President Lukashenko takes hardline vis-a-vis Poland
Amid the crisis in Ukraine and in the absence of resources to pump people’s incomes, the Belarusian authorities attempt consolidating society ahead of the elections by using an ‘external enemy’ factor and focus on maintaining political stability and keeping destabilising factors under control. In this context, Lukashenko traditionally toughens rhetoric in relation to Poland and the Polish minority organizations. In this way, the authorities not only seek to ensure support by the most ‘disloyal’ Grodno region, but also want to influence the Polish foreign policy towards Belarus ahead of the presidential elections.
President Lukashenko made a working visit to the Grodno region and held a meeting in the Grodno Oblast Executive Committee, during which he touched upon the ‘Polish issue’.
The president is very wary of the Grodno region and regards it as one of the least loyal. Before his visit to Grodno, President Lukashenko met with the KGB Chairman Vladimir Vakulchik and asked for information about the situation in region. In particular, he said, “not only that I am wary of it, I remember how it was before. There was the only case in the county when the governor was shot. ... I know, that some states have overwhelming ambitions in the Grodno region”. In addition, the President drew particular attention of the KGB to the fight against corruption and reminded that the change of power in Kyiv and the conflict that followed were mainly due to the high corruption levels.
Traditionally, Minsk accuses Warsaw of manipulating the ethnic Polish minority in Belarus, which mainly resides in the Grodno region, and of attempts to influence the domestic political landscape.
It should be noted that the Belarusian authorities usually increase repressions against the Polish minority organsations in the pre-election period and exacerbate relations with Warsaw. For example, in early 2010, during the thaw in the Belarus-EU relations, the Belarusian authorities had forced leadership change in the Union of Poles’ Ivanets branch and transferred the property of the Polish House to the loyal Polish minority organisation. In 2005, one year before the presidential elections, the Union of Poles in Belarus was prompted to split into two organisations. In both cases, Poland recalled her ambassadors to Warsaw for consultations.
While in Grodno, the Grodno Oblast Executive Committee reported to Lukashenko about the prospects for socio-economic development in the region and the latter once again underscored, “I have no intention to flirt with anyone. Flirting leads to the collapse, disintegration of the state. As soon as we start dividing our country based on nationality, you know what will happen – there is an example in the south”.
Apart from some security issues raised by Lukashenko in the Grodno region, the main topic for the discussion was the development of the energy system in Belarus and the construction of hydroelectric power plants. Grodno hydroelectric plant, built in 2012, has 17 MW generating capacity and is the leading hydro-power plant in Belarus. Belarus has plans to complete the construction of other hydro-power plants in 2015: Polotsk hydro-power with generating capacity of 21.75 MW, Vitebsk hydro-power (40 MW, both on the Western Dvina), and Neman hydropower (20 MW) on the Neman River. However, currently Belarus has no resources to implement large-scale projects to ensure her energy independence. Lukashenko therefore said there was no need to boost these plans’ implementation, “If today, or at least tomorrow, but not the day after tomorrow the desired effect is not achieved, then we will think what to do next. If I had spare money, I would have invested. But in the current circumstances, the question is whether we should spend such amounts on it and build these stations”.
It is clear that when the presidential campaign starts, the main candidate will not put the focus on the economy. Therefore, the focus will be on preserving the political stability and the fighting against ‘destabilising’ factors (primarily corruption). In this context, the authorities are likely to step up repressions in relation to the non-registered Union of Poles in Belarus.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.