Abandoning the Eastern Partnership Would Be a Terrible Act of Self-Harm for Poland

Poland's Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski and his counterpart from Ukraine Pavlo Klimkin meet in Warsaw in March. Photo: Getty Images.
Poland's Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski and his counterpart from Ukraine Pavlo Klimkin meet in Warsaw in March. Photo: Getty Images.

Since the launch of the Eastern Partnership in 2009, Poland has been the most important member state in driving the engagement with the EU’s eastern neighbours: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. But as the 4th bi-annual summit begins, Poland has seemingly abandoned its former policy, risking the political and economic development of these important partners, and in particular, the stability and integrity of Ukraine.

At the operational level, Polish diplomats and experts continue to contribute: Poland has the most impressive expertise on the post-Soviet countries in Europe and many think-tanks are working hard to promote closer ties. But the Polish political leadership is not only hesitant to promote the policy, it has seemed at times directly antagonistic to it, by, for example, re-stoking historical tensions with Ukraine, traditionally the most important of these relationships.

As a frontline NATO and EU state, Poland should benefit from having a strong, stable and friendly Ukraine as a neighbour. But domestic politics and ideology have come together to push foreign policy in a different direction.

Firstly, the ruling party Law and Justice party (PiS) has deliberately abandoned the policies of the previous government led by the Civic Platform under Donald Tusk – on principle, almost irrespective of their utility. As a result, not only has the Eastern Partnership been downgraded, but it has in effect been replaced by a seemingly deliberate attempt to stoke confrontation with its two key neighbours – Germany and Ukraine. Thus, domestic electoral objectives have become drivers of foreign policy.

Increasingly, PiS politicians and officials seek to outbid each other with ever more shrill accusations, typically historical, against Ukraine and Germany. The question of German reparations to Poland is once again on the political agenda; Ukraine is once more recast as the ‘historical foe’. In both cases, PiS has positioned itself as the defender of Polishness, meaning that by implication Civic Platform under Tusk betrayed Poland’s best interests to its worst enemies. This stance goes down well with the right-leaning part of the Polish electorate and leaves the party well placed when it comes to elections.

Secondly, PiS is pursuing a renewed anti-Ukrainian rhetoric for ideological reasons. In the 1990s, Poland and Ukraine opened a new chapter in relations. Both countries were cognisant of the need for unity in the face of the overwhelming power of Russia, and therefore sought a mutual understanding of historical difficulties. With PiS in power, this pursuit of a common position has been replaced by a return to historical grievances that had long troubled relations:, notably the Ukrainian massacre of the Poles in Volhyn (in which about 60,000 Poles were brutally killed) and the role of the UPA (the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which carried out the anti-Polish attacks) during the Second World War.

The anti-Ukrainian proclamations come from the highest levels. Previously Poland championed Ukraine’s membership of the EU. Yet now Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski has said that ‘with Bandera [the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), closely allied to the UPA] Ukraine can’t enter Europe’.

Ukraine – where the actions of the OUN and UPA, however flawed and tragic, are seen as heroic contributions to the pursuit of independence – is now in a quandary. If Kyiv fails to condemn them, Warsaw will accuse their stance of being anti-Polish. In Poland’s foreign policy, geopolitics and history have been merged – geopolitical complexities have been subordinated to historical open wounds which are not to be allowed to heal.

This strategy is ultimately counter to Poland’s national interests. A friendly Ukraine increases Poland’s security; a diminished, weak and vulnerable Ukraine decreases it. Poland’s creation of the Eastern Partnership was a smart strategic move: by mobilizing the entire EU to support eastern partners, including Ukraine, Poland was able to promote European integration of the neighbouring states as an EU policy as a whole. It demonstrated a far-sightedness that would deliver benefits which would serve Poland well into the future. The effective abandonment of this policy by Poland’s leadership reveals a sudden dearth of vision.

Kataryna Wolczuk, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme.

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