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Belarus in Focus 2011

15 Nov

Kiryl Kascian, Transitions Online (Belarus)

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Does Poland Really Know Belarus?

Yet although the article, published on 2 February in the prominent daily Rzeczpospolita, could be little more than a show of rivalry between different wings of the Polish political elite, it offers clues as to why Polish policy toward Belarus failed under both Tusk and Kaczyński before him.

Poland, which borders Belarus and has strong historical and cultural ties with this EU neighbor country, has become one of the most active proponents of the Belarusian question in the EU. Kaczyński’s article supposes that Polish policy toward Belarus during both his and Donald Tusk’s governments should be seen in this broader context, and it  seems reasonable to follow him in this.

Kaczynski states that Polish diplomacy’s engagement during the recent presidential elections in Belarus ended catastrophically because it was based not on the real situation but rather on an unprofessional and wishful approach. In the former prime minister’s view Polish diplomacy opted to ally with the Germans in supporting the pro-Russian candidate Uladzimir Niakliaeu, although he had neither any hope of becoming president nor wide support among the Belarusian opposition. He explains this choice as a favor to Moscow, which did not wish to see a too pro-European candidate competing against Alyaksandr Lukashenka. According to Kaczyński, this explains why the most popular figure in the Belarusian opposition, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, failed to win EU support and withdrew from the presidential campaign. Kaczyński raises questions about the quality of the analyses applied by the Poles and whether there might have been any Russian support for this strand of Warsaw’s diplomacy.

Kaczyński argues that Russia won against Sikorski and the entire EU and thus achieved all its goals: to eliminate the pro-Western candidate Milinkevich, reach consensus with Lukashenka, increase his dependence on Moscow, and push Belarus away from Europe. Moreover, he believes, the Polish Foreign Ministry learned nothing from its own mistakes and still treats the Belarusian opposition and  Polish minority groups in Belarus not as equal partners but as petitioners. This not only deprives Polish diplomats of contacts and knowledge, it can be taken as an admission that all the endeavors of Polish diplomacy (abolition of visa fees for Belarusians, banning certain officials from entering Poland, etc.) are more public relations than real actions.

Kaczyński believes that the sanctions the EU had previously imposed on the Belarusian regime (entry bans and removal of trade preferences) had no real effect. In order to make the regime feel the sanctions, a trade embargo could be an option, he says, noting that Russia applies mainly energy sanctions and thus strengthens its presence in Belarus.

Tusk’s predecessor also questions the EU’s Eastern Partnership, partly conceived by the Tusk government as a way to reach out to Eastern European and Caucasus states. In the case of Belarus, the program was just a misfire, since it did not offer financial benefits to solve Belarus’ economic problems and lessen the country’s dependence on Russia. Moreover, he argues, the Eastern Partnership was overhyped and the added value of its declared “civilizatory benefit” in the eyes of Lukashenka’s regime approached zero. Hence the policy of carrot and stick offered to Belarus by the “virtual-bureaucratic” program failed because thestick was too soft while the carrot was rotten. The level of trust of Belarusian civil society toward Poland built up during his government has dropped drastically under the current government, which along with the EU has stepped up contacts with Belarusian officials and made it harder for ordinary Belarusians to cross into Poland, Kaczyński says.

The article devotes particular attention to the situation of the Polish minority in Belarus, a community that he says faces repression by the Belarusian authorities. He depicts the attempts by the Polish Foreign Ministry under Sikorski to end the division within the Belarusian Union of Poles — by merging two organizations or by registering the wing of it that official Minsk does not recognize as a separate organization – as a retreat that threatens the unity of Poles in Belarus. Similarly, he describes the complications with the issuance of the “Pole’s card” (a document affirming an individual’s Polish nationality that can be issued tocitizens of former Soviet republics who do not have Polish citizenship) as a “paralysis of Polish diplomacy.”

Hence, Polish policies toward Belarus under the Tusk government, according to Kaczyński, may be viewed as a series of defeats. He argues that a main task for Polish foreign policy must be to help guide Eastern Europe’s future, and policy on Belarus plays a key role in this. In Kaczyński’s view, Polish diplomacy should as soon as possible re-evaluate its aims, eliminate its bureaucratic approach, and take into account the needs of Belarusian  civil society as it seeks to recoup its political losses.

Each of Kaczyński’s main points requires a closer look.

Indeed, Kaczyński is right that Niakliaeu was a weak candidate. Even though Niakliaeu is a relatively wellknown poet, his name recognition prior to the electoral campaign had hardly gone beyond his image as a writer. It seems that the strategy of Niakliaeu’s proponents was to create a Belarusian variant of Václav Havel, a democratically oriented humanist intellectual who consolidated a nation. This approach was vain from the beginning. First, Havel’s example as a post-communist  national leader remains unique in Central and Eastern Europe. Second, even at the Belarusian level Niakliaeu cannot be regarded as a top-level figure or icon either amongthe humanist intellectuals or nationwide. Third, there is a certain distance between Belarusian society itself and theBelarusian humanist intellectuals; and Niakliaeu was not a personality to eliminate or close this gap. As a potential candidate, Milinkevich enjoyed considerably higher public recognition and his run for president in 2006 could have been a considerable advantage in the 2010 campaign.

The strict division into pro-European or pro-Russian orientation that some political analysts apply may be seen as an amplified echo of the Cold War approach. Such an approach leaves Belarusian opposition politicians almost no room for domestic or external maneuver and evidently allows Lukashenka to represent himself to Belarusian society as the sole guarantor of the country’s independence, stability, and prosperity. We can see this kind of thinking displayed by Kaczyński and his political opponents in thecurrent Polish Foreign Ministry alike: both see Belarus as sitting within a certain sphere of interest — Russian, Polish, or EU. Yet, during its 16 years, the Lukashenka regime has become self-sufficient and relatively flexible to foreign challenges. While trembling before Russia over the Belarusian question, Poland and the EU are indeed simply defeating themselves, as Kaczyński points out. At the same time, it is not Moscow but official Minsk that holds the keys to the country. Poland’s and the EU’s failure in their policiestoward Belarus will continue until they acknowledge that this Eastern European country is a separate unit of their foreign policy.

The second key point in Kaczyński’s critique concerns the Eastern Partnership, which in the virtual absence of other options became the driver of the Belarus-EU relationship. The initiative itself was practically the first real attempt by the EU to filter these countries out of the context of the Russian sphere of interests, some 18 years after the six former Soviet republics appeared on the political map. Both the Belarusian government and civil society showed considerable interest in this program. For official Minskit was seen as a results-oriented cooperation framework, “based on common democratic values, but whose scope goes far beyond these values,” as Foreign Minister Syarhei Martynau wrote in an article in April 2010, that serves “the pragmatic interests of all partner states and the Wider Europe in general by fostering sustainable development, economic and social modernization in this part of the continent.”

There is serious reason to doubt, however, that EU members not from Central or Eastern Europe or the Baltic Sea region will contribute equally to the development of the partnership. The priorities chosen by the Spanish and Belgian EU presidencies can be seen as significantly rolling back the Eastern Partnership gains made during the Czech and Swedish presidencies. We may well share Kaczyński’s denunciation of the initiative as a virtual partnership empty of real content, an instrument that meets neither the needs of the Belarusian regime nor the demands of civil society.

In Belarusian-Polish relations, the minority issue is probably the aspect most often misinterpreted by Polish elites. Where the Polish minority could be brought into service as a bridge in relations, instead politicians and the media typically portray them as harassed and repressed. The potential of the Belarusian minority in Poland is never   considered. In his article Kaczyński charges Lukashenka

with disrespecting and violating the rights of the Polish minority. Relations with Minsk have been strained by the regime’s attempt to split up the official association representing ethnic Poles. Without going into this complex matter, it seems that Kaczyński defines as Belarusian Poles those who belong to the “illegal” Union of Poles and the pressure of the Belarusian authorities on this

group’s members is interpreted as repression of the Polish minority as a whole. This argument represents a blatant misconception of the difference between the collective rights of minorities and individual rights of people to freely declare their ethnicity on the one hand and the right for freedom of assembly on the other hand. One of the presidential candidates, economist Yaraslau Ramanchuk, is an ethnic Pole who openly speaks about it and is not associated with the “official” Union of Poles. His electorate,

however, went far beyond the support of ethnic Poles.

A more useful approach to this issue was suggested by Waldemar Tomaszewski, an ethnic Polish member of the European Parliament from Lithuania,, who argues that the Polish minority question should be seen as part of a much broader human-rights problem with the restriction of the freedom of assembly in Belarus. Instead, Kaczyński portrays the quashing of this right in Belarus as an interethnic conflict and vehemently condemns attempts by Poland and the Belarusian authorities to settle the conflict through the merger of the two ethnic Polish associations.

Here we see the workings of the many stereotypes and misconceptions that blot Polish relations toward Belarus and considerably influence Warsaw’s foreign policy and Polish public opinion. On the European stage, Belarus is still seen through the prism of Moscow’s influence, while problems with the freedom of assembly there are depicted as an interethnic conflict. The contacts and experiences of Belarusian civil society are barely considered, nor the potential for cooperation with official Minsk. Neither the Polish minority in Belarus nor the Belarusian community in Poland is offered the role of potential negotiator.

The crucial misstep in the Polish attitude toward Belarus is the tendency of the Polish elites to see the eastern neighbor through the prism of Lukashenka-thedictator while disregarding the people’s side. Last year’s elections showed that both Poland and the EU will deal with Lukashenka for another five years. The Belarusian president still retains considerable support in the society and no opposition candidates could achieve comparable results at the polls under the current ”rules of the game.” However, during the last couple of years the Belarusian government has shown its readiness for cooperation with the EU and has allowed a limited relaxation of its grip. In this we can see the possibility, under the current regime, for development and maturation of civil society and theonset of change emerging from within. It is naïve to expect an Egyptian scenario from Belarusians. It is more than reasonable, however, to use the existing opportunities and not to isolate the country (and thus first of all its people) with any restrictions on cooperation and dialogue.

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