All quiet on the western front?
Grodno's Poles ahead of the election
Officially, about 300 000 Poles are living in Belarus. Their unofficial capital is Grodno (or Hrodna) in the far west of the country, only 20 kilometres away from the Polish border. But life as part of a minority group bears challenges of its own. Legend has it that Poles are not only brave in combating external enemies, but also good at infighting. This does not stop at their attitude towards Lukashenko and the upcoming election.
To find the Polish House in Grodno is not a hard thing to do: where the two streets - Dzerzhinskogo and 17th September - cross, stands the brick house of the Union of Poles in Belarus. The statue of Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s national poet, is facing potential visitors. The front door, however, is permanently locked. To open the back door, Grodno chapter’s president Kazimierz Znajdziński arrives personally, combining sports sunglasses with a suit. A Saint George Ribbon is tied to his car antenna.
The Polish House in Grodno. (All photos by the authors.)
“The Union of Poles is an additional social activity”, says Znajdziński, who heads a sports school and has been a FIFA-approved referee formerly. “Nobody is paying us. We are people, Poles, that decided to support the Polish traditions and culture. That’s why this is our Polish House. People come, we talk, organise festivals, contests and cultural events.” He proudly enumerates a number of such events organised by the Polish Union, highlighting their popularity with Grodno citizens.
According to a monitoring conducted by the Union, every fourth of Grodno’s 360 000 inhabitants is Polish or of Polish descent. Indeed, you can feel the Polish heritage lingering in many places of the town, which until 1793 was one of the venues where the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s Sejm was held. Inside Grodno’s famous Jesuit cathedral, there are Polish prayer notes next to advertisements for Polish language courses. One of the main roads is named after Polish writer Eliza Orzeszkowa, who lived in Grodno from 1869 up to her death in 1910. The house where she wrote some of her masterpieces today hosts a library and little museum. As the librarian points out, it is a popular destination for Polish tourists.
Znajdziński in his office.
Znajdziński’s workplace has been in better shape before. The house’s roof is leaking, but there is no money for repair work. He is currently looking for sponsors: “I thought we could ask entrepreneurs of Polish descent, who could help us out with funds for renovation.” The Belarusian authorities help with organising cultural and sports events, but do not sponsor the Union financially anymore.
Because of that, the monthly Polish language newspaper “Głos znad Niemna” had to close down in 2012. “We did not manage to find a sponsor, and because of that, the editor had to resign and the journalists, too”, says Znajdziński. “Today this newspaper does not exist anymore. It had been the voice of the Poles from Grodno county, that’s why it‘s very sad. Many had subscribed. Now Poles are calling me and ask where the newspaper is. What shall I say – it’s not there anymore.”
“Głos znad Niemna” – a newspaper in exile
Znajdziński omits the fact that “Głos” does still exist – except that it is not published by his association anymore. It comes with the stamp “na uchodźstwie” (“in exile”) on the familiar logotype, as its about 1,500 monthly copies are now printed in Poland. Puzzling enough, it is the official newspaper of the Union of Poles in Belarus, which in this case is not Znajdzińskis Union: Ten years ago, the organisation split up, leaving one faction illegal and under persecution.
Left: One of the last numbers of the legal “Głos”, right: April issue of “Głos – in exile”
“In 2005, one year before the presidential election, Belarusian authorities purposefully attempted to bring this relatively uncontrolled association into line“, explains Felix Ackermann, visiting professor at the Belarusian exile European Humanities University in Vilnius, who at that time was staying in Grodno. “In fact, that meant to eliminate them. But people mobilised against it.”
Znajdziński has a different point of view on the split: “That year, a group of Poles decided to plot a scandal, they started to scream that they are being suppressed and persecuted here. They throw mud at Belarus and us and pull us into dirty politics. I don’t call them the ‘second Union’, because there is no second Union. There is only one legal Polish Union, and that is ours, which is officially registered in Belarus. They are just a group of separatists who go to Poland and say ‘Give us money, we are being persecuted in Grodno.’ So the Poles give them money and the Polish Consulate in Grodno supports them, whereas we don’t receive anything.”
The Polish Consulate in Grodno. To the upper left, the illegal Union’s headquarters
The close relationship between the Polish Consulate and the unregistered Union of Poles is also reflected physically, with the seat of the association being situated right behind the Consulate. While to the right of a fence people stand in line to pick up their documents from the Consulate, a path on the left leads to the Union’s headquarters. Inside, a teacher prepares a room for a Polish lesson, some people wait on chairs in the hallway, and doors are being opened and closed.
Grodno-born journalist Andrzej Pisalnik was editor-in-chief of “Głos” before, now he is a foreign correspondent for the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita and works as the spokesman of the unregistered Polish Union. Sitting in his office and checking the latest activity on the organisation’s webpage, he is joined by the incumbent president Mieczysław Jaśkiewicz.
Facing repressions and persecution
“The main problem for our organisation is its illegal status”, Pisalnik says. “Because we had to go underground with our work, we continuously risk to be exposed to repressions. That goes for all of our activists.” Back in the split-up days of 2005, when the former president proved to be a KGB agent and newly elected Andżelika Borys was not recognized by the Belarusian authorities, many activists had been arrested. Pisalnik was sentenced to ten days in prison for taking part in an illegal demonstration and for civil disobedience, while in later years Jaśkiewicz was fined for hooliganism and detained several times. “We don’t have a membership list now”, Pisalnik says with a bitter smile, “because it would be similar to an execution list.”
Left: Mieczysław Jaśkiewicz. Right: Andrzej Pisalnik.
In spite of these circumstances, the Union runs a Polish school on its premises and tries to organise events. “What we cannot do in Grodno, we do in Poland”, explains Pisalnik. But also in Belarus there are some possibilities to be active: “Lately, for example, people went to maintain the Monument for Teachers and Intelligentsia murdered in WW II in Volkovysk. We can do things like that, because you don’t need a permit to go to the cemetery.”
Another option is to rent private estates for events and festivals, as it was done to have the Days of Polish Culture in Volkovysk. “We cannot go into culture houses either, because they are controlled by the state. The directors won’t approve. Thus, we are forced to rent private rooms for our concerts and for other events.” In Grodno, the Union has got a room for 200 people on its premises. “But when 200 people come, it feels like sardines in a can”, says Jaśkiewicz. There is no simple solution to that problem: “Either the Belarusian authorities admit their mistake in 2005 and give us the opportunity to operate legally again – or we stay underground.”
“Lukashenko has but one problem with the Poles in Belarus”
Regarding the upcoming elections, Pisalnik and Jaśkiewicz do not cherish great expectations. “We would expect something if our question appeared on the agenda of negotiations between Belarus and, at least, Poland. Then we would hope for something to change. But right now, there is no such signal.” The Union itself is not political, they claim: “We are in conflict with the authority, but that does not mean that all of our members are of the same opinion regarding the president. We don’t reject those who sympathize with Lukashenko or who consider the elections to be fair. We have radical oppositional as well as pro-government members. The only thing that unites us is the opinion that the other Polish Union is not real, but fictional. Lukashenko has but one problem with the Poles in Belarus. He tried to ‘correct’ our organisation applying his methods, and we disagreed.”
Roughly one kilometre away from Pisalnik, Jaśkiewicz and the Consulate, Kazimierz Znajdziński tells a contrasting story about the Belarusian president’s stance on the minority: “Alexander Lukashenko came to Grodno, met with the people and the authorities and correctly said: ‘These are my Poles, they voted for me.’” Znajdziński will vote for Lukashenko, because he does not see any alternative: “Today there is nobody who could replace him.” Even though, he insists that the Union he represents is not political at all and does not urge its members to go voting. “Everybody should make their own choice for a worthy Belarus.”
However, this choice will hardly bring about any changes for either of the Polish Unions.