Twenty Years of Uneasy Belarus-Poland Relations
Although trade turnover between Poland and Belarus indicates positive trends, numerous problems remain unsolved. Treatment of Polish minority in Belarus and wide spread human rights violations are just a few of them. Nevertheless, both Poland and Belarus have a few serious reasons to establish positive relations.
Warsaw is driven by prestige and even more so by the geopolitics of today's Europe. Belarus place in Europe makes it an important actor where Russian influences play an important role. Polish political elites with scepticism observe Moscow's increasing involvement in Minsk. Another argument is that Warsaw needs to have a stable and predictable neighbour with whom can pursue normal relations, based on the common interests, but also set of certain values. However, Poland's desire to increase mutual cooperation fails to generate mutual feelings in the official Minsk.
A few months ago, 2 March 2012, Belarus and Poland celebrated the 20th anniversary of establishment of their relations. However, the circumstances were not propitious to the celebration. The diplomatic war that began at the end of February, caused tensions on a line Minsk – Warsaw – Brussels. The EU decided to widen the visa sanctions and freeze assets of 21 people who are supportive to the Lukashenka’s regime. As a result, Polish ambassador, Leszek Szerepka, and the EU representative were expelled from Minsk. Other diplomats from EU countries soon followed them. It was the most intensive crises in Belarus-EU relations but two months later, the Polish and other ambassadors ambassador returned to Belarus.
Brief History of Modern Belarus-Poland Relations
Establishment of Belarus – Poland relations is dated as 27th December 1991, when Warsaw recognised Belarus independence. In June 1992, two states signed the Treaty on Good – Neighbourly Relations and Friendly Cooperation, which became a legal foundation of their mutual relations. Poland and Belarus recognised the current borders and expressed no territorial claims. At the beginning of the 1990s both were involved into their internal struggles over the new shape of political and economic realities. Poland, like the Baltic States, turned its efforts to integrate within the West.
Belarus also enjoyed the freedom during its initial years of independence. But since the election of Lukashenka in 1994, Belarus – Poland relations started to cool. Closer political and economic cooperation of Belarus and Russia, further concentration of power in Lukashenka’s hand, gradually increased the distance between Minsk and Warsaw.
In the years 1998 – 1999, due to a diplomatic scandal (diplomats were asked to leave their houses in the Drozdy housing estate), Belarusian – Polish relations became particularly unease and the Polish ambassador (but also others) left Minsk. The West put visa sanctions against 130 Belarusian officials.
Poland, like Western countries, did not recognise the results of the December 2001 presidential elections and became on that time a serious critics of the internal developments in Belarus. However, when the European Union and United States decided to sharpen the sanctions on Belarus in 2002, Polish authorities disapproved it. Nonetheless, that decade to end up with the serious diplomatic crisis on a line Warsaw – Minsk.
The next presidential elections in December 2010 and subsequent violence against protesters in Minsk, who questioned the fairness of the electoral process and its results, brought about another set of tensions.
Despite political tensions, the mutual trade is growing. In 2010 trade exchange was over $ 2 bln, and in one year it has increased up to over $ 3 bln. A number of administrative obstacles effectively hinder the trade turnover. On the Polish side, it might be lack of effective supportive export programme.
On the Belarus side, administrative barriers kept by the Belarusian authorities which render access to the Belarusian market difficult. As a result, the analogous products cannot be imported and certain limitations on the state – owned enterprises’ financial sources remain a serious problem. Nevertheless, trade turnover is again expected to increase in 2012.
The Card of the Pole
Another turmoil arose around the issue of introduction of the Card of the Pole in 2007, a document that approves affiliation to the Polish nation and gives various benefits in Poland such as the right to study or simplified visa procedures. Minsk perceives it as something which undermines its authority and strongly opposes it.
According to statistics, around 400 000 Poles live in Belarus. One of the largest Non-governmental organisations in Belarus is the Union of Poles in Belarus, founded in 1990. Polish activists maintain that the Belarusian authorities impose various restrictions on their activities and imprison activists. Warsaw considers it as discrimination and violation of rights of Polish minority in Belarus. Recent imprisonment of Andrzej Poczobut, a press correspondent of the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza, proves the ongoing conflict between Belarusian authorities and the activists of the Union.
However, the most serious crises took place in 2005. Democratically elected leader of the Union of Poles, Angelika Borys was not recognised by Minsk. Belarusian authorities presented their own candidate which eventually led to the emergence of serious tensions with Warsaw. Since then the Union became divided into two different units. One, unrecognised by the authorities and the other one, with the leader appointed by Minsk.
Poland's Support of Belarusian Activities
Since 2006, the Polish government has opened the Kalinowski Scholarship Fond in order to support the students expelled from the Belarusian universities. It is fully sponsored by the state budget. So far nearly 700 Belarusian students either participated and or are still are enrolled in the programme.
Like Vilnius, Warsaw has become also a home to the opposition activists and some of their initiatives (as for example, the Belarusian House). Moreover, Polish public television company founded the Belsat TV, which transmits its programme to Belarus. Sociological surveys show that around half million adult Belarusians watch Belsat on a regular basis. This initiative is sponsored mainly by the Polish government is the main support of the project and donates over 16 mln Polish zloty ($4.7mln). Poland hosts also two other radio stations broadcasting in Belarusian – Radio Racyja and the European Radio Belarus.
Poland is one of the main EU countries that are vitally interested in internal developments in Belarus. Its geopolitical location which could appear as a buffer zone for Russia, opportunities for increasing trade exchange, but first of all, stability and predictability of Belarusian political centre prove to be constantly key issues to Poland. Warsaw efforts aimed at keeping the issue of Belarus on the EU’s agenda.
For the same reasons Belarus needs Warsaw. Nevertheless, Warsaw has certain difficulty in finding the way to speak with the current Belarusian political regime. Despite political disagreements between Poland and Belarusian authorities the truth is that there is much more that may unite these two countries rather than divide them.
Nuclear Race in the Baltic Sea Region
In the coming years virtually all southern Baltic Sea region states will be involved in a nuclear race. Disagreements between Vilnius, Minsk and Moscow over the Russian and Belarusian nuclear plants in the vicinity of the Lithuanian border is just a part of the picture.
In late June, Lithuanian parliament approved the concession agreement for the new Visaginas nuclear power plant. The old Ignalina plant shut down a few years ago in accordance with Lithuania's accession agreement with the European Union. Japanese GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy is to become a strategic investor of the project, Lithuania (Visagino Atominė Elektrinė) would share 38%, Latvia (Latvenergo) 20% and Estonia (EestiEnergia) 22%. Despite these agreements, the Lithuanian nuclear power plant remains a hotly contested project.
Three Baltic States in the Nuclear Plant Business
During the pre-voting debate in the parliament, Lithuanian prime-minister Andrius Kubilius urged to vote in favour of the Visaginas project, saying “those who vote against, vote for Belarusian and Russian nuclear stations”. Earlier, he publicly stated that Belarus and Kalingrad regional nuclear plants from the outset were envisaged as projects that would potentially stop the Visaginas plant project.
There is no unity among the Lithuanian political elite on this issue. On 16 July the Lithuanian Parliament voted for the referendum on a nuclear plant in Lithuania, thus highlighting disagreements between the opposition and the incumbent government.
Over the last two years previous years, Lithuanian officials on numerous occasions expressed their discontent with the planned Russian and Belarusian nuclear power plants in their backyard. Lithuanians are alarmed by the fact that both plants did not come through the procedure or an environmental impact assessment pursuant to the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (Espoo Convention).
In 2009 Implementation Committee of the Espoo Convention initiated a special case about Belarus Astravets power plant reviewing the implementation of Belarus' international obligations at the planning stage. An additional complaint to the Secretariat of the Espoo Convention was lodged with Lithuania in mid-2011.
Taking into account the slow procedures in the Espoo Convention and weak mechanisms to ensure state compliance with the recommendations made, Lithuanian authorities initiated a proposal in the EU organs to conduct the so called "stress tests" for nuclear reactors. Such tests are usually required for nuclear and radiation safety both for EU member states and neighbouring states when implementing their nuclear projects. The Commission submitted a report on "stress tests" to the President of the European Council in mid-2011 and assured that efforts would be made to engage Belarus and Russia in the process.
Planned Nuclear Power Plants
Although Russia and Belarus have not finalised appropriate procedures according to the Espoo Convention obligations, both have already started preparatory work on the new construction sites. Russia started construction of a nuclear station in Kaliningrad in 2010 and in spring 2012 work on concrete pouring into the foundation began. Belarusians got down to developing the foundation pit for their nuclear plant in late May.
Commissioning of the first Kaliningrad nuclear reactor is expected in 2016, followed by the Astravets first reactor in 2017 and Visaginas in 2020. The projected capacity of the latter is 3.4 thousand MW, Russia's and Belarus' power plants are somewhat less powerful at 2.4 thousand MW each. Estimated cost of both Russian and Belarusian nuclear projects is around $9bn, while Visaginas expenditures are projected to be as high as $5-7bn. The cost of the Lithuanian power plant is cheaper primarily because the Visaginas plant is designed to be placed in the area of the old plant, which removes the need to create extensive infrastructure from scratch.
1 – Baltic NPP (Kaliningrad NPP)
2 – Astravets (Belarusian) NPP
3 – Visaginas NPP;
4,5,6 – three potential localizations (Żarnowiec, Choczewo, Gąski) of the first planned Polish NPP.
(Prepared by the author)
Poland is somewhat lagging behind the neighbours. According to the strategy of the Polish Energy Group that was given a mandate to build two nuclear power plants, the first one is to be completed in 2025 and the second in 2029.
Currently Polish energy matrix almost exclusively (94%) consists of coal and Warsaw plans to diversify its energy mix. Out of hundred proposed locations three were pre-selected for the first nuclear power plant site, all near the Baltic coast. The final decision on the construction site is expected to be unveiled in 2014 together with the winner of the bid.
The Baltic Sea region is becoming intensively saturated with nuclear plants that would change its regional energy pattern in the coming years and decades and would require an intensification in the realm of nuclear cooperation between Baltic Sea region states in the near future.
Juggling the Energy Figures
Officials of the Baltic See region states involved in the nuclear race operate with contradictory scientific data to support their intentions. On the one hand, Lithuanians are allegedly puzzled why Russians push a nuclear project in Kaliningrad which has enough to satisfy its energy demand without a nuclear plant.
Lithuanian prime-minister Kubilius lamented that Russian officials failed to explain this to him. Some even say that Russia's Baltic nuclear power plant risks becoming bankrupt as Polish energy giant PGE announced its decision to stop negotiating on power imports from Kaliningrad. Interestingly, PGE was considered a probable investor in the Visaginas NPP too, but later withdrew from the Lithuania project.
Contrary to the calculations of commercial detriment to the Baltic nuclear power plant without Lithuania's and Poland's interest in buying its electricity, Russians insist that the project will surely be profitable. According to the official "Energy strategy in Kaliningrad until 2015", the region may start suffering form an energy deficit by 2015. Rosatom also refers to the energy balance scenarios in the Baltic region by the year of 2020, prepared by the European Network of Transmission System Operators. According to them, energy deficit in the region is inevitable.
Belarus ruler Aleksandr Lukashenka in the manner so characteristic to him, explained these contradictory regional energy estimations by unfair competition. According to him, Russians in Kaliningrad and Belarusians in Astravets took the lead making in Lithuanians and Poles start "screaming" and coming up with various arguments in order to undermine the success of their neighbours.
For all that, in the regional nuclear power race Belarus seems to be the weakest link. Its Astravets power plant totally relies upon Russia's money and technology, in contrast to the other players that either aim to diversify their energy mix or lessen their energy dependency on their big resourceful neighbour.
Andrei is an analyst at Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies.