Belarus-Poland relations: minorities caught in-between

Belarus-Poland relations: minorities caught in-between

The Belarusian authorities, in response to recently rising diplomatic tensions with Poland, have initiated repressive legislation which has targeted civil society and protestors. But in so doing, they have also affected national minorities in Belarus, writes Hanna Vasilevich

A second wave of conflict between Belarus and Poland

Tensions between Belarus and Poland date back to 2005. Conflict in the Union of Poles in Belarus, which represents the country’s Polish minority, split the Union into two rival organisations. Belarusian authorities recognise one, Polish authorities the other. As a result, the Polish minority became the most politicised minority in Belarus. It also took centre stage in diplomatic negotiations between the two states.

Lukashenka’s regime always saw Poland as a major supporter of the Belarusian opposition. Following the 2020 presidential elections, he enforced a brutal crackdown on protesters. Thereafter, Lukashenka portrayed Poland as an enemy of Belarusian independence and territorial integrity, and the mastermind behind the protests.

On 28 February 2021, representatives of Poland’s Consulate General took part in an event arranged by local Polish minority organisations. The event commemorated the so-called ‘cursed soldiers‘ who, after World War II, were suppressed for resisting Communist rule. The Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially condemned their participation. Confrontation between Belarus and Poland escalated.

In 1946, these cursed soldiers murdered approximately 80 ethnic Belarusians in the region of Podlasie. In the collective memory of autochthonous Orthodox Belarusians, therefore, the soldiers are remembered with disdain. Belarusian authorities considered the incident to be genocide.

How a Polish national minority became the centre of the conflict

Representatives of the Polish national minority became a third party in the conflict. In mid-March, the Investigative Committee and the Main Directorate for Combating Organised Crime and Corruption searched Polish minority organisations’ premises in Brest. They also searched the houses of some of their activists.

As a result, the Prosecutor General’s Office opened a criminal investigation into the actions of a group of individuals who, it claimed, were inciting ethnic and religious hatred, and sowing discord on the basis of ethnic, religious, linguistic and other differences. The Prosecutor General also accused the group of seeking to restore Nazism.

the Prosecutor General opened a criminal investigation into the actions of a group it claimed were inciting ethnic and religious hatred, and seeking to restore Nazism

Later, the Brest city prosecutor’s office sent a statement demanding liquidation of the ‘Polish School’. It claimed the School was guilty of gross violations of the law, causing damage to the state and public interests. On 19 April, the Economic Court of the Brest region ruled to liquidate the Polish School by 19 July 2021.

Law enforcement also checked other Polish minority educational centres in Hrodna, Baranavičy and Vaŭkavysk. It searched, and detained, leaders of the illegal Union of Poland organisations. It confiscated office equipment, documentation and other materials, and shut down Polish-language media outlets.

Suppressing Polish minority civic activism?

Professor Eugeniusz Mironowicz is a prominent member of the Belarusian minority in Poland. He believes Belarusian authorities used commemoration day to justify limiting and controlling Polish institutions’ activities in Belarus. According to Mironowicz, Poland is well aware of the actions of ‘cursed solder’ Romuald Rajs. But Polish organisations claim they never considered Rajs a hero, and did not mention him in their commemorations.

The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs views these restrictive measures as persecution of Belarus’ Polish minority. The Ministry says that detentions and arrests of Polish minority activists are tantamount to the obliteration of Polish identity. It claims they contradict the international obligations of Belarus to protect national minorities, and the bilateral Polish-Belarusian obligations to protect the Polish minority. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, also condemned Belarusian authorities’ actions.

In response, Poland introduced temporary sanctions against Belarusian officials involved in actions against Polish minority representatives.

Belarusian authorities refuse to recognise persecution of ethnic Poles, claiming ‘Poles from Belarus are Belarusian citizens’

Belarusian reactions became yet harsher. Authorities even detained journalists who used statements such as ‘persecution of the Polish minority’. On 14 April, Belarusian authorities arrested Andrzej Pisalnik, a journalist and activist allied with the unrecognised Union of Poles. Belarusian authorities interpreted his comments as ‘incitement to ethnic hatred’.

Belarusian authorities refuse to recognise the persecution against Belarus’ Polish minority. They claim ‘Poles from Belarus are Belarusian citizens‘ and thus that authorities ‘always respected the rights of all minorities’.

Curtailing freedoms in Belarus

The conflict has caused relations between the two countries to deteriorate. The Belarusian government also used it to justify legislative initiatives and amendments restricting civil society and the right to peaceful protest.

Several weeks ago, a legislative initiative ‘On preventing rehabilitation of Nazism‘, was proposed. On 16 April 2021, it was adopted. Human rights activists consider this legislative initiative part of the authorities’ strategy to neutralise protest in Belarus.

conflict between Belarus and Poland was used to justify repressive legislation, and to scrutinise freedom of speech

Deputies of the House of Representatives (the Belarusian parliament’s lower house) adopted another draft law, ‘On the amendment of the Code of the Republic of Belarus on Education‘. This law would control educational activities, including language courses, along with scouting and other similar organisations managed and financed from abroad.

The government of Belarus has used the escalation of conflict between Belarus and Poland to justify another round of repressive legislative initiatives.

These initiatives will further restrict the activities of civil society organisations, and will scrutinise freedom of speech and assembly in Belarus. Those hit particularly hard by these laws include independent civil society organisations and national minority media outlets.

Belarus is an example of how international bilateral relations can have a direct impact on the livelihoods of national citizens, a situation from which no one gains.

Hanna Vasilevich is Lecturer at Europa-Universität Flensburg and Chair of the Board at the International Centre for Ethnic and Linguistic Diversity Studies, Prague.

Note: This article was originally published by The Loop: ECPR’s Political Science Blog.

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