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.
Eastern Partnership: regional projects that save EU-Belarus relations
Relations between Belarus and the European Union are still in crisis. An EU resolution on Belarus, delivered on 24 November, once again demonstrated just how weak bilateral relations are. According to the document, the Belarusian government has yet to resolve several key problems hindering the EU-Belarus partnership from progressing further.
Human rights issues remain the main reason the EU has not ratified the bilateral Partnership and Cooperation Agreement concluded with Belarus in 1995. At present, the Eastern Partnership programme is the only effective framework sustaining diplomacy between the EU and Belarus.
Nevertheless, it is important to note that although diplomacy has suffered numerous crises, EaP projects have brought about laudable results. The EU’s approach to Belarus can be said to have two components: the first involves diplomacy and the second entails regional cooperation through EaP projects.
In May 2016, the Eastern Partnership Foreign Affairs Ministry summarised that the EaP needs to focus on delivering results to citizens. Since the meeting, the European Commission and the European External Action Service have developed a joint working document entitled 'Eastern Partnership – focusing on key priorities and deliverables', which identifies 20 key deliverables for 2020. These include economic development, strengthening institutions, energy, environment, and people-to-people contacts.
Verdict for Belarus
The involvement of the European Parliament complicates the partnership even further: 468 members of the Parliament against 21 supported a document claiming that the Eastern Partnership has not brought about progress in diplomacy. The EU maintains that Belarus has not conducted free and fair elections since 1994, also noting that Belarus remains the only country in Europe still using capital punishment. The resolution states that violations of human rights persist.
However, certain measures could improve the prospects of EU-Belarus relations. The resolution stresses that the EU lifted most of its sanctions against Belarusian officials and legal entities in February 2016 as a gesture of good will to encourage Belarus to improve its human rights situation.
Despite difficulties in diplomacy, the two sides have managed to launch several important EU-funded projects. These could help build sustainable diplomatic ties. On 15 December Aliena Kupčyna, the Belarusian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated that reversing the European Union's policy on Belarus will not be an easy task, but results are not far off.
Given the EaP's key principle of 'more support for more progress', Belarus has reason to be optimistic. Belarus and the EU are involved in 48 regional projects on human development, improvement of living standards, social development, education, sustainable economic growth, international cooperation, healthcare, investment, resource and energy efficiency, environment protection, and ecological sustainability.
'More support for more progress'
In December 2016 the European Union Delegation visited Belarus. Andrea Wiktorin, the head of the delegation, explained that regional development was a priority for EU-Belarus cooperation.
European diplomats have proved that their promises are not empty. The EU doubled the size of its bilateral assistance package in 2016 (from €14.5 million in 2015 to €29 million), bolstering private sector development (€14 million) and helping Belarus cope with irregular migration (€7 million). These resources also strengthen institutions (€6 million to promote good governance, justice, gender equality and rule of law). The EU has also provided support for the European Humanities University, a Belarusian university in exile based in Vilnius (€2 million).
The EU’s policy of improving people-to-people projects constitutes the core of the partnership. The main EaP projects of the Government of Belarus and the European Union support 'P2P' contacts.
These programmes include MOST, which enhances professional contacts; TAIEX, supporting public administration; and SOCIEUX, which supports social protection services. In 2020, the EU also initiated Horizon 2020, the largest ever EU research programme, with nearly €80 billion of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020), for the Belarusian academic community.
Despite the huge number of exemplary projects, the Eastern Partnership nevertheless cannot replace the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which has yet to be ratified. The Belarus-EU partnership still needs to achieve its main goal – creating a legislative and institutional framework which can guarantee sustainable diplomatic contacts.
Over the last few years, Belarus has taken a number of steps that have contributed to improving EU-Belarus cooperation. For example, Belarus released political prisoners in August 2015; this was a significant decision which the EU had demanded repeatedly. The EU also conceded that Belarusian authorities held the 2015 presidential elections in an 'environment free from violence'.
In its turn, the EU lifted sanctions for 170 individuals and companies. The two sides have started negotiating a Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreement and a Mobility Partnership, as well as resuming the EU-Belarus Human Rights Dialogue and discussing a potential Cooperation Arrangement for an Early Warning Mechanism in the energy sector.
What's more, Belarus and the EU could be close to resolving the problem of the absence of the Belarusian Parliament from Euronest. The first visit of the EU Parliament Delegation for Belarus since 2002 took place in Minsk in June 2015. In December 2016, Michail Miasnikovič, the Chairman of the Council of the Republic of the National Assembly of Belarus, stressed that the National Assembly of Belarus hopes to strengthen its ties with the parliaments of all European Union countries.
Recently, the EU and Belarus have made great strides in diplomacy, with Belarus hosting a large number of EU officials. The EU-Belarus Coordination Group, led by Thomas Mayr-Harting, Managing Director of the European External Action Service, held its latest meeting in Minsk on November 2016. During the visit, officials discussed a broad list of subjects, including: mobility, people-to-people contacts, trade, customs, transport, environment, energy, research, education, agriculture, and social security.
The Belarusian authorities have stated their willingness to continue on the path of progress publicly. Michail Miasnikovič noted that Belarus will host a number of important international events in 2017, including a session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and meetings of the Central European Initiative. According to the official: 'We are getting ready to host the events…. We believe that our voice will make a constructive contribution to European issues. Europe is our common home, and we are all responsible for its security and prosperity'.
Political and economic modernisation of the Belarusian state and society is impossible without the participation of the Belarusian authorities. The state sector produces 70% of the GDP and employs nearly 50% of the working population.
The approach of engaging with the Belarusian state could form the basis for a comprehensive agreement on partnership and cooperation between Belarus and the EU. This would make EU–Belarus relations more transparent.
Dzmitry Halubnichy is an analyst at the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk, Belarus.