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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: May 28, 2002

28 May 2002, Volume 4, Number 21
THE IMPORTANCE OF KEEPING BELARUSIANS 'INTERNATIONALIST.' Last month, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka met with a group of authors who are writing new textbooks on literature, history, and social sciences. The Belarusian leader ordered them to be ready with draft versions of these textbooks by September 2003. He did not miss the opportunity to publicly instruct the authors what texts they are expected to produce.

"There should be no nationalism," Belarusian Television quoted Lukashenka as saying. "One should take into account that we are not only mild-mannered people but also -- and I want to stress this as our great virtue -- an absolutely internationalist nation. What has nationalism to do with this? We are now suffering because of nationalism. It needs to be taken into account, it's a conceptual thing."

After Belarus declared independence in 1991, new textbooks were written for schools in a bid to disengage the country from its Soviet intellectual legacy in which the central historiographical tenet asserted that Belarus first came into being only after the October Revolution of 1917 (in the form of the Belarusian SSR) and existed primarily thanks to the benevolent patronage of its "elder brother," Russia.

On the other hand, independent Belarus's history textbooks tried to link the historical succession of present-day Republic of Belarus to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (which was, in terms of territory, the largest state in late-medieval and Renaissance Europe) and the medieval Principality of Polatsk. The idea behind this was to offer a positive set of Belarusian national values and historical myths as well as to instill students with the conviction that they may take pride in both their longstanding national history and the freshly acquired statehood.

When Lukashenka took over in 1994 with his frantic drive toward merger with Russia, the new historiographical outlook promoting the independent state and nation building proved to be a major obstacle for him. Therefore, it is no wonder that the referendum organized by Lukashenka in 1995, in addition to the main question about the people's stance on merger with Russia, included also a question regarding the abolition of the symbols of Belarusian independence -- the white-red-white flag and the historical national emblem (Pahonya) dating back to the times of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania -- and another one about giving Russian the status of official language along with Belarusian.

These proposals were overwhelmingly endorsed by Belarusians in what is generally believed to have been a fair plebiscite, if we disregard the fact that the promoters of Belarus's destiny as not quite identical with that of Russia were not given any chance to publicize their point of view in the state media before the vote. The symbols of the freshly acquired Belarusian independence and the imminent prospect of making the Belarusian language a full-fledged means of communication in the country fell victims to the powerfully advertised delusion that it was possible to turn back history and resurrect the "good times" of the Soviet Union.

Along with his indefatigable push to eliminate political opposition and consolidate control over socioeconomic life, Lukashenka has continued to unrelentingly fight what he calls "nationalism" in Belarus. "Nationalism" for Lukashenka means primarily attempts by some opposition political parties and NGOs to provide affirmative action to the Belarusian language and to de-Sovietize and de-Russianize public life in the country. Lukashenka -- who, despite all his intellectual narrowness, edgy temperament, and antics in the international arena, is generally credited with possessing an uncommon political instinct -- appears to perceive the development of Belarusian "nationalism" as a major threat to his rule.

Being an "absolutely internationalist nation" for Belarusians in the Republic of Belarus means essentially the same as in the former USSR -- they have to remain primarily Soviet (Eurasian, anti-European) in worldview and Russian in speech and culture. In other words, what was efficient in providing the ideological cohesion of Belarusian society in the Soviet era is thought by Lukashenka to be good in ensuring his unperturbed authoritarian rule under Kremlin patronage today. Lukashenka seems to have no problems in perpetuating this "internationalist" mental attitude among older generations of Belarusians who remain unalterably nostalgic for their Soviet past. As for younger generations, rewriting textbooks to fit such an "internationalist" vision of the Belarusian nation seems to be one of Lukashenka's far-reaching measures to prevent the "virus of nationalism" from undercutting his regime.

An obvious conclusion from what was said above is the thesis that building a European-type democracy in Belarus is strongly connected with providing support for the promotion of Belarusian national identity as distinct from the Russian one and for the Belarusian indigenous culture as distinct from the Soviet one. Such a task has been bitterly neglected by both Belarusian opposition parties and NGOs as well as their Western sponsors who apparently believed that it was possible to develop a civic society in Belarus without taking into account factors related to the building and consolidation of national consciousness of Belarusians.

Such a belief with regard to Belarus is especially puzzling as one inspects the patterns of postcommunist transition in Belarus's neighbors -- Poland, Lithuania, or Ukraine. In all of these countries, the "nationalist factor" -- the will to break away with the Soviet suppression of the development of national (nationalist) aspirations -- seemed to play a no lesser role than the "economic factor" -- the will to transform the inefficient socialist economy model. It also cannot be overlooked that the traditionally strong "nationalist" countries -- such as Poland or Lithuania -- are now nearly meeting Western standards of democracy. Ukraine -- where civil society institutions are hardly stronger than in Belarus -- also seems to be sheltered from sliding into the "Eurasian political fold" by its "stronghold of nationalism" in Galicia and other western regions.

It is no wonder that Belarus's "nationalism" is the weakest among the former Soviet republics. Unlike Ukrainians, Belarusians have had no sponsor of their national identity in the past. Western Ukraine has benefited, in terms of nation building, from the Austro-Hungarian rule in the 19th century. As for Belarus, there was no such sponsor -- both Poland and Russia viewed Belarusian lands as their fiefdom and tried to Polonize or Russianize their inhabitants. The fact that the Belarusian national identity has survived until today is a miracle in itself.

It seems that in the face of a prolonged unsuccessful effort to build a "non-nationalist" civic society in Belarus, it is time to admit at last that Belarus's return to Europe -- as that of Ukraine -- should be assisted through providing comprehensive support to initiatives oriented toward the building of Belarusian national identity. Such a view of today's Belarusian affairs implies, in particular, that printing a Belarusian-language book or newspaper in Minsk or another Belarusian city is no less important that organizing an anti-Lukashenka rally.

CONTROVERSY OVER POLISH MILITARY CEMETERY IN LVIV BECOMES DIVISIVE. Since Ukraine's declaration of independence in 1991, its Western neighbor, Poland, has been a stalwart supporter on the international stage, backing Ukraine's hopes for closer ties with the European Union, financial help from international institutions like the International Monetary Fund, and cooperation with NATO. Poland's motivations cannot be said to be completely altruistic. To a large extent, its support of Ukraine is driven by Poland's desire for Russia not to dominate Poland's near eastern neighbors.

The history of relations between Ukrainians and Poles has often been a bloody one. The area that is now western Ukraine was in the past often ruled by Poland and marked by Ukrainian uprisings against that rule, most prominently in the 17th and 20th centuries.

West Ukrainians declared independence after World War I and competed with Poles for the territory -- known in Polish as Galicia and in Ukrainian as Halychyna -- and the historic city of Lviv that dominated the area. Outnumbered Ukrainians lost a 1918-20 war with the Poles. West Ukraine remained a part of Poland until 1939 when the Germans and Soviets attacked and dismembered Poland.

After World War II, western Ukraine, including Lviv, was incorporated into Soviet Ukraine and there is still bitterness about the expulsion from the area of hundreds of thousands of Poles and the expulsion from Poland of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians.

During the time of their rule, Poles dedicated the Lychakivskyy cemetery in Lviv to the nearly 3,000 Polish soldiers who died in the 1918-20 conflict. The Poles called it the Eaglets Cemetery. During the Soviet era, much of it was destroyed. After 1991, Polish organizations began to restore the cemetery and for years now it has drawn thousands of visitors paying homage to the fallen Polish soldiers.

Last week, Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski and his Ukrainian counterpart, Leonid Kuchma, were scheduled to meet at the cemetery to officially open it and unveil a new plaque which was supposed to carry the inscription "To the unknown soldiers who heroically fell for Poland in 1918-20."

However, the Lviv City Council objected to the inclusion of the word "heroically," saying a plaque at a nearby cemetery holding the remains of Ukrainian fighters killed in the same conflict does not refer to them as heroes.

Kwasniewski expressed "regret and disappointment" at the Lviv council's opposition and said he would postpone his trip until the matter had been resolved. He also said the decision was a blow to the spirit of Ukrainian-Polish reconciliation but added that bilateral relations would not be disrupted.

Although the dispute seems to revolve around a single word, it demonstrates the strong feelings of some in Lviv who still remember with bitterness Polish rule and the conflict between the two peoples.

But the Polish ambassador to Ukraine, Marek Ziolkowski, said the issue would not be allowed to derail relations between the two countries: "Of course, for President [Kwasniewski], the matter is a sad one," Ziolkowski noted. "But it does not influence his stance toward Ukraine, his fundamental belief that Ukraine is and will be our strategic partner, and that the success of our bilateral relations depends on the success of political and economic reforms in Ukraine."

A spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, Serhiy Borodenkov, also said he did not believe the issue would cause permanent harm to Ukrainian-Polish relations: "I would like to emphasize that no situation, no such incidents [as the cemetery dispute] can influence the development of bilateral relations between Ukraine and Poland."

But Borodenkov also said the dispute must be resolved at the local Lviv level. He said President Kuchma could order the plaque to be completed according to Polish wishes, but that without local agreement there could be no guarantee that "hooligans," as the spokesman put it, will not try to deface the monument.

A Ukrainian parliament deputy from Lviv, Ihor Ostash, said that the often unhappy relationship between Ukrainians and Poles in the past continues to cast a shadow over present relations: "This is indeed a problem of our history," Ostash noted. "And it's clear that this history is not distant and therefore still close to the hearts of many Ukrainians and Poles, particularly in Lviv."

Ostash put some of the blame on Ukraine's central government, saying that it had not consulted enough with the authorities in Lviv before agreeing to the ceremony at the cemetery with the two presidents in attendance: "We, members of the Ukrainian parliament, understand very well that in this situation Lviv's deputies have the last word and one has to respect their competence in this instance and to understand that they have been elected by the voters of Lviv and therefore they should have the final say," Ostash aid. "But I also think this is an example of disagreement between the Kyiv [central] government and that of Lviv, and much of this situation could have been avoided if there had been sufficient forethought."

Taras Voznyak, a political observer and the editor of a cultural and political magazine in Lviv, agreed. He said some people in both the Polish and Ukrainian communities, many of them elderly, are unwilling to compromise on their differing perceptions of the past. He cites the presence of some 40 cemeteries for Ukrainian fighters situated in Poland that have yet to be properly honored.

Voznyak said these matters could only be resolved by representatives of those people deeply involved in the issue -- and not by the Ukrainian and Polish presidents: "This issue has historical roots, and the failure to resolve it is because efforts have not been made with the communities themselves, either with the Polish or Ukrainian communities."

Much of the restoration work at the cemetery has been done by private Polish organizations with backing from Polish businessmen operating in Ukraine. Jaroslaw Nowacki, the vice president of the International Polish Businessmen's Association in Ukraine, said: "I see the problems associated with this cemetery as being composed of three aspects. The first aspect is history, and whatever we do we will not defeat history. As I understand it, Lviv was once Ruthenian, then Polish, then Russian, and now it's Ukrainian. And one should not dismember a historical monument that was constructed by our Polish grandfathers, or Ukrainian grandfathers, or Russian grandfathers."

The second aspect, he said, was that the Ukrainian and Polish governments had signed an agreement regarding the monument and, in a democratic society, that accord should be respected. But he said the third aspect was probably the most important: "The third aspect of this issue concerning the Lychakivskyy cemetery is that of our future," Nowacki noted. "The problem of understanding history for us Poles was also very pertinent in our western territories, which we gained from the Germans in 1945. We know this problem and if we constantly look back over our shoulders we will not construct something new. We have to look forward."

Another member of parliament from Lviv, Taras Chornovil, condemned those from the Lviv council who had started the dispute. He said many of those opposing the wording on the plaque may be ultra-Ukrainian nationalists -- but he does not discount the possibility that some people, especially those who are pro-Moscow, deliberately want to disrupt Polish-Ukrainian relations. He said Poland has been a good friend to Ukraine since independence.

"The fundamental thing is that in Lviv -- under pressure from a small, marginalized group that still lives as if the Ukrainian-Polish war of 1918-20 was happening -- the city council could not reach a balanced, normal resolution," Chornovil said. "For the Polish side, there was one principal matter -- that the people who lie in this cemetery were heroes, that they died heroically. Why should we contradict this? Why should we oppose the idea that they died a genuinely heroic death? We should understand that you do not battle with the dead. The Ukrainian-Polish war finished a long time ago and the resolution of this problem should be swift. Otherwise we are preparing for [Ukraine] a place not in Western Europe, but in that Eurasian space that many are trying to consign us to."

(RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky wrote this report.)

JACEK KURON'S OPINION: WHAT IS THIS ALL ABOUT? On 23 May, "Gazeta Wyborcza" ran a comment on the Polish-Ukrainian cemetery controversy by Jacek Kuron, a famous dissident of the communist era and a minister in Tadeusz Mazowiecki's cabinet, Poland's first noncommunist government. The comment was entitled "I Understand the Anger of Ukrainians."

Kuron said he had been born and brought up in Lviv, where he had lived until the age of 10. He stressed that the respect for the Polish soldiers who fell in the fight with Ukrainians for Lwow (the Polish name for the city) was part of his patriotic education. He added, however, that he understands the objections of Ukrainians to having the Polish military cemetery -- "a monument to the triumph of Polish arms," as he put it -- in the city regarded by many as "the heart of Ukraine."

"All this noise that we have now been hearing in the media to the effect that we do not understand why Lviv councilors have objections to the Eaglets Cemetery is infantile," Kuron told a "Gazeta Wyborcza" reporter. "Neither for Ukrainians nor for us is the point in the inscriptions [at the cemetery]. Let's have the courage to acknowledge this. The point for the Lviv councilors is not in the improper adjectives, like 'independent' Poland or 'heroically fell.' We know that the reasons are different. It is obvious that in the fratricidal war [of 1918-20] people fell heroically on both sides, and on both sides people fought for independence. The point is that we are forcing Ukrainians to accept the fact that this pantheon [dedicated to] the triumph of Polish arms is to be in the city which they consider the heart of Ukraine, [that this pantheon is] to remind them about their defeat in 1918. No place or city in Poland has a pantheon dedicated to the triumph of German, Russian, or some other arms. Poland would not accept this."

Kuron went on to say: "We, the Poles, should not pretend to be surprised. Let's speak straightforwardly that this pantheon is important for us, let's quit speaking about some inscriptions [or] words, this is infantile, at least from our side. I understand Ukrainians, they feel uncomfortable, there is big politics involved. Poland is a big chance for Ukraine on its path toward Europe, so [the Lviv City Council objections to the Eaglets Cemetery] took the form of sidestepping, in order not to offend Poland and, at the same time, to save their national pride.

"I do not propose to ruin this pantheon, let's not ruin anything any longer. Let's try to understand each other. Let's imagine [for a moment] that such a pantheon was erected in Przemysl [a Polish city on the border with Ukraine] in order to commemorate the triumph of Ukrainians arms! If we still want to inscribe something, perhaps the Polish side should agree to an inscription in the two languages: To those who heroically fell in the struggle for an independent a fratricidal fight." [Ed. note: ellipses as in 'Gazeta Wyborcza']."

"The [prewar Polish] residents of Lwow were carrying with them memories of [Poland's eastern] borderlands while the expelled Germans were carrying memories of Breslau. In a sense, postwar Wroclaw is a continuation of Lwow, not Breslau. I consider today's Wroclaw a great achievement of the integration of uprooted people who came there from all parts of Poland." -- British historian Norman Davies who has recently co-authored a book about Breslau/Wroclaw; quoted by the weekly "Wprost" on 26 May.

"We're quite a distance away from starting Ukraine on the formal process toward [NATO] membership." -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on 26 May in St. Petersburg, Russia, in response to Kyiv's announcement last week to seek NATO membership.