The Intermarium strategy was developed in Poland as a political doctrine at the turn of the 20th century. It was an attempt to answer the general question on how to rebuild a sovereign Polish state and how to secure its future. The concept was innovative even if the purpose was not. The Poles alone, and Poland as a sole actor, wouldn’t be able to achieve such a goal. Poland’s enemies, especially Russia, were considered the main obstacle to independence and excessively powerful. The authors of the Intermarium strategy, Józef Piłsudski and his closest associates of the Polish Socialist Party, discovered the potential of nationalistic aspirations of other nations living within the Russian state. The idea was simple: to initiate a national revolt in a suitable moment and split Russia along national divisions. In such a way both major Polish goals would be fulfilled: independence and a secure future. Russia, if pushed from Europe and stripped of its conquest, would be annihilated as an empire and no longer pose a threat to the newly established states.
The first opportunity to turn Intermarium strategy into reality appeared at the outbreak of the war between Russia and Japan in 1904. Piłsudski submitted his political study and idea to the Japanese ministry of foreign affairs. But the Japanese did not take that proposal seriously. The second opportunity emerged at the end of the First World War, which left Poland’s partitioners (Russia, Germany and Austria) defeated. Russia was additionally crippled by the revolution and civil war. Piłsudski wanted to create a chain of sovereign nation states from the Baltic Sea up to the Black Sea including Poland, Lithuania (heirs of the Grand Duchy in its 18th century borders), Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia and some countries in the Caucasus. All these nations working together within a political bloc were supposed to fundamentally transform Eastern Europe and bring a new strategic balance not only to the region, but also to the whole Europe. It is evident that the Intermarium project was directed against Russian power. Such a bloc would also prevent Germany from rebuilding its imperial might in Europe. Finally, newly established countries would become good allies to the Western European powers.
For achieving his goal Piłsudski needed two preconditions: complete military defeat of Russia and deep co-operation of the nations involved in the project. Neither came into place. The Riga Peace Treaty (1921) was a disaster for the Intermarium concept. It sanctioned a de facto partition of Ukraine and Belarus between Russia and Poland as well as ruined the relations of Poland with the other countries in the region. No nation was willing at that time to recognise Polish political aspirations nor were they willing to replace one colonial power for another; all of the neighbors were afraid of Polish domination. Additionally, the West treated Polish ambitions and activities as unjustified expansion to the East. Russia, on the other hand, was humiliated by the war with Poland and abandoned by the old entente allies. It started to look for new friends, such as Germany. The alliance was profitable for both sides. However, this change of international balance was achieved at the expense of all the nations settled between Germany and Russia. The new war broke out in 1939 and after five terrible years Germany was defeated, but the Soviet Union celebrated victory. The Yalta agreement allowed the USSR to swallow the whole disputed region in its direct and indirect sphere of influences.
In the post-war era, Intermarium was deeply buried and censored. Outside of the region it was cultivated by Polish exiles, for instance by Jerzy Giedroyć and his magazine Kultura. Giedroyć once stated: “There can be no free Poland without free Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine.” What was important here was that Giedroyć abandoned the concept of Poland in its historic, Jagiellonian borders and stressed the value of equal co-operation among partners in every respect. In such a way he addressed the Eastern European nations’ pre-war fears of Polish domination.
This stance was supported and repeated by the Polish democratic opposition, which matured in the 1970s. In September 1981 the First National Conference of the Delegates of NSZZ “Solidarność” prepared a “Message to the working people of Eastern Europe”repeating Giedroyć’s position. The communist regimes were furious. The Soviet government treated the message as unauthorized interference into state policy. The Intermarium concept was still treated as a danger to Soviet rule over the region.
One could believe that after the dreams of many people in the region were realized and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Intermarium project would have been reintroduced. However the majority had another dream: to make a geopolitical shift from the East to the West. The first step was gaining independence from the Soviet Union through the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. In this action all the countries of the region were loyal and supportive to each other. However, when it came to the negotiations with NATO and the European Union, solidarity disappeared. Nations were lodging separate applications; there was constant competition and individual negotiations. The weakness of the Intermarium was laid bare. It consisted in the differences between the goals of the potential partners. Whenever it came to deciding between solidarity and individual benefits, the latter always won – also within Visѐgrad Group. If the countries of a similar level of development were not able to reach any vital agreement, what can be said about the post-Soviet dependents like Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and others?
Nevertheless, Intermarium existed as a slogan, especially in Poland, to which right-wing politicians frequently referred in their speeches. For instance, this could be visible in the parliamentary debates after the annual address by the minister of foreign affairs. One may ask: What was the reason for such empathy? That might not be solely the attachment to the tradition and glorious history, though this element should also be considered. Paraphrasing US President Donald Trump's slogan, the Polish right was still attracted by the idea of “making Poland big again”. But how? They neither favoured sticking to the mainstream, nor promoting close co-operation with the most developed EU countries.
The answer could be seen in the parliamentary debate of 2013. Witold Waszczykowski who was then a deputy to the parliament stressed the need to “regain the role as spokesman of the region” and “rebuild the autonomous region, e.g. Carpathian”. His colleague Arkadiusz Mularczyk added that Poland should become a leader and a representative of Eastern and Central Europe within the EU. Thus, the essential role foreseen for Poland was to build its position by being a leader of an autonomous region. The will of some politicians is not always easily transformed into real action, however. And it certanily is not so easy to become the leader of a regional group.
When a new idea, the so-called Three Seas Initiative, appeared in 2015 and was followed by two summits (first in Dubrovnik in 2016 and second in Warsaw in 2017), the old Polish strategies began to once again emerge. The old questions were also being re-formulated: Does Poland still aspire to play the role of regional leader and want to use the newest initiative for its own purposes? What is the real reason for the 12 countries of Central and Eastern Europe, all members of the EU, to unite around some common goals?
While listening to the Polish politicians involved, or President Andrzej Duda and his advisors, or the Polish minister of foreign affairs, the general idea of the initiative seems to have an economic character. It aims to boost infrastructural developments, energy security, communication and transportation. The Joint Dubrovnik Statement emphasises “the importance of connecting Central and Eastern European economies and infrastructure from North to South, in order to complete the single European market, given that so far, most efforts served to connect Europe’s East and West”.
However, these words and explanations do not seem to reduce the old fears. The statements by Czech and Slovak policymakers and analysts oppose Polish aspirations for leadership, especially when the latter are linked with anti-German and anti-EU rhetoric, recently visible in Polish politics and carefully observed in Europe. Süddeutsche Zeitung, a very influential German newspaper, called this idea an old Polish geopolitical dream – a tool which aims at the decomposition of Europe; a tool discovered by authoritarian regimes. Some European politicians question American involvement in the initiative, at the moment the two continents compete more than co-operate. Others reveal the intention to “punish” ungrateful countries of Eastern Europe for their self-centred arrogance. Some are looking at Russia which struggles to set at variance as many states as possible. There is much confusion.
Nobody can easily predict the future developments of the Three Seas Initiative. If it helps with economic development then all parties will benefit. If there are some hidden geopolitical ambitions, then this will become known very soon. Some generalities should be highlighted separately. The Russian factor is not any more a point of reference in the initiative. Ukraine and other post-Soviet states are left out. Many partner countries are still afraid of Polish ambitions. Moreover, they would not accept any developments which threaten their positions inside the EU. Finally, there is no money and structures for boosting the activities of the 12 states. Nevertheless, co-operation has never been easy in this part of the world.
Daria Nałęcz is a professor at Lazarski University and ahistorian specialising in the modern history of Poland and Polish-Russian relations. She was the general director of the State Archives (1996-2006) and a deputy minister of science and higher education (2012-2015).
This text is part of the series titled: “Intermarium in the 21st century” based on the conference held on July 6-7 2017, Lazarski University in Warsaw.