The Polish minority in Belarus: resisting Russification

On 11 May, the Union of Poles in Belarus sent around 6,000 signatures to Alexander Lukashenka demanding an end to the Russification of Polish schools in Hrodna Region.

In July, The Belarusian Ministry of Education plans to decrease the number of subjects taught in Polish in Polish schools of Hrodna and Vaukavysk.

Over the past several years, Belarusian Poles have fallen victim to the state's attempts to restrict minority rights in education and religion. Hrodna Region, where most Belarusian Poles reside, has become the epicentre for the struggle for minority rights in Belarus.

The independent Union of Poles advocates for Polish language and traditions. However, it is often met with oppression of the authorities. Restricting the use of Polish language could strongly influence the further development of the Polish movement in Hrodna Region.

Who Represents the Poles in Belarus?

Historically, most Poles in Belarus have resided in Hrodna Region. According to a 2009 census, more than 20% of Hrodna Region’s population was Polish. The most Polish town in Belarus was Voranava, where around 80% of the population identified themselves as Poles. Cultural and historical circumstances brought more Poles to Hrodna Region than other Belarusian regions.

Two separate Polish associations represent the interests of the Polish minority in Belarus. Founded in 1988, the Union of Poles created a newspaper and opened two Polish schools in Hrodna and Vaukavysk. By 2005, the Union had opened 16 ‘Polish Homes’ and boasted more than 25,000 members. However, as early as 1997, the Belarusian authorities were accusing the union of political provocation.

In 2005, the Union was divided into two different organisations. The Ministry of Justice did not recognise the leadership of Anžalika Borys, who was elected Head of the Union of Poles over the pro-governmental representative Tadevush Kruchkowski.

The situation escalated, and the following conflict resulted in a schism. Today, there are two Unions of Poles in Belarus, one of which is loyal to the authorities and one of which is independent.

Currently, the activities of the two unions coordinate with two different governments. The Belarusian government recognises the official Union of Poles and points to 18 separate registration violations for the unofficial Union. Meanwhile, the Polish government largely communicates with the independent Union of Poles.

The Belarusian government has taken advantage of the split within the Union of Poles to maintain control over activism among the Polish minority in Belarus. For example, authorities openly supported the candidature of an especially loyal contender in 2005. However, according to activist Andrej Pačobut in a Belsat interview, the authorities have basically created their own union with pro-governmental representatives and decision-makers often working for the secret services.

Protection of Polish Language

The independent Union of Poles points to repeated violations of the Polish minority’s rights. In the 1990s, Head of the Union Tadevush Havin highlighted the need to protect the status of the Polish language, also calling to promote Belarusian, writes Spring96. However, the Russification of the education system did not affect use of the Polish language in the region until recent years.

Over the last several years, the authorities have been creating obstacles for the promotion of Polish language. In 2012, the Ministry of Education suggested diminishing the use of Polish language in education in Polish schools in Hrodna and Vaukavysk. In February 2017, the topic came up again, leading to an amendment to the Education Code.

The Ministry of Education now suggests decreasing the number of subjects taught in Polish at Polish schools in Hrodna and Vaukavysk. As a result, the independent Union of Poles gathered signatures protesting the amendment and sent a petition to the Ministry of Education.

On 17 April, the petition was shot down by the Ministry. The reply caused the local minority to put every effort into defending the Polish language at the only two exclusively Polish schools in the country. On 11 May, the independent Union gathered around 6,000 signatures against the amendments to the Education Code and sent them to Alexander Lukashenka.

On 18 May, a pro-governmental regional newspaper, Hrodzenskaya Prauda, published a letter from supposedly Roman Catholic Church members demanding that Polish language propaganda be stopped.

The letter called on Metropolitan Tadevuš Kandrusievič to ‘prevent the activism of Anžalika Borys from advocating for the Polish language in churches’. However, on 21 May, the Metropolitan told that he did not receive any such letter. Andzhei Pisalnik, the press-secretary of the independent Union of Poles, believes that the letter represents yet another attempt to 'discredit the Union' as it actively fights against the reformation of Polish schools in Hrodna Region.

The Polish Minority – a Threat to the Regime?

Education for the Polish minority in Belarus has already experienced pressure during recent years. In 2015, authorities shut down the last Polish-speaking kindergarten group in Hrodna.

The diminished role of Polish in education has become a crucial issue for the Polish minority in the region. Replacing it in schools with 'one of the official languages' would mean replacing it with Russian, due to the predominance of Russian language in education.

Besides restricting use of the Polish language in education, the state aims to influence the sphere of religion. Activist Andrej Pačobut points out that priests coming from Poland receive shorter visas (for 3-6 months) than they had before. Earlier, in 2009, three priests had to return to Poland because they conducted church services exclusively in Polish.

The current wave of Russification seems to have economic motives rather than ideological ones. The Polish minority in the region is on the rise due to the simplicity of acquiring a Pole's Card. This could have both positive and negative consequences, including brain-drain, labour migration, cultural exchange, and democratic learning.

The authorities are aiming to prevent brain-drain and labour migration to Poland through Russification of the education system and restrictions for certain groups of Belarusians. For instance, Belarusian officials and their children are forbidden from applying for Pole's Cards from Belarus and have to travel to Poland to file documents.

The Polish minority in Hrodna Region faces many challenges created by the authorities. Control over the independent Union of Poles and education have become additional obstacles for the Polish minority in the region. In the near future, the rights of the Polish minority in Hrodna Region are likely to be respected only to the extent which allows authorities to control Polish activism.

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 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.

Hrodna Region: the Land of Catholics and Smugglers

Belarus Digest starts a series of articles devoted to Belarusian regions. Most often only Minsk ends up in the focus of Western media. But around 80 percent of Belarusians live outside of Minsk. Each region has its own political, economic and cultural peculiarities. The series begins with  Hrodna region and will also cover Brest, Vitsebsk, Homel and Mahiliou regions. 

Hrodna region due to its specific culture and history, has always been the object of thorough attention of the authorities. It has the largest share of catholics in Belarus and was a part of Polish Republic until 1939, while eastern regions of Belarus entered the USSR already in 1922. The region showed strongest support of the nationalist candidate Zianon Paźniak in 1994 presidential elections, arguable the only relatively honest presidential elections in Belarus.

The West of Belarus

Hrodna region is situated in the western part of Belarus bordering Poland and Lithuania. It is the smallest of the six Belarusian regions in terms of population and territory. However, it has the largest percentage of Poles (21,5%) and around half of its population are Roman Catholics. Hrodna region also has one of the largest share of people speaking Belarusian at home (35%), second only to Minsk region (39%).

The regional centre, Hrodna city, is officially known since 1128 AD, when served the heart of princedom. Soon the territories of the region united with neighbouring parts of Lithuania to form a medieval state called the Great Duchy of Lithuania. Hrodna region has absorbed the mix of ethnic and confessional groups on the border of Slavic and Baltic languages, Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christianity with specks of Judaism and Islam.

From 1921 to 1939 the region was a part of Polish Republic, while eastern regions of Belarus entered the USSR in 1922 already. In Poland, Belarusians had quite hard conditions for national development, but on the other hand no severe repressions occurred here.

The 20 years of Polish rule had a significant influence on various aspects of life and identity of the people. A “westerner” remains an image of hard-working, non–drinking and more religious person compared to the “easterner”, more Sovietised and Russificated.

The Anti-Communist Region

For Soviet administration, population of Western Belarus presented “an unreliable element”, as they expressed more scepticism to Soviet rule. The same picture remained after USSR collapse.

In the first presidential elections, Hrodna region showed biggest support to the pro-Western nationalist candidate Zianon Paźniak. The results of subsequent election also showed that western Belarus supports democratic candidates clearly more that the east of the country. Lukashenka himself often publicly spoke of Hrodna as an “uneasy” region.

The map of Zianon Paźniak support in 1994 elections

Today, as in any other Belarusian region, the regime destroyed local political parties and NGOs. The only functioning NGO, Third Sector, remains the only spot of non-state civil activity.

The so called executive vertical, the hierarchical pyramid of executive bodies that persist from soviet times and subordinate to the president, presents the chief body of regional government. The heads of "the vertical", or governor, serves a major political figure in the region and Lukashenka personally appoints him from his reliable men.

The current governor, Siamion Šapira, has replaced his predecessor Uladzimir Saučanka in 2010. Saučanka was accused of “poor management”, which served an euphemism for all kinds of power abuse.

But being a friend and countryman of Lukashenka, he was simply removed from office and hidden for some time. Soon, however, he quietly emerged on the post of director of a state-owned agricultural enterprise. Simply put, Lukashenka forgave him and charged with a lower position.

At first, the public perceived new governor, Doctor of Economics Siamion Šapira as a more educated and liberal ruler, than his notorious predecessor. He tried to uphold this reputation by speaking of “importance of preservation of cultural heritage” and “tourism development” which appealed to Hrodna people. Subsequently, however, he did not give evidence of his better style of government. Recently Šapira completely destroyed his reputation by ordering to fire academics and rector of Hrodna university on political grounds.

The Land of Smugglers

Western Belarus appears less industrialised that eastern Belarus, and cannot boast a large number of big industrial plants. The biggest enterprise in the region is “Azot”, the producer of chemical fertilisers. The plant consumes the largest amount of natural gas in Belarus, and therefore poses a certain problem for the government. In recent years, the government often expressed their readiness to sell it, but did not select the new owner yet.

The region appears among the best agricultural producers of the republic because of more fertile lands and a better work ethics.

Hrodna region has perhaps the richest architectural legacy in Belarus. A number of mediaeval castles, dozens of old Catholic and Orthodox churches and much more smaller objects like gentry estates can be found here. Thus, it has a large tourism potential, but as a matter of fact tourist infrastructure remains extremely poor here because of awkward policy of the government in this field.

For common people of Hrodna region, border smuggling became a popular occupation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The border that emerged between Belarus and its western neighbours, Poland and Lithuania, has become the main source of income for many people. Decades pass, but border smuggling remains a thriving industry.

People smuggle cigarettes and fuel from Belarus, where it is cheaper, and return with everything from clothes and products to electronics and tools. Although officially unemployed, these people lead a comfortable life and have income several times higher that their honest fellows working hard at factories.

Smugglers use various kinds of tricks to escape from border control. People hide the stuff in cars, buses and trains, on their body, in bags, balls and even cakes. The industry also experiences the influence of high-tech: many cases have been identified when people tried to float the cigarettes by river with GPS navigation devices.

Border smuggling became a distinct culture with its slang, legends and stories, and code of conduct. Thanks to Belarusians, you can often find illegal but cheap cigarettes in European streets. 

This interesting feature of the local economy actually shows serious problems with regional development. The region that has a vast border with the EU fails to properly benefit from it because Belarus remains in isolation from the Western side. Little cooperation exists between local authorities, tourist movement and investments remain at a very modest level.  People living in the Hrodna region are important stakeholders interested in rapprochement with the EU and should be treated as such. 

Belarus Censuses: Population Declines, National Identity Strengthens

Official population censuses in Belarus conducted in 1989, 1999 and 2009 reveal a number of interesting trends.

They show that the population is declining, the proportion of those who identify themselves as Belarusian is increasing and the role of the Belarusian language is weakening. The period of Lukashenka's rule has coincided with the sharpest decline of population since the collapse of the USSR.

The other important development is that the use of the Belarusian language has reduced dramatically, leading to the formation of a Russian-speaking Belarusian nation. It is remarkable that the largest share of Belarusian speakers is among those who identify themselves as Poles.  

General Trend: Depopulation

Belarus, along with many other European countries, faces a problem of depopulation. The government seems to be aware of this, as they included statements on demographic security and policy in such important national documents as the Programmes of Social and Economic Development and Concept of National Security. However, the data from the censuses shows that the policies towards tackling demographic problems have been inconsistent and ineffective.

The total population decreased by 650,000 in 1989-2009. The main reason is natural ageing, observed in most European countries. Another major reason for depopulation is emigration – economic, and to a lesser extent, political. 

While in the first decade (which was a stormy transitional period) the population decreased by 100,000, in the second decade, marked by consolidation of the authoritarian regime, the rate of population decline went up – to more than 500,000 between 1999 and 2009.

Of course, it would be wrong to assume that only changes in the political regime caused this. Rather, complex factors are involved. The obvious thing, however, is that the population of Belarus is still decreasing, indicating the failure of the demographic policy of Belarusian authorities.

Urbanisation: Soviet Legacy and Over-Centralization

The process of urbanisation continued throughout the period. The urban population reached 74 per cent in 2009. 

Interestingly, the population of regional (voblasc) centres of Eastern Belarus increased only slightly or even decreased (as in Homel), while western cities, Hrodna and Brest, grew considerably (+ 50,000 each).

This is probably due to the fact that Eastern Belarus was incorporated into USSR twenty years earlier than its Western part. Hence, here Soviet industrialization, accompanied by urbanisation, was implemented earlier, while Western Belarus retained a considerable rural population. 

Minsk, the capital, remains the most populated and fastest growing city of Belarus. As the main economic and educational centre, it attracts young people from all over the country. In terms of numbers, Minsk has grown by 230,000 in the last two decades. A fifth of the whole population lives there now.  Such over-concentration of resources in the capital along with regional decline poses serious problems, which any government regardless its political regime will have to face in future.

Migration: Low Immigration and Hidden Trends in Emigration

Unlike in western countries, in Belarus the decreasing native population is not replaced by an inflow of immigrants.

According to official statistics, only 39,000 immigrants came to Belarus in 2005-2009, which is not sufficient to balance the native population decline. Most of the immigrants to Belarus originate from former soviet CIS countries (32,000) – predominantly from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. The share of non-CIS citizens is insignificant and the biggest groups include Chinese, Lithuanians and Latvians.

According to official data, in 2005-2009 around 30,000 Belarusians left their homeland, but independent experts often dispute this figure. The official methodology does not include some important categories of migrants, such as labour migrants to Russia. Today this is perhaps the biggest Belarusian migration group, data on which is not officially published.

Identity: Belarusianisation without Belarusian Language

Belarus remains a relatively monoethnic nation state.

Notably, the number of people who consider themselves Belarusians increased from 80 per cent to 84 per cent over the last twenty years. Among the national minorities the largest are Russians, Poles, and Ukrainians.

Traditionally, the Russian minority resides in the central and northern parts of Belarus and big cities, while the Polish minority makes up a considerable part of the western oblast of Hrodna, and Ukrainians settle more densely in the southern Brest and Homel regions near the Ukrainian border.  

As the diagram shows, the size of each of minority group (especially Russians) has been decreasing since 1989. This trend apparently shows that minorities assimilate and change their identities along with the development of the Belarusian independent state. On the other hand, this may be a result of growing national consciousness among Belarusians, who identified with the other nation previously.

However, this growing national consciousness is not based on language and culture of the dominating ethnic group, as is usually the case with modern nation states.

Here, a rather different picture is observed: over the period, the significance of Belarusian language has declined. While in the 1990s, before the Lukashenka regime had set in, national Renaissance policy improved the position of  the Belarusian language, stabilisation of the regime brought the decay of the Belarusian language.

Speaking this language was associated with opposition to Lukashenka's pro-Russian regime. As a result, its speakers were implicitly or explicitly excluded from politics and public space in general. This is clear from the diagram below.

The same concerns such indicators as use of Belarusian language at home, which shows the actual viability of the language. Here, the decline is even more dramatic:

Belarusian Poles are an interesting phenomenon when it comes to the Belarusian language. They are the biggest national group in relation to the total number of a group who speak Belarusian at home. Out of 295,000 Poles, 120,000, or 40 per cent, speak Belarusian at home, while the share of Belarusians speaking Belarusian at home reaches only 26 per cent.

The term “Pole” in Belarus has a rather confusing and ambiguous meaning, as many consider Belarusian Poles as Belarusians of Roman Catholic tradition, who historically were under a strong influence of Poland. This group, though referring to the Polish tradition, evidently is a community that strongly preserves the features of Belarusian culture.

In Minsk, the number of people who indicated Belarusian as their native language has decreased almost two-fold within the last decade (1999-2000). In general, only a little more than 10 per cent of  the urban population of Belarus speaks Belarusian at home, and for the largest cities this number is much smaller. 

Thus, Belarusian remains a language of the disappearing rural population, and its future in urban centres does not look optimistic. The language policy of Lukashenka led to the formation of a particular type of modern Belarusian identity, with urban Russian-speaking population considering itself an independent community.

Vadzim Smok 

Polish Organisations in Belarus – Living under Pressure

On 24 August at a congress of Polish Diaspora in Warsaw Poles from Belarus adopted an open letter. The authors of the letter raised the topic of the serious difficulties that the minority faces in the last dictatorship of Europe.  

One of the most sensitive issues includes the use of the Card of the Pole, which five years after its introduction still remains controversial.  This card issued to ethnic Poles in Belarus gives certain rights to its holders which makes Belarusian authorities nervous.

Warsaw maintains that the Card of the Pole is not intended to make citizens of a particular country disloyal. But Minsk had already taken steps to discredit the whole idea, including using Belarusian courts to show its unlawfulness.

Two Unequal Halves of the Union of Poles

According to the 2009 national census, 295,000 Poles live in Belarus. A decade ago the number was 396 thousand. Apart from the inevitable assimilation processes, Belarusian authorities create obstacles for Polish organisations. The Union of Poles is one of the biggest non–government association in Belarus, yet it cannot function freely within the public sphere and accomplish its goals. This becomes clearer when looking at the story of the Union of Poles.

It was founded in 1990 and according to the official data of the Union, the number of its members is around 25,000 people. The Union of Poles concentrates on cultural activities, charity, but also supports Polish language teachers in Belarus.

Belarusian authorities managed to split the organisation in 2005 by not approving the democratically elected leader, Angelika Borys. Eventually, the official Minsk supported another candidate, Jozef Lucznik who was perceived as more loyal to the regime. As a result of the conflict, Belarusian authorities officially recognised only association led by Jozef Lucznik. That split the organisation into two parts – one recognised and another not recognised by Belarusian authorities. 

The successor of Jozef Lucznik, Stanislav Semashko, became controversial when he made public statements  which criticised Polish authorities and the Card of the Pole for dividing Poles. This acts  made him infamous for being a pro-regime figure and not representing the minority interests.

Today the officially recognised Union of Poles is led by Mieczyslaw Lysy who is also perceived as a regime loyalist. Thus, he cannot solve the problems the Polish minority are concerned about, like discrimination towards them in education and having a free press.  

The Card of the Pole: Poles as a Fifth Column?

The Polish parliament introduced the Card of Pole in 2007. The Card confirms that an individual belongs to the ethnic Polish community. Moreover, it guarantees certain rights, such as a visa-free regime when travelling to Poland or right to settlement and work there. From the time of its introduction Minsk has disapproved of it strongly and has worked towards legally rejecting it.

Igor Karpenko, a leader of the parliamentary commission for the issuance of the Card of the Poles, raised a few arguments regarding the Card. One of them pertain to the accusations of Poland interference into the domestic affairs of Belarus and discriminatory division of its citizens. Such positions were also accompanied by the state media and also by some oppositional newspapers. Among the arguments shared by media were those related to the  inevitable destabilisation of mutual Belarusian – Polish relations.

Moreover, the outflow of Belarusian youth going to study in Poland is also seen by officials as a threat to  Belarusian society. The Card of the Pole simplifies for Belarusian nationals entry into EU countries. The members of the official Union, who did not succeed in receiving the Card, claimed that it would divide the Poles in Belarus. Belarusian officials also question several legal aspects of the Card. As a consequence, in April 2011 the Belarusian Constitutional Court declared that from the point of view of international law the Card of the Pole is illegal. It caused additional tensions between Warsaw and Minsk.


Poles in Belarus frequently raise the issue of preservation their identity through the teaching of Polish. Authors of the open letter presented during the recent Congress of Poles clearly articulated the problems related to the teaching of Polish. There are only two Polish language schools (in Hrodna and Volkovysk) and the number of schoolchildren learning Polish language has been constantly decreasing.  

The repression of the teaching of the Polish language and culture also against the unofficial Union of Poles activists who organise such education, are among the main reasons. Fear of interference by Minsk into education organised by the Poles themselves appears to be a serious problem for activists.

In 29 August the director of a Polish school in Hrodna announced that two classes with Russian language  instruction would not be introduced as the local authorities had planned. The school in Hrodna is one of two Polish schools, almost entirely funded by Poland. The parents and Polish activists frequently raised the argument that the introduction of such classes could have brought about the gradual russification of their children. 

This case proves that language teaching remains one of the most crucial and simultaneously, very sensitive issues for the Polish minority in Belarus. As the activists claim that the Polish government's support is not enough, another issue is the difficulties that Minsk continues to make with the rights of minorities to organize their own education.

In July, the Belarusian consulate in Bialystok rejected the visas of two Polish language teachers who were assigned by the Polish Ministry of Education to be sent to Baranavichy region. Due to the financial situation of that school, the actions of Minsk will clearly place the school and its ability to function under further hardship. 

Hostages of Politics

Despite these difficulties and decisions, the Polish minority appears to be well organised and has a well-articulated agenda. Nevertheless, pressure from the Belarusian regime hinders the social activity of Poles in Belarus. This is especially true when it speaks openly of its needs and its problems. The very interference by the authorities with the election of a leader of the Union of Poles proves that Minsk does not intend to allow that organisation to slip out of its control. 

Moreover, as it happens frequently with national minorities, Poles in Belarus become the prisoners of uneasy Belarus – Poland relations. And thus, spheres of daily life, like education or the press are those which suffer the most from the politicisation of national issues.

How can Brussels Help the Union of Poles?

Gone is the time when Belarusians were one of the smaller ethnic groups in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. And it is clear that the decades of Soviet rule made Belarus lose the traits that the Rech Pospolita was so famous for: ethnic diversity, religious tolerance, and democratic attributes of political system.

A brief thaw in the Belarusian-Polish relations came to an end once the Belarusian authorities cracked down on the Union of Poles in Belarus. Forty ethnic Poles as Belarus have been arrested, some sentenced to five-day jail terms, and Andzelika Borys, the leader of the Union of Poles, was fined for $360.

On February 17, the Belarusian court ruled that the Union’s headquarters must be turned over to a pro-Minsk Polish group that is not recognized by Warsaw. In short, the Union of Poles has suffered the fate of a typical Belarusian NGO.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski and Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who had in the past led the European effort to improve relations with Belarus, both chastised Minsk over its boorish behavior with regard to ethnic minorities. EU Parliament President Jerzy Buzek, a Pole, also called on Minsk to mind its manners when dealing with NGOs.

Even the EU’s foreign representative Catherine Ashton joined in and warned that Belarus’ place in the Eastern Partnership will be jepardized if Minsk persists in violating minority rights. She said she was very “disappointed.” Unfortunately, Ashton’s “disappointment” will hardly make to Belarusian leadership lose sleep. Neither will it help the Belarusian Poles and other civil-society groups in Belarus sleep better and feel safer.

In the unequal match between the Union of Poles in Belarus and the Russia-Belarus Union state it is clear who will prevail. Of course, the Union of Poles has the entire EU on its side. But as long as Brussel’s continues to seek improvement in its relations with Minsk more than Minsk itself does, the EU’s support for human rights in Belarus will matter little.

Reaching out to Belarus as it bites the offering hand is ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. It will not take this hand in earnest unless it indeed needs to be rescued, as had happened for a brief period in the beginning of the global economic crisis when the opportunity was missed.

Belarus Police Arrests Polish Activists Unloyal to the Regime

  Tensions between Belarus and Poland rise as Belarus police arrested about 40 members of a Polish ethnic group. This is a continuation of increased pressure put against the Union of Poles in Belarus.

The Union is uncontrolled and unrecognized by the Belarusian authorities and competes with a pro-government organization of Poles. The Financial Times today devoted an article to the conflict:

Belarus, a country of about 10m, has a Polish minority of about 400,000, a remnant from pre-war times when western Belarus was a part of Poland. The Union of Poles in Belarus became the country’s largest nongovernment organisation after most opposition groups were driven underground by Mr Lukashenko, prompting the government to form a pro-regime Polish organisation in 2005 which took over the assets of the independent group.

Mr Lukashenko’s government was pushed to warm ties with Europe when his Russian allies tired of propping him up through cheap oil and gas and began to demand world prices for energy. Belarus’s ramshackle economy needed investment and new markets to survive, and Mr Lukashenko released all of his political prisoners in 2008 as a way of improving relations with the west.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski, Prime Minister Donald Tusk and the Foreign Minister all take active part in trying to persuafe the Belarus authorities not to prosecute Polish activists. Polish authorities already banned the Belarusian officials implicated in violation of the rights of Polish minority to enter Poland.

Read more in Financial Times and at

The Union of Poles Mistreated in Belarus

Ethnic Poles rising in western Belarus was what Minsk and Moscow happened to choose as a scenario for their 2009 joint military exercise. As if ashamed of its lack of judgment last year, the Belarusian leadership is now doing everything possible to make such a far-fetched plot more plausible.

On February 8, Belarusian police burst into the Polish House in Ivyanets, owned by the Union of Poles in Belarus (ZPB), and ordered the staff to vacate the building. This wasn’t the first attack on the Union of Poles and the Polish House by the Belarusian authorities. In 2005, Hrodna militia took the office of the Union of Poles forcing a change of leadership.

In January, Minsk also started a criminal prosecution against Taresa Sobal, the director of Polish House in Ivianiec. Sobal is being accused of failing to properly register a 2004 financial grant received by the Polish House from the former leader of Polish Union Tadevush Kruchkouski.

Actions of the Belarusian authorities evoked sharp criticism by the president of the EU Parliament Jerzy Buzek, who is Polish. Speaking in Stasbourg on Feb. 10, Buzek urged Minsk “to stop taking drastic measures against the Polish minority.” He said “acceptance of EU norms with regard to ethnic minorities” was essential for improving the EU-Belarus discourse.Outraged by Minsk’s treatment of the Polish cultural group, Poland recalled its Ambassador to Belarus

Henryk Litwin for consultations. In its turn, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus has complained to Litwin over Poland’s statements regarding the oppression of the Belarusian Poles.

Poles constitute the third largest ethnic group in the country after Belarusians and Russians. There are 12 newspapers and magazines in Polish and 2 schools (in Hrodna and Valkavysk). With about 20,000-members, 75 registered primary organizations, and 17 “Polish Houses,” the Union of Poles in Belarus is the largest public association of a national minority in Belarus. Founded in Hrodna in 1988, it aspires to promote the Polish language and traditions.

In 2005, the ZPB split, with a pro-Minsk alternative registered as the Union of Belarusian Poles. The unrecognized branch of ZPB elected Anzhelika Borys as its chairwoman; the recognized and pro-Minsk branch elected Stanislau Syamashka. Warsaw recognizes Borys’s ZPB as the sole legal representative of the Polish minority in Belarus, but the Belarusian government favors the union led by Syamashka.

According to the web site of the Belarusian Embassy in the United States, the issue “lies outside the sphere of inter-ethnic relations or those between the state and the Polish national minority in Belarus.” Blaming the power struggle among the leaders of the Union, the Embassy claims that “instead of seeking a solution to this situation, complicated in terms of law, one of the conflicting sides started to actively politicize the situation and brought the conflict inside the Union to the international level.”

According to the Embassy, “maintaining sustainable inter-religious and inter-ethnic peace is what the Belarusian state can pride itself on.” Article 15 of the Belarusian Constitution requires the state to “bear responsibility for preserving the historic, cultural and spiritual heritage, and the free development of the cultures of all the ethnic communities that live in the Republic of Belarus.” Such exemplary behavior has rarely been the case in Belarus, however.

The position of the Polish minority in Belarus started to worsen after a 1995 referendum, which reintroduced Soviet-era symbols and Russian language as a second national language of Belarus. In 1997, the Belarusian authorities accused the Union of Poles of organizing political provocations, and in 1999 the Union complained of being discriminated to the representatives of the Polish parliament. Authors of the 2003 assessment by the Minorities at Risk Project warned the situation was “likely to deteriorate in the future” as Belarus grew dependent on Russia. So far, this prediction has proven accurate.

Polish presence on what today constitutes Belarusian territory started to form in the times of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1569-1795). The Commonwealth was partitioned by its neighbors Austria, Prussia, and Russia in the late 18th century. Most of the future Belarus was annexed by the Russian Empire. As a result of the 1921 Treaty of Riga, Polish influence over the Western Belarus was restored for nearly two decades. However, in 1939 the Soviet Union invaded Poland under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Germany, and West Belarus was incorporated into the Belarusian SSR. After the WWII, the Poles who remained on the Belarusian territory faced four decades of Soviet repressions and discrimination.