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Lukashenko plays the Poland card and ratchets up tensions with Warsaw

The strongman is hunting for an ‘external enemy.’

Belarus' authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko regularly warns his countrymen about the military threat posed by Poland [Pavel Orlovsky/AFP via Getty Images]

WARSAW — Alexander Lukashenko has a lot of opponents at home, so now he’s making even more enemies abroad.

The authoritarian leader of Belarus has unleashed law enforcement against leaders of the country’s small ethnic Polish minority — accounting for about 3 percent of the country’s population of 9.5 million.

“Poland is being made into an external enemy and the minority is linked to Poland. The community thus becomes as a fifth column, an internal enemy that supports the West,” said Andrzej Pisalnik, a journalist and board member of the Association of Poles in Belarus. “Poles in Belarus have become hostages to this cannibal policy [against its own citizens] of the Belarusian authorities.”

Last week, Belarus ordered the arrests of four prominent ethnic Polish activists, including local community leaders Andżelika Borys and Andrzej Poczobut. They have been charged with breaching rules on mass gatherings during an annual folk fair, as well as inciting national and religious hatred that could carry prison sentences of up to 12 years.

Prosecutors cite “illegal mass undertakings” which purportedly honored “anti-Soviet gangs operating during and after the Great Patriotic War” who “plundered and murdered civilians and destroyed property” — in a likely reference to Polish partisans who resisted the introduction of communism after World War II. They said the community’s activities “aimed at rehabilitating Nazism and justifying the genocide of the Belarusian nation.”

It’s part of a ploy by Lukashenko to buttress his support at home.

Before 1939, the western half of Belarus belonged to Poland, and Lukashenko has been keen to stoke tensions with Warsaw. Lukashenko regularly warns his countrymen about the military threat posed by Poland and about Polish nationalist aspirations to recover its lost territories, although no such movement exists in Poland.

“There is a continuous buildup of military presence close to our western and northern borders. Poland and the Baltic states have become a training ground for regular drills and exercises of NATO troops,” Lukashenko warned in December.

The effort to target local Poles comes as the opposition promises to launch another wave of protests this spring to push Lukashenko from power — a program laid out by opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in a recent interview with POLITICO.

“As the protests that fizzled out in autumn return in the spring, there will be stronger domestic opposition, especially as the internal political and economic crisis worsens,” Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz told POLITICO.

“There is a need to create an external enemy, just as during Soviet times all domestic problems were blamed on the activities of foreign enemies … and Lukashenko is a mental Soviet,” said Przydacz, responsible for Poland’s eastern policy.

In response to the arrests, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki accused Lukashenko’s regime of taking “hostages” to intimidate the Polish minority. On Thursday Warsaw banned the Belarusian judge who authorized the 15-day arrest of Borys from entering Poland.

The standoff has now been noticed by the top echelons of European diplomacy.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, called on Belarusian authorities “to immediately and unconditionally” release Borys and Poczobut.

“Targeting Polish minority violates [Belarus’] international commitments for the protection of national minorities,” wrote Gitanas Nausėda, president of Lithuania, which hosts Tikhanovskaya.

Old foes

Lukashenko playing the Poland card is nothing new.

The Association of Poles in Belarus was deregistered in 2005 — with more than 20,000 members it was the country’s largest social organization at the time.

“A big moment was 2004 when as a result of Polish support for the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Lukashenko realized that this minority could become an instrument in the [Belarusian] fight for freedom. After that a wave of repression swept through the community,” said Agnieszka Bieńczyk-Missala, a professor at Warsaw University.

Pisalnik agreed. “We suffered in 2005 because we democratically elected the leaders of our organization, while the authorities wanted to install a puppet,” he said in a phone interview.

It’s not that Lukashenko’s fears of outside interference in the country he has ruled since 1994 are entirely unfounded.

Thousands of Belarusians have moved to Poland to study and for economic reasons, and are being followed by another wave of political refugees.

After protests broke out last August, the Polish government invited Tikhanovskaya during her first official trip abroad to Warsaw and handed her the keys to a villa meant to serve as an “independent embassy of Belarus.”

The country also plays host to Belarusian independent media, including the popular Nexta Live channel and the Belarusian-language Belsat station of Poland’s public television, as well as the headquarters of Karta’97 human rights foundation.

According to Wojciech Konończuk, deputy director of the Center for Eastern Studies think tank in Warsaw, this could in part explain the timing of last week’s arrests.

“They could be seen as Lukashenko’s private revenge for the film revealing his wealth that Nexta released [earlier this month]. Belarusian authorities see the channel and its 22-year-old head as an instrument of Polish and American secret services,” said Konończuk. “We actually thought the crackdown would happen sooner.”

Poles in Belarus are increasingly nervous.

“It is anyone’s guess how wide the group of people [up for arrest] is. For now, we know of five, but each of us is entertaining the possibility that we could be next,” said Pisalnik.

© Maria Wilczek for Politico, 2021

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