Polish Eastern Policy under the Law and Justice Government

Many Polish and foreign experts expected that after the parliamentary victory of Law and Justice (PiS) in November 2015, Warsaw would become more active on the Eastern front: that it would strengthen the partnership with Ukraine, take a firm stance against Russia, and actively support the European dreams of Georgians and Moldovans. After one year of Jarosław Kaczyński’s party in power we can conclude that that these expectations proved futile.

The new Polish government not only has not created a strategy to strengthen the Polish influence in the East, but also has led to some risky moments in Polish relations with Ukraine and undermined the principles of the Eastern Partnership program without offering an alternative. While criticizing Western allies for their money-first approach in their relations with Moscow, Poland applies the same principle in its relations with Minsk. Instead of criticality rethinking the heritage of Jerzy Giedroyć, the beacon for the entire Polish Eastern policy after 1989, Warsaw puts it aside, leaving the question of “what next?” unanswered. During his presidential campaign in 2015, Andrzej Duda talked about the Intermarium project—an economic and energy union of the countries ly- ing between the Adriatic, the Baltic, and the Black Sea, which are much more sensitive to the threat coming from Russia than anyone in the West. Implicit- ly, the Intermarium was to become an instrument for the weakening of Germany’s influence in the EU and among its Eastern neighbors. This concept was also mentioned a number of times during the parliamentary campaign in 2015. However, this project—controversial yet ambitious in every respect— has so far clearly given way to strictly Polish matters: working with Polish nationals in the East and the struggle for historical truth in relations with Polish neighbors. At the beginning of 2017 it seems that historical questions and issues of the Polish community abroad have become the essence of Poland’s Eastern policy, while other problems are of secondary importance.

The easiest way to summarize PiS policy towards Russia is to say that Polish relations with Moscow are under a thick layer of frost. Besides replacing the former ambassador with Professor Włodzimierz Marciniak and occasional appeals to Russians to release the wreckage of the crashed airplane from Smolensk, not a lot is going on in Polish dealings with Moscow.

At the EU arena, Poland is consistently reminding Western politicians about the annexation of the Crimea and the role of Russia in the war in Donbas. The Prime Minister Beata Szydło and Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski are unequivocal in their conviction that economic sanctions against Russia must be maintained at least until the time when President Putin implements his part of the Minsk-2 agreement. Warsaw could compensate for the lack of cooperation on the government level through dialogue with the Russian civil society. Nevertheless, no significant initiatives can be seen here. PiS seems to be resigned to the fact that Putin and his regime will stay with us for a long time. You can occasionally hear from experts connected with PiS that there is a need to open a Russian language station to counter Moscow’s propaganda. However, this idea has a lot more followers on Facebook and Twitter than in the Foreign Ministry building.

Polish relations with Ukraine under the Law and Justice government should be considered as correct. Ukrainian post-Maidan elites invested a lot of hope in PiS victory, but the illusion quickly vanished. At first the Ukrainians were unable to understand why the government withdrew the nomination of Ambassador Marcin Wojciechowski, a former journalist of Gazeta Wyborcza and press secretary of the Foreign Ministry very much liked by Ukrainian politicians and experts. And although he was replaced by Jan Piekło, who is sympathetic towards the Ukrainians, a bitter aftertaste remained. And then the people in Kyiv realized that because of its internal problems Poland had started to lose its position in Brussels, and having “an advocate of Ukraine in Europe” is what Kyiv is most concerned about. Moreover, Ukrainians became more sensitive to the statements of PiS politicians, who never lose an opportunity to remind its electorate about the Polish Eastern borderlands.

And it is this historic theme which led to a crisis in Polish-Ukrainian relations. In July 2016, the Polish Senate and a few weeks later the Sejm defined the events in the Volhynia in 1943-1945 as an act of genocide against Polish people perpetrated by Ukrainian nationalists. Many Ukrainians perceive this resolution as a stab in the back—the subject of OUN and UPA has long been exploited by the Russian propaganda to discredit the Ukrainian state. Although the author of the resolution, PiS deputy Michał Dworczyk, repeatedly claimed that the subject of Volhynia was closed on the political level, an unpleasant sensation in Kyiv remained.

Both President Andrzej Duda in Kyiv and Petro Poroshenko in Warsaw said many pretty words about the partnership and plans for the future, but nothing much follows from that. Warsaw still does not care about the problem of the Polish-Ukrainian border, where having to wait half a day has already become a shameful tradition. Poland is gradually reducing the funding for NGOs involved in programs to support democracy in Ukraine. The only segment where Polish-Ukrainian cooperation keeps flourishing is the contacts between the defense ministries.

Warsaw is most successful in its dealings with Belarus. Slightly later than Germans or Swedes, the Poles saw an opportunity for warming the relations with Minsk. Last year the Belarusian capital was visited by Polish prime minister, foreign minister and speaker of the Senate. The latter’s visit received a wide coverage in the media—upon returning to Warsaw, Speaker Stanisław Karczewski called Lukashenko—quite recently regarded by Polish politicians as a dictator—a warm person. There is no denying the fact that Belarus increases the imports of Polish food (although, as everyone knows, some products later travel on to Russia), Belarusian companies take loans in Poland and local business tempts Polish companies with privatization opportunities. All this certainly serves Polish interests.

At the same time, Warsaw is significantly reducing its support for Belarusian opposition. An example of that was the attempt at reducing the grant for the only Belarusian language television Biełsat by two thirds. Foreign Minister Waszczykowski suggested that Biełsat would be turned into a Belarusian section of TVP Polonia, which could obtain Lukashenko’s permission to broadcast in Polish (according to Waszczykowski, Belarusian people could quickly learn the language of their Western neighbors). In the end, Prime Minister Szydło made a promise that the station’s budget would not be reduced. Still the whole situation revealed a fundamental problem—Poland has no long-term strategy for its Belarusian policy and is ready to sacrifice contacts with opposition—developed over the years—for the sake of illusory bonuses from Minsk.

Poland under the Civic Platform (PO) also had no clear vision of what it wanted to achieve in the East besides such general terms as “democratization” and “security,” but under PO rule at least there were ambitions. PiS has abandoned any ambitious projects in the East. Relations with Russia can be reduced to the question of the airplane’s wreckage, with Belarus to apples, and with Ukraine to Volhynia.

If Poland previously managed to build its soft power on the myth of the Polish transition, PiS gave up this approach. Leaving aside all the defects of the transition, it was an important point of reference for Poland’s Eastern neighbors, a positive stereotype which the PiS administration is rejecting without offering anything in return. In order to weaken the influence of Germany, PiS in fact pushes Poland’s Eastern neighbors into Berlin’s embrace. At a time when Donald Trump becomes US president, the UK leaves the European Union, and Marine Le Pen is getting ready to move to the Élysée Palace, it is Berlin, rather than the self-preoccupied Warsaw, which seems to be an anchor of stability.

Olena Babakova

Olena Babakova is a journalist specialized in international relations, Ukrainian and Polish politics, EU-Eastern Partnership relations, EU visa policy. Columnist at Eastbook and Yevropeyska Pravda portals. In 2011-2016 worked for Polish Radio External Service. Alumni of Historical Department of Kyiv National Taras Shevchenko University (2008). PhD in History at Bialystok University (2015).

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