Inter Press Network

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.



Can Iran's Pursuit of Nuclear Technology Be Thwarted By Air Strikes?

Report Drafted By:Erich Marquardt

As Iran continues its development of nuclear technology, powerful rival states such as the United States and Israel have publicly considered the viability of launching an air strike against Iran's nuclear facilities should Tehran come closer to developing the ability to create nuclear weapons. Israel, for example, has a nuclear monopoly in the Middle East and has shown its willingness to prevent other Middle Eastern states from acquiring nuclear arms. In 1981, when France was assisting Iraq in its quest for nuclear technology, Tel Aviv launched an air strike on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor. The attack accomplished its primary objective of putting a dent in Baghdad's nuclear research program. Would a similar attack on Iran's nuclear facilities yield similar results?

A military air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities would have a much lower success ratio than the Osirak attack had in 1981. In 1981, Iraq's nuclear research program was concentrated at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Center just outside of Baghdad. Baghdad's failure to disperse the different aspects of its nuclear program to multiple facilities made it an easy target for an air strike. Dr. Imad Khadduri, a former Iraqi nuclear scientist who was the head of the scientific experimentation group before the Israeli air strike, told the Power and Interest News Report, "Indeed, in 1981 all of our work was centered at the Tuwaitha site." In order to prevent such attacks from occurring in the future, Baghdad took prompt action after Israel's successful air strike. After the air strike, Khadduri explained, "we began to disperse our nuclear facilities to end up with eight or nine sites for production, processing, enrichment design and research."

Aware of Baghdad's failure to spread its nuclear program to multiple facilities, Tehran has adopted a safer approach. Realizing that other countries which have military power in the region -- such as the United States and Israel -- may attempt to take military action against its nuclear research program, Tehran has likely spread its nuclear program into multiple facilities throughout the country. This dispersal strategy will make it very difficult for an outside country to launch a successful air strike against Iran's nuclear research program.

Dr. David Albright, President of the Institute for Science and International Security, recently explained to the Power and Interest News Report the methods that Tehran has taken to protect its nuclear research program. Albright warned that "while military strikes can hurt Iran's nuclear capabilities, they cannot stop them. ... There are likely other facilities that are unknown and would escape damage." Khadduri, too, pointed to the difficulties involved in an attempt to destroy Iran's nuclear research program: "Unless the attacking country would have human spies infiltrating the Iranian nuclear team, it would be very difficult to pinpoint what to hit in the event of an air attack."

In addition to the operational difficulties in destroying Iran's nuclear research program, there are also serious political risks involved. In 1981, when Israel attacked Iraq's Osirak reactor, Tel Aviv's move caused Baghdad to accelerate its quest for nuclear arms. By demonstrating Iraq's military weakness in its failure to prevent an Israeli air strike, Tel Aviv's decision merely caused the leadership in Baghdad to believe even more strongly that they needed nuclear weapons to shield against future aggression from hostile states. By acquiring nuclear arms, states are able to increase their defense capabilities since other states are hesitant to take military action against a nuclear-armed rival. As Khadduri writes in his recent book describing Iraq's nuclear research program, after Israel attacked the Osirak reactor, "Saddam took the political decision to initiate a full-fledged weapons program immediately afterwards."

President Saddam Hussein's decision in 1981 to accelerate Iraq's nuclear weapons program displays the danger that would be involved in attacking Iran's nuclear research program. Any attack would prove to Tehran that its military was too weak to defend the Iranian state from outside threats; just like Baghdad in 1981, this realization would lead Tehran to accelerate its nuclear weapons program, thus creating an even bigger problem for rival states. Albright asserts that after a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, Iran could "quickly restart a gas centrifuge program in secret that would be extremely difficult to detect or stop."

The diplomatic anger that would be created by attacking Iran's nuclear research program would also be fierce. Tehran has extensive diplomatic and economic ties with a variety of states, such as members of the European Union, Russia and India. Russia has been earning much-needed capital by assisting Iran's nuclear research program. Russian engineers have been building Iran's main nuclear reactor at the southern city of Bushehr. While Moscow has expressed public concern regarding accusations that Tehran may be attempting to develop nuclear arms, it has been unwilling to cease its assistance to Tehran. Along with nuclear assistance, Moscow has been providing Iran with conventional arms. According to "Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations," an annual report provided to the U.S. Congress by Richard Grimmett, in the last decade Moscow has provided Tehran with MiG-29 fighter aircraft, Su-24 fighter bombers, T-72 tanks, and Kilo class attack submarines.

India also has important ties with Iran. India's strategic concerns over its rival state, Pakistan, are shared in part by Iran; therefore, instability in Iran could weaken India's foreign policy leverage when dealing with the leadership in Islamabad. New Delhi and Tehran have also been collaborating with Russia's state-owned gas company, Gazprom, to build a pipeline that would export gas from Iran to India.

Taking these factors into account, the prospect of launching a successful air strike that would thwart Tehran's pursuit of nuclear technology is not a viable strategy. In addition to the logistical difficulties involved in destroying Tehran's nuclear facilities, there is also the fear that such an attack would only accelerate Tehran's pursuit of nuclear arms. Finally, the political reverberations that would be felt by such an attack would be severe, and the attacking state would likely be held accountable for its actions.


Intelligence Brief: Germany

Drafted By: Federico Bordonaro

Elections in Germany are approaching, currently scheduled for September 18. A poll taken on August 3 confirms the trend from July: the Christian Democrats have a solid 42 percent majority. The Social Democrats (S.P.D.) -- who are currently in power -- remain stuck at 29 percent, whereas radical Left alliance Linksbuendnis (which is formed by the Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice (W.A.S.G.) and the Party of Democratic Socialism (P.D.S.), which is now known as Linkspartei) is at 11 percent. [See: "Angela Merkel's Forecasted Win and Germany's Foreign Policy"]

However, on August 5, some high-profile independent lawyers, and experts from the German Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) told the press that the Left has misused federal electoral laws because in some German states it is not clear whether voters of the Linksbuendnis would be voting for a P.D.S. or for a W.A.S.G. candidate. It is argued that this confusion has been created in order to get P.D.S. officials elected in western states where they normally receive very little support. Therefore, some German states could disallow the Linksbuendnis to take part in September's vote.

While the battle for federal acceptance of the Linksbuendnis has just started, the issue signals a serious political problem in Germany since traditional parties have not been able to effectively contrast the Left's electoral strategy.

The German Crisis and the Rise of W.A.S.G.

W.A.S.G. is without a doubt the most important political novelty of today's Germany. Launched by former Social Democrat minister Oskar Lafontaine and his leftist followers, W.A.S.G. has been able to successfully intercept S.P.D.'s disappointed voters. Social Democrat Prime Minister Gerhard Schroeder, elected in 1998, has tried in the last years to introduce market reforms in accordance to the wishes of German entrepreneurs, but the German social and political landscape has shown signs of severe unhappiness with his policies.

Trade unions, workers and parties from the Left judge the reforms too market-oriented and fear that the renowned German welfare state will be dismantled. On the contrary, liberal conservative movements and German capitalists believe the reforms were too weak and insufficient to tackle what German President Horst Koehler argued on July 22, that Germany faced "an unprecedented crisis" that needs the government to "pursue its agenda with full determination and energy."

As a result, the S.P.D.-led coalition experienced a dramatic decrease of support in the last four years, and Schroeder's ability to remain in power after 2002 is explained by some analysts as due to his steadfast opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, which made it possible for the Social Democrat to keep the Left's votes in 2002. However, notwithstanding a new foreign policy, characterized by a strategic partnership with Russia, a strong commitment to refuse any involvement in the Iraq war, and an open dialogue with Washington in order to relaunch the transatlantic relationship, Schroeder's days in power seem to be nearing an end.

Germany's social system is nowadays widely perceived as unable to cope with the aggressive Anglo-Saxon neo-liberal model. In the post-bipolar geo-economy, statist policies based on public spending and labor market guarantees are often considered impossible to harmonize with companies' needs to compete globally. Moreover, the European Union -- of which Germany is the largest country, and one of its leading states -- has been built upon neo-liberal principles.

However, German wealth and an excellent welfare state are inextricably linked to the twentieth century's German "social market system" -- also known as "Rhine capitalism." Should such a model be dismantled -- in order to increase economic competitiveness -- it is fairly obvious that the social stability largely enjoyed by the country in the last 60 years would be extremely hard to maintain.

This context has witnessed an unexpected rise of the Linksbuendnis. Whereas P.D.S. has always remained strong in the eastern states, the W.A.S.G. has rapidly gained consensus in various states of the country, and not only in the poorer ones in the east. Lafontaine's strategy is to gather the votes of those German citizens who do not believe the welfare state is doomed to fail in the age of globalization. After the E.U.'s single currency introductions, Germany has fallen prey to recession and economic depression. Many Germans no longer believe that the euro -- and the European Union -- are without question in Berlin's interests.

As wages no longer progress like they did in the 1980s, and the E.U. is plagued by inner division and economic crisis, a significant part of the German population is skeptical about the classical Europeanist and moderately liberal policy advocated by both the C.D.U. and the S.P.D. (and their respective allies the Free Democratic Party (F.D.P.) and the Green Party).

Since in 2005 the new W.A.S.G. party rapidly found a strategic agreement with P.D.S. to create the Linksbuendnis, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats realized how dismal their situation looked. Hence, the current juridical issues are regarded by some observers as a C.D.U./S.P.D. maneuver to hamper the Left alliance's rise.

However, the general situation looks unsettled. W.A.S.G.'s leader Klaus Ernst announced on July 20 that his party does not rule out entering a coalition with the Social Democrats and the Greens in order to prevent the formation of a C.D.U.-C.S.U.-led government. Moreover, 39 percent of German citizens would accept a C.D.U./S.P.D. "Grand Coalition," according to a recent poll.

The Bottom Line

It is far from clear whether the Linksbuendnis will be able to compete in every German state. It is certain, though, that its struggle to resolve any juridical issues will be energetic and will have wide popular support. However, any policy designed to resolve the German economic crisis will be very difficult to bring about. The welfare state and the German social model have become a landmark of the German post-Nazi national identity.

However, the fundamental question will be that of the revitalization of the once near-perfect European economy -- either by a neo-liberal turn, or by a difficult (but desired by many) re-launch of a more traditionally German social market and welfare-oriented program.

Expect an Angela Merkel government, presumably allied with the F.D.P., to face steadfast opposition by a revitalized Left opposition, and to struggle with having to make unpopular decisions. Look for new crises to surface in a declining S.P.D., as its Leftist identity shifts toward the Linksbuendnis and its reformist agenda is carried on more decidedly by a conservative rule.