Eastern Europe: Warsaw Turns Up Diplomatic Heat On Minsk Over Polish Group

By Jan Maksymiuk

A full-blown brawl flared up between Minsk and Warsaw earlier this month, with mutual diplomatic expulsions and a heated exchange of acrimonious accusations.

The clash is ostensibly centered on the Union of Poles in Belarus (SPB), which in March elected a new leadership that met with the disapproval of Belarusian authorities.

But the conflict has broader implications that could seriously affect bilateral relations on the EU's eastern border.

The Circumstances

Polish media reported on 17 May that Marek Bucko, first secretary of the Polish Embassy in Minsk, has been declared persona non grata by Belarusian authorities. The report was not immediately confirmed by either the Belarusian Foreign Ministry or the Polish Embassy in Belarus, but "Sovetskaya Belorussiya," the newspaper of the Belarusian presidential administration, wrote in its 17 May edition that "according to accounts by members of the Union [of Poles in Belarus], one of the employees of the [Polish] diplomatic representation, Marek Bucko, tried to direct the organization."

Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Zalucki announced on 18 May that his ministry had decided to expel an unnamed counselor to the Belarusian Embassy in Warsaw in response to the Bucko expulsion. The same day, Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ruslan Yesin said Bucko was expelled in response to the expulsion of a Belarusian diplomat from Warsaw "several weeks earlier." That expulsion somehow failed to attract the attention of either the Polish or Belarusian media at the time it took place, according to Yesin. At the same time, Yesin said the expulsion of Bucko was also prompted by his "vigorous activities oriented toward the destabilization of Belarusian society."

Bucko's duties at the embassy in Minsk included contacts with Belarusian political parties and nongovernmental organizations, as well as with the SPB. On 12 May, the Belarusian Justice Ministry declared that an SPB congress in March was "non-democratic" and invalidated its decisions, notably the election of a new leadership. "The attack on the Union of Poles in Belarus [following its March congress] was very brutal," Bucko told Polish media on 18 May. "Delegates to the congress have been seriously pressured, threatened with layoffs from their jobs, called for interrogations, and intimidated. All this was done for the sole purpose of keeping Mr. Tadeusz Kruczkowski in the post of SPB chairman." At the SPB congress in March, Tadeusz Kruczkowski was replaced by Andzelika Borys.

Warsaw Responds

In an unprecedented step in the history of Polish-Belarusian relations, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski appealed on 19 May to the European Union for help in protecting the Polish minority in Belarus. Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld then said on 20 May that Warsaw had given Minsk a chance to reverse its decision on the SPB congress. "We created a chance for Belarus to reverse its decision and restore the legally elected authorities of the SPB," Rotfeld said. "If the Belarusian court takes such a decision, then we shall consider the matter closed. If there is an escalation, it will only be to the detriment of Belarus." The Warsaw-based "Zycie Warszawy" on 21 May published a purported list of a dozen Belarusian citizens who will be barred from entering Poland in connection with the conflict around the SPB congress. The list reportedly includes several SPB activists who support the Belarusian authorities' position in the conflict, as well as Belarusian Justice Minister Viktar Halavanau.

Back In Belarus

The Belarusian independent weekly "Nasha Niva" commented last week that the conflict around the organization of ethnic Poles in Belarus is essentially a clash between a group of SPB loyalists to the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (led by former SPB Chairman Kruczkowski) and a democratic wing of minority activists headed by a new SPB chairwoman, Andzelika Borys. The Belarusian regime, "Nasha Niva" argued, is going to stifle not only all political dissent but also any sprouts of civil society of pro-democracy activism in the country, and minority organizations are no exceptions in this drive.

The Belarusian government has launched a media campaign apparently intended to discredit the new SPB leadership in the eyes of the 400,000-strong Polish minority. Earlier this month, Belarusian Television showed a 40-minute documentary presenting the conflict around the SPB conflict as provoked by machinations from abroad, while the Polish-language weekly "Glos znad Niemna" in Hrodna, evidently inspired by the authorities, issued a special edition with materials discrediting Andzelika Borys and her associates in the SPB.

It will come as little surprise if the currently sour relations between Minsk and Warsaw continue to curdle after the likely installation of a new government in Poland later this year.

That something unpleasant is brewing in Polish-Belarusian relations become apparent during President Lukashenka's annual address to the nation on 19 April, when he slammed Poland for what he suggested was working to stage a revolution in Belarus, similar to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. "I want to forewarn the Polish Embassy -- please don't take this as a threat," Lukashenka said in that address. "We know what's going on in your embassy, we know about your work. Don't think that Poles in Belarus are not Belarusian citizens. They are our citizens. We will see that no harm comes to them, and you will not bamboozle them either."

"You see, today they are working on what we will be doing in 2006," Lukashenka went on. "Ukraine is forming camps -- as if to say, 'we will send you revolutionaries from there.' The Poles are working in the western part [of Belarus], including through the Roman Catholic Church, but not much comes out of it. [Those] Catholics are our Catholics. We do not suppress them. We have known since long that you will be pressuring this part of the population in order to destabilize [the situation]."

What's At Stake?

Lukashenka's ire over Warsaw's clout among Belarus's Polish minority -- whose cultural and educational activities are generously sponsored by the Polish government -- might not be the only, or even the main, factor behind the current diplomatic row. Polish lawmakers in the European Parliament, along with their Lithuanian colleagues, have been trying vigorously for months to persuade Brussels to launch and finance radio broadcasts into Belarus from neighboring countries. If they succeed, the information blockade imposed on Belarusians by the Lukashenka regime might be somewhat eased. This cannot but disconcert Lukashenka ahead of the 2006 presidential election in Belarus.

Calls in Poland for taking a tougher stance toward the Lukashenka regime are now being heard primarily from the political center and right. Poland will hold parliamentary and presidential elections this fall, and all opinion surveys predict that the Democratic Left Alliance, which now runs the government, will lose ground in both votes to centrists and right-wingers.

It will therefore come as little surprise if the currently sour relations between Minsk and Warsaw continue to curdle after the likely installation of a new government in Poland later this year.