Recent events in the Republic of Belarus demonstrate clearly that democracy is far from having been achieved in that troubled country. That fact confirms the wisdom of the caution shown by today’s heirs of the pre-Soviet, democratically based, independent Belarus They have withheld recognition of the present government. Theirs is the last government in exile of the many from Eastern and Central Europe which one-by-one returned their authority as democracy gradually was restored to most of the former Soviet empire.
This article chronicles the history of the Belarusian Democratic Republic (BNR) and its Council (Rada) from the time of its fleeing Red Army occupiers in 1920 until the present day. It discusses the Belarusian experience in comparison to those of other exiled governments, particularly that of Ukraine. Finally, it suggests that Western governments should both take cognizance of this historical democratic tradition and give the present Rada appropriate policy attention in considering relations with post-Soviet Belarus.
Most of the countries of east central Europe benefited from the surge of democratic idealism which flowed from World War I, as expounded most ardently, perhaps, by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Poland broke free from the yoke of nearly 150 years of great power partition. Czechoslovakia emerged from the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with the most stunningly successful democracy of the interwar period in the region. Hungary achieved independent status as did the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
The striving for democracy, too, touched the Belarusian and Ukrainian peoples. Both achieved independence and democratic governance, albeit for much shorter periods of time than the above-mentioned countries mainly due to their closer proximity to Bolshevist Russia. Regrettably, these efforts at national self-determination-particularly in the case of Belarus-were largely ignored by the Western powers.
The democratic experience in this region came to a screeching halt through a combination of sovietization and World War II. Democratically elected governments went into exile. The better known cause by which these governments fled their homelands-and the one which led the West to recognize such governments-was Hitler’s invasion of East Central Europe.
Perhaps most illustrative of this “model” was the Polish experience. With the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, the Polish government evacuated to various locales in the south and east, eventually seeking refuge in Romania. Later, the Polish government-in-exile established itself in England, where it remained until the end of the war. As chronicled in The History of Poland Since 1863, edited by R. F. Leslie, Western support for this government waned rapidly at the end of the war as Churchill and Roosevelt sought to reach agreements with Stalin over future arrangements in Poland and elsewhere. The book’s assertion, however, that the government-in-exile ” . . . was never again to play a part in Polish affairs” (p. 279) is incorrect. In fact, the government continued in existence until December 1990 when the leadership transferred its authority to President Lech Walesa during his inauguration.
Other victims of the German invasion and/or the cynical division of the region between Germany and the Soviet Union, which preceded Hitler’s invasion of the USSR itself, also established governments in exile. The Baltic states were notable in this regard. All three were recognized by many Western governments; in the case of the United States this recognition allowed Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to maintain diplomatic representations in Washington throughout the postwar Soviet period. Convoluted rules for contacts by U.S. diplomats in those Soviet “republics” kept alive the unique status of these countries until they were able to resume their independent, democratic courses with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The lesser known “model” by which governments in the region went into exile is much older. It applies only to Ukraine and Belarus. As World War I was drawing down, movements for national self-determination developed among both peoples. In the Ukrainian case-as documented and analyzed carefully by Professor D. Doroshenko in his 1939 book, History of the Ukraine -the essence of a highly complex set of factors is that a pluralistically founded Ukrainian Democratic Republic was established in the late 1917, proclaiming full Ukrainian independence from Russia. With various mutations and boundary alterations, the Ukrainian Democratic Republic and its government continued to exist until autumn 1920. Then, with the Polish-Soviet conflict ending via the eventual Treaty of Riga (ratified in 1921), the Red Army was able to focus on the Ukrainians, who were eventually routed and forced to flee into Polish territory. From that point the Ukrainian Democratic Republic existed in exile.
Although the Ukrainian Democratic Republic had been recognized by a number of countries (perhaps as many as twenty, some establishing diplomatic or consular representations in Kiev), when its government went into exile it received little or no international support or recognition. The government continued to exist, however, eventually transforming itself into the World Congress of Free Ukrainians. With the collapse of the USSR and establishment of an independent Ukraine, spirited discussions took place among Ukrainian emigres as to the desirability of terminating the government-in-exile and returning its authorities to the newly independent government in Kiev. Despite the view of many that it was too soon to judge the sincerity of the new government, plus the fact that the existing parliament had been elected during the Soviet period, the majority favored returning the exiled government to the homeland. Thus, the last Ukrainian president-in-exile, Mikola Plaviuk, a Canadian citizen, returned the authority of the Ukrainian Democratic Republic to the government of Leonid Kravchuk in 1992. Plaviuk himself resumed residence in Ukraine, where he lives today.
This brings us to the Belarusian case, by far the least known or understood of all the instances in which democratically based governments in East Central Europe were forced into exile. As noted above, like Ukraine, Belarus’ democrats pursued and achieved independence in the maelstrom of events surrounding the close of World War I, the rise of Bolshevism, and the aura of Wilsonian democratic idealism which quickly permeated into the mentalities of long-repressed peoples of the region.
As documented by Professor Jan Zaprudnik in his book Belarus at a Crossroads in History (p. 67 and following), beginning in March 1917 various Belarusian parties and organizations convened to foster statehood for Belarus. Following the failure of the Bolsheviks in November 1917 to include autonomy for Belarus in their program, according to Prof. Zaprudnik the next month a coalition of Belarusian organizations and parties convened the All-Belarusian Congress in Miensk. The Congress, he notes, proclaimed Belarus a democratic republic. “On the following day, the delegates handed over their power to the Rada of the Congress, whose executive committee continued to lead the national movement from underground.” (Zaprudnik, p. 67). Inter alia, the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of March 3, 1918, ending World War I, divided Belarus among neighboring states. This caused the Executive Committee, in its Third Constituent Charter issued March 25, 1918, to proclaim the Belarusian Democratic Republic as an independent and free state. (Zaprudnik, p. 68-70)
Thus was a broadly based, democratic Belarusian state created. From March though December of 1918, the new government in Miensk organized itself, establishing an administration and creating its own military units. The government also began an active diplomatic initiative to seek recognition in the world community. Unfortunately, this latter was not successful. Belarus’ geographic location between Russia and Poland-and long historical occupation by one or the other, or both-led few countries to recognize the new state and its government. Among those who did, however, were Germany, Turkey, and Ukraine. The United States did not.
The Polish-Soviet War alluded to above also had adverse consequences for the fragile new country of Belarus. With the cessation of hostilities in the autumn of 1920, Poland and the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic agreed on the redivision of Belarus more or less coincident with Poland’s pre-partition eastern boundary. The new Belarus army fought bravely but futilely to forestall this fate, particularly at a major engagement in the Sxuck region in the fall of 1920. Western Belarus reverted to Poland, and the Soviets created a new Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, with its capital at Smolensk.
Starting in late 1919, the core of the Belarusian Democratic Republic’s Executive Council (BNR Rada) emigrated, seeking political exile abroad. As with the Ukrainians, these Belarusian democrats found refuge in newly independent (and strongly democratic) Czechoslovakia. Belarus’ first president, Piotra Kreceuski, and his deputy, Vasil Zacharka, took up residence in Prague, where the main body of the BNR Rada was eventually established. (One BNR faction remained behind in the now-divided country but ceased to function as an organized political group.)
The Prague group, under Kreceuski’s leadership, was active politically, developing a wide political agenda. Interestingly, the Rada at that time sent a BNR emissary to the United States, Mr. Jazep Varonka, who had been Prime Minister of the 1919-20 BNR government in Belarus itself. (Reportedly, the U.S. government told Varonka that it could not grant the BNR recognition since the “official government” of Belarus was in Miensk, i.e., under Soviet control.)
Beginning in 1924, the Bolsheviks sought to weaken (and eventually eliminate) the Prague group, ostensibly seeking rapprochement by sending emissaries on several visits to the Rada-in-exile. The Soviets apparently felt the BNR continued to have emotional and national importance, thus requiring its elimination. This effort culminated in October 1925 with a conference in Berlin, at which several Rada members renounced their affiliation with the BNR and returned to their homeland. The Rada, headed by Krece`ski, nonetheless continued to function in Prague.
From 1925 through 1939, the BNR Rada in Prague was the sole political representation of Belarusian statehood abroad. Mr. Kreceuski died in 1928; his deputy, Mr. Zacharka, was elected head of the Rada. In 1939 and 1940, the Nazis approached Zacharka with a view to seeking the Rada’s collaboration with Germany against the Soviet Union. Zacharka refused.
During the war, the BNR Rada was obviously inactive, but with the war over, and having moved to Paris, the BNR leadership reactivated itself. Mikola Abramcyk succeeded Mr. Zacharka (who had died in 1943) as President (starssynia) of the Rada. Abramcyk, in particular, devoted great efforts to visiting and assisting Belarusian refugees in Germany and elsewhere. He had extensive political contacts with Washington, Paris, and other capitals and took an active part in a non-Russian emigre organization, the League for the Liberation of the Peoples of the USSR, also known as the Paris Bloc. The Bloc, of which he was president, included Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, North Caucasus and Ukraine.
In the meantime, activists in German-occupied Belarus had established a “Belarusian Central Rada”, headed by Radaslau Astrouski, shortly before the end of World War II. This group was strongly anticommunist in nature, and many of its members successfully emigrated abroad as the Germans fell back from occupied territories. While significant remnants of this Rada are still active in the Belarusian diaspora, many have associated themselves with the BNR Rada.
The BNR Rada has functioned continuously since 1948 (and indeed since 1919 except for the hiatus caused by World War II). From the spring of 1946 through 1988, nineteen sessions of the Rada took place, reviewing activities of the BNR and adopting future policies and programs. As presently constituted, the Rada has over 50 members, including a President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer, and Foreign Relations Liaison. Dr. Barys Ragula, a Canadian citizen and prominent physician, is currently Acting President of the Rada, succeeding Dr. Jazep Sazyc.
As with the BNR Rada, the governments-in-exile of other East Central European countries represented both legitimacy and democracy for their countries and countrymen during periods when other types of regimes were imposed by force. In cases where democratically based governments were forced out by Hitler’s Germany, the United States and other Western countries typically recognized those governments-in-exile until such time as conditions permitted the return to democratic governance. Regrettably, that was not the case with regard to democratically inclined governments based on national self-determination in Belarus and Ukraine.
The fact remains, however, that the BNR Rada provides the one unbroken, continuous link of democratic pluralism between Belarus’ one and only period of nation-state existence (1918-1920) and the restoration of independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Unlike its Ukrainian analog, the BNR Rada chose to withhold recognition and return of authority to the new leadership in Belarus. It did so because the legislature was of the Soviet period, i e. not democratically elected, and because of skepticism over the course of democratic reform in the executive branch of government.
With the benefit of hindsight, this decision would appear to have been quite prescient. The Western world is unanimous in its view that the current state of governance in Belarus is neither democratic nor reached democratically. Therefore, the chalice of Belarusian democratic tradition and national legitimacy should naturally continue to reside with the Belarusian diaspora.
But what are the implications of this for Western governments? There are at least two. First, it is important for the West to take cognizance of and give recognition to historical facts. In this case that means a government-in-exile that was created democratically, forced out of its homeland by a physically more powerful but morally corrupt regime, and has maintained a continuous democratic tradition up to the present time.
Secondly, the West should welcome formal contacts at all levels with the BNR Rada. This is needed to assure that governmental decisions concerning Belarusian affairs to the greatest extent possible incorporate the policy desiderata of those with whom resides the legacy of the one historical expression of Belarus’ national self-determination. To do otherwise would be unfair to Belarusians themselves-both those who reside within the country and those in diaspora.
by David H. Swartz, U.S. Ambassador to Belarus from 1992 to 1994.