Putin needs a Polish lesson in Ukraine

There are lessons to be learned from the mistakes made by the USSR in Poland in 1989, and what is happening in Ukraine today. President Putin, however, is repeating the mistake of his Soviet predecessors

Leonid Luks
1 April 2014

Twenty five years ago, in April 1989, roundtable negotiations between the government and the opposition took place in Warsaw. They turned out to be a kind of a prologue for the peaceful dismantling of communist regimes in many countries of the Eastern Bloc, one of the most unexpected developments of the 20th century. It is worth remembering that this ‘short century’ is often regarded as an era of extremities, concentration camps and totalitarian violence. That this century’s end was generally marked by peaceful, mostly successful, anti-authoritarian and anti-totalitarian revolutions was regarded by many as a kind of ‘political miracle.’ The key incentive for these revolutions was the aspiration of the old continent’s ‘forgotten part’ behind the Iron Curtain to repair the division of Europe symbolised by the Yalta Conference.

Some parallels

The events of Euromaidan in Kyiv demonstrate that the process of getting over what started 25 years ago in Poland is not finished yet. There are some parallels to be drawn between the Polish drive to ‘return to Europe’ and Euromaidan.

Euromaidan demonstrated that the process of getting over what started 25 years ago in Poland is not finished yet.

The first parallel compares the roles played by Poland and Ukraine in hegemonic structures created by the Kremlin leadership. Post-Yalta Poland, the weakest link of the ‘External Soviet Empire’ that emerged in 1945, was constantly undermining the empire’s power. Ukraine has played a similar role within Russia’s ‘near abroad’, especially after the Orange revolution of 2004. During Brezhnev’s stagnation period there were fears in Moscow that the independent Polish trade unions could prompt the unsatisfied workers of other socialist countries to follow the example of insubordinate Poles; today the Kremlin supporters of ‘managed democracy’ fear that the upsurge of civil disobedience in ‘fraternal Ukraine’ might affect other post-Soviet states, including Russia. Indeed, the seeds of Maidan can be traced back to Bolotnaya Square.

Round table discussions in Poland in 1989 between the ruling Communist Party and opposition

Round table discussions in Poland in 1989 between the ruling Communist Party and opposition. cc Erazm Ciolek The second parallel which brings together Solidarity’s ‘self-limiting revolution’ and Maidan is the heterogeneity of the political groups participating in both revolutions. In Poland the controversial union turned out to be short-lived. Solidarity was held together by a coalition between Catholic conservatives and independent left-wing groups, workers and intelligentsia, the leader of independent trade union Lech Wałęsa and his advisors. After its victory in the June 1989 parliamentary elections, when the ruling Communist party was swept from the political arena, the coalition fell apart. It is, however, not surprising that Solidarity, which since its inception had united different ideological strands, broke up after its victory over a common adversary. Break-ups of controversial alliances of this sort after victory over a common enemy have almost become a historical pattern. The same thing happened in Ukraine after the victory of the Orange revolution in 2004: the winning coalition fell apart rapidly and this facilitated Viktor Yanukovych’s eventual political return in 2010.

The winning coalition which emerged at Euromaidan will in all probability not last very long. The contradictions between its liberal-democratic and radical nationalist wings are too strong.


At this point, while comparing Polish and Ukrainian events, we should consider the key difference between them.

Hundreds of protesters at a peaceful Solidarity demonstration t in 1984

Peaceful Solidarity demonstration in 1984. cc Thomas HeddenOn 13 December 1981, when the Polish generals introduced martial law, putting an end to the 16-month ‘carnival’ of freedom organised by Solidarity, the country seemed to be on the brink of a civil war. That this war did not break out was to a large extent due to the Polish Catholic Church which was respected both by the government and the opposition, and appealed to both sides of the conflict for moderation. As mediator between an almost completely isolated regime and a public bent on opposition, it contributed significantly to the de-escalation of the situation. Divided both politically and culturally, Ukraine has no authority of a similar weight. And it is precisely now, after Euromaidan’s triumph over Yanukovych’s corrupt regime, that the heterogeneous composition of the victorious coalition and the dangerous tensions between particular regions of the country make the lack of such authoritative body most sharply felt.

At this point, another major difference between Solidarity and Euromaidan catches the eye. Like Euromaidan, Solidarity relied upon a wide coalition of liberal, left-wing and nationalist groups. However, Solidarity’s alliance did not include any radical nationalists like Oleh Tyahnybok’s ‘Svoboda’ party. For the left wing of Solidarity in particular, which was headed by political activists like Jacek Kuroń and Adam Michnik, as well as for left-wing Catholics like Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a union with radical nationalists would have been unacceptable. At Euromaidan, however, things are different. That radicals from ‘Svoboda’ party and the radical-nationalist groups making up ‘Pravy Sektor’, which was very influential at Maidan, are playing such an active part in the Ukrainian revolution complicates how it is perceived in the West, though Euromaidan is no less popular there than Solidarity was in its time.

That ‘Svoboda’ and ‘Pravy Sektor’ played an active part in the revolution complicates how it is perceived in the West.

The radical nationalist movement represents only a small part of Maidan. However, despite the euphoria after the victory of the democratic revolution in Ukraine, one should not ignore the possibility of a serious threat to young Ukrainian democracy from the right-wing section of Maidan.

A few more words about Russia

From the beginning of the confrontation at Maidan, the EU kept in touch with both sides of the conflict. The Kremlin identified itself exclusively with the Yanukovych camp, refusing to recognise the existence of the Ukrainian opposition as a political actor. Here, Vladimir Putin was repeating the mistake his Soviet predecessors made until the very beginning of Gorbachev’s perestroika:  they relied exclusively on their partners – the Polish Communists. This meant that when the Communists lost their power, Warsaw was anxiously watching Moscow for any hint that previous threats of intervention might be repeated. However, nothing of that kind happened. This was because Leonid Brezhnev was no longer at the Soviet helm. In his place was Mikhail Gorbachev who announced non-intervention in the politics of neighbouring countries as one of the keystones of his foreign policy. Perhaps surprising, then, that his recently expressed solidarity with Putin's Crimean policy would seem to indicate he has turned his back on his former principle.

Three armed Maidan protesters stand on the steps of an occupied government building

Solidarity was a mix of traditional Catholics and leftists, but Maidan included hard-right elements.(c)RIA Novosti/Andrei SteninThe current advocates of ‘managed democracy’ in Moscow are acting in a completely different way, trying to punish Ukraine for the ‘European choice’ that it has made. They are thus following not Gorbachev but Brezhnev with his ideas about the limited sovereignty of the ‘fraternal’ socialist countries. Putin transfers this doctrine to some of the countries of the ‘near abroad’.

Back in April 2005, Putin called the break-up of the Soviet Union the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.’ At the same time, he warned against attempts at restoring the collapsed empire, and accused those trying to revive bygone structures of naivety, or utopianism. By meddling in the internal affairs of Ukraine and encouraging separatism in the east of the country and in Crimea, the Russian president seems to be forgetting his own warnings and trying to implement the utopian scenario he himself previously criticised – at least the part of it regarding the partial restoration of the collapsed empire. Such attempts at turning back the clock of history usually have little success. The fate of Yugoslavia serves as a graphic example.

Translated from the Russian by Anton Shekhovtsov

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