Ukrainian crisis overshadows Polish domestic politics

Although the European Parliament election campaign began officially in February and continued to rumble on, last month Polish domestic political developments were overtaken by the dramatic events that occurred in neighbouring Ukraine. With the international situation so fluid and dangerously unpredictable, it is very difficult to tell at this stage what impact the Ukrainian crisis will have on the Polish political scene.

At the start of February, a number of the minor parties announced their candidate lists for the European Parliament (EP) election at national conventions. These included the two centre-left groupings – the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the liberal-left Europa Plus Your Movement (EPTR) coalition headed up (formally at least) by former Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski – together with two smaller centre-right parties: Poland Together (PR) and Solidaristic Poland (SP). The right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping led by Jarosław Kaczyński, also unveiled the latest iteration of its programme. This prompted prime minister and the leader of the centrist Civic Platform (PO), the main governing party since 2007, Donald Tusk to challenge Mr Kaczyński, his predecessor as prime minister, to a televised debate sparking off an inconclusive series of challenges and counter-challenges about the terms under which this should take place. The month ended with Jacek Protasiewicz MEP, a Civic Platform regional party boss and EP Vice-President, resigning as the party’s national EP election campaign co-ordinator after causing an international (and possibly career-ending) incident when he apparently shouted ‘Heil Hitler’ while drunk at a German security official at Frankfurt airport. These would have no doubt have been the main developments on the political scene last month had it not been for the outbreak of the dramatic events in Ukraine.

Polish parties support Ukrainian EU integration

The conflict between Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his opponents camped out in Kiev’s Maidan Square began last November when, following pressure from Russia, his government backed out of signing an expected free trade and association agreement with the EU. Having started out as a rally to support EU integration, the so-called ‘Euromaidan’ quickly turned into a mass-scale anti-government protest movement.

Poland was in the forefront of efforts to secure the EU association agreement. All the main Polish parties share the goal of promoting active EU engagement and closer links with East European post-Soviet states in order to the draw them more closely into the West’s orbit, with the eventual prospect of accession to the Union for the most advanced such as Ukraine. Consequently, as in the case of EU policy more generally, Polish-Ukrainian relations have only emerged in the context of domestic inter-party politics as a so-called ‘valence’ issue: where parties agree on overall objectives but compete over which of them is the most competent to deliver on these shared goals.

The Civic Platform government argued that, under its Law and Justice predecessor, Poland was not able to pursue this objective effectively because poor bi-lateral relations with Moscow had re-inforced the prevalent image among its EU partners of Poles as knee-jerk Russophobes. Instead, the Tusk administration favoured improving Russo-Polish relations alongside a fairly minimalist and consensual approach towards EU Eastern policy based on making long-term progress through building support for small steps forward. The best example of this was the Eastern Partnership programme, a fairly modest Polish initiative aimed at strengthening EU ties and regional co-operation with its post-Soviet neighbours. Civic Platform claimed that it was precisely through slowly and incrementally drawing Ukraine (and other post-Soviet republics) into political and trade agreements with the EU that the long-term goal of further eastward enlargement of the Union could be advanced.

On the other hand, Law and Justice, whose leader was one of the first European politicians to travel to Kiev and support pro-EU demonstrations at end of last year, argued that by focusing on improved relations with Russia and promoting the Eastern Partnership the Tusk administration had downgraded developing bi-lateral ties with Kiev and treated the former Soviet republics as a uniform entity rather than building stronger links with more advanced ones like Ukraine.

Controversy over Mr Sikorski’s role

The Ukrainian conflict came to head in February when police tried to halt demonstrators marching towards parliament after government supporters in the legislature blocked constitutional amendments limiting presidential prerogatives, one of the opposition’s key demands. Riot police opened fire on anti-government protesters who fought back with improvised weapons such as bricks and smoke bombs, leading (according to opposition estimates) to over 100 deaths over the next few days.

As these dramatic events unfolded, Poland played a pivotal role in the EU’s efforts to negotiate a deal that could halt the violence. Polish foreign minister Radosław Sikorski, together with his French and German counterparts, persuaded Mr Yanukovych to agree to a deal that included: a promise not to impose a state of emergency, early presidential elections (originally scheduled to take place in 2015) by December, constitutional changes to weaken the power of the presidency, the formation of an interim national unity government representing all sides of the political conflict, and an independent investigation into the violence. In subsequent tense negotiations with opposition leaders, who were wary that Mr Yanukovych would renege on the agreement, TV cameras recorded how Mr Sikorski made a dramatic appeal for them to accept the deal or ‘you will have martial law, you will have the army, you will all be dead’.

Following the outbreak of violence in Kiev, the Ukrainian crisis was, initially at least, not an issue of inter-party contestation in Poland. The parliamentary debate that followed saw cross-party consensus on a major political issue for the first time in many years, including an extraordinary display of unity between the two main parties which have been engaged in a deeply polarised and bitter political struggle since they emerged as the dominant groupings on the Polish political scene in 2005. Although he called upon the Polish government to take a more pro-active approach, Mr Kaczyński also applauded Mr Tusk’s statement that he would try and persuade EU leaders to introduce targeted sanctions against the Ukrainian leaders responsible for the violent crackdown. The prime minister reciprocated by applauding Mr Kaczyński when the Law and Justice leader called upon all Polish political groupings to unite on the Ukraine issue.

However, this cross-party consensus quickly unravelled after Mr Yanukovych’s downfall as a number of Law and Justice politicians argued that Mr Sikorski and the other EU ministers had intervened too late and played into the Ukrainian President’s hands by allowing him to buy time to plan his escape and secure his family’s financial interests. They claimed that, by the time that Mr Sikorski was warning opposition leaders of the dangers of not accepting the deal, Mr Yanukovych’s camp was already splintering and had lost too much support to use further violence to crush the Maidan protesters. As it turned out, the agreement quickly became obsolescent when Mr Yanukovych fled from the capital immediately after it was negotiated and the regime decomposed as security forces stood down allowing the opposition to occupy the presidential palace and government buildings. Describing the effects of Mr Sikorski’s intervention, Mr Kaczynski argued that ‘sometimes you do something bad, but it comes out well’.

Mr Sikorski responded by arguing that no one could have foreseen the rapid collapse of the Yanuokovych regime. He claimed that if the opposition had rejected the deal this could have strengthened the Ukrainian President’s hand by allowing him to portray his opponents as intransigent and using this as a pretext to unleash further violence against them. Claiming that documents recovered from the deposed President’s residence confirmed that Mr Yanukovych had planned a deadly crackdown against the protesters, Mr Sikorski argued that the scenario of bloodshed was very real and that it was his duty to warn the opposition of the potential threat that they faced.

Future domestic scenarios are difficult to predict

Given the fluidity and dangerous unpredictably of the current situation, with Russia threatening Ukraine’s territorial integrity, it is extremely difficult to foresee what impact developments in Poland’s Eastern neighbour will have on the Polish political scene. Up until now, everything seemed to suggest that the EP election would focus primarily on domestic issues and this was certainly what the Law and Justice opposition was hoping would happen. With the ruling party running some 5-10% behind Law and Justice in the opinion polls, Mr Kaczyński’s party hoped to turn the election into a referendum on the government’s performance: a classic second-order poll in which voters express a cost-free protest vote and punish governing parties by supporting the opposition. As noted above, the Ukrainian crisis certainly blew all domestic issues out of the water. Previous experience suggests that Polish elections are always dominated by domestic rather than European or other international issues, except when the latter are framed as valence issues. However, given the dramatic nature of subsequent developments, and that fact that any potential future conflict would occur so close to home, the Ukrainian crisis is likely to overshadow Polish domestic politics for some time to come.

In the short-term, the media spotlight will now inevitably fall on the government, particularly if it plays a leading international role in trying to resolve the crisis. The opposition simply lacks the instruments to exert any real influence at this level and is anyway likely to refrain from criticising the government overtly for the sake of national unity at a time of crisis, for the moment at least. Indeed, at one point, Ukrainian developments appeared to support Civic Platform’s claim that its approach towards European policy – based on adopting a conciliatory approach towards, and building alliances with, Poland’s main EU partners – was more effective than Law and Justice’s in promoting Polish interests at the international level. Some sections of the international media praised Mr Sikorski for his role in the helping to broker the deal with Mr Yanukovych, buttressing the ruling party’s claims that Poland was now a key European decision-maker that enjoyed the confidence of major EU states, especially Germany, on Eastern policy. A poll conducted by the IBRMiS Homo Homini Institute for the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper suggested that this view was at least partly shared by the Polish public, with 71% evaluating the government’s Ukraine diplomacy favourably (54% very favourably) and only 20% unfavourably; although, interestingly, only 43% felt that its actions were sufficient while 40% thought they were not.

However, the impact of the Ukrainian crisis on Polish domestic politics depends not just on whether it remains in the headlines but also on the government’s performance in the international arena. For the moment, partisan calculations are likely to be put on hold as the imperative for national unity at a time of international crisis becomes the overriding concern. However, at some point the cross-party consensus could once again start to unravel with the Law and Justice opposition arguing that recent developments highlight the naivety of the Tusk administration’s over-conciliatory approach towards Moscow and concomitant downgrading of Polish-Ukrainian relations in recent years. On the other hand, partisan considerations might pale into insignificance if events in Poland’s Eastern neighbour spiral dangerously out-of-control and the crisis turns into an armed conflict with Russia, with Warsaw and the rest of the international community looking on helplessly.