Warsaw's liberal diplomat is not the man to take on Russia. And Poland isn't going to save Europe.
- By Ola CichowlasOla Cichowlas is a journalist covering Eastern Europe.
Poland has just buried its last communist leader. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski died in a Warsaw hospital at age 90 on the same day that more than 5 million Poles voted for their representatives in the EU Parliament and in the same year that Poland marks the 25th anniversary of the "Round Table Talks," which paved the way for democracy. As Warsaw’s last Moscow-loyal authoritarian ruler passed away peacefully, its neighbor Ukraine elected a pro-European president amid months of ongoing standoffs with Russia following the country’s Maidan revolution. In a move laden with symbolism, Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, announced that his first trip abroad as head of state will be to Poland.
Events in Ukraine have struck a nerve with Polish citizens and the government. When Kiev’s Maidan protests began in November 2013, Poles could not resist drawing comparisons to their pro-democracy movement of the 1980s, Solidarity. From slain protesters in the streets to the threat of Russian intervention to prop up a leader loyal to the Kremlin, the scenes in Ukraine felt all too familiar to many in Poland.
Democracy eventually triumphed and Poland broke free from Moscow’s rule. Today’s Polish parliament is full of Solidarity veterans who have gone separate ways across the political spectrum and are freely elected. Within a mere four years, the country made a rapid and relatively complete transition to electoral democracy and a market economy. And Poland’s government has made efforts to push other post-communist countries in similar directions. In the West’s eyes, Poland is seen as "Eastern Europe’s success story."
And it’s because of their similarities that the ongoing Ukraine crisis has thrust Poland to the center of European foreign policy amid the biggest security threat to the continent since the Balkan wars. The Polish success story has become something of a fantasy among Western European liberals who are now arguing that Poland can be a catalyst for reform in Eastern Europe and that the happy outcome of the Polish transition can serve as a reminder to the Euroskeptics in London, Paris, and Berlin of the privileges of European democracy, the importance of having friendly neighbors, and the good fortune of not sharing a border with Russia. One man has been put forward to do this: Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister. Sikorski has been described as "Mr. Perfect from Warsaw" and the man who might "save Europe." That’s not only overly optimistic — it is wrong.
It’s not that Sikorski’s diplomatic achievements in Ukraine aren’t real — they are. He went to Kiev in February with the foreign ministers of Germany and France to meet with Ukraine’s now-ousted President Viktor Yanukovych in a series of negotiations that helped resolve the crisis. His persistent stance with the West in support of Kiev in this time of need should be applauded. But not only is the concept of Poland saving Europe absurd, but Sikorski is not the person for this job.
Poland has announced that it will nominate Sikorski to replace Catherine Ashton as the European Union’s top diplomat when she leaves her post in October. But Sikorski seems to belong to a group of people who believe Russia will never be anything but autocratic. Like the thinking of many onetime Solidarity activists, his inability to see Russia as anything other than a continuation of the Soviet Union will blind him to the nuances of the situation.
Furthermore, Sikorski is not the liberal prince that his Western admirers, in awe of his Queen’s English, Oxford degree, and impressive career, believe him to be. The Polish foreign minister is much more socially conservative than the "center-right" leanings he himself claims to have. Polish politics can be deceptive. There are few genuinely liberal politicians in Warsaw, and the Polish opposition, under an increasingly nationalist Jaroslaw Kaczynski (in whose government Sikorski actually served while defense minister between 2005 and 2007), is so far removed from reality that anyone seems liberal by comparison. Sikorski — a man who once praised a counterfactual history novel by a right-wing amateur historian about how Poland and Nazi Germany could have teamed up to defeat the Soviet Union — is not the person to lead European diplomacy. And neither is Poland, no matter how far it has come.
When the Eastern Bloc fell in 1989, Poland decided to leave behind the burden of an Eastern European identity and view itself as part of the West, even though Poles remained very much aware of their 20th-century status as a satellite state. The idea of Warsaw assuming a more active role gained new momentum when Poland entered the European Union in 2004 — "the accomplishment of a century-old Polish dream of belonging to the Western world," as President Bronislaw Komorowski put it during 10th-anniversary celebrations this year. But with membership to the clubs of the West came an uncertain future: Was Poland to be merely a fringe gatekeeper or a dynamic member state and a catalyst for enlargement?
As a relative latecomer to the EU with a communist past, Poland has long felt insecure about its position in the EU. (Its exclusion from the euro area hasn’t helped either.) But since joining the European Union, Poland has amply shown its commitment to pro-democracy movements in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Warsaw stood by Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 — even though now-deceased Polish President Lech Kaczynski and Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili had little in common beyond their anti-Moscow views.* Poland’s then-president endorsed Kiev’s (failed) Orange Revolution in 2004, and the current president is assisting Moldovan reforms. Warsaw is the most vocal agitator for change inside the Belarus of Aleksandr Lukashenko, Europe’s last remaining dictator. Within the EU, Poland has been a vocal advocate of bringing Ukraine into the European fold going back as far as Poland’s accession to the union in 2004.
The Polish commitment to democracy movements and an orientation toward the West come easily to Poles as they reflect on their history. It’s in many ways natural that the Ukraine protests would be compared to those that ignited the Solidarity movement. But in the end, they are flawed. The Maidan is not the Gdansk shipyard, and 2014 is not 1984. Solidarity evolved over the course of almost a decade. And by 1989, Poland was not alone; the rest of the Eastern Bloc was also undergoing transformation. By that point, the Soviet Union was weak and on the brink of collapse. The West actually cared about and needed Poland. Europe and the United States were rich, strong, and confident — there were no recessions in sight, no calls for austerity. In 2014, Ukraine stands alone; the West is divided, weak, and poor; and a self-confident, self-righteous Russia is stronger than it has been since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Despite Warsaw’s optimism
, the Polish prescription may not work in Ukraine. Warsaw has been so blinded by the successful transformation of its economy and the rise of a functioning democracy that it believes every other corrupt post-communist regime can have an equally fast mend. Efforts to integrate Russia’s other neighbors into a wider Europe are unrealistic. The Eastern Partnership, a Polish-initiated EU project intended to promote democracy, grouped six disparate states into one category: post-Soviet. Warsaw’s optimism was awe-inspiring for the Ukrainian revolutionaries, who championed closer ties to Europe and less subservience to Moscow. But the goals of the Maidan revolution will fail if EU leaders lack a realistic vision for Kiev’s European future.
As Poland buries Jaruzelski, it bids farewell to one chapter of its history. But the past year has also seen the return of national fears with roots in the last century. Russian aggression in Ukraine and Moscow’s descent into Putinist authoritarianism revived anxieties Poles had buried for two decades. Warsaw believes its quarter-century-long golden age is threatened. Sikorski sees Europe through this prism of Polish historical misery, but Brussels deserves more than that. There are many things Europe needs. Polish conservatism is not one of them.
*Correction, May 31, 2014: Georgia’s Rose Revolution occurred in 2003, not 2012, as originally misstated. (Return to reading.)