Release peace: the magazine
Release peace: the magazine
Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs
The Forgotten Polish and Lithuanian Minorities in Belarus
Written by: Maksimas Milta
Few people may know that 288,000 ethnic Poles lived in Belarus, according to the 2019 census. However, during the last three decades, the proportion of Polish inhabitants has remained in continuous decline, dropping from 4.1% of the population in 1989 to 3.06% in 2019. On the other hand, the number of ethnic Lithuanians residing in Belarus remained stable during this time frame (between 0.07% and 0.06%). Yet both ethnic minorities have suffered under one of the most repressive political regimes in Europe. After protests in 2020, the government of President Aliaksandr Lukashenka has sped up crack downs on these citizens of Belarus. Ethnic Polish and Lithuanian communities have suffered in multiple spheres, primarily in education and facing the backlash of nationalist propaganda.
A Dismantling of Culture in Education
Up until 2020, Polish and Lithuanian communities maintained the right of providing and receiving education in their mother languages in the Hrodna region of Belarus. Due to their desire to preserve their native culture, in early 2022, a total of 870 students attended the Polish schools of Hrodna and Vaukavysk. Similarly, for the Lithuanian population, over 200 students were enrolled in schools located in Peliasa (Voranava district) and Rymdziuny (Astravec district). However, this immersion of culture was not to be left to blossom by the Belarusian state. In September 2022, the Polish Education Society was forcibly dismantled – a society which has previously provided informal Polish-instructed education in Belarus to over 2,500 children and teenagers. In 2023, none of these schools were allowed to provide education in Polish or Lithuanian.
Threats and Political Divisions
The threat towards the Polish community began to accelerate in the mid-2000s with the launch of the Polish Card Program. More than 130,000 eligible Belarusian citizens of Polish descent were given these cards as symbols of “otherness”. At the same time, Minsk staged a seizure of the independent Union of Poles in Belarus. It was one of the country’s largest NGOs in terms of membership and the government installed a leadership loyal to Lukashenka’s regime yet it apparently still symbolized an inherent proximity to Polish culture. It was replaced by two new Unions of Poles, one independent and one supporting Lukashenka.
Ever since, their co-existence became emblematic of similar splits among anti-regime and pro-regime NGOs in Belarus. Noticeably, the waves of interference by authorities towards the leadership of the independent Union of Poles in Belarus continued. This even continued during the liberalization of relations between the West and Belarus, which coincided with the electoral calendar in Belarus. After the 2020 presidential election, the grip of control began to tighten around the necks of Polish and Lithuanian minorities. Their access to education and other institutions that nurtured culture and language began to crumble. These events coincided with the souring of relations between Minsk on the one hand and Vilnius and Warsaw on the other.
The Role of the Catholic Church in Mediation
A crucial element of Lukashenka’s policy towards the Lithuanian and Polish minorities was the close relation to the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus. Given the Vatican’s frequent position as a mediator in conflict resolution, whenever seeking a liberalization of relations with the West, Lukashenka would reach out to the Vatican. Being the case until August 2020, the close relationship between the Catholic Church and Polish Belarusians, a disproportionate number of whom were priests themselves, frequently resulted in favorable conflict resolutions together with the Vatican. However, this somewhat jeopardized the position of the Catholic Church in Belarus. Parishes concentrated in the West and Northwest of Belarus are mainly attended by Lithuanian Belarusians and Polish Belarusians, as well as served by priests of the same ethnicity. However, following the 2020 election, Catholic priests of Polish descent would face the charges by Lukashenka’s regime or simply be deported from Belarus, thus forcing the Vatican to seek an appeasing mediation.
Often cited by Belarusian media are Lukashenka’s claims of an alleged role by Lithuania and Poland in the 2020 protests. In the past, the hostility of Lukashenka’s regime was primarily aimed at the institutionalized forms of collective action. In doing so, unions of national minorities could be used as puppets of a plot to undermine Lukashenka’s rule. Therefore, they were constantly juxtaposed with those state-appointed representatives of national minorities, who were loyal to the regime. In such a way, a supposed dichotomy was created of regular Belarusian citizens, who are in support of Lukashenka, as opposed to an allegedly hostile group of ethnic minorities, backed by Vilnius and Warsaw.
Minorities as Political Leverage
Belarus’ use of limiting the rights of Polish and Lithuanian minorities has been thought to be a tool for leverage over their respective capitals. A few successful attempts at utilizing bilateral channels of communication to release Minsk’s captivated political prisoners of Polish descent have been taking place since 2020, resulting in a total of 10 Polish Belarusians being freed. Yet, the most renowned political prisoner of Polish descent, Andrzej Poczobut, a Gazeta Wyborcza journalist, has remained in jail since March 2021. A day before he was arrested, Poczobut made a strong and public statement on the situation of Polish minorities in Belarus as a pool of hostages used by Minsk’s in its relations with Poland. To leverage the pressure on the Polish Government, Poczobut (previously a political prisoner in 2011-2013) was included in the Belarusian KGB-curated list of extremists, thus prohibiting any money transfers to and by him, and limiting access to correspondence and medications to Poczobut. The dynamics of the deteriorating visibility of Polish and Lithuanian minorities in Belarus against their constitutionally enshrined rights corresponds with a broader crackdown against civil society, journalists and other dissenting voices in Belarus since 2020.