Poland's Geostrategic Opportunity
Bronislaw Geremek

Before our eyes the world of international politics is undergoing a fundamental change. Manifestly, this is true for Poland as for other nations. Although Charles de Gaulle maintained that geopolitics changes, but geography does not, both have changed drastically for Poland since 1989. The political geography has shifted through external conditions: the three nations which bordered Poland at that time no longer exist. Instead, seven new neighbors have taken their place. As for the geopolitical situation of Poland, this was always determined historically by its fixed location between Germany and Russia and its shifting relations with these two big neighbors. In the long course of European history, there were certainly times of cooperation and peaceful coexistence between Poland and Russia, and between Poland and Germany. Yet these were outweighed by the recurring seasons of threat and enmity. Located on the most important axis of modern European politics between East and West, Poland experienced only-or at least predominantly-threats to its national existence.

Today this perennial pressure has eased fundamentally, in regard to both Germany and Russia-though in very different ways. Opinion polls in the Polish population show that mistrust of our large neighbors has been receding since 1989, and the sense of internal security is growing. This feeling certainly derives largely from the fact that Poland has been tied to the European Union through an Association Agreement since 1991-and even more from the fact that on March 12, 1999, Poland became a member of NATO. These links both express and influence Poland's relations with Germany and Russia.

The manifestation of the reshaping of relations between Poland and its two large neighbors was the signing of the border treaty with Germany in 1990, the treaty on "good neighbors and friendly cooperation" with Germany in 1991, and the "friendly and neighborly cooperation treaty" with Russia in 1992. While the Polish-Russian treaty set out the principles of bilateral cooperation for the realization of mutual interests, the German-Polish treaty envisions relations between these two states as an integral part of construction of the future Europe. This is true both for the "European peace order" and for the desired "European unity" based on human rights, democracy, and rule of law. In this context Germany declared its support for Polish membership in the European Community. The preamble to the Polish-German treaty also highlighted the need for reconciliation between these two countries. Furthermore, in deliberate imitation of the pioneering Franco-German reconciliation after World War II, it authorized the establishment of a German-Polish foundation to promote youth contacts between the two countries.

One should not assume, however, that in view of the varying treaty formulations, the political intentions of the three parties differ. Rather, they express an awareness of the differences in the historical and geopolitical position of the individual partners-and of long-term developments in Europe.

Historians have invoked different factors to explain the causes of European evolution. In Western Europe there was a market economy, while in Eastern Europe there was the economy of the "second serfdom". In the West there were spreading bourgeois freedoms and widespread private property, while in the East private property was weakly developed, power was exercised arbitrarily (in treatment of property as well), and no civil society emerged. In addition, there were differences between the individual Christian confessions: Roman Catholic and Protestant in Western Europe, Orthodox in Eastern Europe.

This bifurcated scheme of European evolution may be criticized as arbitrary and oversimplified. It is, however, based both on historical arguments and observation of the present-day situation. And this contrast between the European East and West was further intensified as Europe split in the era of the cold war into two political-military blocs and two large integrating structures. On the one side was the European Community, later the European Union, both based on voluntary contract. On the other side was an imposed imperial system of interrelations between the Soviet Union and its client states, which since 1990 has continued on new principles-though with no great success-as the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Between East and West

In view of this historical and experiential dichotomy between East and West, one group of countries has a special position. Constituting what is known as "Central Europe", or sometimes "Central and Eastern Europe", these countries, with Poland as the largest, lie between Germany and Russia. The category of "Central Europe" is problematical, given its coinage by Friedrich Naumann in 1915 in a contemporary geopolitical context of German hegemony. In more recent usage, the terms are in part intended to differentiate this region from Germany; above all, they specify the central geographical position of these countries between Eastern and Western Europe and express their unique mediating locus "between East and West". In Communist times the term Central Europe was also used to distinguish these client states from their patron to the east, as a kind of cultural defense against totalitarian oppression. After the end of the cold war in 1989, the category became the basis of cooperation in various integrating structures like the Central European Free Trade Association or the Central European Initiative. It should be stressed that their attachment to the European tradition was of fundamental importance to all the countries that claimed a Central European identity. Their intent was, primarily, to distance themselves from the Eastern Europe of the eastern Slavs, who were viewed as dependent on Russia and as economically and socially backward; secondarily, this identity was sometimes invoked to distance Central Europe from the Balkans and the negative cliches associated with that region.

Apart from these aspects of political psychology, there are, of course political facts. Historically, it was the fate of Central Europe to be the arena where Germany and Russia occasionally conducted their battles for influence. In the geopolitical concept of the 20thcentury it was seen as a terrain of critical importance in the global contest between Russia and Germany. The peoples of this region have learned their lessons from this historical experience and have rejected the whole notion of hegemonic claims by Russia and Germany.

In the 21st century, after the late 20th century's ideological division of the world into two political "camps" and three "worlds", the traditional concepts of a balance of power or "hegemony" no longer make sense. With this shift, the historically and psychologically rooted term of Central Europe is no longer used to describe geopolitical facts, but refers only to geography, or to the current state of political transition in the region and the common striving for membership in the EU.


For the countries of Central Europe, and especially for Poland, Europe provides the appropriate setting for relations with Germany. The fact that Germany has become European in its thinking, and that its economic and demographic potential has become a constituent part of the EU must rank as one of the great achievements of the half century since World War II. With this, the Polish fear of German hegemony or of political dependence on Germany has vanished. That fear has been supplanted by the opportunity for the kind of cooperation that serves the interests of Poland and Germany equally.

As a result of the reconciliation process between the two countries, which actually began a quarter of a century before 1989, the annus mirabilis of 1989 opened the way for a dense new network of personal links between both peoples. In Polish opinion surveys the Germans still do not enjoy the highest sympathy, but there has been a significant shift: In 1993 only 23 percent of Poles expressed sympathy for Germans, while 53 percent expressed their dislike of Germans. By 1996, however, 43 percent were already well disposed towards Germans while only 30 percent still found them unsympathetic. In 1998, however, 32 percent of Poles found Germans sympathetic, while 39 percent found them unsympathetic. This may well reflect disappointment over the slow pace of the EU integration process. It appears that the tendency toward normalization of German-Polish relations is of a lasting character and that the future will be less and less burdened by the trauma of the past.

Progressive European integration increases the congruity of German and Polish interests. Present investment and labor relations, as well as trade in goods and services, are expanding. The principles of EU internal security and the Common Foreign and Security Policy outlined in the Amsterdam Treaty, as well as the shared experiences in the war in Yugoslavia and the Kosovo crisis underline the importance of EU enlargement and especially of good Polish-German relations.


By contrast, relations between Poland and Russia after the end of the cold war in 1989 must be perceived in quite different categories. The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, the treaty between Poland and the Russian Federation in 1992, the withdrawal of Russian armed forces from Poland, and clarifying Russian statements about the murder of Polish officers in Katyn during World War II have permitted a new relationship between the two countries.

A framework has been developed in which the treaty phrase of "friendly and neighborly cooperation" has become a reality. Apart from the question of how much remains to be accomplished in the process of reconciliation between the two peoples, Poland and Russia can draw mutual benefits from closer cooperation. Ultimately, however, the scope for common strategic interests between Poland and Russia is limited to those areas that are of equal interest to Russia and member states of the EU. But for obvious reasons a Poland that borders on Russia is more interested in the progress of the market economy, democracy, and political and economic stability in this country than is any other European nation.

Current events clearly show today's Russia to be an unpredictable partner. The land is not content with itself or with its present role in the world. The rest of the world watches Russia as if it were looking at a chess player who seems to be verging on upsetting the entire chessboard in his next move. One must, however, also consider Russia's long-term strategic position in Europe. It is a commonplace to say that the Russian Federation is a giant state with extraordinary natural resources; it has ten time zones and more than half of the world's natural resources. One must note, however, that the interactions between the geography and political strategies of the Russian Federation still remain vague. The complex Eurasian identity of this nation is not just a political slogan that politicians wield in arguments in the Duma; it is also an expression of Russia's geopolitical situation, of a giant which looks toward both Europe and Asia.

It is hard to imagine that Russia could become a member of the European Union in the foreseeable future without bursting the EU's structural framework. It is important to note, however, that this does not mean Russia's exclusion from Europe. On the contrary, it is necessary to signal openness towards Russia to encourage those political parties, social circles, and ordinary citizens who support the European development model for Russia. The EU could develop a new formula for its cooperation with Russia, similar to that of NATO. First of all, it should allow free trade with Russia. If Russia and the EU adopted the EU's new form of close economic cooperation with the US, this could embed Russia in Europe's global policy. Similarly, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, freed from the ballast of the cold war, could become, like the European Council, a broad, future-oriented, political and cultural forum in which Russia could participate fully and play an important role.

However, it must be clear that Russia does not mean the same thing as Eastern Europe. In post-Soviet space the situation of the three Baltic republics is unequivocal: kidnapped out of Europe and annexed by force into the Soviet Union, they are now returning to their rightful European place, just as Poland is. But what, then, is the outlook for Ukraine and Belarus? Clearly the answer to this question lies first and foremost with these countries themselves. Over the course of centuries Poland was bound to both peoples in a common historical fate-but history is only one of the many influences on present-day national interests. Since regaining their independence, Poland and Ukraine have characterized their mutual relations as a "strategic partnership". From Ukraine's point of view, this is identical with the definition of its general political orientation. This is important for Poland, but it is also important for Europe and the EU. Now that the EU partnership and association treaties make admission of southeastern European nations into the EU a future possibility, the same prospect should be offered to Ukraine and Belarus; fulfillment of this hope would then lie with these nations themselves.

The Poles enter the 21st century with an unprecedented feeling of security and with the conviction that they are no longer destined to live under the constant danger of being dominated by their big neighbors, Germany and Russia. Reconciliation with former enemies is not only a chance to exorcise the ghosts of the past; it also provides the foundation for the construction of politics of the future on the main axis of European politics, the East-West axis. Here, too, Poland has an important mission to fulfill. It is a natural connecting bridge for Western Europe on its way east; and for an Eastern Europe that is opening itself to the West, Poland again is "on the way". Geography and politics require Poland to play a useful role in shaping the future Europe.

Published in Transatlantic Internationale Politik 1/2000 © 2000 Frankfurter Societäts-Druckerei GmbH, Frankfurt am Main Germany

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