Speaking recently at a student society event on European Union enlargement in London’s King’s College I heard John, an old university friend who was there to give me moral support, ask whether NATO was needed anymore. ‘Yes’, I said without much hesitation, ‘ and the European Union too’. ‘It’s OK to question the need for NATO if you live on an island off Europe’s northern coast and haven’t properly been invaded for a 1000 years but if you’re a country like Poland, with its history and with neighbours off to the east where wild animals and monsters still lurk then you need the security both NATO and the EU bring’.
Easy – done, dusted, question answered, centuries of Poland’s tragic history invoked, questioner put in his place. But was the stock answer good enough? Twenty years after 1989 shouldn’t we be putting the past behind us and thinking about the future a bit more? After all, the past few years have seen us clocking up a number of firsts. The generation born in 1989 is the first generation for hundreds of years which doesn’t have to do anything extraordinarily brave for their country – all they have to do is to just live there. Poland has been independent for two decades – longer than at any time since the 1700s. We have had a functioning parliamentary democracy since 1989 – longer than ever before.
Think about it. Polish society has never been in such a (happy) situation. Up till now each generation of Poles has had to conspire and fight for the right to exist. Now all they have to do is to work out ‘what is Poland here for’ as Michał Kobosko, the outgoing editor of Dziennik Gazeta Prawna asked recently in a valedictory piece.
But stuck between Germany and Russia and weighed down by centuries of mainly bad experiences, can we really free ourselves from the past and think creatively about the future ? Especially as during the communist years the authorities put a lot of effort into blanking out one set of memories and putting in their place an entirely different, mainly mendacious, set.
Krzysztof Skubiszewski, Poland’s first foreign minister after 1989, who died recently, was a crusty old bachelor but first and foremost an international lawyer. In those early years, he concentrated on getting treaties into place with all of Poland’s neighbours and making sure that Poland’s present frontiers were recognised by all. After that, our foreign policy concentrated on getting Poland into NATO and the EU. Now what?
In April, Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, will be present at the 70th anniversary commemoration of the Katyń massacre. Everyone will be listening to hear how far he will go in clearing up the ambivalence which continues to dog the Katyń question in Russia. After all it was Stalin’s initials which are on the decision to carry out the killings. But this year in May, Russia is gearing up to celebrate the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany which the authorities want to remember Stalin for.
Relations with Germany are easier. Angela Merkel, the German leader, misses no opportunity to make verbal amends for war time excesses and Germany is now our ally in NATO as well as fellow member of the European Union. But the unease exists in Warsaw about Germany fuelled by the Law and Justice party which ruled for a couple of years after 2005 and took a robust, nationalist line in foreign policy both towards the EU, Russia and Germany.
When the Civic Platform (PO) came to power in 2007, it was determined to improve relations both with Russia and Germany (as well as the EU). It has largely succeeded but better relations with both Berlin and Moscow risk another of Poland’s priorities which is to keep as many of the Soviet successor states, democratic and independent of Moscow. This goes for Ukraine, most of all. Meanwhile both Russia and Germany have a long history of mutual cooperation and Russia is unhappy about countries in its ‘near abroad’ straying too far from Moscow’s influence. While Germany, mesmerised by the massive profits cooperation with Russia promises, is happy to play along.
This is the main dilemma of Poland’s eastern policy. If it wants to influence the European Union’s foreign policy towards Russia, it has to move more into a mainstream that is informed mainly by Germany’s desire for good relations with Moscow. But a strategy improving Polish relations with Russia and Germany risks abandoning crucial partners such as Ukraine and other successor states such as Moldova or Georgia.
Memory of past tragedies and crimes underlies a resolution of this conundrum. Reconciliation is also crucial. One without the other merely risks a repeat of the tragic events of the past. No society in this part of the world is blameless and there can be no peaceful future without a willingness to admit mutual responsibility for past atrocities. This is why Putin’s speech in Katyń is so important. But a part of the answer to the ‘what are we for’ question is the search for reconciliation based on a memory of the past. That certainly is one of the tasks faced by the younger ‘new’ generation in our region.
Shark via creativecommons.com