- 1 I wish to thank for their insightful comments on earlier drafts of this paper two anonymous review (...)
1Contrary to the idea that “opening” is the major change affecting European borders, this paper departs from the assessment that in the 2000s the EU’s Eastern borders have been closing down. The Polish-Belarusian border epitomises this trend. A militarised outpost in the Soviet times, it remained almost hermetically closed until the fall of the Iron Curtain. In the 1990s growing flows of goods and people traversed it, but due to the pre-accession reforms that Poland implemented to join the EU (2004) and Schengen (2007) the pendulum shifted back to border-closing.
2Obstacles other than visa restrictions hamper cross-border cooperation (CBC) with Belarus. The authoritarian shift taken by Alexander Lukashenka’s regime in 1996 prompted Brussels to limit institutional relations to a minimum. Despite this unfavourable climate, “breaches” in the Schengen curtain exist that can turn the borderscape from a double periphery into an interface. The opening of a border-crossing point on the Augustów canal in 2007 is arguably one of them.
Illustration 1. The Augustów canal within the Polish-Belarusian borderland
3The Augustów canal is a 100 km-long masterpiece of hydraulic engineering built in the 1830s. It connects the Mazurian lakes system of North-Eastern Poland to river Neman in Belarus. The Neman/Nemunas is a trans-boundary waterway in that it flows further onto Lithuanian territory and is congruent with the Lithuanian-Russian border east of the Kaliningrad exclave. In the 1940s Poland’s loss of Eastern frontier territories – the kresy, to which a rich mythology is associated in Polish imaginary (Blavascunas 2007) – to the USSR divided the canal in two uneven parts. On the Polish side, the untouched nature and wildlife of the Augustów primeval forest (puszcza) – the only resources for economic growth in these peripheries - became a popular destination for nature, adventure and sports tourism. Conversely, the 20 km segment of the canal on the Soviet side remained uncared for, until in 2004 Lukashenka ordered its rehabilitation with a view at applying for the registration of the whole architectural object as a UNESCO cultural World Heritage Site.
4Belarus’ ambition is to turn the Augustów canal into the cultural attraction of a wider offer of services in rural recreational tourism (“agro-eco-tourism”) on the model of what already exists in neighbouring Poland. Considering Belarus’ reputation as a self-excluded pariah of Europe, envisioning the borderland as a destination for alternative tourism is quite a “border-breaking” initiative. It complies however with a trend observed in other “green” borderlands where remote and almost pristine landscapes “incite a mythical frontier image in the human psyche” (Timothy 2000: 57). An assessment of the effectiveness of this development strategy is still premature. However, the evolution of the canal from “breach” to “bridge” in Belarus’ neighbourhood relations has an impact in terms of governance that is worth analysing.
5This is the purpose of this paper, which is articulated in two parts. The first one screens the obstacles and incentives that shape Polish-Belarusian relations. This archaeological analysis of the borderland is conducted at three complementary scales (local, intergovernmental and multilateral) in order to reveal how initiatives to attract tourists produced policy-innovation scenarios and new horizontal governance patterns. Elaborating on field findings, the second part contributes to critical studies of the EU’s neighbourhood policies towards Belarus in suggesting that ecotourism readily offers a prospective platform to foster the “bottom-up” socialisation of Belarusian civil society in Europe – albeit only locally.
6This section relies on a multi-scalar lens to “screen” the border chronospace and identifies how dynamics from various levels of governance catalysed into a policy-agenda for the development of ecotourism in the Augustów canal area. In spite of historical grief, diplomatic tensions and cultural gaps, frameworks for cooperation appeared that create trans-boundary spaces for action.
7Any multi-scalar analysis of a borderland requires taking into account the time variable, especially for borders that experienced territorial shifts throughout their lifetime. This is the case with Belarus’ Western border, which divides a homogeneous territory at the crossroads of the Polish, Lithuanian, Jewish and Russian cultural realms. Local identities in these peripheries are often depicted as “fluid” and hybrid (Biaspamiatnykh 2008) due to the presence of ethnic minorities on both sides of the border, including 300 000 Poles in Grodno oblast’ (North-West Belarus). The status of the Belarusian Poles is a major bone of contention in inter-governmental relations, but at the local level linguistic and confessional proximity actually facilitates CBC in so-called “low policy” fields such as culture, education and sports.
8Borders divide communities, but also natural landscapes and cultural heritage. A significant landmark inherited from the shared past in this regard is the Augustów canal. Completed in 1839, the waterway was initially intended for Polish and Russian merchants to circumvent Prussian port customs. By the eve of World War I it had become a popular recreational destination for tourists from all over the Russian empire and an exotic “terra incognita” for adventurers from abroad. The canal was damaged during the Civil war and almost completely destroyed during World War II. Cut in two by the shifting of the Polish-Soviet border westwards, it then became a scar in the landscape typical of Cold War division: the Western part resumed its development as a tourism destination, whereas the Belarusian segment of the canal became a militarized no-go zone – a situation which ironically helped preserve its unique ecosystem.
9With the collapse of the Iron Curtain local inhabitants somehow re-appropriated the borderland for their own purpose, both as a wealth-multiplier and for leisure pursuits. From 1989 on it became the platform of exponentially growing cross-border flows: exploiting price differentials and the visa-free regime in force at the time, borderlanders pragmatically engaged in shuttle trade, smuggling and cross-border shopping, as well as alcohol and sex tourism.
10A common space for de-bordered action took shape with the multiplication of labour-related migration, cultural exchanges and mixed marriages across the border. The Augustów canal then began to symbolise the rediscovery of the shared past. Sports events fostering border reconciliation were organised, such as a yearly cross-border kayak race. In 1998, the Union of Poles in Belarus organised the first international folklore festival “Augustów canal in the culture of three peoples”. Held each 23rd of August on the Dombrowka sluice (on the Belarusian shore of the canal), in 2007 the event attracted 20 000 participants from Belarus, Poland and Lithuania (Losminskiy 2008: 56).
11At the institutional level, local and regional authorities followed suit in establishing structures to address common problems and launch joint projects, notably in the field of environment protection. Drivers for cooperation were the sister-city agreements signed between Białystok and Grodno on the one hand, and Lublin and Brest on the other (Ładysz 2002: 73). The process culminated with the creation of Euroregions Bug (Ukraine-Poland-Belarus) in 1995 and Neman (Poland-Lithuania-Belarus-Kaliningrad) in 1997.The fact that both were named after border rivers illustrates that natural landmarks were the most consensual common denominators for developing CBC in such contested borderlands.
12These bottom-up initiatives encountered “outside-in” incentives from Brussels: prior to Poland’s accession to the EU, border regions benefited from PHARE/TACIS CBC Small Project Facilities to fund cooperation projects. Due to Belarus’ failure to meet democratic standards, however, the EU’s aid to Belarus remained limited and it seldom reached local authorities.
13New obstacles to CBC emerged as of 2004 in the form of visa regulations, which experts believe is the main variable explaining the relative failure of Euroregion Neman so far (USW 2007: 164). Although the trans-border region did manage to “brand” the area as a green tourism destination, cooperation across the Polish-Belarusian border remains constrained by several obstacles such as the lack of transport infrastructure, limited funding and over-centralisation.
14Notwithstanding diplomatic tensions, notably on minority issues, Warsaw and Minsk were always eager to support CBC – at least on paper. In March 1992 representatives of central and regional authorities from Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine gathered near Augustów to sign the Wigry Declaration proclaiming the primeval forests in their common borderlands “Green lungs of Europe”. The following month Poland and Belarus signed an inter-parliamentary Agreement on the basic principles of cross-border cooperation that also singled out environment protection as a cornerstone for reconciliation. CBC kicked off a decade later when international organisations started to support the sustainable development of rural borderlands, particularly the Belovezh primeval forest (UNDP 2003), where a Euroregion (Belovezhskaya puszcza)was established in 2002.
15Being the most backward regions of Poland at the time, notably in terms of hotel room capacity (Committee of the Regions 2006: 67 and 70), the Eastern border provinces of Podlasie and Lubelskie received a considerable amount of PHARE and later cohesion funds to upgrade their tourism infrastructure. In the vicinity of the Augustów canal, EU money helped local stakeholders upgrade the farmhouse accommodation network and modernise infrastructure for “green” sports (canoeing, kayaking, hiking, biking, horse riding, etc.).
16Belarusian authorities realised that ecotourism could be a financial boon for them as well – provided they could attract investments to their own border regions. For that purpose the government developed the concept of “agro-ecotourism”. In 2002 it created an eponymous public organisation that joined the European Centre for Ecological and Agricultural Tourism (ECEAT), an Amsterdam-based association issuing guesthouses “eco-labels” all around Europe. In June 2006 a presidential decree endorsed a five year plan-type strategy for developing agro-ecotourism in Belarus. Meanwhile, Lukashenka designated the Augustów canal as the star cultural attraction for ecotourists in Grodno oblast’ and ordered the renovation of the Belarusian segment of the canal. This involved dredging, adding a chamber to the Nemnovo sluice connecting the canal with Neman River and improving access and facilities in the canal’s whereabouts.
17Lukashenka’s ambition was to apply for the inclusion of the whole architectural masterpiece and its surrounding ecosystem on the UNESCO World Heritage list. This, however, required the prior commitment to repair, together with Poland, the three km section of the canal congruent with the border, as well as the iconic Kurziniec sluice through which the border runs. In 2007 a seasonal border-crossing point (BCP) officially opened there. The Rudawka-Lesnaja BCP is quite exceptional in the EU’s external border landscape: it operates only during the navigation season (May to September) for people crossing by kayak or sailboat, whereas pedestrians are not allowed in the vicinity of the sluice. A similar regime exists on the Saimaa canal (Finland-Russia), with the difference that since 2008 a steamboat operates cruises across the border.
Illustration 2. The Rudawka-Lesnaja border-crossing point at Kurzyniec sluice after the renovation of the lock, June 2010
18Cruise visas to enter Belarus at the Kurziniec sluice are delivered mainly through tour operators organising water sport excursions for groups. However, since 2007 the Belarusian consulate in Białystok maintains a seasonal office in Augustów that delivers visas to individuals, including applicants from third countries. Although the number of border-crossings on the canal remains low (262 outwards and 88 inwards in 2009 according to the Polish border guards), the flows of border-crossers at this BCP are diversifying and the share of Belarusian citizens among them is on the rise.
19Despite its remoteness, the Polish-Belarusian borderland had already attracted international attention during the Cold War: in 1979, UNESCO granted the Belovezh primeval forest the status of natural World Heritage Site. The Belovezhskaya puszcza, one of the five trans-boundary parks of Poland (Denisiuk, Stoyko and Terray 1997), thus became the first in the socialist world to be added to the UNESCO list.
20Nowadays the potential of the borderland to become a trans-boundary tourism attraction is constrained by the fact that Belarus is subject to sanctions that isolate it from European integration dynamics. As a result, of all the EU’s Eastern neighbours, Belarus received the smallest share of TACIS and later ENPI funds (Korosteleva 2009). The bulk of those earmarked for CBC projects served to modernise border infrastructures, thus meeting mainly the security interests of EU member states.
21Many scholars criticise the contradictory objectives underpinning Brussels’ strategy towards Belarus: the EU claims its goal is to support people-to-people contacts and diffuse democratic values but its self-interest clearly lies in border containment and securitisation (Klinke 2007). This “values/security nexus” (Bosse 2009) inherent to the ENP undermines the credibility of the EU’s normative message and the efficiency of its instruments in support of CBC. Moreover, the prohibitive visa regime – since 2007, Belarusians are the only Europeans charged 60 € for a Schengen visa – implies that the EU is readily losing the very “hearts and minds” of the population that the ENP aims at winning.
22Experts believe the EU should therefore amend its strategy on Belarus to avoid becoming “subject to the boundaries enacted” by this reluctant neighbour (Bosse and Korosteleva-Polglase 2009). The cornerstones for a real partnership, they argue, should be sought for in shared interests rather than presumably shared values. Protection of the natural and cultural heritage of the borderland, so far as it results in sustainable development plans that positively impact on the real economy – as is the case with tourism-oriented projects – can sustain such a pragmatic shift.
23One common feature of cooperation and region-building across Eastern European borders is that most borders result from shifts that oftentimes took waterways as new demarcation lines. For Germany, Finland, Poland and Romania, the “stump syndrome” of ceding territory to their Soviet neighbours during WWII was somehow “sublimated” by developing CBC. Consequently, Euroregions mushroomed all along these contested borders. This trend breaks away from traditional geopolitics in that it signals a re-territorialisation of borders (Popescu 2008). In this process, shared natural resources imposed themselves as a common good: their sustainable management became both a pretext and a platform for CBC.
24Turning borderlands in tourism attractions and symbols of peace is not a new phenomenon. The US-Canada border hosts several peace parks where ecotourism is a catalyst for CBC (Timothy 1999). A similar trend was observed in Central European borderlands (Denisiuk, Stoyko and Terray 1997). Considering the closeness and contested nature of Belarus’ Western borders, the fact that Lukashenka’s authoritarian regime designated the Augustów canal as a landmark for trans-boundary tourism is a symbolically much more “border-breaking” initiative however.
25Since 2004, the Belarusian government designed ambitious investment and marketing plans to turn the Augustów canal into the central attraction of a future “green tourism” complex. Taking into account the growing demand of Polish, but also German, Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon consumers for alternative forms of tourism, the borderland is being advertised as a destination for two categories of tourism: “nostalgic-cultural” tourism (the area is famous for its military history, including a German war cemetery and ruins of the Molotov line) and “agro-ecotourism”.
Illustration 3. Scheme of the Augustów canal, Belarusian tourist leaflet
Credit: Embassy of Belarus in Lithuania, 2010.
26To turn words into deeds, Belarusian authorities looked into the experience in ecotourism development of their Polish counterparts. Several meetings and training sessions were set up, notably in the framework of Euroregions Neman and Belovezhskaya puszcza, to exchange best practices. Among other Polish institutions, the Environmental Partnership Foundation and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs distributed advice, grants and funds to help Belarusian local authorities design comprehensive ecotourism projects ranging from training for ornithological guides or hostelry personnel to designing logos for cycling trail itineraries. Financial and diplomatic hardships still slow down the implementation of infrastructure projects with higher investment costs, such as the reopening of the canal to steamboat navigation. The very process of encouraging ecotourism in such a centralised country as Belarus triggered significant institutional changes however.
27Firstly, to attract foreign investors and tourists Belarus needs to evolve towards a market model of tourism, thus breaking away from the fundamental features of command economy. In 2006 the canal and its surrounding areas were included in the Grodno free economic zone, where capital is protected against nationalisation and enjoys a preferential tax regime. Moreover, local dwellers were for the first time allowed to engage in small private business to open rural guesthouses or sports material rental shops. These first steps towards economic liberalisation won Belarus the support of the European Commission, which included Grodno oblast’ in two ENP projects supporting the development of SME networks and agro-eco-tourism (Kotskaya 2006).
28Secondly, the prospect of reopening the canal to cross-border navigation forced the Belarusian state to reconsider the function of its Western borders altogether. On 12 February 2010 it signed an agreement with Poland on small cross-border traffic that should lead to the creation of a 50 km visa-free perimeter in their common borderlands. A similar agreement is being negotiated with Lithuania that could result in the reopening of the Privalka-Shvyandubre river BCP to transit navigation – to the great satisfaction of kayakers eager to reach the Baltic Sea by waterway only. Stakeholders from the specialised tourist and water sport industry are lobbying the project. They participated in the drafting of the “Unknown Europe: three days, three countries” ENPI CBC project application meant to develop this trans-boundary route.
29Thirdly, and most importantly, ecotourism projects taking the Belovezh puszcza or the Augustów canal as central attractions proved conducive of civil society mobilisation without irritating the Belarusian regime’s watchdogs. Environmental protection NGOs, sports clubs and professional training organisations became involved in various CBC projects requiring daily collaboration with EU partners. Grodno University for example launched a professional master’s programme in tourism management that offers Belarusian students an opportunity to apply for Erasmus-Mundus grants to go on vocational training abroad.
30Even if these initiatives are small, they signal an evolution which can be credited to the potential of ecotourism to stimulate horizontal networking across borders. In an attempt at theory-building, this finding is modelised and illustrated hereafter.
31Observers and critics of Lukashenka’s dictatorial regime concur that the EU’s hard conditionality blackmail is doomed to fail in Belarus. If democratisation is to penetrate the country, under the current regime it can only be from the bottom-up, in exposing Belarusians to core European values on a daily basis. In other non-candidate countries, CBC proved to be the best channel for such a process of “Europeanization by socialisation” (Boman 2006).
32Familiarisation with European values of democratic governance is limited by the fact that in Belarus civil servants, NGOs and individuals may only engage in a-political activities. In this context, issues relating to the protection of common goods– an architectural gem in a preserved natural setting in the case of the Augustów canal - are almost the only neutral enough ones to allow sub- and non-state actors to get involved. As argued above, central authorities, local bureaucracies and local inhabitants share a pragmatic interest in improving the touristic attractiveness of the borderland and in managing border resources in a sustainable way for the economic benefit of the region. To reach this goal, Belarusian stakeholders had to learn from and cooperate with their Polish counterparts, thus “socialising” in the European realm through networks and exchanges of best practices across the border.
33Added to this, horizontal patterns of governance emerged within Belarus proper. In order to implement concrete tourism-related projects, local bureaucrats had to establish public-private partnerships with educational institutions, ecological organisations, cultural and sports associations as well as SMEs active in the field of water management, construction, hostelry, professional training, etc.
34Applying for EU funding together with Polish partners therefore required a mindset change not only with regards to the border, which evolved from obstacle to “bridge”, or towards the Polish “Neighbour” - now seen as a potential customer rather than as an ancestral enemy or a lesson-giver. In giving the actors of the embryonic Belarusian civil society a say in local affairs, the joint development of eco-tourism favoured deeper governance change in Belarus that stimulates economic and political liberalisation.
35This finding is consistent with the idea defended by most critics of the EU’s neighbourhood policies towards Belarus that horizontal cooperation are better suited than vertical rule transfer channels to create patterns of governance able to empower civil society (Korosteleva 2009). Local stakeholders therefore put great hopes in the Eastern Partnership, a programme which offers Belarusian civil society platforms for a real partnership with EU neighbours. Drawing lessons from the failure of hard conditionality and unilateralism, the EU should further amend its modes of policy-making however. Such an increase in flexibility, according to an expert of the EU’s external governance, is precisely feasible in the policy field of trans-boundary water management (Lavenex 2008: 948).
36Environment-related projects are currently the most solid cornerstones for innovative patterns of cooperation, especially where shared waterways are concerned. In the case of Belarus, the potential of ecological concerns to foster policy innovation, economic reforms and social learning has already been underlined by scholars investigating cross-border interactions in Euroregions Belovezhskaya puszcza (Blavascunas 2007) and Bug (Gaunard-Anderson 2005, Studzieniecki and Mazurek 2007). Similar to the trends depicted in this paper, in Euroregion Country of Lakes (Belarus-Lithuania-Latvia), shared waterways also constitute a platform for cross-border ecotourism - in that case to develop a culinary heritage route in the Braslav lake area. In all these Euroregions, borderlanders successfully overcame the constraints of marginality by developing joint strategies of border-branding (advertising the area as a tourist destination) and museification (turning the local heritage into a wealth-multiplier).
37Ongoing academic research on CBC across Eastern European border rivers tends to confirm the hypothesis defended in this paper that trans-boundary water management can result in innovative business projects (alternative forms of tourism for example) that foster horizontal networking and are, as such, conducive of Europeanization by socialisation. Illustrations of this trend are found at the Finnish-Russian border with the precedent of the Saimaa canal; at the Estonian-Russian border in the case of Lake Peipsi (Roll 2001); and in the Romanian-Moldovan-Ukrainian borderlands, where waterways gave their name and initial purpose to three Euroregions, namely Lower Danube, Upper Prut and Siret-Prut-Nistru (Popescu 2008). The Balkans could also be a pertinent testing ground for this model of cross-border ecotourism-oriented development, as illustrated by the case of the tri-national Prespa lake Park on the borders of Greece, Macedonia (FYROM) and Albania, where the creation of a Euroregion is envisaged.
38This paper aimed at demonstrating that initiatives taken at different scales of governance in Belarus to turn the Augustów canal into a cultural attraction have had a significant impact in terms of governance change. Despite diplomatic hardships, environment protection, trans-boundary water management and ecotourism became the driving belts for cooperation with Poland. In the framework of wider plans to develop the borderland as a destination for alternative forms of tourism, projects relating to the Augustów canal mobilised not only central political establishments, but also local and civil society actors from the grassroots. This, I argued, is a positive vector of institutional and mindset change in Belarus because horizontal cooperation networks allowed functional patterns of multi-level governance to appear at and across the border. Local stakeholders are “empowered” in the process, usually thanks to technical and financial assistance from neighbouring countries (Poland) and international organisations (UNESCO, UNDP, EU, etc.). Since the Belarusian leadership itself initiated agro-ecotourism projects, the CBC networks and public-private partnerships that emerge in the implementation phase of this pragmatic strategy might be sustainable even under the current regime.
39In highlighting the potential of a cultural trans-boundary object to foster CBC and governance change, this paper suggested new paths for investigating the relationship between cultural heritage, border re-territorialisation and governance change in Eastern Europe. Building on a critical assessment of the EU’s neighbourhood policies towards Belarus, I argued that the network governance pattern of CBC that is emerging at the Polish-Belarusian border allows Brussels to channel democratic values and best business practices more effectively than in resorting to the “carrots and sticks” of hard conditionality.
40The Eastern Partnership (EaP) launched in April 2009 to face-lift the ENP (Kochenov 2009) offers an adequate platform for furthering the pragmatic shift in the EU’s policies deemed necessary to engage the Belarusian regime in European integration dynamics. Being based on the principle of joint ownership, benchmarking and learning-by-doing, the EaP can foster gradual democratic change “from below” in Belarus. Ecotourism is one of the most promising fields of cooperation for that matter, because it encourages and sustains horizontal networks through which Belarusians may socialise in Europe. In that sense, the model proposed here provides useful guidelines for other “green” borderlands in the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood where shifted boundaries are congruent with natural landmarks such as forests, rivers, lakes and mountains that readily attract ecotourists. Whether the development of ecotourism in post-communist countries may be truly environmental-friendly and sustainable is, of course, another issue.