The Polish minority in Belarus: resisting Russification
On 11 May, the Union of Poles in Belarus sent around 6,000 signatures to Alexander Lukashenka demanding an end to the Russification of Polish schools in Hrodna Region.
In July, The Belarusian Ministry of Education plans to decrease the number of subjects taught in Polish in Polish schools of Hrodna and Vaukavysk.
Over the past several years, Belarusian Poles have fallen victim to the state's attempts to restrict minority rights in education and religion. Hrodna Region, where most Belarusian Poles reside, has become the epicentre for the struggle for minority rights in Belarus.
The independent Union of Poles advocates for Polish language and traditions. However, it is often met with oppression of the authorities. Restricting the use of Polish language could strongly influence the further development of the Polish movement in Hrodna Region.
Who Represents the Poles in Belarus?
Historically, most Poles in Belarus have resided in Hrodna Region. According to a 2009 census, more than 20% of Hrodna Region’s population was Polish. The most Polish town in Belarus was Voranava, where around 80% of the population identified themselves as Poles. Cultural and historical circumstances brought more Poles to Hrodna Region than other Belarusian regions.
Two separate Polish associations represent the interests of the Polish minority in Belarus. Founded in 1988, the Union of Poles created a newspaper and opened two Polish schools in Hrodna and Vaukavysk. By 2005, the Union had opened 16 ‘Polish Homes’ and boasted more than 25,000 members. However, as early as 1997, the Belarusian authorities were accusing the union of political provocation.
In 2005, the Union was divided into two different organisations. The Ministry of Justice did not recognise the leadership of Anžalika Borys, who was elected Head of the Union of Poles over the pro-governmental representative Tadevush Kruchkowski.
The situation escalated, and the following conflict resulted in a schism. Today, there are two Unions of Poles in Belarus, one of which is loyal to the authorities and one of which is independent.
Currently, the activities of the two unions coordinate with two different governments. The Belarusian government recognises the official Union of Poles and points to 18 separate registration violations for the unofficial Union. Meanwhile, the Polish government largely communicates with the independent Union of Poles.
The Belarusian government has taken advantage of the split within the Union of Poles to maintain control over activism among the Polish minority in Belarus. For example, authorities openly supported the candidature of an especially loyal contender in 2005. However, according to activist Andrej Pačobut in a Belsat interview, the authorities have basically created their own union with pro-governmental representatives and decision-makers often working for the secret services.
Protection of Polish Language
The independent Union of Poles points to repeated violations of the Polish minority’s rights. In the 1990s, Head of the Union Tadevush Havin highlighted the need to protect the status of the Polish language, also calling to promote Belarusian, writes Spring96. However, the Russification of the education system did not affect use of the Polish language in the region until recent years.
Over the last several years, the authorities have been creating obstacles for the promotion of Polish language. In 2012, the Ministry of Education suggested diminishing the use of Polish language in education in Polish schools in Hrodna and Vaukavysk. In February 2017, the topic came up again, leading to an amendment to the Education Code.
The Ministry of Education now suggests decreasing the number of subjects taught in Polish at Polish schools in Hrodna and Vaukavysk. As a result, the independent Union of Poles gathered signatures protesting the amendment and sent a petition to the Ministry of Education.
On 17 April, the petition was shot down by the Ministry. The reply caused the local minority to put every effort into defending the Polish language at the only two exclusively Polish schools in the country. On 11 May, the independent Union gathered around 6,000 signatures against the amendments to the Education Code and sent them to Alexander Lukashenka.
On 18 May, a pro-governmental regional newspaper, Hrodzenskaya Prauda, published a letter from supposedly Roman Catholic Church members demanding that Polish language propaganda be stopped.
The letter called on Metropolitan Tadevuš Kandrusievič to ‘prevent the activism of Anžalika Borys from advocating for the Polish language in churches’. However, on 21 May, the Metropolitan told Krynica.info that he did not receive any such letter. Andzhei Pisalnik, the press-secretary of the independent Union of Poles, believes that the letter represents yet another attempt to 'discredit the Union' as it actively fights against the reformation of Polish schools in Hrodna Region.
The Polish Minority – a Threat to the Regime?
Education for the Polish minority in Belarus has already experienced pressure during recent years. In 2015, authorities shut down the last Polish-speaking kindergarten group in Hrodna.
The diminished role of Polish in education has become a crucial issue for the Polish minority in the region. Replacing it in schools with 'one of the official languages' would mean replacing it with Russian, due to the predominance of Russian language in education.
Besides restricting use of the Polish language in education, the state aims to influence the sphere of religion. Activist Andrej Pačobut points out that priests coming from Poland receive shorter visas (for 3-6 months) than they had before. Earlier, in 2009, three priests had to return to Poland because they conducted church services exclusively in Polish.
The current wave of Russification seems to have economic motives rather than ideological ones. The Polish minority in the region is on the rise due to the simplicity of acquiring a Pole's Card. This could have both positive and negative consequences, including brain-drain, labour migration, cultural exchange, and democratic learning.
The authorities are aiming to prevent brain-drain and labour migration to Poland through Russification of the education system and restrictions for certain groups of Belarusians. For instance, Belarusian officials and their children are forbidden from applying for Pole's Cards from Belarus and have to travel to Poland to file documents.
The Polish minority in Hrodna Region faces many challenges created by the authorities. Control over the independent Union of Poles and education have become additional obstacles for the Polish minority in the region. In the near future, the rights of the Polish minority in Hrodna Region are likely to be respected only to the extent which allows authorities to control Polish activism.