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Poland/Belarus: Warsaw Seems To Be Losing Duel With Minsk Over Ethnic Organization

Why is former SPB head Kruczkowski suddenly unacceptable to Warsaw? After two rounds of reciprocal diplomatic expulsions and the recalling of Polish Ambassador to Belarus Tadeusz Pawlak last month, the conflict between Warsaw and Minsk over the Union of Poles in Belarus (SPB) appears to be entering a calmer stage. Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Alyaksandr Mikhnevitch said last week that Minsk is ready to start talks with Warsaw on solving the present crisis in bilateral relations. Polish Sejm speaker and leading presidential candidate Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, who earlier did not rule out closing the Polish Embassy in Minsk, responded immediately that Poland should not reject the possibility of discussing the ongoing standoff.

The conflict erupted in May after the Belarusian Justice Ministry refused to recognize the SPB's new leadership elected at a congress in March. The ministry quoted irregularities in both the nomination of delegates and the congress itself and demanded a repeat convention to hold a more "democratic" vote. However, the new SPB leadership headed by 32-year-old Andzhelika Borys asserts that the true motive behind the ministry's decision is to reinstall Tadeusz Kruczkowski, SPB head in 2000-05, as a more compliant leader from the authorities' viewpoint.

This view is shared by most Polish and Belarusian commentators who see the conflict as primarily an attempt by autocratic Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to get full control of the country's largest NGO before the 2006 presidential election. The SPB claims an official membership of some 25,000 out of the 400,000-strong Polish minority in Belarus, but SPB leaders admit that the organization's active membership is much lower.

In May and June the authorities prevented the SPB's new leadership from printing their weekly "Glos znad Niemna" (Voice From Over the Niemen) and even produced several fake issues of the publication with the collaboration of Kruczkowski. And on 27 July, Belarusian police drove Borys and a dozen of her supporters out of the SPB headquarters in Hrodna and reinstalled Kruczkowski there. In the meantime, Kruczkowski managed to gather a part of the SPB's old board and, with the blessing of the authorities, scheduled a new SPB congress for 27 August.

Warsaw's official position in the conflict was formulated by Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld in June and boils down to the requirement that Borys and her adherents be installed as a democratically elected SPB leadership. Does this mean that Warsaw will refuse to recognize the decisions made by the upcoming SPB congress, which is obviously being orchestrated by the Lukashenka regime? Borys said earlier this week in an online interview moderated by RFE/RL's Belarus Service that she and her followers are not going to participate in the SPB congress later this month. She also asserted that the Polish government, which finances the SPB, will not recognize the results of this convention, whatever they may be.

However, Warsaw now appears to be looking at the situation from a much more practical point of view. Warsaw seems to realize that Lukashenka has actually won the battle over the SPB and by the end of August he will have a politically submissive SPB leadership that won't make any trouble in the 2006 election campaign. Borys would hardly be allowed to register a competing organization of ethnic Poles in Belarus, and this could certainly be a serious setback for Warsaw, which needs to have a legally recognized receiver of its assistance to the Polish minority in Belarus. For Warsaw, cutting financial aid to the SPB would mean losing too much in Belarus.

The Polish minority in Belarus receives funds through the Polish upper house, the Senate, and its specialized body for contacts with the Polish diaspora, Stowarzyszenie Wspolnota Polska (Polish Community Association). Borys recently told Polish media that the annual costs of running the SPB amount to some $200,000. She also said that the SPB has non-state sponsors but did not disclose their contributions. In the past, the Polish government financed the construction of 16 Polish cultural centers and two Polish-language schools in Belarus -- most of these facilities were built during Lukashenka's rule. Some 22,000 children in Belarus study Polish. It is hardly conceivable that Warsaw could now decide to put all this educational and cultural infrastructure of the Belarusian Poles at risk only because the SPB is run by people not palatable to Poland.

There is also one important aspect of the conflict over the SPB that either escapes the attention of media in Poland and the West or is intentionally omitted by them. The point is that the bulk of the Polish ethnic community in Belarus is located in rural areas in Hrodna Oblast. Collective-farm Poles in Belarus, just like collective-farm Belarusians, are highly supportive of Lukashenka and his policies. Besides, a majority of Belarus's Poles are either unaware of what is actually going on with the SPB leadership, or indifferent to the conflict, or take the authorities' side in the spat. Thus, what in Warsaw or elsewhere in Europe may be seen as a conflict between democracy and dictatorship, for those concerned most closely it is just a quarrel within their elites. And this means that Borys cannot expect that any significant number of fellow Poles in Belarus will stand to support her cause. She is decidedly not in a winning position.

If so, why has Warsaw miscalculated so gravely and taken such a stiff stance in the conflict? Did the Polish government -- as suggested by official Belarusian media -- really believe that it could influence the political situation in Belarus through the ethnic Polish organization and thus contribute to the export of a "colored revolution" to "Europe's last dictatorship"? These questions have no easy or unambiguous answers.

Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovskii told RFE/RL's Belarus Service earlier this month that the Warsaw-Minsk conflict reflects Poland's increasingly assertive drive to regain its historical influence in the east -- on the territory of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania, that is, primarily in Belarus and Ukraine -- after Russia lost its global superpower status, while Poland secured its rear in the EU from encroachments of its another historical rival, Germany.

In accordance with this line of argument, Warsaw, encouraged by its role in brokering a political compromise in the Orange Revolution in Kyiv last year, is now trying to influence developments in Belarus by using the organization of ethnic Poles. In other words, the conflict over the SPB is no less than part of a geopolitical game (involving Washington and Brussels) over supremacy in the former Soviet republics. An ongoing diplomatic spat between Russia and Poland over the beating of Russian diplomats' kids in Warsaw and of Polish diplomats in Moscow seems to confirm the theory that the Russian and Belarusian presidents work hand-in-hand to ward off the Polish political offensive to the east.

But others, including this author, look for the main reason behind the conflict over the SPB in much more mundane circumstances. Warsaw, which did not object to Kruczkowski's chairmanship of the SPB in previous years, might have simply become fed up with him by the end of 2004, when it emerged in Belarus that Kruczkowski was possibly a target for brazen manipulation by the KGB. "Kruczkowski does not belong to himself any longer -- he is simply an object of manipulation," Tadeusz Gawin, SPB's founder and chairman from 1988-2000, commented on the conflict to a Polish regional newspaper in June. Gawin explained that the authorities "have a hold" on Kruczkowski because of his supposed involvement in bribery, fraud, and rape. "He had a great chance to become a major figure in the Polish renaissance movement in Belarus but he has lost everything," Gawin concluded.

Consequently, when the SPB congress in March replaced Kruczkowski with Borys, an intellectually unassuming but apparently free-from-manipulation schoolteacher, Warsaw decided to stand behind her to make its democratic credentials in Belarus look stronger. Because Kruczkowski is known in Belarus not only as a loyalist of the Lukashenka regime and a potential object of KGB manipulation, but also as a staunch opponent of the democratic opposition and a hater of the Belarusian language and non-Sovietized Belarusian culture. Which, incidentally, explains why Lukashenka had taken so much trouble to reinstall him in the SPB leadership.

Now it seems that the Polish government has decided not to aggravate its relations with Lukashenka any longer and is looking for a compromise solution. Such a solution, as suggested by Belarusian Ambassador to Poland Pavel Latushka, could be found in denying any major role in the SPB to Kruczkowski and Borys and electing someone else to lead the organization. Cimoszewicz told journalists this week that Poland should formulate "clear-cut conditions" for talks with Minsk on the SPB, adding that these conditions should include "cessation of all unfriendly actions towards Polish diplomats [and] cessation of illegal interference in the internal affairs of the SPB." Compared to what Polish politicians and media said about the conflict over the past few months, these words sound like a coded acceptance of surrender.

See also:

Russian-Polish Tensions Rise Over Attack On Russian Children In Warsaw

Warsaw Recalls Ambassador From Minsk

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