Belarus and Poland: is the difficult period finally over?
Belarus and Poland are moving closer towards a rapprochement, with Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei paying a working visit to Warsaw on 10 October.
His Polish counterpart, Witold Waszczykowski, seems to have a personal affinity for Makei; Waszczykowski trusts that President Alexander Lukashenka’s intentions to mend bilateral ties between Minsk and Warsaw are sincere.
Publicly, both parties have expressed enthusiasm about the recent improvements in Belarusian – Polish relations. However, the increase in dialogue has so far failed to foster any new breakthrough projects. Many obstacles preventing genuine improvement in bilateral relations remain, such as the treatment of the Polish minority in Belarus.
Is the difficult period finally over?
For most of the past two decades, the relationship between Belarus and Poland has remained strained, regardless of whether the ruling party in Warsaw be Socialists, Liberals or Conservatives. The failure of a short-lived attempt at a thaw in 2010 ended in even deeper animosity between Minsk and Warsaw.
A phone call by then-Prime Minister Donald Tusk to Alexander Lukashenka, placed in the context of Russian aggression in Ukraine, may have served as a turning point in bilateral relations. Around the same time, a working group on trade and investments representing both countries met in Minsk. The group had failed to meet for the five preceding years.
Since then, bilateral dialogue has been developing dynamically and without interruptions. Both Belarus and Poland have regularly hosted visits from ministers, deputy ministers, and high-level officials from different agencies and institutions.
The parties have been actively engaged in discussions on foreign policy and security, trade and investment, infrastructure development and construction, agriculture and forestry, culture and environment, and so on. In July, Belarus and Poland signed an intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in education.
In March 2016, Witold Waszczykowski visited Minsk to meet with his Belarusian counterpart Vladimir Makei. President Lukashenka received the Polish official and reassured him that Belarus was prepared for “closest cooperation with Poland”.
In August, Poland made a significant gesture to the Belarusian authorities when Ryszard Terlecki, vice-speaker of the Polish Sejm, came to Minsk to meet with the chairmen of both chambers of the Belarusian rubber-stamp parliament.
The unwarranted recognition of this institution, which plays no role in Belarus’s domestic or foreign policy, can neither promote democracy in Belarus nor have any meaningful impact on bilateral relations by means of inter-parliamentary dialogue. This was merely a favour granted to the Belarusian executive authorities in expectation of later favours in return.
No problems whatsoever in bilateral relations?
During his trip to Warsaw on 10 October, Vladimir Makei held talks with his Polish counterpart. He was also received by Polish president Andrzej Duda.
On the same day, Makei met with Krzysztof Szczerski, a senior official in charge of the president’s foreign policy schedule. The two officials likely discussed the conditions and timing of a meeting between Andrzej Duda and Alexander Lukashenka.
Makei made his introductory remarks in Belarusian – still very rare among top-level Belarusian officials. Warsaw surely noted the fact that Belarus’s foreign minister expressed himself in the language of his country’s titular nation in a foreign capital. The choice to use the Belarusian tongue sent a delicate signal to Polish authorities that they were indeed hosting a representative of an independent nation rather than a Russian satellite.
However, Belarusian and Polish officials have so far failed to announce any major joint projects, initiatives, or breakthrough solutions to unresolved bilateral issues. Very few specifics were provided. At a press briefing after his meeting with Waszczykowski, Makei spoke warmly about the current tone of Belarusian – Polish relations. He went as far as stating that “Belarus and Poland [were] experiencing a historic moment of transition to a new period of bilateral relations”.
In the same statement, Makei did mention certain “remaining problematic issues” before immediately stressing that “[Belarus and Poland] have no problems whatsoever … in our bilateral relations”. A possible interpretation of this contradiction may be that any remaining disagreements are not of a bilateral nature but rather imposed or provoked from the outside, by Brussels, Washington or even Moscow.
Can one expect a breakthrough?
Despite the recent rapprochement, Belarus and Poland have accumulated a number of issues during the previous period of strained and often antagonistic relations. These problems need to be resolved for a full normalisation of bilateral ties.
The current conservative Polish government has been particularly attentive to issues pertaining to national identity, history, and traditions.
Waszczykowski personally asked his Belarusian counterpart to help bring to light the full list of victims of the Katyn massacre, presumably stored in the KGB archives in Minsk. While Makei has indeed brought some historic documents to Warsaw, he maintains that the authorities have failed to find the Katyn list in the Belarusian archives.
The status of Polish Catholic clergy in Belarus also remains a sensitive issue for bilateral relations. In July, the Belarusian agency in charge of religion categorically refused to extend the work permits of three Polish priests serving in Belarusian parishes. The agency reversed its decision a few days later, apparently under pressure from the foreign ministry. However, this situation may reoccur any day.
A source in the foreign ministry has told Belarus Digest about Makei’s plan to reunite the Union of Poles in Belarus, which the government cleaved in two in 2005. The authorities are allegedly proposing to hold a unification congress of the independent, non-registered association recognised by Poland, and the government-controlled union. The goal is to democratically elect new leaders – but the Belarusian government insists on green-lighting the candidatures in advance.
The intention is to heal the sorest point in the two countries’ relations. It is unclear, however, whether activists of the two associations will be ready to work together after years of mutual animosity and mistrust.
In its turn, the Belarusian authorities insist that Poland curtails its support of democratic Belarusian activists. Belarus’s foreign ministry is particularly invested in the closure of the Belsat TV channel, which is broadcasted from Poland and funded by the Polish government.
Incidentally, Waszczykowski is said to be reassessing the need for Belsat. The minister seems to be ready to go as far as shutting the project down completely. This decision would be part of a trend of Poland decreasing its support of Belarusian pro-democracy groups.
The Belarusian ambassador to Poland has lately been a frequent guest in Polish government agencies, where he is hard selling energy from the Astraviec nuclear power plant. So far, Poland has been very careful in its response to this pitch, balancing between its loyalty to Lithuania and the potential commercial benefits.
Regional security considerations and genuine economic interests are encouraging Poland to pursue greater engagement with the Belarusian authorities, putting aside “ideological superstitions” (to use a term coined by Makei in Warsaw).
It remains to be seen to what extent this new attitude will allow Warsaw to look past Minsk’s reluctance to undertake any meaningful step towards political liberalisation, which remains the fundamental condition of Europe’s full-fledged cooperation with Belarus.
Belarus-Russia disintegration, strengthening air force, Belarusian congress – Ostrogorski Centre digest
In October the Ostrogorski Centre participated in the Sixth International Congress of Belarusian Studies, the largest annual conference on Belarus in the social sciences and humanities.
Its analysts presented analytical papers on Belarus-Russia disintegration and non-formal education in Belarus. It also offered its earlier printed publications to Congress participants.
Over the past months, analysts have also written about topics such as the rhetoric of Belarusian diplomacy in the UN, the long standing dispute between Russian and Belarus regarding the Single Air Defence System, state policies more sympathetic towards the Belarusian language, and other issues.
Igar Gubarevich analyses the rhetoric of Belarusian diplomats at the UN. Most challenges now facing Belarus stem from the regime’s outdated economic policy, its ill-judged and unreserved affiliation with Russia, and chronic neglect of national identity issues.
However, Belarusian diplomats prefer to play at global politics and use the UN as a rostrum to blame their country's economic, social and security deficiencies on Western induced "global chaos". This attitude may placate Russia and help Belarus secure sympathies from certain third-world nations, but is unlikely to strengthen Belarus's position at the UN.
Siarhei Bohdan argues that Minsk prevailed in a long standing dispute with the Kremlin on how best to secure the Belarusian segment of the Single Air Defence System should the Belarusian Air Force not have enough planes. It will apparently receive new planes for the Belarusian army rather than a Russian air base.
This information is based on a report by Bellingcat claiming that Russia has withdrawn its fighter jets from Belarus, as well as a report leaked from the Belarusian parliament revealing that Minsk had included the cost of state-of-the-art Russian fighter jets in the next year's national budget.
Ryhor Astapenia argues that the authorities are currently changing their policy towards the Belarusian language. The appointment of Alena Anisim of the Belarusian Language Society to the Parliament shows that the Belarusian authorities do favour gradual measures promoting Belarusian. However, these measures may not necessarily lead to a revival of the Belarusian language, but rather simply prevent it from disappearing from the Belarusian education system.
The Ostrogorski Centre at the 6th International Congress of Belarusian Studies
On 7-9 October the Ostrogorski Centre took part in the Sixth International Congress of Belarusian Studies (Kaunas, Lithuania), the largest annual conference on Belarus in the social sciences and humanities. On 7 October Ryhor Astapenia presented a paper entitled ‘Belarus-Russia relations after the conflict in Ukraine’ in the section on regional cooperation and national security. On 8 October Yaraslau Kryvoi and Vadzim Smok presented an analytical paper called ‘Non-formal education in Belarus: expanding the learning space’.
Comments in the media
Paul Goble provided a brief overview of Ryhor Astapenia's paper, “Belarusian-Russian Relations after the Ukrainian Conflict", for Eurasia Review. He summarised the study's main findings, which indicate a process of gradual disintegration between Belarus and Russia.
On the Political Mirror programme on Polish radio, Ryhor Astapenia discussed who won in the recent oil and gas war, what Minsk can gain from cooperation with Warsaw, and why Lukashenka wants to change the constitution.
Thinktanks.by quoted Ryhor Astapenia's presentation at the Sixth International Congress of Belarusian Studies. According to Astapenia, Belarus and Russia are undergoing a process of disintegration in economic, military and foreign policy spheres; this is the result of the formation of Belarusian statehood. Nevertheless, this change will not lead to a profound break in relations with Moscow, as Belarus is still dependent on the Russian market. Belarus will always seek to maintain good relations with Russia.
Igar Gubarevich discussed Belarusian authorities' contacts with the diaspora on Polish radio. Ever since the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has taken charge of maintaining good relations with Belarusians abroad, contacts have become more frequent. An advisory council for Belarusians abroad was established several years ago. However, the authorities invite to the council only those Belarusians who are loyal to the current political regime in Belarus, while Belarusians from the UK or the strong American community are not represented at all.
In the Political Mirror programme on Polish radio, Ryhor Astapenia discussed the activity of Belarusian diplomats in relation to the US, the situation of Belarusian prisons, the state of Belarusian banks, and a change in Aliaksandr Lukashenka's image.
The BelarusProfile.com database now includes the following people: Aliena Anisim, Hanna Kanapackaja, Piotra Piatroŭski, Mikalaj Ulachovič, Ihar Marzaliuk, Uladzimir Japryncaŭ, Michail Dzemčanka, Aliaksiej Alieksin, Viktar Piatrovič.
We have also updated the profiles of Mikalaj Aŭtuchovič, Ryhor Astapienia, Uladzimir Arloŭ, Aliaksandr Aliesin, Aliena Tankačova, Valiancin Akudovič, Dzmitryj Holuchaŭ, Aliaksandr Cacocha, Jury Hubarevič, Arkadź Dobkin, Stanislaŭ Bahdankievič, Valier Bulhakaŭ, Hienadź Buraŭkin, Alieś Bialiacki, Valier Vakĺučyk.
The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update the database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:
- Aleh Mazol. Spatial wage inequality in Belarus. BEROC, 2016.
- Kirill Shakhnov. The tax system of Belarus. BEROC, 2016.
- Uladzimir Akulich, Yulia Yafimnenka, Katsiaryna Alieksiatovich, Viktoryia Smalenskaya, Uladzislau Ramaniuk, Alieś Aliachnovič, Sierž Naŭrodski. The sixth issue of the Macroeconomic Review of Belarus (January-June 2016). CASE Belarus, 2016.
- Uladzimir Akulich, Yulia Yafimnenka, Viktoryia Smalenskaya, Uladzislau Ramaniuk, Alieś Aliachnovič, Sierž Naŭrodski, Katsiaryna Alieksiatovich, Yaraslau Mialhui. Economic trends in Belarus (Issue 2, September 2016). CASE Belarus, 2016.
- Ina Ramasheuskaya, Natallia Rabava. A new approach to professional development of civil servants in Belarus. BIPART, 2016.
Think tanks in Belarus are encouraged to submit their research for inclusion into the database by completing this form.
The Ostrogorski Centre is a private, non-profit organisation dedicated to analysis and policy advocacy on problems which Belarus faces in its transition to market economy and the rule of law. Its projects include Belarus Digest, the Journal of Belarusian Studies,BelarusPolicy.com,BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.