Poland Improves Links with Minsk at the Expence of the Opposition?

According to Polish MP Robert Winnicki, Poland should stop funding the Belsat TV channel and improve relations with Lukashenka. Although Winnicki remains a marginal figure in Polish politics, his statement is indicative of a new political climate in Poland.

Many Belarusian NGOs hoped that the new Polish Government, run by the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), would return to its policy of 2005-2007, when it last had control of the government.

At that time, Poland invested heavily in support for Belarusian democracy by creating the Kalinowski Scholarship programme for students experiencing political repression, and Belsat TV, the only independent channel broadcasting for Belarusians.

However, Poland has recently been reducing its level of support for pro-democracy groups and is trying to improve relations with the Belarusian authorities. Currently, the Polish Parliament has two separate groups on Belarus, one of which frequently lobbies to curry favour with Aliaksandr Lukashenka.

The changes in Polish policy cannot be explained only by attempts to improve relations with Belarusian authorities. The lack of chances for democratic changes as well as brutal repression reduces interest in Belarus among many donors, including Polish ones.

Polish support for Belarusian democracy

The change in policy towards Belarus after PiS's victory in the 2015 parliamentary elections took many by surprise.

Belarusian civil activists expected that the new conservative government would return to its previous policy of 2005-2007, when PiS ruled in Poland and played a crucial role in promoting Belarusian democracy. Poland supported Alexander Milinkevich during the 2006 presidential elections and continued to invest heavily in Belarusian democratic projects.

Belsat probably has the largest budget of any project directed at Belarus

A few days after the dissolution of the mass protests of 2006 in Belarus, Poland announced the creation of the Kalinowski scholarship. The program granted Belarusian democratic activists an opportunity to study in Polish universities with monthly scholarships of about $400 - a considerable sum in Poland at the time. A total of 244 students took advantage of this opportunity in 2006, when the scholarship first came in to effect.

A year later, Poland launched the satellite television station Belsat, with probably the largest budget of any project directed at Belarus. In 2007, the channel received about $6m for launch.

The government of the liberal Civic Platform (PO), which began to rule in Poland in late 2007, continued supporting these projects but gradually decreased their size. On the other hand, the liberal Polish government also increased spending on support of democracy in Belarus in 2010-2011, in connexion with the presidential election and the wave of repression which followed.

According to some sources, Poland then became a mega-donor for the presidential campaign of democratic candidate Uladzimir Niakliajeu, making it perhaps the most well-funded political campaign in Belarus so far.

Poland changes its priorities

Despite expectations, PiS has not returned to its old policy and the budgets of projects aimed at democratising Belarus have started to decrease.

Polish authorities have discontinued the Kalinowski Scholarship programme, creating in its place a smaller programme to support researchers without a political focus. Belsat remains uncertain about its long-term funding. In June, Agnieszka Romaszewska, director of Belsat TV, said that she is worried about the financial stability of the channel "due to the "warming of relations” with Belarus as well as a lack of vision for the prospects of such projects as Belsat TV."

Less is known about political groups which previously received money from the Polish authorities. However, according to rumours, the Polish authorities have decreased support for the Belarusian House in Warsaw, which unites Belarusian émigré politicians holding oppositional views.

These changes are taking place as the Polish government tries to improve relations with the Belarusian government. In March, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczykowski visited Belarus and met with Lukashenka. Later, a delegation of the Belarusian parliament came to Warsaw; this was a real achievement for the Belarusian authorities.

The Polish Parliament currently has two groups focused on relations with Belarus. One of them lobbies in support of more democracy projects, while the second supports more cooperation with Belarusian authorities.

A member of the latter group, nationalist MP Robert Winnicki, recently stated that Poland should stop funding Belsat TV and interfering in Belarusian politics. Although Winnicki is a marginal figure, up to this point such views were absent in the public space.

What is behind the policy change

The Polish authorities make no secret of their desire to improve relations with Lukashenka. Unlike other Eastern European countries, such as Ukraine, Lithuania and Russia, Poland has no painful historical disputes with Belarus and would like to restore trade. According to official Belarusian data, imports from Poland in 2015 decreased to $ 1.1bn compared to $ 1.5bn in 2014.

At the same time, Polish authorities value Lukashenka’s role in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. On 8 July, during the NATO summit, the Polish Foreign Minister said that "his country would like to be a mediator in rapprochement between Belarus and NATO."

Trade between Belarus and Poland is perhaps currently based on mutual concessions. Among the possible issues which can be worked on, the most realistic and interesting for the parties may be the Polish minority in Belarus, which remains repressed by Lukashenka’s regime.

However, an attempt to improve relations with Lukashenka is not the only explanation behind the change in policy. The lack of prospects for political change as well as a decrease in repression makes Belarus less interesting for many donors. For example, in the last year Belsat lost a quarter of its funding. The money was mainly coming from Western European countries, which redirected the funds to help refugees from the Middle East.

Thus, Poland remained the only donor to Belsat and is now re-assessing whether or not to fund such projects. The conservative government, even if it wanted to, remains unlikely to shut down a project as large as Belsat in which Poland has invested so heavily. But funding smaller and more politicised initiatives are less likely to be perceived as being in Poland's interests.

However, despite the lack of severe repression or significant progress, Poland should continue supporting Belsat and the Kalinowski programme, as they can change the climate of ideas inside Belarus. It remains difficult to assess the impact of these projects, but they have certainly done much to cultivate a Belarusian identity separate from Russia. And even Lukashenka's soft belarusization may not bear fruit if Belarusian civil society has not first strengthened its own national identity with the help of Poland.

Ryhor Astapenia is a Development Director at the Ostrogorski Centre, and editor-in-chief of Belarusian internet magazine Idea.

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