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14 August, 2018  ▪  Siarhei Pulsha

Belarus and Poland: a difficult balance

Why are Minsk and Warsaw still avoiding bitter historical polemic

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.


A Lop-sided History


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. National-minded 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.

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Whose Side Are the Poles On?


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.


Dictatorship is Contagious


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.

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What Next?


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.

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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