Entering Bialystok by car, you see signs and billboards in Polish and Belarusian. It is the last large city before Poland’s and, by extension, the European Union’s eastern border. But even if in Poland and other former satellite states a sense of being on the periphery—geographic and historical—is a familiar feeling, to construe Bialystok as a frontier is to forget that it has often been on the edge of where new visions of power, unity, and future take shape. In the last two hundred years, Bialystok has been the capital of 9 different administrative divisions for a number of countries or occupying powers. Before World War II, it was part of the Kingdom of Prussia, the Russian Empire, and the Second Polish Republic. Under the rule of Catherine the Great, it was also the heart of the Pale of Settlement, a region of the Russian Empire designated for Jews.
Perhaps correctly, Bialystok, a historically diverse city and the birthplace of L.L. Zamenhof and Dziga Vertov, saw itself as a European Cultural Capital and contended, unsuccessfully, for the title in 2016. Three years later, in 2019, Bialystok county declared itself, via a resolution, an LGBTQ-free zone. The city saw a violent response to an Equality March when far right wing groups, outnumbering the marchers 4 to 1, attacked them, sparking a wave of protests across Poland. In 2021, the region, including the primeval forest that Bialystok is perched on the edge of, became the site of (as described in the western media and by various government officials, including the Minister of the Interior, Horst Seehofer) a “hybrid threat” or “hybrid warfare” waged by the Belarusian president against the EU.
The crisis on the border gave the right wing Polish politicians a chance to recast themselves. The leaders of a country that provides cheap labor to western Europe and of voting blocs known for the most conservative, outdated, racist and discriminatory viewpoints became the defenders of the whole EU project. The Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki noted this during his speech at the border and echoed it in his conversations with Angela Merkel. German politicians were at least temporarily finding new bridges with the right wing government in Poland. Soon after, the Polish border patrol proudly proclaimed the largest project in its history—a 270 million zloty investment in a 187 or 202km border wall that among other things (to the dismay of conservationists) cuts through the primeval forest. (Other EU neighbors of Belarus carried out similar projects, creating in the span of a few months a physical barrier that would make Donald Trump proud.)
Both, a racist and a post-national Europe was being imagined and practiced in and around Bialystok and the
primeval forest. The refugee shelters built in Bialystok to welcome asylum seekers from Belarus slowly filled with Middle Eastern migrants. Western TV segments showed migrants vowing to leave Poland and instead are seeking to move to Germany. They too, some noted in surprise, understood Poland’s secondary status in the EU. The dream of one bloc is but a dream.
It might be that Bialystok, Podlasie, or even the whole of Poland and eastern Europe, is the pressure point, the site where the EU and “Europe” is most actively being imagined in its different versions. It might be that the EU is an imaginary construct, as it becomes more clear now in Ukraine (itself, as the name suggests, the frontier land) and its strivings to become an EU member. But the cruelty of “Europe” and the EU’s policies against non-European refugees, as enacted by the Polish government with tacit approval from the rest of the bloc, are real. As their result, people are suffering.
Post Scriptum. After some intervention from Angela Merkel, the media showed the migrants moved by the Belarusian military into warehouses where they were offered shelving systems as bunk beds. For months, the issue disappeared from the media. With the start of the war in Ukraine (a country whose name literally means “the frontier region”), Poland’s position as the EU’s last stop, or vestibule―depending on one’s perspective― was only reaffirmed. Millions of Ukrainian refugees crossed the Polish border. Reports surfaced of the discrimination against non-Ukrainian refugees seeking to enter the EU. In the constant barrage of coverage of the unfolding humanitarian disaster, the Guardian reported that Belarusian military ordered the migrants staying near the border with Poland to cross the border with Ukraine. As of this writing, no other updates were given on their whereabouts.
Tusia Dabrowska in conversation with Pawel Lewicki, PhD.