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Poland, Germany: Does Pragmatism Win over Fearmongering?

Are divergent positions towards Russia in the Ukraine crisis likely to sever bonds between Poland and Germany? How are Polish standpoints in Foreign Policy towards the East assessed in Germany? As rumours spread, a closer look on recent media coverage and empiric research may give an answer.

Good mood in Polish-German not troubled by differnet positions towards Russia? Merkel and Tusk on occasion of the Chancellors state visit in Warsaw on the 12th of March 2014. Author: M. Śmiarowski/KPRM, Source: Flickr

Good mood in Polish-German not troubled by differnet positions towards Russia? Merkel and Tusk on occasion of the Chancellors state visit in Warsaw on the 12th of March 2014. Author: M. Śmiarowski/KPRM, Source: Flickr

State visits are the stage for beautiful pictures of unity, and the consultations of Merkel and Tusk quite regularly serve this goal. But when on the joint press conference on March 12th the Prime Minister was asked to comment on Putin’s allegations that Maidan protesters had been trained in Lithuania and Poland, he claimed to see this as an attempt to isolate Poland from the “Western community of states”. Statements like this sound a note of warning and are reminiscent of deep rooted fears of any agreement with Russia on the cost of Poland, reminding in it’s last consequence of how German-Soviet relations had developed since the treaty of Rapallo, signed on on a sunny Easter Sunday the 16th of April 1922.

Is this so outdated as it seems? Last Wednesday Bartosz T. Wieliński, former Berlin correspondent for GAZETA WYBORCZA, proved great sense of time giving a warning on a growing number of pro-Russian voices in the German blog sphere where an open letter to president Putin is circulating that asks for “forgiving anti-Russian tendencies among German Politicians and in the Press“. Adam Krzeminski, a publicist enjoying reputation on both sides of the Oder has lately tried to explain the phenomenon of pro-Russian tendencies in Germany to the Polish audience by translating a term that is often applied in the German Press for criticising an indulgent course towards Russia: “Russlandversteher“ or in his writing: “Fersztejerzy, czyli Niemcy rusolubni“ (POLITYKA, 01.04.14) The notion of ‘Russlandversteher’ – neither clearly pejorative nor appreciative – is describing the ambivalent German perspective on Russia quite accurately: there can’t be black and white.

Russia is not the problem but part of the solution: Rebirth of social democratic ‘Ostpolitik’ in the grand coalition

Though German Foreign Policy strategies towards Eastern and Central Europe underwent changes following recent developments in the region and on the domestic level, major traditions are still shaping the agenda towards the eastern neighbourhood. The priority of western integration into EU and NATO and traditionally strong ties to the United States and France was for decades a guideline for the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU). Under Willy Brandt this solely western orientation was challenged by the Social Democrats’ (SPD) program of detention politics, the so called ‘Neue Ostpolitik’ (New Eastern Policy) that broke with the long prevailing rule of diplomatic non-recognition towards the Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw treaty (manifested in the ‘Hallstein’ doctrine 1955-1969) and resulted in a range of bilateral agreements (‘Ostverträge’) from 1970 to 1973. This course is widely acknowledged as making a crucial contribution to the reconciliation process in Eastern Europe and is to a certain extent believed to end the isolation of Cold-War block confrontation in Europe. The ‘Ostpolitik’ of the era Brandt (1st legislation period: 1969-1972 coalition partner: Liberals (FDP), 2nd legislation period 1972-1974, with FDP) is now perceived as a landmark in German Foreign Policy and is since then a point of reference for the Social Democrats (more: CSM Builetyn Niemiecki 7/2010). In 2013 the SPD is celebrating their jubilee of one hundred fifty years and the hundred’s birthday of Willy Brandt but despite this moral backup of their prime fathers fails to win the majority and becomes junior partner in a grand coalition with the CDU. Still the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is again led by the SPD under Frank Walter Steinmeier.

It is not surprising that Steinmeier’s foreign policy concept towards Russia is called “change through interdependence“ thereby obviously reminding of the programmatic title of “change through rapprochement“ that was issued by Egon Bahr, closest advisor to Willy Brandt and often called the “architect of the new Ostpolitik“ (See Nünlist 2014). The elections in 2013 brought about change in the second row of German diplomats as well. The governments appointee for Russia, Andreas Schockenhoff (CDU) has been replaced by Gernot Erler (SPD), who is both known for his expertise in the post-soviet area and his willingness to engage in dialogue with Russia. It is the second time he is serving in that position after the competencies of the appointee for Russia had been extended – following Erler’s own initiative – under Joschka Fischer (The Green Party) in 2003 and are now covering 12 countries including Russia and the countries of the Eastern Neighbourhood. Whereas Schockenhoff frankly criticised the Kremlin’s course – what later made him a “persona non grata“ in Moscow as some observers believe – Erler sees not much to be achieved with harsh criticism and publicly demanded to “end the Russia bashing“ in the German press. Concerning the crisis in Ukraine, Erler first stated that he sees little prospect in applying sanctions on Russia and asks the “international community to seek for a diplomatic solution till the last minute“.  But following the annexation of Crimea he admitted with great concern that “Russia is isolating itself“ and made clear that the German government needs to react to violations of international law. This is very much in keeping with the ambivalent position of Frank Walter Steinmeier who himself treats the use of sanctions with caution and promotes a diplomatic solution that embraces the Russian side – as was reflected in his proposal to create an international contact group – but cannot consent with Russia’s open provocations.

How far Germany will join the international community in posing sanctions on Russia is rather a question of short term calibration that is intended to show that further examples of Russia’s capricious attempts to undermine international agreements will not remain unanswered. On the long run the German government will rather intensify relations to Russia following their idea of a “partnership for modernisation“.

In the light of its historical tradition the concept of German Foreign Policy to bring change through rapprochement and economic interdependence rather than through sanctions and isolations remains a promising idea.

Hysteria or reasonable security concerns? Polish Foreign Policy as presented in German Media

In order to get an idea of how perceptions on the role of Polish Foreign Policy in Eastern Europe are shaped, a closer look on media coverage gives a first impression. Out of the vast amount of articles concerning the crisis in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea are selected those which have a clear focus on either the role of Polish diplomacy in view of recent events, the cooperation between German and Polish state officials or the effect the crisis in Ukraine has on Polish society. Articles referred to came up in February and March 2014, the most intensive term before Ukraine signed the EU Accession treaty. According to their general assessments the articles can be assorted in the following clusters.

United against a common foe? Unifying effects of security issues on government and opposition in Poland

A report for the public broadcaster DEUTSCHLANDFUNK argues that the threat of further Russian military provocations makes government and opposition in Poland close ranks and speak with one voice. The author quotes the view point of Right and Justice (PiS) member Mariusz Kaminski who demanded for strict sanctions and an exclusion of Russia from the G8, which in his interpretation is congruent with the position of Donald Tusk and his Civic Platform (PO), proving a unity of political parties that is “rarely to be seen“ in Poland.

Ulrich Krökel for DIE ZEIT comes to a similar conclusion. He comments on the fact that both premier Tusk and opposition leader Kaczyński were taking part in the National Security Council on Sunday 2nd of March 2014 given the fact they didn’t have a face-to-face meeting since the catastrophe of Smolensk.

Tusk and Merkel agreeing on all accounts? Break lines behind the façade of state visits

Whereas the unity of government and opposition astonishes, questions come up weather German and Polish state officials are as harmonious as they used to be. This is most clearly reflected in the coverage on both the visits of Chancellor Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen, Minister of Defence in March 2014. The first German public TV channel ARD was presenting the state visit of Chancellor Merkel in Warsaw on the 12th of March in the news format TAGESTHEMEN and was questioning the demonstrative unity of Tusk and Merkel on the further course of action vis à vis ongoing actions of Russian military forces on Crimea. The video contrasts the ostentatious unanimity of the two heads of government at the joint press conference with extracts of a speech held by premier Tusk on a military base where he heavily criticised the weakness of the German position towards Russia pointing on the dependence of oil and gas imports from Russia. The daily newspaper DIE WELT was painting a similar picture on occasion of the consultations between the Minister of Defence, Ursula von der Leyen and her counterpart Tomasz Siemoniak: the article points out that first Siemoniak clearly agreed on the approach that “only dialogue can solve the crisis in Ukraine“ whereas he later mentioned new plans for modernisation of the Polish military forces in background talks with the German press.

Poland being an ever more important partner on the European level

 According to the analysis by Gregor Peter Schmitz, EU correspondent for DER SPIEGEL in Brussels, the Crimea Crisis is rather a chance for the European Union than a litmus test. On occasion of the EU Crimea crisis summit he argues that the challenge of the Ukraine crisis helps to finally forge a Common Foreign and Security Policy. In this context he praises the Polish initiative under Radosław Sikorski as currently performing as the “most active diplomats in Europe“. Robin Alexander writes in his comment for DIE WELT that the German Foreign Policy has failed to find an “answer to Russia’s provocations“ and criticises the little comprehension for the fears of “our neighbours in the east“. He claims that whereas the US have stocked up their military presence in Poland Ursula von der Leyen would lack even “sufficient verbal back up“. He ads in similar enthusiastic tone that “our most important partners are in Eastern Europe“ – which means in his dictum Central Eastern Europe and draws a clear dividing line between the new NATO members and Russia.

Acknowledging the historical dimension of Polish security policy

Most of the media sources drawn upon are seeking an understanding for the historical driving forces that are still influencing emotions and assessments on security issues in Poland.

Under the headline “feeding old fears“ Gabriele Lesser for DIE TAGESZEITUNG (TAZ) seeks to explain why from a Polish perspective “sympathizers for Russia” in the West are seen as “useful idiots“ repeating the “propaganda of the Kremlin“. Additionally she reminds the legacy of the difficult Polish-Soviet history which in her eyes have an impact on Poland’s demands for tough sanctions towards Russia. DIE ZEIT quotes Tusk at the open press conference with Chancellor Merkel: “Here in Warsaw nobody needs to be reminded upon what is on stake today“, reminding destruction of Warsaw in the II World War.

Nicolas Busse for FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG comments on the fact that for the second time Poland has called on a meeting of the NATO council on grounds of article 4 of the NATO treaty – coming into effect when a member state sees severe threats to its security, territorial integrity or independence. He pays attention to the security requirements of the Central European NATO members, who in his account showed “slight doubts“ weather the West would really “act with one accord“ or weather “some – as the Germans – would not prefer a deal with Moscow“.

"Solidarity in Blue and Yellow" - enthusiasm of Pro-Ukrainian movements in Poland as presented in a leading German language daily.

“Solidarity in Blue and Yellow” – enthusiasm of Pro-Ukrainian movements in Poland as presented in a leading German language daily.

Nevertheless there are reports that describe the concerns of Polish state officials over recent events in Ukraine as being exaggerated. The report of TAGESTHEMEN (ARD) mentioned earlier can serve as an example. Relating the personal feeling of threat shared by randomly asked “people in the streets“ – uttering statements like “Putin wants to rebuild the Soviet Union“ – to the statement of an advisor of the Polish Institute of Foreign Affairs who gives a warning of further unexpected steps of the Russian government, it presents the Polish society as being entirely emotionalised, if not irrational, about the events in Ukraine. Still, in the end there are only few examples in the German press that present the standpoint of Poland and other Central Eastern European countries as being hysteric and harmful towards finding a peaceful solution in negotiations with Russia. Lutz Herden, editor on the online platform of the weekly DER FREITAG discusses the effects Russia’s exclusion from the G8 summit will have and blames the countries of the EU 2004 enlargement to have build up a “scenario of threat“ that puts the security system in danger.

In the daily newspaper NEUES DEUTSCHLAND Julian Bartosz criticises the rivalry between the ruling party and opposition as crucial issue and states: “Civic Platform and Right and Justice are competing in fear-mongering ahead EU elections“.  The left wing newspaper was earlier paying attention to the broad solidarity movement for independent Ukraine to be seen in Poland.

The people united: Acts of solidarity for an independent Ukraine in Poland

The newspaper SUEDDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG gives account of the solidarity movements that popped up in Poland in the wake of the Maidan protests. Mentioning Polish volunteers and medical support, it paints the picture of local and spontaneous acts to support their eastern neighbours. The newspaper had already published an article on “solidarity in blue and yellow“ which included a short roundup on the troubled Polish-Ukrainian relationship in the early 20th century.

In conclusion: There is no either or. Counterbalancing ties to Poland and Russia

The privileged position of Russia and the relatively stable relationship the countries hold bilaterally mark a decisive difference in German foreign policy compared to the position of Poland in the Ukraine crisis. From the perspective of Polish security politics, a partnership between Germany and Russia is often perceived with suspicion. And it has resulted earlier in worsening the tone as the example of the North-Stream pipeline has shown, earlier called a new “Molotow-Ribbentrop pact“ by Radoslaw Sikorski – then in his function of Defence Minister. Now that Gerhard Schröder, former Chancellor (SPD) and initiator of the North Stream Pipeline has openly blamed the EU for having contributed to the escalation in Ukraine, old resentments regarding the “russophiles“ among the German Left are likely to have their comeback. However fears that a now again SPD-guided Ministry of Foreign Affairs is likely to “play off” Poland for the price of Russian gas are not much grounded on facts.

The policy goals of the grand coalition clearly state the prioritisation of Poland in the coalition agreement. Concerning the European level, the document highlights the “exceptional quality of the French-German relations“ and in the second place expresses the conviction of “deepen[ing] the partnership with Poland“. The tri-national cooperation framework of the Weimar Triangle – based on the agreement between French, German and Polish foreign ministers in 1991 – is likewise explicitly mentioned and said to be “intensified“.

However, in view of ongoing European Integration and NATO enlargement, the necessity of upholding the Weimar Triangle as a platform for regional cooperation is since long facing criticism. Still, the joint diplomatic mission of Poland, Germany and France in Kiev might have an influence on the debate.

Policy guidelines of the Grand Coalition are following the paradigm that growing economical interdependence and exchange in society has a stabilizing effect on bilateral relations and reduces the risk of confrontations. If this approach towards Russia is seen as a cause of mistrust, one needs to remember the underlying ideas of historical “Ostpolitik” that was foremost directed towards the Central Eastern European countries. Ten years after the EU accession of Poland, economical interdependence and exchange in society has increased to a large extent. With a total of 78.1 towards 76.5 billion Euro, Poland comes in the tenth place and one ahead of Russia in the volume of sales among Germany’s foreign trade partners in 2013.

As shown above, recent media coverage does give little evidence that the German public is indifferent about Polish security concerns regarding the crisis in Ukraine. Most of the articles are acknowledging the historic dimension of Polish security policy. Criticism of the German government even takes side rather of the Central European countries than Russia. “Russophilia“ in the sense of an overall agreement with the political line of the Russian government is hardly a widespread phenomenon. On the contrary, as comparative research on the perception of Poland and Russia among German citizens shows, growing acceptance and a fairly positive image of Poland is in stark contrast to negative assessments of Russia, a country that only 9% of German respondents believe to be a “democracy similar to western countries“ (ISP 2013). Still the idea of having close ties to Russia is for many Germans not exclusive regarding the strong partnership with Poland. According to the latest studies on Polish-German relations issued by the Institute of Public Affairs (2013), a majority of 52% respondents from Germany see that Poland and Germany have a common interest in the relations with Russia (25 % seeing rather divergent interests, 23% – hard to say). In comparison, only 43% of Poles state that common interests prevail over divergence (42%) in the relations to Russia. The fact that those respondents, affiliated to the opposition party Peace and Justice (PiS), disagree the most on a community of interests in relations to Russia whereas a joint interest is mostly stated by young people (15-19) and inhabitants of the big cities (above 500 000), illustrates a major trend since the change of government from PiS to the Civic Platform (PO) in 2007.

Even under pressure of ongoing Russian provocations in Ukraine, it is all the more unlikely that the long term trend of growing integration of the two EU and NATO members will fall victim to a dissent on Foreign Policy standpoints towards Russia.

In the course of the new “War of Propaganda with the Kremlin” that the author mentioned in the beginning, the West wants to win, a rhetoric reminding of the Cold War is rising. We need to remember that sabre-rattling and the idea of a new ideological block confrontation can pose a danger to an evermore interconnected and multi-polar security structure. Neither from a Polish, nor from a German perspective, the created instability would be in the countries’ interest.


Arthur Molt: After living and travelling in Central and Eastern Europe I call Warsaw my home since October 2013. Currently enrolled at Uniwersytet Warszawski in the framework of a scholarship of the Polish Ministry of Higher Education. Working as an intern at the Institute of Public Affairs (ISP) in Warsaw. My home university is Freie Universität Berlin where I study Political Science.

Featured image: In the centre of Europe, by NASA/GSFC, source: Flickr 

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