Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Poland-Belarus Controversy and the Battle for Eastern Europe

Drafted By: Federico Bordonaro

On July 25, Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Załucki ordered the expulsion of a Belarus diplomat from Warsaw. Polish Foreign Ministry spokesperson Aleksander Chećko explained the move as a response to Minsk's "totally unjustified expulsion of the head of the Polish consulate in Minsk." Three days after, on July 28, the spat between the two countries worsened and Poland withdrew its ambassador, protesting the treatment of Polish minorities by Belarus authorities who had ordered the police to raid the premises of the local "Union of Poles in Belarus."

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko commented on the events saying that Poland is "pursuing a clear policy aimed at reducing Belarus-Polish relations," adding that Warsaw is working with Washington in order to take over Minsk. The crisis is emerging just three months after the U.S. president's speech in Vilnius on May 5, 2005 in which U.S. President George W. Bush called Belarus "the last dictatorship in Europe."

However, apart from the obvious aspect of competition between the U.S. and Russia for influence in Eastern Europe and its inevitable reflection in the Belarus issue, the reasons underlying the ongoing quarrel are deeply rooted in the region's history and geopolitics, which should worry the European Union as a whole for several reasons.

Poland and Belarus: Historical and Geopolitical Links

Belarusian geopolitical history is characterized by two traditionally rival components: Polish-Catholic and Russian-Orthodox. Following the Mongol conquest of Russia in the 13th century, a distinct Belarusian identity came into being, quickly incorporated in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania which in turn subsequently united in a single commonwealth with Poland.

From a geopolitical standpoint, this was the birth of Polish-Russian conflict over Belarusian territories, coupled with internal religious and cultural confrontation between Catholics and Orthodox. In 1596, a compromise between these two religious identities (the Union of Brest-Litovsk) gave birth to Uniatism. Several million Ukrainian and Belarus Orthodox who lived under Polish-Lithuanian rule were thereby reconciled with Roman Catholics: papal authority was given recognition while Orthodox traditions were maintained in ritual and belief.

However, after three partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, and 1795), all Belarusian territories were incorporated by Tsarist Russia. After the latter's disastrous defeat in WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Belarusian territories were again shared out by Poland and the U.S.S.R. However, Poland's defeat in 1939 against the Third Reich allowed Stalin to re-annex the Western Belarus regions, which became a battlefield in the 1941 war opposing Berlin and Moscow. Minsk gained its independence (at least formally) after the Soviet victory, and remained a solid Russian ally after 1991. The geopolitical confrontation between Poland (backed by the West) and Russia over Belarus has nonetheless continued, thus providing an example of long-run, deep-rooted conflict for influence.

The Rollback of Russia and the Battle for Hegemony in Eastern Europe

In the post-bipolar era, the two decisive political and geostrategic issues in Eastern Europe had been, and still are, the eastward expansion of the E.U. and N.A.T.O. -- coupled with liberal-capitalist triumph over statist-socialist policies, and the U.S. struggle to roll back the remains of Russian influence. The stake is nothing less than hegemony in Eastern Europe.

For the United States, this has enormous political, security and economic significance. In a time of European integration, Washington is able to influence European affairs effectively (thus remaining a "European power," as former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke wrote in 1995) only if it can count on solid allies in the East. Its security interests in Europe -- leadership over the E.U.'s defense policy and the securitization of the Balkans -- lie with N.A.T.O.'s enlargement and territorial continuity. Moreover, its financial and commercial goals are best pursued under a liberal and free market-oriented system coinciding with the new security architecture.

After the 1999 war against former Yugoslavia and after the integration of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary into N.A.T.O., U.S. progress in the former Warsaw Pact zone has been enormous. Russia's waning influence is inversely proportional to American advancements. Washington scored another success with the Ukrainian 2004 presidential election, which ended up being won by the pro-Western candidate -- a fact that is likely to accelerate Kiev's integration into the U.S.-led security system.

Belarus, in fact, remains the very last Russian rampart in Eastern Europe. At a time of growing U.S.-Russia confrontation in Central Asia, Washington is fully committed to bringing about a "regime change" in Minsk in the footsteps of what has recently happened in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. To bring about this policy goal, the U.S. finances and supports pro-Western Belarusian dissidents and social movements, thus infuriating both Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin who have explicitly labeled such activists as C.I.A.-led lackeys of the United States.

Today's Belarus -- ruled by Lukashenko since 1993 -- can be described as a national-populist regime that pairs a strongly pro-Russian geopolitical stance with resistance to I.M.F. pro-market policies and to N.A.T.O. expansion. Until recently, Lukashenko also looked willing to support Putin's plans for a Belarus-Russia-Ukraine-Kazakhstan axis, a project severely hampered by Kiev's recent pro-Western turn. However, U.S.-Russia confrontation is certainly not the only reason for the current crisis.

Poland's Geopolitical Ambitions

With 40 million citizens and a strategic position in Central-Eastern Europe, Poland has rapidly become an important regional power after 1991, and has adopted a clear, consistent pro-U.S. foreign policy coupled with a strong commitment to enter the E.U. and N.A.T.O. Warsaw is nowadays the stronghold of the pro-American "new Europe," extending from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea through Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

The Polish security perception remains very classical: Warsaw fears a resurgent Russia as well as German hegemony over Central-Eastern Europe. Therefore, it views with suspicion France's ambitions in its security and defense policy since it is based primarily on a strong Franco-German axis extended towards Russia. In contrast to this view, Poland perceives N.A.T.O. as the best possible tool for its objectives of keeping the Americans in, the Germans under, and the Russians out of Central Europe.

Moscow -- especially if federated with Minsk and Kiev -- is considered by Polish decision-makers as the main geopolitical rival and threat. If Putin succeeded in creating a "small Soviet Union" with Belarus and Ukraine on his western side, Poland would share more than 1,000 km (about 620 miles) of borders with a rival Russian-led federation. This largely explains why Warsaw unambiguously joined N.A.T.O. in 1999, and also actively helped pro-Western Ukrainian social movements to put Viktor Yuschenko in power in December 2004.

On the other hand, Poland is much more compliantly inclined to cooperate with Germany in order to create an enlarged and stable European Union, under conditions of renewed transatlantic ties and an American military presence in Europe. Geography is inescapable: sooner or later, Warsaw is likely to work with intensified activism towards the construction of a European Common Foreign and Security Policy together with Germany and France. But once again, its role will be that of a mediator between the more pro-Atlanticist and the more pro-Russian factions in these two major West European states.

When Europe split in 2003 in the face of the Iraq War crisis, Warsaw chose without hesitation to align with the pro-American British, Italian and Spanish governments, joining the "Coalition of the Willing" via the eight-nation statement of support for the United States. Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski provided Washington with no more than 200 soldiers, but without any parliamentary debate -- a sign of straight confidence and commitment to the United States.

Moreover, after the fall of communism, Warsaw witnessed the rapid and deep penetration of American capital and big corporations at home: Citibank, General Motors, Pepsi, and Philip Morris are among the major investors in Poland. In addition, Warsaw once again pleased the American military industrial complex when on April 18, 2003 it purchased 48 Lockheed Martin F-16 aircraft instead of the French Mirage competitors -- yet another clear sign of Poland's geostrategic orientation, together with Warsaw's agreement to Washington's extensive use of the Krzesiny military base.

When all is said and done, the role of a strong and reliable American ally and "continental bridge" between the U.S. and today's fragmented E.U. seems to be the Polish policy of choice to secure both its geostrategic position toward the East and its influence in Europe. This fact is of utmost importance for a correct assessment of European geopolitical affairs. Poland is the perfect example of a medium power whose sovereignty is challenged by supranational constructions and economic globalization, but still pursues the sovereign course. Its initiatives in the case of the Iraq intervention and in its present conflict with Minsk are indeed emblematic: while the E.U. Common Foreign and Security Policy is in place, it is not practiced by all of its members.

Even more importantly, the current crisis should signal to lucid observers that geopolitical dreams such as a Franco-German-Russian axis are destined to stumble over the obstacle of steadfast Polish and Baltic resistance -- which would immediately put in place a counter-axis with Britain, the Netherlands and possibly Italy, backed (and largely inspired) by the United States.

The Energy Factor

Last but not least, the energy factor is also among the reasons for the current Polish-Belarus crisis, linked to the new geopolitics of Eastern Europe as a whole. In fact, during the recent G8 Summit in the United Kingdom, Putin announced two vital changes in Moscow's energy policy orientation. First, China is to be the primary recipient of oil from a new pipeline from the Russian Far East; second, Russia's Gazprom and Germany's BASF will build a new gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea to link the two countries. This latter decision could be a severe blow to Poland's (and Ukraine's) energy security and economic growth. The new Baltic pipeline would, in fact, constitute an alternative route for Russian gas, and it would exclude Poland. Therefore, Warsaw needs alternatives. [See: "Bulgaria, Romania and the Changing Structure of the Black Sea's Geopolitics"]

Immediately after Putin's statements, Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka announced that Warsaw should use its position in the E.U. to support alternative strategic projects. The idea was to build another pipeline from Russia to Europe, using Belarus and Poland as a corridor. This latter project is already in the advanced planning phase, but the Belarus variable might endanger this Polish strategy if the bilateral relationship becomes worse. Therefore, Polish decision-makers are considering a second possibility: a pipeline that would use the Baltic states instead of Belarus as a link between Russia and Poland. This plan has, of course, increased Minsk's irritation with Warsaw.

However, the feasibility of any such work is questionable since Russia's decision to build the Northern European pipeline planned with Germany could leave other projects unaccomplished.

In addition to the gas issue, Warsaw is also concerned with its oil needs. An ambitious Polish project envisages using the existing Odessa-Brody pipeline -- which ends in Ukraine -- to carry Kazakh oil to Gdansk (on the Baltic shores of Poland) and then to Western Europe. This route, however, would bypass the Russian Federation's territory, which is why Moscow is putting Kazakhstan under enormous pressure to not cooperate with this deal. Poland and Russia are indeed battling over energy policies in the former Warsaw Pact zone, and Moscow's strategic partnership with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Germany certainly does not help Kwasniewski's plans.

For Poland, therefore, full integration of Belarus and Ukraine into the system of Western free market rules and institutions would mean the beginning of new commercial ties and a big step toward the end of Russia's grip on strategic energy routes in Eastern Europe. After having helped the pro-Western movements in Kiev, Warsaw is ready to give full backing to Washington's efforts to Westernize Minsk.


The Polish initiative and Warsaw's quarrel with Minsk signal that U.S. and Polish interests coincide on several fundamental issues in Eastern Europe. To the detriment of Russia, but also to E.U. supporters of a European superpower based upon a strong Franco-German-Russian axis, Poland is actively pursuing its own agenda as a regional power, while functioning as a mainstay for Washington's policies in an enlarged Europe. In this context, Europe's Common Foreign and Security Policy appears once again to be a mere set of institutional instruments and unable to effectively coordinate its member states' policy priorities.




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