POLAND YESTERDAY, POLAND TODAY – Politics, Elections (panel Amb. Marjan Šetinc and Amb. Bojan Grobovšek)

Contribution/paper by Amb. Marjan Šetinc

The largest, most important, and most populous country in the new Europe today consists of 16 voivodeships (regions), covering 312,000 square kilometers with 38 million inhabitants. According to some estimates, there are roughly as many people with Polish roots scattered around the world, with 10 million in the United States alone.

Poland regained its independence on November 11, 1918, after 123 years of partition between Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Despite having defeated the Red Army in 1920 before Warsaw and having militarily occupied the eastern territories known as “Wschodnie Kresy” – with Lwow (Lviv, Lemberg) in the southeast and Vilnius in the northeast – Poland cannot forget this division. During the interwar period, it covered an area of 389,000 square kilometers.

”Thanks” to Stalin, Poland was shifted/pushed westward after World War II, gaining 103,000 square kilometers but losing 201,000 square kilometers with 13.3 million inhabitants in the East. The loss of the eastern territories is still regretted by many Poles today, as evidenced by numerous associations of Poles originating from these regions. Poland, between the two World Wars comprised a significant part of today’s Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. Today Poland shares its eastern borders with the Kaliningrad Oblast, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine.

Contemporary Poland is politically divided along an approximate historical line. The western voivodeships consist of territories that were largely part of the German Reich until the end of World War II, while the eastern voivodeships were part of the Russian Empire until the end of World War I.

Why this historical excursion? Because this history now divides Poland in terms of the degree and intensity of conservatism and nationalism well expressed in the outcomes of all recent parliamentary elections (see Polish parliamentary election results on Wikipedia from 2005 onwards). Poland is clearly politically and ideologically divided and defined. Poland’s foreign policy has been determined by its position between Russia, until 1990 the Soviet Union, and Germany. Many political moves and undertakings by today’s ruling elites are bound by this position. Despite feeling safe in the West with NATO and EU membership Poland still holds suspicions toward Russia, as the successor of the Soviet Union, which it sees as a threat to its security. Therefore, despite being part of the West it acts cautiously and is continuously strengthening its defense capabilities.

Therefore, it is not surprising that in its foreign policy strategy endorsed in 2002, despite its NATO accession in 1999, Poland stated a political goal of pushing Russia as far as possible from its borders. Which evidently collided with the goal, not outlined in the 2002 strategy, to push for the reconciliation and improving relations with Russia, similar to what happened for example between Germany and France after the second world war, leading to the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and later the European Economic Community (EEC).

Donald Tusk was elected as Prime Minister in 2007 in the snap elections, and he set himself the “task” of achieving both objectives: pushing Russia to the east while simultaneously achieving reconciliation. These two goals, along with many other matters related to Poland’s international position, strongly influenced his term as Prime Minister. Poland is a large and important member of the EU and NATO, and its actions have an impact on both organizations, particularly in relation to its eastern neighbors.

Let me describe the above two parallel events that took place during the crucial year of 2009 in the Tusk time as prime minister.

Crucial Year 2009 (When Did World War II Start?)

Germany’s attack on Westerplatte on September 1st 1939, a Polish military outpost near Gdansk, marked the unquestionable beginning of World War II. However, it did not mark the start of the war for Russia (the Soviet Union) until September 1st 2009. On September 1st2009, the 70th anniversary of Germany’s attack, Poland held a major ceremony on the Westerplatte peninsula. The event was attended by the leaders of 22 European countries, including Borut Pahor, Prime Minister of Slovenia at the time, and several prime ministers from other countries (look: westerplatte uroczyste 2009), including a high-level delegation from the United States. It was obvious the attention was focused on Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the leaders of the successor states that had divided Poland in 1939. The presence of the Russian Federation, represented by Vladimir Putin, at the ceremony meant much more than his words or his speech. It signified Russia’s acknowledgment that World War II did not start on 22 June 1941, with Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, but on September 1st 1939, but with Germany’s attack on Poland, almost two years earlier. Furthermore, a few days before the ceremony, the Polish media published a letter from Vladimir Putin (Gazeta Wyborcza, August 28, 2009), in which he expressed regret for past events that should “not burden our mutual relations.” Most importantly, Putin’s letter included the acknowledgment/apology for the massacre of 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals by the Red Army in Katyn near Smolensk in Russia and an announcement of the opening of the Katyn massacre archives, which was demanded by Poland for several years. All of this was received in Poland with great relief and indicated a path toward improving relations between the two countries.

Day after the ceremony at Westerplatte, Donald Tusk and Vladimir Putin took a walk on the pier in Sopot, a popular resort on the Baltic Sea, located 20 km from Gdansk. Everything went on almost unbelievably, in a sense of relief and positive atmosphere, at least this was the impression of many of us who closely followed the events at the time. The Year of Russian Culture was announced in Poland and a new era in Polish-Russian relations… it seemed that on that day, the most significant historical rift between the two countries had been overcome. Both countries, the authorities at the time in both countries, realized that after twenty years since the fall of the Iron Curtain the time had come to cut ties with the past and look towards the future. This was also a signal to Europe that the relationship between Poland and the Russian Federation was taking on a new form, without burden of past grievances. Both countries had many ties, both cultural and business, which existed despite political differences developed over the centuries. Poland achieved something that few had expected was possible in terms of reconciliation with Russia. Donald Tusk accomplished something that his predecessors had not succeeded. This turning point in relations with Russia would definitely have positive impact on relations with Europe if it was not unexpectedly and fatally halted by the Smolensk air disaster, which instantly cooled/froze the warming of relations between Russia and Poland. As we all remember, on 10 April 2010, on the way to the Katyn memorial near Smolensk in Russia the airplane carrying President Lech Kaczynski along with 95 passengers and crew members, including the President’s wife, several ministers, parliamentarians, high-ranking government officials, and relatives of those murdered in Katyn, crashed at landing on approaching the Smolensk airport.

Only three days before the crash, an intergovernmental ceremony took place in Katyn at the initiative of Vladimir Putin, who invited Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Together they paid tribute to the victims. With this gesture, Vladimir Putin finally acknowledged Soviet/Russian responsibility for the Katyn massacre. For years, the Soviet Union (and its successor, the Russian Federation) had shifted the responsibility for the killings to Nazi Germany. But President Lech Kaczynski wanted the victims to be honored by their relatives and descendants. For this reason, he decided to take a flight to Smolensk on 10 April 2010, which ended in a catastrophe. The crash was an unimaginable shock for Poland, it did not affect many families and relatives of those who died in the accident but the entire nation! (Even today the catastrophe still seems incomprehensible to me, the shock of the Poles also touched me. Three persons I had exceptionally friendly relations alongside President Lech Kaczynski perished in the crash.) Official investigations into the crash evidently established that the accident happened due to sudden fog whereas on landing the airplane hit the treetops. But many Poles were not convinced, many took the belief that it was a conspiracy, that Vladimir Putin was behind the accident. Some even went as far as to claim that behind the crash were collectively Vladimir Putin and Donald Tusk, that they masterminded the accident! Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the tween brother of President Lech Kaczynski, demanded and achieved further investigations and re-examinations of the official reports and reidentification of the deceased in the accident. The disaster undoubtedly motivated many people, may be out of sympathy, to vote for Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the far right opposition Law and Justice party (PiS – Prawo i Sprawiedliwosć), who overwhelmingly won the 2015 elections.

Eastern Partnership Established in 2009

In preparation for EU membership in 2002, two years before the actual accession to EU on May 1, 2004, Poland was already contemplating cooperation with its Eastern neighbors within the framework of the European Neighborhood Policy, focusing on stability, democracy, good governance and development. The goal was primarily to get its neighbors out of Russian influence and at the same time push Russia as far away from its borders as possible. This strategic thinking led Poland to propose the creation of the Eastern Partnership, aimed at Poland’s eastern neighbors, as a new neighborhood program of the European Union.

Poland managed to gain support for this proposal with the help of Sweden and Karl Bildt, the then-Swedish Foreign Minister and a friend of Radosław Sikorski, Poland’s Foreign Minister at the time. With Swedish assistance the initiative received favorable responses from other EU member states and was eventually included in the EU’s Neighborhood Policy. On 7 May 2009 at the EU summit in Prague the Eastern Partnership program (EaP)was officially established. The program included six post-Soviet states: Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. The stated aim of the Eastern Partnership was to assist these countries in strengthening their democratic institutions and enhancing economic cooperation with the EU.

The accession to the program was expected to be signed by partner countries at the EU-Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius (28-29 November, 2013). However, preparations for the “Vilnius Summit” started encountering complications about a year before the scheduled summit. Signals were coming from Ukraine that President Viktor Yanukovych is not going to sign the agreement.

This caused alarm in Polish politics leading to campaigns and pressures to convince President Viktor Yanukovych and his associates into signing the agreement. Despite significant efforts from Poland President Yanukovych declined signing the agreement. Rejection of signature by Ukraine was perceived as a failure of the Polish initiative and policy, but undoubtedly it was consequently a failure of the EU which adopted the EaP. Yanukovych’s announcement that he would not sign the agreement (no doubt, foreseeing that doing so could provoke discontent in eastern Ukraine) sparked political opposition in Ukraine. This opposition escalated into an uprising and protests on the Maidan Square in Kyiv, which began on 21 November 2013, seven days before the planned signing of the agreement with the EU in Vilnius.

The protests that began on the night of 21 November 2013 with public protests in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv were still ongoing by mid-February 2014.[2][1] The protests were sparked by the Ukrainian government’s decision to suspend the signing of an association agreement with the European Union (EU).[2][1] (Revolution of Dignity – en.wikipedia.org)

In the protests on the Maidan over 100 people died, which ended after 84 days on 22 February 2014, with the ousting of President Yanukovych. Polish politicians (and politicians from US and EU), from Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski to Jarosław Kaczyński, then as leader of the opposition, played a significant role in addressing the protesters. The newly elected President Petro Poroshenko signed the agreement immediately after taking office (July 2014), stating that the agreement is a step toward closer ties with the EU. The agreement, which defined EU assistance and the acceptance of EU norms and values caused dissatisfaction in predominantly pro-Russian parts of Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk), they perceived the agreement as a move away from Moscow and a definite step towards the EU. This led to a revolt and resistance by the Russian population in Donbas and opened way to direct Russia’s military involvement. I have described the course of events in more detail in an analysis published in the Saturday supplement of the Večer daily newspaper on 7 January 2023.

Eastern Partnership program remains an important tool for Poland to influence events in Ukraine, which however no longer applies to Belarus, which suspended its participation in the program. Hence The Civil Society Forum of the Eastern Partnership strongly condemned the Belarusian government for its ”shameful decision to exit these programs”.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has confirmed Poland’s claim that Russia poses a security threat, and the NATO membership alone is not sufficient for Poland’s security. Poland maintained that security can only be assured with the presence of American troops on Polish soil. Poland persuaded the United States to station the first US military presence on Polish soil in 2017, when the first 1,000 American soldiers were stationed in Poland. ”Security threat” from Russia has accelerated arming and strengthening of Poland’s own army. Tusk’s policy towards Russia aimed at reconciliation and improving relations lost its sense due to the war in Ukraine. Tusk will now be in no position to renew relations with Russia. In the electoral program of the Citizens’ Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska), he has highlighted unconditional assistance to Ukraine, which the current PiS government has begun to limit. Will Tusk reverse this trend? Will he stop the massive arms race the present government has started or will he continue to bolster the military? Will the US continue to deploy missile capabilities in Poland, as they have done up to now? This will be a serious test for Tusk’s coalition government.

The EU’s enthusiasm for the prevailing pro-European direction of the most probable future government is significant, but the required changes that need to be done cannot be accomplished quickly. The internal political situation is very complex, with the eastern Poland’s regions/voivodeships under a firm control of PiS. The local self-government considerable authority should not be overlooked. Reforming the Constitutional Tribunal must proceed lawfully. Changing laws to liberalize women’s rights, legalise same-sex marriages and LGBTQ rights will have to go through the legislative process, where the president’s veto can block laws. Poland has a semi-presidential system, and the president’s veto can stop or even prevent the passing of legislation. Overturning the President’s veto requires 3/5 ( or 60 %) Sejm majority to pass. President Duda will remain in office until August 6, 2025, nearly 2 more years. It might become easier if the mayor of Warsaw, who is the leading presidential candidate of Donald Tusk’s coalition, wins the next presidential elections in 2025.

Cohabitation between the government of Donald Tusk (if elected) and the current President Andrzej Duda, who comes from PiS, will no doubt proceed smoothly. On the contrary, it is expected that the relationship between them will be challenging. President Duda will for certain defend legal solutions imposed by PiS, which will pose an additional problem for Tusk and his government. President can veto any law, demand amendments or request a review by the Constitutional Court if he believes the law is in collision with the constitution. Overturning a presidential veto in the Senate requires only a simple majority in the Sejm. This has happened with the controversial law regarding individuals under ”Russian influence”.

Poland has very diversified foreign policy interests and has also special relations with Israel, which can be tense at times. In the past, both countries have held joint government sessions. Israeli presidents and/or prime ministers regularly attend the annual commemoration at Auschwitz on January 26, the day of Auschwitz’s liberation in 1944. Relations between the two countries worsened following the adoption of a law concerning the return of Jewish property two years ago, which places severe limitations on such returns. Prime minister Morawiecki commenting this law reiterated: “I can only say that as long as I am the prime minister, Poland will not pay for German crimes: Neither zloty, nor euro, nor dollar”(The Times of Israel, 27 June 2021).

Poland’s foreign policy relations will be of utmost importance for any Polish government, especially with its neighbors and Israel. These relations are complex and burdened with historical issues, particularly those from the past century. A return to the situation as it was in 2009 is no longer possible. All of this will be challenging for Tusk’s new government.