An interview with Sławomir Popowski, Polish journalist and expert on Eastern Europe.
PAWEŁ PIENIĄŻEK: By 1991, the crisis in the Soviet Union had reached its height. What was the public mood and attitude of the Russian people towards the Soviet Union at that time?
SŁAWOMIR POPOWSKI: Perestroika and Gorbachev enjoyed their greatest popularity in 1989. On the one hand resistance from the nomenklatura was on the rise, while on the other hand Gorbachev and the paths of the democratically minded part of society began to diverge. At some point he found himself between the two groups, and while some criticised him for overly zealous reforms, others attacked him for his conservatism and for being too submissive to the communist authorities.
In 1991, it was evident that state structures were becoming completely inefficient and the country was suffering from an economic crisis. At the beginning of perestroika one could still find goods in the shops, while in 1990, there was virtually nothing. Between 1990 and 1991, it was obvious that the Soviet Union was beginning to come apart at the seams, especially within the republics. To prevent this situation and win political capital, citizens were asked in a referendum whether they wanted the Soviet Union to continue. More than 60 per cent of voters said “yes” and victory was declared. However, one thing was left unsaid: not all of the republics participated. The Baltic republics, for example, did not participate at all. Even the participation of Russia was not absolutely clear. Boris Yeltsin took advantage of this fact and agreed to hold the referendum provided another question was added to the ballot: Do you want Russia to have a president? The majority of voters said they did. The first election was held in June and Yeltsin won an overwhelming victory in the first round.
Was the coup expected?
There had been talk of a conservative coup for many years, at least since the time Nina Andreyeva’s famous essay, I Cannot Forsake My Principles, was published and since the beginning of mass demonstrations by the democratic opposition. The possibility of a coup, developing in circles close to Gorbachev, was first mentioned by Eduard Shevardnadze. After Alexander Yakovlev was removed from the party’s leadership by Gorbachev, he also hinted at such a possibility. In his last statement after leaving the party, released two or three days before the coup, Yakolev spoke directly about the possibility of a conservative coup. There is evidence that preparations for the August Coup began as early as March. At least this is what Yakovlev and Gorbachev’s advisers said at the time.
Valentin Pavlov, then serving as prime minister, delivered a speech that drew a lot of attention. Without the president’s agreement and to his surprise, Pavlov allegedly demanded special powers for the government at a sitting of the Soviet Union Supreme Council. In fact, there was an idea to declare a state of emergency, in which Yakolev would have had a part in implementing. However Yakolev later succumbed to alcoholism and was out of the picture.
The coup started on August 19th. You were a correspondent for the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita in Moscow at that time. When did you first find out something was happening?
I arrived in Moscow on August 17th. The next day I managed to send a message to Rzeczpospolita about Yakovlev’s threat before going to bed. On August 19th, at six o’clock in the morning, my colleague Bolesław Porowski from the newspaper Expres Wieczorny called me. He said, “Listen, there’s a state of emergency in Russia. See what’s going on!” Sleepily, I got into the car and went to see what was happening. I watched the tanks rolling towards Moscow and came back via Leninsky Avenue and Mira Avenue, which were full of soldiers.
The first hours of the coup were all full of anxiety and uncertainty. The political fever among the Russian people was high. They were used to demonstrations so they came up to the tanks and soldiers, some shook fists at them, while others cried and said, “No, you will not shoot, darlings.” Around 11 am, the famous scene in which Yeltsin climbed on a tank and announced that Russia and the White House would not submit to the coup d’etat took place.
The night of August 20th was the most dramatic as it was still not clear what was happening. Rumours spread of a possible storming of the White House as well as reports that units loyal to the coup members were on their way. Across Kutuzovsky Prospekt, girls standing in two lines blocked the passage, saying the tanks would only pass over their dead bodies. It was more of a show of emotion and demonstration than real resistance. Yet there was a moment when a group of people defending the White House tried to stop the tanks. Shots were fired and three people died. They were the only fatalities of the coup.
On August 21st, the third day of the coup, it was already clear that there would be no storming and the troops would be withdrawn from the city. Information was spread that Yeltsin’s people had flown to see Gorbachev and that the coup was actually over. Gorbachev came back to Moscow that same evening and the arrest of the coup members followed. However, that was just the midway point.
Was there a danger that the August Coup could have succeeded?
We must realize that the coup was staged in the name of the unity and security of the Soviet Union, as well as the restoration of order. In fact, the real aim was to prevent the signing of a new treaty which was to take place on August 20th. Obviously, a long list of populist actions, for example pay rises and better shop supplies, was prepared to win over the society, but all those measures were ineffective. Had the coup members been more determined, they might not have lost after just two days and their chances would have been better. But then they risked a civil war, especially in the republics, which would have probably ended with another period of terror.
Why was Yanayev elected the coup leader? He was not a notable figure.
He led the coup in order to make it seem legal. He was the vice-president, so the public was informed that the president was ill and Yanayev was taking over the president’s duties. The investigation later conducted by Russian prosecutors showed that he was not entirely convinced and that he was not the mastermind of the coup. It was Vladimir Kryuchkov who masterminded the coup, and according to Yakovlev, Kryuchkov had been preparing the coup since March 1991, actively misinforming Gorbachev about the situation in the country. Oleg Shenin was another powerful man in the Politburo, and according to Yakovlev, he was the first to be proposed to lead the emergency committee. Oleg Baklanov, the vice-president of the Defence Council of the USSR, was another top official. They were the major figures in the emergency committee.
You said the coup was the first part. What was the second?
During the coup, Yeltsin made some decisions at the time that no one paid much attention to, but turned out to be far-reaching and of great consequence. Claiming that the situation required certain actions, he issued decrees. For example, the Russian authorities took control of the KGB so that no matter how the coup would unfold, power would be taken away from Gorbachev. After his return from Foros, it was in fact Yeltsin who wielded the power.
Soon afterwards, a new wave of revolution rose up in Moscow. Demonstrations led by the democratic opposition were held in the streets. One of the most memorable was in front of the KGB headquarters in Lubyanka where demonstrators dismantled a monument of Felix Dzerzhinsky. The crowd also wanted to seize the communist party headquarters near Lubyanka in order to take party documents or at least prevent their destruction.
The crowd also wanted to dismantle the Lenin monument. However, people around Yeltsin were afraid that the situation would quickly get out of hand and ordered the leaders of the democratic opposition to create calm among the crowds.
Three days after the coup, a big victory concert and another rally were scheduled to take place near the White House. There was an event there every day, but I remember that one in particular. It was then that I realized what had happened. Something had changed in Russia and there was no going back.
Did the coup accelerate the collapse of the USSR?
The USSR had already been in decline before the August Coup, but initiating the Novo-Ogaryovo process became a chance to reverse the negative trend. The coup invalidated everything that had been before and hastened the collapse of the system. Gorbachev was left without power. It is not just that he had no control of state structures, he also had no one to fall back on. He became irrelevant, and although he still tried to be active, all the ideas he came up with fell on deaf ears.
At the end of August or the beginning of September, a huge victory demonstration took place. The demonstrators carried a large three-coloured Russian flag towards the White House, along with portraits of the three victims of the August coup. The White House was open to journalists and I was a frequent guest there. At one point, I suddenly found myself on the long balcony over the main entrance from which Yeltsin was delivering a speech.
Gorbachev’s return to Moscow is often compared to Napoleon’s 100 days after his flight from Elbe. Yet there is a difference. The emperor was able to fight another battle, while Gorbachev did not have such a chance. He was completely abandoned by the West. I remember an international human rights conference at the beginning of September. US Secretary of State, James Baker, and other foreign ministers were there, and it was funny to see how Baker interrupted his conversation with Gorbachev because Yeltsin was more important. He was out of the picture and he knew it.
On December 25th 1991, after the independence referendum in Ukraine and Yeltsin’s signing of the Belavezha Accords, Gorbachev delivered a TV address in which he announced he was stepping down. Soon afterwards, I took a walk into Red Square to witness the lowering of the red flag and the raising of the new Russian one. I was extremely surprised to see almost no one there. There was neither the feeling of tragedy nor triumph; there wasn't even curiosity.
At the beginning of 1992, Ryszard Kapuściński stayed in my flat. We met our friend Irina Schatunovska, a staunch democrat and deputy editor-in-chief of the journal Latinskaia Amierika. She came to us saying, “Look what’s going on here! I can’t even go to see my family in Latvia now. I have to apply for a visa!”
I told her, “Irina, it's an independent country,” to which she replied, “I don’t want that. How is that possible? My family lives there and I have to apply for a visa?”
It was only then that the Russians began to realize what was really happening. When we saw how the events later unfolded, with the red and brown oppositions against Yeltsin, we could then see it was, in fact, a continuation of the whole process.
Sławomir Popowski is a lecturer at the Melchior Wańkowicz College of Journalism and a board member of the Central and Eastern European Media Centre Foundation. Since July 2008, he has been a member of Studio Opinii. Between 1985 and 1990 he was the Moscow correspondent of the Polish Press Agency and later a correspondent in Moscow for the daily Rzeczpospolita. He is an editor of the Polish bi-monthly Nowa Europa Wschodnia.
Translated by Bogdan Potok
An interview with Aleksander Kwaśniewski, former President of Poland
NOWA EUROPA WSCHODNIA: What are today’s goals of our neighbours: Moscow, Kiev, Minsk? And how does the Polish foreign policy relate to them?
ALEKSANDER KWAŚNIEWSKI: Today there is no common denominator between Russian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian policies.
Let us start with Russia. It is leaving a period of disorganization which was caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet Union divided the public opinion in the West and in the East. In Poland, it is interpreted as cementing the road to freedom. While for many Russians, it was, as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin put it, the “biggest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”. Russia’s political elites, and certainly Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev have been focusing on integrating the country for Russia to play an important role in the world again. The Russians know returning to the position of a superpower is not possible, but they believe in the possibility of becoming an important player in global politics. Their country has nuclear power, petroleum and natural gas resources, and the largest territory in the world. Moreover, in many cases, Russia’s voice is still quite important – for example in the case of the Middle East, Iran or Afghanistan.
In wanting to rebuild the position of a global player, Russians are trying to reach an agreement with three key actors on the international arena: the United States, China, and the European Union. To break the impasse, the Russians are taking some actions which are not very typical of them – for example they have been attempting to improve their relations with Eastern and Central European countries, including Poland.
Another issue is the modernization of the country. Many Russians rightly regard this as a necessity and a matter of key importance. Russia cannot build a global position by only counting on high prices of petroleum and natural gas, or the nuclear arsenal, which is of much less meaning than it was in the past, which is both a sign of power but also of a problem – what to do with these thousands of kilometres in Siberia? Others, while talking about modernization, refer to an old saying: “our intentions were good, but the result is the same”. There are also those who claim that the modernization program is like a smoke screen, a slogan aimed at depicting the elites as correctly recognizing the country’s situation.
A nostalgia for the position that is “more than just a player” on the global arena, in fact a sentiment for imperial status, is quite noticeable in certain political circles, but also in some of state institutions. However, this could be explained as the change of mentality being much slower and more difficult than that of political programs.
Nonetheless, if the Russians are really seriously thinking about rebuilding the grandeur of their country, then they should be aware that the arguments that they are using today will play a smaller role. That is why only modernization can be their ticket to the future, and this one is closely related to the cooperation with the West. In the long-term, the condition and an effect of Russia’s modernization will be westernization, meaning closer relations with both the European Union and the United States, although this does not automatically include membership in NATO.
Time for the Ukraine...
In the Ukraine, the politics are more stable than one would expect after the stormy twenty years of an independent Ukraine. It all started with an unexpected upheaval for Ukraine’s independence – it happened, which is important, through a national referendum, in which almost 90 percent of the Ukrainians voted for independence. Later, we saw the period of Leonid Kuchma and the policy of balance between the East and the West. Then, the Orange Revolution took place and pro-Western declarations of Victor Yushchenko’s government. In the end, Victor Yanukovych returned to power as a seemingly lost politician.
Nonetheless the principal goal, and the foundation, of Ukrainian politics throughout this whole period was to strengthen the country’s independence. In the Ukraine, independence is something unquestionable even by tough Russians, who wanted to do so. The second element of the Ukrainian strategy seeks a balance between Russia and the West. This is understandable given the Ukraine’s history and cultural and economic relations. The Ukrainians would prefer to be in the European Union and, at the same time, not lose relations with Russia, or they would like to have the best possible relations with Russia and, at the same time, be as close as possible with the European Union – which option prevails depends on who is power, yet the overall principle is to balance these influences. However, much also depends on the signals that are reaching Kiev: if Brussels is sending warm and clear messages, there is progress in talks between the Ukraine and the EU, and vice versa.
How realistic are the once postulated – also in Poland – that the Ukraine should become a member of the EU and NATO?
The majority of the Ukrainians want their country to join the EU, but the majority are also against membership in NATO. Paradoxically, should Russia in the modernization scenario decide to shutdown relations with NATO, then the issue of the Ukraine’s membership in this Alliance will cease to be a problem. But in the near future, the Ukraine will be implementing the scenario which is associated with Lenin’s road: one step forward, two steps back. The Ukraine will, hence, be getting closer to the EU, but will remain passive when it comes to NATO. It will be also building close relations with Russia.
Finally Belarus – quite a different topic?
Yes, because we evaluate it through the prism of dictatorship. Hence, the question should be: what is the plan of Alexander Lukashenko? And this is clear: he only wants to stay in power. I do not know if he too has been affected by the illness that affects all dictators and also believes that his only successor is his son? However, this would suggest a complete disconnect with reality.
Recently the regimes of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunesia and Muhammad Hosni Sayyid Mubarak in Egypt collapsed. It will be interesting whether Lukashenko has drawn any conclusions from these events? He is an effective dictator with still quite a significant social support, but, like all dictators, is encountering an increased social resistance and succession, which in a democratic country is resolved by elections.
That is why Belarus’ partners find themselves on shaky ground about how to cooperate with this country to avoid isolation and harming the society but, at the same time, not to legitimize Lukashenko’s government. Also the Russians have a problem with Belarus. It is not true that Lukashenko is an easy partner for Moscow. It cannot be an easy partner as he is unpredictable. For Europe, relations with Belarus are even more difficult because we have values, which are respected by all democratically-elected governments of the Western world.
When the regime frauds elections and suppresses protests, the price is paid also by those politicians who rightly decided to give the politics of sanctions for the politics based on dialogue – those who would travel to Minsk to negotiate with the dictator and convince him to change the course.
You stress that Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus are three different countries and three challenges. And yet political journalists, or even the diplomats, talk about Polish Eastern policy and put together foreign policies towards Moscow, Kiev and Minsk, and sometimes even Southern Caucus. What effects could such thinking bring?
That is true. Even recently, Jarosław Bratkiewicz, the head of the Eastern Department at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, suggested in the daily Gazeta Wyborcza a turn in Poland’s foreign policy. He proposed, among others, to decrease attention paid to the Ukraine and turn more attention to Russia. This can be discussed deeper. However, it is unjust what was written about the Ukrainian weak points. Because when one considers the condition of democracy and the civil society as well as the advancement of political pluralism and freedom of the press, then the Ukraine surpasses Belarus and Russia by far. This is undoubtedly the impact of the Orange Revolution, which despite its weaknesses, gave foundation to a civil society.
Obviously, if we only use general terms and speak that Poland’s Eastern policy is focused on strengthening independence, building democratic societies, establishing networks of relations between these countries and the European Union, then we can put them all together. This is all because such should be the main idea of our policy towards this territory.
The only thing is that such an answer means very little given the differences between these countries. Of an entirely different quality is Moldova, a country full of external and internal problems, which cannot be put together in the same concept of “Eastern policy”. The problem of Transnistria remains unsolved, the economic situation is dramatic, and Romania expects that one day both countries will be united into one.
A similar situation is with the Caucus: Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan are all different countries. Each has its own strong and weak points. Azerbaijan has petroleum resources, Armenia close relations with Russia, Georgia has passed successful reforms and lost – due to its own fault – a war, as a result of which it lost two of its provinces.
Should such generalizations of an “Eastern policy” be heard from the Portuguese or the Spaniards, one could forgive them easily. Yet, Poland should have a more sophisticated and competent policy approach in this area. Who – if not us – should be an expert within the European Union on this issue?
For the same reasons, it should be the policy towards Eastern Europe that should become the leading idea of the oncoming Polish presidency in the EU. We should not take the role of a mentor, but rather a friend or good neighbour who is willing to help but – at the same time – not hesitant when there is a need to point something out. Hence, the term “Poland’s Eastern policy” can be used, but the policy itself has to be diverse.
What should be the basis of this diversification of the objectives and methods of Poland’s policy towards Moscow, Kiev, and Minsk? For example, when is it better to act directly, using bilateral contacts, and when is it better to act indirectly, with Brussels as an intermediary?
It should be our goal to push our way of thinking about policies in the regions to such an extent as it would be recognized as one of the elements of common European policy.
This can cause some problems.
In general, the European Union has problems with establishing common policy. The attitude towards Eastern Europe is different depending on the member country. In many countries, binding “Eastern policy” be heard from the Por- is the rule on unconditional priority for Russian policy. Everything that is taking place in Eastern Europe is perceived through the prism of what the Russians will say about this.
The rule Russia first is strong in Germany, France, and Italy. Slightly differentare British-Russian relations, but nonetheless, these are the four most important states from the first six important European states. Luckily, in Scandinavia, these relations are weaker than before.
Poland’s great contribution was involving the European Union in the Ukraine’s affairs at the time of the Orange Revolution. The mediation was led by Javier Solana and the Ukraine was not treated as a peripheral problem but an issue of key importance for the future of Europe.
Aren’t you disappointed by how the situation developed in the Ukraine? On a strictly personal level – when you reflect on how involved you were in the mediation during the Orange Revolution.
Sadly, I have to admit that five years of Victor Yushchenko’s presidency did not bring the Ukraine to Europe. And there was a chance to agree on a timetable for the EU accession. Now this is much more difficult due to the global crisis.
What can be regarded as a big success of Poland’s Eastern policy?
First, was our contribution in solving of the Ukrainian crisis. Second, the EU endorsement of the Eastern Partnership – despite many doubts whether this program works or not.
It is important that we manage to create this programme and involve Sweden, a strong Northern European country. With all due respect, but it is for the better that it was not only a Polish-Slovak or Polish-Romanian initiative. In that case, its importance would be much smaller.
But you, yourself, mentioned the doubts whether the Partnership really works.
Yes, because there is a need for new stimulation and ideas. Especially because the moment is threatening: today the EU is concentrated on itself. There are leadership problems because neither Catherine Ashton nor Jose Manuel Barroso are political strategists, especially in Eastern policy. Without our actions, the overlapping of these factors will cause that the aspirations and interests of Eastern Europe will be marginalized.
Does this mean that the hopes put into Poland’s presidency in the European Union and potential strengthening of the Eastern Partnership are exaggerated?
The thing about hopes is that they are only hopes. But of course, during Poland’s presidency we cannot give up this issue.
Our presidency can find itself in a dramatic situation if the domino effect takes place in the Arab world and after Egypt or Libya new crises emerge. Then Europe’s attention will be directed towards the Near East and Northern Africa, the knowledge of such issues is not Poland’s strongest point.
The faster the situation in the Near East stabilizes itself, the better. Then we will be able to focus on the Eastern Partnership.
The Eastern Partnership is often viewed as an anti-Russian project. The base of this opinion is the fact that Moscow has not been invited to join it. Is it possible to combat, and if yes how, the stereotype that supporting the Ukraine and Belarus is an anti-Russian action?
It is enough to compare the actions undertaken by the European Union together with Russia – for example in the economic sphere – with those that it is involved in with the countries of the Eastern Partnership. Then one quickly realizes that there is nothing to discuss. The difference in scale is enormous– naturally to Russia’s advantage.
Yes, our intervention and help during the Ukrainian crisis was regarded as an anti-Russian action. Putin scolded me for this, but this is something not to be worried about as it is an internally-oriented rhetoric.
One could just answer back saying that for Russia all the roads to cooperation with the EU are open. What is more, the climate towards Russia is currently very good – much better than towards the Ukraine or Belarus, with whom a serious dialogue is not being undertaken.
Those who claim that such initiatives are anti-Russian are, in essence, the supporters of an imperial aspiration. Such theses are put forward by some of the Russian politicians, who are convinced that the division line in Europe will no longer be on the Oder River but somewhere along the Bug River. Then we would have, on the one side, the European Union, organized according to its principles and some sort of trade or political community, built in the East.
But today, when the Russians themselves talk about modernization, their chances merely depend on the EU and not on building a new Empire, or even a soft sphere of economic cooperation. In fact, the Ukrainians have the same modernization problem as the Russians do: they need to modernize their industry, technology and sales markets. What can they offer to each other? They are multiplying problems, because even when they sit down together at the same table in order to discuss the problems of developmental delays, they can, at most, start crying over how much they lack. To find a way out in the area of fast trains or poor road conditions, they should start talking to the French or the Germans.
When in the late 1990s Polish-Russian relations became much colder you were explaining them with two reasons. Moscow and its elites were supposed to be frustrated by the fact that Poland had left their sphere of influence and became independent, and, in addition, joined NATO, which was considered treason. Today, is such thinking considered invalid among Russian elites?
Among some of the elites it is still valid. Nonetheless in real politics, and Putin without a doubt is a man of real politics, only facts have to be considered. And the facts say that our part of Europe is already on the other side. We are members of NATO and the EU, and this is an unchangeable process.
The Russians still argue that the frustration related to the NATO expansion is related to the breaking of the word by the West. Well, at the time of the German unification it was promised to Mikhail Gorbachev that the former East Germany will be the last territory, which will be included in the North Atlantic Alliance.
There is a simple answer to that: the West had an agreement with the USSR, but the USSR has not existed since 1991. But, of course, for many Russian’s the membership in NATO of Eastern European and Baltic countries was quite traumatic. The difference is that today the dimension of global security has changed so much that new solutions need to be found. NATO enlargement was a form of counteraction to the Cold War period and an attempt to build a new power order after the 1989 revolution. Today, we are in 2011, with the threat of terrorism, the difficult situation in Afghanistan and a necessity of cooperation between NATO and Russia. That is why this topic is no longer so hot.
The sentiment towards the Ukraine seems to be more serious. It is difficult for the Russians to accept its difference. One Russian journalist was explaining to me that for Russians there are two things that are difficult to understand. The fact that Crimea, where he used to go for vacation as a child and a Russian pioneer, is no longer Russian, but this is something he could live with. Worse, the Russians have to also accept the fact that Dinamo Kiev, a long-time hero of the USSR in soccer and the beloved team of all Soviet fans, is no longer his team, but a foreign one.
The case in question: the change of mentality is not an easy thing. It would be interesting to test the perception of the Ukraine’s independence among young Russians and Ukrainians, but those who were born after the referendum and in their lives experienced only independent Ukraine. I suppose that in this group there are no more problems of acceptance. But those who were supporting Dinamo Kiev will always have them.
You have had a chance to get to know the most important of politicians of our Eastern neighbours. Would you be willing to play along and prepare a list for our Ministry of Foreign Affairs with their profiles? Who should we talk to over there?
While absolute honesty would not be diplomatic, we can give it a try...
...without a doubt a person of a great talent. It is enough to remember that while starting his career he had no position – he was only a part of an apparatus. First, he was around Anatoly Sobchak in Leningrad, and later Boris Yeltsin. It took only eleven years for him to develop and spread out his influence. At the same time he accomplished something that the majority of his citizens were waiting for: he led the country from mess to order. And the order is important in a country, even if it is painful or far from democratic ideals. Putin stopped these disintegrating processes, which the Russians are constantly afraid of.
His bet on the power structures, including the KGB, army, administration and diplomacy, was a success. By consolidating power, he consolidated the state.
He combines two features that are to his advantage. On the one hand, he is professional. As a KGB graduate he knows how to reach information and play people in a psychological way. Especially during private meetings he shows his charm, although, most likely, he is using his skills to achieve that. For example, he sells his interlocutor interesting, not to say confidential, information. By doing so, he is sending a message: if I am telling you that, if I am introducing you to some secret streets of our internal politics, that means I trust you. By doing so, I am building a connection. He can be charming, but is also good at playing a game. Many people have been taken by his charm, including Gerhard Schröder or some of the American politicians.
He can also leave the routine behind. For the Russian leaders it was unimaginable to build an attractive media image in the country and the world. Maybe some of them are quietly laughing at the pilot uniform or Formula One driver uniforms, but part of the public is impressed by it. Because it is showing a politician as a risk-taker, a person distant from all the stiffness of the civil service.
What is also important is that right now Putin has eleven years of governing a big country behind him – first as the President, now as a Prime Minister. In countries, in which politicians make careers by wining elections, they rarely stay in power for so long. In this sense, Putin today is a veteran. And because he is meeting the Russians’ expectations, he still has a strong position in any election. Hence, Putin is one of the politicians who should be treated seriously. That is it was a mistake for the Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, in the aftermath of the tragic plane crash in Smolensk not to follow Putin’s suit who nominated himself to be the head of the commission investigating the accident. It would probably not help much in investigating the case, but it would help the Polish Prime Minister to understand the thinking of the Russian politician.
...I had a few opportunities to meet with him, but it was all short, diplomatic talks. Without a doubt he is very different than Putin. Medvedev is a child of an academic family. A graduate of law. This is a completely different background than KGB – even his professors were inflicting on him a very strict approach to law.
I remember a speech by Medvedev’s in the beginning of his presidency...While speaking about what Russia needs, he discussed the state of law as legal nihilism. I was surprised because in diplomatic language nobody uses such phrases. Medvedev understands the need for changes and modernization, but he lacks instruments, personal power, and support from people who surround him, to do it. That is why through the period of his presidency he has not managed to push too many projects.
The key question is: what strategy will both gentlemen take in the oncoming months? Because the most important events – that is elections – will take place in 2012. Will this duo stay?
This is hard to predict. For the moment this tandem is working quite effectively, although at times there are some problems. Regardless of everything, the style of the campaign will be a testimony to the state of Russia’s democracy and changes.
For Polish diplomacy of great importance is Sergey Lavrov...
He is an old school Soviet, with wonderful language skills, with experience, and elegance. A difficult partner, For Lavrov the only priority is Russia’s interests, and the dialogue as much as it is needed to achieve a goal. There are many people like him in Russia’s power structure, although there are also different schools and styles of work among the elites.
Altogether, it is a general impression of a strong, mature, with decisive politics. Everybody who works with the Russians are of this impression even when unaware of the nuances existing in the power structures. What matters: Russian politicians may not be able to do everything they want – like for example the Chinese – but for sure their actions are not so constrained by democratic procedures as the majority of their European partners. And they know how to take advantage of it.
They are also quite skilful in creating an image of their country in the world. And that is on many levels. The issue in question is making an image that Russia is participating in all important events. They were very eager on organizing the winter Olympic Games in Sochi, that is on the Black Sea coast, which seems like some craziness and which will require huge effort. In 2018 they will host the World Cup in soccer, another prestigious event.
And now is the time for the Ukrainian politicians, whom you know so well.
President Yanukovich, who deserves respect for one reason: he lost elections, was accused of fraud, which in fact took place, and later came back to politics. Not many politicians would mentally survive such a hit and humiliation. Today, Yanukovich is a strong politician, he is mature and... resistant, because things cannot be worse than in 2004. What is important in building inter-state relations: the current president is a man of concrete actions. He respects decisions already made and signed agreements. There are some problems with him while negotiating on some issues, but once an agreement is reached one can be sure that it will be implemented.
This is something that his predecessor had some problems with. Victor Yushchenko had a tendency to talk about ideals and values, with little emphasis on implementation.
I also remember numerous meetings with Yushchenko along with the Prime Minister at the time – Julia Timoshenko. For maybe ten minutes we would talk about the issue itself and for about fifty minutes they would present accusations against each other. Once I could not take it any more and said to them that if they only say this in front of me, their friend, than it is not that bad. But if they say the same things to others, then it is terrible. Because when we visit a couple whom we do not know very well and right away see them fight then we try to take off as fast as we can. And we will not be willing too soon to come back to see them again. At this moment, nonetheless, we are dealing with a very pragmatic group. It has its pluses and minuses. The minus is that the sensitivity of this group towards such values as democracy, civil liberties, media freedom is much smaller. But when it comes to negotiations with the European Union and relations with Poland, the mentality of this team is favourable towards agreement and implementation of decisions.
Your relations with Alexander Lukashenko were completely different. Although you first went to Minsk trying to tame him, you and Poland became later Lukashenko’s enemy number one.
Lukashenko cannot be played down due to his experience and talent: he can keep power. But he too has his weak point: a weak political imagination. His way of thinking about the state is foreign to the one commonly accepted in Europe – and this cannot be maintained in the long-term. There are some other problems with him. Once things have been agreed on, and not necessarily in private discussions, and before the other team had a chance to return to its own country, Lukashenko would call a press conference and talk about completely different things. The relationship with Lukashenko is more difficult due to the way in which he treats opposition, the media, non-governmental organizations, or ethnic minorities. I remember when we agreed on a meeting with the Belarusian opposition in the Belavezha Forest. And suddenly the cars could not find the way to get there...
The proof of great powerlessness is the fact that the dictator presents his little son as his successor.
But later the road you paved in relations with Lukashenko was, in a sense, followed by Minister Radek Sikorski. He also wanted to civilise him and also become, together with Poland, his enemy number one.
An initiative for a trip to Minsk together with Guido Westerwelle was a good idea. What was naïve was the belief that Polish and German ministers will convince Lukashenko to organise democratic elections and to have him lose in them. Yet such a stick and carrot strategy makes sense. What was most surprising was the fact that these elections were different from the previous ones: they were preceded by some elements of a campaign. And the fact that after the elections Lukashenko decided to break the opposition groups was a result of the not-so groundless fear that if he did not stop the manifestation, the gathered crowds could bring about the Ukrainian effect.
The phenomenon of the 21st century is the fact that it is almost impossible – anywhere – to quietly and by surprise stop an anti-regime demonstration. The media will always find their way and spread the news about the revolution.
And yet the opposition ended up in prison. How, do you think, should Europe, including Poland, address this problem?
Be consistent. The worst thing is bouncing from wall to wall. Minister Sikorski started to nervously back out from the earlier initiatives. The result of this was the opinions that should not come from the Minister of Foreign Affairs. For example, Lukashenko can keep the plane with engines running at the airport.
A proper reaction to the events of December 19th 2010 should be a retort. For example, a visa freeze for Belarusian elites. But contacts with Belarus need to be maintained, although the dialogue has to have a clear message. For example, you can receive aid from European banks, if you fulfil our requirements.
Is there anything that can be particularly recommended for Eastern policy? Mieczysław Wachowski, a Polish politician, would probably appreciate the role of a strong head of state – it is for that reason that Boris Yeltsin promised once Lech Wałęsa to withdraw Russian troops from Poland. You once talked about the importance of patience in talks with neighbours.
Today a strong and powerful head of state is not that important. The style of the inter-state visits has changed: in Russia and the Ukraine the social part of these visits became almost ascetic.
Most importantly, to have an effective Eastern policy, politicians need to be active. Their work cannot be limited to routine visits once or twice a year. Even if the political calendar does not provide many opportunities for meetings, initiatives to organize such meetings should be made. In diplomacy this is nothing new: German-French relations were built in such a way. There are working visits, unveiling of monuments, opening ceremonies. It is also good to be active in social policy. And then sometimes quantity can change into quality.
That is why we need patience, especially given the size of these countries and the scale of the problems, many of the processes need time.
Finally, competence can be a trump – in Eastern policy Poles have an advantage over the British or the French. And this is not due to the better understanding of the Eastern mentality but an experience of going through a political and economic transformation.
One needs to realise that the Eastern policy is not only a game in the East. It requires an equal engagement and professionalism during the meetings in the West. Of course, the Ukrainians should be advised to change their political, economic and legal standards, but, at the same time, those in the West should also be explained why the East matters. Because it can turn out that one day the East will start meeting those dreamt of standards and nobody in the West will notice. Today the memory of expanding the European space is badly perceived even during open public discussions. The warmest reaction is: give us more time, which means leave us alone.
What role in the foreign policy is played by the domestic opposition? For example: the Polish rhetoric surrounding the 2010 plane crash in Russia in which 96 passengers were killed, including Poland’s President and his wife.
Th is is a clear strategy of building an electoral foundation for a hatred-based attitude to Russia. In this case no speeches to Russians will help, nor talks that we can talk to this nation but not its government. In politics, we talk – above all – with politicians.
Fortunately, Poland’s relations with Russia will be, more and more, established with the EU as an intermediary. Hence, the actions of the domestic opposition will be of less importance. The proof of
this tendency is the first improving of relations, even before the plane crash. Gestures at Westerplatte or in Katyń were the results of the West’s pressure on Russia to finally reach agreement on these issues, which are sensitive for the Poles.
But also Poland itself cannot have a worldwide opinion of being a Russophobe. One cannot isolate itself from Russia: good relations with Russia are desired by the Germans and the French. Poles, too, need to do that.
Especially, Russia has marvellous diplomacy. They have 28 different relations in the European Union, out of which 27 are bilateral relations and one with Brussels. And calling on Russia to admit an attack on the plane or creating an artificial fog should be silenced as soon as possible. There was no attack.
Similarly, Belarus is becoming, more and more, the subject of EU policy. Poland should yet always make sure that the interest of the Polish minority are included as well as the well-being of a few thousand Polish citizens who have invested economically in business with the Belarusian firms or make a living through cross-boarder trade. Especially economic relations, support for non-governmental organizations, cultural exchange and increasing tourism strengthens civic society, that is Lukashenko’s opposition.
Two Polish political parties, Law and Justice and the Alliance of the Democratic Left, have proved helpful in relations with the Ukraine. In Poland, there is a general consensus that the Ukraine, of course not uncritically, has to be supported. Paradoxically, the greatest doubts in this area have come from the government structures. And yet, the policy towards the Ukraine needs more involvement. Of course, Prime Minister Donald Tusk could have been tired of the situation with Julia Timoshenko, when Poland was putting forward many proposals, and the reaction from the Ukrainians was always the same. But now we have a new situation: four years of the Blue government. They have a democratic mandate and plenty opportunity to show their strengths: a majority government, a pragmatic and experienced president, opportunities to negotiate with Brussels and better than their predecessors ratings in public opinion polls. Now we are waiting for some results – at least in a form of a serious association agreement with the EU.
Should Poland’s policy towards the East be idealistic or pragmatic?
As everything in Poland: mixed. An idea to organise EURO 2012 by Poland and the Ukraine was an idealistic one, but today it looks very pragmatic. This is the first Cup organized by one country which is part of Schengen and one country that is not.
We need to combine beautiful visions with pragmatic solutions. If twenty years ago somebody had said that we would be discussing whether the Ukraine should be in the EU and how should it be modernized, we would not have believed it. And this is happening. If so many things have changed so fast, that means that in the oncoming years we can change even more.
Aleksander Kwaśniewski is a Polish politician. In the years 1991-1995 he was a member of the Alliance of the Democratic Left. From 1995 to 2005 he served as the President of the Republic of Poland. In 2004, he took the role of a mediator during the political crisis in the Ukraine, which was followed by the Orange Revolution.
Nie możemy być rusofobami z prezydentem Aleksandrem Kwaśniewskim rozmawiają Małgorzata Nocuń i Krzysztof Burnetko // Nowa Europa Wschodnia, 3 (XVII) 2011.