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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: May 11, 2005

11 May 2005, Volume 7, Number 18
POLAND ADOPTS LAW ON NATIONAL MINORITIES. Poland's new law on national minorities came into force on 1 May -- the first anniversary of Poland's accession to the European Union. The date is significant, since EU legislation makes a number of provisions for such minorities (for example, financial assistance for minority-language activities), and new and intending members are expected to "harmonize" their own legal provisions to EU norms. However, on the eve of the act's coming into force, the Polish newspaper "Polityka" commented that while it will "soothe many flashpoints," it will "also ignite new ones."

Under the new law, individual members of a minority have the right to spell their names and surnames according to the orthographies of their own language, to learn the minority language and to use it freely in public and private life. In communes (the lowest local administrative territorial unit) where the minority comprises more than 20 percent of the population, its language may be used as a supplementary language in public offices and used in the names of localities, sites, and streets (with the exception of those names which were given by the Third Reich or the USSR between 1933-45). Public authorities are obliged by the law to support cultural, publishing, and educational activities of minorities, including through subsidies.

The proposal to pass a special act addressing minority rights long precedes preparations for EU accession. The issue was first raised back in 1990 by Jacek Kuron -- who at the time was minister for social welfare in Poland's first post-Communist government, as well as being of part-Ukrainian descent -- but it took over 14 years for the legislation to be drafted and enacted.

These delays were not unexpected. There is, according to "Polityka," considerable xenophobia -- latent and overt -- among both the Polish population at large and in political circles. It cited a survey carried out by CBOS Public Opinion Research Surveys at the end of 2004 which indicated the percentage of Poles with negative attitudes toward the following national groups and ethnicities that make up Poland's minorities: Roma (56 percent), Russians (53 percent), Jews (45 percent), Belarusians (37 percent), Ukrainians (34 percent), Germans (34 percent), Lithuanians (21 percent), Slovaks (16 percent), Czechs (14 percent).

The minorities, on their side, complain that official figures understate their presence: 2002 census figures put Poland's entire "minority" population at 471,000, 1.5 percent of the total population. Minority activists, however, claim the figure should be at least 5 percent, and say the discrepancy is due to either pressure to assimilate, "poor" census-taking methodology, and -- in the case of ethnic Belarusians -- a reluctance to be identified with the Lukashenka regime. (By contrast, Ukrainian community leaders in Poland report that since Ukraine's Orange Revolution, Polish perceptions of Ukrainians have grown considerably more positive.)

Some provisions of the law, and the long delays in formulating it, were clearly driven by recent history -- both the Nazi occupation during World War II as well as the ethnic strife of the interwar period in areas then under Polish rule, but which now form parts of Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine.

Kuron had proposed that at commune level, the local language could be used for official purposes if 8 percent or more of the population identified themselves as belonging to the minority. This applied to 48 communes throughout Poland. Subsequently, the minimum was raised to 20 percent, applying to 42 communes. Then, in autumn 2004, the Sejm voted for a 50-percent threshold, which would give statutory language rights to only five communes -- four Belarusian and one Lithuanian. The Senate, however, rejected this, and the final level remained at 20 percent. Those 42 communes include Belarusian, Lithuanian, German, and Kashubian minority communities, but not Ukrainians, owing to the resettlement policy of Ukrainians throughout Poland immediately after World War II.

The ban on names introduced under occupation by the Third Reich or the Soviet Union seems, however, to be more than a legacy of the past. According to "Polityka," Poland's German minority appears strangely reluctant to abandon Nazi-era names, even those incorporating references to Adolf Hitler, which would be banned in Germany itself. However, the law would also appear to rule out "neutral" names -- that of a Lithuanian or Belarusian poet, for example -- if they had been introduced during occupation.

In general, Polish public opinion is not pleased by the place-name provisions. In a CBOS survey conducted in early April, 63 percent opposed bilingual names, with only 26 percent in favor. Likewise, 52 percent objected to the introduction of minority languages in public offices, with 37 percent in favor. However, in the same survey, 82 percent thought that minorities had the right to learn their own languages in Polish state schools (11 percent disagreed), and a surprisingly high 41 percent approved state subsidies for minority cultures, such as for publications.

As far as the minorities themselves are concerned, it is perhaps not so much the provisions of the act themselves, but how they are implemented which is important. Two recent grievances of the Belarusian minority are significant here. Last autumn, 10 Belarusian journalists and publishers from the Belarusian-language newspaper "Niva" based in Bialystok were charged with misuse of state funds and dishonest bookkeeping (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 15 December 2005) Their offense, it turned out, was attempting to "stretch" the paper's state subsidy past its official "use-by" date, in order to keep the paper afloat until the next subsidy came in.

At almost the same time, the Belarusian community in the region reported what they perceived as pressure on schools providing additional courses in Belarusian -- an intensification of state inspections and a new requirement for parents to make a special written application for the courses each year. The Belarusians perceived these moves as a threat -- a way of establishing a legal pretext for shutting down the schools, or at least the special courses.

Both these cases, incidentally, formed the subject of an appeal to EU authorities -- although, significantly, the appeal came not from Bialystok but from the Association of Belarusians in Great Britain.

Other appeals to Brussels or Strasbourg may well arise from the new act itself, but not necessarily from the minorities whose rights it embodies. Silesians and Kashubians, whom the act largely ignores, maintain that they are also "nations," and intend to appeal to the EU that they, too, should benefit from the act -- which could mean a revision affecting all the minorities concerned. (Vera Rich)

MINSK GETS TOUGH ON ARRESTED UKRAINIANS. Hostilities have arisen between Minsk and Kyiv over a case involving five Ukrainian pro-democracy protesters arrested in the Belarus capital in late April.

The last of the protesters was released 6 May, after Belarusian officials ruled all five would soon be deported. They were among the some 200 youth opposition activists who gathered in Minsk on 26 April -- the 19th anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear accident.

The demonstrators wanted to hand a petition to the presidential administration demanding that authorities report on steps taken to solve lasting problems related to Chornobyl, and that they stop producing food in areas contaminated by radiation. Riot police dispersed the rally within 15 minutes, arresting five Ukrainians, 14 Russians, and a dozen Belarusians.

The following day, Belarusian courts punished the arrested demonstrators with jail terms ranging from five to 15 days. One of the Belarusian demonstrators was fined $2,000, an enormous sum in a country where the average monthly pay is just $200.

It appeared to be business as usual for Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. But the dispute quickly escalated beyond the simple repression of dissent to a serious diplomatic row between Minsk and Kyiv.

The day after the protesters were detained, Ukraine's Foreign Ministry issued a statement accusing Belarusian authorities of violating the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms by denying the Ukrainian detainees access to proper legal counsel.

The five detainees were all members of the Ukrainian National Alliance youth organization. The day after the arrests, the group began a protest rally in front of the Belarusian Embassy in Kyiv that continued for several days. On 28 April, the five Ukrainians and three of their Belarusian colleagues began a hunger strike over their arrest.

The 14 Russian detainees included activists from the Yabloko and Union of Rightist Forces youth organizations, as well as reporters from "Moskovskii komsomolets" and the Russian edition of "Newsweek" magazine. Their arrest was met with indignant cries from the Russian press. In a strongly worded report on 28 April, "Moskovskii komsomolets" said the crackdown in Minsk was the work of "trained mongrels working for the fascist Lukashenka." The Russian ambassador to Belarus, Aleksandr Blokhin, also appealed for the release of the detainees in a broadcast on NTV television.

In an apparent effort to subdue the rising wave of negative press coverage in Moscow, Lukashenka ordered that the jailed Russian demonstrators be freed. On 30 April the Minsk City Court granted them early release -- a move the Belarusian Foreign Ministry said "shows once again Belarus' readiness to further strengthen allied relations with Russia."

The Ukrainian detainees likewise appealed to the Minsk City Court for early release, but the court rejected their appeal on 3 May, with no specific explanations. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk ascribed Minsk's reluctance to free the Ukrainians to what he described as Belarus' "special attitude" toward Ukraine. Minsk denied harboring any "special attitude" toward Kyiv, but at the same time warned Ukraine against "copying pseudo-democratic methods and forms of building interstate relations imposed by certain countries and international organizations."

What was this dispute all about?

Many Ukrainian and Belarusian commentators maintain that Lukashenka -- who is going to seek a third presidential term in 2006, following a controversial constitutional referendum in October 2004 -- was deeply vexed by the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine and is determined to do anything necessary to prevent a similar scenario from unfolding in Belarus.

Referring to both the Orange Revolution and the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia during his annual address to the legislature on 19 April, Lukashenka said, "all those color revolutions were in fact no revolutions." He added: "It was plain banditry disguised as democracy. The limit of such revolutions was fully exhausted by the Belarusian people in the past century." He also said he would deal "harshly and adequately" with all those trying to "stir up the situation" in Belarus.

The fear of a Ukrainian-style revolution in Belarus is surely one of the main motives behind Lukashenka's tough approach to street demonstrations in Minsk. "You see, today they are working on what we will be doing in 2006. Ukraine is forming camps -- as if to say, 'we will send you revolutionaries from there,'" Lukashenka said in a somewhat paranoid stream-of-consciousness passage of his 19 April address. Whatever it meant, it is clear the Belarusian president believes Ukraine's Orange Revolution may prove infectious to some Belarusians.

But there may also be some other, less obvious reasons behind Lukashenka's dislike of Ukraine and Ukrainians under the rule of President Viktor Yushchenko. In mid-April, Ukraine backed a United Nations resolution condemning Belarus' human rights record. Earlier that month, in a visit to Washington, Yushchenko issued a joint statement with U.S. President George W. Bush pledging "to support the advance of freedom in countries such as Belarus and Cuba."

Lukashenka is not a man likely to take such things lightly. The Belarusian Interior Ministry, ordering on 5 April the Ukrainian detainees' deportation, also banned them from re-entering the country for the next five years.

"The dialogue between Lukashenka and Belarus' western neighbors is developing very dynamically. Will breaking diplomatic ties be the next step?" the Belarusian independent weekly "Nasha Niva" commented sarcastically on Lukashenka's 19 April address, in which he accused Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine of working jointly to destabilize Belarus, and unspecified Western embassies of channeling "bagfuls" of money into Belarus to support the opposition.

Breaking diplomatic relations with Kyiv may not be an option for Minsk in the near future, but we need to remember that it is still more than a year until presidential election in Belarus. Lukashenka has amply proved in the past that he is capable of taking bewildering measures to counteract what he sees as threats to his rule. (Jan Maksymiuk)

MYKOLA LEBED AND THE UKRAINIAN PARTISAN ARMY. As the leaders of several former Soviet republics prepared to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe on 9 May in Moscow, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko announced on 5 March that he wanted to see a reconciliation between veterans of the Soviet armed forces and those who served in the Ukrainian Partisan Army (UPA).

This announcement prompted the publication on various pro-Russian websites in Ukraine -- including -- a number of articles denouncing the UPA as "German collaborators" and attacking Yushchenko's statement.

Natalya Vitrenko, a leader of Ukraine's Progressive Socialist Party, declared that she intends to present documents from the 1945-49 Nuremberg trials in which the UPA is listed as a party to German war crimes. However, Ukrainian-American historian Taras Hunczak says no such documents exist and Vitrenko, to date, has not produced any. For its part, Yushchenko's government has said it will exhibit formerly secret documents from its archives that purport to show that the UPA, along with other organizations, fought against the Germans.

The story of the UPA and its founder, Mykola Lebed, is seen by many as having been distorted during the past 60 years. Soviet propagandists, Russian nationalists, and Ukrainian Communists have all denounced the UPA as collaborators who, after the war, became "American agents" and actively fought to separate Ukraine from the Soviet Union. Although Ukraine is now independent, this has not prevented the UPA's detractors from continuing their ideological attacks.

Lebed, a leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), founded the UPA in western Ukraine in 1942. Born in 1909, Lebed rose to prominence for his role in planning the OUN's 1934 assassination of Polish Interior Minister Bronislaw Pieracki. Arrested by the Gestapo as he tried to cross Germany to the free city of Danzig, Lebed was turned over to Poland and sentenced to death, a sentence that was later commuted to life in prison. He was sent to a prison camp in the Belarusian town of Bereza Kartuska.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Lebed escaped and rejoined the OUN in western Ukraine. Shortly afterward, the OUN split into two factions and Lebed joined the group headed by Stephan Bandera that came to be known as OUN-b.

The OUN-b anticipated that conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union was imminent and believed that it would be possible to use the conflict to establish an independent Ukrainian state. To achieve this, they sought a tactical alliance with Hitler. The Germans allowed the OUN-b to form two battalions -- Roland and Nachtigall -- which were dispatched to Ukraine on the eve of the German invasion to conduct reconnaissance. The units saw little action and were soon disbanded.

Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Bandera's OUN faction proclaimed Ukrainian independence in Lviv on 30 June 1941. The Germans, however, had little use for the Ukrainian nationalists by this time and the Gestapo arrested Bandera and most of the OUN-b leadership in July 1941. Bandera spent most of the war in a concentration camp.

Lebed took over as head of the OUN-b and began organizing the UPA in western Ukraine as an anti-German guerrilla force. In January 1944, Lebed's wife, Daria, who had helped him plan the Pieracki assassination, was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp along with their 2-year-old daughter. At that time the German police circulated a "Wanted: Dead or Alive" poster for Lebed throughout occupied Ukraine.

By mid-1944, the UPA was at its height and its estimated strength was close to 50,000 troops brandishing captured German and Russian small arms. The UPA is cited in German military and police documents as killing numerous German troops during encounters in 1943-44. A guide to these documents can be found on the website

In 1944, the German occupation authorities began organizing the Ukrainian Waffen SS Division Halychyna to fight on the eastern front. The UPA actively opposed the formation of this division and instead urged young Ukrainians to join the anti-German partisans. However, as the Soviet Army advanced west, they encountered UPA guerillas against whom they fought pitched battles in late 1944 and 1945.

The UPA continued its struggle after the war and was eventually liquidated as a resistance force by Soviet secret-police (NKVD) troops in 1950, when the last UPA commander in chief, Roman Shukhevych, was killed in an ambush. In a measure designed to separate the partisans from local residents who shared their goals, millions of Ukrainians were deported from western Ukraine to secure regions in eastern Ukraine and Kazakhstan in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

In 1944, Lebed was sent abroad by the Ukrainian Supreme Liberation Council, an underground political body that oversaw the UPA, to garner support for its struggle from the Allies. Lebed managed to obtain limited covert help from the United States, which in turn used the UPA as an early-warning system in case Soviet forces intended to invade Western Europe.

In 1949 he came to the United States at the behest of the CIA and continued his activities on behalf of Ukrainian independence by establishing the Prolog Research Corporation in New York. Prolog existed until 1989. Lebed died in the United States in 1998, and his personal archive is at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. (Roman Kupchinsky)

"They should be allowed to express themselves in free and open and fair elections in Belarus.... All of us are committed to the advance of freedom in Belarus. The people of that country live under Europe's last dictatorship, and they deserve better. The governments of Latvia and Lithuania have worked to build support for democracy in Belarus, and to deliver truthful information by radio and newspapers. Together we have set a firm and confident standard: Repression has no place on this continent. The people of Minsk deserve the same freedom you have in Tallinn, and Vilnius, and Riga." -- U.S. President George W. Bush in Riga on 7 May; quoted by Belapan.

"I believe the Baltic states have enough problems of their own that could be discussed with their [American] boss. It's good that they talk about us. We're glad if someone among them has studied a map and showed their overseas boss where Belarus is located. We welcome such discussions, but I fear any other sort of talk will end badly for the leaders of the Baltic states." -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Minsk on 7 May, commenting on Bush's Riga trip; quoted by Belapan.

"Dear friends, 60 years have passed since the end of the World War II. I have just arrived from the parade on the Red Square in Moscow, where I saw the presidents of Russia and Germany standing next to each other, where Wehrmacht soldiers were invited to Moscow to meet veterans of the Great Patriotic War, to sit at a round table and shake each other's hands.

"Sixty years have passed since the great victory. In our hearts we have forgiven the Germans, the Japanese and the Poles. We have forgiven those who possibly were on the other side of the front line. But we have not forgiven ourselves.

"Unfortunately, veterans of World War II have not yet offered their hands to the veterans of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. I know how hard this process is. I know what pain there is in the hearts of tens of thousands of veterans when reconciliation is discussed today.

But I am asking you, veterans, I am taking my hat off and begging you to offer your hands to each other. This is necessary for the future of Ukraine. This is necessary for us to show that everything is all right in Ukrainian society. We have put a full stop in our history." -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko to World War II veterans in Kyiv on 9 May; quoted by Channel 5.