Why Belarusian Diplomats Leave Foreign Service
In the last month the issue of diplomacy was the focus of the Belarusian authorities several times.
On 20 August Alexander Lukashenka appointed a new foreign minister, Uladzimir Makey, and on 1 September he inaugurated the brand new building of the Faculty of International Relations of the Belarusian State University. Although the building looks glamorous, the president spoke with great concern about the human resources situation in the Belarusian diplomatic service.
What worries Lukashenka is that today, unlike in the previous decades, fewer and fewer talented young people want to pursue diplomatic careers in Belarus. Moreover, more and more qualified and experienced diplomats eagerly leave their posts in the foreign ministry for more rewarding jobs elsewhere.
This situation is a natural result of Minsk’s self-isolating foreign policy and the tiny salaries that Belarusian diplomats receive. And there is hardly anything that can be done to seriously improve the situation.
UN Founding Member without a Real MFA
The present-day Belarusian diplomatic service traces its origins back to 1945. The leadership of the Soviet Union wanted to have as many votes as possible during discussions at the United Nations. Therefore, the USSR insisted on including both the Belarusian and Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republics as independent founding Member States of the UN.
since the very inception of the UN in 1940s, Belarus has had its own diplomatic representation there Read more
Thus, since the very inception of the UN in 1940s, Belarus has had its own diplomatic representation there. Of course, it only performed decorative functions and all the decisions were really made in Moscow. But at least the Soviet rulers had to raise the perception of independent foreign policy making in the BSSR and established a separate foreign ministry in Minsk. They appointed Kuzma Kiselev (a doctor by education) as the first Belarusian minister of foreign affairs.
As the task of the Belarusian diplomatic mission during the Soviet era was just to vote the way the Kremlin decided, the ministry in Minsk was very small. Its staff did not exceed 20 people. Nonetheless, some diplomatic traditions began to take root even under those conditions.
The Newly Sovereign State in Search for its Foreign Policy Elite
When Belarus gained independence it already had a small foreign ministry and some diplomats with experience in international affairs. But, of course, the new situation required a fully-functional ministry. And the government started to look everywhere for people who could handle the difficult task of promoting Belarusian interests in the international arena. They even placed job adverts on national radio.
The main requirement for new diplomats was a knowledge of foreign languages. Belarus did not have an undergraduate or graduate school that taught international relations. So the majority of newcomers were graduates of Minsk State Linguistic University (then known as Minsk Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages).
Diplomacy started to attract the most talented and ambitious young people who wanted to pursue beautiful lucrative careers. Like in the Soviet Union, male candidates had far greater employment opportunities than female. As a result, today there is huge gender imbalance in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Gradually the MFA became a sanctuary for the children of top officials. Walking along the corridors of the ministry, one would see innumerable door signs with easily recognisable surnames. At some point it became almost impossible for a young man without proper connections (blat) to get a job in the ministry no matter how qualified he was.
Poor Relations with Academia
Apart from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the newly sovereign Belarus needed its own diplomatic school. In 1995 the leading university – Belarusian State University – established the Faculty of International Relations. Its primary purpose was to prepare cadres for the MFA.
In the beginning almost all the graduates of the Faculty automatically got into the ministry. It is likely due to this fact that it became one of the most popular and prestigious schools in the country. Enrolment competition skyrocketed. For example, in 2004 about 400 applicants competed for twenty tuition-free places in the field of International Relations.
But as acceptance to the MFA began to depend not only on merit but on proper connections, the role of the Faculty of International Relations started to diminish. It turned into a school that prepares specialists that the Belarusian labour market has no demand for.
Moreover, the Faculty of International Relations and MFA did not manage to establish good cooperation. Scholars from the faculty are never invited to contribute to strategic thinking in the ministry. And MFA representatives rarely participate in academic discussions at the university. As a result, all sides lose. The scholarly work has become detached from the realities on the ground, and the ministerial foreign policy strategies less carefully thought through.
From Elitism to Defection
The past couple of years have seen a serious decline in the prestige of diplomatic careers in Belarus. Several devaluations of the Belarusian rouble have made the salaries in the MFA unbelievably low. For example, an attaché who is just starting his career gets roughly $300 per month. The head of a department with the rank of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary earns around $1000. Of course, during foreign placements diplomats get considerably more. But given the huge workload that they have this is almost peanuts.
an attaché who is just starting his career gets roughly $300 per month Read more
Jobs in the private sector can offer many times over this salary. And there one does not have to feel embarrassed because of the self-isolating and freakish behaviour of the Belarusian government. Many diplomats disagree with the regime's policies but have to defend them as a part of their work. It is no wonder then why so many young professionals often prefer careers in business to the diplomatic service. Good evidence of this is the fact that fewer and fewer top officials try to ensure a place for their children in the MFA.
Thus, Lukashenka's worries are not in vain. The current state of the economy will not enable the state to raise diplomats' salaries to a competitive level. Like those working for other government institutions, the same old officials migrate from one position into another or abandon government jobs altogether. The foreign ministry is losing talent who defect from the prospects of humiliating pay for an extremely difficult job where they are representing the most repressive government in Europe.
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.