Affluent Poles looking at Ukraine – too much lecturing, not enough support

Karolina Wigura, Kacper Szulecki Łukasz Jasina · 11 March 2014
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 two 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 have a new mantra: sanctions – whilst the foreign minister Radek Sikorski went to Kyiv, together with his German and French counterparts. Sanctions, however, tend to sound better in theory than they work in reality. 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 idea of setting up a “Round Table” in Ukraine, emulating the Polish negotiated transition to democracy in 1989, echoes time and again. This proposition is 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 totalitarianism 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. 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 (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. Those people who maintain that a Polish “Round Table” could be repeated in Kyiv do not take into account several elements. Shots were fired and victims fell not years ago, not even months ago – this is happening now. It is very hard to imagine a constructive dialogue in the current situation, 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. 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.

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 to date— 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 supporting the EU sanctions and Sikorski’s visit to Kyiv. So that Poland 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. 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 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 how Ukraine slides into authoritarianism and violence, 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?