Years of appeasing Lukashenko are backfiring: assessing Warsaw’s policy towards Belarus

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Poland’s foreign policy as regards Aleksander Lukashenko’s regime has not been subject to much change since he became president in 1994. Relations between the two countries have tended to be warm, with Poland at times being the regime’s only ally West of Russia. This was the case until Belarus’ 2020 elections. Like previous ones, it witnessed widespread electoral fraud and repressions. When the results were announced, giving Lukashenko 80% of the vote, it triggered mass protests on the streets of Minsk and other major Belarusian cities. The protests were ruthlessly put down by the army and police. The scale of the regime’s electoral manipulation and brutality against civilians was too much even for some of Lukashenko’s previous allies. By supporting Lukashenko, even tacitly through years of inaction, Poland is losing its credibility as a geopolitical partner in the region. Moreover, the government continues to act against the wishes of the majority of Poles who oppose sponsoring dictatorships from a bygone era. All in all, Warsaw has gained little, either politically or economically, from supporting Lukashenko and needs to start exerting pressure on him to step down.

For years Lukashenko has managed to balance his country between East and West. He has been able to reap the benefits of cooperation with Poland whilst not antagonising Russia, on which it is still dependent for most of its imports, including energy.

The bridge with the West offered to him by Poland, a member of the EU with close links to former Soviet Republics, has had a curbing effect on Russian ambitions threatening the independence of Belarus, at least to an extent. Belarus maintains close economic and political ties with Russia but Lukashenko has in the past complained about Putin’s ambitions to fully integrate the two into one state. Having a friend from within the EU allowed Lukashenko to create breathing space between Belarus and Putin’s Russia.

Poland and Belarus are connected by years of shared history and culture. Poland is home to a large Belarusian minority and vice versa. Both countries engage in cross-border economic and cultural cooperation. As a result, Poland has seemed the natural mediator between the EU and Belarus. Nonetheless, appeals by the Polish Prime Minister for the EU to protect democracy in Belarus must have been met with raised eyebrows in Brussels. The Polish government is itself under investigation by the EU over potential rule of law violations.

Aside from more recent appeals by senior leaders, Warsaw’s approach towards the pro-democracy protests in Belarus has been slow and indecisive. It was after all Lithuania that took the initiative in opposing Lukashenko’s claim to the presidency in the early days of the political unrest and established itself as the main EU member state with any clear policy on the issue. Lithuania’s policy in favour of Belarusian democracy was further reflected in its refuge of opposition leader, Svetlana Cihanouska, who fled to Lithuania in order to avoid further persecution.

Years of appeasing Lukashenko and an undecisive approach to the Belarus crisis are now backfiring on Warsaw. Not only was appeasement morally dubious from the start but the argument by successive governments that it is better to preserve a stable dictatorship than an unstable democracy in Belarus is no longer sustainable. Belarus has been in turmoil since the election, the regime is weak and even Putin is not willing to uphold it at all costs. Simultaneously, a limited condemnation from Poland has led to massive backlash from the regime it has sought to appease.

Lukashenko’s regime has not hesitated in waging a propaganda war against its former ally. When the protests in Belarus erupted, state propaganda immediately began fabricating the threat of a Polish invasion. State television falsely claimed that Poland was amassing troops on the border to take advantage of the unrest and occupy the region of Grodno, an area with a significant Polish population.

The regime used the threat of Polish aggression to discredit the protests by suggesting they were either being controlled by Warsaw or were at the very least playing into the hands of Poland. This propaganda mechanism was based on the difficult history of Polish rule in Belarus and the claim by the regime that Lukashenko is the only guarantee of Belarus’ independence from either Poland/Lithuania/NATO or Russia.

During the election, police arrested journalists from Polish-owned Belsat TV, one of the few independent news outlets in the country. The network is run by independent Belarusian journalists. 

In March 2021, Belarusian police arrested the leader of the Union of Poles in Belarus, the largest Polish diaspora organisation in the country, Andżelika Borys. The Polish minority in Belarus are increasingly becoming a target of state repression as the regime increases anti-Polish rhetoric. The Polish government has an obligation to protect Poles abroad and a moral responsibility to stand up for oppressed Belarusian citizens. President Lukashenko’s threat in April that Poles in Belarus ‘will be hit hard’ only further highlights the urgency for a change in policy from Warsaw.

Poland’s policy towards Belarus desperately needs clarity. A ‘soft’ approach has not prevented Lukashenko from using Poland as a scapegoat, and has instead further undermined Warsaw in the eyes of the EU that appears to have suddenly remembered the existence of Lukashenko’s regime. Poland has failed to utilise its proximity and connections in order to play a more important role in relations between Brussels and its eastern neighbours, Ukraine and Belarus.

Poland’s increasingly authoritarian regime was always a problematic element to the Union. Add to this Warsaw’s dubious alliances with Orbán’s Hungary and Trump’s America. Today, Poland toys with another alarming alliance with Matteo Salvini, who does not hide his pro-Kremlin sympathies. Without risking irrationality, one can be concerned about Poland’s reluctance to denounce Lukashenko as more than just cautious diplomacy – a signal towards a broader shift in policy towards Russia.

Warsaw’s current policy towards Belarus is largely a continuation of that exercised by previous governments. However, the incumbent government’s increasing clashes with the EU over its domestic policies risks pushing it closer to Putin’s Russia.

It is clear that a great shift is required in the way Poland conducts its foreign policy. Poles are tired of blemishes and fiascos on the international stage. The ‘Eastern question’ is a case in point. In 2014 Poland was not invited to Minsk to participate in talks between Ukraine, Russia and separatists, mediated by France and Germany. In Poland this was seen as a confirmation that its geopolitical importance in the region was marginal.

Law and Justice in 2015 promised that their foreign policy would make Poland an important geopolitical player. Instead the opposite has occurred. Conflict with the EU over rule of law means that Poland has lost allies and credibility within the bloc. Its previous support for Trump only alienated the current Biden administration. The misjudged policy towards Belarus is emblematic of Poland’s broader international conduct.

Ultimately, Poland should be representing the Belarusian struggle in EU political debate, and taking an active role in defending human rights by exerting political pressure on Lukashenko to step down. Perhaps this is too much to ask from a government who uses the same tricks from the Lukashenko handbook when dealing with its own waves of civil protests.

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All views expressed are the writer’s own.

Article Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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