The EU’s sanctions should apply to a much higher number of Belarusian authorities.
Vice-chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Polish Sejm, head of the parliamentary group on Belarus Robert Tyszkiewicz gave an exclusive interview to charter97.org.
- You live in the Podlasie province of Poland, where according to the recent census more than 40 thousand residents consider themselves Belarusian. In what conditions does the Belarusian diaspora live today?
- The Belarusian diaspora is the second largest group in Poland after the German diaspora. Belarusian organizations receive budget funding to preserve the national traditions, for the functioning of their schools, institutions of culture, festivals and other events. Residents of the region have access to Belarusian papers and a radio station. I have never heard about a Belarusian organization being persecuted in Poland politically, as it is happening in Belarus. And I am glad that heads of some districts of our province are proud of the multiculturalism, advertise it and see it as a huge advantage.
- How do the Poles of the Bialystok region treat their Belarusian neighbors?
- These two nations feel as one whole. I met many activists of the Belarusian diaspora when I was a university student. I was around when the Belarusian Student Union was established in Bialystok. Already then we were talking about free and independent Belarus, about restoration of the Belarusian language and traditions. At those times I learnt a lot about the Belarusian history. I grew up in this environment, and the Belarusian issue has always been important for me. Moreover, it is common to visit one’s family and friends in Belarus. For example, in 1989 I made my first trip to Belarus and met many Belarusian oppositionists of the first generation, so to speak.
- Does the name Tyszkiewicz have Belarusian roots?
- It is highly probable. Tyszkiewiczs are an old noble kin with its roots in the times of the Great Duchy of Lithuania. My ancestors were patriots of their land. They took part in liberating uprisings and wars for independence. The Soviet regime sent my grandfather and his family to exile in Kazakhstan. Then he was mobilized to the Polish military unit – the army of General Anders. As a soldier of the unit he went through the entire WWII, took part in the battle at Monte-Casino in Italy, then served in England and finally came back to his family in Poland. Fighting for the allies, he was also fighting for the freedom of his people. That is why in the 80s during the Solidarnosc, my struggle for the freedom of the Polish people began. I celebrated my 20s birthday in prison.
- How many times have you been behind the bars?
- Twice during the martial law. Once a year there was an amnesty as the powers didn’t want too many political prisoners, and twice I was released as a result of such an amnesty. I have never even been tried in court; both times I was released during the investigation period.
- For Lukashenka the political prisoners are his hostages. He releases some of them and immediately replaces them with new. How was it in Poland?
- For me, Lukashenka’s strategy is clear. First of all, the dictatorship is trying to break one’s spirit: the powers make political prisoners appeal for pardon. They do it with only one purpose: to show all of us that these people have recognized the dictator’s power. The same thing was happening during the state of martial law in Poland. Those who had appealed for pardon or in some other way cooperated with the regime were released in the first place. And the appeal for pardon means that directly or indirectly, the prisoner admits the guilt, and the fact that their activity is illegal. Polish officials acted according to the principle “we will release you if you leave the country or sign up for cooperation”. I remember Adam Michnik (ed. note: Polish dissident, opposition activist, presently – editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza) being carried out from the cell, because he preferred prison to the powers’ terms.
In other words, all dictatorships act according to the same scheme. For them, it is most important to destroy the opponent’s spirit, break their dignity. And then the propaganda comes into action and starts to write that the political prisoners are criminal corrupted people who joined the opposition to be able to immigrate to the West. And it’s not new, all dictatorships are similar. They do everything to convince an individual that he or she must serve the powers, not the other way around. Dictators don’t tolerate any demonstration of independence.
- Is it why the Belarusian powers fight so hard against the independent Union of Poles?
- Naturally. In Belarus, the Union of Poles is the independent organization with the highest number of members. Its activists realize that there’ll be no freedom unless the entire civil society is liberated. And for us, it is very important to know the conditions of life of our countrymen abroad. Of course, in Lithuania the Polish minority has problems, too, but they occurred when the Lithuanian part didn’t fulfill several issues of the agreement between our countries. In particular, we disapprove of the Lithuanian spelling of our last names. For example, the Lithuanian variant of the name Tyszkiewicz sounds like Tyshkiavichus. At the same time, while in Lithuania the independent Union of Poles functions with no obstacles, in Belarus activists of the independent Union are persecuted, the powers don’t even want to discuss registration of the organization. Here a violation of the basic human rights is obvious.
- According to the statistics, 10-15 thousand Belarusians cross the Polish border on a daily basis. What can Poland’s – and more particular Bialystok’s – strategy regarding these people be like? How can it help democratization of Belarus?
- The fact that such a high number of people cross the border every day shows the need of special travel policies for the Polish and Belarusian border districts. Poland ratified this document already in 2010. We informed the Belarusian part that all the necessary procedures had been completed, but still we haven’t got a response from Belarus. In Minsk we were told that the ratification process is postponed due to technical problems, but recently Lukashenka has admitted himself that the problem is political.
- Basically he suggests that the Polish part cease its support of the Belarusian civil society, political refugees, Belarusian independent media and organizations located in Poland – and then these policies will be introduced.
- If someone thinks that the Polish government will change its support of the Belarusian opposition, civil society, independent organization in exchange for some compromises of the official Minsk, they’re wrong. This is a fundamental part of our politics, our beliefs, and finally, our responsibility.
When Poland was under the communist regime, democratic countries also helped us to fight it. I still hope that the Belarusian powers will realize that there is no politics in the simplified travel rules for the border districts, that these rules are necessary to make the lives of common people easier. Lukashenka is afraid to sign this document because he doesn’t want the Belarusians to travel abroad and be able to communicate with the free democratic world.
- Belarusian customs officers didn’t allow you to enter Belarus several times. How did they motivate the decision?
- I was told that I am a threat to the national security and the interests of the existing constitutional order of Belarus.
- In your view, why did you become a personal enemy of the Belarusian powers?
- Probably because it was my proposal to form the deputy group For Solidarity with Belarus in the Polish Sejm. And there were deputies who supported this initiative. But the majority voted against it because the deputies in Belarus are appointed – not elected, which means no cooperation with them is possible. So instead of a cross-parliamentary group we decided to form our own group to put the Belarusian issue on the Sejm’s agenda as often as possible.
- How often does the Polish Sejm discuss breaches of democracy and human rights in Belarus?
- I admit that the interest to the Belarusian issue among the Polish parliament members is low. And it is very difficult to keep them focused on Belarus. Today Europe is concerned with its own problems: the economic crisis, the planning of the budget for the coming six years. However, whenever possible, our group reminds politicians about Belarus and our neighbors in captivity. We also remind about all important dates associated with Belarus. We discuss the situation in Belarus at least twice a year during a session of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Commission. This year for the second time we have supported Ales Bialiatski’s being nominated for the Nobel Prize.
- What is the Sejm’s position regarding the sanctions against Lukashenka’s regime?
- Poland fully complies with the European policy of sanctions against the Belarusian regime. Moreover, apart from the EU’s general lists of the Belarusian officials who cannot enter the EU, we have a broader list of the regime’s allies. This list includes the individuals who, in our view, must be on the general list, but still aren’t.
Poland was one of the parties behind the economic sanctions against Lukashenka. But unfortunately, there are countries who are less determined in this issue. The most important thing is that no European country approves of Lukashenka’s politics. The reaction of the European countries when the Polish ambassador was deported from Minsk showed that for the EU, Poland is a reliable expert as far as Belarus is concerned.
Robert Tyszkiewicz is a Polish politician, member of the party Civil Platform. In the 80s he was an activist of the youth group of the Solidarnosc. During his studies in the Bialystok lyceum, he organized an independent union of students and was expelled for striking. He also published underground press. For his oppositional activity, he was imprisoned twice. Today Robert Tyszkiewicz is a Deputy of the Polish Sejm and head of the parliamentary group For Solidarity with Belarus.