In the eight months since he was nearly toppled by huge street protests after claiming victory in a fraud-tainted election, Belarus’s authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko has never struggled to conjure up enemies. But in recent weeks, he has found a new one: Belarus’s Polish minority.
Two weeks ago, Belarusian authorities arrested five members of the local Polish community, including the head of the Union of Poles in Belarus, Andzelika Borys. Prosecutors said they had opened a criminal case against Borys and other unnamed citizens for “inciting ethnic and religious hatred”, and accused them of taking part in “illegal mass events” and actions aimed at the “rehabilitation of Nazism”.
The arrests have been accompanied by anti-Polish propaganda on state TV, as well as pressure on Polish language schools, which in recent weeks have received demands from prosecutors to provide details about their teachers and pupils, including minors. Yesterday Lukashenko launched another salvo, accusing Poland of giving support to “our fugitives and their companies” as well as to “traitors and extremists”.
“We don’t want to fight anyone, but if they treat us like they did at the end of last year and like now, they will get a smack in the face — and very hard,” he said, in an apparent reference to Poland’s criticism of the election and subsequent support for international sanctions imposed on the regime in Minsk.
The moves, which come amid a broader crackdown on independent groups as Lukashenko tries to consolidate his hold on power following last year’s protests, have drawn an angry response from Warsaw. Prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki accused Lukashenko’s regime of persecution and demanded that it stop “taking hostages”. Human rights groups have declared the detainees political prisoners.
“This is the very lowest moment” in relations between Minsk and Warsaw in recent years, said one western diplomat dealing with Belarus. “A relationship that was decent for four or five years has become unbearable just because of one man wanting to stay in power.”
Belarus’s Polish minority, which makes up at least 300,000 of the country’s 9.5m population, is a legacy of the redrawing of Europe’s borders during the turbulent first half of the 20th century. In the interwar period, the western part of what is now Belarus, including cities such as Grodno and Brest, was in Poland. But after the second world war, the territory became part of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, and, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, part of independent Belarus.
Marcin Przydacz, Poland’s deputy foreign minister, said that Lukashenko was trying to exploit this historical backdrop to conjure up a convenient “scapegoat” to explain away his domestic problems.
“From the beginning [of the protests after the election] there has been this narrative that the Polish minority has some plan together with Warsaw to recapture the territories of Grodno Oblast . . . It has nothing to do with reality,” he told the Financial Times.
“It’s this post-Soviet mentality where you want to find a reason for why things are so bad in your country. And of course it’s never bad decisions by politicians, it’s never the economic crisis, it’s always foreign agents, the fifth column, someone from abroad.”
Other observers argue that Poland’s support for the Belarusian opposition has infuriated Lukashenko. Warsaw has provided a safe harbour for opposition leaders such as Pavel Latushko. And the Polish capital is also home to Nexta, the independent media group whose Telegram channels played a crucial role in organising the huge protests against Lukashenko.
“The mere fact that Nexta still exists and works and is posting and active on Telegram and that the Polish authorities de facto protect Nexta is a major source of annoyance for the Belarusian authorities, because they love to have everything under control,” said the diplomat. “This is massively annoying them.”
Veronica Laputska, from the German Marshall Fund of the US, a think-tank, said that she thought Lukashenko could try to use the Polish minority as a way of gaining some leverage over Warsaw, and to prevent it pushing for a tougher line against his regime.
“I think on the one hand he is looking for more political prisoners with whom he can bargain, including with the Polish government, next time they speak up against him,” she said. “I think that he might also try and distract Poland . . . so that they actually have to start lobbying more for the Polish minority and not for democracy in Belarus.”
Warsaw has already imposed a travel ban on the judge who dealt with Borys’s case, and Przydacz said that anyone who was involved in “repressing innocent people will have the same answer from the Polish side”.
However, he said that a more effective way to put pressure on Lukashenko would be through multilateral action. The EU, US and UK have already imposed several rounds of sanctions on Minsk in the wake of last year’s election and crackdown. Last week the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, demanded the release of Borys and other political prisoners. Polish leaders have also called on the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and UN to address the issue.
“The more united we are as the Euro-Atlantic community, the stronger we are. So I would say that it is better to do it through international channels, to agree on sanctions and decisions not only among EU countries but also with our British, American and Canadian friends,” said Przydacz. “It will again be a test for the unity and the credibility of the EU and the western community.”