Can Europe Make It?

Who is the biggest supporter of Ukraine?

Oleh Kotsyuba (Krytyka, Ukraine) speaks with Sławomir Sierakowski (Krytyka Polityczna, Poland) about the events in the aftermath of Ukrainian President’s decision not to sign the Association and Free Trade Agreement with the European Union.

Oleh Kotsyuba Slawomir Sierakowski
4 December 2013

Demotix/Stas Kozlyuk. Some rights reserved.

O.K. How are Ukraine’s recent events, especially the Vilnius summit and the non-signing of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, perceived in Poland among Polish intellectuals ?

S.S. The Vilnius summit was certainly a big disappointment. Until the last minute, everyone was hoping that maybe Yanukovych would change his mind. In Poland, the Eastern Partnership was seen as a big achievement both for Ukraine and for Poland – as well as for Europe. As you know, the Eastern Partnership was initiated by Poland.

How about the politicians? How do they perceive this situation?

If you look at the polls, you will see that there are actually more Poles who want Ukraine in the EU than there are Ukrainians. But this consensus on Ukrainian integration with Europe isn’t limited to intellectuals or politicians only: it’s a widespread sentiment. Poles can quarrel about Polish independence – the leader of the opposition, Mr. Jarosław Kaczyński said once that Poland is a Russian-German condominium – but not about Ukraine’s independence. Kaczyński would never argue with any of his political opponents about Ukraine’s independence.

In Polish politics you have two views regarding Ukraine. The first one is the “Giedroyć paradigm.” Jerzy Giedroyć was a Polish writer and political activist, who published and edited the most influential Polish-émigré literary-political journal, Kultura from 1947 until 2000. It assumes that there can be no independent Poland without independent Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus, if possible. Of course, it says, we should build good relationships with Russia, but not at the expense of Ukraine and Belarus. This doctrine originates from the 1970s. It calls for forgetting about “Polish Lviv” (Lwów) and “Polish Vilnius” (Wilno), even if they were apparently the most beautiful Polish cities. Why? Because if we keep fighting for them with the Ukrainians and Lithuanians, we’ll be geopolitically weak in relation to Germany and Russia. And this is the dominant paradigm in Polish thinking about the East today.

But there’s also another view. It says: let’s forget about Giedroyć. We are too weak for such politics: it’s nothing but wishful thinking. It could be called the “Skubiszewski paradigm”. Skubiszewski was the first minister of foreign affairs after the fall of communism, and the first and last point of his doctrine could be summarized as: “Let’s head West – as soon as possible. Let’s forget about East, we’re too weak to do anything there.” Yet this view is much less popular than the previous one. There is an essay titled “Farewell to Giedroyć” that was written by the current minister of internal affairs, Mr. Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, who earlier worked as an independent expert on post-Soviet space. But Mr. Sikorski – the minister of foreign affairs – is attached to Giedroć’s line.

How did people in Poland react to Yanukovych and to the fact that people in Ukraine began protesting?

Yanukovych is obviously perceived as a bad guy. But politicians and public opinion have to remember that he is a democratically elected president. And we have little reason to question his legitimacy. Of course, what happened to people protesting at the “Euromaidan” was a breach of law. But it was immediately criticized by Yanukovych himself, by Azarov, and by the prosecutor general who confirmed that Euromaidan was legal.

Polish politicians are focusing now on how to stop further violence in Ukraine. And I hope that they will be able to push European politicians towards preparing a new offer for Ukraine. Earlier, I strongly criticized the previous offer that was made to Ukraine. Ukraine’s integration with the EU that happens at the cost of hundreds of Ukrainian companies and their competitiveness, with a possible concurrent loss of Russian markets – while at the same time fulfilling IMF loan conditions – makes it difficult for the country to survive. Ukraine needs real help from the EU, not only a symbolic 1 billion Euros.

What of the people protesting in Kiev? How is this seen in Europe? You’ve written in one of your articles that Ukrainians are in the European Union, even though Ukraine is not. Is this a widespread perception?

I think so. Europeans must be positively impressed by how many people in Ukraine have taken to the streets and demonstrated for the EU Agreement. Such demonstrations could not happen in any European country. European politicians find it difficult mobilizing people in Europe around the European project - the EU is something that is not perceived as a romantic project in Europe. The most boring books are books written on the European Union – there are whole shelves of such books. And then, when you see thousands of people in Lviv, or even Donetsk, gathering to defend their right to participate in the integration of Europe – it has to be very moving for European politicians. If nothing changes, a group of European citizens is cut adrift outside Europe!

Is the failure at the Vilnius summit, seen, to some extent, as a Polish failure? Or as weakness on the part of the Ukrainian government, giving in to Russian pressure?

I think we need to put it in context. Let's be frank, one of the reasons we in Poland support Ukraine is that it’s against Russia. This conflict between Russia and EU is the return of the Cold War atmosphere…

… which was never so visible before…

… yes, but now Poland is a part of the west. It has some initiative, at least locally, and this is located exactly in the Eastern Partnership, which, although it is more and more popular in the EU, does not fit in with Russian plans to create a Customs Union and rebuild its imperial position. So, this is one part of why we support Ukraine today.

So what matters here is this imperialist attitude that we see in Russian politics today?

This is basic to the worldview of Poles. We don't like Russia, however we love Russians, who are always the first victims of their state. The intellectual argument will go the following way here: Russia cannot be an empire without Ukraine. And Russia can’t be a democracy as long as it’s an empire. Russia can be democratized only if the imperialist tendencies are stopped in their tracks, and they will be stopped if Ukraine is made part of western structures such as the European Union.

This can decrease the geopolitical risks across this region. Moreover, perhaps this scenario is a precondition for starting to build strong relations with Russia. I hope that western politicians are beginning to understand that. For sure Germany is coming closer to this Polish-Swedish attitude towards Russia. This is something new and very important for Ukraine. Traditionally Germans – especially the SPD - always wanted to talk with Russia directly, marginalizing Poland and Ukraine in the process. But recently, Russia has got on the nerves of Germans once too often. And if we want a truly good relationship with Russia, we need a Russia that is democratic. Russia will not be democratic if it believes that it can grab Ukraine and rebuild its empire. So if we want a true friendship with Russia, this has to be decided in Kiev.

Is this the message that Polish politicians and intellectuals send to the rest of the European Union, or is it your personal opinion?

It’s also something very similar to what Zbigniew Brzeziński used to say about Russia and Ukraine – about the conditions for possible imperial tendencies. It is becoming more and more obvious to the EU.

But to return to your earlier question of Polish failure or Ukrainian weakness -  there is a paradox in Polish politics with regard to the Ukraine. Polish politicians do not quarrel about whether they should support Ukraine, but they do row about who is the biggest supporter of Ukraine. Seeing the events in Vilnius as a Polish failure can only be framed in that way. For example, Kaczyński criticized our foreign minister Sikorski that he’s not on Maidan right now. Which is cynical, because he knows full well that a minister of foreign affairs cannot just up sticks and go and support protesters wherever he wants.

But what about the weakness of the Ukrainian government? Some western reactions hold Yanukovych responsible for basically giving in to pressure from Russia.

First of all one should remember that, for Russia, Ukraine is crucial to the Russian neo-imperial project; to Europe, Ukraine is not crucial in the same way. From this perspective, Europe is “weaker,” as it would never impose an embargo like Russia did. Europe is “too nice”…

… “too democratic,” in a way?

Yes, yes, not as aggressive as Russia – it would not use such primitive methods as an embargo. As far as the perception of the government is concerned, politicians understand that Yanukovych is trying to oscillate between EU and Russia for as long as possible. But today it is no longer possible.

Also, this is due to internal pressure in Ukraine: Ukrainians said “Stop!” Today, the message from the streets in Ukraine is: we do not want to oscillate any more. We have decided. During the Orange Revolution, the society was divided – but not as divided in regard to the EU any more. This situation creates even more pressure on Yanukovych than he had in 2004. Even if the situation now loses momentum, this circumstance will stay. Ukrainians may not agree on the destiny of Ukraine. But they do agree on the fact that Ukraine should join a unified Europe. The same was in Poland, where one of the reasons for the widespread support for integration was a mistrust of Poles regarding their own national political class and institutions.

In Ukraine, this sentiment may be even stronger. In Poland, people thought: let us join the European Union, let Brussels deal with our corrupt politicians. Corruption is a great problem. Even if the EU would like to help the Ukrainian economy more generously, it won’t pump billions of euros into a highly corrupted economy, where a significant part of the money will not reach its destination simply due to corruption.

This position assumes that Yanukovych sincerely wanted to sign the Agreement, but Russian pressure kept him from doing so…

No, not really – this is my hope now, because worse scenarios are also possible...

Alright, but some political analysts claim that Yanukovych didn’t want to sign the Agreement in the first place. If he did, he would have prepared for it better. The government would have started reforming the economy, curbing corruption and so on. Most of the laws necessary for signing the Association Agreement were passed very last minute – just before the deadline (in fact, parts of it are still not passed).

What if all he wanted from the EU was to increase pressure on Russia in order to force Putin to give him a better deal? Moreover, it is possible that Yanukovych even used the pro-European protesters in the streets of Kiev to put pressure on Brussels: that is, saying, “Look, people do want integration with the European Union, and if you give me a better deal, I might indeed sign the Agreement.” How do you see this?

This would certainly be a somewhat worse scenario. But not the worst one. You might remember the video released by the administration of Dalia Grybauskaitė, Lithuania’s president, where Yanukovych says to Angela Merkel: “You left us alone with Russia.” The worst scenario is that he thinks only about Tymoshenko, the next presidential elections, and about the fortune of his family. Freeing Tymoshenko would mean that he or his son would go to jail; or he thinks only of his fortune – because another month in power means a load of money for him and the “Family.”

Talking about Tymoshenko: at the fringes of the summit in Vilnius, there were rumours that the EU was no longer insisting on the release of Tymoshenko as a necessary precondition for signing the Agreement. How do you see this? Ukrainian intellectuals have voiced the opinion that this is a key issue: after all, Europe would be giving up the very principles thousands of Ukrainians are fighting for on the streets in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities.

I think now, and we can see from the development of events, that this was a mistake. It was initiated mainly by German politicians, especially the new generation, who wanted to establish themselves on the international stage. It’s hard not to criticize what is happening to Tymoshenko. She is in jail: it is a serious violation of basic human rights. It should not have been done like that. However, this might have been the sole condition that scared Yanukovych off, who otherwise would have signed the Agreement. If this is indeed the case, then it was a mistake to set this condition. However, it is really hard to imagine that the EU would extend an invitation to a country in which politicians simply throw their opponents into prison.

When I think of Ukraine, there is only one dimension that can be attractive for Ukrainians, who do not need Poland, to look to the west when today they can look directly at Germany or France. This single attractive attribute of Poland is its way to Europe. We signed the Agreement in 1991; Poland at that time had a lower GDP per capita than Ukraine did back then. What is lacking today is a figure like Günter Verheugen – he used to be the commissar for EU enlargement, now retired. He strongly criticized what was happening with Tymoshenko, including the fact that the EU did not prepare a clear way for Ukraine, with a plan to help the Ukrainian economy. I agree with him and as I said  - you can’t invite a poor guy – a homeless guy, if you wish – to dinner in the best restaurant and make him pay for it. And this is exactly what the EU is doing with Ukraine.

But I have to disagree with this – the situation in Ukraine is not the same. There is money in Ukraine, there is even big money in Ukraine. The issue is that this money is not being invested in modernization, in adjusting to the European standards. Had that been done, let’s say, for the past five years, Ukraine would be in a completely different place today. And not just so it can integrate with Europe – but for its own benefit, to improve economically and socially.

Well, yes, if Ukraine can handle the demands of the IMF and the Free Trade Zone with the EU, then all the better. Poland will receive about 84 billion euros for the next seven years, while we have three times the GDP per capita compared to Ukraine today. These are the amounts we are talking about in the EU…

… while being a member of the European Union, and also contributing to the European budget, correct?

Yes. By the way, when Poles understand that they will have to lower their expectations as to money from the European Union, because Ukraine will be the first beneficiary of EU financial help, they may slightly change their minds... But they should also understand that, in the long-term perspective, Poles will be the first to benefit from Ukraine’s integration. Poles are right now very romantically excited about the events that are going on in Ukraine and this is not going to go away. And, for sure, my organization – which is not a solely Polish enterprise anymore but has also Russian and Ukrainian branches – will apply pressure on the Polish president and government to deal better with the situation at the Ukrainian border, which is now a Schengen border and where the customs officers do not always behave appropriately towards Ukrainians. [While this interview was in post-production, Polish politicians called on the European Commission to waive visa requirements for Ukrainian citizens].

After the disastrous failure in Vilnius – which by many European politicians was perceived as a slap in the face from Yanukovych - will the EU be ready to sign the Agreement with Yanukovych, if he changes his mind?

They have to. Unless they want to push him into Putin’s arms. You – that is, Ukrainians – can vote Yanukovych out of power, but not the European politicians. No one in power in Ukraine today can be written off, because that would mean that we left you alone with Russia. And one of Yanukovych’s first steps in recent days was to ask to return to negotiations with Barroso.

There are no signs of it yet, but I hope that sooner or later the Agreement will be signed – in part also because of the pressure coming from the civil society in Ukraine. Because now there is a new actor in Ukrainian politics – society itself. Paradoxically, usually societies don’t play an active role in politics or in international relations. But sometimes they do and this is the case now in Ukraine.

The very civil society that you are invoking demands that President Yanukovych step down, that the parliament be dissolved and the government dismissed, with new elections organized. Do you see any realistic way out of this impasse?

I don’t know. But, to put it in basic terms, let us consider two scenarios. The “bad” scenario is the deployment of force. It would be a disaster. It would block Ukraine’s way to the EU – no one would talk to Yanukovych anymore. Remember that, besides the Polish way of transformation, there was also the Yugoslav one. No one in Ukraine wants that. Ukraine is a very diverse country and there have been some tensions in the past. Also, don’t forget that you still have some Russians living in Ukraine, and that could be a destabilizing factor.

The other scenario is Mykola Azarov’s stepping down. It is possible that all the slogans against Yanukovych are meant to start negotiations with him. Some kind of a round table, some kind of negotiations are “good” scenarios. However, Yanukovych already was part of negotiations in 2004. He should be able to play the game of negotiations better today. However, the other side is better at making revolutions. Yanukovych would probably not step down on his own, but it might be possible to form some kind of a new coalition to outmanoeuvre him. I’ve heard the Ukrainian ambassador in Poland criticizing Yanukovych in quite strong terms – something like that is always a sign of the loss of power.

Let’s imagine for a moment that all this has blown over. In Ukraine, people have realized that integrating with Europe would mean a lot of work, and they seem to be ready for it. It seems that people in the streets of Kiev don’t want a simple shake-up of the political chessboard, they want no less than reform of the political system. There are a number of ideas circulating how to do it in the best way: starting with writing a new constitution, with changing the political system to a parliamentary republic, and so on. What do you think about that? Also, taking into account the situation in Europe with those values Ukrainians are fighting for, the Realpolitik practiced there, and the economic conditions nowadays.

This is the toughest question. It’s comparably easy to start a revolution: the true question is what to do on the first day after the revolution is over. This was the problem of the Orange Revolution. I can tell you from our experience, that when you get onto the road of EU integration, it won’t be easy. It’s a tough moment. Poles survived it probably because they were so mobilized. Everyone wanted to integrate with the European Union – there was no question of any alternative in the mainstream. People would only quarrel about who is not quick enough. But the EU would be a good thing for Ukraine, and I hope that more and more people will get interested in it in Ukraine, especially in the East. You can do business there – pretty much anything you do in Russia, you can do in the EU. Maybe in a less corrupt way than in Russia, but for bigger money and more safely in the long-term.

I have no idea what is better for Ukraine – a more parliamentary, or a presidential system. For sure, integration will be very difficult. Maybe the new generations of politicians can do it. After all, the previous generation started imprisoning one another. In Poland, the communist establishment and leaders of the opposition (who were jailed during the communist time for many years – like Kuroń or Michnik) were able to sit down together at the round table and negotiate the Agreement. This was also due to the fact that communist leaders knew: without Solidarność they would never be able to reform the economy.

Another similarity between Ukraine and Poland is that even back then Poland was very divided. Just look at how people voted in the partial elections in June of 1989: although Solidarność took all but one seat that were up for elections, you will discover that even then 40% of people voted for the communist representatives. So, Polish society was very divided at that time – and we still had Soviet troops in the country, the system of socialist camps and prisons was still in place. The situation was probably even worse than in Ukraine today, and yet we somehow made it. Politicians quarreled a lot, they compromised themselves many times over. So you can make a good argument that even despite all these problems, it is possible to move forward.

However, this is not a rosy path to paradise. I for my part criticize strongly the period of transition: You had in Poland a situation when you had no left and right, you had only right (politically) or “wrong” (morally) as your choice. A lot of people were left without any representation – because post-communists were not leftist, they were very neo-liberal. These people were symbolically and economically excluded – a lot of them still are. But – we are in the European Union. Most Poles love it, according to public polls. So, probably it was a very good choice. Maybe this can happen in Ukraine – and, for sure, Poles will be perhaps the second happiest nation, after Ukraine, once it happens. Or maybe even happier than Ukrainians – at least in the first years.

Thank you very much – let’s hope for the happy outcome of the current events in Ukraine!

This interview is based on the podcast recorded for and published on

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