25 August 2005

Making Lukashenka Think Twice

by Vitali Silitski

Has Poland's policy toward Belarus failed? No. The real failure is the European Union's policy.

In the eyes of Polish critics, the bruising diplomatic clash between Belarus and Poland over the past month has underscored the failure of the Poland's policy towards Belarus. In fact, the real reason might well have been that this policy was better, and better-reasoned than others.

Of one thing there is no doubt: the conflict between Minsk and Warsaw that broke out after President Alyaksandr Lukashenka overturned the results of a leadership election in the Belarusian Union of Poles (ZPB) ended in yet another small, victorious war for Lukashenka. Not only did it once again demonstrate the regime's unlimited power within Belarus, but it also confirmed that the outside world is effectively impotent in its dealings with Lukashenka. During the diplomatic brawl, the Belarusian government tamed a potentially disloyal organization, gave a drubbing to a big neighbor, enhanced its propaganda machine's image of Belarus as a fortress encircled by the enemies, and gained very favorable assessments in Russia, the only neighbor that currently matters much to it. It suffered no consequences bar one: a drastic curtailment of diplomatic ties with Poland and a deepening of the country's international isolation - but this is a consequence that the authorities in Minsk will gladly welcome.

But in Poland it was not just Minsk's behavior that caused uproar, but also the inability of the Polish government to do much in this situation. Critics of Poland's left-wing government attribute the predicament directly to the failure of the government (and particularly of former Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz) to have any plan of action ready for a situation such as this, and, in a broader sense, to an overemphasis on the need of constructive engagement with Belarus in the past. This criticism is not altogether unwarranted, but to understand why Lukashenka won and once again emerged unscathed from a diplomatic battle, this episode should be seen in the broader picture of Poland's - and Europe's - policy towards Belarus in the past. But first, what the conflict was all about needs clarification.


What the attack on the Union of Poles was not was an 'ethnic conflict.' Nor was it even an attempt to stir up suspicion against ethnic Poles. To start with, the nearly 400,000-strong Polish ethnic minority is by and large almost indistinguishable from the rest of Belarusian society. Most of the Poles live in rural areas and are fairly intermixed with all other ethnic groups; not all of them are even fluent in Polish. The Poles are Catholic - but so too are over a million Belarusians; and most other Belarusians are just happy that the Poles provide them with an opportunity to celebrate two Christmases and two Easters. Affiliation with the Catholic Church is their mark of national identity, but, beyond religion, those Poles who take national identity seriously do not really face discrimination: in fact, in many areas there are more opportunities to get schooling in Polish than in Belarusian, a language deliberately relegated by Lukashenka in favor of Russian. And, like the rest of society, most ethnic Poles are deeply apolitical; many barely even noticed this conflict. (The ZPB itself still has around 20,000 members, barely one in 20 Poles in Belarus.) Indeed, a fair number of Poles are Lukashenka supporters: in some areas near Minsk with large Polish populations, the residents apparently support Lukashenka and pro-government 'alternative' head of the ZPB.

That is not to say that there are no tensions between Poles and Belarusians. Especially among the Orthodox population in the Western Belarus, there is still small residual suspicion based on the history of discrimination against Belarusians in inter-war Poland. But, once again, this creates the basis for a family squabble rather than an interethnic, or international conflict: the popular mentality largely identified 'Poles' with the upper crust of society and locals with the underprivileged common folk.

Nor, in all probability, was the attack instigated by Moscow. Yes, given the state of the Russian-Polish relations, the Kremlin has every reason to be glad about the spat. But it is high time people stopped thinking of Lukashenka as a kolkhoz simpleton and a puppet of Moscow. Here is a shrewd, experienced, and masterful politician who knows what he is doing and who weighs up the external environment carefully in his considerations. Lukashenka uses Russia's internal politics in his advantage in masterful fashion. By way of very public example, the Belarus strongman immediately seized on the massacre in the North Ossetian town of Beslan in September 2004 to favorably contrast his regime's stability with Russia's chaos during a referendum campaign to change the constitution.

No, the most credible conclusion is that the real target of the attacks against the ZPB is not Belarus' Polish community, but Poland itself. Lukashenka's reasons are not reducible to Russia's issues with Warsaw; Lukashenka had his own reasons to take on Poland.


There are two reasons for this conclusion. First, Poland offers a rather attractive antithesis of the Lukashenka's Belarus. It therefore needs smearing, which Lukashenka duly does routinely. In most opinion polls, Belarusians rank Poland among the top two or three countries whose example of economic and political success they would like to emulate (the other two are usually Germany and Sweden). Several million Belarusians have traveled to Poland over the past 15 years, as "shuttle trade" tourism offered a realistic way of keeping their families alive. Of course, this positive perception of Poland is not overwhelming. Official propaganda routinely broadcasts horror pictures, selecting the most negative aspects of post-communist Poland, such as high unemployment, income inequality, the plight of the poor, and the grievances of farmers subjected to the European Union's stupendous regulations - and since this propaganda portrays the social groups (such as the urban lower classes, farmers, and pensioners) whose equivalents in Belarus constitute the backbone of Lukashenka's social base, the smear campaign is not entirely ineffective. Its impact is, however, limited. Consider, for example, the hints in the official media that Poland and Belarus' ethnic Poles might, under certain circumstances, raise demands for territorial autonomy and even secession. That possibility was, for instance, raised just four days before the 2001 presidential elections, when the largest official daily Sovetskaya Belorussiya published a hoax report called 'Operation White Stork,' in which it claimed that victory by the opposition would be followed by the dismemberment of Belarus by its neighbors, including Poland, acting under the guidance of the United States. Few take these allegations too seriously: Poles in fact constitute a majority in just one of the 120 districts in Belarus, and that district does not even border Poland. Lukashenka therefore needs tools other than propaganda with which to limit the attractive pull that Poland offers Belarusians.

The second reason is that while Poland's policy towards Belarus is often criticized as weak and accommodating, it is undeniable that Poland is far more involved in promoting change in Belarus than any other country in the Western world, including, perhaps, the United States. Polish civil society is taking a clear lead. Over the past 15 years, it has invested huge efforts in promoting democracy, building up civil society, assisting democratically minded groups, and promoting 'civic Belarus' in the West. This interest and involvement is driven partly by pragmatic interest (Poland has a vital interest in the preservation of Belarus as an independent state and in its eventual democratization: it does not really want to see the Russian tanks cross the River Bug in the future) and partly by a sense of solidarity and memory. The West greatly assisted in Poland's fight for democracy in the 1980s, and many Poles now feel a moral obligation to continue the work further east (not only in Belarus: Poland's involvement in strengthening civil society made many headlines during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, for example). Unlike many of the efforts made by others in Belarus (particularly initiatives from Western Europe), Polish organizations have been particularly conscious and supportive of the Belarusian national revival. Many Belarusian-language historians and social thinkers have been published in Poland. Belarusian-language rock groups banned in the country find supporting and enthusiastic audiences in Poland. Even the largest annual festival of Belarusian rock music - Basovishcha - is held near Bialystok, in eastern Poland. And Poland is extremely supportive of the National Humanities Lyceum, the only specialized Belarusian-language high school in Minsk, which was closed down by the government in 2003. (Its students now take study vacations in Poland, for example.)

Civil society may be taking the lead, but that does not mean that the Polish authorities are uninvolved. In fact, many of the Polish groups and foundations active in Belarus are funded by the Polish government. Poland's commitment to promoting democracy in Belarus cannot be doubted, though its consistency may be (some argue that the level of commitment has varied from government to government, whether left or right-of-center).

The challenge for Polish policy-makers is how to champion democracy while at the same time building up relations with a neighboring state important for Poland's security and foreign policy. Warsaw has based its eastern policy on the premise that isolating Belarus would only strengthen Lukashenka. The policies have had different names - 'critical dialogue' (criticizing but still talking to Minsk); a 'dual-track policy' (promoting democracy and pressuring the Belarusian regime on one hand, and, on the other, cooperating on issues of mutual interest such as the economy); and, finally, the 'small-steps approach' (doing whatever is possible one step at a time) - but the premise is the same.

In practical terms, all these policies tried to reach beyond the hard core of opposition and civil-society activists and engage those representatives of the officia, officials of Lukashenka-controlled Belarus with whom cooperation is possible. Warsaw has thus been keen on promoting trans-border cooperation, arranging visits by local officials and entrepreneurs in order to foster bilateral ties, and spreading training and capacity-development programs to middle- and lower-level officials, a group that, conventional wisdom said, would be important actors in Belarus' eventual democratic and market transformation. In short, Poland has emphasized the 'soft power' approach, in which influence, assistance, and its own good example will hopefully promote - or, at least, assist in - political and economic changes in the future.

For many, this policy was naive and effectively amounted to an accommodation of Lukashenka's regime. But the underlying dilemma - to deploy hard or soft power when dealing with non-democratic regimes - merely reflects a much broader quandary about how to promote democracy. It is hard to spot any real impact that soft power has on dictatorial regimes, while the attempt to use it inevitably leads to engagement with and possibly even legitimization of authoritarian rule. And, for many, attempts to engage Minsk in 'critical dialogue' indeed went too far; too many 'small steps' were taken. Prime examples are the surprise visit of then-Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller to Belarus two years ago, and the active wooing of Miller's Belarusian counterpart, Siarhej Sidorski, by the Polish political and business elite. (Lukashenka, however, put an abrupt end to that in April 2004, when at the last minute he cancelled Sidorski's planned visit to Warsaw for a conference conducted as a part of events celebrating Poland's accession to the European Union.)

In critics' eyes, though, the problems with soft power extend beyond the symbolic. One, soft power can be wasteful: officials, critics say, simply use visits and training in Poland as an opportunity to go on a shopping spree to a hypermarket in Bialystok or Gdansk, and on their return to Belarus simply continue fulfilling Lukashenka's orders. Two, doing business does not necessarily promote a market economy: businessmen would rather sponsor government-controlled organizations and official holidays than promote market consciousness in the masses. And third, apolitical, 'vegetarian' - rather than 'red meat' politicized - civil-society groups, active in community projects but not keen on taking on the powers-that-be, simply contribute to the public's withdrawal from political life, providing a safe haven for those a little unsatisfied with the opportunities afforded by the state but still willing to live a quiet and problem-free life.

Yet, in the case of Belarus, the debate between hard and soft power advocates is purely theoretical. President Lukashenka is a master of preemptive authoritarianism; that is, of attacking and eliminating political and social threats that do not necessarily exist at that particular point. The logic of his preemption assumes that these threats will become real if he complacently allows them to develop to a reasonable scale. Characteristic examples of Lukashenka's preemption are: the closure of the European Humanities University, which was ostensibly apolitical and generally cooperative with the regime (it promoted Western knowledge but was still willing to teach courses in Lukashenka's ideology); attacks on the independent press (which had in any case subjected itself to self-censorship long ago); and the removal from the political scene of opposition leaders, such as the former ambassador to Latvia, Mikhail Marynich (even though they would not really have stood a chance against Lukashenka). It is in this context of preemption that the conflict around the Union of Poles, and, in a broader sense, the clash between Minsk and Warsaw, should be analyzed.

To start with, the ZPB is not the object of exceptional treatment; it is just one of a number of Belarusian NGOs that the government has decided to rein in. It is not a very politicized NGO, but someone probably decided that its mere independence and its strong ties to a sympathetic government in Warsaw might eventually make it one. The takeover of the ZPB may even have been part of a two-step plan: first to destroy the Union and, then, to pick a fight with Poland and use that to bolster anti-Western propaganda and curtail ties with the neighbor that was, by some distance, the most active promoter of democracy in Belarus. That interpretation may be going too far. Lukashenka's government is not full of geniuses of strategic thinking, but it is packed with good tacticians - with Lukashenka the best of them all. So it may be that, once the opportunity to take over the ZPB emerged, Minsk realized it had a good pretext to minimize Poland's 'soft' influence in Belarus by curtailing the ties of every kind. In other words, the scandal was used to justify a typical act of preemption: the ZPB's educational, professional, and personal contacts with Poland may not have endangered the regime in Minsk, but Minsk apparently decided to cut those links just in case.

Indeed, the preemptive nature of the attack is not really concealed. Two weeks ago, I participated in a discussion about the conflict staged by the Belarusian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. My opposite number in the discussion was Pavel Jakubovich, editor-in-chief of Sovetskaya Belorussiya. In his opening remarks, Jakubovich linked the conflict directly to the danger of a spread of Orange-style revolutions to Belarus.

Of course, it is not the Union of Poles that is seen as the cause of such fear. Instead, the greatest threat that these ethnic Poles posed Minsk was that their existence provided another reason for Warsaw government's and Polish society's major efforts to engage with any Belarusians who desire a democratic change, be they Belarusian, Polish, Russian, or Ukrainian. The opportunities for such engagement will be far more restricted now.


Does that mean that Poland's policy towards Belarus was a failure, as opponents of the government in Warsaw insist? Would it have been better to find other ways to pressure and leverage Minsk right from the outset?

This criticism itself represents wishful thinking. First of all, outsiders' chances of leveraging Lukashenka out of power are few in number; some would even say they barely exist. Second, for such pressure to have any meaningful force, Warsaw would have needed to coordinate a more consistent foreign policy with the larger European Union - and Brussels has shown almost no interest in doing anything of that sort over the past decade. (Indeed, I suspect that, before engaging in this diplomatic war, the decision-makers in Lukashenka's entourage counted on several western EU members implicitly overlooking the conflict because of their somewhat strained relations with Poland. I am not suggesting EU member-states reacted like that - but it is undeniable that the EU effectively lacks a policy towards Belarus and is unable to react to situations like this.)

The criticism also fails to recognize that, for all their idealism and perhaps even naivete, Poland's attempts to open up a critical dialogue and make small steps in relations with Belarus was invariably more sound and far-sighted than the EU's own policy. In 1999, the European Commission decided that the way forward was through a 'step-by-step' approach under which the EU takes steps towards Belarus if Belarus makes progress in democratization: if not, the EU does nothing. Since he is neither interested in democracy nor in the EU, nothing suited Lukashenka better than this 'policy.'

The criticism is also flawed for a third reason: Lukashenka's policy of preemption may involve taking action even against those who pose no threat, but it is not entirely born of paranoia. Minsk cracked down on the 'soft' elements of the Warsaw's overall policy only because it feared they might have worked eventually.

So what the Minsk-Warsaw conflict shows is not that Warsaw's policy was wrong. What it highlighted is that the range of policy options towards Lukashenka's Belarus is severely limited, and that European policy is not coherent, proactive, or sustained. Without a European policy with those virtues, Poland could do little.

What, then, can the EU do? It needs to collectively commit itself to promoting democracy (and not just offering technical assistance through government-approved programs). It needs to act in situations such as the ZPB affair, and not just react by issuing declarations of disapproval and regret. It needs to find ways of ensuring that Minsk loses something from these actions. It cannot wait (as it does now) for Belarus to make steps in the right direction before engaging, since Lukashenka will not take steps towards democracy. And, most importantly, it needs to demonstrate sustained, long-term commitment to promoting change in Belarus, rather than reacting to crisis situations on an ad hoc basis. Perhaps, then, the stakes for official Minsk would be raised. That might not stop it engaging in small propaganda wars, but it would make it think twice.