Poland is one of the leading states in Eastern and Central Europe, whose political weight is growing dynamically. Poland has played a significant role in the process of detaching post-Soviet countries from Russian orbit and supporting democratic institutions over the past two decades. In 2009, Poland, together with Sweden, initiated the launch of the Eastern Partnership program which aimed to bring the South Caucasus, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova closer to the EU and facilitate the process of strengthening democratic institutions.
From a historical perspective, Polish interests are well expressed in Belarus. Living under the united state – Rzeczpospolita – for centuries also developed cultural and political ties between the Polish and Belarusian peoples, which later became one of the sources of Belarus’ separate national identity and secession from the Russian Empire. This historical relationship is also expressed in the symbols. The flag, coat of arms and state symbols of the Democratic Republic of Belarus (1918-1919) and the independent state of Belarus (before 1995) is so-called Pahonia (Polish: Pogoń; Belarusian: Пагоня), echoes the identical style of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth for centuries. Even today, Pahonia, the red and white flag and symbol are actively used by the Belarusian opposition and can portray as an arrow for foreign policy compass.
Mr. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1995 with an iron fist. He set to build an autocratic state in the 21st century Europe, focusing on economic development, changing foreign policy towards Russia in a friendly way and strengthening his own cronies. But modern challenges need modern answers, and the same leaders and party rarely have the power to carry out an effective reform. In addition, the generation has changed. The process of internalization and the experience gained by young people in European countries have yielded results, and the alleged rigging of the August 2020 elections was not forgiven, which led to a wave of demonstrations and the loss of legitimacy of the government. Lukashenko is trying, and probably will try in the future, to gain a temporary degree of legitimacy through the use of force and threats, but this will hardly replace a public legitimacy.
In these processes Poland can play an important role as a leader, whose plan for Belarus, submitted by its Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, was approved by the European Council in late September. The plan, which was originally submitted to the Visegrad Group (V4) and approved, subsequently discussed at the level of the European institutions, envisages rapid reform of Belarus.
The plan calls for financial and infrastructural assistance and support for the process of building democratic institutions, which is essential for the successful implementation of the plan. But the above-mentioned processes will start only if Belarus agrees to democratize, holds free elections and allows the citizens to express their political will. The Polish plan also implies helping small and medium-sized businesses, which should be able to facilitate not only state institutions, but also ordinary people and their interests to integrate into a large European family. This is accompanied by changes in visa policies: Poland is trying to open its market to Ukraine and Belarus and thus bring the two countries closer. After all, the Polish plan is not one-time or part-time in nature, but rather implies the existence of a long-term financial fund with which Belarus will eventually eliminate the Kremlin’s permanent influence.
Poland’s proposal for Belarus has been informally referred to as the “Marshall Plan”, which is supposed to lead to a political change and economic prosperity, but there was also a call for more involvement. The Head of the Office of the Prime Minister of Poland, Michał Dworczyk expressed regret that not everyone in the EU is as interested in Belarus and its support for the Western opposition as Poland. Prime Minister Morawiecki also met with Svitlana Tsikhanovskaya – Belarus’ main opposition candidate in the presidential election – who was forced to leave for Lithuania after the election. Beyond the political meetings, she also attended a business forum accompanied by representatives of the business sector who do not rule out further investments in Belarus.
It is no coincidence that the Polish plan for Belarus was originally presented and submitted to the Visegrad Group. One of the reasons for this is to strengthen Poland’s position as a leader in Eastern Europe and show that its interest in Belarus is quite strong, even independently of the EU’s common policy. Following the V4’s declaration of support for the plan, the Council of Europe also backed it.
With the active involvement of the Polish side, sanctions were imposed on 40 high-ranking officials of Lukashenko’s government and the issue of further sanctions on individuals remained open. Lukashenko was not on the sanctions list, because it is important from a European perspective that there are other options for the current government beyond the bandwagon of the Kremlin.
During the discussion of the Polish plan, Prime Minister Morawiecki went even further and directly criticized the Nord Stream 2 project, after the completion of which Russian gas will be supplied to Germany via the Baltic Sea, bypassing Eastern European countries. Criticism has intensified against the project due to poisoning Russian opposition leader-Alexei Navalny. The Polish strategy is quite clear – if weakening the Kremlin’s political influence is important for Europe, then it should not accept Eastern Europe as a sphere of influence of Russia, nor should it be allowed to give economic leverage as a political tool to the Kremlin which has been used for years.
The issue of Belarus is as important to Russia as it is to Poland. Belarus is not only an arena for the clash of the Soviet-style and Western ideas but also a geopolitically important territory. Through Belarus, Russia sandwiches the corridor between Poland and the Baltic states. This borderland territory is named after the Suwalki city near the Lithuanian border in Poland. Belarus, on the one hand, and the Russian paramilitary Kaliningrad enclave, on the other hand, are endangering the 100-kilometre long corridor. Despite the great economic potential of the corridor, the importance of this gap remains primarily a political issue. The safety of this artery is fundamentally important for both Poland and the Baltic States. That is why Poland is trying to ensure the existence of the secure and friendly regime along its eastern borders, which will be a kind of guarantee for the reduction of Russian influence and threats over the region and help the further spread of Western values in the post-Soviet states.
The opinions and conclusions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Tbilisi or The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.