A U-turn in Poland's policy towards Belarus?
On 20 December, Polish MP Robert Tyszkiewicz publicly stated that Poland will hold parliamentary debates on the future of Belsat, an independent Belarusian TV channel based in Poland.
According to Tyszkiewicz, 'the termination of Belsat TV would mean a U-turn in Polish foreign policy, we would consider this a political mistake.'
Nearly all Polish politicians, journalists, and analysts covering Belarus share this stance. Moreover, Belarusian civil society, including leading figures in the Belarusian Polish minority, condemn the Polish Ministry for Foreign Affairs' proposal to cut support for Belsat.
It appears that due to the growing uproar against the possible closure of Belsat, Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczywski may reverse his decision.
Policy change in the Polish government
A few years ago it would be difficult to imagine that the Polish government would develop such a good relationship with the Belarusian authorities. In 2016 the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Head of the upper chamber of the Polish parliament all visited Minsk.
As one Polish diplomat privately told Belarus Digest, 'The Minsk embassy is actually understaffed for such an intense relationship.' It seems that even the President or the Prime Minister of Poland would consider meeting with Lukashenka if they could ensure it would not damage their reputations.
Together with the thaw in relations between Minsk and Warsaw, the Polish authorities have begun treating Belarusian pro-democratic groups with greater scepticism. The lack of prospects for political change, along with the decrease in repression, makes Belarus seem like a less urgent cause for many donors.
Nevertheless, few people expected the Polish MFA to be so harsh to Belsat TV. The ministry has not disclosed any information about its plan to cut next year's support for the channel by two-thirds, although there are only two weeks remaining in 2016. This information first came to light on 15 December thanks to Agnieszka Romaszewska, head of Belsat TV, and was based on her sources.
Ironically, even the Belarusian authorities are not demanding that the Polish side close Belsat; it has in fact become more tolerant of the station. In 2016, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry even accredited four Belsat TV journalists for the first time.
No one is happy with Waszczykowski’s idea
On 18 December, Minister Waszczykowski explained that after reformatting Belsat, the Polish government hopes to persuade the Belarusian authorities to allow TVP Polonia to join Belarusian TV cable networks. TVP Polonia is a Polish-language channel tailored to Poles living abroad. This would arguably strengthen the position of Poles living in Belarus.
However, the Polish minority in Belarus has expressed dissatisfaction with this idea. On 19 December, Anżelika Borys, leader of the Union of Poles in Belarus, stated that 'the closure of Belsat will be a blow to Belarusian civil society.'
On the same day, Andrzej Poczobut, another important representative of the Polish minority, published an article in Gazeta Wyborcza claiming the Polish foreign policy has lost its credibility, and that 'the closing of Belsat comes at a fatal time and in a fatal style.'
The possible closure of Belsat TV also caught Polish politicians by surprise. Last week, the Commission for Foreign Affairs of the Polish Sejm passed a resolution to support the Belarusian independent media.
Even Robert Winnicki, a prominent Polish nationalist who previously called for the closing of Belsat, sees no point in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs' decision, as this change would be a move 'from being stupidly anti-Lukashenka to being stupidly pro-Lukashenka'.
Polish analysts are also dismayed. Adam Eberhardt, director of the influential Polish think tank Centre for Eastern Studies, tweeted that ' the possible extinction of Belsat would be a great gesture to Lukashenka. The problem is that he does not usually reciprocate gestures and respect agreements.' According to Witold Jurasz, a Polish analyst and former diplomat in Minsk: 'if the Polish government plans to cut the subsidy for Belsat, I can confirm that someone has gone crazy.'
Needless to say, Belarusian civil society also opposes the Polish minister's decision. Movement for Freedom has launched an online petition addressed to the Polish president which has already been signed by thousands of Belarusians. Opposition groups also held a demonstration in Minsk on 20 December.
While Belarusian civil society wields little influence, the emerging coalition of pro-Belsat politicians, journalists, and analysts may prove more effective. The negative political fallout of the decision may exceed the desire of Witold Waszczykowski to close Belsat TV.
The two main reasons not to abandon Belsat TV
Why the Belarusian television channel should continue to receive support from the Polish government boils down to two arguments.
Firstly, the closure of Belsat TV will further delay the democratisation of Belarus and hinder its movement towards the West. Belsat, as well as other projects, plays a large role in supporting Belarusian national identity, and Belarusian identity remains the basis for the existence of a Belarusian state.
Belsat remains for Belarusians the only TV alternative to the official views propagated on Belarusian and Russian television. While the station cannot democratise the country alone, Belsat’s journalists play an important role at a grassroots level. For example, in 2016, a corrupt official from Slonim came under investigation thanks to Belsat.
Now, even the Belarusian authorities are feeling the heat of Russian nationalism. Just this week the Belarusian Foreign Ministry officially protested statements by Leonid Reshetnikov, the Kremlin-linked head of the influential Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, who claimed that Belarus remains a part of Great Russia.
It seems that nowadays Lukashenka's regime has more problems with Russian TV broadcasts than with Belsat. The authorities are no longer seriously afraid of a pro-Western colour revolution, but are more concerned about the threat from the East. Incidentally, the Russian-backed Sputnik.by welcomed the possible closure of Belsat calling it "a remnant of the past".
Secondly, de-funding Belsat will deprive Poland of its most important instrument of influence in Belarus, into which it has already invested around $40m. Furthermore, Poland will lose its moral credibility. When Polish politicians first launched Belsat TV, they gave speeches about solidarity and alluded to the help Poland received from the Western countries during the communist times.
Poland certainly has a right to set its own foreign policy priorities, but compromising its values and abandoning such a huge project will make Warsaw less credible and predictable to many countries. Diplomats from other Western countries have privately expressed to Belarus Digest their concern over the possibility of such a sharp U-turn.
Over the course of Lukashenka's rule Poland had 12 different foreign ministers. Some of them believed that they could engage Lukashenka and others wanted to isolate him. However, never has the Polish Foreign Ministry come this close to abandoning the long-term moral commitment of Poland to support Belarusian statehood, democracy, and independence.