As a conservative nationalist known for his dislike of Russia prepares to become president of Poland, Kremlin strategists are pondering how the leadership change might affect the perennial rivalry between Moscow and Warsaw for influence in Eastern Europe.
Last Sunday’s (October 23) presidential run-off in Poland completed the radical reshaping of the country’s political landscape. Following the victory in the September parliamentary polls of the center-right Law and Justice Party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, his twin brother Lech emerged victorious in the tough presidential race, having beaten Donald Tusk, a liberal-nationalist contender. The main result of the electoral cycle is the nearly total destruction of left-wing political forces. In the foreseeable future, Poland’s principal political players will be nationalist parties. As one commentator noted, such a situation has never occurred in the history of post-war Poland, and, more importantly, the contemporary world has never seen such a Poland before.
For Moscow, a Poland where all the branches of power are run by nationalist-minded politicians is also an unusual partner. With relations between the two countries sinking to an all-time low, Russia’s foreign-policy wonks are debating how the Kremlin should respond to the challenge posed by the increasingly assertive Warsaw.
Remarkably, the new Polish nationalist leadership’s strategic ambition is to build what they call the “Fourth Rzecz Pospolita” – a powerful and influential Polish state that, as a member of the European Union, is an indisputable regional leader in Eastern Europe, a geopolitical gray zone squeezed between Russia and the expanding European bloc.
“A Poland with a strong position in Kyiv and hopefully in Minsk, a Poland belonging to the six mightiest countries in Europe and having good relations with the United States — Russians will simply have to take this Poland seriously,” Jaroslaw Kaczynski said defiantly in a recent interview with the journal Central European Review. And last Monday, the second half of this unique set of identical twins, Lech, Poland’s president-elect, said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had to come to Warsaw before he would go to Moscow, adding that the Kremlin leaders should finally understand that Eastern Europe is no longer part of Russia’s sphere of influence.
It is quite symptomatic that most Russian analysts, having – not unlike their Polish counterparts – a long historical memory, tend to place the current uneasy Russo-Polish relations in historical perspective. For Russia, they assert, Poland was always a “stumbling block” that prevented Russians “from joining Europe.” Moreover, in the 16th and 17th centuries it was the “First Rzecz Pospolita” – the mighty Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – that acted as Muscovy’s strongest contender in the struggle for the domination in the territories of what is today Ukraine and Belarus. No wonder that the new Polish administration’s historical allusions, coupled with Warsaw’s energetic attempts at bringing Ukraine closer to the EU and achieving regime change in Belarus, make the Kremlin uneasy. Furthermore, the Russian leadership understands that Poland will be going out of its way to try and position itself as a primary player in the EU’s eastern policy. Thus, the bilateral relationship, most analysts point out, will be evolving within the broader context of EU-Russia relations.
Poland, a number of Russian strategists suggest, will likely pursue a two-pronged policy. First, it will intensify its efforts aimed at “democratizing” and “Europeanizing” the post-Soviet lands lying between Russia and the EU’s eastern borders. Second, it will strive for more energy independence from Russia for itself and other countries of “New Europe” by trying to block the realization of the North European gas pipeline project and seeking to diversify its own fuel supplies. While pursuing this strategy, Warsaw will be keen to present it as the common strategy of the entire European bloc and portray itself as the EU’s “plenipotentiary representative” in the East.
However, Poland’s ambition to spearhead Europe’s eastern policy will fail for two reasons, most Russian analysts say. First, the European Union is in the midst of a major existential crisis and is not capable of elaborating a common strategy on any important issue pertaining to foreign relations or economic policy. Given the lack of a single “eastern policy” in Brussels, the unstable situation in Ukraine, and uncertainty about how best to proceed with the authoritarian regime in Belarus, Poland’s excessive activism in the EU’s eastern neighborhood will likely irritate European bureaucrats, argues one influential Russian expert on Eastern Europe. Also, while the Polish crusade against the North European gas pipeline that is designed to bypass Polish territory does receive support in some political quarters in Northern Europe and the Baltic states, the odds are that it will likely further divide European countries rather than unite them.
Second, Polish conservative nationalism obviously does not sit well with the EU’s liberal political philosophy, some Russian pundits argue. In fact, a number of commentaries in the European media have also noted that the election rhetoric of Poland’s new president was flecked with nationalistic, xenophobic, and anti-German sentiment. He is widely seen as a Euroskeptic who favors the death penalty and dislikes homosexuals. Kaczynski tried to repair his image by telling Germany’s Bild newspaper recently that he was not the Euroskeptic many perceive him to be, but a “fervent supporter of EU enlargement.” But Russian pundits hope he did not sound convincing. “It is obvious that Kaczynski cannot speak on behalf of Europe,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin’s leading spin-doctor. “It would be both unconvincing and ludicrous [if he does].”
(Irish Times, October 27; Vedomosti, Moscow Times, Politcom.ru, October 26; Nezavisimaya gazeta, Independent, Kreml.org, APN.ru, Russ.ru, October 25; Strana.ru, GlobalRus.ru, UPI, October 24)