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Breathing diplomacy into Polish foreign relations – Tusk’s 100 days, and counting

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The theme for most Polish celebrations is the number 100: at every birthday, anniversary, wedding –practically any and every ceremony, except a funeral– the repetitive “Sto Lat” (one hundred years) jingle wishes the honoree all the best in reaching this blissful number, whether in age, years, or days. Politics has its own “100” theme and Poland’s new Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, just celebrated his first. After one hundred days in office there is plenty to congratulate, a lot to be hopeful about, and a bit too much criticism by the opposition to listen to. Naturally, this is the time for the majority to boast about what they have done so far and, more importantly, what they will do in the near future just as it is the perfect moment for the defeated opposition to point out the flaws.

While internal politics remain complex and 100 days is too little time to actually see the effects of any real plans put forth, internationally the change in government has given Poland the breath of fresh air it so needed to clear the stuffiness created by the previous coalition. Although the country still faces high unemployment, a poor rural class and decrepit infrastructure, it is an important EU member that can have great impact on energy supply issues with Russia and border security thanks to its incorporation into the Schengen sphere. It has tremendous potential for greater international investment and the new ruling party’s business-driven agenda plans on making that one of their goals.

After the parting of one of the Kaczynski twins, Poland is once again received with smiles rather than perplexed expressions. Until last October, Jarek Kaczynski, former Prime Minister of Poland, was rather difficult to please during meetings with heads of other European nations or simply not present, or open to dialogue. Poland was usually on the attack mode: either blocking a resolution, demanding more voting rights or not in the mood to mingle with other members, convinced that someone somewhere was out to cause it harm. Given that Poland’s history has been plagued by misfortune it is understandable why some politicians would choose to use fear or mistrust as part of the strategy for political negotiation. However, arguing that the 38-million-nation deserves more voting power due to 6 million of its citizens having been killed by Germans during WWII was apparently too extreme for Poles, who took to the urns in record numbers (53.88%) since the fall of communism in 1989. The highest turnout (78.26%) was recorded abroad, where emigrants were clearly hopeful for a change to the narrow-minded and often xenophobic nature of the Law and Justice (PiS) party’s policies and conduct.

In last October’s parliamentary elections, Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform (PO) won with just over 41% of the votes, compared to 32% for PiS. Receiving the vote of confidence, Tusk promised to restore the voter’s confidence in its government, thus boosting the moral of many citizens who had been deemed undeserving of much faith by the previous government which felt it needed to provide constant lessons on morals, values and whether to love or hate thy neighbor. The feeling of doubt and mistrust had also been a prevailing theme outside of Poland, which was precisely one of the first things on the new Prime Minister’s agenda when taking office.

Tusk’s first foreign visit was to Poland’s most important economic partner and what had become a foe during the former government’s brief encounter with power, Germany. The debate over the controversial Center Against Expulsions in Berlin – an initiative documenting ethnic cleansing and expulsions during WWII, particularly of Germans – and hostility and fear over property claims by Germans on Polish soil have been some of the main reasons to exacerbate the already delicate relations between the neighbors. Nonetheless, the lack of dialogue and constant bickering played out in both the Polish and German media made the situation take on a rather silly tone. The need to abandon such futile behavior has been addressed by Tusk’s appointment of the highly respected and valuable expertise of Wladyslaw Bartoszewski – professor, writer, former Minister of Foreign Relations, ambassador to Austria, activist, basically an extremely dedicated and energetic 86-year-old – to become one of his closest advisors with a special focus on relations with Germany.

Valuable lessons can be learned from someone like Bartoszewski, who defended Warsaw during the Nazi invasion, was a prisoner of Auschwitz and an activist against the communist regime yet never lost faith in humanity and strongly believes in solidarity. Perhaps the most important is how to look past the hardships he himself has witnessed and experienced and learning from rather than dwelling on history. One of Donald Tusk’s political strategies is to use the professor’s knowledge and influence or the President Lech Walesa’s legendary popularity and symbolism in order to build stronger ties with the nation’s closest neighbors and give Poland a firmer stance when it comes to its distant but very powerful overseas partner, the United States.

Always reliable and keen on keeping relations with the United States at their best, Poland has compromised many of their own interests by dedicating themselves to protecting the interests of their treasured ally. The involvement in the Iraq War has never been a popular decision and the withdrawal date is long overdue, but Tusk has made it very clear that by October 2008 the remaining 900 or so troops will be coming home. Withdrawal dates have also been thrown around by the previous government and may or may not materialize at the promised deadline with the current one, but the attitude to setting up the Anti-Missile Shield bases is slightly different to what Kaczynski and his cabinet expressed. The previous government showed more willingness to reach an agreement sooner rather than later and addressed criticism, particularly from Russia, with words of defiance.

The plan to set up missile interceptors in Poland has indeed been met with concern by the nation as well as various EU members. Above all, Russia has been very adamant in expressing their disapproval and suspicions about the plans for positioning the shield system at such proximity. In the brief time the Civic Platform has been in office they have managed to change the accommodating tone of the previous administration to one that takes a step back to really focus on Poland’s safety and advantages in hosting the shield. Tusk and his team are stalling in making this tough call and are holding negotiations with Americans in hopes of gaining more military upgrades in return for setting up the interceptors on Polish soil. Ironically, Polish experts feel their nation’s security is likely to be at more at risk once the shields are in place and would thus need to modernize the current defense system.

No one feels more uneasy about the project than Russia, which views it as a return to Cold War tactics. So far it has been taking out its frustrations on its once subordinate neighbor that now has a substantial say in EU policies – and the previous government has used its veto power to infuriate Russians enough to make them ban Polish meat imports and cut all lines of dialogue. The current PM understands that it is much more productive to have Russia as a partner rather than an adversary with a powerful weapon like Gazprom. In recent weeks he has taken a contested by some and praised by many more visit to meet with President Putin, the first to be made by a person of his rank since 2001. Within PO’s 100 days Minister of Foreign Affairs, Radek Sikorski, took a similar trip and it seems that with a bit of diplomacy embargos on meat can be lifted and uncomfortable topics concerning Stalin’s war crimes in Katyn, dispelled by Russians for decades, manage to be acknowledged. One of Tusk’s main objectives was to ease Russian concerns about the Anti-Missile Shield system and guarantee the project’s transparency; although not likely to be attained easily, the effort should certainly be applauded.

Dialogue and diplomacy have been lacking in Polish politics throughout Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s time in office and despite his twin brother’s similar approach as President, Donald Tusk looks to be breaking this counter-productive approach and finding the right people to positively represent Poland in the world. Employing knowledge and experience to work in Poland’s favor by learning from the past instead of hiding behind it makes the country more attractive just as much for economic investment and partnership as for the quality of life. Perhaps this would even be enough to reduce the ‘brain-drain’ and emigration pattern that since 2004 has registered over one million Poles leaving for European member states. One hundred days is not sufficient time to evaluate the work of Donald Tusk, but it is enough to hear the overall tone and approach his government is likely to have while carrying out their plans in the next few years. From the looks of it so far, the tone bodes well.

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