The view from the ground.

Warsaw’s Backbench Steps Forward

The dynamic duo of Donald Tusk and Radoslaw Sikorski turned Poland into a European foreign-policy power player. What happens now that they're gone?


WARSAW, Poland — Even Grzegorz Schetyna's mother isn't quite sure just why her son was elevated to the position of Poland's new foreign minister.

WARSAW, Poland — Even Grzegorz Schetyna’s mother isn’t quite sure just why her son was elevated to the position of Poland’s new foreign minister.

The younger Schetyna, a longtime power broker in Poland’s center-right Civic Platform party, has seemingly shown little interest in foreign-policy issues up until now. He has said almost nothing publicly about Poland’s main foreign-policy preoccupation, the rumbling crisis in Ukraine next door, spending his time instead jousting with rivals and trying to rebuild his influence within the party. He only learned English from "black-skinned" foreign basketball players on a team he helps run in his native Silesia, said his mother, Danuta Schetyna, in a September interview with the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper.

"I don’t know myself what prompted [new Prime Minister] Mrs. Kopacz to name him to that position," Danuta Schetyna said. "I hope I’ll find out soon." 

The son, it seems, also has his doubts. According to his mother, Grzegorz wasn’t so sure he was the right man for the job. Her son, his mother said, "was of the view that in the current international situation it would be better for [Radoslaw] Sikorski to steer" the foreign ministry. He’s not the only one thinking it.

For the past seven years, Polish foreign policy has been in the gifted hands of the tandem of Sikorski, the former foreign minister, and former Prime Minister Donald Tusk. The pair leveraged Poland’s growing economy and large population to turn the country from a Central European bantamweight into an unlikely power-player in the EU, particularly in the realm of foreign affairs. At a time when Spain and Italy were preoccupied with economic disasters at home and Britain was wondering whether to leave the Union, Poland became Europe’s third-most important voice on matters of diplomacy, after France and Germany. 

But Tusk is now leaving to become president of the European Council; Sikorski is being kicked upstairs to take on the political job of parliamentary speaker. That leaves Poland’s foreign policy in the hands of relative neophytes: Ewa Kopacz, a chain-smoking physician who has been Tusk’s protégée for years, has taken over as prime minister, and Schetyna, a rumpled man who hails from Poland’s industrial heartland, will attempt to fill Sikorski’s shoes. The departure leaves a talent hole that was made painfully apparent during Kopacz’s first press conference in mid-September.

Kopacz stunned Poland’s foreign-policy establishment when she answered a question about whether Poland would supply weapons to Ukraine via a long extended metaphor about Russian aggression, in which she said the country should act "like a sensible Polish woman": "You know, I am a woman. I imagine what I would do if a person appeared on the street waving a sharp weapon or holding a pistol. My first thought would be that behind my back is my house and my children. So I rush home, lock up and take care of my children." She ended her tale by saying that Poland should get involved only if the "European family" decided to do so.

Her clumsy story outraged feminists and foreign-policy analysts alike. Her tone marked a significant softening from the rhetoric of the Tusk-Sikorski era, which was strongly supportive of Ukraine and harshly critical of Russia. Making matters worse, the comments also came just a day after Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin had warned that Russian tanks could be in Central European capitals, including Warsaw, within two days. Poland’s punditry went berserk.

"She really doesn’t understand foreign policy issues at all," a senior member of her Civic Platform party, who requested anonymity, said in an interview. "Her family comments left me baffled."

"I don’t know if the prime minister is aware of this, but she has presented an ideal case for isolationism," wrote Bartosz Weglarczyk, deputy editor of the Rzeczpospolita newspaper. "The problem is that in today’s world closing the door does nothing because the man waving the sharp weapon can kick in the door with no problem." 

Even Tusk was overheard saying that Kopacz’s gaffe-filled initial performance had left her "broken."

Tusk took power in 2007, coming in after two years under a right-wing Law and Justice party government had left Poland isolated in the European Union and relations with Germany and Russia in tatters. Tusk and Sikorski focused on rebuilding Poland’s position in the EU (a club Poland joined in 2004) and turning its ties with Berlin into the linchpin of Warsaw’s foreign policy. Poland’s rise was helped along by its remarkable economic resilience — its economy grew by 20 percent from 2008 to 2012, delivering by far the best performance in the union — which helped make Warsaw an increasingly important voice on a host of other European issues.

Efforts to reset relations with Russia were less successful, and ground to a halt following the Russian annexation of Crimea in early 2014, which triggered longstanding Polish fears of Kremlin aggression. But the crisis in Ukraine also helped to elevate Poland’s profile as a foreign-policy leader in Europe. As the threat from Russia became ever more real, Sikorski’s earlier warnings about Russian aggression came to be seen less as a peculiarly Polish paranoia, and rather as an accurate assessment of Moscow’s intentions.

The high-water mark of Warsaw’s international influence came earlier this year, when Sikorski, together with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier, helped negotiate an end to street violence in Kiev in the waning hours of the rule of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych. When Russia first annexed Crimea and then began to intervene in eastern Ukraine, Sikorski and Tusk led the call for tough sanctions to bring Moscow to heel. 

Sikorski and Tusk gave Poland star power — and gave the country more diplomatic heft than it had had in centuries. Sikorski’s Oxford education, impeccable English, and extensive international contacts made him a player in European capitals, while Tusk’s enthusiasm for the European project, his ability to work with other leaders, and his close personal ties with Germany’s Angela Merkel made him one of Europe’s most influential politicians.

The new team will have a difficult time replicating that formula. Kopacz has no history with Merkel. Schetyna, a cigar-smoking, soccer-loving party insider, is unlikely to cut the same swathe in European salons as Sikorski, with his pinstriped suits, gleaming oxfords, and restored manor house home.

But even before the dynamic duo’s departure, Poland’s star turn was waning. Warsaw was excluded from Ukrainian peace talks in Minsk conducted by France and Germany together with Moscow. Poland was sidelined at Russia’s request, which saw the country’ strong pro-Kiev tendencies as a hindrance. Warsaw was upset, but with the war escalating in Ukraine, its European partners, it turned out, were more interested in securing a ceasefire than in catering to Poland’s geopolitical ambitions.

Tusk and Sikorski’s own expanded ambitions have also played a role in tempering Poland’s views. When it became apparent that they were in the running for top European Union jobs, both became more careful in their comments on Ukraine, emphasizing that France and Germany had taken the lead in defusing the conflict. Sikorski did not get the Union’s senior foreign-policy post, a job that went to Italy’s Federica Mogherini, but Tusk did win the European Council presidency, a post that will see him chairing summits of EU leaders for the next two-and-a-half years.

Schetyna was a surprise choice to head the foreign ministry. Once one of Tusk’s closest allies, Schetyna was demoted from his position as interior minister and removed from a senior role in the party after showing too much ambition. (Tusk has a history of defenestrating potential rivals.) Schetyna has since served as head of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee for the past three years, but he saw the post as a sort of exile.

Schetyna’s advance is part of Kopacz’s intra-party balancing act. She has brought Schetyna and other power brokers like Cezary Grabarczyk, the new justice minister, into the government, where she can keep an eye on them and make sure they do not challenge her for the party’s leadership. "Choosing Schetyna for this post is undoubtedly an attempt to consolidate the party," said Marcin Zaborowski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs. Kopacz’s overwhelming focus is to rally the Civic Platform, which has sagged in recent opinion polls, and to lead the party to victory in local elections in November, a presidential vote next spring, and then parliamentary elections.

Not everyone sees catastrophe ahead for Polish foreign relations. Even without its shining stars, Poland still remains one of Europe’s big players, said Eugeniusz Smolar, a Polish foreign-policy expert. "Personal visibility matters, and of course the new government won’t have that without Tusk and Sikorski, but the main areas are under control," he said. Poland’s status in the European Union and in NATO is secure, he added. In the meantime, said Zoborowski, Ukraine struck a cease-fire agreement with Russian-backed separatists after its military was badly mangled in recent fighting — meaning Poland’s role as Kiev’s biggest advocate may be drawing to a close. "We can’t be more Ukrainian than the Ukrainians," Zaborowski said.

Except that Russia appears as dangerous and unpredictable as ever. The Kremlin’s provocations in the region are growing, from violating Sweden’s airspace to allegedly seizing an Estonian police intelligence officer to capturing a Lithuanian fishing vessel. Meanwhile, Poland’s neophyte team remains focused largely on next year’s parliamentary elections.

"Ewa Kopacz as prime minister and Grzegorz Schetyna as minister of foreign affairs," wrote columnist Marek Magierowski in a piece for Rzeczpospolita. "That looks like a planned sabotage of Polish diplomacy."

Jan Cienski is a senior fellow at demosEuropa.

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