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Ukraine, Poland, and a free world

Marek Matraszek
2 December 2004

Every so often political events occur that initially seem local and mundane but gradually reveal themselves to have international, even history–making significance. Such are the events of the last two weeks in Ukraine – when the official announcement on 21 November of the triumph of Viktor Yanukovych in the presidential election was followed by massive, peaceful protests in Kiev and other cities by supporters of the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, and other citizens who suspected electoral fraud.

Also in openDemocracy, Alexander Motyl’s “How Ukrainians became citizens” (November 2004)

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Some people were vaguely aware that elections were going to occur. But even at such a moment of political choice, most international organisations and media persisted in viewing Ukraine as part of the Russian sphere of influence, a problem in east–west relations rather than an independent country in its own right, whose inhabitants seemed to have resigned themselves to post–Soviet apathy. Ukraine, in short, was a land routinely dismissed if not forgotten. Those who held this view included the leaders of the “old” European Union, who often seem to share at least one instinct with defenders of the old order in lands to Poland’s east: elections are tiresome irritants in the process of exercising uninterrupted power; in an ideal world, they change nothing.

But these two weeks have changed much: in Ukraine itself, in its neighbour Poland – since May 2004 the eastern frontier of the “new”, enlarged European Union – and they promise even wider transformations to come.

Poland’s role

A remarkable sight in Kiev was the image of Lech Walesa – formerly leader of the Solidarity trade union and Polish president, whose many detractors delight in presenting as a bumbling anachronism – striding onto the makeshift stage in Independence Square to the acclaim of 200,000 Ukrainians.

Walesa’s brief visit to the capital city was important in two ways. First, it underlined the link between the “orange revolution” and Solidarity’s own traditions, which share important common themes: their peaceful nature, an uncompromising demand for dignity and freedom, and a desire for statehood independent of Russian tutelage. That is why Poland’s other current opposition parties – Civic Platform (PO) and Law & Justice (PiS) – feel at home in Kiev, helping Yushchenko in his campaign: they sense that despite the differences between Polish and Ukrainian politics, and bitter past divisions between the two nations, their interests and aspirations are in harmony.

Second, Walesa’s visit exposed the failings of politicians of Poland’s ruling post–communist left, who (despite ritualised mutterings of support for Ukraine’s people) are deeply embarrassed at again being on the wrong side of history and the political process. In this light, President Kwasniewski’s two trips to Ukraine – respectively seeking to persuade his old friend, Ukraine’s President Kuchma, to transfer power peacefully, and (with Javier Solana and Lithuania’s President Adamkus) to discuss arrangements for possible fresh elections – were especially revealing.

Kwasniewski’s presence indicated less his undivided support for the ideals of Ukraine’s revolution, and more his recognition that the long–term interests of the country’s elite are best served by an ordered withdrawal under some “roundtable” compromise – of which Kwasniewski and other Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) politicians engaged in have ample experience. If Kuchma and Yanukovych listen to the counsel of their Polish ex–communist friends, they may yet be able to survive personally if not politically; but if they resist the popular, democratising wave, they may face a more humiliating fate. In either case, the Ukrainian future is orange.

Europe’s opportunity

Poland’s involvement in the Ukrainian revolution also has important implications for the future of Europe.

The Ukrainian people have reminded the world that politics is about more than the technical art of governing and managing the distribution of resources; at crucial moments of history, it becomes the expression of the difference between right and wrong, of deeper moral instincts of individual dignity and the desire for freedom. No surprise, then, that while the western establishment failed quickly to grasp the import of the Kiev events, the rapid engagement of Polish politicians in the unfolding Ukrainian events allowed Poland again to show that it is at the heart, not the periphery, of the enlarged European Union.

The Ukrainian events catapulted Poland into a crucial position of cajoling, then leading, the EU’s involvement in the post–election crisis. The resistance of Polish officials and MEPs to the traditional Franco–German preference for “stability” over “chaos” was crucial in preventing Viktor Yushchenko from being sacrificed on the altar of good relations with Vladimir Putin and non–interference with Russian imperial interests. As over Iraq, Paris and Berlin have learned that they no longer monopolise or dictate the “European” position; Poland and other escapees from the Soviet empire possess historical experience that allows them both to recognise a time of historic opportunity and to find appropriate responses.

Also in openDemocracy, Krzysztof Bobinski on Poland’s accession to the European Union, “Poland’s nervous ‘return’ to Europe” (April 2004)

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The political emancipation of Ukraine’s people, if and when it is secured, will shift the dynamic of European politics dramatically eastwards. The EU political elite – having acquiesced to the 2004 accession states’ arguments over Ukraine, including support (albeit cautious) for Yushchenko and his allies – now must seriously consider the prospect of Ukrainian membership of the EU. That will be a profound challenge, for (as with Turkey) accession may be essential to the very long–term survival of democracy and liberal politics. Poland will be in the forefront of this unfolding process, helping to translate Ukrainian aspirations into practical realities, and constantly reminding the older EU states of the need to maintain and accelerate the process of EU–Ukrainian dialogue.

The east’s promise

This outlook in turn presages a crucial shift in the balance of power in Europe–United States relations. Apart from Poland and fellow central European states, the Bush White House and the National Security Council contain the only serious policymakers who understand the need to encourage Ukraine’s real political independence.

Ukraine, central Europe and the US share a common interest in the Ukrainian revolution’s success: first, because all three share the same fundamental belief that liberal democracy is better than authoritarianism, including in its capacity to ensure stability; second, because they recognise that a liberal, independent, western–oriented Ukraine is the only long–term guarantee that Russia too will slowly start to shift in the same direction.

The victory of this political fellowship and strategic perspective will mark the final defeat of the classic Franco–German, “old European” view that the only way to deal with Russia is to flatter its leadership while ignoring or finessing its authoritarianism at home and imperial reflexes abroad. Even before Ukraine, it had been clear that this strategy was a failure: now, Russia needs from the west the language of liberal Anglo–Saxon democracy, not of continental raison d’etat.

Thus, assuming that Viktor Yushchenko does indeed become Ukrainian president, European politics one year on will look very different. As Polish elections thrust into power politicians like Jan Rokita and the Kaczynski twins (Lech, Warsaw’s mayor, and Jaroslaw, who co–lead the PiS), the country’s relationship with Ukraine will no longer be buttressed by Alexander Kwasniewski’s and Marek Siwiec’s cosy relationship with Leonid Kuchma. A dynamic Warsaw–Kiev political association will drive EU expansion eastwards at an increasingly rapid pace, perhaps ensnaring Belarus in a democratic pincer movement and combating Russian plans to use economics to re–establish political dominance in the former Soviet empire.

The guiding theme of European politics will be stability – but stability sought through democratic change. This will cause chagrin in Berlin and Paris, panic in Moscow, and gloom among their camp–followers. But the people of Ukraine have re–entered history on their own terms, and will not turn back. Thanks to them, and with a little help from their Polish friends, the geopolitical tide in Europe may have turned for years to come.

A version of this article will appear in the December 2004 issue of Poland Monthly, published in Warsaw

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