The hesitation of Polish diplomats during 2020 Belarusian protests exposes a deeper crisis in the Polish approach towards its Eastern neighbours. Meanwhile, Lithuanian diplomacy has proved to be surprisingly active and effective. What is the source of this difference and what are the main motives behind Poland’s Eastern policy?
Only two weeks ago Zbigniew Rau, back then the chairman of parliamentary foreign affairs commission, quickly curbed the discussion about Belarus claiming that ‘the matters remain unclear’. On August 26th, Rau was appointed new Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs. His approach and general hesitation are by no means a new phenomenon. Just like Jacek Czaputowicz (his direct predecessor), Rau embodies an existential crisis present in Poland’s Eastern policy since 1994. Due to its inefficient Ostpolitik, Poland is now only considered a regional power by Hungarian politicians in courtesy speeches and Russian propagandists during one of their hysterical spectacles.
From a geopolitical perspective, a new Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs should be an important event in the context of protests in Belarus, potentially even a game-changer. Poland is, after all, the country’s biggest pro-Western neighbour, linked with Belarus by centuries of common history and culture. Following this logic, one would expect Poland to try to reconcile the fighting parties, negotiate with Alexander Lukashenka and mobilise the West to take a more active position on the recent protests.
Currently, Poland is performing none of these diplomatic exercises. Polish diplomacy has proven to be either incoherent, clumsy or overly cautious.
Firstly, the attempts of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to organise an emergency meeting of Polish EU partners have been generally ignored. A slow response from the West has demonstrated something more important than an unwillingness from major European powers to confront Russia. It has exposed the surprising loneliness of Polish leaders in European diplomacy – the effect of an uneasy stance towards the European Union adopted by the Polish government after 2015.
Moreover, the Polish government has taken no serious step aimed at mediating the conflict and negotiating with any of the parties involved. Even if on August 14th Morawiecki announced a five-step provisional plan for the protests, the plan itself consists only of vague promises to help the repressed. It is worth noting that the plan considers only the option that the protesters will ultimately fail – it has deliberately been written to avoid increasing tension between Lukashenka and Poland.
Empty gestures expressing support for Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and her supporters should not cover the astonishing example of political short-sightedness that the Polish government demonstrated in May 2020. Given that the Belarusian elections were always likely to cause social unrest, the decision to limit funds for Belsat, one of the biggest Belarusian opposition TV broadcasters (financed by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 2007), sent a strange message to the people of Belarus. Although the financing was eventually re-established, the station has faced hard times as a result, during the political turmoil.
The events above led to a significant moment in Eastern European politics (aside from the protests themselves) in which the special joint statement issued by the presidents of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia was in fact fully prepared and edited in Vilnius – and only then translated into the other three languages. With each day, it becomes more evident that at least during the 2020 Belarus protests, Lithuania has been taking up the role to which Poland has always aspired. Even without an obvious ace in the hole, President Gitanas Nauseda and Saulius Skvernelis’s government have played a credible part in recent events.
In the current theatre of Eastern European politics, Lithuania, who has always been considered a minor player, has two advantages over Poland. Aside from being too small to be considered a threat to Moscow and therefore potentially accused of imperialist resentments by Russian propagandists, it has a spirit of mobilisation among its people carefully ignited by present and former heads of the state. On the 31st anniversary of the Baltic Way, nearly 50 000 people (including Nauseda and ex-President Dalia Grybauskaite) expressed support for Belarus by creating a human chain, mimicking the famous protest from 1991. Taking into account actions like this, as well as an active foreign policy, it is not surprising that Tsikhanouskaya chose Lithuania over Poland when forced to flee Belarus.
The difference between the Polish and Lithuanian approach can be analysed two-fold.
On the one hand, the general hesitation and apathy present in Poland’s Easter policy post-1989 can be attributed to the lack of a greater vision beyond Polish Ostpolitik. Created in the 1970s by Polish émigré publicists, the doctrine urged reconciliation between Eastern European nations and stated that the existence of an independent Belarus and Ukraine was key to Polish sovereignty and international safety. Following Polish independence, its neighbours chose paths far from that of democracy (the election of Lukashenka in 1994 and the increasing oligarchization of Ukraine under the leadership of Kuchma). Consequently, the doctrine ceased to be a dominant aspect of Poland’s Eastern policy. Even Ukraine’s Euromaidan of 2014 did little to change this situation.
The ideological void and the bizarre atmosphere of apathy that was created thereafter exists to this day. Too isolated to implement great-power style policies, yet too big not to care about regional politics, Poland has found itself incapable of producing a viable alternative to its outdated Ostpolitik. Having achieved the main objectives of its doctrine, Poland’s Eastern policy was left without a vision other than maintaining the status quo.
The reasons for the reluctance of Polish diplomats to take responsibility for firm action are not hard to find. As a member of the European Union, Poland has no viable political alternatives for Belarus or Ukraine. It may be true that Polish diplomats remain so hesitant and vague in their words because they know that solidarity with Belarus may only be an empty gesture. It has been made apparent that the membership of both Ukraine and Belarus in NATO or the EU is a vision that neither the US and Germany nor Russia would accept. Such a huge change in the status quo and disruption to the Russian sphere of influence could even be a step towards a more serious conflict, which Western powers would naturally want to avoid. Moreover, Belarus is energetically dependent on Russia and according to foreign observers such as Hanna Liubakova, it will not cut its ties with its powerful neighbour as easily as Western pro-democrats would like to imagine.
For this reason, Polish diplomats such as Rau and Czaputowicz may also fear a repeat of the 2018 Armenian #MerzhirSerzhin revolution. In Armenia, although the quasi-authoritarian President, Serzh Sargsyan, was removed, the new government of Nikol Pashinyan did not adopt a pro-Western course. It is important to remember that the 2020 protests are not particularly anti-Putin and due to deep links and a possible threat posed by Russia, cannot be so. The eventual winning party will be forced to continue (at least during the transitive period) the current direction of Belarusian policy of strengthening national ties with Russia. Whoever is victorious in the confrontation between Lukashenka and his opposition will be forced to consider the Russian question and, most likely, adopt a conciliatory stance towards the Kremlin.
The lack of consensus on the direction of Polish foreign policy is not just a purely governmental problem – it is rooted in the division that has become more and more visible in Polish society. Certainly, Rau remembers how the actions of Polish diplomats that were praised internationally (Lech Kaczyński’s visit to Tbilisi in 2008 and Radosław Sikorski’s 2014 negotiations with Ukraine) were strongly criticised at home.
It is not a secret that for the incumbent Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) party, the home front is more important than foreign affairs. As partisans, Rau and Morawiecki know that one reckless step outside the country may disrupt the equilibrium within Poland. Having clearly set their priorities and key aims (concentrated on domestic affairs), diplomats from PiS will not risk this type of mistake, especially when support for the government has already been weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic. On the eve of the possibly greatest change in eastern European politics since Ukraine’s Euromaidan, Poland has either to rethink and quickly reshape its approach towards its neighbours or step back and leave regional foreign policy to the other, more active countries. Given the apathy of Morawiecki’s government versus a pro-active Lithuanian leadership, it seems that for now, the Polish government has opted for the latter.