Exiled Belarusians found a way to keep traditions from their homeland alive in a Vilnius cemetery filled with legendary figures from Belarus's history.
Friday 3 November 2023
Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods.
I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on two issues: What's next for Poland after crucial parliamentary elections earlier this month, and how Ukraine is hoping to reintegrate Crimea.
Brief #1: Poland's Tricky Road Ahead
What You Need To Know: After the Polish parliamentary elections on October 15, the three main opposition parties gained a healthy majority -- 248 out of 460 seats in the lower chamber -- and are set to form a coalition.
This will likely spell an end to the eight-year rule of the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party -- a period that many in Brussels will remember as one defined by Warsaw sparring with EU institutions and other EU member states over concerns Poland was backsliding on democracy.
It is safe to presume that a new government in Poland will turn its back on the more Euroskeptic Visegrad countries such as Hungary and Slovakia, where Robert Fico -- a leftist opponent of EU military aid to Ukraine and sanctions on Russia -- has just returned for another stint as prime minister.
But with a new government likely bogged down with domestic matters, a wholesale shift in the direction of Polish foreign policy is probably not in the cards, in particular regarding the country's relations with its neighbor Ukraine.
The most pressing issue right now for Poland is the formation of a new government. President Andrzej Duda, who is affiliated with PiS, has held consultations with the various parties and is set to give PiS the first opportunity to form a government by virtue of finishing first in the elections with 35 percent of the vote.
PiS, however, will likely struggle to find coalition partners, and that is when the opposition parties can seize the initiative and nominate a candidate for prime minister.
That will most likely be the former Prime Minister and leader of the center-right Civic Coalition (KO) Donald Tusk who, with opposition party support, would have a majority in parliament. By Christmas, a new Polish government could be in place.
Deep Background: So, what would a new Polish coalition government change in terms of foreign policy? Those I have spoken to within the KO say that Warsaw's hawkishness toward Russia and Belarus under the PiS will remain unchanged.
The new government will almost certainly call for more EU sanctions on Moscow and Minsk, and the barrier built on the Polish-Belarusian border to stop migrants -- many of whom come from outside Europe and are being pushed into the EU by the Lukashenka regime -- will stay intact.
The big question is whether Warsaw's relations with Kyiv will change. For a long time, Poland has been one of Ukraine's strongest allies in the EU, hosting around 1 million refugees and serving as the main military hub for battlefield-bound Western arms.
In the run-up to the Polish elections, however, those relations soured. Warsaw stopped Ukrainian agricultural products from entering the Polish market after a European Commission deal lapsed in September. Polish officials also avoided high-level meetings with senior Ukrainian officials and asked to delay the implementation of an EU decision that extends social and labor rights for Ukrainian refugees until 2025.
While these positions may have helped the PiS steal some votes from the far-right Confederation alliance, which holds strong anti-Ukrainian views, it was hardly the vote-winner the party might have expected it to be. And despite Poland's aloofness with its neighbor, it probably won't lead to a "reset" in its relations with Ukraine.
- First, relations with Volodymyr Zelenskiy may need mending. While that shouldn't be a hard fix, Polish opposition officials I have spoken to say that the Ukrainian president spent a lot of time and effort building relations with PiS and never met with Tusk or other opposition figures when visiting Poland.
- While good personal relations can be quickly established, some of the issues bedeviling the two countries will remain. For example, Tusk and many of his domestic allies have argued in favor of extending the ban on Ukrainian food products till the end of the year in order to protect Polish farmers.
- It is worth noting that the KO's biggest coalition partner will be the Third Way, a political coalition between the agrarian Polish People's party and a new centrist force called Poland 2050. The political grouping polled around 14 percent in the elections and managed to nab plenty of rural votes in former PiS strongholds. While the Third Way supports sanctions on Russia and continued military aid to Ukraine, local and European elections in 2024 could potentially temper some of those views.
- Then there is the issue of enlargement, with Ukraine set to start EU membership talks later this year. Poland will no doubt remain a supporter of Ukraine's accession to the bloc, but it will not come without some economic pain. Much of the EU money Poland receives goes to agriculture and cohesion funds, which support poorer regions in the bloc. If Ukraine did join the EU, Poland could end up having to compete for that cash, becoming less a beneficiary and more a contributor.
- To soften the blow, Poland could ask Brussels for Ukrainian transition periods, meaning that Kyiv can't access such funds immediately upon membership. I was recently told by an EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, that difficult questions like these will inevitably slow down Ukraine's EU accession to "well beyond the 2030 mark that so many people in Brussels are now talking about for new members."
- While Poland and Ukraine could be "rivals" in the future, going after the same EU funds, Warsaw could also benefit hugely from its neighbor joining -- or at least moving closer to -- the EU. After Poland joined the EU in 2004, there were plenty of new investment opportunities for German companies; Polish companies could have the opportunity to do the same.
- The man to watch now is Tusk himself. He was in Brussels last week and it's clear that his immediate priority will be to unfreeze the 35 billion euros ($37 billion) of post-coronavirus recovery funds Poland is due but that Brussels has so far withheld over concerns about democratic backsliding. While Tusk enjoys plenty of goodwill in Brussels after serving from 2014 to 2019 as the president of the European Council, the body that defines the political direction and priorities of the EU, securing those funds won't be straightforward. To satisfy Brussels, Poland would need to dismantle a disciplinary chamber of Poland's Supreme Court, which critics have argued is used to rein in judges the government saw as problematic. Plus, the authorities would likely be required to reinstate judges that Brussels says have been dismissed unlawfully. On that, a new government would have to tread carefully. Such changes could be seen as interference in the justice system, which the previous government was accused of. Many of these reforms may also face the veto of the Polish president or be struck down by the Constitutional Court, which is jam-packed with loyalists to the previous government. Add to the mix domestic problems such as spiraling inflation and growing government debt, the new government is going to have its hands full.
Brief #2: How Ukraine Could Struggle Reintegrating Crimea
What You Need To Know: On October 24, representatives from over 50 countries' parliaments -- mostly speakers of their respective chambers -- met in Prague for the parliamentary summit of the Crimea Platform. The initiative is the brainchild of President Zelenskiy, who in 2021 launched a summit for heads of state and government to keep the political focus on the Ukrainian peninsula that was annexed by Russia in 2014.
Since its launch, the platform has expanded: There are now annual meetings, not only of leaders but also ministers and -- as seen in the Czech capital last week -- parliamentarians. It's also growing in number. Following the first parliamentary summit, held in 2022 in Zagreb, there were seven new participants in Prague, including representatives from Ghana and Sierra Leone -- no small thing considering that many countries outside Europe have been reluctant to take sides over the Ukraine war.
It would be easy to dismiss the Prague gathering as yet another political talking shop. While the participants did approve a declaration calling for the creation of Crimea Platform support groups in signatory countries, there isn't really much more that parliaments can do. For example, the extent of Russia sanctions and aid to Ukraine is ultimately up to governments to decide.
Refat Chubarov, the exiled chairman of the Crimean Tatars' self-governing body, the Mejlis, asked for others to follow the Canadian, Latvian, and Lithuanian parliaments in recognizing as an act of genocide the forced Soviet deportations of Crimean Tatars from their native land in 1944. Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzheppar, a prominent politician of Tatar origin, urged parliamentary deputies to become "mentors" to some of the estimated 186 political prisoners in Crimea, out of which 123 are Tatars.
Deep Background: In many ways, the Crimean Platform is a reminder for the West that it didn't take the warning signs coming from Moscow seriously enough in 2014.
Marketa Pekarova Adamova, the president of the Czech lower house and host of the event, admitted as much in her introductory remarks by saying that the "lack of adequate reaction to the annexation was seen in the Kremlin as a sign of our weakness."
This was also echoed by her co-host, Ruslan Stefanchuk, the chairman of Ukraine's unicameral parliament, who also called Crimea "a springboard [for] further attacks."
Unlike the sweeping EU measures targeting Russian leaders and several of its industrial sectors enacted after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Brussels' response to the annexation of Crimea was measly.
While the annual EU-Russia summits were put on hold and there were visa bans and asset freezes on a few Russian politicians, the impact on the Kremlin was minimal.
Later in 2014, the EU banned the import of goods originating from the peninsula and prohibited EU companies from investing in Crimea's tourism, finance, energy, transport, and telecom sectors.
While these bans have been dutifully extended on a yearly basis since 2014, some EU diplomats have said that the measures were badly implemented and "porous," especially when it comes to European firms investing in Crimea.
- In a video message to the forum participants, Zelenskiy said "only once our entire territory is de-occupied, we will be able to find peace." Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said that "Ukraine will not be free until it goes back to [the] borders of 1991 and that includes Crimea." Despite such pronouncements, Western and EU officials are still hesitant about whether Ukraine should focus on retaking Crimea militarily, a strategy its proponents say could at least bring Moscow to the negotiating table.
- And how would Ukraine even reintegrate Crimea? The annexation resulted in an estimated exodus of 140,000 Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians, most of whom have settled in other parts of Ukraine. Since they left, up to 1 million ethnic Russians have settled there.
- Discussing any possible reintegration, Tamila Tasheva, the permanent representative of the Ukrainian president in Crimea, said that "we will follow international law and there won't be collective expulsions." At the same time, she said, there must be some sort of lustration process that targets senior officials.
- At the forum plenary in Prague, host Pekarova Adamova raised the issue of the 4,000 Ukrainian children that the occupying authorities have allegedly taken from Crimea to Belarus and Russia. "Their traces are lost at this moment," she said. Mariia Sulialina, the head of Almenda, a Ukrainian civil education center, also noted that Russian authorities are using summer camps on the peninsula to prepare for future military mobilization. Just this year, she said, 170,000 children from Crimea and other Russia-occupied territories in Ukraine were participating in "militarized" camps, involving the handling of firearms.
This week in Brussels looks set to be a slow one with all institutions closed on both November 1 and 2, for All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, respectively,
Despite the hiatus, a European Commission proposal on the next round of EU sanctions on Russia could be distributed to member states in the next few days.
Several rounds of informal discussions have already taken place and EU officials have indicated that the new measures won't target the Russian nuclear and liquefied natural gas sectors but will rather focus on diamonds and the banning of EU exports to Russia in fields such as IT.
That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak, or on e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time,
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About The Newsletter
The Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Monday on key issues concerning the EU, NATO, and other institutions’ relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.
For more than a decade as a correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak covered all the major events and crises related to the EU’s neighborhood and how various Western institutions reacted to them -- the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU and NATO enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, as well as visa liberalizations, free-trade deals, and countless summits.
Now out of the “Brussels bubble,” but still looking in -- this time from the heart of Europe, in Prague -- he continues to focus on the countries where Brussels holds huge sway, but also faces serious competition from other players, such as Russia and, increasingly, China.
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