Commit or Quit: How the EU can assuage Polish-Russian Tensions over the Eastern Partnership

This post is a part of my series on Polish-Russian relations. Read the introduction here.

"Eastern Partnership Summit" family photo, 30 September 2011, Warsaw. via flickr member europeancouncil
“Eastern Partnership Summit” family photo, 30 September 2011, Warsaw. via flickr member europeancouncil

Getting in and getting to work
I’ve spent a good portion of the last six years battling the “three Ps” of Poland: pierogi, piwo (beer), and polka. Those who specialize in Polish studies lament the fact that most Westerners are familiar with only these three facets of Polish culture, and not Poland’s major accomplishments in the past twenty years, including the first democratic elections in the former Communist bloc and a successful capitalist economic policy that has left its economy (nearly) untouched, even in the face of the global economic crisis.

Over the past five years, Poland has attempted to put these experiences to good use, serving as a model and mentor for six “Eastern” countries in need of guidance via the Eastern Partnership Program (EaP).

Aiding its neighbors in their political and economic transitions was always one of Poland’s goals after it “returned to Europe,” becoming an EU member in 2004. But the EU wasn’t quite so gung ho; it was wary of taking on the financial burden of weak Eastern economies, and faced criticism for granting Romania and Bulgaria accession before they reformed fully. Its European Neighborhood Policy, the EaP’s predecessor, which vaguely sought to promote stability in Europe’s widely-defined near-abroad (including North Africa and the Middle East, along with Eastern and Southern Europe), was criticized by post-Communist countries for lacking incentive–in particular, the distant promise of accession–for neighboring countries to reform. It seemed that enlargement fatigue had set in among “Old Europe,” and that Poland would have to wait to change the course of its neighbors’ history.

Georgia Shock gives the EaP a green light
The realization that the EU needed some sort of coherent Eastern policy hit the organization in the form of the August 2008 five-day war between Russia and Georgia. Though the cause of the war was ostensibly mounting tension between the two countries over breakaway republics South Ossetia and Abkhazia, many experts view NATO’s promise of membership for Georgia and Ukraine earlier that year as the true cause of Russia’s provocation.

Regardless of the reasons for the conflict, the popular opinion of Russia in the EU plummeted after the EU-negotiated peace treaty was signed. The Union’s big brother to the East was now seen as belligerent. Speaking in support of Georgia, Polish President Lech Kaczynski worried about Russia’s next move: “Today Georgia, tomorrow Ukraine, the day after tomorrow the Baltic states, and then, perhaps, the time will come for my country, Poland.”*

“Georgia Shock” allowed Poland to gain support for the Eastern Partnership Program, pioneered by Polish Prime Minister Radek Sikorski and his Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt, a longtime critic of Russia. When attempting to ascertain exactly what the EaP’s goals are, the curious soul is generally sent into a tailspin of bureaucratic jargon. Put simply: the EU gives monetary and moral support to its six “Eastern Partners” (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia) to aid them on the path to EU accession. More reforms and more “harmonization” with EU policies and standards leads to more monetary support, and somewhere down the road, the signing of Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTAs) and Association Agreements with the EU, two steps that are precursors to membership itself.

Russia, of course, did not take too kindly to Foreign Minister Sikorski’s intention to “highlight the empowerment of [EaP] countries by treating them as independent entities and not pawns that are organically linked to Russia.” President Dmitri Medvedev described the program as “a partnership structured against Russia,” while Duma deputy Sergei Markov maintained that it had an “anti-Russian character.”

While none of Russia’s attacks were directed at Poland specifically, the Kremlin was well-aware that Poland acted as the EaP’s champion in Euro politics and, along with Sweden, contributed the lionshare of the $560 million in aid the program doled out. And Russia was not soon to forget Poland’s support of Ukraine’s 2004 anti-Russian Orange Revolution. A Russian acquaintance of mine summed the situation up nicely: “if not for Poland’s meddling, Russia would be prepared to engage in normal, peaceful relations with Poland, as it does with the other countries in the former socialist camp.”

(For a more in-depth discussion of the evolution of the Eastern Partnership, check out my Georgetown University Capstone presentation.)

Vilnius Summit 2013 and Beyond
Luckily for Russia, the Eastern Partnership hasn’t been extremely successful. Poorly funded from the beginning ($560 million from the entire EU is really a paltry amount for countries as troubled as these six), the global economic crisis forced the EaP to the bottom of the EU’s priorities. Faced with economic problems of their own and wavering EU support, countries like Belarus and Ukraine courted further support from Russia. Frozen conflicts in the South Caucasus remain unresolved, while highly corrupt, anti-reform regimes retain their firm grip on national politics. Only little Moldova seems to exude a glimmer of hope for ever achieving EU accession.

This month, Lithuania assumed the EU presidency. As one of the main supporters of the Eastern Partnership with its own transitional experiences to share, Lithuania and other EaP supporters have big plans for this fall’s EaP summit in Vilnius. Poland in particular sees the summit as a defining moment for its flagship program, for the future of Ukraine, and for the future of Polish-Russian relations.

In Foreign Minister Sikorski’s yearly address to the Polish congress this past March, he discussed Ukraine’s “fundamental dilemma…a choice between modernity and democracy on the one hand and a different civilizational model on the other. If Ukraine creates the conditions for the signing of an Association Agreement, Poland will provide the country with a ‘European perspective’ at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius.”

Russia’s repeated response has been to present Ukraine with an ultimatum: either Ukraine chooses the European path, or reaps the benefits of open borders and increased trade with Russia and its Customs Union, an argument that President Putin made most recently during a joint Russian-Ukranian celebration of the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of the ancient state of Kievan Rus. Based on cultural and historical similarities, Putin maintained that Ukraine belongs with Russia, not Europe.

While Ukraine and the other five Eastern partners continue to play the field and reap the benefits of two major powers attempting to maintain their influence and relevance, the Eastern Partnership will remain a bilateral sticking point between Poland and Russia no matter the choices made by EaP countries. The goals of Russian and Polish foreign policy are diametric opposites, and that won’t be reconciled any time soon.

Commit or Quit
However, if the EU made the Eastern Partnership a policy priority, positive changes could occur in regards to both Polish-Russian relations and the EU’s influence in the East. The EU should fund the EaP as seriously as any aid program within its own borders. By adequately funding the Eastern Partnership, the EU would ensure that Russia did not view the EaP as “a partnership structured against Russia,” funded and coordinated by its number one critics. This support would, in turn, reduce the risk of dangerous political and economic developments, troublesome not only for Eastern partners but the EU members with which they share borders and the Union as a whole. Lastly, increased support would send a positive message to Eastern partners, ensuring them that the EU’s promises are not empty, while informing Russia that the EU means business, whether that business is palatable to Russia or not.

The plight of the Eastern partners isn’t only Poland and its post-Communist neighbors’ cross to bear. The EU strives for a Europe “whole, free, and at peace.” If that’s truly the case, it should reaffirm its commitment to the Eastern Partnership at the Vilnius Summit, and perhaps the EaP and Poland’s “meddling” will cease to be a bilateral issue between Poland and Russia. Then they’ll only have history, energy, defense, and conspiracy theories to worry about…

*Lukasz Kulesa, “Poland’s Policy Regarding the Georgian Conflict.” Yearbook of Polish Foreign Policy 01 (2009): 207-22.

One thought on “Commit or Quit: How the EU can assuage Polish-Russian Tensions over the Eastern Partnership

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s