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Jun 30, 2022

The EU and the War in Ukraine (I): The Curse of Being Important. A View from Poland

Poland’s actions following the outbreak of war in Ukraine—its break with Hungary, its openness toward the refugees—do not necessarily signal a shift back to liberal democratic values. The national populist government’s focus is Ukraine’s and, invariably, Poland’s right to self-determination.

The Palace of Culture in the center of Warsaw is seen by night May 25, 2009.
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“May you live in interesting times,” goes the oft-quoted Chinese curse. This is exactly what seems to have befallen Europe. Serious political tensions have returned to Central and Eastern Europe. They will not lessen easily.

In the 20th century the region experienced waves of authoritarianism and extremely bloody wars. The continent’s annus mirabilis, 1989, marked a U-turn against this dark historical background. Largely unanticipated, the peaceful political transition from communism to democracy looked as much as a miracle as the subsequent relatively rapid economic achievements. Twenty-five years passed, and the path of Poland was labelled “a second Jagiellonian age,” as it was difficult to compare the new state of affairs with anything else than the magnificent, if remote, Poland during the Renaissance.

However, a second wave of unexpected events occurred during the last decade. In 2015, Poles voted the illiberal and populist Law and Justice (PiS) party into office, which fundamentally changed the country’s trajectory. Due to nationalistic twists and turns in domestic and foreign policy, as well as a series of unnecessary clashes with Western European countries, Poland’s ruling party led the country to a not-so-splendid isolation on the international scene—a  fact publicly admitted by an ex-foreign minister of the PiS government himself.

This geopolitical marginalization of Poland that started so brusquely seems to have ended virtually in the same way. It happened on February 24, 2022. As millions of refugees started to flow through the Polish-Ukrainian border as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the world saw a new face of Poland. The role of the country on the European and international scene started to shift.

A Different Definition

Like other direct Russian neighbors, Poland defines the current war in a different way than most Western countries, which influences much of the current actions of its state and citizens.

For Western countries, this war is about Ukraine. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of its eastern neighbor is understood as a disaster for the inhabitants of Kyiv, Mariupol, Severodonetsk, and many other cities in the invaded country. At the same time, the biggest danger is seen in possibility of the war to spilling across the Ukrainian border, setting off a global, possibly nuclear conflict.

For Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries, it’s quite different. These neighbors of Russia tend to see the war not as an event, but as part of a process, a next step on a trail of President Vladimir Putin’s nightmarish assaults on other countries, dating back to the conflict in Chechnya, the war in Georgia, and the annexation of Crimea.

To Eastern and Central Europeans, it seems naive to assume that Putin will stop at Ukraine. As the Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said, “We are in danger when our neighbor's house is on fire.” The East thinks that, whatever the name given to the conflict, the war against liberal democratic values and the right to self-determination has already started. This view sometimes takes a fatalist shape, in which the escalation of the conflict is inevitable, whatever one does. Whether nuclear or not, it will mean total destruction; the Bucha massacre is one of the best examples. In Poland, the opinion polls show a strong fear of war, shared by 80 percent of the respondents. 

The new “Wilkommenskultur”

One of the consequences of the above is the pan-Polish reaction of open arms toward Ukrainian refugees. For an external observer, the fact that the Poles were eager to accept millions of refugees virtually within weeks may come as a surprise. Let’s admit that the surprise is not unjustified. Since the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015, Poland has muscularly opposed any plans to share asylum-seekers among the European Union member states, according to the countries’ sizes. And still in 2021, the country deployed armed police and the military, using force to push back a few thousand people from the Polish-Belarussian border, many of them women and children, mostly from Afghanistan and Syria.

Today, however, Poland’s position is radically different. According to the UNHCR, almost five million Ukrainians have fled their country since the beginning of the war, of which some two thirds escaped to Poland where they were usually greeted with open arms. As the war has continued and some of the Ukrainian cities were liberated, the number of those returning to their country has recently equaled the number of refugees, but newly incoming persons can still count on Poles’ help.

“People like us”—this is how the newcomers are almost unanimously described in Warsaw today. It is too easy to misinterpret this as being motivated entirely by sympathy for those who share the same ethnicity, culture, and religion. The empathy shown to the refugees is primarily shaped by geography and a shared experience of Russian imperialism, which has been a constant factor in the Central and Eastern European region throughout the past 300 years.

Poland’s Domestic Politics

Will the current war have an impact on the shape of domestic politics in Poland? Theoretically, the government in Warsaw could use the fear of war and the wave of solidarity with refugees to improve its ratings due to the so-called flag effect. PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński and his associates could have taken the opportunity to demonstrate the Polish state’s effectiveness in dealing with the crisis and convince Poles that they can be relied upon to guarantee security in uncertain times.

However, this has not been the case. In recent opinion polls, the governing United Right coalition, in which the PiS is the biggest party,  leads with almost 40 percent. Yet, were the opposition parties, the Civic Coalition and Szymon’s Hołownia’s Poland 2050, to join forces, or were a coalition formed combining those two and the Left, Kaczyński’s party would probably lose the next election.

The failure of the ruling party to capitalize on the current situation is essentially due to the fact that the United Right camp is immersed in internal conflicts, which started long before the war in Ukraine. Furthermore, the United Right has suffered from a reshaping of forces in foreign policy. Hungary, hitherto regarded by Warsaw as its best—or even only—ally, has taken a pro-Moscow course, which was especially apparent when the EU embargo on Russian energy was discussed. This has opened a serious rift between Warsaw and Budapest, and PiS finds it difficult to explain it to its voters. At the same time, the opposition parties are also proving unable to decisively capitalize on the war, because so far they have failed to present themselves as leaders capable of dealing with the crisis.

This does not mean that the war will not have any effect on the opposition’s public support in a longer term. In Poland, the hospitality shown to Ukrainians has been given a peculiar name: the Carnival of Solidarity. It is in fact an historical name, once used to describe the social uprising of the “Solidarity” movement in the 1980s. Thus, in the longer term, one may hope that the experience of having worked together to help the newcomers may lessen the polarization and have a generally positive effect on the Polish political community.

Poland and the EU

Some Western observers have recently been expressing hope that Poland’s actions following the outbreak of war in Ukraine—its break with Hungary, its openness toward the refugees— might also mean that the country’s government is shifting back to liberal democratic values. This is, however, not the case.

The illiberal populists ruling Poland have not changed their ideological convictions overnight. Their main objective is not liberal democracy, but Ukraine’s and Poland’s right to self-determination, their sovereignty. They perceive the independence of their neighbor through the lens of a possible domino effect in the region. To put it bluntly: “We will be next” after Ukraine is the bottom line of current foreign and domestic policy. The point is that it does not exclude a return to an illiberal agenda in the future.

This should be taken into consideration, as the current politics of Poland seems to be heading toward contradictions and internal tensions. On the one hand, the current government will aspire to become more of a regional power. This has already been visible in Poland’s attempts to lead a foreign policy independent from its Western allies—for example when the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, along with his Czech and Slovenian counterparts as well as Jarosław Kaczyński, went to Kyiv at the very early stage of the war. Also, the government politicians in Poland have already expressed their wish to build a kind of an alliance with Ukraine against Western Europe. “A strong Polish-Ukrainian alliance could hold all the cards in Central and Eastern Europe,” Deputy Infrastructure Minister Marcin Horała said at the beginning of June.

But on the other hand, Poland will become more dependent on the EU and NATO. Because of the collective fear of the war with Russia and the shifting geopolitical situation, Warsaw will tend to be more eager to play by Brussels’ rules. With war in the east, Poland’s isolation on the European scene might prove to be an all too serious risk. The first sign of this is that Warsaw was ready to meet at least a part of the European Commission’s expectations in order to regain the temporarily blocked post-pandemic recovery funds.

The question of whether the government managed to outwit the European Commission, or, on the contrary, eventually bowed to pressure from Brussels, remains open. The fact is that in times of war a compromise has been eventually found.

What Next?

Polish politicians from left to right often tend to hope that Poland would play an important role on the European and international scene. This might be a positive vision, but given the fact that a vicious war is taking place just across Poland’s border, its new importance is intertwined with a whole array of dangers and sources of instability. The “interesting times” mean ever-new challenges. And the search for answers seems to only be starting, not ending.

Jarosław Kuisz is writer, essayist, political analyst as well as editor-in-chief of the Kultura Liberalna and senior lecturer at the Faculty of Law and Administration at the University of Warsaw. He is currently a policy fellow at the University of Cambridge.

Karolina Wigura is a historian, sociologist, and political editor of Kultura Liberalna, Poland’s leading online political and cultural weekly as well as assistant professor at Faculty of Sociology, University of Warsaw. She is currently a Richard von Weizsäcker fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

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