Belarusian Catholics or Polish Agents?
Recently the head of the independent Union of Poles in Belarus, Mieczyslaw Jaskievicz made a controversial statement about Belarusian Catholics. In an interview given to Belarusian Partisan he related that he belongs to a Catholic Church with an exclusively Polish identity. In his words, Belarusians and Russians are Orthodox.
It happens often that people, particularly in the Poland-Belarus borderland, define their national identity in terms of their religious affiliation. Such an oversimplification remains valid due to the dominating presence of the Polish language in the religious services in the past. Over the last two decades the Church in Belarus, however, has seriously been changing its approach to Belarusian believers. In addition to its Polish language services it has also the Belarusian language into its churches.
At the same time, Belarusian authorities still have not found a way to deal with the Catholic Church. On the one hand, Minsk is aware of the advantages of maintaining proper relations with the Church and how it helps to support the myth of a religiously tolerant Belarus. On the other hand, Lukashenka’s recent statement about a spy within the Catholic Church in Belarus and his criticism of the Orthodox Church signals that he is keeping a close eye on activities of religious institutions.
The Polish Minority in Belarus
Over the last decade the number of people declaring Polish identity in Belarus has declined. In 1999, over 396,000 people declared themselves Poles, over a ten year time span this number has dropped to 295,000. Remarkably, nearly 60% of those who identify themselves as Poles speak Belarusian at home. This means that the majority of them use Polish only during church services, but Belarusian in their daily life. Largely due to this, it happens that they are sometimes called “church Poles”, a reference to the fact of their usage Polish mainly at their Catholic church services.
60% of those who identify themselves as Poles speaks Belarusian at home Read more
During last year’s Congress of Poles Abroad in Warsaw participant-activists argued that conditions for Polish minority in Belarus were deteriorating. The authorities had already managed to split the Union of Poles into two organisations – one recognised by the State and the other considered “disloyal” in the eyes of Minsk. The Polish activists also highlighted the serious difficulties with organising teaching in Polish. In their opinion, such difficulties hindered the preservation of Polish identity in Belarus.
Who needs the Belarusian language in the Catholic Church?
The Belarusian language for a long time remained absent in the Catholic Church in Belarus. Since the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 the Nazi occupiers completely eliminated Belarusian’s usage in religious services and institutions. Catholic officials in Belarus started re-introducing the language into church life only in the 1990s. Then a special commission was created and started translating liturgical texts into Belarusian. In August 2004, the Archbishop of Minsk-Mahiliou, Cardinal Kazimierz Swiontek presented the first edition of an important liturgical book in Belarusian.
The majority of the Catholic parishes in Western Belarus conduct bilingual service, Belarusian and Polish. However, an oversimplification such as “in Belarus those who attend the Catholic Church are Poles and those who go to the Orthodox Church are either Belarusians or Russians” still persists in Belarus, particularly among the older generation.
This is in large part due to the historical legacy of the region: in the past Catholicism became the core of the concept of Polish identity. On the other hand, many started to connect Orthodoxy with Russianness. Paradoxically, today the Church is one of the most influential socio-religious institutions and de facto promotes the Belarusian language simply through use of it in its services.
Lukashenka: the Priest-Spy in the Catholic Church
Recently, while the Orthodox Church was celebrating the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of Kievan Rus, Alexander Lukashenka announced at the end of July that they caught a spy in the Belarusian Catholic Church. He said “we detained one of the traitors who served in the special services and who through the representatives of the Catholic Church is related to foreign states”.
Despite the fact that he did not reveal the name of the suspect, the media quickly found out whom it was he was speaking about. In the beginning of June the KGB arrested Father Uladzislau Lazar, a Belarusian Catholic priest from Barysau on charges of espionage. Father Uladzislau has a Belarusian passport and was educated in Belarus and Poland.
The affair certainly casts a shadow over the whole Catholic Church in Belarus. The activists of the Belarusian Christian Party issued a letter of support for Father Lazar’s release. The authors write that “We believe that the arrest of the priest is an attempt to blackmail the Catholic Church and intimidate the Belarusian public”. Naviny.by has reported that in five days the petition has collected over 900 signatures.
The Increased Interest of the State
So far the Belarusian authorities have had a rather mixed approach to the Catholic Church, but certainly more favourable than that which they have had towards Protestant communities. Minsk’s position often depends upon the advantages it can gain from one or another approach. Certainly, the authorities need the Catholic Church to access Vatican, and through it, Western Europe. In addition, the Catholic Church remains the second largest in Belarus after the Orthodox Church. The authorities cannot just ignore this fact.
Last October the Holy See’s diplomatic representative, Cardinal Claudio Gugerotti, visited with Belarusian prisoners of conscience. Amongst others he met with Siarhei Kavalenka, Mikola Statkievich, Ales Bialatski and Pavel Sieviaryniec. Certainly this was a rather unexpected event considering the fact how the authorities have conducted themselves with regards to political prisoners rights.
Lukashenka recently demonstrated that he wants to play a role in the country’s religious life. He talked about a need to reform the Orthodox Church by making it more suitable for people, including a reduction in the length of its services. Belarusian analysts are still not sure why he did not go to Kyiv to join the presidents of Russia and Ukraine and top Orthodox hierarchs from around the world at the celebrations surrounding the baptism of Kievan Rus. Perhaps by becoming more engaged in religious affairs he is trying to compensate for missing the event.
Belarusian Foreign Policy: Between Tehran and Tel-Aviv
Belarusians have a special attitude towards Israel. In the only world’s country where Yiddish was ever a state language, almost every family – even of non-Jewish origin – has either relatives, friends or acquaintances there. It is no wonder then that three out of nine Israeli presidents, including the current president Shimon Peres, are Belarusian Jews.
At the same time, Belarus for years has enjoyed quite dynamic relations with both Israel and Iran. Till 2003, Minsk maintained very close links with Saddam’s Iraq, as well. These parallel links with the states hostile to each other demonstrate that the Belarusian government is not as primitive as it sometimes seems. It is able handle such dilemmas and pragmatically avoids ideology. Belarusian officials never treat Israel the way they treat the EU or US.
Scramble For Jewish Heritage
Ties to Israel and Jewish culture of Eastern Europe has become an important issue in the region. Its Belarusian-Jewish historical heritage is frequently claimed by its neighbours. Last week, the mayor of Lithuanian capital congratulated the Israeli president Shimon Peres with his 90th birthday. He added, “I want to say clearly and openly, you were born on the territory of what was formerly Lithuania.”
The leading Polish daily Rzecz Pospolita corrected, “Shimon Peres was born in Poland,” and remarked, “today it is the territory of Belarus.” In all actuality, the Israeli president was born in the historical heartland of Belarus – the Vilna region. Moreover, he openly says so, and even briefly described his Belarusian childhood in one of his books.
In July, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry symbolically handed Shimon Peres his Belarusian birth certificate. Read more
Belarusian authorities and society in recent times have demonstrated more awareness towards the importance of tending to the Jewish aspect of its national culture and Belarusian Jews. In July, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry symbolically handed Shimon Peres his Belarusian birth certificate.
Meanwhile, public activists held a special event in the birthplace of the father of modern Hebrew language, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, in the Viciebsk Voblast’. Even more symbolically, just before opening the Iranian trade centre in Brest, municipal officials there declared their intent to open in October a monument to Menachem Begin, a former Israeli Prime Minister from the Belarusian city of Brest.
And these symbolical gestures go beyond culture. When the former chief of the Israeli Mossad intelligence service, Meir Dagan, needed a liver transplant, he went to Minsk in October last year. The operation was successful and the Belarusian authorities acquired one more influential friend in Israel.
Belarusian embassies have little interest in their own fellow Belarusians (whatever their ethnic background) in most other countries. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry always emphasises that there are 120,000 former Belarusian citizens living now in Israel, and that there are about 30,000 Jews living in Belarus (the Jewish Agency for Israel says even about 50-60,000). That is more even in absolute numbers than in any of neighbouring country, except Russia.
It should not come as a surprise, then, that one of the first visits of the de-facto ruler of newly independent Belarus, Prime Minister Kebich, in 1992 was to Israel. Lukashenka also visited Israel in 2000. Although official contact between Belarus and Israel remained at a rather low level – compared, to say, Belarus-Iranian contacts – they were nonetheless very stable and less problematic than with any of the EU countries. Lukashenka regularly described bilateral relations in very positive terms. “Relations with Israel are actively developing in all directions,” is a typical phrase in his rhetoric.
As the US and EU harshly criticised the violent treatment of 2010 presidential election day’s protesters and issued travel ban against Belarusian officials, Israel simply had its ambassador not to attend the inauguration ceremony. Later, in an unrelated interview, Israeli ambassador Yosef Shagal explained the Israeli position towards Belarusian domestic politics, “it is very important to retain good relations with a country which has an excellent attitude towards us”.
According to him, Israel, a close ally of the US in world politics, has never initiated sanctions against Belarus. As for Belarus working with opponents of Israel in Baghdad, Tehran or Damascus, Shagal explained the situation stathing that Belarus “does not initiate any anti-Israeli processes but at the same time it is supporting Russia which frequently votes against Israel.”
Finally, some radical quarters of the Belarusian opposition have accused Israel of collaborating with the current Belarusian government. “Why Is the New Israeli Ambassador Defending Lukashenka’s Regime?” lamented last year the weekly Tut I Ciapier.
As Shimon Peres visited Riga and Vilinus last week, but not Minsk, a slew of new speculations arose on Belarusian radical sites. Charter’97 proclaimed, “The President of Israel refuses to visit Belarus.” Yauhien Lipkovich on the Moscow-based Belarusian Partican commented, “The President of Israel Did Not Forgive Lukashenka.” Finally, the Israeli embassy had to react and officially relay the statement of Peres’ press secretary on the matter. On Thursday, Peres let the embassy explain that he felt very sorry about not visiting his fatherland this time, the entire story had to do with his work schedule, and regardless, he was going to visit Belarus next year.
The most popular speculative explanation for Tel-Aviv’s benevolent attitude towards Minsk are deals between Lukashenka and some figures of the Israeli establishment, in particular Avigdor Lieberman, the former Foreign Minister of Israel. During Lukashenka’s presidency, Lieberman visited Belarus at least five times and helped in to reopen the Israeli embassy in Minsk in 2004 in the aftermath of its closure one year earlier.
Economically, relations with Israel look not very impressive. In April, the Israeli ambassador to Belarus stated that in 2012 Israeli investments in Belarus – in the form of sites being built or still being projected – reached $250-300m. According to the ambassador, in 2013 this number shall rise to about $400m.
The volume of Iranian investment claimed by Iranian officials is to set at $960m. This number is almost certainly exaggerated by Iranian officials, yet Iranians have in fact invested a fair amount. A similar picture can be found in trade between Belarus and Israel and between Belarus and Iran. Last year, trade between Belarus and Israel reached a record level of $109m, while the trade volume with Iran – $104m.
More Than Money
Given these circumstances, Minsk clearly has good reasons to remain friends with both Tel-Aviv and Tehran. For the Belarusian government it is a matter of principle – not to determine ideologically its priorities. Belarus has a lot to gain from its contacts with Tel-Aviv. And it is not only related to trade and investment but also political contacts between Minsk and the West which Israeli politicians can facilitate.
Indeed, Belarusian relations with Tehran are also not only about money and definitely not about ideology. It is about increasing the role of Belarus in international politics and in Belarusian relations with some countries – Western and Arab nations in particular. But also with Israel.
The case of this relationship triangle of Minsk demonstrates that the foreign policy of Belarus in recent two decades has achieved some flexibility. This flexibility may look cynical, yet in the end exactly this feature shall be considered central to all policies of the current Belarusian regime.