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On 24 August at a congress of Polish Diaspora in Warsaw Poles from Belarus adopted an open letter. The authors of the letter raised the topic of the serious difficulties that the minority faces in the last dictatorship of Europe.
One of the most sensitive issues includes the use of the Card of the Pole, which five years after its introduction still remains controversial. This card issued to ethnic Poles in Belarus gives certain rights to its holders which makes Belarusian authorities nervous.
Warsaw maintains that the Card of the Pole is not intended to make citizens of a particular country disloyal. But Minsk had already taken steps to discredit the whole idea, including using Belarusian courts to show its unlawfulness.
Two Unequal Halves of the Union of Poles
According to the 2009 national census, 295,000 Poles live in Belarus. A decade ago the number was 396 thousand. Apart from the inevitable assimilation processes, Belarusian authorities create obstacles for Polish organisations. The Union of Poles is one of the biggest non–government association in Belarus, yet it cannot function freely within the public sphere and accomplish its goals. This becomes clearer when looking at the story of the Union of Poles.
It was founded in 1990 and according to the official data of the Union, the number of its members is around 25,000 people. The Union of Poles concentrates on cultural activities, charity, but also supports Polish language teachers in Belarus.
Belarusian authorities managed to split the organisation in 2005 by not approving the democratically elected leader, Angelika Borys. Eventually, the official Minsk supported another candidate, Jozef Lucznik who was perceived as more loyal to the regime. As a result of the conflict, Belarusian authorities officially recognised only association led by Jozef Lucznik. That split the organisation into two parts - one recognised and another not recognised by Belarusian authorities.
The successor of Jozef Lucznik, Stanislav Semashko, became controversial when he made public statements which criticised Polish authorities and the Card of the Pole for dividing Poles. This acts made him infamous for being a pro-regime figure and not representing the minority interests.
Today the officially recognised Union of Poles is led by Mieczyslaw Lysy who is also perceived as a regime loyalist. Thus, he cannot solve the problems the Polish minority are concerned about, like discrimination towards them in education and having a free press.
The Card of the Pole: Poles as a Fifth Column?
The Polish parliament introduced the Card of Pole in 2007. The Card confirms that an individual belongs to the ethnic Polish community. Moreover, it guarantees certain rights, such as a visa-free regime when travelling to Poland or right to settlement and work there. From the time of its introduction Minsk has disapproved of it strongly and has worked towards legally rejecting it.
Igor Karpenko, a leader of the parliamentary commission for the issuance of the Card of the Poles, raised a few arguments regarding the Card. One of them pertain to the accusations of Poland interference into the domestic affairs of Belarus and discriminatory division of its citizens. Such positions were also accompanied by the state media and also by some oppositional newspapers. Among the arguments shared by media were those related to the inevitable destabilisation of mutual Belarusian – Polish relations.
Moreover, the outflow of Belarusian youth going to study in Poland is also seen by officials as a threat to Belarusian society. The Card of the Pole simplifies for Belarusian nationals entry into EU countries. The members of the official Union, who did not succeed in receiving the Card, claimed that it would divide the Poles in Belarus. Belarusian officials also question several legal aspects of the Card. As a consequence, in April 2011 the Belarusian Constitutional Court declared that from the point of view of international law the Card of the Pole is illegal. It caused additional tensions between Warsaw and Minsk.
Poles in Belarus frequently raise the issue of preservation their identity through the teaching of Polish. Authors of the open letter presented during the recent Congress of Poles clearly articulated the problems related to the teaching of Polish. There are only two Polish language schools (in Hrodna and Volkovysk) and the number of schoolchildren learning Polish language has been constantly decreasing.
The repression of the teaching of the Polish language and culture also against the unofficial Union of Poles activists who organise such education, are among the main reasons. Fear of interference by Minsk into education organised by the Poles themselves appears to be a serious problem for activists.
In 29 August the director of a Polish school in Hrodna announced that two classes with Russian language instruction would not be introduced as the local authorities had planned. The school in Hrodna is one of two Polish schools, almost entirely funded by Poland. The parents and Polish activists frequently raised the argument that the introduction of such classes could have brought about the gradual russification of their children.
This case proves that language teaching remains one of the most crucial and simultaneously, very sensitive issues for the Polish minority in Belarus. As the activists claim that the Polish government's support is not enough, another issue is the difficulties that Minsk continues to make with the rights of minorities to organize their own education.
In July, the Belarusian consulate in Bialystok rejected the visas of two Polish language teachers who were assigned by the Polish Ministry of Education to be sent to Baranavichy region. Due to the financial situation of that school, the actions of Minsk will clearly place the school and its ability to function under further hardship.
Hostages of Politics
Despite these difficulties and decisions, the Polish minority appears to be well organised and has a well-articulated agenda. Nevertheless, pressure from the Belarusian regime hinders the social activity of Poles in Belarus. This is especially true when it speaks openly of its needs and its problems. The very interference by the authorities with the election of a leader of the Union of Poles proves that Minsk does not intend to allow that organisation to slip out of its control.
Moreover, as it happens frequently with national minorities, Poles in Belarus become the prisoners of uneasy Belarus – Poland relations. And thus, spheres of daily life, like education or the press are those which suffer the most from the politicisation of national issues.
Paula Borowska is an analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre. Originally from Bialystok, she studied at the University of Gdansk and the University of Bologna.