On Radosław Sikorski's Othering of Ukraine at Harvard

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December 8, 2014

On Radosław Sikorski's Othering of Ukraine at Harvard

On November 20th, 2014 at Harvard University Radosław Sikorski, the speaker of the Polish Parliament and former Polish foreign minister, delivered a public address titled “A Future for Ukraine: Lessons from Poland.” The event, organized by the Center for European Studies in cooperation with the Ukrainian Research Institute, attracted quite a significant audience. As understood from the introduction by Prof. Grzegorz Ekiert, the director of the Center for European Studies, as well as from Sikorski’s address, this address was dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. I presume that it had been planned in advance as a part of a program of academic, cultural and business events that Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs organizes this year in countries of Western Europe and North America.  This is done in order to promote the success of Polish post-communist transformation and present Poland as the informal leader of the region.

Sikorski did not live up to my expectations. Instead of a formal and boring speech of an acting politician on the current international situation, those present had the opportunity to hear an original and intellectually laden 40 minute lecture, outlining the trajectories of both Polish and Ukrainian history during last 25 years and proposing some mechanisms for solving what Sikorski, following common usage, calls “the Ukrainian crisis.” As far as the latter issue is concerned, expressed here were all the expected and really necessary for Ukraine messages: the criticism of Russia, the need for a broad international programme of support for Ukraine (here Sikorski rhetorically and effectively referred to the example of George Marshall, who launched his famous aid plan for Western Europe with his public address also at Harvard University on the 5th of June 1947).  He also spoke about strengthening NATO. As a Ukrainian citizen, I am grateful to Radosław Sikorski and Polish authorities for this truly necessary and important for Ukraine support. However, as a historian who deals with the issues of social role and public use of history, in this paper I wish to concentrate on the first more problematic subject of Sikorski’s speech, on his account of Ukrainian and Polish histories in the last 25 years and on the usage of history in constructing their image in contemporary international relations. I believe that the reaction to Sikorski’s position on this issue is important because his point is likely to be characteristic of that part of the Polish political elite now in power in his country.

In Sikorski’s view, Poland and Ukraine demonstrate two diverging trajectories of development after the fall of communism: that of success and of failure respectively. At the beginning of the 1990s the two countries had almost equal starting positions (and Ukraine had an even better one), but then their paths diverged. Sikorski states that the main reason is the behavior of their elites. The Polish post-communist and democratic elites came to an agreement and concentrated on integration of the country into Western military and political alliances, as well as on the introduction of Western rules and principles within Poland. Not only the successes of foreign policy (accession to the NATO and the EU), but also stable economic growth became the fruits of this policy. The Polish politician minutely and with evident pleasure cited the dynamic of Poland’s GDP and other macro-economic indicators of growth which, in his view, indisputably confirm this success and turn Poland into the leader of post-communist East-Central Europe. The latter point was not stated openly, but it was probably expected that those present were to reach this conclusion on their own, taking into account the frequent reiteration of his thoughts about the success of Polish “transition” and, that in the sphere of economic development, Poland left behind not only Ukraine, but also such countries as the Czech Republic and Hungary.

In this narrative, Ukraine was assigned the role of being a grey background, to set off the success of Polish transformation. In Sikorski’s view, the failure of Ukraine is caused by the behavior of elites who did not have a clear strategy for the country’s development and were not oriented towards the introduction of Western rules of the game. Corruption and abuse of power by the elites were the main impediment for the development of the economy. As a result, Ukrainian macro-economic indicators now are significantly lower than those of the countries of East-Central Europe which joined the NATO and the EU. Also, the Ukrainian population distrusts state institutions. Euromaidan was mentioned in passing, not as a positive and successful culmination of previous development, but as a belated anti-corruption revolution, evidence of the people’s will to introduce Western rules. The logical conclusion that can be drawn from this story is that Ukraine, as a poor student, should follow the example of the overachieving student (Poland) as well as the recommendations of teachers (the EU and the IMF).  Then it might succeed and continue its training (the prescription is Sikorski’s but the metaphors are mine).

Thus, in the case of Sikorski’s Harvard address, we have to deal with the classic example of the use of history by politicians in order to construct an image and to promote the interests of a particular country in international relations. History is often used in this way and it is quite a legitimate practice as such. However, what matters is how and on the basis of what principles this is done. One has to acknowledge that, in contrast to similar exercises by the current Russian president, Sikorski’s account is based mostly on correct evidence. However, every historical narrative is always selective. It includes one set of facts, but omits others, and it also evaluates chosen facts from a certain (value) perspective. In the remainder of my text I would like to consider this issue selection in more detail.

I will focus on the two elements in Sikorski’s address that seems to be the most problematic and disturbing: the othering of Ukraine and the role of economy in the construction of the narrative of (East-Central) Europe’s history after 1989.

As far as the othering is concerned, I would like to emphasize that I do not think that Ukraine (both the political elites and society) does not deserve criticism for its performance during the years of 1991-2013. It does deserve and need such criticism, especially now. The question is, however, from what position it is voiced and how far it goes. In my opinion, in Sikorski’s speech constructive criticism turned into othering (but not orientation), and this is reflected both in its general message and in several concrete statements.

As to the general message, in Sikorski’s interpretation, the history of post-communist Ukraine became included into the narrative of failure. Even Euromaidan, which the Polish politician assesses positively, does not change this situation. His arguments give an impression that Ukraine is seriously ill, and as such is rather a problem than an opportunity for Europe. One has to acknowledge that this interpretation, with some qualifications, can be accepted if one concentrates exclusively on the economic sphere. However, if we broaden our focus thematically, chronologically, as well as spatially, and also look at such spheres as civil society, state-building and political life in East-Central Europe from the early 20th onwards, we can construct a very different account. To a great extent, this narrative would be similar to the history of Poland itself as well as of other countries of the region that joined the EU ten years ago. It would be a narrative of a nation which had struggled for liberation from colonial rule throughout the 20th century, of creation and then renewal of independent statehood which was to be based on the values of a just and democratic society. It is true that, compared to Poland, these processes took place in Ukraine with some delay but, nevertheless, looking from today’s post-Euromaidan standpoint, it would be a narrative of success and hope, but not of failure. In this interpretation, Ukraine would look not as “the sick man of Europe”, who might be helped out of pity or in order to prevent him from infecting others with his disease.  Ukraine would be viewed as an equal member of the European family of nations who, by its own struggle, reminds others that alliances as NATO and the EU had been established particularly for the sake of just these values of defense and development. And in this case, it might be helped because of a feeling of solidarity and affection.

However, in his address Sikorski did just did not go this way, but twice closed the door for Ukraine. First – he contrasted the “democratic” revolutions of 1989 in the countries of Central Europe with the “anti-corruption” (that is, economically motivated!) Eurorevolution of 2013-2014 in Ukraine. The Polish politician did this again when he attempted to explain Ukraine’s failure in comparison to Polish success. Then he made the only digression to the period before 1989, pointing out that it would be difficult to expect from Ukraine much after the fall of communism because, in contrast to Poland, it was a part of the USSR and earlier of the Russian Empire. It also did not have access to Western institutions (apart from the implicit othering of the Russian Empire one has to do here with the factually incorrect statement for at least half of Ukraine’s territory). With the help of these passages Ukraine turns out to be discursively separated from Poland and other East-Central Europe countries’ “narrative of success” and remains a part of a gray post-Soviet zone of failures and pariahs.

The narrative of the successful Polish transition raises many questions as well. I will not analyze to what extent this transformation has been so unambiguously successful, as Sikorski tried to present it (however, it raised serious doubts among those Poles who were part of the audience, which was later reflected in the questions posed to the speaker). What matters for my focus in this text, is that Polish success was justified with the help of two set of factors: political and economic. By the former, the Polish politician understands joining Western political and military institutions as well as the introduction of Western rules inside the country. Whereas, in support of the latter factor he cited with pleasure the statics of the Polish GDP’s growth. As a consequence of choosing this narrow political-economic perspective, the history in Sikorski’s “narrative of success” in fact “ends” with the admission to NATO and the EU and, if it continues to exist at all, this existence takes the form of competition of the growth of the GDP among European countries. I suppose that this “Europe of GDP” might be attractive for a lot of Poles and other Eastern Europeans who have not experienced all the lures of the Western European “consumer society” yet. However, economic pragmatism as the main ideology of the EU seems to be in crisis, and the turnout of the last elections to the European Parliament, as well as the percent taken by the Eurosceptics might serve as confirmation of this situation. The image of Russia as the common enemy also does not help much, as many Western Europeans consider it to be too distant and unconvincing. If the EU wants to stop these dangerous tendencies, it should return to values as the basis for its ideology and actions, and to propose to Europeans a compelling historical narrative which is to explain the importance of these values and institutions that support and protect them. It seems to me that Poland and Ukraine, who in the last decades have had considerable experience in the successful struggle for freedom and dignity, as well as for the construction of a more just society, might contribute several pages to this story, and in this way help Western Europeans to believe once again that both national states and the EU can and must regard the mission as more important than just the rise of the GDP and the basket of consumer goods.

Depending on our perspective and questions, the past can serve as a reservoir of things that unite or divide us. Coming back to Polish-Ukrainian relations, despite pessimism inspired by Radosław Sikorski’s Harvard public address, I still believe that the former option is not only more productive politically but also has a firmer historical base.

Translation edited by Orysia Tracz.

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Andrew Vitvitsky's picture
Andrew Vitvitsky December 16, 2014, 08:02 pm

Sikorski’s apparent disregard for Ukrainian achievements may have several explanations. A plausible back story would take into account his reputation, along with that of Carl Bildt, as major promoter of extending EU influence into post-soviet space. Clearly, the Ukrainian crisis has prompted debate within the EU about overreach. Sikorski recently lost out on appointment as EU foreign policy chief to the Italian Mogherini, known for pro-Russia sympathies. He was also replaced as Polish Foreign Minister. An influential essay published by the European Council on Foreign Relations addresses disorder in the EU on foreign policy, collective security and posture toward former Soviet states. Sokorski’s career path and evolving views on Ukraine may, in part, be reflecting these currents.

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