Taking into account all the frequent meetings of the authorities of Poland and Belarus at the political level, 2016 can be considered a ‘new opening’ in the relations between the two countries. The change in relations became possible due to the improved communication between the European Union and Belarus, and especially due to the lifting of sanctions, which was supported by Poland. Therefore, both states have chances for a greater use of the neighboring potential and common historical heritage in tourism development and intensification of economic contacts. However, unresolved bilateral matters connected with the activities of the Union of Poles of Belarus and the entry into force of the local border traffic agreements will remain a real challenge.
- The concentration of Polish–Belarusian relations on cooperation in the field of economy and infrastructure;
- Increased chances to use opportunities of bilateral relations through EU funds, especially the program “Poland – Belarus – Ukraine” and the development of regional cooperation;
- The failure to resolve fundamental problems in the Polish-Belarusian relations associated with the activities of the Union of Poles of Belarus and the entry into force of the local border traffic agreement (LBT).
Although 2016 can hardly be considered a turning point in the relations of Poland and Belarus (the visit of President of Belarus to Poland or the visit of the President of Poland to Belarus could have served an example of such a turning point), since 2010 the most intensive political and economic contacts have been developed. The change in the policy of Poland can be explained by the overall situation in the region rather than by significant political and economic transformations in Belarus. It can be assumed that the situation in Ukraine made the Belarusian authorities change their approach to their EU partners. Especially significant was the decision of the EU states adopted on 15 February 2016 on the abolition of sanctions against Belarus. Although this step had been awaited since autumn 2015, it improved greatly the relations between Poland and Belarus only in 2016.
Belarusian authorities reacted positively to the fact that the Polish government actively advocated the abolition of the EU sanctions against Belarus. Just over a month after this decision, on 23 March 2016, Minister of Foreign Affairs paid a visit to the Republic of Poland for the first time since the autumn of 2010. The main purpose of the meeting of Witold Waszczykowski and Vladimir Makei was the focus on solving the current bilateral problems and instead of politicizing them.
During his visit the Polish Minister also met with President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko. On 20 July in Warsaw the bilateral political consultations were held at the Foreign Ministry level. The meeting was attended by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Waszczykowski and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Alena Kupchyna. During the consultation an agreement on cooperation in the field of education was signed.
Intensive political contacts continued in autumn. On 10 October 2016, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus paid an official visit to Warsaw. During the visit he met with President Andrzej Duda and Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczykowski. Along with political and economic issues, the talks also dealt with cooperation in the framework of the Chinese New Silk Road project. During his visit to Warsaw Vladimir Makei gave an interview to the newspaper Rzeczpospolita, in which he pointed out that Belarus did not see in NATO a threat to its security. 1
On 24 October in Minsk the Belarusian-Polish economic forum Good Neighborliness began, which was attended by Deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. In his speech, he raised the issue of economic cooperation between the states and the Chinese New Silk Road project and the opportunities it gave to the development of Polish-Belarusian economic cooperation.
During numerous political meetings that accompanied the forum, Belarusian Prime Minister Andrei Kabiakou asked Mateusz Morawiecki to support the Belarusian efforts to join the World Trade Organization. Andrei Kabiakou touched on the topic of future energy cooperation with Poland and the EU states, stressing that in 2018 the first unit of Astraviec nuclear power plant would be put into operation.
In the framework of the forum Good Neighborliness the meeting of the Polish-Belarusian Commission for Economic Development also took place. It was agreed that the Commission should meet once or twice a year. On 8 November a delegation of the Polish Ministry of Agriculture with vice Minister Ryszard Zarudzki visited Belarus.
The contacts in the field of security were also established: on 23–24 November, Warsaw hosted consultations between the Ministries of Defense of both countries. On 2 December, the Polish military inspection under the Vienna document visited the 111th Belarusian Guards Artillery Division.
In 2016, parliamentary contacts also developed. On 2 August in Minsk, the Chairman of the Council of the Republic (the upper chamber of the Belarusian Parliament) Mikhail Myasnikovich met with Deputy Speaker of the Sejm Ryszard Terlecki. During his stay in Belarus, Deputy Speaker Tarlecki also met with Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus Alena Kupchyna.
Another group of Polish parliamentarians visited Minsk on 5 December. The delegation was headed by the Senate Speaker Stanisław Karczewski, who met with the President of Belarus Lukashenko, the Head of the Council of the Republic Mikhail Myasnikovich and the Head of the House of Representatives Mr. Andreichanka. As a result of the meeting the Polish-Belarusian parliamentary group was created and the cooperation between the upper chambers of the parliaments of the two states (the Senate and the Council of the Republic) was established.
In 2016, expert consultations in the field of transport, agriculture and investment were resumed. Technical cooperation between the national banks of both countries continued. It is also planned to restore the sessions of the Commission on cooperation in science and technology.
Due to the activity of the Polish government, Belarus signed the Partnership for Mobility (MOST) with the EU. It was launched on 13 October in Luxembourg, with the aim to ensure better management of migratory flows. Thus, the contacts reached far beyond the technical level, which used to be the maximum in previous years. It might be predicted that in the few years to come the intensity of relations at different political levels will be maintained.
In March the problem with the issuance of visas was solved. On the territory of Belarus 8 visa centers were opened in regional cities – Minsk, Brest, Hrodna, Homiel, Mahiliou, Pinsk, Baranavičy and Lida. This greatly simplifies the work of Polish consular offices, and especially the application of Belarusian citizens on visas. Moreover, as in previous years, Poland issued Belarusians almost 400 thousand visas.
In 2016, the Polish-Belarusian agreement on cooperation in the field of education was signed. On the basis of this document a joint Consultative Commission was created, which should coordinate the work of schools for the Polish minority in Belarus and the Belarusian minority in Poland. It should be noted that the agreement should facilitate the cooperation among Universities. At the moment, all Belarusian Universities have contacts with Universities and research institutions in Poland.
In 2016, the work on the cooperation agreement between Poland and Belarus in the field of water management continued with a special emphasis on the monitoring system of the river Buh, as well as on the cooperation agreement in the field of the return of the water route E40 Dniepr–Vistula. It is planned also to sign bilateral agreements on cross-border cooperation. It should be noted that on 23 August 2016 Lukashenko signed a decree that allows coming and staying on the territory of the recreation park Augustou Canal without a visa. However, the abovementioned contracts are only a part of the issues related to the joint legal base which require further work.
To Belarus, Poland is the third trading partner after Russia and Ukraine. According to the National Statistics Committee of Belarus, the trade turnover between the two countries in 2016 reached almost USD 2 billion, USD 815.9 million out of which was the Belarusian export to Poland, and USD 1,183 million was the Polish export to Belarus. 2 The increase is 7% compared to 2015, when the trade turnover was USD 1.8 billion. The development of the political relations contributed to the increase of trade between the states, especially taking into account the situation in the region.
As in previous years, an important element of the bilateral relationship was contacts at the local level. However, unlike in previous years, they constituted only a part of the Polish-Belarusian relations and were not their main core. On 7 September 2016 Hrodna and Augustów signed an agreement on the development of cross-border cooperation. The agreement on cooperation in the field of woodworking was signed by Podlaskie Voivodship and Hrodna region. During the December visit of Polish parliamentarians to Belarus it was decided to hold the Forum of regions of both states annually. It partly overlaps with a similar cooperation which took place between Poland and Russia.
Cooperation between the local authorities focused also on solving the problems of the borderland. In October, Podlaskie voivode Jerzy Leszczynski and Chairman of Hrodna region Executive Committee Vladimir Krautsou proposed making a new border crossing between Poland and Belarus called Safijova – Lipczany. The checkpoint is planned for pedestrians, cyclists and cars weighing up to 3.5 tons. The transition should ease the way to the Belarusian Park Augustou Canal and also to shorten the way from Augustów to Hrodna from more than hundred kilometers to 57 km. The driveways lead to the border on both sides and on the Polish side there are already spots intended for the construction of border facilities.
The transition is particularly significant, given the increasing tourist traffic at this segment of the border. Since 2016 tourists will be able to visit Belarus via the border crossing Rudava – Liasnaja (it became the second checkpoint of this type after the border crossing Bialowieza – Piarerau). However, the initiative of local authorities requires coordination at the state level.
The cooperation between Polish and Belarusian actors in the framework of the EU program Poland – Belarus – Ukraine 2014–2020 continued to develop. Especially active in cooperation are the state fire service and the Belarusian Ministry of Emergency Situations (MES). Both services plan to implement 8 projects, mainly in the field of infrastructure for disaster management (fires, floods) in the border regions. On 23 November an agreement on cooperation between the MES University and the Main school of fire service was signed.
In turn, Hrodna region suggested 30 projects in the tourism sector to Polish subjects. Thus the program Poland – Belarus – Ukraine 2014–2020 becomes an essential element that stimulates the Polish-Belarusian regional cooperation. It seems also that in future, the cooperation at this level should contribute to the economic and personal contacts.
Potential for cooperation
Despite the improvement in political relations, both countries have a long way ahead to realize the full potential of bilateral cooperation. The main importance will be given to the construction of transport infrastructure (especially at the border), especially if the Belarusian authorities decide to start the agreement on local border traffic with Poland.
According to the Polish Border Guard Office, in 2016 the land border with Belarus was crossed more than 7 million 925 thousand times 3 (about 1% more than in 2015) and the launch of the LBT or an increase in visa-free tourist movement in Hrodna region will increase the burden on border crossings even more. Therefore it is necessary to increase the throughput of checkpoints for those who cross the border for tourism by car, on foot, by bike or by water. It is also necessary to increase the number of trucks that are registered because queues occur regularly.
One of the most important elements of cooperation with Poland is energy. In 2018, the first unit of Astraviec nuclear power plant will be launched, and the Belarusian authorities try to make Poland one of the consumers. However, this requires large expenditures on the development of the existing energy utilities.
Poland and Belarus have a considerable potential for cooperation in the field of tourism. First of all, it touches the greater use of the potential of the Bielaviezhskaja Pushcha and the Augustou Canal. Both states think on the creation of joint commissions for the management of the Augustou Canal, which should contribute to the better use of touristic potential of this region.
Economic contacts also have the potential for development: Belarusian authorities look for and require foreign investment, particularly from the EU states. Belarus notes that the product created on its territory may be freely imported to the entire territory of the Eurasian Economic Union. However, a significant limitation in this area may be the policy of Russia (prohibition of imports of consumer products from the EU countries, as well as an increasing economic protectionism and trade wars for political purposes).
Therefore, it is clearly seen that due to the neighborhood, common historic and nature heritage, both countries have considerable potential for cooperation and exchange of experience. And this potential is used to a small extent.
Despite the intensification of political contacts the question of the activities of the Union of Poles in Belarus (the one recognized only by the authorities of the Republic of Poland and the one recognized by Minsk authorities) remains unsolved. But the problem of UPB will require considerable diplomatic effort and good will on the part of both states.
The unsolved cases also touch historical issues. They primarily concern the transfer of the so-called “white Katyn list” and the construction of war cemeteries in Kurapaty. They should be the subject of intensive work of the Polish-Belarusian group on historical issues.
The agreement on local border traffic has not yet entered into force. Officially, the Belarusian side refers to the argument associated with the poor state of border infrastructure. In January 2016, the head of the state border committee of Belarus Leanid Malcau said that the cost of launching the LBT at the border with Poland and Lithuania will cost up to BYN 100 million (out of which 45 million is the cost of the contract with Poland). The money should serve to increase the number of border crossings, their renewal and the opening of crossings for pedestrians. Leanid Malcau also stressed that all three countries must apply for EU money to improve the functionality of the border infrastructure. At the same time both Poland and Belarus underline the need for bilateral cooperation related to the protection of the borders.
It is therefore evident that to solve problems in the relationships, as well as to develop the cooperation potential, both countries should intensify further mutual contacts, including the ones at the regional level. Only then it will be possible to talk about noticeable changes in the relations of the two states.