If those sound familiar, it’s because they are the goals Poland has made a priority for several years. Post-Cold War relations with Germany have not been easy. The Catholic Church in the two countries actually stepped in after the fall of the Berlin Wall to try to help facilitate a new set of relations. The Polish Cardinal Jozef Wyszynski was a key player in those talks.
At the end of the 1990s, the head of Germany’s Federation of Displaced People, Erika Steinbach, raised the issue of compensation for Germans whom Poland expelled after World War II after national borders were redrawn.
Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a Polish historian and former foreign minister, said in an interview with Die Zeit that Steinbach was unable to distinguish “the perpetrator from the victim.” He was referring to the fact that the Germans killed more than 6 mln Poles during the war.
The issue of displaced people arose when the Big Three victors of the war – the U.S., the Soviet Union and Great Britain – redrew the political map of Europe at the Yalta Conference in 1945.
The agreement gave Russia much of the eastern part of prewar Poland. To compensate Poland, the agreement gave Poland territory to the west that had belonged to Germany. The redrawing of the borders meant that millions of Poles who were suddenly on soil that was now Soviet had to resettle in Poland. Similarly, Germans who were suddenly on soil that was now Polish had to move to Germany. Steinbach’s group isn’t the only German organization pressing for compensation. The Prussian Claims Society is demanding the displaced Germans receive restitution for property they lost when national boundaries were withdrawn. Polish groups have countered that Germany owes them much more compensation than Poland owes Germans.
In addition to issues that have lingered since World War II, but have resurfaced since the break-up of the Soviet Union, current issues have strained ties between Germany and Poland. Germany was upset about Poland’s decision to send troops to Iraq, although a number of NATO members as well as Poland did so. Poland’s new Tusk administration has signaled that the troops will come home this year, however.
Meanwhile, Poland was upset about a German gas-pipeline agreement with Russia that it sees as allowing Russia to commit energy blackmail against Poland. The Nord-Stream pipeline is being laid below the Baltic Sea, bypassing Poland. It would allow energy-rich Russia to cut off gas to Ukraine, Poland and other Eastern European countries that it wants to intimidate without disrupting supplies to Germany and other Western European countries.
The Russians have already used energy blackmail to punish Ukraine for seeking closer ties with the west. And it is using energy blackmail to try to force Belarus into agreeing to a Russian-Belarus confederation, political analysts say. In addition to subjecting Poland to energy blackmail, the Nord-Stream pipeline may cost Poland millions of dollars. That’s because Poland levels a transit fee on gas that Russia sends through the Jamal pipeline that runs through the country. To try to minimize the threat of Russian energy blackmail, Poland is seeking other sources of gas and oil.
The Germans also oppose a U.S. sponsored anti-missile shield for Western Europe, part of which is being built in Poland and part of which is going up in the Czech Republic.
The Russians have become apoplectic about the shield, believing it is aimed at them – and the Germans believe the project is an unnecessary provocation against Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin showed his displeasure about the shield recently by pulling Russia out of a treaty with NATO that limits conventional weapons in Europe.
The U.S. maintains that the shield is to protect Europe from rogue Middle East regimes such as Iran and Syria that might consider launching missiles northward. It is also to protect Europe from North Korean missiles, Washington says.
Russia, which is trying to counter growing American influence in Central and Eastern Europe, is angry with Poland for agreeing to let part of the shield be built on Polish soil.
A step forward in Polish-Russian relations, which have been frosty for centuries because of Russian occupation and intimidation of Poland, was Poland’s decision in December to allow Russia into the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Every OECD member essentially has a veto on a non-member joining, and Poland had exercised that veto for more than two years, enraging the Russians.
OECD is an international organisation of developed countries that accept the principles of representative democracy and a free-market economy.
Poland saw Russia as being committed to neither principle so it opposed Russia joining the OECD, especially after Russia slapped an embargo on Polish meat and vegetable products in 2005. The Russians claimed that Poland was violating Russian safety standards on imported food, but political observers viewed the embargo as political – a way of punishing Poland for foreign policy decisions that Moscow was unhappy with. Just before last month’s parliamentary elections in Russia, Poland finally dropped its opposition to Russian membership.
The timing of the announcement – just before the elections – may have been aimed at depriving Putin’s forces of an argument that could help them win votes: that Poland, an important new member of NATO, was governed by Russophobes. If that was Poland’s intent, it didn’t work. Putin’s forces won in a landslide. But Russia quickly rewarded Poland for its OECD decision by lifting the 2005 Polish meat embargo.
Political scientist Andriej Piontkowski told the newspaper, Rzeczpospolita, that the lifting of the embargo was a step forward in Polish-Russian relations.
How should the new Tusk government balance relations with the major powers – the U.S. and Russia – that are trying to influence its policies?
Aleksiej Muchin, the head of the Center for Political Information in Russia, said Poland should act in its own interest, not just do what the U.S. wants. Muchin said Poland and Russia should discuss the issue of the missile shield, for example.
Of course, the next president that Americans elect in November of 2008 could drop the shield idea, which would mean it was no longer a sticking point in Polish-Russian relations. But that remains to be seen.
In deciding foreign policy, political observers say, Poland should take into account where it stands in the scheme of U.S. foreign policy. It’s true that Poland has had troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and has been willing to install a missile shield. But as former American Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski once said: “We shouldn’t overestimate the strategic role of Poland in U.S. foreign policy.” In other words, while Poland is important to U.S. foreign policy, it is not a linchpin of American policy.
Those who want Poland to have a foreign policy more independent of the U.S. say Warsaw should have its own geo-strategic vision. It should help in Iraq and Afghanistan because those missions strengthen ties with the U.S. and could diminish the threat of terrorism on Europe.
But Poland should not have to choose between the U.S. and Europe. It should cooperate with both.
Poland has yet to play an important role in EU foreign policy, although the country makes up part of the EU’s border with countries that have long been in Russia’s sphere of influence. Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Spain still play the most important roles in EU policy. But Poland could enhance its stature by carving out a role as a broker between the EU and its eastern neighbours. For example, it could give the EU good policy advice on Ukraine’s desire to join the EU.
Poland has been benefiting from EU development money, but of course there is no such thing as a free lunch. The EU will be expecting more from Poland and its other new members. That will include help in foreign policy, privatisation and the stamping out of corruption, among other things.
Last month Poland finally signed a EU Reform Treaty that included a Charter of Fundamental Rights. The only EU country to drag its feet on signing the treaty besides Poland was Great Britain. Poland’s reluctance, which the rest of the EU resented, involved a handful of issues.
One was lack of a phrase in the rights document about Christianity’s contribution to European development. Another was that the document banned human cloning in most circumstances but allowed it in specified situations. Another provision to which Poland objected was a ban against discrimination on the basis of political conviction. Polish leaders felt this could help prompt a return of fascism or communism. Poland’s signing of the treaty, despite its reservations, helped improve relations with a number of EU members.
A bottom line in foreign policy that Poland must not forget is that the main goal is preserving or enhancing the national interest, which for every country includes security and political and economic strength. Thus Polish leaders shouldn’t allow worries about the international perception of the country to trump Poland’s national interest. As the late French President Charles de Gaulle once said: “Nations don’t have feelings, only interests.”
No matter how friendly the relations between countries’ leaders, it is their countries’ national interests that count. The way a country achieves its national interests, of course, is important in foreign policy. It needs to do so in a calm, cool-headed manner – one that suggests it is acting from a position of wisdom and strength.
Is there a chance for Poland to become the kind of leader in Europe that Germany and France have long been? Perhaps. For Poland to take a seat in the front row, however, its leaders need to come up with strategy that earns the country the leadership stature that other European countries have achieved.