With the current war in neighbouring Ukraine dominating media headlines, less attention than before is being paid to the internal repression that continues unchecked in Belarus. There are currently some 1,400 political prisoners in Belarus, many of whom are being tortured during interrogation and kept in unhealthy overcrowded prisons. Some prisoners have been dying in unexplained but sinister circumstances.
Other members of the opposition, like former presidential candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya , operate abroad. The Belarusian dictator, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has been consolidating his power base following his fraudulent election victory in 2020, and is now assisting Vladimir Putin in the war against Ukraine.
Lukashenko is increasingly hostile to his immediate western neighbours following their support for the democratic opposition and their hostility to Putin’s invasion, and he is now turning against the national minorities that identify with those countries. In particular, he is persecuting the indigenous Polish minority, which have been settled in the western border territories of Belarus, especially in the Hrodna province, since the 15th century.
A strong and distinctive cultural community
Questionable official Belarusian statistics from the 2009 census indicate the Polish population of Belarus at 295,000. However, according to the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the number may be as high as 1,100,000. At around 3.1% of the total population, they form the second-largest ethnic minority in the country after the Russians. At least 162,000 of them have now applied for Polish identity cards.
They are also distinguished by their religion, as the Catholic Church in Belarus is often identified as the ‘Polish faith’. There were more than 200 Roman Catholic parishes listed in Belarus, often run by Polish-speaking priests. In 2007, out of 470 Catholic priests, 181 were Polish citizens.
Belarus underwent intense Russification under Soviet rule, which led to the suppression of all non-Russian languages, including even Belarusian. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 led to the re-emergence of a Polish self-identity, the opportunity to speak Polish and to allow Polish culture to flourish.
Following a Polish-Belarusian treaty, signed in 1992, several independent Polish cultural and social organisations emerged, including the Union of Poles in Belarus (ZPB) with 20,000 members, the Polish Education Society (PMS), the Polish Institute in Minsk, the Mickiewicz Museum in Novogrudok, and Polish cultural centres in Lida, Mogilev and other towns in Belarus. Four Polish day schools were set up with funds raised in Poland, including the largest in Hrodna, with 620 pupils, offering them the chance to study afterwards in a Polish university with a Polish scholarship.
A rich Polish culture extends back in history to when the whole of Belarus was part of the religiously tolerant Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and when Polish was the language of the social elites. This historic tradition, as well as the Polish minority’s distinctly Roman Catholic faith, had always been resented by the Russian-speaking authorities in Belarus, and that includes Lukashenko himself.
Polish identity under grave threat
In March last year following the popular annual celebrations of a Polish saint, five ZPB local leaders were arrested on trumped charges of organising illegal gatherings. Three of them were expelled permanently with their families to Poland, but chair Andżelika Borys, and ZPB vice-chairman, the journalist Andrzej Poczobut, remained in prison. They were charged under article 130 para 3 of the criminal code of the Belarusian Republic “for inciting national and religious hatred and furthering discord on the basis of national, religious and linguistic identity, as well as the rehabilitation of Nazism”.
Borys was released from prison in March this year because of her poor health and is currently awaiting trial under house arrest. Her colleague, Poczobut, who is also correspondent for the Polish liberal newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, has been languishing in prison for more than 600 days, awaiting trial. According to Philipp Fritz of Die Welt, he could be facing a 12-year sentence, or perhaps even the death penalty. Apart from accusations of “rehabilitating Nazism”, he is supposed to be guilty of calling for sanctions, “whose aim would be to undermine national security”. He is listed on the Belarus national register of ‘terrorists’.
After abolishing the Union of Poles, the regime has turned to eradicating the Polish language in schools. Since September, in contravention of nationality minority rights in the Belarusian constitution and despite massive protests by parents, all four Polish day schools, in Hrodna, Vaŭkavýsk, Mogilev and Brest, have been transformed into Russian-speaking schools, and the headmistress of the school in Brest, Anna Paniszewa, was even arrested in March last year for teaching Polish history.
The new Education Code, introduced last year, bans education centres in Belarus from teaching in minority languages. Similar restrictions have led to the closure of two Lithuanian language schools and two Ukrainian ones. There would be no more state examinations in the Polish language.
In September the Supreme Court decreed the winding up of the Polish Education Society and confiscated their new headquarters in Hrodna. At the same time, the local Polish Cultural Centres in Belarus had been closed down, one by one, and their property, which had been funded by cultural organizations in Poland, was confiscated. Polish cultural activities, like dances and plays, could only take place clandestinely in private accommodation.
Eradication of a culture
Lukashenko is also trying to eradicate traces of Poland’s past. The local authorities in Lida are planning to destroy the local Catholic cemetery, first opened in 1797. It includes many historic Polish funerary monuments and the graves of Polish airmen and soldiers. Since June at least 12 cemeteries with Polish home army graves have been levelled to the ground. Pavel Latushko, former Belarusian ambassador to Poland, has blamed this destruction on a desire for vengeance against Poland.
Because of past good relations between the Vatican and the Belarusian government, following a meeting between Pope Francis and Lukashenko in the Vatican in 2016, Catholic churches still remain open, as well as the Catholic Seminary in Hrodna. However, most priests with Polish citizenship have been forced to leave, and fear of prosecution prevents any independent cultural activities, Polish or otherwise, in churches.
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz of Minsk, a Belarusian citizen with Polish roots, had been barred from returning to Belarus from Poland, after he had prayed for political prisoners in Belarus outside the walls of a prison. His successor, Archbishop Staneuski, is seeking a less confrontational approach in accordance with Vatican guidance, but in August he compared what is happening in Belarus with the fratricide of Abel by Cain.
In September, after a minor fire in a backroom, the iconic 19th century Catholic ‘Red Church’ in the centre of Minsk (it was called ‘red’ because of its distinctive red brickwork) was closed for an indefinite period, despite an appeal by the Catholic Church hierarchy.
Fulfilling the ideology of the Kremlin
“Belarus is under Russian occupation, and the authorities in Minsk are fulfilling the ideology of the Kremlin”, says Andrzej Pisalnik, editor of the popular Polish website znadniemna.pl and ZPB activist. Following his recent arrest, he and his wife agreed to repatriation to Poland when their ten-year-old son was threatened with being sent to a children’s home.
Tsikhanouskaya , the exiled leader of the democratic movement in Belarus, has called the closure of Polish schools in Hrodna province an act of revenge for the support that Poland has given to the Belarusian opposition, and President Zelensky in Ukraine. There have been international protests in Poland and Lithuania, but Western countries have until now shown little interest in calling out this relentless persecution of a national minority.
On 24 November the European Parliament condemned the repressions against the opposition in Belarus and the suppression of democracy and human rights, including also the rights of the Polish minority, and described the country as being under “Russian occupation”.
Not only Polish culture is under threat from Russification. Belarusian democratic leader Aleksandar Milinkievič believes that “Belarus is undergoing the Soviet policy of destroying national identity and ending the teaching in languages other than Russian”. Even the Belarusian language in schools faces extinction, as it may be relegated solely now to the teaching of Belarusian history.