Europe's new Ostpolitik: a Polish echo

About the author

Anna Politkovskaya, the renowned Russian journalist and critic of the Kremlin, was assassinated in Moscow on 7 October 2006. Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB agent and another foe of the Kremlin, was poisoned in London on 1 November and died twenty-two days later. Russia's defence minister proudly announced that two of the Kremlin's in-house so-called liberals - Vladimir Surkov and Dmitri Kozak - are in fact siloviki who either work or used to work for Russia's notorious military intelligence body, the GRU. 

Even worse, some film critics even see a resemblance between Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, and the new James Bond: both figures are tough, enigmatic, sentimental and (apparently) ready to quit when the operation is over.

Are these the elements of Russian conspiracy or syndromes of western paranoia? Could James Bond turn out to be a Russian spy at the end? More immediately, how should Europe's public make sense of the continent's growing uneasiness about Russia?

Gazprom's combative policy towards European investors, Russia's pressure on Georgia, and the new Kremlin ideology of "sovereign democracy" seem further evidence of the appropriateness of a cold-war framework. What is still unknown is the nature of this cold war: how deep it goes, who is in it, what its prospects are. And if there are traces of nostalgia in its return, is the (formerly) victorious west or the defeated Russians most in its grip - or is it simply that Russia still lives in a cold-war era that the west seems to have forgotten?

One way to address these questions is by posing another: where is central Europe in all this?

Ivan Krastev is chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria. He served as the executive director of the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by Giuliano Amato

Also by Ivan Krastev in openDemocracy:

"We are all Brits today: Timothy Garton Ash's Free World"
(September 2004)

"Ukraine and Europe: a fatal attraction" (December 2004)

"The European Union and the Balkans: enlargement or empire?" (June 2005)

"Russia post-orange empire" (October 2005)

"The new Europe: respectable populism, clockwork liberalism" (March 2006)

"The end of the 'freedom century'" (April 2006)

"The energy route to Russian democracy" (June 2006)

"'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style"
(16 November 2006)

The ghost of 13 December 1981

A good vantage-point to consider these pressing issues is Poland. After all, Warsaw's veto on the provisional European Union-Russia framework agreement has established the frontlines in the ongoing German-Polish diplomatic combat over the EU's policy towards Russia. An even more potent Polish dimension lies buried within current disputes, however: the international politics of the crackdown by Poland's then communist authorities on the independent Solidarity trade union on 13 December 1981.

The predominant Polish view of 1981 is that (West) Germany's then Ostpolitik - the special concern and engagement with the Soviet-bloc countries to its east - betrayed Solidarity for the sake of maintaining good relations with Moscow. Today, Warsaw sees the new German Ostpolitik - symbolised by the Baltic oil pipeline that will bypass Polish territory - as evidence of historical continuity.

Berlin, meanwhile, views Warsaw's hardline position on Russia as a grotesque and insane return to Ronald Reagan's policies towards the Soviet Union in a totally changed post-cold-war environment. While Poland seeks to assert its return to international politics and its readiness to fight for its interests, Berlin tries to persuade east-central Europe that the cold war is gone. The conversation is not going easily.

The historians of the cold war now tend to agree that Afghanistan, not Poland, marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet system. "The developments in Poland were a stirring prologue to the narrative of Communism's collapse", writes Tony Judt, "but they remained a sideshow. The real story was elsewhere".

The real story was probably elsewhere - but it was the crushing of Solidarity, sixteen months after it mushroomed into a national movement following its birth in the Gdansk shipyards in August 1980 - that caused the major divide in western policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.

For the United States administration of Ronald Reagan (at the end of the president's first year in office), the imposition of martial law in Poland illustrated the weakness of the Soviet system. In two major speeches over the next two years, Reagan insisted that the communist system was tumbling down.

At Westminster in June 1982, he noted as a simple fact that "of all the millions of refugees we've seen in the modern world, their flight is always from, not towards the communist world", and went on to consign Marxism-Leninism to the "trashheap of history". In March 1983, he said that communism is a "sad, bizarre chapter in history, whose last pages even now are being written".

Reagan's policy towards communism was one of economic sanctions, political pressure and war of ideas. In today's terms, it was a policy of regime change justified as a Moralpolitik. At the heart of the "Reagan doctrine" were two principles: the rejection of any moral equivalence between the democratic west and the communist east, and of any discussion of the Soviet Union as a normal state with legitimate security interests.

West Germany's perspective on the repression of Solidarity was profoundly different. The announcement of martial law in Poland came at the worst time for the then chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, who found himself in East Germany, on the concluding day of his summit meeting with his communist host, Erich Honecker.

Schmidt regretted the developments in Warsaw but insisted that they were an internal Polish affair. Bonn feared destabilisation in Europe and a rise of tensions between the west and the Soviet bloc. Timothy Garton Ash describes the Bonn position of the time thus: as Germans had renounced their claim to national unity for the sake of peace, so the Poles would have to renounce their claim to freedom - in the name of the highest priority...keeping the peace. In short, Reagan's enemy was communism; Germany's enemy was a new war in Europe.

As a result of this clash of perspectives, the crisis of the Soviet bloc in 1981 became the crisis of the western alliance. In most of western Europe, "Solidarity with Solidarity" was a slogan, but not a policy. As early as February 1982, while Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuroñ and their friends languished in prison, Helmut Schmidt sent a high-level personal representative to the government of General Wojciech Jaruzelski to help overcome Poland's "isolation".

No wonder, in 2006, it feels like déjà vu all over again. The western alliance is again in crisis over its powerful neighbour to the east. It is tempting to argue, then, that the moment presents a similar choice: freedom-fighters vs Ostpolitikers, the politics of principles vs immoral realism.

But seductive arguments are not always valid ones. It may be attractive to depict the current European crisis over its Russia policy as analogous to the crisis of 1981; analogies too, however, can be dangerously misleading.

Europe's new Ostpolitik

The critics of a reunited Germany are right to argue that, as during the cold war, Germany's policy towards Russia is based on neglect of the nature of the regime, a stress on regional stability, and economic cooperation.

On its own account, Berlin's clear unhappiness with recent political developments in Moscow is qualified by three factors:

  • Germany is not ready to see Vladimir Putin's Russia (as many others are coming to do) as "Soviet Union lite"
  • Germany does not see regime change in Russia as a realistic possibility
  • Germany, along with Europe as a whole, are increasingly dependent on Russia's gas and oil.

Germany can thus be blamed for a lack of imagination, but not for a lack of realism. Berlin's decision to treat Gazprom as only a corporate entity, for example, is less hypocrisy or naivety than a statement of hard-nosed realism. Moreover, Germany has stronger arguments than in 1981 in arguing it is engagement not confrontation that can influence internal political changes in Russia.

But a striking feature of the German position is the unwillingness to see any risks and threats for the European Union emanating from Russia's current policies. A disturbing question follows: when it comes to Russia, is the German interest Europe's interest?

The German public opinion that was so sensitive towards Donald Rumsfeld's strategy to divide Europe into "old" and "new" fails to notice that Gazprom is following a similar policy (the only difference is that Rumsfeld was favouring "new Europe" and Russia favours "old Europe"). The danger posed by Russia's policies is of European Union disunity and the failure of the EU project.

Poland's politics of remembering

Poland itself has a different problem. In its attempt to mobilise support for new, Reagan-type, "third-cold-war" policy response, Warsaw fails to notice that Putin's Russia is not the Soviet Union. There are no Russian troops in Prague, Warsaw or Budapest; and while Leonid Brezhnev could not legitimately speak for the peoples of the Soviet Union, Putin can speak for Russia.

Denying Russia its legitimate interests will not allow any meaningful dialogue. The nature of the Soviet threat was very different from the challenge presented by Russia today. Communist ideology, a critical element of the Soviet threat, is gone. By rhetorically fighting the Soviet Union in 1981 the west was fighting communism; by confronting Russia today the west is not confronting an ideological enemy. Poland's attempt to portray Putin's Russia as a modified version of the Soviet Union is unlikely to gain the support of European public opinion.

In short, Europe is not living in a recurrence of December 1981. The choice is not between Reagan-style neo-conservatism and Helmut Schmidt's Ostpolitik. The context has changed. (West) German Ostpolitik was a strategy of German unification; Germany's new Ostpolitik is a politics of unified Germany.

Poland today is also not the Poland of 1981. Then, Solidarity was not so much a representative of the Polish national interest as the symbol of Europe's march towards freedom. Today, official Polish positions are perceived in much of the rest of Europe as unbalanced and counterproductive. The current government of the Kaczynski twins (Lech as president, Jaroslaw as prime minister) is mistrusted by large swathes of the European public, and Poland regarded as a selfish actor in the European Union. The contrast is vivid: the voice of the Polish revolution in December 1981 was stronger than the voice of the Polish government is today.

At the same time, Europe will fail in its Russia policy if it decides to ignore Polish sensitivities. Poland has a point and this point should be heard. The experience of 13 December 1981 convinced Polish society that the nature of a country's regime matters in international relations. The European logic of this Polish understanding is that Europe's Russia policy should start not with a strategic framework between the union and Moscow but with an internal European agreement on the nature of the regime in Moscow.

The Polish experience of 1981 and 2006 is underpinned by the (now) historically rooted sensitivities that the experience of central and eastern Europe has accumulated in the period of transition. "Solidarity Poland" regards Russia today in a similar way as it does "ex-communist Poland"; namely, forces defeated in the cold war only to return as the real winners of the transition.

Both these forces, after all, managed to regain control over the economic levers of rule and over public discourse; to convert intelligence networks into business profits; to close, in the ostensible interest of compromise, the question of historical justice. Russia as a state thus resembles the old communist elites in the former Soviet satellites: economically powerful, capitalist, in love with the manipulative side of democracy, corrupted and corrupting.

Who won the cold war is not an easy question to answer in central and eastern Europe in 2006. The conundrum explains why agreeing on common policy towards Russia will be devilishly hard - and indispensable - for the European Union.