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A minority under siege?

Last update - Thursday, December 11, 2008, 12:49 By Catherine Reilly

Controversies over the treatment of Belarusian Poles brought Poland and Belarus to the brink of severing diplomatic ties in 2005. CATHERINE REILLY visits Minsk and Grodno to gauge whether a possible warming in Belarusian-EU relations heralds hope for Belarus’s Polish communities

THE HEADQUARTERS of Belarus’s Polish union is engulfed in darkness as evening descends on Grodno, the picturesque northwest Belarusian city which lies close to both Poland and Lithuania. Three years ago this homely, innocuous-looking building was the focal point of a dispute which made global headlines, even flashing across TV sets in Japan.

On 27 July 2005, special forces officers stormed the building and removed unarmed members of the Polish union during a wider dispute which saw Belarus and Poland expel each other’s diplomats and almost sever diplomatic ties.

“There were 20 to 30 people inside and they were dragged out,” says Andrzej Poczobut, Belarus correspondent with major Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, as we drive past the building. “After that, for half a year, police guards were protecting the building.”
Poczobut is a member of the independent Polish union which sprang from the affair, and which is outlawed by the Belarusian government. The independent union says the dispute was started by the Belarusian government when the original union’s newly elected chairperson, Andżelika Borys, wouldn’t pledge her ‘co-operation’ to the KGB state security service. The government thereafter installed its own ‘puppet’ union of Poles, the union says.
Belarus’s authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko alleged that the whole affair was a ploy to rabble support against his rule. “The Poles are acting on orders from overseas,” he said. “Our country’s citizens, including Poles, will never be cannon fodder for either Warsaw or Washington.”

There are now two Polish associations in Belarus – one recognised by Belarus, the other by Poland. Members of the latter group say they have been harassed by authorities, but recently have noticed an easing-off as the government seeks to warm its relationship with the EU (following energy price hikes from Russia).

The union’s headquarters in Grodno remains occupied by the government-aligned group, but on this chilly winter’s evening, the only discernable presence is the anguished, sculptured face of Adam Mickiewicz, the great Polish Romantic poet. His statue exudes a guard-like quality in front of the building on Dzerzhinsky Street, so named after the founder of the Bolshevik secret police which became the Soviet KGB.

A STATE OFFICIAL who exudes a genuine enthusiasm for his job is not the norm, but Vladimir Lameko seems to be such a person.  As vice-chairman of the Minsk-based State Committee on Religions and Nationalities, which sits under the government’s Council of Ministers, Lameko is a significant figure in the management of Belarus’s ethnic and religious diversity.

The population has a high proportion of ethnic minorities – nearly 20 per cent – but it’s a diversity that can’t really be gauged though the naked eye. Walk the streets of the Belarusian capital, for example, and you’ll see very few ethnically diverse faces beyond the natives. Most of its minorities, so to speak, are Belarusian citizens with very strong ethnic ties to Russia, Poland and Ukraine in particular. Many wthin this category define themselves as ‘Russian’, ‘Polish’, ‘Ukrainian’ and so on.

The country’s Poles, for example, are predominantly not Polish citizens but ethnic Poles whose families lived in present-day western Belarus when it was part of Poland. After World War II, a large part of Poland’s eastern territories were incorporated into the Soviet Union, which collapsed into 15 independent states in 1991. Officially, the number of Poles in Belarus stands at around 400,000, but unofficial estimates veer towards one million. Of the official number, almost 300,000 live in the Grodno region in the country’s west.

“We do not call them minorities because the word ‘minority’ also has some negative meaning,” interjects Lameko, who adds that his committee has worked with the OSCE to produce a book which details the country’s diversity (Multinational Belarus, in Belarusian, Russian and English).  “This book tells the history of the different nationalities, how they came to Belarus, the cultural diversity and values that are an integral part of the culture of our country,” he says, handing over what is a well-written, readable tome.

The country’s turbulent history has ensured that a spirit of acceptance is highly valued, Lameko suggests. “The tragic history of our country is caused by the fact that it is located on the edge of the interests of east and west. Every third citizen of this country died during the Second World War. On our territory, east was fighting west, west was fighting east; even the Swedish people were fighting Ukraine and were going through Belarus and backwards. Suddenly we had lots of very hard years but we managed to survive.

“And for centuries we’ve been co-operating and dealing with multiple nationalities here in this country, without paying attention to the shape of the eyes or to the colour of the skin, and we are proud of this.” Belarus has a policy of “equal rights”, no matter a person’s ethnicity, says Lameko, and its legislation “totally corresponds” to international standards and requirements on human rights.

TWO MINORITY representatives who join Lameko for our meeting – MieczysÅ‚aw Łysy, head of the Minsk regional branch of the government-aligned Polish union, and Vitalija PalubaitytÄ—-Kolesnikova, head of the Lithuanian Association in Belarus – sound their agreement. The latter explains that there are some villages in Belarus in which Lithuanian is the spoken language, and that two schools exist where Lithuanian is the language of learning (one is funded by the Lithuanian government). Weekend schools and cultural events consume the association’s time.

In respect of Polish, the government of Belarus pays the salaries of teachers in two schools – both in the Grodno region – where Polish is the language of learning, and funds classes in schools in other areas. The overall impression, judging from such accounts, is that ethnicity – and support for various cultures – is not a controversial issue in Belarus. “I go to Poland very often and dislike it when the situation of Poles in Belarus is depicted from only one side,” says Łysy. “I agree with Vladimir Borisevich [Lameko], who said that the first criteria here is not nationality [ethnicity]. Here, they pay attention to the personal qualities and professional qualities of the person.”

As recently as 30 September 2008, however, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed to Metro Éireann that it believes its ethnic brethren are suppressed in Belarus.  “We do not have the conviction that the rights of the Polish minority in Belarus are being respected by Lukashenko’s regime,” read the statement. “In opposite, after 2005, the legally elected leadership of the Union of Poles in Belarus (ZPB) was being called off by the Belarusian Ministry of Justice and outlawed.

“At that time, authorities in Minsk launched the campaign against the Polish minority, accusing this group of initiating political activity and being the Polish ‘fifth column’. Fourteen from 18 Polish homes were overtaken by a puppet ‘Union of Poles in Belarus’, which was created under the auspices of the Belarusian government. The leader of the ZPB, Andżelika Borys, has been interrogated by the KGB more than 80 times since 2005.”

The Polish government financially supports Borys’ independent union, and believes that a new approach from the Belarusian government on human rights “will bring the effect of changing their present attitude to this issue”.

BACK IN MINSK, and without any prompting, Vladimir Lameko is eager to give his view on the issue. “This is my job to know these things very well,” he says, “and I have to stress and underline that we do not have any problems with the Poles in Belarus, and their rights are not suppressed. I would like to tell you a little bit more about this situation. I know how it happened and why it happened.

“First of all, this is due to the special attitude to our country from the world. The countries of the world believe that we have a dictatorship, and in order to support their opinion that we have this, they try to find reasons to show other sides of a dictatorship, including suppression of human rights of different nationalities.” The leadership of the union of Poles, he claims, had an internal dispute and then split. “And that was very good for those people who wanted to create a bad image of the country abroad,” he continues. Such people “do not like the idea of Belarus having its independence, of Belarus going its own way”; they “want to play bad games here” and they are “also trying to manage Europe”. 

He is not going to reveal who ‘they’ are, he insists more than once. “We have to say that no matter what people think of us we’ll go our own way and we will survive. And probably today we have difficult economic times but we will survive that and develop.

“Additionally, about Andżelika Borys, she was putting her personal interests of promoting her political image in the west higher than the interests of the local Polish community… She is a comfortable figure for the west, and she travels around the world telling about ‘suppression’ of the human rights of the Poles in Belarus.

“And it even comes to very awkward and strange situations when the Polish media even starts broadcasting the news that the Polish people in Belarus live so bad that they start collecting clothing and their belongings to send to them in Belarus.” Lameko says that when he visits the Grodno region, where he comes from, he sees no split in the Polish community itself. “But if people like Andżelika Borys start going to the yards of people, to their homes, and flaming and injecting their nationality consideration, then this can cause a conflict and we are not going to let this go. We do not want this national issue to be burning so hard that it will raise an issue about the borderline.”

Yet Lameko also leaves the door slightly ajar in his approach to Borys. She is, he says, a Belarusian citizen, and as such “it is time to sit at the table of negotiation and talk”.

IT IS MORE than time to meet Andżelika Borys, the woman who Poland recognises as the true leader of ethnic Poles in Belarus, and who Belarus regularly monitors through its KGB agents. The office of the independent union is based in an old tobacco factory in Grodno; one can’t help but notice that it’s strategically placed behind Poland’s consulate in the city. Members later inform me that this gives a feeling of protection.

“Do I look like a hooligan?” enquires Borys, a soft-spoken woman who indeed bears no resemblance to such. Regularly questioned by the KGB since 2005, Borys says she’s been summonsed by the state security service for “any possible reason”, including allegedly “using rude language in public and hooliganism”. She says drugs were also planted in her car, in a case which originally focused on her, before targeting the driver of the vehicle.
She has shown a lot of courage to keep going, one Poland-based journalist familiar with the ongoing controversy later informs me.

Borys gives a radically different take on how and why the Polish union split. “In 2005, I was elected as chairperson of the union. As you probably know, everything must be controlled in Belarus, so immediately after I was elected it was suggested by the KGB that I co-operate with them as a newly elected chairman. I refused to do so.

"After that, the decision of the election was not considered legal. The government organised their election of the union of Poles – and the delegates were not even members of the union of the Poles, they were people forced to go there and participate.”

She explains that the Belarusian government is eager that the union of Poles be “very well controlled”, given the high number of ethnic Poles concentrated in western Belarus; Poland’s EU status since 2004 and the strong ties between Poland and its ethnic population across the border.

Borys did not originally campaign on a pro-EU ticket before her election victory, it is confirmed, but such a stance was prominently adopted after the confrontation with the Belarusian government began. She says her union does not actively support any oppositional politicians in Belarus, but adds that some such people do co-operate with the union. “The members of the union are people of various political views,” she maintains.
“Anywhere I am invited to, everywhere I mention that I am a citizen of the Republic of Belarus. When we visited the European Parliament in Brussels, when making a speech, I addressed Mr Pöttering and I was asking him to make the Schengen Visa cheaper for the Belarusian citizens. So I believe that our organisation will only help Belarus, not hurt it. But ideology in Belarus is standing much higher than economical interest.”

The union’s activities, supported by Poland, include organising Polish classes and methodology assistance for Polish teachers, and staging cultural events.  In July, Borys was fined Br1.4m (approximately €500) for having organised an ‘unsanctioned’ concert of the well-known Polish band Lombard in Grodno. People carrying both EU and red-and-white flags (the colours of Belarus’ opposition, and of the Polish flag) are visible in photos of the event.
Igor Bancer, editor of the union’s magazine, says “historical revisionism” in respect of Belarus’s borders is not on the union’s agenda, and that the Polish diplomats expelled from Belarus in 2005 had only been trying to help resolve, not milk, the controversy between the union and the government.

“The Belarusian authorities said that Poland was trying to build the opposition to Lukashenko. [The Polish diplomats] were made persona non grata and kicked out of Belarus: ‘These people want to break our great society using the Poles,’” he says, shaking his head.

Bancer was previously involved in oppositional politics in the 1990s, but says that he has avoided this scene since becoming active in the union of Poles. “After I joined I didn’t want to mix it. In this special situation you have to be careful.”

The independent union claims over 10,000 members countrywide (although it says that many people are afraid of the repercussions of joining) while the government-recognised group, according to its chairman Józef Łucznik, has 15,000.

Łucznik, an elderly man who seems to read a hidden intent into the most innocent of questions, informs me that the Polish government now refuses to let him into Poland, along with other prominent members of the government union, some of whom had previously won state awards from Poland.

“They cannot even visit the graves of their close relatives who are buried in Poland. They are the directors of the schools where the Polish language is taught, the workers of our newspaper Voice from the Niemen, the teachers who are a member of our organisation and even the kids who study Polish – if their teachers belong to our organisation.”
In 2007, he says, he wrote a letter to Polish prime minister Donald Tusk outlining such problems, and warned that greater supplies of more up-to-date Polish textbooks were badly needed. But he says he received no response. Poland admits that some people are banned, as a means of opposing “attempts of the Belarusian side to try to impose its own leadership” on the ethnic Poles.

“Right now, the events that we organise, and we organise lots of them, are financed by the Belarusian state,” says Łucznik, who is keen to emphasise that these are cultural, not political, events.

WHEN IT COMES to the situation of Poles in Belarus, it seems that diametrically opposed responses are a matter of course – including from the Catholic Church.
Fr Jan Kuchynski, a young but influential parish priest at Grodno’s cathedral and who himself is a Belarusian Pole, rejects the suggestion that the ethnic Polish people are suppressed. However, he confirms that Polish citizen priests are disallowed from taking up roles in Belarus because of a fear of “Polonisation”. Fr Kuchynski says the church now faces a shortage of priests.

The chaplain of the independent Polish union has a more severe description of the realities for Catholics in Belarus. Fr Aleksander Szemet, along with 16 parishioners at Our Lady of Ostrobrama in Grodno, embarked on a hunger strike in late 2006 at what they felt was long-running state obstruction towards building a church. Permission was subsequently granted by an order of the president, but Fr Szemet believes that true freedom does not exist in Belarus, and that some priests prefer to shy away from this in exchange for a quiet life.
“Many priests do not say something that can be interpreted by the authorities as something wrong,” he says, adding that he believes the government is afraid of the church’s global reach, large membership and influence. Many parishes are registered by the Catholic Church but do not have permission to build a church, and one local authority member allegedly told him that “a second Vatican” wasn’t wanted in Belarus.

“Poles are living here since everyday, they were not sent from the moon,” he says. “The Catholic Church does not do Polonisation; they do their religious duty, nothing more.”
Back at the independent union’s office, Igor Bancer remains sceptical about the possibility of real change in Belarus as a result of closer co-operation with the EU. Over a month ago, at time of writing, the independent union wrote to the National Committee on Religions and Nationalities, requesting dialogue in the context of the government’s intention to begin talks with the EU. The response is still awaited.

“This is not a real open society, there is something wired,” he says with a deep sigh. “For people born in the Soviet Union, it’s normal. We’ve got open-minded people who look forward but right now it’s bad times for them unfortunately.” He says the continuation of the “artificial reality” that marks life in Belarus never ceases to compel and disturb him. It’s “really amazing” what some people believe, he adds, referring to the one-sided reports churned out by the deeply biased state media.

On one recent night, he watched a Russian channel censored within Belarus, and saw it blank out to avoid broadcasting a skit on Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko. He has internet access and watched the skit the next day: it was just innocent comedy, he says, nothing slanderous. “I’m a realist,” he continues, “a pessimist maybe, but I don’t think the regime [will change]. The situation of Poles is part of the Belarusian reality. We are Belarusian citizens and living under the rules made by this regime. We cannot change it… we’re not here to cause some riot.”

INDEED, the 12 residents who meet me in Sopotskin, 5km from the Polish border, do not look like rioters. They are members of Borys’ union, although they do not call it that. For most of them, it is the just same union they joined over 20 years ago. Retired history teacher Tadeusz Lukutz embarks on a thorough overview of the area’s history (“He’s an historian who’s retired, so you can imagine…” jokes one of the group) and gives a run-through of the town’s ethnic composition.

“In Sopotskin, 90 to 95 per cent of the population are Poles, because Sopotskin had always been a part of Poland. After the Second World War, Poland would go back from Niemen for 20km and it would be included as part of Belarus, according to the conference that was in Crimea. In fact it is a multinational place because 10km from here is Lithuania, 5km is Poland. And here is Belarus.”   Poland is their motherland, the residents confirm, but Belarus is their “place of residence”, and Belarusians, Poles and Lithuanians live in harmony in the area. They seem proud of this.

Lukutz says that in 2005, the issue at the heart of the split of the Polish union was the Belarusian government’s need to control it. “In 2005, well, you certainly know our democracy, in inverted commas,” he begins, “it was the policy of the state that there would be no independent organisation, all the organisations would have to be under control – so you exist but you must be under control, the government must know how and what you are doing.”

The union of Poles was only involved in culture, education and arts, not politics, he says. But now they are being viewed differently. Jadviga Lukutz elaborates: “The general situation is that they treat us as if we are in politics – they believe that those people who do not follow their command are the enemies.” Working-age members can face problems in the workplace, others are sometimes followed, booked meeting rooms suddenly become ‘unavailable’. “Or if we meet for religious holidays, we meet in a forest under a tree and nearby there is always a KGB car standing nearby,” adds Lukutz.

The group begin swapping stories on the routine obstructionism they have encountered, and Mariana Ignatovich, a retired Polish language teacher, comments: “It seems to us ‘What is the problem?’ but they are afraid of everything.”
One local man, with a house next to the nearby August Channel, was the subject of particular KGB scrutiny – perhaps slightly more justified – when he painted a Polish symbol on the side of his home.  Cheslava Buzhinska recounts: “The government came to him and wondered ‘Why did you paint this? You don’t have the right.’ And he said ‘It’s my house, I can paint whatever I want.’ They wondered ‘Do you know where you live?’ And he said ‘I live in the temporarily occupied territory.’”
The residents dissolve into laughter at the man’s boldness. In their hearts, they wish that it were so, but during our conversation there are no political rallying cries.

THE BORDER with Poland is indeed so close, and there is a strange change of mood after you cross it. As European and American songs blare out on Polish radio, and familiar brands reappear on billboards and in shop windows, you ask yourself if the return of what’s ‘familiar’ is what helps you shrug off that nagging air of ‘unreality’ you experienced in Belarus, which even the individual warmth and sincerity of its people couldn’t diffuse. You come to the conclusion that the real reason is something much greater.

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