MINELRES: RFE/RL: Belarusian, German minorities in Poland's political life in 1989-99

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RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report
Vol. 5, No. 7, 25 February 2003

A Survey of Developments in Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine by the Regional
Specialists of RFE/RL's Newsline Team

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POLAND

BELARUSIAN, GERMAN MINORITIES IN POLAND'S POLITICAL LIFE IN 1989-99. 

A book review by Aleksander Maksymiuk of Alastair Rabagliati's "A
Minority Vote. Participation of the German and Belarusian Minorities
Within the Polish Political System 1989-1999," Zaklad Wydawniczy Nomos,
Krakow 2001, 408 pp.

The Belarusian minority in Poland has produced a variety of publications
on its political activities in the period covered in Alastair
Rabagliati's book. These publications include even students' textbooks.
Unfortunately, all of them are in Belarusian or Polish, so any Western
scholar interested in the life of Polish Belarusians would be put to the
difficult task of mastering the two languages if he or she wanted to get
some insight into the subject of his or her interest. Therefore, the
appearance of Rabagliati's insightful and comprehensive study of the
political life of Polish Belarusians and of Polish Germans can only be
welcomed by Western scholars and the two concerned minorities alike. The
book casts a fascinating light on the two little-known minority
communities that some 14 months from now will join the larger European
Union community of nations and nationalities.

The book consists eight chapters. Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 discuss the
concepts of national minorities and the political system in Poland, as
well as the situation for national minorities in prewar Poland. Chapter
3 deals with the situation in the German and Belarusian national
minorities in the communist-era Polish People's Republic. In prewar
Poland, national minorities constituted one-third of the country's
population, while on the eve of the collapse of communism in 1989, they
amounted to only an estimated 3 percent of Polish citizens.

The next two chapters of the book view the emergence and development of
the German and Belarusian minorities' political movements from 1989 to
1997. In this period, Poland saw four parliamentary elections (1989,
1991, 1993, 1997) and two local elections (1990, 1994).

Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 are devoted to a detailed study of the 1998
local elections in the regions inhabited by both minorities. Rabagliati
spent three years (1997-2000) in Poland, mostly in the Opole region of
Silesia (the southwestern part of Poland, inhabited by the German
minority) and the Bialystok region (the northeastern part of the
country, where Belarusians live). In those regions, he met, and spoke
with, a large number of national-minority activists, scholars, newspaper
journalists (including the author of this review), minority
schoolteachers, and politicians.

Chapter 8 summarizes the study by reviewing the reasons for the
successes and failures of the two minorities and considering their
future as political forces in the Polish political system.

The political movements of the German and Belarusian minorities on the
Polish political stage in 1989-99, as Rabagliati shows, developed in
different ways. The Germans managed to build strong subregional
political structures based on a platform involving the remnants of
pro-Germany sentiments and German identity, language, and culture. The
general discontent with the Polish state and system among the minority,
as well as the social and cultural ties of the community, assisted their
political success. Polish Germans won seven seats in the Sejm in the
1991 parliamentary election and four seats in the 1993 elections. The
decreasing support for German-minority candidates, Rabagliati observes,
was primarily caused by the feeling that voters' interests could be
better served by voting for a Polish party, which could represent their
interests and be in better position to solve their economic problems.

As regards the Belarusian political movement, Rabagliati argues that,
although it initially seemed to possess significant potential for
political success, it has effectively failed to build strong social
support following its emergence in 1989. In addition, the movement was
almost immediately plagued by internecine wars. As early as in the 1991
parliamentary elections, there were already three separate forces vying
for the same minority votes: the Belarusian Democratic Union based on a
"nationalist" platform, the Polish postcommunists, and a third force
based on a broad "Orthodox" platform that tended to promote a religious
rather than ethnic identity in the Belarusian minority.

Rabagliati's book is profusely supplied with relevant numerical data
(national censuses, election results) and photographs (minority
activists, election posters). Moreover, apart from presenting political
developments in the two minorities, it also offers a much broader
picture of their civic efforts. Rabagliati's study should become
standard reading not only for readers interested exclusively in
ethnic-minority problems but also for those who want to grasp the full
meaning of postcommunist transformation in Eastern and Central Europe.
Rabagliati's study makes a powerful point by asserting that the picture
of postcommunist transition would be substantially incomplete without
taking into account the political activity of ethnic groups in
postcommunist countries.

This review was written by Aleksander Maksymiuk, senior editor of the
Belarusian-language weekly "Niva" in Bialystok, Poland.

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"RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report" is prepared by Jan
Maksymiuk on the basis of a variety of sources including reporting by
"RFE/RL Newsline" and RFE/RL's broadcast services. It is distributed
every Tuesday.

Direct comments to Jan Maksymiuk at maksymiukj@rferl.org.
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