Whether by design or by happenstance, Poland has played significant roles in nearly all of Europe’s major geopolitical acts over the last 100 years. Throughout much of the twentieth century, Poland found itself sandwiched between two major powers; Germany to the west and Russia to the east. World War II began with Hitler’s invasion and subsequent defeat of Poland. In the Cold War era Poland was a satellite of the Soviet Union and member of the Warsaw Pact. The first cracks in the Iron Curtain appeared in Poland with the birth of the Solidarity movement in 1980. Following the end of the Cold War and break up of the Soviet Union, Poland was once again a free nation-state, and as the twentieth century drew to a close the former Soviet satellite applied for, and war granted membership in the NATO alliance.
Eighteen years into the twenty first century and Poland is again playing an essential role in European geopolitics. The reemergence of the Russia as a threat to NATO places the nation squarely on the front line of what is potentially a new cold war. Along with the threat to the east, Poland is contending with another type of threat coming from the west. Warsaw and the European Union have locked horns an increasing number of times in recent months on a diverse range of issues. Poland’s independent streak is rubbing Brussels the wrong way. Whatever drama comes next, Poland will be in the middle of it.
With all of this in mind, the Spring 2018 project for this blog will be to produce a picture of what Poland will look like four years from now. Economic, political, military, and domestic factors will be explored. Questions will be formed and hopefully answered as well. The following are but two examples: Will Poland’s relationship with the EU mend, or continue to fray? How seriously do the Polish people take the possibility of a future war with Russia?
The project posts will be published weekly between mid-March and mid-April, 2018.
Until recently it has been generally accepted that the greatest threat to Poland lay to the east in the form of the Russian Federation. Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia has responded decisively to what it perceives as NATO and European encroachment of its traditional sphere of influence. Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis following Euromaidan and the subsequent War in Donbass can be linked directly to its fear of NATO or the European Union co-opting Ukraine and molding it into a pro-West nation-state. Moscow cannot let this happen for a variety of reasons. As the fighting in Ukraine reached a stalemate, Russia began to shift its attention to the Baltics and its former satellite states in Eastern Europe. Russian military exercises set around the periphery of the Baltics and Poland, coupled with NATO military deployments to the region heightened tensions, and made the prospect of a future Russian-NATO clash in Poland seem a reasonable scenario.
While Russia remains a clear threat to Poland, its status as the greatest could be facing some competition. A newer menace to Poland and its sovereignty is developing in Brussels at the headquarters of the European Union.
The EU and Poland are moving towards a confrontation that could prove to be a crucial test for the Union. The right wing Law and Justice government in Warsaw has undertaken a series of moves that the EU regards as a challenge to EU principles. Even though Poland remains a proper democracy in every regard, the government’s attempts to reform the voting system, and judicial system rub Brussels the wrong way. Added to this is Poland’s refusal to accept refugees as part of the EU attempt to distribute asylum seekers from North Africa and the Middle East across Europe.
In December, the European Commission invoked Article Seven of the Lisbon Treaty, giving Poland three months to reverse its judicial reforms or face EU sanctions. This action projects the current differences as being a matter of the EU bullying Poland because it does not approve of the domestic decisions being made in Warsaw. Brussels claims otherwise, of course, but the fact remains that the European Union wants Poland to reverse its reforms and come in line with the supra-national body’s principles. In short, the EU seems determined to punish Poland for what it views as Polish defiance.
The brewing confrontation fits in well with a project on Poland I’m in the process of planning. Later this week I’ll post about it and then separately next week provide a deeper analysis of the EU-Poland rift.
It all comes down to this for Angela Merkel. This week brings about what will likely be her final attempt to form a coalition government and end the political stalemate in Germany. Discussions are underway between Merkel and the leaders of the Social Democratic Party, with the German chancellor attempting to bring the SDP back into the fold of a new coalition. In the past, SDP had been part of a coalition led by Merkel, but when the party’s voter support for it diminished, SDP withdrew. This time around, even if Merkel receives the support of SDP leader Martin Schulz, he will need to gain the support of party membership before a formal agreement is reached. Given the proclivities of SDP voters concerning domestic issues, as well as Merkel’s polarizing effect, there is no guarantee the party will support joining a coalition that will reverse her political fortunes.
If Merkel fails to forge a coalition, her options are limited. She can continue ahead with a minority government. Without a stable majority in the Bundestag, it is unlikely that Merkel’s government will be able to pass any major legislation, or tackle significant issues. The support simply will not be there for such ventures.
Another alternative is to hold new elections. Returning to the electorate would be a risky proposition which could see the government lose even more seats and muddle the situation in the Bundestag even more. Simply reaching the point where snap elections can be held is almost impossible for Merkel. To call for the elections, she must first request that German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier dissolve the Bundestag. Since Merkel is the head of a caretaker government, she cannot do this. A third, less realistic option is for Steinmeier to nominate her for an election by parliament however, the road there is also complex and fraught with potential pitfalls.
With its own agenda tied to Merkel’s political fortunes, the European Union is keeping close tabs on events in Berlin this week. The EU realizes it cannot make any major strides with Germany remaining on the sidelines and preoccupied with its own political drama. Brussels is eager to move forward, though its hands are tied until the mess in Berlin is resolved.
All things must come to an end and that includes political eras. The Merkel Era is drawing to a close. Germany and Europe are anxiously peering ahead into an ambiguous future. Regrettably for them, the Merkel Era does not seem to be going gently into that good night. Instead of a quick death, it appears destined to linger for an extended period of time before dying off. Its current status is comparable to a patient entering hospice care. The end is inevitable, and family members have gathered around to say goodbye, though no one is certain when that will be. And, to quote Tom Petty, ‘the waiting is the hardest part.’
Germany is in a period of political stasis. Politicians, and political parties alike have been behaving out of character since Angela Merkel’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. Nobody wants to join a coalition government chaired by the chancellor. Her efforts to build a coalition have been rebuffed and stonewalled by friend and foe alike. The Free Democrats (FDP) stepped away and are now pursuing their own path to power, while the Social Democrats (SPD) have been carping over the details so much they have made it readily apparent that they want nothing to do with a Merkel-built coalition. Eventually, a coalition will be formed and Merkel will be the head of it, but she might do more harm than good. Her political capital has been exhausted and the September elections made it clear that a significant number of Germans want to move away from Merkelism. She may not cede power for another year or two, but German politicians are already positioning themselves for the post-Merkel Era future.
The European Union is in an even more delicate position. The political crisis in Germany has stopped the EU agenda dead in its tracks. Efforts to figure out the shape institutional reforms cannot move ahead until the situation in Germany resolves itself. France’s president Emanuel Macron has his own set of ideas, and reforms which he would like to be considered. Unfortunately, the EU is reluctant to even begin discussing Macron’s ideas until the German situation resolves itself. In other words, the EU is not going to be making consequential decisions, or moving forward on major issues without Germany. With or without Angela Merkel in power, Germany continues to be central to all things Europe in the eyes of the EU. It’s unclear if this will remain true as the political fortunes of Emanuel Macron rise, but at present, most in the EU appear reluctant to rock the boat.
Even with the Merkel Era waning away, and the current German government adopting a caretaker status, Germany remains the undisputed Godfather of the continent.
Almost four years after the Maidan revolution swept Viktor Yushchenko and his regime from power, Ukraine is in the midst of another bout of political turmoil. Protesters have taken to the streets chanting “Bandits Out!” and protester tents have returned to Maidan Square. This time around, the scope of the protests is smaller than four years ago, but the target of the growing dissent is essentially the same: Government graft.
The current political drama’s impetus is Mikhail Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia. He entered Ukrainian politics after Maidan to help combat corruption. He served as governor of the Odessa region before a falling out between him and his longtime friend, Ukraine’s current president Petro Poroshenko. Saakashvili resigned from his post in 2016 and publicly accused Poroshenko of corruption and blocking reforms. Poroshenko responded in July by stripping him of his Ukrainian citizenship, opening the door for his potential deportation back to Georgia where Saakashvili is wanted on fraud charges. With the help of supporters, Saakashvili made his way back into the country late Sunday. Earlier this week, he held a rally in Kiev where he called for Poroshenko to be impeached. Two days later, he was arrested by security service agents, but a large crowd of his supporters blocked the van carrying him and freed him from government custody. Late on Friday, Saakashvili was arrested again and taken into custody, prompting crowds of his supporters to gather outside of the detention center where he is being held.
The draconian manner in which Poroshenko is handling this challenge to his position reveals the grim reality that the primary demand of Maidan has yet to be realized. Corruption is still prevalent, and the Oligarchic system remains in place. This situation would be bad enough even under peacetime conditions, however, the fact that Ukraine is mired in a nearly four-year long war against Russian-supported separatists exacerbates matters. The West has done little to assist in the corruption fight since Maidan, focusing its efforts on military and diplomatic assistance instead. Now, even those efforts have diminished. Europe is suffering from ‘Ukraine burn-out’ and the United States has still not adopted a thorough Ukraine policy. It was hoped that the Trump administration would make it a priority, but that has yet happen.
The turmoil in Ukraine could provide Russia with a window of opportunity as well. It is likely that right now in the Kremlin Vladimir Putin and his advisers are looking at the situation and working on a way to turn it to Russia’s advantage. The war in Ukraine has dragged on in stalemate for quite some time. Putin has been patiently awaiting the time when favorable circumstances could permanently change that.
That moment could very well be now.