Poland and Belarus have been engaged in a war of words, including summoning one another’s diplomats for talks, after embattled president Alexander Lukashenko accused Warsaw of seeking to intervene in his country’s internal affairs and grab former Polish territory from Belarus.

Meanwhile, the Polish president’s chief of staff has appealed to politicians and commentators in Poland to exercise caution in order to avoid further inflaming an increasingly heated war of words.

Lukashenko, facing mass protests against his claimed election victory earlier this month, has repeatedly hit out at alleged Western interference, including suggestions that NATO forces are being built up along Belarus’ border with Poland.

He has also sought to stoke fears that Poland has designs on claiming part of western Belarus – including the city of Grodno – which was part of Poland before the Second World War.

In comments on Thursday, quoted by Onet via the Belarusian state news agency, Lukashenko said: “You see these declarations that if Belarus falls apart, the Grodno region will fall to Poland. They are already saying that openly. They will not manage to, I am certain of that.”

Grodno was formerly part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and exchanged hands several times before becoming part of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1939 and then remaining within it after the war.

Most of the city’s ethnic Polish inhabitants were expelled or fled around this time. However, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Poles still remain in Belarus, concentrated mainly in the west of the country.

Last week, Tomasz Sommer, editor of right-wing magazine Najwyższy Czas!, wrote on Twitter that “it is absolutely obvious that Grodno ought to go to Poland if Belarus breaks up. PiS [the ruling Law and Justice party] know that, but are scared to say it.”

The controversy was stoked further when Roman Giertych – formerly a far-right leader and ally of PiS, but now associated with the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the main opposition party – responded to Sommer’s tweet by saying that “PiS will announce [claims on Grodno] soon…and become partners with Putin”.

Sommer’s and Giertych’s words were condemned by many Polish commentators, who argued that they played into the hands of Lukashenko and state-linked media in Russia, which have also sought to portray Poland as having designs on its former eastern territories.

On Thursday, the Belarusian foreign ministry said that it had summoned the Polish chargé d’affaires in Minsk, Marcin Wojciechowski, to respond to “evidently hostile comments, inadmissible in international contacts, from Polish politicians and officials”, reports Onet.

“It was emphasised that any further attempts at external pressure on Belarus as well as calls to violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Belarus are counterproductive,” the ministry’s statement continued.

Meanwhile, Poland’s foreign ministry called the Belarusian ambassador to Warsaw in for talks, telling him that accusations against Poland were unwarranted and that the Polish government was “surprised, disappointed and concerned” at Lukashenko’s comments, reports Interia.

“We regard this narrative as utterly groundless and based on untrue and harmful arguments,” said deputy foreign affairs minister Marcin Przydacz. “There is no debate in Poland on any border shifts or geopolitical changes. There are no movements of armies.”

Przydacz added that he had pointed out, in what he admitted was at times a “heated” discussion, that it was another of Belarus’s neighbours – meaning Russia – that has infringed state borders in recent times, whereas Poland had backed international law for many years.

Meanwhile, Polish president Andrzej Duda’s chief of staff, Krzysztof Szczerski, called on commentators in Poland to be careful in their remarks during this sensitive period.

Lukashenko’s recent remarks have been “unacceptable”, said Szczerski, quoted by Do Rzeczy, but this is “not a time for amateurs” to get involved in foreign affairs.

“Every word spoken in Poland in this extremely tense atmosphere can be used against Poland and Poles living beyond the eastern border,” warned Szczerski. “I strongly appeal to all Polish politicians and commentators to be very careful with their words.”

In the aftermath of the election, a number of Poles were among those rounded up and detained by the Belarusian authorities, with some – including a journalist – later telling of being tortured.

Released Polish journalist tells of torture during detention in Belarus

After his meeting with the Belarusian ambassador, Przydacz also commented on a humanitarian aid convoy dispatched to Belarus by the Solidarity trade union. It had been held up at the border for almost a day, with the driver detained, Interia reports.

“Although it is not a Polish government initiative…it also of course deserves support. I passed on our expectations to the ambassador, to try to allow the transport into Belarus so that the donations can reach their recipients,” said Przydacz.

The deputy minister added that the government was working on helping Belarusian citizens facing repressions at home to cross the border into Poland if they wished to, although he stressed that the intention was not to encourage emigration.

“It is a guarantee that if something bad happens in their country, they can rely on a neighbour’s helping hand,” Przydacz said.

“We will wait for their own decision on whether they want to live in their country, demand changes and follow their life goals there, or whether under the influence of repressions they will choose emigration.”

Belarusians already make up the second-highest number of foreigners registered as resident in Poland.

Number of resident foreigners in Poland rises to highest ever level despite pandemic

Main image credit: Flickr/Prachatai (under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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