Belarus has never lacked for individuals benefiting from either Eastern or Western support. Their actions, however, often left Belarusians disappointed. September 17 marked the 79th anniversary of the unification of Belarus. Part of the reason this day is not a national holiday is that unification was a side effect of the secret addendum to the German-Soviet non-aggression pact (negotiated in August 1939 by Nazi German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and his Soviet counterpart, Vyacheslav Molotov). Consequently, on September 17, 1939, the Red Army backstabbed the Poles, who, by that time, had been fighting the Wehrmacht for more than two weeks. Moscow’s invasion of eastern Poland “unified” both Ukraine and Belarus within the confines of the expanded Soviet Union. Because Belarusians claim they used to be treated as “third-rate citizens of Poland, they did not mourn the fall of that country,” writes Jan Maksymiuk of the Belarusian service of Radio Liberty (Svaboda.org, September 17). However, they were soon shocked by the encounters with the Soviets who expropriated property, conducted purges, and looked like agents of change for the worse as far as quality of life was concerned. According to the historian Ales Bely, the modern configuration of Belarus is more of a legacy of the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany than of the 1939 developments (Narodnaya Volya, September 18).
After the war, Poland’s influence on Belarus, theretofore quite potent, was dwarfed by Russia’s. Post-war Poland renounced all claims on its former eastern possessions, the so-called Kresy Wschodnie (Eastern Borderlands). Yet, occasionally, tensions between Belarus and Poland continue to flare up. Conflict has mainly revolved around the Union of Poles in Belarus, or more specifically about the one and only active branch of that union, not recognized by Minsk but supported by Warsaw (see EDM, August 8). Thus, on August 22, Głos Znad Niemna, the mouthpiece of that splinter group, published an article by Zdzisław Winnicki, a professor of history at the University of Wrocław, in which he castigates Belarusians for what he calls the de-Polonization of memory about the 1863 insurgents fighting Imperial Russia (Glos Znad Niemna, August 22). This offended “nationally conscious” Belarusians who believe that many, if not most, of those insurgents within the confines of today’s Belarus had local, i.e., Litwin/Litvin roots (Svaboda.org, September 11).
That episode, however, was soon eclipsed by an even more spectacular one. On September 19, Ivan Shyla, a Belarusian associate of the Polish TV channel Belsat, posted—on his own Facebook account—a picture of the Polish President Andrzej Duda in the Oval Office with Donald Trump that some say shows the Polish leader in a subservient role during his White House visit. In the photo, the President of the United States is sitting at his desk whereas Duda is standing hunched over, with his back curving forward (The Washington Post, September 21). The next day, Shyla was fired from Belsat. His e-mail exchange with his superiors was published by Nasha Niva, the mouthpiece of Belarusian Westernizing nationalists. “Do you understand where you are working or not quite?” asked Beata Krasicka, a deputy director of Belsat. Shyla’s response was to the effect that censorship is bad. “Censorship?” replied Krasicka, adding, “Then go to Belarus and enjoy freedom of speech!” Also, Agnieszka Romaszewska-Guza, the channel’s director, accused Shyla of pushing the “Kremlin narrative” of Polish-American cooperation (Nasha Niva, September 20).
Belsat is a Polish TV channel broadcasting for Belarus. One year ago, the Polish foreign ministry decided to terminate Belsat to save funds. However, benefactors from Britain came to Belsat’s rescue (Belsat, December 12). This TV station is indiscriminately confrontational with regard to official Minsk. It frequently complains that its journalists are denied accreditation and harassed by Belarusian authorities. Belsat’s correspondents, however, were officially accredited at the Minsk Dialogue forum, “Eastern Europe: In Search of Security for All,” held in late May (see EDM, June 1). Yet, according to Yauhenii Preiherman, the Minsk Dialogue’s director, their reports contained outright lies, like that “public opinion leaders” were not invited to the forum, thus allegedly “Minsk Dialogue” is a misnomer as there is no “dialogue” at the forum (Baj.by, June 11).
Shyla’s firing resonated loudly. The Russian media could barely hide their glee (RIA Novosti, September 22), and Polish critics of the current government in Warsaw underscored the scandalous nature of the firing of an active member of the anti–Alyaksandr Lukashenka movement. They also referred to the Belarusian opposition’s fear that Romaszewska-Guza, who is highly influential when it comes to Polish Belarus policy, may retaliate against the criticism (Onet.pl, September 21). Stas Karpau, one of Belarus’s most popular bloggers and a poet, emphasized the humiliation of a Belarusian, the arbitrary rules at Belsat, and the fact that those mentoring Belarusians about injustice are ill-equipped to do so (Karpau, September 21). Meanwhile, Tut.by’s commentator Artyom Shraibman underscored that the “conservative populist government of Poland” maintains the image of Poland as a “bulwark of Christian values besieged by European liberals as well as by German and Russian imperialists”; and from that perspective, he continued, Shyla indeed committed a “crime” (Tgstat.com/en/channel/@shraibman, September 20).
But if that is the case, then some messages Belarus receives from the West are not all that different from those it has long been receiving from the East. Thus, in early September, a 768-page monograph, The World in the 21st Century: A Forecast of the Situation by Country and Region, was published under the auspices of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), the alma mater of most Russian diplomats. In it, just two pages were devoted to Belarus, but the content of those pages caused such outrage in Minsk that the book’s online version was dropped from MGIMO’s website and the printing of the entire preset number of copies was terminated. Moreover, a letter was sent to the Belarusian leadership, essentially asserting that the publication in question has been a mishap beyond MGIMO’s control. The reason for the controversy was the monograph’s claim that President Lukashenka is inhibiting the “objective” processes of Belarusian-Russian integration by fostering Litwin-style nationalism—incidentally, the kind that Zdzisław Winnicki of Wrocław University had slammed Belarus for (see above). The MGIMO volume further suggested that this rise in “Litwin” nationalism may be preparing the ground for a pro-Western putsch, so Russia ought to be vigilant and itself brace for the Crimea-like scenario (Naviny, September 12; Belta, September 14).
In summary, if vigilance is the right word in this context, it is strictly for Belarusians to exercise.