April 4, 2021

Belarus: crackdown on Polish activists brings historical tensions to light

Belarus: crackdown on Polish activists brings historical tensions to light

While the world watches the ongoing military escalation at the Russian-Ukrainian border,  two other Eastern European nations are waging their own dispute over identity and heritage. Polish President Andrzej Duda has called on the United Nations Security Council to step in on behalf of Poles living in Belarus. An aide to Duda told Polish state news agency PAP that “the Polish minority has become an innocent victim of persecution in Belarus.”

Like Ukraine, Belarus has regions where ethnicities stretch across borders with her neighbors. Poles are the third-largest ethnic group in Belarus after Belarussians and Russians, making up approximately 3 percent of the population. And while this number may seem small, its concentration near the border with Poland – a pattern repeated in many European countries – gives this small minority more weight. According to the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, between 300,000 and 1.1 million residents of Belarus consider themselves Polish. Linguistic and cultural similarities between Poles and Belorussians somewhat blur the distinction, but the Polish diaspora in Belarus generally identifies with its heritage just as fiercely as Poles in their homeland. The largest diaspora organization – the Union of Poles in Belarus– claims to have more than 20,000 members.

In general, it is Belorussians who travel to Poland, not the other way around, especially if they can prove Polish ancestry and qualify for the Polish Card – a residence document which Poland uses to entice its large diaspora to return home. For their part, most Poles in Belarus have lived there since at least the period between the World Wars. When the newly-independent Second Polish Republic repelled a Soviet annexation attempt in 1921, it acquired the western half of the territory historically called “Belorussia” or “White Russia.” Polish authorities encouraged, then forced, a process of Polonization in this territory, disenfranchising the majority population made up of Belorussians and Russians. This led to some Belorussians identifying more with their Polish ancestry, but made many others resentful of Polish influence.

Today, the average Belorussian and the average Pole get along fine. For example, there are very few reports of interethnic violence. Even if some tensions remain, most anti-Polish discrimination largely comes from the government. The Belorussian state is hostile towards all existing and potential opposition groups, shutting down both the liberal opposition and nationalist movements that draw on historical connections to either Poland or Russia. Most recently, authorities arrested Andżelika Borys, head of the Union of Poles in Belarus. The official reason was that the Union was holding events commemorating Polish anti-Soviet partisans during the Second World War. It was this arrest prompted the Polish government’s demands for the UN involvement. It also demonstrates how competing historical memories continue to cause strife in Belarus. The Polish partisans in World War II were fighting against Soviet forces that had helped tear Poland in half in 1939. But Soviet troops – overwhelmingly Russians, with many Belorussians – went on to defeat the German invasion and are almost universally seen as heroes who protected their homeland. Can Belorussians venerate their ancestors while also recognizing Polish grievances? Long term, that question may be important, but the Belarusian government seems more concerned about enforcing control than about ideology, and likely arrested Andżelika Borys and other Polish activists simply for being a thorn in their side.

The dispute between Poland and Belarus is nowhere near as heated as the civil war in Eastern Ukraine. But it adds to a trend of Eastern European nations acting more aggressively to assert heritage-based claims, and shows the constant potential for conflict in regions where ethnicities overlap national borders.