In the year 2012 the same problems that appeared in Polish-Belarusian relations after the Minsk–Brussels dialogue broke up in December 2010 remained topical. As Poland was particularly active and persistent in the activities of imposing sanctions against the Belarusian regime, its image of the top enemy hindering Belarus – EU dialogue renewal only strengthened. At the same time Belarusian authorities ignored the EU proposal of dialogue on Modernization that stipulates support for reforms in Belarus. The analysis of propaganda statements allows speculating that this attitude could have formed due to the fact that it had been drafted in Warsaw. Another problem, between the Belarusian civil society and the Polish authorities, was caused by information leaks about Poland’s financing Belarusian NGOs and Polish media’s insinuations about their “improper” behavior in Ales Bialatski’s case. As ever, effective economic cooperation persisted, despite political relations.
- Political relations remain critical since the presidential election in December 2010; Poland strengthened its image of the Belarusian regime’s key enemy;
- The Belarusian side blocked dialogue on Modernization initiated by Warsaw;
- A high level of bilateral trade; Polish investors show interest in placing capital in Belarus;
- Border trade shows positive dynamics.
Persistent “cold war” in political relations
Already the start of the year 2012 demonstrated that Polish-Belarusian relations are far from leaving the deadlock. In February, the national Belarusian TV broadcasted an anti-Polish material about Poland’s authorities conjectural financing of Belarusian opposition. It accused Warsaw of supporting commando groups that presumably were to destabilize the situation in Belarus. At the same time Belarusian authorities denied entry to a group of Polish parliamentarians that intended to meet with representatives of the non-recognized Union of Poles in Belarus. The tension reached its peak on 28 February, when Belarusian authorities urged RP ambassador Leszek Szarepka to leave Belarus and recalled the head of Belarus embassy in Poland. EU envoy to Belarus Maira Moira received the same “proposal.” This was Alexander Lukashenko’s reaction to the decision of the Council of the European Union to widen visa sanctions against representatives of the Belarusian regime. Although all ambassadors of the EU countries accredited in Minsk also left the country in solidarity, it was clear that the Belarusian authorities held a grudge against the Polish authorities and the diplomats that represent them. In March, the weekly SB. Belarus Segodnya published a short article titled Human phobia, accusing the Polish Foreign Minister in political adventurism and hostility toward Belarus. On the other hand, the RP authorities, supported by some Polish media, in return criticized actions of their eastern neighbor. All in all, the ambassador’s departure reminded everybody that relations between Minsk and Warsaw are in deep crisis, which sometimes resembles books and movies’ episodes of the “cold war” between the USSR and the West.
Recurrent fundamental controversies between the two countries are the key source of this crisis. On the one hand, Poland was the head of the group of the EU countries backing sterner sanctions against the Belarusian regime and therefore blocking the way out of international isolation in the most convenient way - without political reforms. On the other hand, Belarus was a difficult neighbor for Warsaw, although requiring promotion of bilateral and EU–Belarus relations, but only on the lower levels, because the regime was not ready for any concessions in fundamental for Poland issues - releasing political prisoners. In other words, Minsk expected to renew the dialogue and escape sanctions without political liberalization and Warsaw insisted on the latter as the crucial condition for improving relations. As a result, the both sides failed to develop confidence in each other. The atmosphere of mistrust was deepened by the surviving negative stereotypes, especially on the Belarusian side, that formed as a result of the common historical development of the neighboring countries.
Despite little hope for mutual understanding Polish diplomats still searched for means improve both Polish-Belarusian and Minsk–Brussels relations. Therefore, in early 2012 Warsaw initiated the European dialogue on Modernization with Belarusian society that was launched as an EU project in March. The essential goal of this program was to involve Belarus into closer cooperation with the EU countries by transferring experience in reforms of different spheres: from social security and healthcare to increasing the role of the Internet in administration and public services. The program was to be implemented through seminars organized in the EU member states. The first event took place on 16–17 May 2012 in Warsaw with a focus on privatization.
Due to visa sanctions the organizers limited themselves to inviting mid- and lower-level functionaries, but Belarusian authorities totally ignored the event and Belarus was represented by the opposition, NGOs and independent journalists only. The Belarusian TV1 channel broadcasted a feature titled Pseudo modernism criticizing the dialogue on Modernization with the keynote that in May, under disguise of a seminar, the opposition and the Polish authorities met to “divide Belarusian enterprises.” As an argument, they distorted the opinion of the Deputy Foreign Minister Katarzyna Pelczynska-Nalecz about the inevitability of privatization and the interest of Polish investors in it. As a result, mistrust and hostility reigned in Belarusian-Polish relations once more.
The only positive moment in Minsk–Warsaw relations in 2012 was the convention of the non-recognized Union of Poles in Belarus. On 18 November, without any significant obstacles from the Belarusian authorities, the delegates elected a new chairperson Mechyslau Yaskevich, ex-chairperson of Hrodna UPB organization.
Controversies around support for civil society
Similar to 2011, a significant problem for Belarusian-Polish relations was the issue of regular support of Belarusian NGOs. In 2012 tension developed, not in relations with the Belarusian authorities but rather between the Polish Foreign Ministry and the Belarusian civil society as its beneficiary. In autumn a number of events stirred lively discussions, mainly in Poland, about applying exclusive conditions of transferring financial support and implementation of projects with the Belarusian third sector because of Belarus specific conditions, where receiving foreign help without sanctions of the authorities is illegal.
The Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita published an article with an opinion that already back in 2011, before his arrest, the human rights activist Ales Bialatski made a request of Polish diplomats not to release details of his financial records in Poland. According to the newspaper, Bialatski was to receive assurances of this, but, as we know, information was still released and he was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison. This was possible, among other things, because of the information released by the Polish side. At the same time, the media reported a leak on a public webpage from the Polish Foreign Ministry about its financing of Belarusian organizations. Although it is still not clear if the information about Bialatski’s request was true or how the leak became possible, there is little doubt that these incidents are going to work out negatively on cooperation between the Belarusian civil society and Poland’s authorities.
Economic cooperation and border trading
Economy is traditionally a sphere of bilateral effective cooperation despite the often disastrous political climate. The bilateral trade in 2012 practically amounted to the result of 2011, or USD 3 bn, which is a good result regarding the global economic crisis. Polish investors demonstrate significant interest in placing capital in Belarus. During the October 16th Polish-Belarusian economic forum in Minsk Dobrasusedstva 2012 (‘Neighborhood 2012’) the participants negotiated a number of investment projects worth EUR 400 million that are to be realized in the next 3 to 4 years. In 2012 the amount of Polish investments could have reached USD 100 million.
But the greatest phenomenon of the Belarusian-Polish relations is the dynamic development of border trading. The reason for that is the significant difference (in favor of Poland) in prices for a number of goods, including TVs and electric household appliances, food, construction materials and clothes. Belarusians were so interested in shopping in Poland that they spent over EUR 600 million there. A similar volume of trade was registered on the Ukrainian and Russian sections of the border, where small border traffic is effective, facilitating locals in crossing the border. One can assume that if the agreement on local border traffic of 2010 had come into effect, the profits of Polish shops would have been double as much. Therefore, the probable greater outflow of hard currency might be the reason why the Belarusian authorities block the implementation of this agreement.
The year 2012 brought no change in the strained and tense relations between Belarus and Poland. It became once again obvious that different understanding of mutual relations and values is a significant, or even insurmountable, barrier. Moreover, the long-standing crisis of confidence, traditional for official relations, began to show more and more in cooperation between the Polish authorities and the Belarusian civil society. The expectations that the relatively successful economic cooperation could become the basis for building-up good political relations failed. The lack of confidence sometimes developed into open hostility, absence of understanding lead to stagnation in Polish-Belarusian relations in 2012, and there are no signs that this mischievous situation is about to improve.