Ever since Alexander Lukashenko’s highly contested re-election, the ruler of Belarus has had problems with the neighbours. Having spent 27 years imagining himself the true heir to Soviet power, he’s increasingly dependent on the rival he used to see as a subordinate, Vladimir Putin. And though Brussels once played counterweight to Moscow, the EU states adjoining Belarus are no longer friendly at all. Lithuania has granted asylum to Svetlana Tichanovskaya, the presidential candidate who claims to have beaten Lukashenko last August, and isn’t about to extradite her: the Lithuanian foreign minister says ‘hell will freeze over’ first. Resistance to Lukashenko has taken root among the Belarusian community in Poland, and the government in Warsaw is financing calls for regime change in Minsk.
That represents an unprecedented challenge. Repression, fatigue and cold weather have subdued protests in Belarus, but opposition beyond the borders could turn into a permanent threat. And Lukashenko is acting spooked. In early March, the day after a Warsaw-based Telegram channel posted a video accusing him of corruption, state officials launched a counter-attack at Poland. A diplomat was expelled for ‘glorifying Nazism’ and the police accused a leading member of the Polish-speaking minority of ‘rehabilitating’ it. The prosecutor-general, Andrei Shved, then charged five prominent Polish-Belarusians with inciting ethnic hatred, and cited recent ‘attempts to overthrow the rule of law’ to justify a major push to prosecute people for genocide. No suspects were named, but Shved doesn’t have ageing Germans in mind. He’s going to approach ‘Nuremberg’ for relevant documents, but it’s Lithuania and Poland – ‘of course’ – that he expects to help most with his inquiries.
It’s a cynical move. The five defendants indicted so far stand accused of commemorating the postwar activities of a movement known to Poles as the ‘Cursed Soldiers’ – resistance fighters whose struggle evolved after 1945 into a doomed challenge to communism. In Poland, they’re often hailed as martyrs. Non-Poles are more likely to recall their operations against Belarusian villages considered too friendly to the Red Army – several of which were ‘pacified’ by massacres. Three-quarters of a century on, the Second World War’s aftermath is still divisive in this part of Europe, and that suits Lukashenko just fine.
The supposedly bold stance is as deceptive as the charges are enormous. Early in his presidential career, Lukashenko outed himself as an admirer of Hitler’s managerial skills (the consequences ‘were bad in foreign policy’, he admitted in November 1995, ‘but the nation was consolidated and order was maintained’) and his opposition to Polish nationalism owes nothing to internationalism. It could work to his benefit nonetheless. Most Belarusians are suspicious of right-wing forces in Poland – not least because the avowedly illiberal government in Warsaw routinely downplays the Cursed Soldiers’ war crimes – and speaking up for murdered women and children is a gesture with no downside.
Tilting at Nazi windmills isn’t unique to Belarus. Boris Johnson likes to associate the EU with the Third Reich, and countless shaky arguments on social media are bolstered with dubious Nazi analogies. But Lukashenko’s strategy is worth noting, as similar rhetoric is ratcheting up tension throughout Eastern Europe. Claims of fascist aggression from both Moscow and Kiev have fuelled the volatile confrontation in eastern Ukraine. In Russia, a campaign to caricature Alexei Navalny as a neo-Nazi threatens to excuse corruption and normalise assassination. And as the accusations are traded, inflation only makes them cheaper.
In easternmost Poland, almost enveloped by a primeval forest that stretches deep into Belarus, there’s an unlikely focal point for the conflict Minsk wants to exacerbate. Only about twenty thousand people live in Hajnówka and a quarter identify as Belarusian, but Polish ultra-nationalists have been descending on the community every February since 2016 to stage a march in honour of the Cursed Soldiers. When I stopped there last autumn, it was forlorn – a place of manicured war cemeteries, sturdy trees that once served as gallows, and signposts to nearby execution grounds and mass graves – but the quiet won’t last. A day after Poland commemorates the Nazis’ defeat on 8 May, there’ll be Victory Day parades further east (the war ended on 9 May Moscow time) and the 80th anniversary of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union falls on 22 June. Talk of past betrayal, and reminders of the need for liberation and a Great Patriotic War, are sure to intensify.