On February 8, around midday, about twenty Belarusian police and officials from the Valozhyn district court descended on the Polish House in Ivyanets (Iweniec), 40 miles west of Minsk, ordered all personnel to leave, and then changed the locks. The Belarusian authorities claimed that the faction of the Union of Poles of Belarus (Zwiazek Polakow na Bialorusi –ZPB) recognized by Poland, but not by Minsk, had taken over the house illegally (www.naviny.by, February 9). The seizure was the latest episode in the turbulent history of the ZPB, which has been under assault from the Lukashenka government for the past five years.
The Polish government reacted sharply. The Polish Ambassador to Belarus, Henryk Litwin, was recalled to Warsaw for talks (he has since returned to Minsk), while the Belarusian Ambassador to Poland, Viktar Haysyonak, was summoned to the Polish foreign ministry where Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Kremer expressed his anger (RIA Novosti, February 9). The Polish foreign ministry also requested discussions with Belarusian Foreign Minister, Syarhey Martynau, who visited Warsaw on February 12. Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski called the recent actions against the unrecognized ZPB faction (several dozen members were arrested in late January) “repressive and intimidating” (www.thenews.pl, January 24, www.msz.gov.pl, February 10).
The Polish-born President of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, asked Minsk promptly “to cease the harassment of its Polish minority” (Narodnaya Volya, February 10). Also, the Polish Law and Justice Party, founded by Lech Kaczynski, the Polish President, and his brother Jaroslaw, currently the party chairman, called on the Polish government and the EU to introduce an economic embargo against the Belarusian authorities (Narodnaya Volya, February 11). Only two days earlier, Buzek had also chided Belarusian authorities for detaining a journalist from the Polish TV station in Minsk, Belsat, after security officers had burst into an apartment in which members of the network were staying (Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, February 10).
However, the crackdown continued. On February 16, riot police arrested 24 opposition activists who were preparing for a rally in support of the ZPB in Minsk’s Kastrichnitskaya Square (www.charter97.org, February 16). About 40 members of the unrecognized branch of the union were arrested with three receiving prison sentences of five days. The Polish Sejm in response has adopted a resolution lambasting the Belarusian authorities for their treatment of their Polish minority (www.naviny.by, February 17).
According to official information, the formation of the ZPB derived from the creation of a State Committee on Religions and Nationalities under the Council of Ministers in 1997. Subsequently, 124 public associations were formed, consisting of 25 national minorities, the largest of which was the ZPB with 75 registered primary organizations and 17 “Polish Houses.” In 1999, there were around 396,000 Poles resident in Belarus (4 percent of the population), of which 74 percent lived in Hrodna region. When the ZPB was founded in October 1990, its goal was to resuscitate the Polish language and culture in Belarus with the financial support of the Polish government. Today it has about 22,000 members (http://www.belarusembassy.org/humanitarian/union_of_poles_in_belarus.htm).
In March 2005, when the ZPB held its 6th Congress, the Belarusian government intervened. It declared that the election of the new leader, Andzelika Borys (she replaced Tadeusz Kruczkowski), had taken place with “gross violations” and that the justice ministry refused to recognize it as valid. It demanded a repeat election after riot police had stormed the Polish House in Hrodna (EDM, Aug 2, 2005; www.charter97.org, February 9). Subsequently two branches of the ZPB emerged: the original under Borys (ZPB-B) and a pro-official Minsk version, led by Stanislav Siemaszko (ZPB-S). In March 2009, the ZPB-B held its 7th Congress in Hrodna, with 150 attendees and reelected Borys (Polskie Radio, March 16, 2009). The Lukashenka regime again withheld recognition.
The Ivyanets episode was a replay of events at the higher leadership level. On January 21, the ZPB-B chapter unanimously reelected Teresa Sobol as the local chair and manager of the house. However, simultaneously, at the nearby House of Culture, the ZPB-S, with Siemaszko and other pro-government leaders in attendance, elected Stanislav Buraczewski the chair of the same chapter. After changing the locks at the Polish House on February 8, the militia escorted Buraczewski into the building (www.charter97.org, February 9).
The authorities have accused Sobol of stealing leadership funds in 2004 and no longer recognize her as the branch leader (www.naviny.by, February 9). Similarly, they have also frequently harassed Borys –on one occasion in late 2006, confiscating her passport upon allegedly discovering white powder in her car, thereby preventing her from attending a meeting in Strasbourg (International League for Human Rights, November 30-December 6, 2006).
The goal of Belarusian authorities is to silence what it calls the “unofficial” ZPB by forcing it into a merger with the more compliant wing. The head of the ZPB-S legal unit, Eduard Kolosha, has called for an “open discussion” and a merger from the grassroots level (Belarusian Telegraph Agency, February 5). Poland, however, continues to support the faction led by Borys. The house in Ivyanets was evidently in a shambles before it was bought and renovated with funds from an NGO supported by the Polish government, Wspolnota Polska (Polish Community) (www.naviny.by, February 9).
In supporting a cultural association, Poland has no political agenda. But the Lukashenka regime has perceived the ZPB since 2005 as a “fifth column” that maintains close relations with the Belarusian opposition. Subsequently, it has tried to destroy the “unofficial” wing and its branches by discrediting its leaders, while also undermining foreign media networks, such as Belsat. Such crude and heavy-handed methods are unlikely to improve relations either with Belarus’ western neighbor, or the EU.