Lukashenko's War on Poles

Allister Maunk, AIA.

Alexander Lukashenko, fearing an upcoming "Velvet revolution" in Belarus, is escalating pressure on the local "Union of Poles", which he perceives as the avant-garde of the overthrow of his regime . Every attempt of the western countries to protect the persecuted minority he sees as proof of his fears that a revolution will come from the west, in particular from Poland. The Polish authority obviously has to support its national brethren and the diplomatic crisis between the two countries is widening. Other western countries are still resorting to words, not actions, but Lukashenko's regime is also very good with words, which, as is known, "cannot break bones".

"The statements by the European Union and the USA on the alleged repressions of the non-governmental organizations in Belarus are absolutely far-fetched and unequivocally reflect the policy of the double standards pursued by the EU and the United States. Similar statements were given adequate assessment by the government of the Republic of Belarus before", says the latest statement of the press service of the foreign ministry of Belarus.

The statement notes, "the attempts of the USA and the EU to play out 'an ethnic card' cause special concern". "There are no problems with the national minorities in Belarus; neither are there any contraventions by Belarus of its OSCE commitments in this sphere. The efforts to manipulate the 'Union of Poles' in Belarus with the aim of making it an artificial opposition to the authorities are not anything but a blatant and open interference with the internal affairs of the sovereign state," stresses the statement of the press service of Lukashenko's foreign political department.

But before we go deeper into the issue, let us review the current events and the background of the "Union of Poles" of Belarus.

Choosing a Scapegoat

The Polish community is relatively small and is geographically isolated in Belarus. According to data from the 1999 census (there is no newer data), the Polish presence in Belarus consists of some 400,000 ethnic Poles (the country's total population is a bit over 10 million). Most of Poles reside in the Hrodna region in the west of the country, close to the Polish border. The region, which was previously part of Poland, was annexed by the Soviet Union after the Second World War. Today Poles comprise only 3.9% of the total population, compared to 13% for Russians.

The relations between the Belarus government and the Polish minority remained good-natured until Lukashenko's rise to power. After gaining independence, Belarus, based on a 1992 law, agreed with the Polish government and permitted the establishment of a Polish language school. After the 1995 national referendum, however, Polish became a less privileged language with the elevation of Russian as the second state language of Belarus. Lukashenko's regime started long ago to irk Polish citizens with different tiny nuisances, as, for example, according a privileged position to the Russian Orthodox Church.

The regime tried to lower the level of influence of the "Union of Poles" on this minority group. Created in 1989, the Union has three newspapers (Glos znad Niemna, Magazin Polski, Echo Polessia), which are too independent and liberal for the local authorities' taste. Since the beginning of 2005 the regime decided to take control of the Union, as a part of "turning the screws" over the whole country, planned to avert the possibility of losing power. In April the Belarus authorities stopped the publication of the Union's periodical, Glos znad Niemna, and arrested its reporters. After that, the authorities started to release a new periodical under the same name but not authorized by the "Union of Poles".

But a wider conflict started when the compliant, pro-governmental leader of the Union, Tadeusz Kruczkowski, was removed in a March election. At the organization's Sixth Convention, a more liberal, and pro-Union Andzelika Borys replaced him. Kruczkowski reportedly refused to hand over official documents to his successor. In May, Lukashenko's regime intervened and the Belarus Ministry of Justice officially annulled the Convention, arguing that a majority of delegates had been elected in violation of its statute and that the meeting lacked a quorum for many of the decisions taken.

The Union, having no choice, turned for help to Poland, which previously tried to stay away from the internal Belarus issues. And that is exactly what the Lukashenko's regime was waiting for - a "proof" of foreign intervention into Belarusian internal affairs!

And the Poles are a perfect scapegoat - a foreign minority, with a different religion, allegedly supported from abroad, "revolting" against the Belarus "democratic" leader, whose support started to fall. What a great opportunity to consolidate a nation behind a fearless leader against an internal enemy, much as it was almost seventy years ago in another European country:

Fighting "Polish Intervention"

Lukashenko started the "counterattack" by expelling of the press secretary and adviser of Poland's embassy in Belarus Marek Bucko. Belarus officials claimed he was involved in some "anti-Belarus activities", such as meetings with the representatives of the Union. The Poles had to respond . The Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld was infuriated and said he would deal with that using "adequate measures". He expelled the Belarus diplomat of the same level.

This diplomatic "expelling game" lasted till mid-July, accompanied by an exchange with harsh diplomatic notes. Apparently Lukashenko's regime got "bored" and after the two countries each expelled a prominent diplomat from the other's embassy in July, the second stage, a stage of coercive actions, was started by the Belarus side. On July 20, Polish Scientific Fund Dialog activity was prohibited in Belarus, for it was called by Minsk a "spying center". The Fund was promoting cooperation between Polish and Belarus scientists.

On July 27, Belarusian police forces, armed and using dogs, carried out a raid on the "Union of Poles" office in the city of Hrodna, detaining Andzelika Borys and other leaders overnight.

About 20 people who were in the Union's headquarters were detained. Police took over the office building. Several Polish journalists also were detained. The regime used its familiar tactic of "financial improprieties" (a tactic used against internal "enemies") as well as constant harassment attempting to intimidate Borys from leading the organization. But she decided to continue. After being released from detainment, she announced that Minsk is turning the Union into a "bloc of spies and bureaucrats". "The people that were put at the head of the Union, by Belarus authorities are working for the local secret services, paying no attention to the needs of the Polish community", she added and called for additional involvement of Warsaw in the conflict.

In response, Poland recalled its ambassador to Belarus, Tadeusz Pawlak, and Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld sent an appeal for assistance to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, in the latter's position as the rotating chair of the European Union.

Several other leaders of the Union were arrested in the city of Shuchino and during their interrogations they were compelled to sign documents calling for a new election of the Union's leadership. Some of them were reminded that they have children:

In addition to the raids, the Belarus authority prohibited trips of foreign emissaries who "teach our citizens how to live", as "direct interference with the internal affairs of the sovereign state", spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry of Belarus, Maria Vanshina, stated. She commented on the trip to Hrodno of the vice-marshal of the Polish Sejm Donald Tusk, who came to meet with local Poles after the police raids.

She added that these "travelers" were not sincere in supporting their Diaspora abroad and are coming to aggravate the situation around the "Union of Poles" which is used as a means of election campaigning in Poland.

From now on the Belarus KGB will control the visits of foreign guests from the west and may invite those citizens who mingle with "suspicious foreigners" for "interviews".

Well, the KGB is very busy right now. Every day the local official press reports about uncovered new Polish spies, disguised as diplomats or tourists:

Military Threats as Internal Policy Instrument?

Attacking the Union offices was not the only coercive move of the Belarus regime. Lukashenko accused Western countries of attempting to destabilize the situation in the country, and did not rule out the possibility of alleged intervention.

"We are heading into a very serious confrontation. Of course, the Americans, the West, will aim to destabilize the situation here in any possible way. They have worked out certain tactics that may include even intervention in our country." Lukashenko stated that the Western countries have created bases to influence the situation in Belarus, such as "media control and tracking from Lithuania and Poland."

He added that foreign countries have activated control and intelligence services in Belarus and are going to "create certain groups that will head for Minsk when needed and will make a revolution in the main square. Well-known organizations will be concentrated in the territory of Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. They may even try to create such detachments in Russia."

"I want to warn that we are aware of it. And we know how to oppose the intervention," Lukashenko said.

The experts note that this is not a hollow threat. A military exercise, which took place in the western area of Belarus , was developing a scenario of crushing any internal uprising and foreign military intervention in this region, which is, as mentioned above, populated with Poles: Also a memorial complex comprising the ancient "Stalin's Line" of fortifications, which were protecting Minsk from the western areas, was opened recently. Lukashenko himself said at the complex opening ceremony that it is a fully operational line of defense. From Belarus Poles?

The EU's Inarticulate Position

But the main problem, not only of the Belarus Poles, but also of the Polish government is that their hands are tied by: the EU! While the USA has already earmarked $24 million for upholding democracy in Belarus, Europeans are not willing to take a stand, to go further than just sending diplomatic notes to Minsk. Poland's President Kwasniewski has declared several times with bitterness and avoiding stating things forthrightly , that the actions of Belarus provoke his country to take needed steps , which, however, may incite a conflict within the European Union. He noted that his country will not abandon their brethren, the Poles of Belarus, but Poland's hands are tied, for every action must be coordinated with the EU's leadership, which is not hurrying to render support to the minority in Belarus. That is what Kwasniewski hinted to his colleagues in the Polish government and Parliament, which were demanding much harsher actions against Belarus oppression of the Poles. Kwasniewski's hands are simply tied prior to the upcoming elections in Poland.

Why is it happening? The answer is obvious: Germany and France, the leaders of the EU, are against these actions, for their ally - Russia, is not interested in such activization of pressure against Belarus, Russia's most trusted partner in the post-Soviet sphere . Though Moscow and Minsk are recently trying to show that their relations have allegedly grown colder, there is a clear Russian concern not to let anything happen to Lukashenko's regime. For it would be the beginning of the end of Putin's rule.

Interestingly enough, Poland's officials decided to turn for support to Moscow! "Russia could do more to press Belarus to respect human rights and democracy", a leading Polish diplomat said last Friday.

"For a number of months we have been discussing the situation... and the overwhelming view is that we should talk to Russia about this issue more than we have in the past," Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Truszczynski said. He also bitterly noted that the EU said a day before that it was worried by the situation in Belarus but would refrain from any concrete action against Minsk for now. In such a way, Warsaw, in a veiled way, has shown that it knows that the core of the problem is not in Belarus, but in Russia.