Latvia and the Belarusian Peoples Republic

Fragment of the map showing new Baltic republics and Belarusian People's Republic. Note the purported Belarusian state includes Latgale, eastern part of Latvia as her territory. Latgale is also shown as territory in dispute for Poland.

Fragment of the map showing new Baltic republics and Belarusian People’s Republic. Note the purported Belarusian state includes Latgale, eastern part of Latvia as her territory. Latgale is also shown as territory in dispute for Poland.

On March 25 1918 national and democratic forces representing the Belarusian nation proclaimed Belarusian Peoples Republic (Bielaruskaja Narodnaja Respublika BNR)  It was done in the spirit of other nations proclaiming independence from the collapsed Russian Empire. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were example for Belarusians and Ukrainians who strived for their own unified state. However, during the crucial years of 1918-1920 the BNR did not survive the tides of war and ceased to exist. At the time of its short existence it had established relations with new Republic of Latvia and for a period of time BNR government was stationed in Riga. BNR had military and diplomatic mission working in Riga and its leaders placed hope on Latvian support. Latvia itself was caught in the tough battle for survival in war against Soviet Russia and pro-German forces and had complex relations with Poland so its relations with BNR at start were generally positive, but as BNR went into oblivion Latvia abandoned its support. Latvian main goals was to establish peace with Soviet Russia and settle issues with Poland so in the end BNR was more a obstacle for Latvian foreign policy and its diplomatic mission left Riga forever. This article marks the anniversary of Belarusian Peoples Republic and tells the story of short and forgotten Latvian and Belarusian relations between 1918 and 1921.

Belarusian nation has deep roots from medieval times when its territory was part of Lithuanian Grand Duchy. According to many historians mostly Belarusian ones, the leading elite of the Duchy was not Lithuanians but Belarusian ancestors. Later when Lithuania united with Poland Belarusian lands were influenced by Polish culture. Only after Polish partitions in 1772, 1793 and 1795 Belarus was integrated in spiral of Moscow. During these long years a distinct Belarusian language and culture evolved but it had to survive under heavy Russification policies and also Polonization. On 1918 Russian Empire had collapsed and was forced to cede Belarusian lands to Germany according to Brest-Litovsk peace agreement. An agreement that allowed nations within German occupied lands to decide their own fate. Similar to Baltic nations, there were people among Belarusians who saw chance to establish a national democratic state.

On December 5 – 17 1917 in Minsk (Mensk in Belarusian language) in All-Belarus congress a Central Belarusian Rada was formed however the Russian Soviet of Peoples Commissars in Petrograd rejected the rights of Belarusian autonomy. On January 1918 the All Russia 3th Congress declared the Rada an illegitimate. No repressions followed as on February 1918 Germans stared major offensive and took control over all Belarusian lands.  On February 20 a Belarusian Peoples Secretariat was formed with J. Varonka in the lead. On March 9 Belarusian Rada issued the creation of democratic Belarusian Peoples Republic. On March 25 the BNR proclaimed independence.

Germany did not recognize BNR as it regarded it as a Russian territory. Rada nevertheless created a War Affairs Committee with Kastus (Kanstancin) Jezavitau, in charge. In April Germans banned the Peoples Secretariat. Meanwhile Belarusian Rada fragmented in many leftist parties and with some difficulties created coalition government. Right wingers also joined pleasing the Germans and trade, industry and social welfare was transferred to Peoples Secretariat. BNR was recognized only by Ukrainian Peoples Republic so action was taken to get more diplomatic recognition from its neighbors. On October BNR made white-red-white flag as its official symbol and knight Pahonia the symbol of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was made as coat of arms.

Situation became crucial after Germany stepped out of war and BNR had real chances for independence. However, the Bolsheviks were boosting up offensive to retake lost lands. BNR made agreement with Lithuania. Many members of Rada joined Lithuanian Council (Tariba) and Belarusian Affairs Ministry was made within Lithuanian government with J. Varonka as minister. On December 3 1918 BNR moved to Vilnius while Bolsheviks were approaching Mensk. Soon Bolsheviks headed for Vilnius and BNR moved to Hrodno (Grodno). BNR was in conflict with Poland who had territorial claims on Belarus and after deepening tensions its government moved to Berlin.

On May 1919 Polish forces captured Mensk and BNR leadership moved there. Polish leader Pilsudsky urged Belarusians to join in common union with Poland and make Rada an autonomous body with jurisdiction only in education and culture. BNR rejected and asked for full independence. BNR Rada was weakened by breakup into BNR Supreme Rada and BNR Peoples Rada. Both Rada’s were lead by rivaling leftist parties and Polish government suppressed Peoples Rada.  After major issues BNR government moved to Riga. Poland did not recognized BNR while all three Baltic States, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Germany, Finland and Turkey had formally recognized.

BNR territorial claims were issue on its own as its included territories claimed by Russia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. BNR would include Smolensk (Smolinsk), some small portions of Latvian Latgale and Sēlija regions and parts claimed by Lithuania and Poland. There were some maps that included whole Latgale as BNR territory. The BNR borders were drawn according to Belarusian ethnic borders that conflicted with all neighboring states. Ethnically diverse Latgale was also under dispute by Poland and Lithuania, while Vilnius was major hotspot between Poland and Lithuania. The western Belarus main centers Hrodna and Brest had large Polish populations that wished to be under Warsaw. While neither Bolsheviks nor White forces of Russia did recognize any national independence at all. This created a problematic situation for Belarusian independence.

On autumn 1920 Polish and Soviet peace agreement talks were underway in Riga. BNR government observed that Poles and Soviets are taking part in partition of the Belarusian lands and were not successful in breaking up these actions. This finally made BNR conflicting sides the socialist revolutionaries and socialist federalists  agreed to form unified government. A government led by V Lastovskau became official representative of BNR and BNR Peoples Rada was renamed the BNR Rada. BNR left Riga on November 11 and made agreement on common military union against Poland and started work in Kaunas. On 1923 BNR government and Rada left Kaunas and moved to Prague where it remains until this day still coordinating opposition efforts against Alexander Lukashenko (Lukashenka) authoritarian government in Republic of Belarus.

BNR Diplomatic and military mission in Riga

BNR Diplomatic and military mission in Riga

BNR had high interests in Latvia. First contacts were made on summer of 1919 when BNR Minister of Interior Affairs K Tereshchenko arrived in Riga to establish relations with Latvia. He was interview by local Russian newspaper Rizhkoe Slovo where he issued his plans of creating unified front with Latvians and Lithuanians against the Bolsheviks. BNR had a small armed force incapable defeating Bolsheviks alone. On July 24 he met Kārlis Ulmanis the Prime Minister of Latvian Provisional Government who granted his plea to open BNR consulate in Riga. On August the consulate begun its work with B Shmikovich in charge later replaced by R Kazyachi. Consulate was located in Old Riga at Pils street. BNR flag was raised and consulate begun looking for potential BNR citizens issuing calls in press for Belarusian nationals to apply. BNR tried to level down its territorial claims on Daugavpils district until arrival of military – diplomatic mission to resolve the issue.

 The mission arrived on October 1 1919 with Kastus Jezavitau in charge. He was born in Daugavpils on 1893. On October 3 his delegation met the Latvian Foreign Minister Zigfrīds Anna Meirerovics, to whom he assured BNR support for Latvian independence and wished to join the planned Baltic Union. During the siege of Riga on October-November 1919 by pro-German Army of Bermondt BNR consulate remained in Riga. After Estonia made peace agreement with Soviet Russia BNR wanted to move the armed units led by general S Bulak-Balahovich or so called Belarusian corps to Latvia and use as BNR attack force. BNR stared talks with Latvian side to mobilize men within Latvia for BNR army however the talks failed. Only way to enlist people in Latvia into BNR forces was to make them BNR citizens.

During Battle of Riga and afterwards there was a brief positive period of relations between Latvia and BNR because of BNR representatives supported Latvians in many ways. However, soon many became aware of BNR claims on Latvian border areas most prominently the Ilūkste district (it was also disputed by Poland and Lithuania) and started to question the relations with BNR. As most part of Belarus was under Polish or Soviet rule with active combat actions these good relations were declarative that could change if BNR would gain control over Belarus. BNR could not convince Latvians to station Bulak-Balahovich forces in Latvia or include them into Latvian armed forces; Latvians only agreed them to transit to their homeland. A conflict emerged between BNR consulate and Latvian Army command. BNR consulate was on drive to recruit as much BNR citizens as possible without looking much into their motivation and ethnicity. In result some Latvians and Jews applied for BNR citizenship simply to avoid enlisting in Latvian Armed Forces.

On early 1920 Bulak-Balahovich forces of 800 men entered Latvia and stationed near Alūksne at Estonian border. Jezavitau tried to convince Latvians to include them in to offensive against Bolsheviks in Latgale but talks again failed. On January his unit was included in BNR but soon general broke ties with BNR and moved to Poland to join their army. When Latvian and Polish forces liberated Latgale from the Bolsheviks BNR wished to establish consulates in Daugavpils and Rēzekne. However, the talks with Latvian authorities failed. The Latvian military was skeptical about BNR citizenship registers for they served as tools to avoid army and as BNR only existed on paper there was great doubts. At this time much of Belarus was overrun by Bolsheviks and Polish armies on the Western side.

Latvian side became more reserved to BNR claims and requests. To sort out the Latvian and BNR border issues Latvian foreign ministry offered to create a Latvian-Belarusian commission.   Jezavitau requested secretary J Charpulka and consul B Shimkovich to work in commission, meanwhile Latvians did not rush to name their delegates and the commission never begun work. BNR most success in Latvia was laying foundations for national Belarusian minority by creating Belarusian culture and education society “Batjkovschina” (Fatherland) in Riga. Also a journal in Belarusian “Na Chuzije” (In foreign land) was issued, but only made single issue that contained information about Belarusians in Riga and BNR goals.

Latvian authorities started to feel colder towards BNR and Latvian police started to check BNR citizens to see how valid their citizenship is and even made arrests. BNR authorities protested and checks were stopped. Even some official BNR officials were arrested for instance secretary of BNR Rada J Mamonka was arrested at the Latvian border and 14 600 Russian Imperial Rubles he brought to Riga was confiscated. Border guards disregarded his BNR passport and also his diplomatic papers and only after protests he was released and money returned. BNR was not allowed to take part in Baltic States conference in Bulduri, Finland, Estonia, Lithuania voted against, while Latvia abstained. Only Poland this time because of partial loss of the Belarusian territory had nothing against the BNR participation. On August 11 1920 Latvia made Peace agreement with Soviet Union and relations with BNR was now seen as disadvantageous. The Polish – Soviet peace talks also took place in Riga and both sides were splitting Belarus in half. On October 20 after much Latvian pressure BNR started to gather its bags to leave Latvia. On October 27 BNR leader V Lastovsky pledged Baltic States to support BNR both politically and financially and wished that request for BNR war bases in Baltic States would be considered sometime in future.

On November 11 after making successful talks with Lithuania, BNR moved to Kaunas. Last BNR armed units stationed in Latvia left it after Polish takeover of Vilnius. Most of the Belarusian active community left Riga excluding   Kastus (Kanstancin) Jezavitau who became leader of the Latvian Belarusian minority. Belarusian minority received autonomy in education, had their own societies however on 1924 because of false accusation in separatism many of the Belarusian leaders including Jezavitau were placed on trial greatly straining Latvian-Belarusian relations.

The situation in Belarus between 1918 and 1920 was greatly disadvantageous to Belarusian national independence. It was against the interest of both Bolsheviks and Poland who regarded Belarus as their territory. Latvian relations with BNR were based on realpolitics placing Latvian relations with Soviet Union and Poland above BNR interests. BNR certainly had high hopes in Latvian support, but their powers to defend their homeland were too short and in the end BNR became a state on paper. We can only speculate what would happen if Poland would support independent Belarus and ally with it against Soviets. In the result a fourth Baltic State was lost. The Republic of Belarus that was formed after dissolution of the Soviet Union at first tried to relive the legacy of BNR by using its flag as its national symbol. A few years later Alexander Lukashenko dropped all references to BNR and switched back to Soviet symbolism and turned Belarus into authoritarian nation with Russian tanks marching on the streets on Belarusian independence day. But, BNR is not dead. Its Rada still works in Prague. The BNR flag and its coat of arms has become a symbol of the democratic opposition and praised by the Belarusian democratic youth. If democratic Belarus has any future then ideas of BNR will be its guideline for Belarus to become a full fourth Baltic State and member of Europe.

Flag of BNR in Riga in April 2014

Flag of BNR in Riga in April 2014

Selected sources:

Jēkabsons, Ēriks. (1996) Latvijas un Baltkrievijas Tautas Republikas attiecības. (1919-1920) Latvijas Arhīvi. 1-2. 

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