Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Kosinets said Thursday that all foreign Catholic priests would be banned from the country, with the ban taking effect over the next few years. Of the roughly 350 Catholic priests in the country -- it is predominantly Russian Orthodox -- the majority are foreign and almost all of those are Polish. Belarus has been targeting foreign Catholics since last year, deporting all those without papers. Now the campaign is extended to all foreign Catholic priests, regardless of their legal status. Kosinets said "foreign priests cannot conduct religious activities in Belarus because they do not understand the mentality and traditions of the Belarusian people."
What makes this interesting is the strategic position of Belarus. Belarus is the buffer between Russia and Poland. Buffer overstates it. Though there recently have been some tensions between Russia and Belarus, Belarus is as close to an unreformed Soviet republic as still exists. More than any of the former Soviet republics, it would appear eager to welcome back the Soviet Union. In general Russia has, until recently, kept Belarus at arm's length precisely for this reason. Russian President Vladimir Putin had his own problems with Russians nostalgic for the "good old days" and did not need the addition of an unreconstructed Belarus added to the mix.
However, as we already have discussed, the Russians have recently become much more assertive, and the internal disposition of Belarus is less of a barrier to good relations. Indeed, in order for Russia to regain its sphere of influence, Belarus plays a critical strategic role. Russia must have Belarus in its camp if it is to use the window of opportunity available to it to redefine its relations with the Baltics. In particular, Russia has no border with Lithuania. For that, it needs Belarus.
Russia sees Poland as a critical problem. The Poles have been deeply involved in Ukraine before and after the Orange Revolution, and have been particularly vocal in their support of the Baltics against Russian pressure. In addition, the Poles have been eager to host the U.S. anti-missile shield.
Belarus and Russia both remember the role of the Catholic Church, working with the labor union, Solidarity, in overthrowing the Polish communist government. For both countries, the disintegration of the Soviet empire started in Poland and was driven by the Catholic Church. The Vatican and Russia have had relatively good relations since the fall of the Soviet Union, but that does not mean much in this climate. Neither Minsk nor Moscow trusts the Catholic Church, or in particular, Polish priests.
Therefore, the decision to begin their expulsion -- even if only over the course of a few years -- is designed not only to get rid of what might be troublesome priests, but also to make certain the Polish population of Belarus, small though it might be, does not become a center of Polish nationalism in Belarus. Perhaps more important, it is a signal to Poland that it will be blocked if it tries to engage Belarus in any way. In addition, it plays to mutual Russian Orthodox sentiment, which ties together nationalists in both Belarus and Russia.
In and of itself, this is a small matter. But in the current context of relations in the region, small matters point to more serious issues. There is increasing tension between Poland and Russia. If Russia wants to regain its sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union, it will have to deal with the Baltics, which are now part of NATO. It cannot do that without aligning with Belarus or without blocking Polish influence. Russia must intimidate Poland as well. The Poles have an element of comfort so long as Belarus is genuinely separate from Russia. It is their buffer zone on the northern European plain.
Therefore, any sign of tension between Poland and Belarus -- particularly coupled with closer alignment between Belarus and Russia -- matters. Normally, the expulsion of foreigners, priests or not, would not register. But now, the expulsion of Polish priests from Belarus does matter, particularly when the Russian Orthodox Church is involved. It points to closer collaboration with Russia and growing tension with Poland. And that can matter a great deal over the coming months.