Who cares about Sikorski’s Crude Analogies?

This weekend, recordings of Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski’s private conversations with former finance minister Jacek Rostowski surfaced in Wprost, a Polish weekly. The big bomb for Sikorski, who has been heralded as one of the brokers of what little stability exists in Ukraine, was that he questioned the Polish-American alliance, comparing Polish kowtowing to the US’s every whim to oral sex.

Yikes.

Enter an explosion of racy clickbait on Twitter and a couple of fierce arguments about the journalistic integrity of publishing such recordings and whether politicians should be judged for their private statements, all of which is very interesting, but besides the point. Because Sikorski is right.

Poland has done the United States a whole bunch of favors, and I don’t mean that it threw President Obama a nice party when he visited Warsaw at the beginning of the month. I mean grandiose gestures. Usually ones that involve people, money, planes, and weapons.

In an attempt to comply with NATO regulations Poland spends a higher percentage of its GDP on its military than many of its much richer neighbors–ironically, many of whom are considered more staunch allies to the United States than Poland itself. (Germany, we’re looking at you.) And it is one of the few countries in Europe increasing its defense expenditures. 

Poland was also one of the first countries to commit troops to the Iraq War. Politics aside, you have to appreciate this gesture. Poland cared enough about relations with the United States to send its army into harm’s way in a war based on spurious reasoning.  And they did a damn good job of it. Of the four zones of control in the country post-invasion, two were under US control, one British, and one Polish.

Oh, and there was also that secret CIA prison in Poland where the US hid purported terrorists from the prying eyes of, well, everyone. Poland is facing a case at the European Court of Human Rights for that particular love letter to its American brothers.

What has Poland gotten in return for its commitment to the Atlantic alliance and the United States? Very little. The ballistic missile shield that was planned (and cancelled, and reinstated) since the Bush administration might eventually come to fruition, particularly if Russia continues raising its hackles. Poles can’t easily work in or visit the US, since it is still waiting for admission to the visa waiver program (it’s the only member of the Schengen Zone without visa free entry to the US).

Given this background, it’s understandable why Sikorski might have expressed his frustration with the US when he saw the writing on the wall and we refused to take decisive action against Russia prior to the annexation of Crimea. His words aren’t the shocking part. How they came to light–almost certainly thanks to a certain neighbor hellbent on keeping Sikorski from succeeding Catherine Ashton as EU foreign policy chief–is another story.

An Introduction to Polish-Russian Relations

Polish-Russian relations. The very connotation of the phrase is packed with a millenium of history. It causes journalists to slough off their descriptions of the problem as “complicated,” and has inspired no dearth of poor quips from academics such as “you could write a book or two about that.”

As is the case with most stereotypes, those describing the “unique” Polish-Russian relationship exist because they are rooted in truth. I’ve lived and breathed Polish-Russian relations for the past six years, and I don’t see the topic getting any less interesting or important as Russia maintains its pseudo-imperialist rhetoric and Poland’s influence in Europe continues to grow…though sometimes I suspect I’m the only one that feels that way.

My interest in Poland and its troubled ties with its Eastern neighbor are embedded in my very person. I am a Polish-American; my grandfather found himself in the United States in 1952 after being deported from Eastern Poland (now Ukraine) by the Soviets at the start of the Second World War, living several years in a work camp in northern Russia, traveling the Former Soviet Union and Middle East with the Anders Army, and finally, marrying in England before emigrating to the US. Understandably, my first childhood associations with Russia were none too kind. As a college student, I decided to pursue a Slavic language and since Polish wasn’t offered at my university, I took up Russian, falling in love with the language, culture, and people.

A few years later, as a student in Russia, I was surprised that my Polishness often helped me connect with native Russians. They referred to me as their “Slavic sister,” or even “svoi chelovek”–one of ours. I was both honored and befuddled. Where was the animosity I expected?

Oddly enough, the Smolensk plane crash, in which Polish President Kaczynski and nearly 100 other Polish dignitaries were killed on their way to a Katyn Massacre commemoration ceremony, furthered my sense that there might yet be hope for Polish-Russian reconciliation. In Saint Petersburg, my teachers and friends offered me their condolences after the tragedy. At the leadership level, the two nations seemed to be acting diplomatically or even civilly toward each other for the first time in recent memory. And this progress was squandered to feed the propaganda monster that still rages in both post-communist countries today.

As I see it, the antagonism between the two nations is fueled by four categories of disagreement: Poland’s attempts to bring countries like Ukraine and Belarus into the European fold through the EU’s Eastern Partnership program, Poland’s plans to allow a NATO missile shield on its soil, economic disagreements, particularly as related to energy politics in region, and lastly, the years of history and bad blood propagandized by both countries whenever a new disagreement flares up.

On Wednesdays over the next few weeks, Wiczipedia will be offering a primer on current Polish-Russian relations. Unlike the Russian and Polish media, which rarely offer unbiased accounts of relations, and the American media, which oversimplifies the issues surrounding them, I will provide the unique understanding of a Polish-American student of Russia and its environs. I hope you’ll join me for the ride!

Crossing New Borders: Croatia to Bosnia and Back Again

When I look at a map of the Balkans, I am always struck by how small the area is, and how so many ethnicities, countries, and conflicts might be squeezed into it. Given my fascination, it would be silly not to hop the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) for a day while we were honeymooning in Croatia.

We chose to visit Mostar, and to do so we had to cross three borders in each direction, due to Bosnia’s  historically-preserved sea-access surrounding the town of Neum.

Bosnia and Herzegovina sea access
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s sea access

We were in Bosnia for just a few kilometers, and the border crossings in and out of the country were no more than glorified toll booths. We rolled through the crossing slowly enough to get a glimpse of the guards sitting in the police booth that straddled the border.  On one side sat a Croat, on the other a Bosnian. They looked like brothers. They also seemed to be equally bored.

A few hours later, we were at the “real” border crossing, though it looked like no more than a ramshackle barracks, a chain link fence, a cafe for waylaid travelers, and an obscenely long line of would-be border crossers.

A surreptitious picture of the crossing from the minibus.
A surreptitious picture of the crossing from the minibus. It just looks like a bunch of cars, because that’s what it is.

The border crossing was uneventful in that we sat in our stuffy minibus for nearly an hour while our guide, passports in hand, took care of business on the ground.  What it entailed, I’m not sure, as my passport carries no evidence of crossing the Croat-Bosnian border once, let alone six times in one day.

But there are some indications — cameras and other digital technologies provided with EU funds — that come July 1, this border will cease to be just a fence between two former Yugoslav brothers, and become a border separating the free and prosperous from the oppressed and desolate.

Generously provided by EU funds
Generously provided by EU funds

After Croatia’s EU accession, the lines at this border will grow longer, the fortifications stronger. The irony, of course, is that the border separates two peoples that lived together for centuries, speak essentially the same language, and share many of the same customs. It was manufactured by politicians, elites, and ethnic entrepreneurs. And the normal citizens are those affected.

The difference between BiH and its more prosperous Croatian comrade is evident just a few kilometers from the border. Subsistence agriculture seems to feed the countryside; small, family-owned farms with a cow or two line the roadway. Farmers sit at booths by the road peddling the best of their small crops. Desolate shells of one-room homes whiz by occasionally, and its hard to tell if they deteriorated over time or were casualties of war.

Whatever the reason, there is a palpable struggle across the border, not to catch up, but perhaps to finally recover and simply exist.

My Bulgarian Piano Teacher’s Eastern Identity

My mom thinks that my first piano teacher was picked for me because his name was Slavic. The administrative staff at my conservatory thought that we would have a natural rapport. Somehow, though we’d be speaking English, the fact that our families’ mother tongues were mutually intelligible would not only aid our own communication, but help me rise to the ranks of his favorite students. Obviously.

My memory of my first lesson is a little fuzzy, but I do remember the first exchange we had with my teacher. My mom and I walked into the dimly-lit, circuitous bowels of the conservatory where I studied and found my room. A scared-looking preteen scurried out as soon as the door opened, leaving my teacher, dressed entirely in black, with a scruffy head of similarly dark hair, framed by the door.

We all introduced ourselves and shook hands. Of course, after saying “nice to meet you,” the next sentence out of my mom’s mouth was “So, where are you from? We’re Polish.”

Dr. K (as his students called him, since his two-syllable name with an unfamiliar consonant cluster clearly required too much effort for the untrained American tongue) looked unimpressed, and told us he was from Bulgaria. Then my first lesson began.

Our inauspicious beginning wasn’t a fluke. Since I wasn’t the most committed student and Dr. K hadn’t lost his communist-style relationship to music and its performance, our efforts never really jived. After lessons, I would laugh with my mom about how he sometimes suddenly exclaimed “Heeere eet eez!” after my tenth repetition of a difficult passage. Or about how he needed to clip his nose hairs.

Given that I’ve ended up a total Slavophile, sometimes I wonder what went wrong with me and Dr. K. Less than 10 years after Bulgaria became an independent, seemingly-democratic country, was he offended to be continually lumped in with other post-Communist countries like Poland by uninformed but well-intentioned westerners like me and my mom? I would wager that he got asked by at least a few of our compatriots if he had seen Dracula, even though everyone’s favorite vampire is from Romania (and, needless to say, fictional). If I saw Dr. K today, what would he think about the interest I’ve developed in “his” region over the past 14 years? Would we speak Russian and Bulgarian and get along, or would I offend him by even suggesting such a thing?

Neither outcome is totally unlikely. Former bloc members still struggle to define their membership in their own continent, thanks to the labels the West constantly slaps on them. Hungarian author Peter Esterhazy aptly described the Eastern Europe’s 20th Century identity crisis:

“Once, I was an Eastern European; then I was promoted to the rank of Central European. Those were great times…there were European dreams, visions, and images of the future…Then a few months ago, I became a new European. But before I had a chance to get used to this status – before I could even refuse it – I became a non-core European.”*

Bulgaria is often referred to as one of the EU’s “problem children.” Experts say that it was admitted too early, that not enough reforms had been implemented before accession, that its economy drags the EU further into recession. By many accounts, it is because of Bulgaria and Romania that the EU is experiencing such strong enlargement fatigue. And it’s understandable, really. Any moderately wealthy, “old” European country must look at a chart of GDP per capita in the EU and cringe:

eurostatbulgariaGDP
Bulgaria’s GDP as compared to other EU countries. Via Eurostat.

Sadly, Bulgaria’s problems are not contained to the economic sphere. In March, the country was engulfed in nationwide protests against monopolies of the energy sector.  In late April, the country was gripped by an illegal wiretap scandal that reeked of the work of communist-era security services. Today, the country faces widespread voter disillusionment as its parliamentary elections approach with no clear majority in sight. Though it may seem that a political plague has struck Bulgaria, it’s not alone; most post-communist countries have seen a major decline in voter turnout since independence. It’s one more thing we can use to label this part of Europe “Eastern.”

I think of Dr. K every time I pour myself a drink; our glasses are from IKEA and were made in Bulgaria. I wonder if Bulgaria’s 2007 EU accession has changed his defensiveness about his identity, or if, like his government and the rest post-communist Europe, he is struggling to define exactly what it means to be both European and Eastern.

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*(Quoted in “Naming Europe with the East” by Pekka Korhonen, in The East and the Idea of Europe, eds. Katalin Miklossy and Korhonen (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), p. 20.)