From now on: Pole and Romanian, two best friends?
Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat, Cross-border Talks
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki rarely speaks about other countries and foreign leaders with such admiration as he spoke of Romania and its President Klaus Iohannis on March 28.
– Poland and Romania are America’s closest allies. We are the pillars of the North Atlantic Pact in this part of Europe – he declared at the press conference.
He added that Iohannis, like few other European leaders, understands “the risks from behind the Eastern border” very well.
The host reciprocated, describing Poland as a reliable ally and longtime friend of Romania.
Since the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Poland has been channeling arms and humanitarian aid to Kiev. Equipment from other Western countries has also been sent through Poland to Ukrainian defenders. Poland has taken in the largest number of Ukrainian war refugees and simplified procedures for them to settle down, find jobs and receive social support.
It used to be Warsaw’s ambition to act as the main advocate of Ukraine’s European aspirations and the European Union’s chief specialist on the (post-Soviet) East. Today, those ambitions go even further.
Poland would like to shape European policy toward Russia (treating Putin’s regime with full severity and not allowing any compromises with Moscow), as well as co-determine the shape and size of support for Ukraine. Poland’s eastern policy, moreover, is not only Ukraine, but also systematic support for the Belarusian anti-Lukashenko opposition, coupled with the expectation that in the event of its victory – difficult, though, to imagine at present – Poland will co-create the directions of Belarus’ economic and political transformation.
Polish aspirations combine historical and contemporary elements, and these elements do not contradict each other.
The intention of the United States, on whose side Poland – regardless of which party is currently in power – positions itself unequivocally and unreservedly, is to strengthen its presence in the geographic center of Europe, to block Russia, and to prevent the (pre-February 24, 2022) concepts of strategic autonomy of “old Europe” from actually becoming a reality.
These goals can be brilliantly combined with the old concepts of Poland’s eastern policy – be it Prometheism (supporting national movements within the Russian Empire to bring about its weakening and perhaps disintegration), or the Giedroyc doctrine, or democratization of Ukraine and Belarus in alliance with Poland and against undemocratic Russia.
For all the tragicism of this situation – after all, there is a real war and real casualties in the background – it can be recognized that after 1989 there has never been a better time for Poland to pursue such a formulated Eastern policy. Never before have Polish claims that any agreement with Russia is inadvisable and unrealistic, and that the European Union should seek a partner in Kyiv first, been taken similarly seriously by Western European politicians.
Poland seeks to consolidate the stronger position it has gained under these circumstances, and it is natural at this point to turn to countries that seem similarly pro-American, pro-Ukrainian and determined to fight Russia no matter the cost.
President Iohannis, like Polish politicians, wants to be one of those leaders who co-create European policy on Ukraine and have a lot of say in NATO. Strengthening ties with Romania seems important from one more point of view. Viktor Orban’s policies toward the war and toward Russia mean a breakdown of the traditional cooperation between the two Central European countries. ‘Pole, Hungarian two good friends’, advocating ‘family values’ and supporting each other in the face of conflict with Brussels over rule of law violations, are no more. It would be equally senseless for Poland to bet on mounted contacts with far-right parties across Europe before 2022. Apart from Italy’s Fratelli d’Italia, these formations have little chance of taking power in their countries in the foreseeable future, and some of them have taken ambiguous or even openly pro-Russian positions on Ukraine.
Where then to look for the new good friend? Looking from Warsaw, Bucharest seems a natural candidate.
As Romanian political scientist Ovidiu Vaida noted in an interview with Cross-Border Talks, countries such as France and Germany, even if even their elites recognized the wrongfulness of their past policies toward Moscow, will not give up their influence in Central and Eastern Europe after the war. For Poland and other pro-Atlantic countries in the region, the only chance to maintain the position they gained after February 24 is to act as a bloc that, with US support, could be a counterweight to them.
That Polish-Romanian military cooperation within NATO will continue was presented during the visit as something not in the slightest doubt. If in the past Poland and Romania happened to compete over who has closer and better contacts with Washington, now the prime minister and president demonstrated their readiness to treat each other as equal partners. This is happening, by the way, without much damage to the historical and symbolic ambitions of both sides – Polish concepts of eastern policy have always been concerned with eastern Slavic lands and the Baltic Sea basin rather than Moldova and the Black Sea region, where Romanian interests are directed.
The Polish prime minister appeared in Bucharest for the opening of the Romanian-Polish Business Forum, and the declarations made during the visit on economic issues sound even more ambitious than those on military affairs.
Klaus Iohannis recalled that “Poland is one of Romania’s largest trade partners in the region. In 2022, bilateral trade reached a record high of almost 11 billion euros.”
Morawiecki namely acknowledged that after 25 years Poland and Romania have understood that “it is better to cooperate than to be played out by the stronger ones.”
Similar words were then said during Morawiecki’s talks with Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca.
The Polish prime minister thus acknowledged that the development model of the entire post-socialist Eastern Europe, based on competing with low labor costs and attracting foreign investors, has proven to be a road to nowhere. Countries in the region are attracting investment by competing with each other, and the region as a whole cannot get out of the trap of peripherality. And in the end – as Poland is already experiencing – the acquired investors leave anyway, when the income received no longer meets their expectations.
If the war in Ukraine ends, and the authorities in Kiev adopt a neoliberal course in rebuilding (which seems totally likely right now), the mass exodus of investors from Central and Eastern Europe to the Dnieper is an even more real threat. The Polish prime minister’s declarations sound like an invitation to jointly seek other development opportunities in mutual cooperation, which is noteworthy.
However, what those opportunities could be remains a separate question – Morawiecki’s proposed cooperation based on supporting small and medium-sized companies (i.e., fostering the growth of dispersed national capital) is a moderately enthralling alternative. Scenarios pursued with greater momentum – including large state investments in key sectors of the economy – would require, among other things, adjustments to the Polish and Romanian fiscal systems, moving away from a belief in the miraculous power of low taxes. This would be an actual breakthrough.
Certainly, it will be easier for Poland and Romania to pursue the military cooperation goals outlined during the visit.
For although there are circles and voices in both countries who do not like the Euro-Atlantic, strongly pro-American and strongly pro-Ukrainian course, this is still a minority (in the case of Poland, a very small minority) of public opinion. In Romania, the existence of anti-Ukrainian (or anti-Slavic) prejudices in society has not prevented the adoption of such a foreign policy course, and in Poland, the difficult baggage of a shared history with the Ukrainians also does not thwart solidarity with a struggling neighbor. If both countries decided to seriously challenge, even in part, the assumptions of neoliberal, post-socialist economic policy in the region, they would face a much greater challenge.
Photo: Mateusz Morawiecki and Klaus Iohannis during the joint press conference/ photo by Polish Prime Minister’s Office
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