

Now it is clear that Euro­pean sanc­tions against Rus­sia and Rus­sia's counter-sanc­tions are a se­ri­ous and long-term mea­sure, Poland and Be­larus have be­gun to jointly de­velop their bor­der in­fra­struc­ture. It was re­cently re­ported that three new bridges across the Be­laru­sian-Pol­ish bor­der will be built in the com­ing years. Be­laru­sian Min­is­ter of Trans­port and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Ana­tol Si­vak and Pol­ish Min­is­ter of In­fra­struc­ture An­drzej Adamski signed a cor­re­spond­ing agree­ment on 27 June.


There­fore, bi­lat­eral re­la­tions be­tween Be­larus and Poland are in a fairly sta­ble equi­lib­rium. On the one hand, they ad­here to the prin­ci­ples of prag­matic pol­i­tics, when eco­nomic in­ter­ests, not val­ues, come to the fore­front. On the other hand, Poland has no in­ter­est in frus­trat­ing of­fi­cial Minsk, as any such mea­sures could im­me­di­ately af­fect the Pol­ish di­as­pora and Catholic min­is­ters in Be­larus. In turn, of­fi­cial Minsk au­to­mat­i­cally ex­tin­guishes any pos­si­ble ter­ri­to­rial and in­tereth­nic is­sues by treat­ing its own his­tory con­temp­tu­ously.

This sta­tus quo could change in two cases. The first is pure fan­tasy: if na­tional-ori­ented forces for which his­tory is not mean­ing­less come to power in Be­larus. Then it would pos­si­ble for re­la­tions not only to im­prove as a re­sult of the democrati­sa­tion of Be­larus, but also to de­te­ri­o­rate due to his­tor­i­cal dis­putes.

The se­cond op­tion is quite re­al­is­tic and pre­dictable, and may be re­alised shortly. As you may know, Poland has not just agreed, but in­sisted on host­ing an Amer­i­can mil­i­tary base with Pa­triot mis­siles. If such a base is built there, there is a high prob­a­bil­ity that a Rus­sian mis­sile base will ap­pear in Be­larus to coun­ter­bal­ance the Amer­i­can troops. This will cer­tainly not add any warmth to their re­la­tion­ship.

For the mean­time, pragmatism out­weighs pos­si­ble cul­tural, his­tor­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences.

Fight for con­trol. Lukashenka prefers to con­trol Pol­ish com­mu­ni­ties in Be­larus and faces op­po­si­tion from War­saw

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