18 August 2005

A Delicate Balance

by Wojciech Kosc

Poland ponders how to defend human rights in Belarus without provoking the Lukashenka regime into putting more pressure on the Polish minority.

BIALYSTOK, Poland | "Sorry, we have orders not to let you in," a smiling Belarusian border guard officer tells a group of Polish deputies from the European Parliament. The lawmakers return smiles: an act of courtesy that cannot disguise the growing diplomatic tension over the Belarusian regime's treatment of Poles living under "Europe's last dictatorship."

"We had food rations for Union of Poles in Belarus activists imprisoned there. And we also wanted to have a look at the situation so as to prepare a report for the EP," Barbara Kudrycka, one of those turned back at the border on 8 August, told TOL. Another parliamentarian denied entry, Bogdan Klich, had hoped to spread the word among Belarusian non-governmental organizations that the European Commission is offering 8.7 million euros to support democratization and civic society.


The current tension between nations that share hundreds of years of common history has once again inspired hopes and ideas about EU member Poland's role in influencing the democratic process in a Belarus ruled by the autocratic Aleksander Lukashenka.

The tension began to rise in May, after Belarusian authorities annulled the result of an election among members of the Union of Poles in Belarus (ZPB), removing newly elected chair Andzelika Borys and reinstating the previous leader, Tadeusz Kruczkowski.

Belarusian police also briefly arrested the editor of the ZPB newspaper and two ZPB activists.

Kruczkowski told TOL that Borys and her associates had fiddled the voting to ensure her election. "Rubbish" was his reply when asked if his reinstatement meant he was Lukashenka's favorite.

But Borys believes the upcoming convention, due on 27 August, will seal the fate of the ZPB as an independent organization. "The regime will have its own Union of Poles now," Borys said on 16 August.

Andzelika Borys and presidential candidate Donald Tusk in Hrodna. Photo by Michal Kosc.

Kruczkowski, though, says he will resign after the convention. "I'm tired of all this. It's unacceptable that the ZPB is used for political purposes with a view to igniting ethnic tensions between Belarusians and Poles in Belarus," he said.

The ZPB is based in Hrodna (Grodno in Polish), a town of 300,000 people about 60 kilometers from Bialystok, the closest city on the other side of the border. The organization has about 25,000 members and - until the authorities' intervention - was one of the biggest organizations in Belarus fully independent of the state. Its funding, some $200,000 a year, comes almost entirely from the Polish Senate, but its activities are "as far from politics as you can imagine," Borys said, concentrating on cultural and educational work for the Polish minority, such as organizing children's holidays in Poland and running Polish-language libraries.

"But here, being Polish and doing what the ZPB is supposed to, which is promoting Polish culture, has proved enough to get us accused of being an enemy [of Belarus]," she added.


As soon as the conflict over the Union erupted, official Belarusian media started describing the Polish minority and Polish diplomats as nothing short of secret enemies working to undermine the stability of the state.

In reaction, the Polish foreign ministry said Poland will bar those responsible for persecuting the Union from entering Poland. Minsk responded with a series of expulsions of Polish diplomats, most recently on 26 July, setting off tit-for-tat expulsions by Warsaw.

The conflict with Belarus, alongside tensions with Russia that have surfaced recently over attacks on Russians in Poland and what looked like retaliatory beatings of a Polish diplomat and embassy staff in Moscow, has inspired yet more discussion about Poland's - and the EU's - eastern policy. After Poland's moral and political backing for Viktor Yushchenko's bid for the Ukrainian presidency in late 2004, hopes are again flying high among Poles that there will be a similar change of regime in another neighboring ex-Soviet republic.

Leaders of the main parties were expected to meet Prime Minister Marek Belka around 18 or 19 August to discuss the issue. According to political scientist Grzegorz Kostrzewa-Zorbas, however, this is not a propitious time for them to treat the issue as seriously as it should be.

"The outgoing president, government, and parliament are not thinking about it during the transitional period we're going through," Kostrzewa-Zorbas told the daily Rzeczpospolita on 12 August, referring to parliamentary elections due in September and elections in October to replace the outgoing president, Aleksander Kwasniewski.

"We have to think what vital interests Russia and Belarus have that Poland can influence, and downplay those interests. Secondly, we should use our NATO and EU membership. Third, we have to influence public opinion in both [Russia and Belarus]," Kostrzewa-Zorbas advised.


The last option is the one discussed most often. After years of debate, the Polish government has now set aside about $300,000 to launch a radio station to spread the democratic message to Belarus. It will probably take over the broadcasting concession of the now-defunct Radio Racja, a station that broadcast news into Belarus, although its technical capabilities to reach deep beyond the Polish-Belarusian border were limited.

"The only thing we can really do is to run an information campaign. Ignorance and obscurantism are the greatest allies of Lukashenka the kolkhoz director," wrote Maciej Rybinski, a commentator with Rzeczpospolita, on 8 August with a sly reference to the Belarusian leader's job as manager of a collective farm in the 1980s.

The big question is, however, whether Lukashenka's position can be undermined easily.

According to Jerzy Chmielewski, editor-in-chief of the Belarusian-language monthly Czasopis, based in Bialystok, the Belarusian economy is not doing as badly as Poles think. Nor is Lukashenka unpopular on a truly mass scale.

"People are faring better and better, and Lukashenka uses this as an argument for his rule," Chmielewski told Gazeta Wyborcza on 5 August. "He destroys the myth that authoritarian government cannot offer any possibilities of development."

The challenge in taking on Belarus is to find a strategy that targets Lukashenka, but not the Belarusian people, says Michal Kaminski, a European Parliament deputy and member of the Polish right-wing Law and Justice Party. He suggests banning Belarusian athletes from competing in the international arena, something the international community tried in the case of apartheid South Africa.

According to Miroslaw Czech, an activist of the Ukrainian minority in Poland, Poland should now avoid two things: severing relationships with Belarus and transforming the Belarusian minority into a hostage of the conflict between two countries. "Under no circumstances should repressions and discrimination of the Polish minority in Belarus justify similar moves against Belarusians in Poland," Czech opined in the 5 August edition of Gazeta Wyborcza.

Warsaw is hardly likely to engage in copy-cat arrests of Belarusians and crackdowns on their organizations in Poland, but it can wield much leverage through its control of state funds earmarked for the Belarusians and other national minorities.

Apart from the Germans, the Belarusians are the most active minority community in Poland. Numbering somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000 depending on who is counting (as compared to 400,000 Poles in Belarus), they are represented by two deputies in the lower house of parliament, the Sejm, and by one senator, publish several newspapers, and enjoy Belarusian-language radio and television.

Most such activities would simply cease without funds from national and local authorities. This makes the community acutely sensitive to any moves by Warsaw that could threaten their autonomy. Such was the case in 2003, when state auditors investigated the finances of Niwa, a state-subsidized weekly Belarusian paper. The auditors alleged that the paper's management embezzled state money by falsely inflating its publication costs. Belarusians charged the auditors with orchestrating an anti-minority campaign.


The ticklish situation over the Poles and Belarusians living on each other's territory has provided an unexpected campaign bonus for Polish politicians.

In the midst of parliamentary and presidential campaigning, some candidates raced across the border to Hrodna hoping to lift their poll ratings as well as the spirits of Poles there.

The tactic paid off for Donald Tusk, until then a relatively strong presidential contender who nonetheless consistently trailed Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, on his left, and Lech Kaczynski, on the right. After Tusk's visit to ZPB's main office in Hrodna on 1 August, images of local Poles welcoming him with patriotic anthems or even kneeling in gratitude adorned the front pages of newspapers and opened television news programs.

Since his visit, Tusk has seized the lead, with about 25 percent of respondents saying he is their choice for president.

Another politician who tried his luck in Hrodna was Roman Giertych, leader of the far-right League of Polish Families, a party still looking for the decent showing in parliamentary elections that would give it something more than the few dozen seats it now holds.

Roman Giertych crossing the border into Belarus. Photo by Michal Kosc.


President Kwasniewski has chosen to remain largely silent on the problems of the Polish minority in Belarus, earning praise from some quarters and contempt in others. His silence proves his inability to face the real issues Poland faces beyond its eastern border, some opponents charge. The president ought to have supported Poles in Belarus with a clear "we are with you," wrote commentator Zdzislaw Najder in Rzeczpospolita on 8 August, adding, "We never heard it, though."

Backers claim the president is right to stay out of the fray for as long as he can in order to keep open a channel of last resort should the government exhaust all other avenues of reaction and mediation.

Kwasniewski has said that the Polish side has consistently tried to interest Minsk in a serious discussion of the situation and ways to end its harassment of Polish organizations. He also said that Poland was awaiting the European Union's reaction to the situation in Belarus.

"We are in a classic trap that results whenever universal human rights and dictatorships that violate them collide," wrote Rzeczpospolita's Rybinski. As a democratic state, Poland "cannot retaliate. : There is no way we could arrest a Belarusian in Bialystok in return for the arrest of a Pole in Grodno. Debasing your country's law cannot be the answer to debasement by your neighbors."