The continuing dispute between Belarus and Poland appears to be reaching a climax, as Poland has recalled its ambassador from Belarus and appears to be considering the expulsion of the Belarusian ambassador to Poland. The conflict follows a police raid on the headquarters of the Belarusian Union of Poles (BUP) and the detention of several leaders of the organization.
According to the 1999 census, the Polish presence in Belarus consists of some 396,000 ethnic Poles (out of a population of just under 10 million), most of whom reside in the Hrodna region in the west of the country, close to the Polish border. The area was part of Poland’s eastern territories in the interwar period and was annexed by the Soviet Union after the Second World War. That war saw the loss of the vast majority of the large Jewish community, including a large ghetto in Hrodna, as well as the voluntary and forced migration of ethnic Poles to the re-formed Polish state, and of Belarusians from the Polish side to the Belarusian SSR. These events left Belarus’s Polish community relatively small and geographically isolated. Today it comprises only 3.9% of the total population, compared to 11.4% for Russians.
Since Belarus gained independence in 1991, relations between the government and the Polish minority remained amicable for the most part, based on a 1993 Law of Citizenship and a 1992 law by which the Polish and Belarusian governments agreed to the establishment of a Polish language school in Belarus. After the 1995 national referendum, however, Polish became a less privileged language with the elevation of Russian as the second state language of Belarus. Subsequent requests for Polish language schools have been denied (See Minorities at Risk, https://www.cidcm.umd.edu). The Lukashenka government has frequently spoken out against alleged subversion in Polish-speaking regions and accorded a privileged position to the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Belarusian government was clearly irked by the removal of a fairly compliant leader of the BUP, Tadeusz Kruczkowski, in a March election, and his replacement by Andzelika Borys at the organization’s Sixth Convention. Kruczkowski reportedly refused to hand over official documents to his successor, and in May, the Belarusian Ministry of Justice officially annulled the Convention, arguing that the majority of delegates had been elected in violation of its statute and that the meeting lacked a quorum for many of the decisions taken (Charter 97, May 12).
In mid-July, the two countries each expelled a prominent diplomat from the other’s embassy (Narodnaya volya, July 19). On July 27, Belarusian police forces, armed and using dogs, carried out a raid on the BUP office in Hrodna, detaining Borys and other leaders overnight. Numerous Polish journalists have also been detained, including some for taking part in an illegal demonstration on July 3 (Charter 97, July 29). 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 (International Herald Tribune, July 30).
Belarus’s response has been that Poland is part of an international scheme to undermine the Belarusian government, with the support of the United States, and encouragement from Ukraine. The Belarusian media has also tried implicitly to elicit support from Russia, by highlighting the assault on the children of Russian diplomats in Warsaw by some 15 “hooligans” who robbed and beat them, leaving one with a concussion and another with a broken nose (Sovetskaya Belorussiya, August 2). The inference is that there is a widespread anti-Russian and anti-Belarusian campaign centered in Poland and operating with the collusion of the Western powers.
However, it seems more likely that the Lukashenka government has turned on the BUP as one of the few remaining outlets for independent thought and expression in Belarus. Kruczkowski, though now the recognized leader of the BUP by official Minsk, has announced that he would not seek reelection for the position (Belapan, August 2), but the regime has used its familiar tactic of “financial improprieties” (one used against internal “enemies”) as well as constant harassment to try to intimidate Ms. Borys from leading the organization. Poland, once a reliable ally and trading partner, is now viewed with suspicion and regarded as being firmly in the Western camp. Several opposition leaders have been on record over the past week regarding their contacts in Poland, and their support for its tolerant and cultured environment.
The EU and the United States thus far have refrained from any overt responses to what is considered a bilateral dispute. However, if relations worsen — even to the extent of the severance of diplomatic relations — then some more direct involvement may be called for. In turn, the Belarusian government has periodically found the deployment of an (usually fictitious) external enemy to be a useful ploy for diverting attention from current problems and uniting the country prior to critical elections, such as the presidential elections of 2006. In the recent past, the government has also seized on conventions of political and nonpolitical organizations to remove unwanted foes, and it apparently decided not to let this opportunity pass by.