Polish-Belarusian Relations: Time of technical contacts

Anna Maria Dyner

Summary

The year 2014 did not bring a breakthrough in Polish-Belarusian relations, although compared to previous years, bilateral relations intensified at the technical level. Despite the EU’s policy of sanctions, Poland and Belarus developed mutual trade and, partially, cross-border cooperation. Still unresolved remained the issues concerning the activities of the Union of Poles in Belarus and local border traffic. On the other hand, the question of visa outsourcing was resolved. It will not be possible to return to normal neighborly relations until the Belarusian authorities release political prisoners. As a consequence, both countries are not capitalizing on the potential of their neighborhood, historical heritage and tourism development.

Trends:
Delicate warming

The year 2014, due to the events in Ukraine, was a landmark for the relations in Central and Eastern Europe. Because of Russian policy towards Ukraine (the annexation of the Crimea, the pro-Russian support for separatists in the Donbas), the European Union imposed a series of sanctions on Russia, to which Russia responded by introducing embargo on food products from the EU. However, in political terms, this situation did not have negative consequences for the relations between Belarus and individual EU member states, including Poland. On the contrary, being a good place both for Ukraine and Russia, Minsk hosted the negotiations on a ceasefire in the Ukrainian Donbas in September 2014. In this context, it is easy to get the impression that for some EU member states, Belarus gained the reputation of a stable and co-operative neighbor. Ukraine was also a major theme of the Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei’s visit to Warsaw in August.

In 2014, Poland and Belarus for the first time in many years managed to avoid major tensions in bilateral relations. The number of meetings on technical cooperation increased significantly. One of the priorities for the Polish side is historical and educational dialogue, but not only in the plane of academic debate on the common Polish-Belarusian history, but also concerning preservation of Polish memorial sites in Belarus, with particular emphasis on Kurapaty, where the remains of Polish citizens murdered by the NKVD (the so-called Belarusian Katyn list) are most likely to be resting. One of the objectives of the Polish side is therefore to facilitate exhumation at this location. During bilateral meetings on historical issues in 2014 an idea was put forward to establish a Polish-Belarusian group on history issues.

In 2014, Poland and Belarus initialed an agreement on education, and the Polish Ministry for National Education made efforts to reactivate the work of the Belarusian-Polish textbook committee, whose task is to agree on the content of textbooks for teaching history and geography. Due to the changes in the Belarusian education law it will also be necessary to regulate the further activity of two Polish schools in Belarus. Signing this agreement should therefore have a positive impact on the functioning of both of these institutions.

A positive sign for the development of relationships is information about the planned prolongation of the cross-border cooperation program ‘Poland – Belarus – Ukraine’, 1 implemented within the framework of the European Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument, for the next EU budgetary perspective, therefore up to 2020. Intensified dialogue between Belarus and the European Union on the visa regime liberalization, of which Poland is a big supporter, worked out positively on relations between Warsaw and Minsk in 2014.

As for visa facilitation, unfortunately, the Polish and Belarusian sides failed to resolve all their problems. The most important of them is the implementation of the agreement on local border traffic (LBT), which since 2010 has been being blocked by the Belarusian side. However, despite the lack of LBT, border traffic between Poland and Belarus in 2014, compared to 2013, remained virtually at the same level. Polish border services reported more than 8 million 817 thousand crossings of the Polish-Belarusian border, which accounted for approx. 20% of total passenger traffic at the Polish sections of the external EU border. 2 However, we should not expect a rapid implementation of the LBT, because it is not only for political reasons that Belarus lingers to ratify this agreement, but, first and foremost, for economic ones – the Belarusian side fears increased outflow of capital to Poland from the western districts due to Belarusians’ numerous and frequent shopping tours.

Another problem in the sphere of bilateral relations, which failed to be resolved, is the lack of consent of Belarus to increase the number of personnel at Polish consular sections. However, the work of Polish consulates should be facilitated by the agreement signed by Poland and Belarus on commencing visa outsourcing centers in Belarus – they are to be established in Minsk, Mahiliou, Homiel, Brest, Baranavicy, Pinsk, Hrodna and Lida. Streamlining procedures for issuing visas is important all the more so that over 50% of Schengen visas issued to Belarusians are issued by the Polish consuls (in 2014 there were over 400 thousand visas).

2014 was another year when the issues concerning the activities of the Union of Poles in Belarus (UPB) failed to be resolved. Activists of the UPB, which is not recognized by Minsk, are still subject to constant checks both by the police and tax authorities, and their activities are likely to be penalized. The Belarusian authorities did nothing to legitimize the organization recognized only by Warsaw, while the Polish authorities, due to the policy of the Belarusian partner, do not support the pro-regime UPB.

There also remain issues in the legal and regulatory spheres, e. g. signing agreements on the maintenance of bridges and the navigation section of the Augustow Canal on the Polish-Belarusian state border, which, among others, would have a positive impact on the development of tourism cooperation.

We must admit, however, that in terms of developing technical relations between Belarus and the European Union Poland has become one of the most devoted advocates of Minsk. It focused mainly on the visa liberalization dialogue, and all indications are that the relevant agreement will have been signed between Brussels and Minsk before the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga. Poland also supports Belarus in its efforts to join the World Trade Organization.

Economic relations: Fighting against sanctions

The political crisis between the EU and Russia had a negative influence not only on Russian economics, but also on the economic situation in Belarus, for which Russia, the European Union, and Ukraine are major trading partners.

In addition, the Russian embargo on food import from EU member states caused numerous problems for trade relations between Belarus and the EU, including Poland. Initially, after the introduction of the embargo in August 2014, many people expected the situation to be beneficial for Belarus. There were opinions that due to the regulations of the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space, the Belarusian side would easily re-export food from the EU, and that the EU processing firms working on raw materials imported from the EU, would be forced to leave Russia (especially from the Kaliningrad region) and would start relocating their factories to Belarus. That did not happen, and Russia toughened inspections of food exported from Belarus as well as banned the transit of food from Belarus to Kazakhstan through its territory. Consequently, Belarus reduced import of food, among others, from Poland.

Nevertheless, many Polish companies exporting and investing in the East began to see the perspectives of cooperation with Belarus as part of the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space (and since 1 January 2015 – of the Eurasian Economic Community). This was greeted with enthusiasm by the Belarusian authorities, the more that, struggling with the economic crisis, Belarus is looking for both new markets and non-Russian sources of foreign investment.

The search by Poland and Belarus for new ways of economic cooperation resulted in an increased number of bilateral meetings and forums. In December 2014, in Warsaw, the third meeting of the Joint Polish-Belarusian Committee on Economic Cooperation was held, with participation of Deputy Prime Ministers Janusz Piechocinski and Mikhail Rusy. Earlier, in Brest, also with participation of these politicians, the 18th Belarusian-Polish Economic Forum ’Dobrasusiedstva-2014 (Neighborliness-2014)’ took place. After a five-year break the Belarusian-Polish working group on trade and investment resumed its work.

Cooperation in the field of agriculture also revitalized, as exemplified by the visit of the Polish Minister Marek Sawicki to Minsk. At the same time, Belarus began to be considered a potentially important direction of investment in this area of economics, the more that the country’s authorities offered Poland the opportunity to enter with investments and technologies.

Belarus was engaging more and more in cooperation in the sphere of transport, energy and environmental protection, of which examples are further rounds of consultations on modernization between Brussels and Minsk as well as meetings of Polish-Belarusian working groups. In 2014, among others, the groups on transport, on tourism, and on cooperation in the energy sector held their meetings. This tendency became so strong that some Polish-Belarusian working groups resumed their work after many years of downtime (the Forum of Twin Cities of Poland and Belarus resumed its work after a 12-year break). They can be considered the ’first swallows’ in the intensification of economic cooperation between Warsaw and Minsk. In the energy sector several issues have surfaced: the question of increasing the transmission capacity of the connector Ros-Narew, as well as the issue of cooperation in peat extraction. The talks on cooperation in the transport sector focused on the need to expand the border infrastructure and the road network, as well as on the possibilities of Belarus using Polish ports to export its produce. We also hear more and more proposals to develop historical tourism, for which it is however necessary to increase the number of border crossings and to permit pedestrian crossings.

However, regardless of the intensified meetings on economic cooperation, in January-October 2014 the volume of Polish export to its CIS neighbors decreased: by 13% to Russia, 27.1% to Ukraine and 5% to Belarus 3 – here the greatest fall was in sales of leather and leather products (by 32% compared to the previous year) and products of plant origin (by about 59%). 4

The bilateral Polish-Belarusian sales turnover in monetary terms made USD 2363.3 million, having decreased a bit in comparison with 2013 (USD 2377.8 million). 5 The level of mutual investments remains low – according to the official data, ca. 350 companies with Polish capital operate in Belarus, while in Poland there are only 100 companies with Belarusian capital.

Just like in the case of political relations, Poland and Belarus have enormous untapped potential for economic and cross-border cooperation. The possibilities of development of these relationships, however, depend primarily on the political will of the authorities in Minsk and Warsaw and without returning to the policy of dialogue between the EU and Belarus chances of their development remain small.

Conclusion

A lot of ‘first steps’ aimed at improving Polish-Belarusian cooperation in the future were made in the political and economic relations in 2014. Unfortunately, despite them, a number of bilateral issues were still unsolved and no major breakthrough in the relations between Poland and Belarus is expected in the nearest months.

Usually, the increase in the number of contacts at the technical level precedes the improvement of political relations. In the case of relations with Belarus, however, it will to a great extent depend solely on Minsk. It first and foremost refers to the release of political prisoners (there are still six political prisoners 6 in Belarusian prisons, which makes it impossible to start a dialogue with the European Union), this year’s presidential election, as well as the implementation of bilateral agreements, such as that on local border traffic.