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Nothing new in the East? The Polish Orientalism

As the most powerful state on the EU and NATO’s Eastern Flank, Poland has been cast in the role of a new regional power in recent months. The country will now allegedly be able to shape developments in Eastern Europe and even farther into the East. However, Warsaw will face a serious challenge to live up to its geopolitical ambitions if it does not rethink its own Orientalism.

May 29, 2023 - Adam Balcer - Articles and Commentary

Battle between the Cossacks and the Kyrgyz as painted by Aleksander Orłowski in 1826.

Most probably the outcome of the war in Ukraine will seal the fate of Russia, Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia (all of them combined can be called “Western Eurasia”) for the next few decades. The Russian full-scale aggression against Ukraine has already experienced very serious setbacks on the front line. Russian military failures have opened up discussion on scenarios involving Russia’s defeat and consequently possible regime change, democratisation, the future of its territorial integrity, and the status of the non-Russian nations of the federation. Moreover, the conduct of the war triggered a dramatic acceleration of processes such as the decrease in Kremlin influence in the aforementioned regions and the rise of China’s leverage on Moscow. The war contributed also to a decisive strengthening of Ukraine’s status as a regional and independent power. Certainly, Ukraine could not defend itself so successfully against the Russian aggression without great western financial and military support. Poland became one of the most important supporters of Ukraine, simultaneously deepening strategic alliances with Kyiv, London and Washington. The war also caused a radical increase in Polish military spending, including a massive procurement of the most modern weapons. Consequently, the vision of Poland as an emerging regional power, which can even shape the trajectory of regions located between the EU and China, has gained huge popularity in Poland and around the world. However, Poland should hold its horses when it comes to this idea, as there are still many hurdles on the way.

Orientalism alla polacca

According to Edward Said, an American-Palestinian public intellectual, and the founder of the academic field of post-colonial studies, “orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’.” This distinction emphasises the supremacy of the Occident and the inferiority of the Orient. The very purpose of Orientalism is to take control of the Orient and take away from it any ability to speak for itself. Said maintained that negative stereotypes and prejudices ultimately determine western representations of the Orient. “Orientalising” discourse subsequently presents a diverse and variable “Oriental” reality in a thoroughly homogenous and static way. Said’s theory was rightly criticised for generalisations and oversimplifications, but on the other hand, it became the basis for post-colonial studies because it describes a real social and cultural phenomenon. The orientalism, a phenomenon widespread in Polish society, that is confirmed by opinion polls and political and intellectual elites (public discourse) may emerge as one of the most important challenges to Poland’s role as a driving force of the EU and NATO’s policies towards Western Eurasia. This orientalism concerns especially the far right and the ruling nationalist party (Law and Justice) and their electorates, but it exists, though to a lesser degree, among liberal and left parties, intellectuals and voters. A wide range of various forms of Orientalism (hard and soft, different target groups, etc.) in Poland can be witnessed upon examination. As far as Poland’s influence in Western Eurasia is concerned, the most important handicaps related to Polish Orientalism concern attitudes towards Muslims, Russians and Ukrainians.

Muslims: phobias and ignorance

Orientalism is very often intertwined with Islamophobia (a mix of fears and ignorance). Today antipathy towards Muslims is very popular in Polish public opinion and among political and intellectual elites. This is despite the fact that the presence of people of Muslim background has been increasing rapidly within Western European elites in recent years, particularly in Germany and the United Kingdom, two countries of crucial importance for the West’s policy towards Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia. Polish Islamophobia could make Warsaw’s cooperation with these countries more difficult because it may have a negative impact on Poland’s image in these countries (societies and elites).

Orientalism concerning Muslims may have an even more significant and negative impact on Polish engagement in Western Eurasia. Knowledge about the Muslim nations of Russia, the South Caucasus and Central Asia in Poland is rather limited and often based on prejudices (“wild” nomads and mountaineers, fundamentalists, etc.). If this situation merges with the negative image of Poland as an Islamophobic country, it may make cooperation with Muslim nations in the region much more difficult. Meanwhile, the importance of these nations will increase in the coming decades. The future of Russia will depend to a large degree on the status of the country’s non-Russian nations and immigrants. The first group makes up around 20 per cent of the citizens of Russia and probably their share – despite the process of Russification and the inflow of ethnic Russians – will increase because of demographic trends. Moreover, before the pandemic, immigrants originating mostly from Central Asia and Azerbaijan accounted for almost eight per cent of Russia’s population. The great majority of non-Russian nations and immigrants are made up of people of Islamic background. The trajectory of Russia will depend on the ability of these aforementioned nations to cooperate and achieve empowerment. That is to say, Russia’s transformation into a genuine federation that respects the rights of immigrants and integrates non-Russians into ruling elites at the central level, accepting both their historical memories (including experiences of Russian colonialism) and national interests. Most probably a less Russian Russia would become less imperialistic. The demographic aspect of the national question in Russia will only gain more importance in the coming decades. This is because the populations of Central Asia and Azerbaijan will considerably increase in size, while Russia’s population will decrease substantially.

Russians: Asiatic despots

Poland may also face serious obstacles in gaining the status of key player shaping western policy towards Russia. The full-scale Russian aggression against Ukraine strengthened greatly the presence of orientalist prejudices in Polish discourse on Russians. They are often presented through the prism of the “Russian soul” as despotic Asians and cruel Mongols. Russians are sometimes even defined as “genetically” doomed to be always authoritarian. Certainly, Russian political traditions are more authoritarian than democratic. However, at the same time, Russia’s modern history provides us also with examples of longer periods of partly free – according to the terminology coined by Freedom House – political systems (for instance, the most recent governments between 1989 and 2003). Liberalisation in Russia was often caused by dramatic upheavals, including military defeats. In effect, in many EU countries and the US, possible regime change and democratisation in Russia following a Ukrainian victory is treated as a quite probable scenario that should be supported by the transatlantic community.

Ukrainians: brothers but…

Polish Orientalism targeting Ukrainians expresses itself mostly through the idea of Poland’s historical western civilisational mission directed towards Eastern Ukraine. Polish political and cultural elites often claim that Poland created a sort of multi-ethnic paradise in the form of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This vision leads to the rejection of any suggestion that Polish rule over Ukrainians had colonial elements, including also persecution and crimes. This results also in the perception of historical Ukrainian violence against Poles as particularly cruel because of its “Eastern nature”. Today this world view is strongly promoted by the Polish government in its politics of memory. Close cooperation between Kyiv and Warsaw in the international arena represents a key factor which could influence developments in Western Eurasia. Given the huge Ukrainian immigrant and refugee community based in Poland, the future of Polish-Ukrainian relations also has a fundamental internal dimension. Certainly, the Polish state and society have been supporting both Ukraine’s war effort and Ukrainian refugees on a massive scale since February 24th 2022. Moreover, the Russo-Ukrainian War contributed to a considerable improvement in the attitude of Poles towards Ukrainians. However, according to opinion polls, one-third of Poles still have an indifferent opinion on Ukrainians and despite their heroic fight against Russia 17 per cent perceive them negatively. Poles’ approach to Ukrainian refugees, though still positive, has deteriorated in recent months and currently slightly more than 55 per cent of Poles believe that Ukrainian refugees staying longer in Poland is something positive. At the same time, 30 per cent perceive this scenario negatively.

At first glance, Poland possesses many advantages today when it comes to policy towards Western Eurasia. Nevertheless, in order to use them more efficiently, it has to rethink self-critically its perceptions of the region, which are influenced considerably by orientalising clichés. Unfortunately, the chance for this kind of rethinking is rather modest. Paradoxically, the full-scale Russian aggression against Ukraine strengthened substantially in Poland the conviction that Poles, who warned the US and Western Europe of Russia’s imperialism many times, are great experts on Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia. But the reality, of course, is much more complicated.

Adam Balcer is Program Director at the Jan Nowak-Jeziorański College of Eastern Europe in Wrocław.

This text is based on his report “Na Wschodzie bez zmian? Orientalizacja we współczesnej Polsce”, which has been published in Polish by KEW and co-funded by Heinrich Boll Stiftung. 

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