I’m happy to share The Wiczipedia Podcast, a deep dive into the issues of Eastern Europe meant to accompany the fun you’re already getting in the form of my weekly newsletter.
This podcast is dormant as other projects have taken priority, but you can find the back episodes here!
Episode 1: Trump, Eastern Europe, and Immigrants
This month I’m joined by journalists Ilya Lozovsky and Lili Bayer, and we’re discussing the impact of the Trump administration’s Muslim ban on us as American immigrants and the things about Trump that worry us as people who have studied post-communist autocracies.
Episode 2: What’s up with Poland?
Nina is joined by journalist Christian Davies, who has been living in Poland during the past 18 months of political crisis that have embroiled the country. He explains what’s been going on and why it matters for the larger democratic order.
Nina is joined by Ivana Smolenova of the Prague Security Studies Institute and Margo Gontar of StopFake to discuss the topic of the day/hour/year: Russian disinformation and its affect on our societies.
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.
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 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.
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.
If Russia places an embargo on your country’s most popular edible exports, chances are the Kremlin is none too pleased with you. Moscow’s most recent political collateral is Ukrainian chocolate, banned from the Russian market July 29. This week, Russia stopped importing Ukrainian goods almost entirely.
After claiming to find traces of the carcinogen benzopyrene in the Ukrainian sweets, Russia’s consumer standards agency, Rospotrebnadzor, stopped import of chocolates from Ukraine’s infamous Roshen company, which garners about $40 million in profit from the Russian market per year. The confectioner’s other top markets–Moldova, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus–continued to import the chocolate, however, as they found no evidence of carcinogens.
In the past, Russia’s political disagreements have sparked embargoes on Polish meat (Russian babushki could only dream of Polish kielbasa from 2005-2007), Belarusian dairy, and Georgian wine (happily returning to the Russian market this year).
Ukraine, however, was not lucky enough to escape with only one affected market. Yesterday, Moscow launched what many are describing as a full-on trade war against Kyiv. All Ukrainian goods have been labelled potentially dangerous, and are subject to lengthy inspections before crossing the border into the territory of the Eurasian Customs Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
As Ukraine’s economy is heavily reliant on exports, 23.7% of which go to Russia, this is a serious issue for Kyiv, but not entirely unexpected; Moscow’s seemingly drastic actions are intended to pressure Ukraine into shunning the EU’s offers of Free Trade and Association Agreements in favor of beefing up its ties with Russia and joining the Eurasian Customs Union.
It’s a poorly thought out move on Russia’s part. Though the cessation of Russian exports could be devastating to Ukraine’s economy, Russia’s bullying might finally inspire the EU to decisive action; Ukraine has had a less than stellar reform record and has done little to curry favor with Brussels, so hopes for an association agreement at the Eastern Partnership’s Vilnius Summit this fall were murky at best.
But Russia’s pressure on the Ukrainian economy–not to mention the obvious motivation behind it–has a chance of awakening the EU’s hero gene, which has played a decisive role in the dissipation of regional conflicts in Georgia, Belarus, and Ukraine itself in the past ten years. The Russian government’s short-term memory is shockingly bad; its economic strong-arming was one of the major causes of the Orange Revolution. This time around, the EU has the bureaucratic structure (the EaP) and a few well-respected pro-Ukraine cheerleaders (Poland, Sweden) that will look past Ukraine’s failings and use an Association Agreement as a shield against an increasingly aggressive Russia.
It seems that among its “carcinogenic” chocolate, Ukraine has found its golden ticket to the West.
This post is a part of my series on Polish-Russian relations. Read the introduction here.
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.
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.”
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.