Explainer: why everyone is giving Poland a hard time

By Dr. Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.


 

Since coming into power at the end of October 2015, Poland’s new, right-wing government has caused a stir at home and drawn international criticism.

Hardly a day passes at the moment without EU officials or European leaders questioning decisions made by the government.

In its analysis, Der Spiegel warns against Poland’s “creeping autocracy”. Some observers have even compared the situation in Poland to Putin’s Russia. While such comparisons are exaggerated, there are serious questions to ask about the Polish government’s commitment to the principles of liberal democracy.

Poland has been praised for years for its successful transition from communist state to liberal democracy. Now, it is the subject of criticism, worry and disappointment. What happened?

After eight years in power, the centre-right, pro-EU and relatively moderate Civic Platform government lost the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections. In its place came the nationalistic, conservative and EU-sceptic Law and Justice (PiS) party, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, the twin brother of former president Lech Kaczyński, who died in a plane crash in 2010.

Changing the rules overnight

Things quickly changed after the election. Kaczyński appointed Beata Szydło as prime minister but it is clear that he pulls all the strings. For his part, president Andrzej Duda appears to be limited in his role to formally approving whatever the parliament (i.e. Kaczyński) throws his way.

Under the auspices of this peculiar administrative set up, the parliament has set about making drastic reforms at breakneck speed. Laws are changed overnight and without consultation. Critical voices are summarily ignored.

Szydlo and Kaczynski. One of them is Prime Minister, but no one can remember which.
Reuters/Kacper Pempel

So far, the parliament has significantly curtailed the powers of the national constitutional tribunal, which is supposed to impose judicial checks on the government. Another law seeks to curtail the freedom of the press by allowing the government to appoint the heads of media organisations.

Next on the list is foreign policy. The government is still in the process of developing plans on this front but it is already facing a predicament. On one side, the new government dislikes Russia, and on the other, it is increasingly fed up with the EU. The two positions are not particularly compatible.

The bear or the overbearing?

Poland has traditionally been sceptical of Russian foreign policy. While Western European countries, notably Germany, have been forging political and economic links with post-Soviet Russia, Poland has been working hard to join NATO, the EU, and to nurse the independence of the post-Soviet republics.

The wars in Georgia and Ukraine have proved to Poland’s elites that their concern was justified. Under Putin, Russia’s neighbours would have to watch their borders.

However, Poland is strongest as part of a team. It relies on its more powerful EU partners on the international stage and would struggle alone. When introducing the proposal for the EU’s Eastern Partnership programme, Poland worked together with Sweden. In the Ukrainian conflict, Poland accepted the leadership role of Germany.

It is unclear whether the new government appreciates this. On one hand, the anti-Russian sentiment seems to run deeper than ever. This government seems to be more emotional and less pragmatic about the relationship than its predecessors. This is fuelled by the widespread belief among PiS politicians and supporters that the 2010 crash that killed president Kaczyński was Russian sabotage, rather than a tragic accident.

On the other hand, Poland’s new government is deeply eurosceptic. It is particularly suspicious of Brussels and Berlin. The liberal EU arguably presents a threat to Catholic, conservative, Polish values.

There are longstanding tensions between Poland and Germany stemming from their difficult history but there is now resentment over Germany’s desire for Poland to remain a pro-EU, liberal democracy.

And grumbles about Brussels’ alleged interfering on issues such as gay rights have grown to alarm as the migration crisis has worsened. Pressure to take in refugees from Syria has not gone down well and Kaczyński is more often to be found siding up with Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s notoriously anti-immigrant prime minister, than Poland’s western EU partners.

While EU sanctions against Poland are unlikely, there are informal ways in which Brussels and EU leaders can seek to influence Poland. They might, for example, apply pressure to the EU funding channelled to Poland. And of course, they could remind Poland of its desire for European solidarity in support of Ukraine.

This is the dilemma for the Polish government. How can it be anti-Russian and anti-EU at the same time? Where will it seek allies? Kaczyński has always been fond of Orbán and the sympathy seems mutual, confirmed by their recent meeting.

But Orbán is famous for his pro-Putin policy. PIS is uncomfortable when confronted with this fact. Washington is only interested in supporting Poland as a pinnacle of liberal democracy in the region and a committed EU member. What are the options then? Either way, the current policy is bound to crash.

The Conversation

Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy, University of Southampton

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Kamil Zwolski commenting on political situation in Poland for France 24

By Dr. Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.


 

France 24 snap2[1] copy

Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at the University of Southampton, has commented on the political situation in Poland following 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections in this country for the Paris-based international news and current affairs television channel France 24.

You can watch Kamil’s contribution to the programme here.

PAIR’s Dr Kamil Zwolski commenting on the upcoming Polish election for France 24

By Dr. Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.


France 24 snap copy

Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at the University of Southampton, has commented on the forthcoming Polish elections for the Paris-based international news and current affairs television channel France 24.

You can view the programme segment by following this link.

Hey, the West! Feeling Guilty about the War in Ukraine? That’s OK, Russian Propaganda is World’s Best!

By Dr. Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.


Many in the West feel guilty about the war in Ukraine. They think it’s their fault. Well, not literally ‘their’, but the fault of their governments. They believe Russia is merely reacting to American expansive hegemony. Their view is reinforced by the American Realist thinkers, most notably Henry Kissinger and John Mearsheimer. Besides, there were some rumours of fascists in the Ukrainian government. And nobody likes fascists, right? I mean fascists in Ukraine. Fascists in many other countries, including Russia, the UK and other Western European countries are fine. And what is with this Ukrainian state anyway, I mean is that even a real state? There is Russian minority there, so there must be two sides to this story, right? That’s what we value about British public debate – there are two sides to every story.

Now, seriously. A Yale University historian Timothy Snyder sheds some light on the key reasons why Russian propaganda has been so effective in pushing its own narrative about the war it wages against the Ukrainian state.

“There are a lot of things that play here. The first is that everybody was surprised. People were surprised by Crimea and it was a shock to think that the whole European order could be destroyed – which is, in fact, what happened. One European state invading another European state was not something which was expected. Because it was surprising, people were legitimately confused for a while.

The second reason Russian propaganda worked very well is that Russian propaganda is not so much about convincing you of its truth, it’s about preventing you from acting quickly. The idea that what happened in Crimea was some kind of civil conflict or that those soldiers were not Russian soldiers – those were obvious lies. But while people in the West were processing them, the invasion and annexation were completed. And then once it was completed, people felt a little stupid how they have been fooled and then they didn’t really want to return to the whole issue.

The third reason why Russian propaganda works is that it is addressed directly to very sensitive points. The Russians understand us, I think, much better than we understand them. And that’s because they’re so much like us, like the Americans. They understand that we are vulnerable to certain things. One of the things that we are particularly vulnerable to is the idea that this is somehow all our fault. So the Russians will hit over and over again the idea that the Americans are responsible.

And this is confusing for the Americans, but for the Europeans it’s divisive, because many European will think: “Ok. Well, America is responsible. We don’t have to do anything. Maybe we should blame the Americans for the whole thing.”

The fourth reason why Russian propaganda tends to work is the way western journalism works. Western journalists generally think there are two sides to every story. If the Ukrainians are very bad in getting their side across, which they generally are, unfortunately, and the Russians are extremely good at their version, then the Russian version wins even if it’s much further away from reality. And so western journalists sometimes don’t realize how much they are being used.

And the final reason, although this is much weaker now that people went to Kiev, is that people were reporting on the events from Moscow or from far away. In general, journalists and anyone who goes to Kiev or Ukraine in general report extremely well. So really just going there is often enough.”

Emphases added.

Full interview available here.

England’s Great Illusion (about the EU)

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.


On Monday, 20 October, the outgoing European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso responded to English nationalists in a speech delivered at the Chatham House think tank in London. Here is the part of this speech directly countering some Europhobe arguments.

That is why I do not underestimate the very real concerns UK citizens are expressing about Europe. These merit a substantive response.

You don’t like the idea of a huge EU budget. I get that. By the way, it’s not – and with just 1% of Europe’s GDP we will need to fully use the agreed flexibility if we are pay our bills to those we are committed to invest in. Like Cambridge University for example, which consistently tops the tables for winning EU research funding.

But it’s a shame that the political debate here focuses only on absolute figures, when quality of spending is so much more important. This Commission has reformed the budget to focus on providing funding in countries and regions for the things that really matter – investment in research, in young people, in a more connected Europe.

You don’t want to be paying for armies of Eurocrats. I get that. We are cutting one in twenty staff across all EU institutions and agencies. The reforms we have introduced will save €2.7 billion by 2020 and €1.5 billion per year in the long run.

Personally I support the government’s aim to get more of Britain’s best and brightest to work in our institutions. The number of British officials is less than half of what it should be and falling quickly. Constant criticism and a pending existentialist debate do not make us the most attractive employer for young British graduates.

You don’t want Europe to meddle where it should not. I get that. Since 2004, the Commission has cut red tape worth €41 billion to European business. We have not interfered with the height of hairdressers’ heels, or the ergonomic design of office chairs.

We have scrapped legislation on bendy cucumbers – although the supermarkets were the first to complain. We have introduced evidence-based policy-making, consultation and impact assessment as the norm.

There are wide-spread concerns in the UK and elsewhere about abuse of free movement rights. I get that. Already in 2011, after constructive dialogue with the British Government, the Commission took forward changes to the way income support is dealt with under European social security rules. This benefit is now only due to those who have already worked and paid into the UK system. Since then we have undertaken concrete actions to support Member States as they apply the anti-abuse rules, for example on sham marriages.

I believe that any further changes to address some of the concerns raised should not put into question this basic right, which cannot be decoupled from other single market freedoms.

The Commission has always been ready to engage constructively in this discussion. But changes to these rules need all countries to agree.

And it is an illusion to believe that space for dialogue can be created if the tone and substance of the arguments you put forward question the very principle at stake and offend fellow Member States. It would be an historic mistake if on these issues Britain were to continue to alienate its natural allies in Central and Eastern Europe, when you were one of the strongest advocates for their accession.

[Emphases added]. Full speech available here.

Calling Russia’s Bluff: How to Analyse and Finalise the Conflict in Ukraine

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.


Take any analysis of the war in Ukraine and it is likely to be limited in the following one or two ways. Firstly, it will probably be heavily biased. Commentators often tend to unreflectively follow the official narrative of Washington and NATO, or completely buy into the Russian propaganda. Secondly, most analyses simplify what is a complex problem, looking for explanations exclusively at the international level (the enlargement of NATO) or within countries’ political systems (autocratic Russia). We need a more systematic approach.

In this contribution I borrow from the late American political scientist Kenneth Waltz. In his book Man, the State and War, he proposed to look for the causes of war at three different levels: individual, state and international. Aware of space limitations, I narrow down my analysis to the last two levels. Such framework, while seemingly less exciting than simplistic finger-pointing, may lead to more insightful conclusions and, in turn, better inform any recommendations we may suggest.

Ukraine in the international system

It is a truism to say that states have the ultimate authority in international relations. In contrast to domestic affairs, there is no international police or a court. Everything that exists in international relations is a result of agreements between sovereign states. This simple fact, however, does not mean that states must fight with each other. They can be friends or neutral towards one another. What did go wrong between Ukraine and Russia? There are two competing narratives which seek to explain the conflict at the level of the so-called international system. The first one has been most forcefully advanced by Professor John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago in Foreign Affairs. We can call it a realist explanation.

In short, Mearsheimer argues that the West is to blame for the conflict in Ukraine. The West, and mainly the United States, has provoked Russia by pushing for the enlargement of NATO and constantly trying to extend the Western sphere of influence. While this strategy may have worked with relatively weak President Boris Yeltsin, it has met with inevitable resistance from President Vladimir Putin, whom Mearsheimer calls ‘first-class strategist’.

The second narrative comes from the capitals of many of the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, some Western European countries, from NATO and from Washington. We can call it a liberalist narrative. In this interpretation, Russia is becoming increasingly delusional about restoring its position as the world superpower. This camp likes to remind Putin’s words about the collapse of the Soviet Union being the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the last century. They point to the wars in Georgia and Ukraine as evidence that Russia is increasingly dangerous and not to be trusted. Ukraine, for its part, should be supported in choosing its own future, preferably as a liberal democracy.

Both sides of this debate present enough empirical evidence to make their case. Ultimately, where one stands in this discussion depends on where one sits geographically and economically. Poland, for example, wants to have a stable, pro-Western democracy on its eastern border. Being a frontline EU and NATO country is not optimal for its security. Germany, France and Italy have a slightly different take; because of their location further away from the Russian borders and different historical experience, they feel more secure. Thus, they are more relaxed to focus on bilateral trade with Russia.

US policy seems to reflect the advice of Zbigniew Brzezinski, a National Security Advisor to President Carter. In his book The Grand Chessboard, Brzezinski calls for the strong American endorsement of the newly-independent CEE states. Russia’s intentions are hotly debated, but all the evidence suggests that Moscow will be persistent in preventing Ukraine from strengthening its ties with the EU.

Tell me your form of government, and I will tell you who you are

To explain the conflict at the level of the international system is different from looking for the causes of states’ behaviour in their domestic political systems. Unsurprisingly, commentators are similarly divided in how much emphasis they put on the characteristics of the main actors involved in the Ukrainian war, depending on their values and sympathies.

On the one hand, the liberalist camp draws on the old argument that liberal democracies are less prone to go to war with each other and to pose danger for their neighbours. This is why, in this narrative, Russia’s domestic political system is closely scrutinised. Interestingly, there is little disagreement between liberalists and realists that Russia, under President Putin, has become an autocratic state. Hardly anyone attempts to defend Russia as a democratic country.

While consolidating his power, Putin has practically eliminated any political opposition. He has also been consistent in limiting democratic freedoms in Russia. Admittedly, the majority of Russians do not appear to be concerned with this process, which is unsurprising considering the decades of Soviet social engineering. The problem is, according to external critiques, that increasingly autocratic Russia is a threat to its neighbours. Putin has created a socio-political system in which he can do what he wants abroad. In this context, it is understandable that many analyses intend to expose Putin’s intentions.

On the other hand, some realists, together with Marxist intellectuals and far-right parties in Europe, do not perceive Russian autocracy as a problem, at least not in relation to the war in Ukraine. Rather, they point their fingers at the American political system, which, so they say, is dominated by the neoconservative agenda. It is this neoconservative element in American foreign policy which drives this country to expand its spheres of influence around the world. This, inevitably, results in Washington interfering in other countries’ affairs. Russia is a victim in the Ukrainian conflict. It merely responds to the neo-onservative expansion of American alliances and spheres of influence. The closer ‘the West’ moves to the Russian borders, the more reaction we must expect from Putin.

Again, both sides have ample evidence to advance their case. Putin, without a question, has made Russia more autocratic. The Russian army did advance into Ukraine to support pro-Russian rebels in the south-eastern parts of the country. The annexation of Crimea was illegal by any standards. Russia is putting a lot of pressure, including hardly concealed blackmail, to force Ukraine into its pet project of the Eurasian Customs Union.

To this, the opposite side will respond that American foreign policy is no better. They will remind about an unauthorised invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was conducted under the pretext of the ‘war on terror’, but in reality was driven by the neoconservative, expansionist agenda. They will also, as Mearsheimer did in his contribution, criticise the enlargement of NATO in the 1990s and 2000s.

Inside Ukraine

Even when the discussion zooms in on the domestic situation in Ukraine, the arguments remain ideologically-driven and rather simplistic. On the one side, we hear that the people of Ukraine have chosen Europe through mass protests in Kiev, the so-called Euromaidan. On the other side, we hear that those people are fascists.

The truth is that many in Ukraine are tired and angry about the cancer of corruption and nepotism which eat up the country’s fragile institutions. They see how the CEE countries have transformed after the Cold War and want the same path for Ukraine. There are also large numbers of ethnic Russians and many Ukrainians, particularly in south-eastern parts of the country, who believe their future is with Russia, preferably as part of the Russian Federation. This brings me to recommendations.

Recommendations

Based on this short analysis, I reject the idea advanced by John Mearsheimer to transform Ukraine into ‘a neutral buffer between NATO and Russia’. To be more specific, I don’t think it is a bad option for Ukraine, but I believe it is for Ukrainians to decide. If Ukrainians, in their majority, choose to join the Eurasian Customs Union, the West must respect that. Angela Merkel already hinted that she would have no problem with such an outcome. On the other hand, however, if Ukraine chooses to deepen its ties with, and eventually join the EU, Russia must respect that and stop terrorising Kiev.

The sceptics will be quick to point out that Ukraine is, and always will be ethnically and ideologically divided – thus, the buffer country idea. As a result, the outcome preferred in the south-eastern Donbas region will be rejected by the rest of Ukraine and vice-versa. Here comes my second recommendation: If Moscow wants Kiev to offer the Donbas region more autonomy, Kiev should call Russia’s bluff and do just that.

In fact, Kiev should allow the Donbas region as much autonomy as it wants, and preferably allow it to become fully independent. As a Ukrainian-American writer Alexander Motyl points out in Foreign Affairs, this would allow the rest of Ukraine to speed up the necessary reforms and tighten its relationship with the EU. It would also help to develop healthier relations with Russia, which would have no choice but to finally respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.

[This article was also published in Diplomatist – India’s magazine on diplomacy and international affairs.]

As a New Sanctions Package Hits Russia, Europe Slips Back into Old-Style Geopolitics

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.


As a fragile ceasefire just about holds in Ukraine, with shelling reported in the pivotal port city of Mariupol, the EU has announced a new round of sanctions against Russia. Targeted at state-owned firms and Russian officials, the package prompted a predictably spiky Russian rejoinder, with Dmitry Medvedev promising an “asymmetric” response – possibly even extending to the closure of airspace.

Custom Union, Ukraine, EU summit in MinskBut whatever the actual impact of the sanctions, and whatever the fate of the ceasefire, one thing is for certain: thanks to the Ukraine crisis, the landscape of conflict in Europe has been transformed for good.

The story of Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union is always told the same way: after the West triumphed over the East at the end of the Cold War, conventional great-power politics on the continent came to a permanent close. And while conflict has hardly disappeared from Europe, the skirmishes that have popped up since 1990 are no longer major inter-state rivalries.

Instead, the story goes, they result from state collapse, bad governance, transnational crime, or tensions around issues like immigration. We are now more likely to discuss European politics in terms of institutions, integration, transnational actors, norms and values than in terms of the clash of big countries.

In a few short months, Ukraine has changed all that. The debates now raging around Europe’s new geopolitical situation are radically different from the conversation of just a year or so ago.

The West’s fault?

The argument is now not about whether state-versus-state wars will return to Europe, but whether they left in the first place. Some analysts have responded to the Ukrainian fracas by proclaiming that Europe has never really moved on from the drama of the great international face-off.

They point out that, in fact, American and European elites have consistently rolled the EU and NATO eastward towards the Russian border – a process which was always going to lead to a clash of interests.

From this point of view, the West is to blame for the current crisis. The only way out, as some foreign policy “realists” would have it, is to turn Ukraine into a sort of neutral buffer state between NATO and Russia, abandoning all efforts to spread “Western values” and promote democracy in Ukraine.

But over the course of an increasingly fraught summer, this perspective has run up against the mounting evidence of Russia’s very active military engagement in Ukraine, pursued despite protests of innocence.

By the end of August, for instance, evidence had emerged showing that Russian soldiers and various intelligence services have been directly involved in destabilising various parts of Ukraine beyond even the flashpoints in the east.

In fact, recent evidence shows that on August 28, Russian forces invaded and captured the Ukrainian town of Novoazovsk. Ukrainian forces were forced to withdraw, along with Ukrainian border servicemen, who lack any heavy military equipment.

Those developments ended any real debate over whether Russia has been an actor in the war, though the extent and intimacy of its involvement remained subject to heated debate by the time a ceasefire was signed on September 5.

Don’t overestimate the West

But despite all the evidence of Russian involvement, some commentators still hold that all this instability and violence is the fruit of Western policy – what they frame as attempts to “socially engineer” the domestic situation in Ukraine in the years leading up to Euromaidan.

But the fact is that in those years, the West was anything but agreed on Ukraine’s prospects for membership of either NATO or the EU. For example, while Poland had long been strongly advocating EU membership for Ukraine to flatter its own geopolitical ends, the EU as a whole preferred to confine Ukraine to various “cooperation frameworks” rather than hold open, formal membership negotiations.

Meanwhile, the question of the Eurasian Customs Union is still deeply unresolved. Angela Merkel recently stressed that Ukraine is free to join the Union, which also includes Kazakhstan and Belarus. In her words, “the European Union would never make a big conflict out of it, but would insist on a voluntary decision.”

A Ukrainian decision to join the Customs Union would, in fact, be favoured in many European political circles, if only for the stability it might conceivably bring. Still, the Customs Union Summit, which took place in Minsk on August 26, was a key display of how farcically messy European geopolitics have become.

That meeting was formally convened to discuss economic cooperation, but the main hope was that the Russian and Ukrainian presidents would make some kind of effort to resolve the conflict, or at least make some diplomatic progress.

But after a two-hour conversation between the presidents, there was no indication that they had reached any sort of agreement. The participation of a high-level EU delegation, including Catherine Ashton herself, apparently didn’t help either.

It was in further talks in Minsk ten days later that a ceasefire deal was finally agreed – while the EU’s foreign ministers and leaders were occupied at the NATO summit in Wales.

Get it together

Europe is now facing in its deepest geopolitical crisis since 1990, and has a fiendish dilemma on its hands: whether to tighten up security cooperation and risk further isolating Russia (following NATO’s decision to reinforce its eastern flank), or to pragmatically acknowledge that Russia has its own strategic interests – hoping that they remain confined to eastern Ukraine.

Both these approaches are wrong. On the one hand, Russia must be shown in no uncertain terms that what it’s been doing in Ukraine is illegal, ceasefire or no ceasefire, and that it will pay for it in the end. Central and eastern European countries need to be reassured that their larger neighbours actually care about their safety, and can do something real to help shore it up.

But at the same time, political and diplomatic efforts outside of sanctions must be accelerated, not sidelined by military posturing and the wrangling over sanctions. Otherwise the EU will only find itself further sidelined in future negotiations over Ukraine, just as it was in Minsk

In short, the EU urgently needs to get its act together. If it doesn’t, it will have to finally stop pretending it has any sort of common foreign policy, and accept the consequences as they come.

[This article is cross-posted at The Conversation. – Ed.]