Poland revives itself as a 'great power'

by Taras Kuzio
RFE/RL Poland, Belarus and Ukraine Report

Poland was included in the first wave of NATO enlargement in 1999 and will be joining the European Union in 2004. These radical changes in Poland's geopolitical position are leading to a revival of Poland's quest to be recognized as an important international player.

This has led to reviving mythology about Poland's historical role. A common theme in Central and Eastern Europe is that of "innocence," whereby states were victims of, not aggressors in, history. Similarly with Poland. "Poles are very tolerant people, respectful of other religions, without a superiority complex. Besides, we have never been a colonial power," said Col. Roman Polko, head of the GROM elite unit whose soldiers participated in combat in Iraq.

Poland is the largest of the Central and Eastern European states that have joined NATO and are set to join the EU. "We have to play an important role," Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz was quoted by The New York Times as saying. He warned that "our Western European partners and friends have to realize and accept that Poland is a serious partner, and should be respected. Its arguments should be listened to."

Poland will become a center of attraction for a more pro-American orientation within the EU. U.S. President George W. Bush chose to visit Warsaw on the first leg of his European tour in late May. Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski told the weekly Polityka that he is in favor of working alongside the United States in the international arena. Poland, he added, would not support a "conception" that did not wish to cooperate with the United States. Despite EU pressure, Poland opted to purchase F-16 planes from the U.S. rather than European-made Mirage and Gripen jet fighters in a $3.5 billion deal - the largest in Central and Eastern Europe since 1989.

Poles remain skeptical of the European Union's security guarantees. They are also wary of some EU states with a "preference for [President Vladimir] Putin's increasingly authoritarian Russia over the United States," former Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikorski wrote. Such views are held across the entire Polish political spectrum.

Left-of-center Gazeta Wyborcza Editor-in-Chief Adam Michnik explained that "Poland's future is in the EU, but its security is in the United States." Poles seek a "special relationship" with the U.S. similar to that which Washington has with Israel or Mexico.

EU enlargement will increase the difficulties within the EU of crafting a single Common and Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) from two competing trends.

One trend, which is backed by states such as Poland, the United Kingdom and Spain, sees the CFSP as complementing the trans-Atlantic relationship embodied by the United States and NATO. This group of countries has no problem with a unipolar world dominated by a U.S. "hyperpower." Polish Ambassador to the U.S. Przemyslaw Grudzinski told Voice of America that Poland belongs to "Western civilization," which consists of U.S. and European pillars.

Another trend is that propounded by France, Germany and Belgium, with Russia as an external supporter, of the CFSP acting independently on behalf of "Europe" in a multipolar world. This trend is far more critical of the United States, especially the current administration's "unilateralism."

Poland is increasingly playing a role in two areas. First, Poland has been placed in charge of one of four stabilization sectors in Iraq. Polish Ambassador to NATO Jerzy Nowak explained that this would show Poland's "leadership potential." This sector will include some 1,800 Ukrainian troops who, together with 2,200 Poles, will make up nearly half of the 9,000-strong peacekeeping forces in the Polish-led sector.

The Ukrainian Parliament voted on June 5 to contribute the third largest military force to Iraq. The Polish sector will be led by Gen. Andrzej Tyszkiewicz, and his deputy will be the commander of the Ukrainian contingent. The Polish sector will be divided between Polish, Ukrainian and Spanish-led forces.

Both Poland and Ukraine see this Ukrainian contribution as a way to earn U.S. support for Ukraine's inclusion in the third round of NATO enlargement in 2007. In this sense, Poland seeks to return to its historic role as a "great power," which complements its strategic support for stability on its eastern border through EU expansion and further NATO enlargement.

A second Polish role is to act as a lobbyist for EU widening further east, for example to include Ukraine. As the British-based Financial Times reported on June 10, bringing Poland into the European Union will give it a badly needed impetus to craft an "Eastern Dimension" in an area (western CIS) which is Europe's last gray area. The Financial Times wrote that "Poland is right to remind the EU that it needs an Ostpolitik of positive engagement towards these countries and to underline that it could serve as the bridge."

Poland is lobbying for the EU to have an open door policy for Ukraine and Moldova similar to NATO's policy and that of the EU itself in the western Balkans. In the medium-long term, depending upon domestic developments in both states, Poland supports the idea of the EU signing association agreements with them. A step in this direction might be EU Action Plans for Ukraine and Moldova that would become Partner-ships for Association by the time the Partnership and Cooperation Agree-ments, which were signed with CIS states, expire in 2008.

Poland's entry into NATO and the EU is changing Polish perceptions of its international role by raising its profile and importance, and positioning as a staunch ally of the U.S. The greatest challenges will be within the EU, where the entry of Poland and other Central and Eastern European states will shift the gravity of Europe eastwards.

Dr. Taras Kuzio is a resident fellow at the Center for Russian and East European Studies, University of Toronto, and former visiting fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, Paris.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, August 3, 2003, No. 31, Vol. LXXI

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