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Renewing the promise of European solidarity

The war in Ukraine reminds us that the peaceful civic revolutions of 1989-91 have not yet been completed. Today Vladimir Putin is once again trying to stop Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity and reverse its dynamics. He is also the co-creator of a new nationalistic populism in Europe and the United States. The main goal of this movement is to destroy civic culture and solidarity among people.

When we ask Europeans what comes to their mind when they think of the word solidarity, we see that their answer today differs compared to what it was before February 24th 2022. Many will probably say that for them solidarity means support for the democratic Ukrainian society that is being attacked by Putinist Russia. Among the answers there might be justified opinions that the Russian political system has become fascist. The war in Ukraine is the next step in Russia’s authoritarian radicalisation, which translates into increased violence and aggression against its neighbours, but also against the Russian society. All dissent is brutally crushed there.

February 16, 2023 - Basil Kerski - Hot TopicsIssue 1-2 2023Magazine

Photo: Robson90 / Shutterstock

From today’s perspective we can thus see the important role that was played in the preparation for the invasion by the policy of eliminating any critics of the authorities. It led to the murder of Boris Nemtsov, the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexey Navalny and the de-legalisation of Memorial and Novaya Gazeta.

European integration as an expression of solidarity

Today solidarity is a concept which reflects the many needs and dimensions of human life. Interpersonal solidarity is of central importance here, which – in our everyday life – means solidarity with people whom we know: family, friends or neighbours. The public dimension of solidarity is linked to the functioning of nation-states which need to have well-functioning systems of security, public education, healthcare, social justice, environmental protection, and freedoms of speech and expression. We cannot thus talk about solidarity within a nation state without the rule of law, respect for minority rights and pluralism. Solidarity cannot be the privilege of a majority. And, solidarity presented as a privilege of one group, be it ethnic or religious – or that of the authorities – is in fact a dangerous promise offered only by nationalistic populists.

Solidarity without an international dimension is an empty and incomplete idea. Without solidarity among nations, there is no peace, no ground for development or no economic opportunities. This kind of solidarity also counteracts nationalisms and authoritarianisms. In Europe the experience of solidarity also includes the knowledge that egoisms, xenophobia, racism, religious fanaticism, nationalism and authoritarianism have always led us to wars. European integration was our answer to the two world wars. It became the embodiment of the idea of solidarity and is found on many levels of public life: from the lowest, local and regional levels, to the national and inter-state level. Solidarity, as it is embodied throughout the European project, is in fact an attempt to build an open society in all of its dimensions.

This process had two sources and unfolded in two waves. First the Western European integration was an expression of the reconciliation between the Germans and French, Italians, and the Benelux nations, as well as the Brits, which took place in the first decades of the post-war period. The democratisation of Southern Europe which took place in the 1970s only made the western community of democratic states stronger. The continent was then consolidated by the young democracies from the Iberian Peninsula and Greece, which at that time freed themselves from military dictatorship. The second element of European integration was the Polish Solidarity revolution and other Central and Eastern European civic revolutions which in the years 1989-91 led to the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the Warsaw Pact. We cannot forget here about the revolutions of the nations that were trapped in the Soviet Union and which not only fought for their independence but also human rights and democracy.

After the Second World War France lost its position as a colonial power. Yet thanks to  European integration it kept its influence in European and world affairs. Germany would not be reunited nor get support for this process if it were not part of European integration. The EU became a tool of control for a united Germany but also allowed it to grow more prosperous and politically influential. German reunification, as an element of the integration process, was also the vision of the Polish democratic opposition in the 1980s. This vision of solving the post-war divisions of Germany was also to cause a geopolitical revolution which allowed Poland to return to the West. That is why also for us, the Poles, our full sovereignty and consolidation is owed to European integration. We recognise the value of this accomplishment especially today as we see the situation in non-EU states, such as Ukraine and the damage that Moscow’s imperial policy is doing there.

Democracy, the greatest threat to autocrats

Today, we can also clearly see that Vladimir Putin is not only scared of crossing the NATO border – even though he could do it and start a conflict with the Baltic states, for example – but also that he faces a mental blockade when it comes to crossing the EU border. That is why the security challenge of today is not only to protect national borders. To counteract the threat from Russia, democratic Europe needs to be a community that is economically and technologically strong. This in turn can help offset China and other economically competitive and technologically advancing authoritarian states. Only a strong EU can ensure that Europeans are safe from Chinese imperialism, which supports the Russian aggression in Ukraine, and neutralises pro-democracy movements in Asia and Africa through its economic integration model linked with authoritarian political systems.

The vision of the European Union as an antidote to authoritarian global power should be more stressed in Polish thinking about security. In this conflict NATO alone is not enough. Democratic European states as well as those that are NATO members should rethink their economic and technological potential. We also have to work towards becoming independent from Chinese technologies. We have made the same mistake with regards to both China and Russia – we became convinced that we are the strong partner and that these two states, which serve as our energy or technology providers, are contributing to our prosperity and – in some way – also security. This was an illusion.

The concept of solidarity, as an idea defending universal human rights, our community of states and democratic societies, should also be used to limit the influence of China. It should thus include our solidarity with the civic movement in Hong Kong; as well as Taiwan which is a democratic state unrecognised by the Chinese authorities.

The democratisation of Central and Eastern Europe, which took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was a part of the democratisation wave that was also sweeping through South Africa, Central and South America, South Korea and Taiwan. These processes were all interconnected. In the spring of 1989 we were witnesses to the first non-violent revolution in China, which was unfortunately bloodily crushed by the communist regime on June 4th 1989, the very same day when the Polish Solidarity movement won the first partially-free elections to parliament, marking the beginning of our democratic transformation. The Chinese transformation of 1989 was brutally stopped, but its ideas remain an important element of political life in Hong Kong, Taiwan and other Asian states.

When thinking about solidarity we should imagine a few interacting platforms as there is no such thing as one-dimensional solidarity. When we are talking about Poland and its functioning as a state we have to think also about its local, regional, national and European layers. Solidarity needs to be an idea that is alive and organises life in every dimension. Just like in 1980 the Solidarity revolution in Poland meant a renewal of the functioning of the society, both in terms of local governance and the challenges that were ahead of the Polish people.

Foundation of solidarity

The war in Ukraine forced us to understand the European dimension of solidarity better. The challenge that we are faced with now is whether we transform this solidarity that we are observing in many European societies into a systemic policy for the whole of Eastern Europe. And here I am not talking solely about Ukraine, but also Belarus and its future as well as the European integration of the South Caucuses and the Western Balkans. Another important question to consider is how long will we be able to maintain our emotional ties with the Ukrainian nation? I fear that many Europeans might become accustomed to the war and will lose sensitivity and empathy and for that reason turn their backs on the Ukrainian victims. Hopefully, I am mistaken.

On the Russian side, the brutal aggression against the Ukrainian people has generated a spiral of violence which brings, on a daily basis, unimaginable war crimes. These crimes are drawing the attention of the international community towards the war and strengthen our solidarity with Ukrainians. Emotions are of key importance in politics but also for practicing solidarity. However, it is also important that they are accompanied by cultural competence, knowledge about Ukraine, Belarus and imperial Russian traditions. The gap in knowledge about Eastern European states and nations needs to be filled urgently. To do so, we need to start a lengthy educational process in this matter. We need this knowledge to counteract Moscow’s neo-imperial colonialism. And only in this way will we be able to build a stable order that is based on peace and democratisation in this part of Europe. We are obliged to do more than we have so far. We have to provide Ukraine with weapons as well as help Ukrainian refugees who stay in our countries. We have to start thinking, already now, about Ukraine’s reconstruction and how to finance it, but also about comprehensive educational programmes for all Europeans that would improve their cultural and political competence and free them from the power of old imperialisms.

The new Europe will be strong and based on solidarity if its citizens know and understand each other. We need to remember that all historic breakthroughs were accompanied by increased cultural competence and the expanding of the horizons of those who participated in them. Poland, for example, would not have regained independence after the First World War if there was no awareness that Poland is an important European nation that not only has its own language but also national culture and political traditions that include ideals of freedom and anti-imperialism. The US administration under Woodrow Wilson did not only want to see a rebuilding of the Polish state after the war, its goal was to see a modern Polish state which could serve as a counter-model to the tsarist, and later Bolshevik, Russia, as well as authoritarian Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Democratic Poland was also to become an important element in the post-war democratic order in Europe. The return of the Polish state to Europe’s map after 1918 was possible thanks to the international lobby which understood the history of Central and Eastern Europe. In 1989 the situation was similar. Poland’s escape from Moscow’s grip was possible thanks to the support it received from the political elite in the US, the UK, France, Italy and Germany, who saw the Polish people and Polish political culture as part of Europe’s democratic tradition.

Culture and knowledge are, next to emotions, another important element in building European civic culture. For the idea of solidarity to become reality it has to be transferred into systemic solutions. The climax of this process will take the form of Ukraine’s reconstruction. Today we know that in many places the destruction is total and thus there are justified voices for a new Marshall Plan for Ukraine. When thinking of such assistance we should keep in mind that the historical Marshall Plan was the result of the thinking of a wider region and never limited to one state alone. It will not be enough to help only Ukraine. We need to start thinking and drafting political solutions for the whole region, which would include the future of Belarus and the future of Moldova, which because of its solidarity with the Ukrainian people has now gained the attention of the wider world.

For our freedom and yours

The war in Ukraine reminds us that the civic revolutions of 1989-91 have not yet been completed. Putin is a dictator and a political actor whose biography illustrates just how closely connected these events are. In the 1980s Putin was a KGB officer in Dresden in East Germany. His role was to actively stop any civic revolution. His boss, General Vladimir Kryuchkov, started the putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev. Kryuchkov and Putin were both among those who wanted to stop not only the civic revolutions in Central Europe, but also the transformation of the Soviet Union that would bring it into the community of democratic states.

Today Putin, who knows his biological limitations in terms of how much time he has left, wants to reverse the effects of Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity. He did the same thing in other states and many places, both within the Russian Federation but also by attacking Georgia in 2008 or illegally annexing Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014. He is also the co-author of the bloody crackdown against the Belarusian revolution and a co-creator of the new, nationalistic, anti-solidarity populism in Europe and the United States.

The main idea of this new populism is to destroy the solidarity of civil societies, be it at the NATO or EU level. In Europe, Putin is investing in all anti-EU parties. The 1993 Maastricht Treaty prepared a foundation to deepen the European Union, to introduce a common European currency but also to expand Europe to the East. By supporting nationalistic populists within the EU, Putin is no longer fighting with European solidarity, but also eliminating the achievements of the peaceful revolutions of 1989. In this way, he has been reminding us that these revolutions have not yet been fully completed.

Today’s generation of young Europeans, who were born after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, have to face the fact that they are now defending the heritage of events they did not witness themselves. The ideas and experiences of the Solidarity revolution as well as other non-violent revolutions are very simple: without democracy there is no prosperity, nor economic or technological development. There is also no security or ecological sustainability. Only a fully democratic state and open society can nurture pro-environmental thinking, one which does not see economic prosperity as limited to one group alone. This thinking is anti-oligarchic and anti-tyranny.

Basil Kerski is the director of the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk and the editor in chief of DIALOG, a Polish-German bilingual magazine.

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