Foreign spies in Belarus: reality and speculation
On 27 November, the Belarusian State Security Committee, otherwise known as the KGB, officially accused Ukrainian journalist Pavel Sharoiko of espionage. The Belarusian authorities claim that Sharoiko confessed to his guilt. Ukrainian state and security officials, on the other hand, acknowledge neither the alleged confession nor the accusation of espionage.
Until now, the most notorious spy scandal in Belarus was the detention of a Catholic priest, Uladzislaŭ Lazar in 2013. Lazar spent six months in a KGB prison, but was then released due to insufficient evidence. Security services had accused Lazar of involvement in activities amounting espionage.
Spy scandals involving foreign citizens in Belarus have happened before. This time, however, the circumstances and timing surrounding the allegations against Sharoiko’s are different. Many experts see the trace of Russian influence in Belarus’s actions.
A Diplomatic conflict between Belarus and Ukraine?
Diplomatic tensions rose when Ukrainian authorities were informed on 25 October 2017 that the Belarusian KGB had detained Ukrainian journalist Pavel Sharoiko. The KGB suspects Sharoiko of spying. At first, Sharoiko denied the allegations and claimed to be a staff writer at the Belarusian office for Radio Ukraine, a Ukrainian national public broadcaster. Later, however, Sharoiko allegedly confessed to espionage, but refused to reveal further details. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry refuses to recognise Sharoiko’s confession. Sharoiko can face anywhere from 7 to 15 years imprisonment for espionage in Belarus.
Belarus and Ukraine have discussed Sharoiko’s case at the highest levels, which has given more resonance to this “spy scandal”. On 24 November, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka commented on the journalist’s detention. President Lukashenka told BELTA, a Belarusian news agency, that he had spoken with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko about Sharoiko’s arrest and claims of espionage.
Lukashenka said he had known the details of the case from the very beginning. He assured the journalist from BELTA that the KGB had enough reasons to continue its investigation against Sharoiko. Later, Lukashenka let slip that both parties had agreed to keep information surrounding Sharoiko’s case secret, but the Ukrainian side went public.
Tensions between the two countries rose further still, because of a new arrest. On 15 November, KGB agents detained Ukrainian Aleksandr Skiba, the director for the publicly listed Weighting Plant, a company that produces industrial filler materials. Skiba had come to Belarus for a business meeting at the Minsk Tractor Plant. The KGB has not disclosed any details, but according to some witnesses, the security services suspect Skiba of bribery. Even if investigators are reluctant to issue accusations yet, the detention of yet another Ukrainian citizen, this time from the business community, has added to the tensions between the two countries.
The case of Sharoiko, though, has become the central issue surrounding a recent decline in diplomatic relations between Belarus and Ukraine. Acting on information in Sharoiko’s confession, Belarusian security services issued Igor Skvortsov, a counsellor for the Ukrainian Embassy in Belarus, with persona non grata status. In response, Ukraine expelled a Belarusian diplomat. Additionally, Ukrainian authorities still suspect that in September the Belarusian secret services together with Russian agents organised the kidnapping from Belarus to Russia of Ukrainian citizen Pavel Grib. 19-year-old Grib is accused of terrorism in Russia, despite never having visited the country until his recent incarceration there. Until more details on these cases come to light, it remains unclear how much relations between Belarus and Ukraine will worsen.
The detention of foreigners in Belarus
The detention of foreigners in Belarus often gain so much media attention, because of the apparent severity of the Belarus’s security and legal systems. For example, on 21 September 2017, Belarusian border guards detained Frenchman Jolan Viaud, who had a single bullet in his pocket, which he received from a friend in Warsaw.
Viaud has spent two months in the Homiel detention centre instead of going to Ukraine as he had planned. According to Belarusian law, he could have faced up to 7 years in prison. But on 20 November, the court acquitted him.
In summer 2015, a Polish paraglider spent more than a week in prison in Hrodna. He accidentally violated the state border by landing in Belarus. In the end, the authorities forced him to pay a fine and he received a ban on visits to Belarus for 5 years.
Other spy scandals have taken place in Belarus before Sharoiko. One of them related to the detention of priest Uladzislaŭ Lazar from Poland in 2013. After six months in a KGB jail, a court dismissed the priest, because investigators were unable to prove his guilt. The very first case of espionage in post-Soviet Belarus involved the First Secretary of the US Embassy in 1997, whom the KGB accused of supporting Belarusian opposition politicians, reports Radio Liberty, a US funded news portal.
Russian influence and the Sharoiko case
Exprets suspect that the detention of Sharoiko might have links to Russia. Former KGB officer Valery Kostka told Radio Liberty that he believes the scandal is a fabrication. Only Russia benefits from the conflict between Belarus and Ukraine, says Kostka. The Sharoiko case stands out from other spy scandals, because at present Belarus is improving its relations with the West.
Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Pavlo Klimkin agrees with this version of events. Klimkin says the Russian influence is a likely factor. Another security expert, Yury Drakaсhrust, believes that the case of Sharoiko is closely related to the Eastern Partnership Summit that took place on 24 November—a few days before the KGB’s official accusations against the journalist. According to Drakaсhrust, it is likely that the Sharoiko story is fake. It’s true aim is to demonstrate Belarus’s allegiance to Moscow.
In the past, spy scandals involving foreigners in Belarus have happened at very specific times. The first is at times of heightened political tensions with the West. The second is on the eve of an election campaign. Both are used to demonstrate the existence of an external threat, which the Belarusian regime may use to its advantage. In both cases, it casts Western governments as meddlers in Belarus’s affairs and it reminds Belarusians of the stability the incumbent regime provides.
Balancing between Russia and Ukraine
In recent weeks, the KGB has been constructing a case of a wide, Ukrainian espionage network within Belarus. The KGB claims that Sharoiko admitted creating the network, which includes Belarusian agents receiving salaries from Ukrainian intelligence agencies. The KGB have also detained one Belarusian, whom they suspect of treason and working under Sharoiko. Ukraine denies the KGB’s claims of a network of spies. It has requested the KGB show proof of the allegations.
Despite any destabilising effects a deep-cover Ukrainian spy network might bring, the Belarusian authorities appear to be keeping the country relatively stable. Relations with the West are also improving. Therefore, many Belarusian and Ukrainian experts explain the detention of the Ukrainian journalist Sharoiko in terms of an attempt by Russia to spoil Belarusian-Ukrainian relations.
So far, Belarus has worked to position itself as a neutral country, able to have good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, and to even serve as a kind of mediator in the settlement of the military conflict between the two countries. Now, the challenge for the Belarusian regime will be to avoid souring ties with Ukraine, which might restrict Belarus’s access to the Ukrainian market, and to show Putin continued loyalty, while at the same time not affecting the warming of relations with the West.
Decommunisation or erasing historical memory: Will Poland rename a street given to a Belarusian national hero?
Poland has entered a new stage of its decommunisation policy, which among other things aims to rename streets and avenues all over the country. Within the framework of this policy, some Polish historians have proposed renaming Branislaŭ Taraškievič Street in the town of Bielsk Podlaski.
This may turn out to be an international scandal between Poland and Belarus, just like the one earlier this year around Tadeusz Kosciuszko, an influential Belarus-born military engineer during the 1776 American War of Independence and a rebel leader against Tsarist imperialism. Branislaŭ Taraškievič is an undisputed hero in Belarusian history, especially for Belarusian minority in Poland.
Who is Mr Taraškievič?
Branislaŭ Taraškievič (Bronisław Taraszkiewicz) is considered to be one of the “fathers of the Belarusian nation”. Born in 1892 in a small village 30 km from Vilnia (now Vilnius) he graduated from the Vilna Gymnasium, and then from the History and Philology Faculty at St. Petersburg University. In 1918, he wrote and published the first “Belarusian grammar for schools” in Vilnia. For a long time, this was the main textbook on the Belarusian language. His work withstood six reprints, and it was used even after the 1933 reform of Belarusian spelling—now this type of spelling is called “taraškievica”.
In the interwar period, Branislaŭ Taraškievič headed the Belarusian grammar school in Vilnia (which was a part of the Polish Republic at that time) and was elected a deputy to the Polish Sejm. In the first years of his work in the Polish parliament, he advocated a union for the Polish and Belarusian peoples. He hoped that the Belarusians would be able to gain autonomy in Poland.
After a couple of years, he became disillusioned with the idea of a Polish-Belarusian union. He made ties with Belarusian Communists and joined the ranks of the Communist Party of Western Belarus. This constitutes the reason for his persecution by the Polish authorities. At that time, the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (part of the USSR) was conducting a “Belarusisation” policy aimed at promoting Belarusian national culture and traditions. This attracted many Belarusians in Poland and became a reason for the popularity of communist views among them.
The Polish authorities arrested Branislaŭ Taraškievič in 1927 and then for a second time in 1931. In 1933 Poland exchanged him for Belarusian playwright Francišak Alachnovič within the framework of an exchange of political prisoners between Poland and the USSR. In the USSR, Taraškievič worked as head of the department of the Baltic States and Poland at the International Agricultural Institute in Moscow. In 1937, the Bolsheviks arrested him in Stalin’s Great Purge. He was executed in 1938. The Soviet “court” accused him of counter-revolutionary activities and nationalism.
Extreme decommunisation in Poland
On 2 November 2017, the Polish media announced that Branislaŭ Taraškievič Street in Bielsk Podlaski comes within the purview of the decommunisation law and the city council should rename it. Curiously, the original list of places to be decommunised, published by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (PINR), did not include Taraškievič. His name only appeared on the list later at the insistence of the PINR Warsaw branch and some government officials. However, the PINR has yet to give any reason for Taraškievič’s inclusion on the “decommunisation list”.
According to unofficial sources, Governor of Podlaskie province in north-east Poland Bohdan Paszkowski played a big role in putting Taraškievič up for decommunisation. Paszkowski is a member of the ruling conservative Law and Justice Party, which takes a strong anti-communist position. For example, at present, they are discussing the demolition of the massive Palace of Science and Culture in the centre of Warsaw. The Palace is both the most well-known landmark in the city and the tallest building in Poland. The Law and Justice Party says the Palace represents the communist past, being a post-war “present” from the USSR to Warsaw.
At the same time, the Mayor of Bielsk Podlaski (the town where Branislaŭ Taraškievič Street is located), Jarosław Borowski, is himself part of Poland’s Belarusian ethnic minority. He states the local population appreciates Branislaŭ Taraškievič as a Belarusian educator and politician, and do not see him as a person propagating communism.
Indeed, located near the street in question, the Lyceum No. 2, a school that teaches Belarusian language in the town, is named after Branislaŭ Taraškievič. So far, there has been little to no discussion surrounding the need to rename the street. But one can expect this issue will possibly arise in the near future.
It should also be noted that the PINR branch for Podlaskie province believes Taraškievič is not a person subject to the decommunisation policy. There is still a chance the street in Bielsk Podlaski will keep its name if historians at the highest level of PINR come to the same conclusion. In the meantime, Belarusian society wants the Belarusian Foreign Affairs Ministry to help in resolving the situation.
Belarusian, not communist
Branislaŭ Taraškievič also played a role in the history of Podlaskie province. The province happens to be the main settlement area for Poland’s Belarusian minority. Throughout history, these lands belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Reč Paspalitaja (or Rzecz Pospolita, the Commonwealth of the Polish Crown and the Lithuanian Grand Duchy), the Russian Empire, and then the Republic of Poland. The Belarusian population in Podlaskie province is almost 100 percent indigenous. Belarusians represent 50 percent of the population in the town of Bielsk Podlaski and more than 60 percent in a couple other regions within Podlaskie province.
Belarusian historian and scientist Arsień Lis states that Taraškievič cooperated with communists in Poland for tactical reasons. It could have helped to defend the rights of the Belarusian minority, which suffered forced assimilation attempts by the Polish state in the 20s and 30s.
For example, in 1938 officially sanctioned Belarusian schools ceased to exist in Poland, when in 1919 there were more than 400 of them. Moreover, in the 20s and early 30s communism had not compromised its image by mass murders and terror against populations in communist states, which further explains Taraškievič’s willingness to cooperate.
More to the point, Branislaŭ Taraškievič had nothing to do with the communist Polish People’s Republic, which formed only after WWII and after repressions against Polish civil society began. The Soviets killed him even before the start of WWII. But Branislaŭ Taraškievič Street in Bielsk Podlaski received its name in 1987, while Poland was still under communist rule.
After concern over the street renaming was covered in Belarusian and Polish media, as well as the negative reaction from Poland’s Belarusian minority, PINR issued an official statement. PINR Head Jarosław Szarek stated his readiness to organize a meeting of Polish and Belarusian historians dedicated to the issue of Branislaŭ Taraškievič’s legacy. “This discussion should be based on historical documents, and we are ready to listen to the opinion of Belarusians,” he said.
Such an approach to the issue, as well as the decision of the Podlaskie province PINR branch, give hope that a compromise on Branislaŭ Taraškievič Street will finally be found.