2015 did not bring any breakthrough in the Polish-Belarusian relations; the dominating aspects were the interactions between the two countries at the regional level. Although there are some unsolved issues of the Union of Poles in Belarus and the small border traffic, a return to normal neighborly relations seems all the more probable due to the improvement of relations between Belarus and the European Union as a whole. In 2015 the Belarusian President ordered the release of all people recognized by the EU as political prisoners, which was the main condition of returning to the dialogue between Brussels and Minsk. In response to this step and to calm presidential elections the EU decided to suspend the sanctions in October last year, and to remove them altogether on February 15, 2016. As a result, Poland and Belarus have a chance for a greater potential to use their neighborhood and joint historical heritage for the development of tourism and economy.
- Gradual development of relations between the Polish and Belarusian regions focused on economic cooperation, historical and cultural dialogue;
- The lack of progress in bilateral relations, connected with activities of the Union of Poles in Belarus or implementation of the agreement on small border traffic;
- Decrease in trade turnover between the two countries in comparison with the previous years;
- Increase in chances of expansion of bilateral cooperation, thanks to the development of relations between the EU and Belarus.
Continued gentle warming
2015 was another year when the symptoms of improvements became noticeable. At this time the relationship of a technical character developed and a considerable recovery occurred in the field of cooperation between regions. In 2015 meetings organized at the level of Prime Ministers also took place (in May and November, Conrad Pavlik, Deputy Minister of Polish Foreign Affairs, visited Belarus).
In April, Belarus and Poland signed an agreement on cooperation in the field of prevention of catastrophes, natural disasters, emergency situations and liquidation of their consequences. The contract was among others the results of the Belarusian-Polish Commission for transborder cooperation. In the context of further regulation of bilateral issues Belarus wants to sign an agreement on the payment of pensions and joint retirement calculations with Poland (as well as with the Czech Republic and Estonia).
Both countries continue cooperation in the field of common heritage. In 2015 it was decided that the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites would finance repairs of military cemeteries in Brest, where in 1920–1939 Polish soldiers were buried. The start of works is planned for 2016. In accordance with the conditions, this is not the only cemetery which will be under the care of the Polish side. At the same time, Belarus along with Russia, Armenia and Kazakhstan, expressed concern about the information that the desecration of places of burial of Soviet soldiers happens in Poland.
It is important that the problem of establishing visa application centers was solved. They should appear in eight Belarusian cities: Minsk, Brest, Hrodna, Homiel, Mahilioŭ, Baranavičy and Lida. Annually they will take up to 290 thousand applications, which will give significant relief to Polish consular services that in 2015 issued almost 400 thousand visas to Belarusian citizens (the number of refusals ranged about 1 per cent). The creation of centers also implies the improvement of the online visa system, which was regularly attacked by hackers, which made its normal functioning impossible. In November of 2015 VFS. Global company was chosen as an operator for servicing the visa centers.
Unfortunately, the political situation — first of all the EU sanctions against Russia and Russian counter-sanctions in the form of an embargo on food produced in the EU — had a negative influence on Polish-Belarusian trade. In the period from January to October 2015 Polish exports to Belarus amounted EUR 871.8 million (a decrease by 28.2% compared to the same period in 2014), and imports from this country amounted to EUR 587,7 million (an increase by 15.3%). Poland maintained a positive trade balance with Belarus, which amounted to EUR 284 million, however year after year it is decreasing.1 At the same time the size of Belarusian exports to Poland is constantly increasing, and the Republic of Poland became one of 10 most important Belarusian trading partners.
In 2015, as before, business conferences and meetings on investment opportunities for Belarus in the existing international context and the business forum for representatives of woodworking industry and furniture production were held. In addition, Belarus proposed to create a furniture producing center in Smarhon, which would consist of Belarusian, Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Russian companies. Sometimes cooperation in the industrial sector requires international agreements with other countries, as it happened when the train between the Chinese city of Chengdu and the Polish town of Lodz started to run, which led to the conclusion of additional agreements on commodity transportation between Polish and Belarusian Railways.
But it is more and more clear that without an improvement in political relations between Minsk and Warsaw the opportunities of economic development will remain limited. This cooperation is also complicated by economic problems with which Belarus has tried to cope for years, for instance, by devaluating the Belarusian ruble.
The importance of regional cooperation
Nevertheless, 2015 was a period of strengthened regional cooperation between Poland and Belarus. Relations among regions of both countries (also in the framework of Euro-regions) and among separate countries were developed.
The cooperation within the European region Buh was of a significant importance. In its framework, among other things, a geographic information portal on tourism, culture, entrepreneurship and labor markets of separate regions for entrepreneurs in the tourism sector was created. The project cost of about EUR 330,000 was funded by the cross border cooperation program Poland — Belarus — Ukraine. Cooperation is also carried out in the framework of the European region Nioman, which develops primarily cultural and tourist projects. Local entrepreneurs regularly hold sales to strengthen business cooperation.
Cross-border cooperation program ‘Poland — Belarus — Ukraine 2007—2013’ has a special importance for regional cooperation of both countries: under this program the project Expansion of Effluent Treatment System in the Basin of the Western Buh was implemented at the cost of about EUR 2 million. In 2015 the construction of effluent treatment plant in Kamianec was completed, and the Belarusian side will apply the Bank for Reconstruction and Development for an additional loan of EUR 16 million to build the same plant in Brest.
As a part of this program also a scanning system of transport at the transition Kuźnica — Bruzhi is built, and the road crossing Polowce — Piaščatka is upgraded. Thanks to the program in 2015, firefighters from Brest received four fire engines. Further cooperation of both countries is planned in the framework of Polish-Belarusian Cross-border Security. Increase of the Capacity of Firefighters and Rescue Services. In the framework of cross-border cooperation the monitoring of the crossing Kazlovičy — Koroszczyn was done, which aimed to increase the capacity and optimize the Polish and Belarusian services.
Cooperation is also carried out directly between the regions of both countries, as, for example, between Mahilioŭ region and the Kuyavian-Pomeranian Voivodeship and between cities, including the twin cities (Vicebsk and Lodz). Joint action is, among other things, the organization of cultural days, festivals and fairs, as well as forums for local entrepreneurs. In 2015, in Hrodna there was the third meeting of twinned towns of Belarus and Poland (the previous ones took place in Brest in 2002 and in Białystok in 2014).
Poland and Belarus also cooperate in the field of environmental protection — both countries will create a joint project for the protection of the bison population. Also, both states want to cooperate in the construction of the waterway between the Baltic and Black seas, which requires the restoration of about 2 km of waterway E-40 from Brest to Warsaw navigation. This project received additional funding in the framework of cross-border cooperation program ‘Poland — Belarus — Ukraine 2007—2013’.
Thus, it is clear that in the situation of still tense political relations, the task of developing bilateral contacts was thrown entirely onto Polish and Belarusian regions. Importantly, both countries increasingly develop this form of cooperation, which in the future shall be extended to economic and interpersonal contacts.
Waiting for small border traffic
The lack of small border traffic (SBT) is still considered the greatest weakness of the Polish-Belarusian relations. Despite the fact that the Treaty was signed and ratified in 2010, the Polish side has not yet received the ratified note.
The results of studies conducted by the Main Statistics Committee showed that the greatest number of actions related with traffic on the land border of Poland, took place on the territory of 50 km from the border. This testifies to the high percentage of people who crossed the border and spent money in this area and to the fact that the inhabitants of the settlements located there constitute the vast majority of people crossing the border. Thus, the lack of SBT with Belarus is particularly noticeable for people who live in the border area, both Polish and Belarusian side of the border.
When it comes to cross-border trade, in the first three quarters of 2015 Belarusians spent in Poland nearly PLN 2 billion (on average this is by 16.5% less than in the corresponding period of 2014). In the same time, Poles spent PLN 60 million (about 13.0% less for the first three quarters of 2014).2 In 2015 (compared with 2014) there was a reduction in the number of crossings of the Polish-Belarusian border by 11.3% according to the information of the Polish Border Committee, in 2015 the border was crossed by over 7.8 million people.3 The reduction of crossings on the Polish-Belarusian border was, however, not due to the deterioration of relations between the countries but due to economic issues, primarily to the weakening of the Belarusian ruble and the erosion of its purchasing power.
Without a doubt, an obstacle to the development of SBT with Belarus may be the current state of border infrastructure. It is also worth noting that such an agreement makes it easier to obtain financing for the construction of crossings and access infrastructure, as it happened in the case of Polish-Russian agreement on small border traffic that came into force in July 2012. Also it promoted the development of border crossings Gronowo — Mamonovo and Bezledy — Bagratinovsk. The increase in the number of transitions is an exceptional opportunity for optimization of procedures and expansion of cooperation of the border services of both countries. It is also a chance to strengthen economic activity and tourism development on both sides of the border.
The potential for cooperation
Despite continued political tensions, it is clearly seen that both countries have considerable potential of bilateral cooperation. For Belarus the cooperation in the energy field will be a priority, especially in connection with the completion of construction of the nuclear power plant near Astravets, if the Belarusian government wants to sell the surplus of produced electrical energy. Currently an obstacle to export electricity to Poland is the poor condition and insufficient capacity of transmission lines.
For its part, Poland could be for Belarus a source of knowledge in the field of thermal modernization of buildings (including the EU appropriate standards), which will reduce energy demand. For Belarus the cooperation in the adoption of regulations for the telecoms market and model solutions that were implemented in Poland may be important. The Belarusian side also positively relates to MOST program in the framework of which (and other EU countries) Belarusian specialists visit Poland for training.
Cooperation in the field of tourism will also be a significant factor, especially with the advent of new opportunities in connection with new Belarusian rules on visa-free visiting of Biełaviežskaja Pušča and rafting along the Augustow Canal and the Nioman river. Initiatives have appeared for Belarus and Poland to promote together the advantages of Biełaviežskaja Pušča at tourism world conferences and encourage visiting its both parts.
An important sphere of cooperation can be sports, namely, the joint organization of competitions and events. According to Belarusian officials, Poland and Belarus expressed a desire to jointly organize Winter Universiade-2021. In addition, both parties made a list of the proposed sports facilities.
Thus, it is clear that at least due to neighborhood and common historic, cultural and natural heritage, both countries have considerable potential for cooperation and exchange of experience. In the case of improving political relations Poland is also able to support Belarus in the framework of the European Union, namely in the search of funds for investment in border infrastructure, environmental protection or tourism.
During the period when I was writing this material, on February 15, the European Union lifted sanctions against Belarus. This increases the chance that in 2016 not only relations between Brussels and Minsk will improve but also relations between Warsaw and Minsk. Moreover, Witold Waszczykowski, the Minister of foreign Affairs of Poland announced his visit to the Belarusian capital. Let us hope that this chance will be used not only to address non-problematic Polish-Belarusian issues related to the joint border, the environment, or creation of infrastructure, but also controversial ones, such as the issues of consulates, the functioning of the Union (Unions?) of Poles and the implementation of the agreement on small border traffic. Only in this case we can talk about a clear change in the relations between the two countries.