Poland’s “Conservative Revolution”: a dilemma for the Baltic states

For Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Poland is a useful partner, when it is an active EU member, playing together with the other European countries, not against them, writes Jeroen Bult.

The article was first published in Visegrad Insight, an analysis and opinion journal led by accomplished editors from the Visegrad Group countries: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.

The return to power of the PiS, the Law and Justice Party, in Poland has become a major challenge to – if not to say, a real headache – for EU policy makers. Warsaw and Brussels have embarked on a verbal war, after the Beata Szydło government, encouraged by its architect and strongman, Jarosław Kaczyński, launched a series of highly controversial institutional and legal reforms (constitutional court, public broadcasting service). The “Conservative Revolution” is in full swing.

The European Commission announced it “will carry out a preliminary assessment on this matter under the rule of law framework” (13 January) and “deemed it necessary to formalise its assessment of the current situation in an opinion” (1 June), thus increasing pressure on Warsaw, while the European Parliament adopted a very critical resolution on the state of democracy, rule of law and human rights in Poland (13 April).

Individual member states in Western Europe, especially Germany, have repeatedly expressed their concerns. Although it might be tempting for Beata Szydło and her ministers to point out to “Old Europe” that the EU recently concluded an agreement with a country that could be labelled a putinesque dictatorship on the rise: Turkey.

In “New Europe”, on the other hand, silence has prevailed. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who has been accused of authoritarianism and xenophobia and who is eager to end his country’s isolation within the EU, and Kaczyński met up at an early stage. Their ultimate goal might be the creation of an obstructive “Visegrád front”, opposing the system of mandatory redistribution quotas for refugees and defending “traditional values”.

Yet, it remains to be seen, whether such a strategy will work out, since Slovakia strongly distrusts Orbán’s deployment of irredentist rhetoric and Poland cannot possibly be pleased with his Russia-friendly stance. The Czech Republic, being one of Europe’s most secular countries, will not feel comfortable with Kaczyński’s dream of a Catholic counter-reformation.

Where does this leave the Baltic states?

Where does this leave the Baltic states? In comparison with the four Visegrád republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have taken a rather low profile in the refugee debate. On one hand, they definitively perceive the arrival of asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Northern Africa as a potential infringement upon the “põhirahvus” (“core nation”), as the Estonians put it.

Especially Estonia and Latvia are still coping with the presence – ie integration – of the “asustuskolonistid”, “the colonists who have stayed in the colony”, using the Estonian philosopher, Rein Ruutsoo’s, description of the Russian-speaking immigrants, who arrived in the Baltics in the Soviet era.

“A deteriorating Polish-EU relationship will pose an embarrassment to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.”

On the other hand, however, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are most aware that a Kulturkampf on the immigration issue within the ranks of the EU will harm their national security interests. Poland is the only major political and economic player in the eastern part of the EU.

A serious alienation of the country from the western part will also affect the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and its Russia dimension, the state of which already is pretty ramshackle. “A Poland that is both anti-Russian and anti-European is a dream come true for Kremlin strategists,” a Polish security analyst has warned.

A deteriorating Polish-EU relationship will pose an embarrassment to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Poland is their political, economic (Rail Baltica, the LitPol Link electricity grid, the future Gas Interconnection Poland-Lithuania) and military bridge to the European continent.

Polish-Baltic interests overlap

Maintaining EU sanctions against Russia, bolstering the Eastern Partnership and broadening cooperation with Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Belarus, cultivating transatlantic relations (and pegging the CFSP to NATO as much as possible), and thwarting the planned Nord Stream II gas pipeline: Polish-Baltic interests evidently overlap.

A political-ideological showdown between Poland and Western Europe might add to the overall process of fragmentation that has harrowed the EU lately. It will eventually weaken the position of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the geopolitical and hybrid power game with Russia, a plausible risk factor that deserves greater attention by Baltic scholars, policy makers and intellectuals. Some are no longer willing to shun this uncomfortable topic, though.

Lithuanian analyst Vytautas Plečkaitis wrote that harking back to the great power aspirations of Marshall Józef Piłsudski, Poland’s strongman in the 1920s and first half of the 1930s, will not be of much avail to “Lenkija” (“Poland” in Lithuanian). “At the time, the Poles […] sought to become the leader of Central and Eastern European. [They] failed in this role […] and became a buffer state between Germany and Russia,” the former diplomat calls to mind. Germany has meanwhile become a full-grown democracy and a respected advocate of European integration and international cooperation.

Plečkaitis admonishes that Poland, on the other hand, might relapse into that nasty habit of overestimating its own economic and military capabilities. He emphasises that “for Lithuania and the other Baltic republics, Poland is a useful [partner], when it is an active EU member, playing together with the other European countries, not against them”. Plečkaitis does not even rule out the possibility that, having no friends left in the West, Poland will focus on the East instead.

“For Baltic republics, Poland is a useful [partner], when it is an active EU member, playing together with the other European countries, not against them.”

The Lithuanian-Polish relationship constitutes a special case, of course. The complex historical interaction between the two countries still impedes a full normalisation of bilateral relations. Many had hoped that the signing of the Friendship and Cooperation Treaty in April 1994 would usher a new era.

Poland and Lithuania would indeed intensify cooperation on various fields and support each other’s bid for EU and NATO accession. However, the past has kept haunting the two former parts of Poland, revealing itself in disputes on such questions as the status of the Polish language in the southeast of Lithuania, the compulsory spelling of personal names and street names in Lithuanian, and the number of subjects to be taught in Lithuanian at Polish-language schools.

Lithuania, for its part, has been critical about the compliance with the cultural and linguistic rights of the Lithuanian minority in the northeast of Poland. In 2010, even Radosław Sikorski, Poland’s moderate foreign minister, lamented that “We have had the same catalogue of unresolved problems for years and we would like to see our relations in better shape”. Some have argued that the resurgence of these delicate issues is the main explanation for a grave diplomatic affront to Lithuania: after his inauguration in August 2015, president Andrzej Duda (PiS) paid his first foreign visit to Estonia (although others have pointed out that is more important that Duda has at least demonstrated some interest in the Baltic states).

Political scientist and columnist Marijušas Antonovičius foresees another “historical” predicament. In his view, the Szydło government is neglecting contacts with Ukraine. The main objectives of Polish policy towards Ukraine have not changed, but the implementation has become less cogent, Antonovičius asserts; Ukraine is no longer on top of Warsaw’s agenda.

An explanation he offers is that PiS, which claims to be the protagonist of the entire conservative segment of Polish society, is rather susceptible to ultra-nationalist, anti-Ukrainian sentiments. For the greater part, these are rooted in the so-called Volyn Massacre – in 1943-1944, the partisan Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) killed 60,000 to 100,000 Poles during ethnic cleansings in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia. The ultra-nationalists PiS might want to believe that a resurrecting Ukraine will be an anti-Polish Ukraine. The underlying question of the article – could this lead to an estrangement from Western Europe (especially Germany), Lithuania and Ukraine at the same time and hence amplify the mood of isolation in Poland?

Estonia’s approach of Poland is business-like

Estonia’s approach of Poland is more business-like. Taking into account the different course of history this is hardly surprising: the southern part of Estonia was under Polish rule from 1582 to 1629, a period that has only had a negligible impact on the national mindset, contrary to the Swedish (judged positively) and the Russian (judged negatively) rule that followed.

So far, Estonia (a brother in secularisation of the Czech Republic) has managed to evade political and normative confrontations with PiS-lead Poland. While visiting Warsaw in December 2015, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves declined to comment explicitly on the Constitutional Court crisis that by that time had started erupting: “There are always people on the outside willing to say all kinds of things, before they know what is going on. […] I really do not think that after a government has been in power for just a few weeks that any other countries have really anything to say about it.”

Polish president Duda visiting Estonia in August 2015 - Birgit Püve

Perhaps Ilves hoped that common sense would prevail soon again, but polarisation – between Warsaw and Brussels and within Polish society itself – has not decreased, quite the contrary. During his trip to Warsaw on 1 June, the same day the European Commission issued its warning to the Polish government, the Estonian prime minister, Taavi Rõivas, accentuated shared interests and values.

There are exceptions to this Estonian aloofness – that, to a certain extent, is reminiscent of the country’s policy in the interbellum years: Estonia displayed great interest in diplomatic, military and economic cooperation with Poland, yet it did not want to get involved in regional disputes, like the Polish-Lithuanian bickering on Vilnius.

The Estonian writer and poet, Jaan Kaplinski, of Polish descent himself, is highly suspicious of the PiS’s intentions: “It is nothing new that a party or movement that came to power after democratic elections abuses the gained power, by repressing the opposition, and curbing freedoms. Thus it began in Germany in 1933, in Erdogan’s Turkey, and now in Poland.” Kaplinski admits that Poland is a conservative society, and that a large part of the population “shares the current government’s contempt for Western depravity and liberal intellectuals”. Like Vytautas Plečkaitis, he is worried about the possible consequences for foreign policy: “It is a fundamental question, whether Poland’s foreign policy too will be guided more by ideology than by the present security concerns and alliance relations – whether Poland will strive after good relations with the equally nationalist-patriotic-conservative Russia, next to or possibly even instead of the degenerating West.”

Andrei Hvostov, another writer (of the cult novel “Sillamäe passioon”, about his youth in this industrial town) and a leading columnist, holds a corresponding view. Estonians are aware that Poland is carrying a similar burden of history, of occupation, deportations and totalitarian oppression by neighbouring countries (“They share our pain, Poland has been sympathetic to us”). But how to deal with the current situation? “Now that Poland, in the eyes of Brussels, has changed into the black sheep, a deep silence prevails in Kadriorg and Toompea [the parts of Tallinn, where the Presidential palace and Parliament are located, J.B.].”

Hvostov abhors the hostile attitude of the PiS and the right-wing press towards Germany and is rather cynical about Poland’s self-imposed mission: “Can we predict that the conservative nationalism encapsulated in Eastern European great power Poland will become our new spiritual beacon? If so, that will mark a new beginning in the history of Estonia, the Polish Era.”

“Can we predict that the conservative nationalism encapsulated in Eastern European great power Poland will become our new spiritual beacon? If so, that will mark a new beginning in the history of Estonia, the Polish Era.”

Andres Herkel, a veteran conservative member of the Estonian parliament, a defender of dissidents in Azerbaijan and Cuba, and the author of illuminating reflections on Russia, is more prudent. He concedes that an overt confrontation between Brussels and what he also calls Eastern Europe’s most powerful state is most unwelcome and would be harmful to Estonian foreign policy.

Herkel stresses, however, that the political situation in Poland is not entirely comparable to the Hungarian one – which he finds more worrisome: the PiS only received 37 per cent of the votes, opposition parties are in a less desperate state than those in Hungary and the Polish minorities in the region are not sizable enough to evoke permanent crises with adjacent countries.

This may be true, but the PiS will hold an absolute majority in both the Sejm and the Senate till 2019. How will Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius respond, if the European Commission-initiated monitoring procedure will indeed result in Poland’s voting rights in the EU institutions being suspended? Will their unremitting criticism of the poor state of the rule of law in Russia lose credibility, if they deliberately ignore the erosion of the rule of law in Poland?

A critical Estonian commentator warned that no matter how hard Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have tried to play down the “Polish question” prior to the crucial NATO summit in Warsaw (8-9 July), the matter will keep haunting them; if basic democratic principles in Poland are being undermined, they should not be upset about polls indicating that sixty percent of the Germans are not willing to defend the eastern flank of NATO. Will it make sense to gloss over Kaczyński’s self-proclaimed “accomplishment of the revolution of 1989”, because he, contrary to Orbán, does not intend to conclude energy deals with Moscow?

“No matter how hard Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have tried to play down the “Polish question” prior to the crucial NATO summit in Warsaw (8-9 July), the matter will keep haunting them; if basic democratic principles in Poland are being undermined, they should not be upset about polls indicating that sixty percent of the Germans are not willing to defend the eastern flank of NATO.”

Chances that the PiS government will seek rapprochement to Moscow are quite small indeed. Kaczyński is still convinced that Russia is to blame for the death of his brother, president Lech Kaczyński, during the Smolensk plane crash tragedy in April 2010. The real danger lies in Poland loosening its anchor in the West and opting for a reclusive and reactive foreign policy that lacks a real spirit of cooperation and solidarity with neighbouring countries.

It exposes an obnoxious dilemma for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania: joining the choir of Enlightened Poland criticasters would reiterate the success of their own transformation into liberal democracies and would nourish the idea, especially in Estonia, of being “Nordic”, but would at the same time exasperate Poland, fomenting its Splendid Isolation. Jarosław Kaczyński has, most probably, not taken notice of this Baltic quandary. The Kremlin, on the other hand, is definitively more interested.

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The opinions in this article are those of the author.

About the author: Jeroen Bult

Jeroen Bult is a Dutch historian and publicist, specialised in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.