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Stand Up And Be Counted: Ethnic Poles In Belarus Gear Up For Census

Some Belarusians are making bogus claims of Polish ancestry to qualify for a "Polish Card" that entitles Belarusians to work and study in the EU. (file photo)
Some Belarusians are making bogus claims of Polish ancestry to qualify for a "Polish Card" that entitles Belarusians to work and study in the EU. (file photo)

Poles in Belarus are gearing up to be literally counted in an upcoming nationwide census, hoping bigger numbers will translate into political power.

Between the census taken in 1999 and the one in 2009, the number of people identifying themselves as ethnic Poles dropped by nearly 25 percent, from some 400,000 to 300,000.

Activists aren't surprised. They say longtime President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has cracked down on the country's Polish community, refusing to recognize the biggest organization representing them and targeting its leaders while backing a government-friendly alternative.

In a nation that shares a border with Poland, rights to education in Polish have eroded as well. The only Polish-language kindergarten closed a few years ago. Authorities are limiting enrollment, activists claim, to the only two Polish-language secondary schools in the nation of 9.5 million.

At the same time, some are making bogus claims of Polish ancestry to qualify for a "Polish Card" that entitles Belarusians to work and study in the EU member state, making it a hot commodity.

The leader of the "I Remember Who I Am" campaign said some are afraid to acknowledge their heritage, fearing it could lead to harassment or even persecution, as happened in the Soviet era.

"We are carrying out this campaign to remind young Poles who they are. We only appeal to those of Polish descent," said Miraslau Kaptsevich, leader of the Young Kresy Foundation, which is hoping to boost the number of ethnic Poles who identify themselves as such in the census.

On the foundation's Facebook page, people have posted photos of themselves, many holding signs with the catchphrase, "I remember who I am!"

In Belarus, ethnic Poles live mainly in areas that were part of Poland during World War II, with the highest concentrations in the Hrodna and Brest regions, two areas where the Young Kresy foundation is active.

Rosie The Riveter

In those two places, its activists have plastered kiosks and other public spaces with flyers nearly identical to the iconic 1943 U.S. World War II poster of Rosie the Riveter, with the slogan "I remember who I am!" This one shows a determined worker flexing a bicep tattooed with the Polish Eagle crest, her sleeve pulled up and sporting a red-and-white Polish flag.

Kaptsevich, like others, is convinced the actual number of ethnic Poles in Belarus is much higher than indicated by official data. He says that the more Poles who come forward in the census count -- scheduled to take place from October 4 to October 30 -- the better off they will all be.

Higher numbers, he hopes, would translate into political weight to push their demands. Top of the list: The right to study in Polish.

Belarus now has only two Polish-language secondary schools, in Hrodna and in Vaukavysk, both built in the mid-1990s with financing from Poland.

Some parents who wanted to send their children to these two schools have found the doors shut to them.

In 2015, the Union of Poles in Belarus (ZPB), which promotes the Polish language and culture, accused Hrodna regional educational authorities of deliberately limiting the number of children admitted to the two Polish schools.

The ZPB called on Lukashenka to "stop the discrimination [against] Polish children" and "put an end to harassment of Polish language teachers."

The government's relations with the Polish minority have always been tense. In 2005, Lukashenka branded ethnic Poles as a "fifth column" bent on destabilizing his regime.

Belarus does not officially recognize the ZPB, which Warsaw sees as the sole legal representative of the ethnic Polish community in Belarus. Instead, Minsk has promoted a rival, pro-government Polish body.

ZPB leader Andzelika Borys was tried earlier this year on charges of illegally organizing a Polish-themed market, a prosecution she called a "joke" and a politically motivated effort to intimidate the country's Polish community. In April, a court in Hrodna dropped the charges.

'Perfectly Normal'

Given the hardships Poles in Belarus face, the I Remember Who I Am! campaign is "perfectly normal," according to Andrey Paczobut, a journalist and activist with the unsanctioned ZPB.

"If someone is calling on Poles to say they are Polish, in conditions when the government and a part of civil society is convinced there are no Poles in Belarus, but only Polonized Belarusians, then that appeal is absolutely normal."

Andrzej Paczobut (file photo)
Andrzej Paczobut (file photo)

Paczobut also says Poles may be hiding their identity as in Soviet times, in part out of fears it could put a brake on their careers. In addition, he believes Lukashenka's government may be undercounting national minorities to explain away Belarus's overall population drop of 650,000 between 1989 and 2009.

"Alyaksandr Lukashenka is dealing with a difficult situation. He's ruled the country for 25 years. It's like everything is great. You turn on the television, and you hear about all the successes. But the population continues to drop. And, to explain that, he points to the declining number of national minorities."

A complication is that according to Kaptsevich, the draw of work, study, or life in the EU leads some citizens of Belarus to claim Polish identity without grounds.

"The number of young people applying for the "Polish Card" is increasing. At the [Polish] Consulate they sign a document stating they are Polish…. But in fact, they are actually [ethnic] Belarusians or Russians." Kaptsevich told RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

In any case, Paczobut is skeptical about whether the I Remember Who I Am! campaign will have any impact at all, even if many heed its call. He worries that regardless of the true number of people identifying themselves as Poles in the census, the authorities will plug in a number that suits their needs.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

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    RFE/RL's Belarus Service

    RFE/RL's Belarus Service is one of the leading providers of news and analysis to Belarusian audiences in their own language. It is a bulwark against pervasive Russian propaganda and defies the government’s virtual monopoly on domestic broadcast media.

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