Poland has become a part of Western Europe – for better or for worse. In the face of the escalating Ukrainian conflict it definitely seems for worse. The Poles have become wealthy enough to forget where they were 25 years ago. The memories of our own poor condition are so faded that we can no longer empathize with the Ukrainians’ violent struggle. And yet it seems so easy to keep convincing everyone in Brussels that Poland will teach its European partners to think in terms of solidarity.
Only some days ago, Prime Minister Donald Tusk condemned both sides of the conflict in Ukraine. One of the coalition MPs, Stefan Niesiołowski, stated: “it’s merely an internal conflict; I do not see the possibilities for a Polish reaction.” Only a day later policymakers across the European Union had a new mantra: sanctions – whilst the Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski went to Kyiv, together with his German and French counterparts. Their mediation was applauded as putting an end to barbaric bloodshed. Mr. Sikorski threatened the opposition leaders that if they do not sign they “will all be dead” – a serious claim at that moment, which seemed a great exaggeration only the next morning. However, the actual impact of official EU diplomacy on the end of violence is as debatable as the actual cause of that tragedy. Boasting about how Poland should play the role of Ukraine’s EU ambassador can well be seen as worn out. So what then should Poland’s and the EU’s policy towards Ukraine be now?
The three fallacies of our thinking about Ukraine
The idea of setting up a “Round Table” in Ukraine, emulating the Polish negotiated transition to democracy in 1989, echoed time and again. This proposition was underlined with good intentions and often comes from people who wish the Ukrainians well. It is, however, a largely subconscious symptom of three intellectual sins. These are: a peculiar amnesia, a postcolonial approach to the place of our Eastern neighbor in the geopolitical order and ignorance about the local realities.
Let’s start with the amnesia. We like to stress how important is the unique Central European experience for Polish political thinking. The two totalitarian regimes which left their gruesome traces here have supposedly made us both more aware of ideological blindness and sensitive to human rights breaches in the case of those who struggle for freedom. Our political elites grew largely out of the anti-authoritarian, democratic opposition – the “dissident” movements. Their representatives like to emphasize that.
Unfortunately, in the face of the current developments in Ukraine it turns out that parts of those same elites, when it comes to concrete action in the name of „exporting” the democratic revolution further East, are curiously passive or lack any vision. This was visible in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution and can well be repeated again, when things are calming down in Kyiv. Recent weeks and days in Ukraine clearly show that though we had the Workers’ Defense Committee and we are proud of the Solidarity trade union, the communist regime fell because Gorbachev allowed it to. This is a bitter pill, a truth less known to the politicians, although widely acknowledged by historians (a Polish historian Andrzej Paczkowski called our back-yard “the playground of superpowers”).
Moving on to postcolonial thinking (according to which Ukraine is our younger sibling), perhaps the country does have, on the societal level, some democratic ambitions. But when push comes to shove, it does not really know what democracy is about. It is a corrupt and half-baked country where the chances for maintaining the rule of law and enhancing civility are bleak even in the long run. Along the same lines, if the Ukrainians will not prove mature enough to settle their issues with Yanukovych on their own, it is surely not up to us to help them democratize their own country. This turns out to be a rather attractive excuse for the first sin, because it protects from accusations of passiveness and betraying one’s own (dissident) values.
Furthermore, the argument is raised that the Ukrainian economy will not survive if it becomes detached from the Russian Federation. We fail to recognize that this is the same type of rhetoric that hurt us so much in relation to our own country before the 1989 breakthrough and shortly after it. The Poles have become so well-off, and got their brains so deeply fixated on EU financial support, that they have completely forgotten where they themselves were 25 years ago. We are satiated, and the memories of our own poor condition are so faded that we can no longer empathize with the Ukrainians’ violent struggle. And yet it seems so easy to keep convincing everyone in Brussels that Poland will teach its European partners to think in terms of solidarity.
And then there is the third aspect – vast ignorance regarding Ukraine. It was very hard to imagine a dialogue in the tragic situation, with civilian body count reaching several dozen, although if one wants to find a justification for setting up a “Round Table” in a (nominally) democratic country, the need for dialogue and putting an end to the mindless bloodshed is the key point. That was indeed the rationale behind the negotiated agreement between the authorities and the opposition leaders – at least before the Ukrainian Parliament took over, and Yanukovych disappeared.
But this discloses another dimension of ignorance. The composition of Ukraine’s opposition is too complex for many Polish observers, so they fall back onto mental shortcuts and generalizations – from a Euro-enthusiastic generalization about civil society and freedom-fighters on the one side, to a simplification about fascists and hooligans on the other extreme. It is a fact, though, that the key to the Polish “Round Table” was the consensus between the reformist wing of the regime with the moderate core of the opposition – and the societal mandate that the latter possessed. The growing radicalization of parts of the Ukrainian society – often mainly misinterpreted as the radicalization of political groups – so far has not lead to similar outcomes in Ukraine. The agreement of the moderates was challenged not only by the far right radicals, but also by the disillusionement of the Maidan’s mainstream. The lukewarm reception of the liberated oligarch-martyr Yulia Tymoshenko only shows that elite agreements and reshufflings will simply no longer do.
Learning form past mistakes
What should the Polish politicians do in such circumstances? As liberals, bearing the idea of civic liberty close to our hearts, we are convinced that Poland’s diplomatic activities of the last decade — although resembling the political practice of the EU—will not suffice. As thirty-year-olds, who lived over two thirds of our lives in a free Poland, we would like to believe that the assurances of values, which according to the older generation were the foundations of a new Poland, were not just empty lip-service. We want to keep thinking that those values are not more important to us than to those who introduced them.
We are not naive. We understand that politics and diplomacy are often the craft of slow and patient actions. We wish, however, that things will not boil down to Sikorski’s mission to Kyiv. There are two domains and two approaches were more activity is needed.
The first one is the top-down, EU-centered diplomatic effort, which should result in drawing Ukraine closer to the EU. Not because this realizes our ill-defined raison d’etat, but because the EU is still the closest thing to a democratic community of peaceful international cooperation that we were able to achieve, and the Ukrainians have the right to, if they so choose, to be part of it. Poland then faces the challenge of changing the politics of Brussels (and other European capitals) towards Ukraine and our other neighbors, such as Belarus. The weakness of the EU in the East is rooted in the overwhelming formalization of the way Brussels functions, where democracy is defeated daily by bureaucracy and technocracy, as well as a faulty system of incentives for the Eastern countries to undertake democratic reforms.
Most importantly, there is a visible lack of a country, which would take onto itself the responsibility for a permanent advocacy in the name of the Eastern nations. There is no reason why the program pompously dubbed the Eastern Partnership should not become a truly European project. There is no reason why Poland should not play for Ukraine a similar role that Germany played for us, when it came to accepting Warsaw into the circle of EU capitals. This is not – to make it clear – another example of postcolonial thinking, but a stubborn pursuance of partnership.
We cannot, however, project historical schemes onto the present. There will not be another 1989, nor another 2004. The second domain is one of a bottom-up inter-societal partnership which can of course be enhanced by governmental support and incentives. Let us cease treating the Ukrainians as silly schoolchildren whom we, the self-proclaimed professors of democracy, will tell lengthy stories of how we used to do things, while our own backyard is far from ideal even today. Let’s think hard how we can strengthen the Ukrainian democracy from the bottom-up, drawing lessons from the imperfections of our quarter-century-long transformation. We cannot repeat the mistakes made after the Orange Revolution. After an initial wave of high-minded enthusiasm, when we all (yes, us too!) got carried away with revolutionary romance, we failed to keep that fire burning. Visiting the Maidan, from that perspective, resembled revolutionary tourism of places well known from the TV. Ukrainians, who perhaps still remembered the Polish president and politicians speaking from the stage at Liberty Square, were soon confronted with a much more mundane and brutal reality. Trying to cross the Ukrainian-Polish border many of them would be reminded, that the Polish state sees in them either potential bandits, smugglers or at best – cheap labor.
To build a functioning societal partnership we need to make it possible and affordable for Ukrainians to travel. Again, following the footsteps of our Western neighbor, the Polish government should consider a wide scholarship scheme for Ukrainian students. Such initiatives build lasting links, create a mutual exchange of ideas, and support the emergence of new, internationalized elites – on both sides. They thus address all the three fallacies we mentioned – at one go. Capacity building for the Ukrainian non-governmental sector through experienced Polish NGOs is another important element of that bottom-up approach. Again though – less lecturing, more support. We need to first ask the Ukrainians about their needs, understand their goals and hopes, and only then offer our focused assistance. This sensitivity is crucial. It also necessitates a greater attention directed at eastern and southern Ukraine. Our mainstream media easily dismiss that part of Ukraine as either a post-Soviet terra incognita or a land inhabited by people who are simply wrong and should be overruled and outvoted. Without a better understanding of these internal specificities, without adopting a perspective focused on individual freedom and dignity, we risk deepening the divisions in our neighbor’s society – the last thing we want.
Europe is still a powerful symbol, and a reality
We should also not forget that the European Union that we used to dream of is today neck-deep in crises – an economic crisis and also a crisis of its values. Before we start dragging anyone in, let’s consider what – in each individual case – the Union can offer. Because, in spite of all the problems, it can still offer quite a lot. In the grayness of our democracy we cannot allow anyone to convince us – as some Western intellectual circles once did – that there is no fundamental qualitative difference between democracy and authoritarianism. We cannot watch numbly if once again Ukraine slides towards authoritarianism, and keep telling ourselves that its none of our business, and by the way, it’s not that rosy here either.
To paraphrase the words that the then dissident, now journalist, Konstanty Gebert, once directed to Western activists: our point of departure is for many Ukrainians the point of arrival that they dream of. It is easy not to value freedom and to forget about it, but ask in Belarus, in Russia and now also in Ukraine – how difficult it is to live without it?
Łukasz Jasina is a historian teaching at the Catholic University of Lublin and a columnist at „Kultura Liberalna” specializing in the post-Soviet sphere.
Kacper Szulecki is a political scientist, until recently a Dahrendorf Fellow at the Hertie School of Goveranance, and editor at “Kultura Liberalna”, writing on international affairs.
Karolina Wigura is a sociologist and assistant professor at the Warsaw University. She also leads the political section of the “Kultura Liberalna” weekly.
First published in Kultura Liberalna, February 25, 2014.
© Authors / Kultura Liberalna