Belarus Charts Course Between Russia and Poland

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 166

Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei (L) and his Polish counterpart, Witold Waszczykowski, Warsaw, October 10 (Source:

The nine-month-long argument about the price of Russian natural gas for Belarus has finally been resolved—for now. Belarus will compensate Russia for underpayment from January 1 to July 1, 2016 (during that period, Belarus payed only $73 per 1,000 cubic meters instead of $132, as it was supposed to). Beginning on July 1, the price of gas for Belarus is retroactively reduced by 30 percent, from $132 per thousand cubic meters to around $92; Russia will compensate Gazprom for the loss, and Belarus pledges to overturn its decision to increase its natural gas transit fees (see EDM, October 12). Also, Russia will restore the volume of oil to Belarusian refineries. Oil exports to Belarus had been lowered earlier to penalize Minsk for its delinquency on payments of Russian gas (Kommersant, October 10). Once again, Minsk succeeded in wresting a concession from Moscow. At the same time, however, Belarus remains overly dependent on Russia for energy.

During his most recent visit to neighboring Poland, Vladimir Makei, Belarus’s minister of foreign affairs, underscored that Belarus is in no way willing to distance itself from Russia. At the same time, he added that being dependent on just one country is a flaw, particularly at a time of economic crisis (, October 11). Belarus’s relations with Poland are currently experiencing a honeymoon—an abrupt change from the situation only a half a year ago. For Poland, Belarus used to be perceived as a dictatorship that discriminated against its Polish minority; for Belarus, Poland was seen as a promoter of color revolutions and a sponsor of Belarus’s “fifth column”—President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s label for the Belarusian pro-Western opposition (Gazeta Prawna, October 13).

At loggerheads with Brussels and amidst tense relations with Russia, Poland’s conservative government reversed the country’s Belarus policy in order to, as some observers claim, counterbalance Russia’s overwhelming influence on its neighborhood (, October 13). Belarus’s mediation in the Ukrainian crisis came in handy. Suddenly, criticism of Belarus’s allegedly dictatorial practices was muted. As for the fate of the Polish minority in Belarus, the tacit assumption is that its situation is bound to further improve if ties between Polish and Belarusian officials are allowed to grow stronger. In March, Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski was received by Lukashenka; and now Foreign Minister Makei was also received by Polish President Andrzej Duda. Meanwhile, a group of leaders of Belarus’s opposition met this month in Brussels, where they suggested that the newly elected Belarusian parliament should be excluded from Euronest—an inter-parliamentary assembly that brings together lawmakers from the European Parliament and the national legislatures of the Eastern Partnership countries, which include Belarus (, October 13). However, the leader of the pro-government faction of the Polish Sejm (lower chamber of parliament), Ryszard Terlecki, had already pledged cooperation with the Belarusian parliament several months before (, August 3). In addition, Intercity, the Polish rapid-transit railway connection Krakow–Warsaw–Białystok has just been extended across the border to the Belarusian city of Grodno.

Relations between Belarus and Poland have an inter-ethnic dimension as well. Belarusian national identity historically developed later than the identities of the Poles and Russians. As a result, alternate periods of Russification and Polonization of Belarusian lands are both routinely reproached in Belarusian historiography. In Janka Kupala’s 1922 Belarusian-language play Tuteishiya (Locals), the so-called “Western scientist” character speaks Polish and claims Belarus is a part of Poland, whereas the “Eastern scientist” expresses symmetrical claims in Russian. That symmetry, however, is partial. The reproach of Russification has been tenacious on the side of Belarus’s Westernizing nationalists, but it has not developed much traction across other social strata. In contrast, the reproach against Polonization has a greater grassroots appeal. Suffice it to say that during the run-up to the 2006 presidential elections, Svetlana Alexievich, who later (2015) received the Nobel Prize in literature, expressed the view that Alyaksandr Milinkevich, that year’s opposition front-runner, would not be popular in Belarus, because his manners come across as “too Polish” (, January 31, 2006).

Apparently due to implicit homogenizing pressures, each subsequent post-war census has recorded a numerical decline of self-identified Belarusians in Poland and self-identified Poles in Belarus. In Belarus, the percentage of Poles declined from 6.7 in 1959 to 4.3 in 1970, 4.2 in 1979, 4.1 in 1989, 3.9 in 1999 and 3.1 in 2009. Still, in northwestern Belarus, the areas of compact settlement of people with Polish identity remain. Two secondary schools with Polish as the language of instruction function in the cities of Grodno and Volkovysk. The most Polish rayon (district) in all of Belarus is centered in Voronovo (Werenowo), Grodno Oblast. Here, 83 percent of the rayon’s 26,290 residents are Poles. This is a part of the historical Wilno (Vilnius)–centered area now cut across by the Belarusian-Lithuanian border. Ethnic Poles continue to dominate the adjacent part of Lithuania as well.

This author visited Voronovo in mid-October 2016. The Polishness of the district amply displays itself in cemeteries and in local Roman Catholic churches, where the prayer books are in Polish and printed in Warsaw and priests are Polish speakers. At the same time, most younger people and the rayon administrators communicate in perfect Russian, in line with the language situation in Belarus at large; whereas most street signs are in Belarusian. If one were to indulge in mirror imaging (i.e., we see things not as they are but as we are), then the absence of any Polish-language street signs in that most Polish district of Belarus might be seen as an outrage. However, it must be said that Belarus is a country whose ethnic majority itself is not in the habit of manifesting its identity—a reality described and explained by Yury Shevtsov in his seminal 2005 book, The Phenomenon of Belarus. And the country’s minorities have appropriated the same self-effacing style as their modus vivendi. Those not at peace with that choice have long left. Those who stay put but are interested in teaching their kids Polish may do so: in the Voronovo district, nine children are currently enrolled in regular classes of Polish and 232 in optional classes. In addition, Catholic parishes help send local children to summer camps in Poland; and contacts with relatives in Lithuania and Poland are unobstructed.

Ensconced between Poland and Russia, Belarus slowly but surely is evolving as a true bridge between the West and the East in Europe. In the atmosphere of growing regional tensions (see EDM, October 12), the potential benefits of a well-functioning bridge cannot be overestimated.