Sadakat Kadri | Cursed soldiers LRB April 21, 2021
Since the hotly contested re-election of Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian leader has had problems with his neighbors. After spending 27 years imagining himself as the true heir to Soviet power, he increasingly depended on the rival he saw as a subordinate, Vladimir Putin. And if Brussels once acted as a counterweight to Moscow, the EU states neighboring 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 is not about to extradite her: Lithuanian foreign minister says “hell will freeze first â. Resistance to Lukashenko has taken root within the Belarusian community in Poland, and the government in Warsaw is funding calls for regime change in Minsk.
This represents an unprecedented challenge. Repression, fatigue and cold have dampened protests in Belarus, but opposition across borders could become a continuing threat. And Lukashenko is acting scared. In early March, the day after the publication of a video by a Warsaw-based Telegram channel accusing him of corruption, state officials launched a counterattack against Poland. A diplomat was expelled for “glorifying Nazism” and the police accused a leading member of the Polish-speaking minority of “rehabilitating” him. Attorney General Andrei Shved then accused five prominent Poles-Belarusians of inciting ethnic hatred, and cited recent “attempts to overthrow the rule of law” as justifying a major push to prosecute people for genocide. No suspect has been named, but Shved doesn’t have aging Germans in mind. He will be approaching “Nuremberg” for the relevant documents, but it is Lithuania and Poland – “of course” – that he hopes to help most in his investigations.
It is a cynical gesture. The five defendants indicted so far are accused of commemorating the post-war activities of a movement known to Poles as the “ cursed soldiers ” – resistance fighters whose struggle evolved after 1945 into a challenge to communism. In Poland, they are often hailed as martyrs. Non-Poles are more likely to recall their operations against Belarusian villages considered too friendly to the Red Army – many of which have been “pacified” by massacres. Three quarters of a century later, the aftermath of World War II is still dividing this part of Europe, and that suits Lukashenko perfectly.
The so-called bold stance is as deceptive as the charges are huge. At the start of his presidential career, Lukashenko presented 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 its opposition to Polish nationalism owes nothing to internationalism. It might work to his advantage, however. Most Belarusians are suspicious of right-wing forces in Poland – not least because the blatantly illiberal government in Warsaw routinely downplays war crimes by cursed soldiers – and speaking up for murdered women and children is a no-brainer gesture.
The tilt of Nazi windmills is not unique to Belarus. Boris Johnson likes to associate the EU with the Third Reich, and countless shaky social media arguments are reinforced by questionable Nazi analogies. But Lukashenko’s strategy deserves to be highlighted, as similar rhetoric raises tensions across Eastern Europe. Claims of fascist aggression from Moscow and Kiev fueled the volatile confrontation in eastern Ukraine. In Russia, a campaign to caricature Alexei Navalny as a neo-Nazi threatens to excuse corruption and normalize assassinations. And as the charges are traded, inflation only makes them cheaper.
In the far east of Poland, almost shrouded in virgin forest that stretches deep into Belarus, there is an unlikely focal point for the conflict that Minsk wants to exacerbate. Only around twenty thousand people live in HajnÃ³wka and a quarter identify as Belarusian, but Polish ultra-nationalists have descended on the community every February since 2016 to organize a march in honor of the cursed soldiers. When I stopped there last fall, it was abandoned – a place of well-maintained war cemeteries, sturdy trees that once served as a gallows, and signs pointing to execution sites and mass graves nearby. – but the calm will not last. A day after Poland commemorates the defeat of the Nazis on May 8, there will be Victory Day parades further east (the war ended on May 9, Moscow time) and the 80th anniversary of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union fell on June 22. Discussions of past betrayals and reminders of the need for liberation and a great patriotic war are sure to intensify.