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Belarusian, German Minorities In Poland's Political Life In 1989-99: A Book Review

Aleksander Maksymiuk

Alastair Rabagliati. 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 of 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.

Belarusian minority in PolandThe 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.

Copyright © 2003. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

See also:

- "Language, nationalism, and populism in Belarus" Alexandra Goujon
- "Belarusian" and "Belarusan" the correct adjective forms

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