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Poles have a positive view of Ukrainians and Belarusians on the Polish labor market. It is a long-term investment in bilateral relations

przeczytanie zajmie 14 min
Poles have a positive view of Ukrainians and Belarusians on the Polish labor market. It is a long-term investment in bilateral relations Zamek w Nieświeżu [za:] Wikimedia Commons

Poland’s membership in the European Union determines to a large extent our attractiveness. This attractiveness results not only from Poland developing faster due to the membership, but also because, for the countries of Eastern Europe, Poland means more as a member of a larger community, where it is an advocate of stronger interest in the East. The potential of our partnership is growing as the presence of Belarusians and Ukrainians in Poland increases. We are observing the emigration of the most active and educated parts of society, which is a phenomenon unfavorable for the future of Belarus. Of course, this can be beneficial for us, but let us remember that this is also a problem for the future of Belarus. Poland should focus its activities on its immediate neighborhood, including Ukraine. Jacek Płaza talks with Ernest Wyciszkiewicz, Head of the Center for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding.

In the public debate, it is often emphasized that there is a need for an active eastern policy of Poland. Partnership with Ukraine as well as the Belarusian and Russian opposition is to be an opportunity for us to develop further. How can we strengthen our soft power in this region?

For our closest neighbors, Belarus and Ukraine, historical and cultural heritage together with language are extremely important elements of our relations. This is well illustrated by a report from the Center for Eastern Studies, according to which 40% of the surveyed Belarusians recognized greater proximity to the heritage of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania than of the Soviet Union (28%). It is a resource that we should use to build our collaboration and mutual relations.

Is this result the outcome of our influence? I believe that this is due to positive feedback between the growing attractiveness of Poland and the accelerating process of shaping the identity of Belarusians, who are seeking an alternative to the Soviet tradition. Of course, there is also a risk of an excessive emphasis on historical heritage resulting from dark pages of our mutual relations. Poland, as a partner with greater potential, has greater responsibility to positively shape the perception of our shared past. It is worth treating this heritage as a kind of offer to our neighbors in the East.

A good example of such activities is the declaration by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the countries of the Lublin Triangle, which was recently signed in Vilnius, emphasizing the role of the common heritage of Lithuania, Ukraine and Poland in shaping the political, legal and cultural history of Europe. Importantly, the document contains an open invitation to democratic Belarus and offers support for its participation in the European integration process.

What specific actions can we take in this respect?

Real investment is needed to strengthen this community. On the one hand, information policy, that is to say, reaching out to societies with knowledge of Poland and our mutual relations, and passing it through the media in Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian languages. On the other hand, tangible investments are needed in the renovation, modernization, and restoration of the heritage to build a common historical and cultural identity around these symbols. It is also crucial to reach out to local communities with programs to support their development, to not only build a positive image and leave a tangible footprint on the site.

You have focused on our cultural heritage. However, the survey you have conducted shows that the majority of Poles see the countries of the East as an area of investment and trade. Should we not increase the emphasis on economic and development collaboration?

The cultural, historical, and language community is essential as a vehicle for supporting the pursuit of economic interests; nevertheless, its functions are auxiliary.

Ukraine is becoming our principal and potentially most important partner. It is obvious for many reasons: proximity, links, historical moment, Ukrainian aspirations, and movement of people. Although the Ukrainian market has been modernized and, for several years now, operating in a much more civilized way than in the past, it still has many shortcomings of the post-Soviet model of development, i.e., a high level of corruption and oligarchization. Polish business needs to know how to move in this challenging area.

The potential of our partnership is growing as the presence of Belarusians and Ukrainians in Poland increases. We are observing the emigration of the most active parts of society, which is a phenomenon unfavorable for the future of Belarus. The ICT sector has been developing well there, but developers are now fleeing to Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland. Of course, for us, in a sense, this can be beneficial because experts, people with good education and skills come here, but let us remember that this is at the same time a big problem for the future of Belarus.

We are also observing a very diverse wave of Ukrainian emigration. Some of these people return and bring experience from Poland back to Ukraine. How are they received in Poland? Our research has shown very optimistic conclusions, namely that Poles have a positive view of the role of Ukrainians and Belarusians in the Polish labor market. So we can well receive these people. That is what soft power is all about. It is worth looking at this process through the prism of long-term investment. These people will know Poland, and with them, we will experience a qualitative change in mutual social and political relations.

Or maybe we should keep a close eye on the actions taken by Germans to build soft power in the East? They base it on three pillars: the development of collaboration between research centers and organizations, the promotion of their own culture and language, and trade partnership.

We do not need to reinvent the wheel. Germany is creating this infrastructure very professionally. Poland has also been the subject of this process during the 1990s. How Germany organized relations with Poland and with Polish society is in some sense a model. Take, for example, the youth exchange program, which is often undervalued. It saw the participation of more than 2 million young people from both countries. Today, twice as many Poles have a positive view of the Germans than just after the start of the transformation, and twice fewer Poles have a negative view of them.

Coming back to investment and trade, Polish companies have been successful in the East for years. While in Russia and Belarus, for quite obvious reasons, the possibilities for expansion are limited, we are managing quite well in Ukraine, which today is the most forward-looking among them. We have a very dynamic small and medium-sized enterprise sector. What is holding businesses back is the fear of taking risks under conditions of uncertainty, especially if you are a young entrepreneur. Even though the Ukrainian market today offers more opportunities in some segments and is more dynamic than the market of Western European countries, it also carries a different type of risk. There is room for the state to create mechanisms that will minimize them, especially for entities with fewer resources than large corporations.

When building our relations in the East, should we work together with the EU institutions and with institutions of other countries, such as Germany and France? Or perhaps it is more effective to work on our own, especially when we have differing interests?

Collaboration and competition are complementary. These are not contradictions; they can occur simultaneously in multiple fields. The choice of measures depends on the project and the objective we want to achieve. If Poland sees potential in a selected segment of the Ukrainian market, while also being aware of the risk of competition from another Member State in that segment, we should take precautionary action and independently reach our Ukrainian partners.

There are also areas about which all EU countries care, such as building legal infrastructure in Ukraine to create an environment in which support of states for private businesses will not be needed as much. European companies will then be able to compete and carry out investments on uniform principles thanks to the process of adapting local law to EU law.

It should also be borne in mind that Poland’s membership in the European Union significantly increases our attractiveness. If we were not part of the EU, our prospects would be much more limited. It is so not only because we have managed to develop faster as a Member State, but also because, for the countries of Eastern Europe, Poland means more as a member of a larger community, where it is an advocate of interest in the East.

Due to their location, Member States have different geographical priority hierarchies and the EU institutions should ensure a relative balance between them. In this respect, Poland’s role cannot be overestimated. For many years, we have had a clear division. After Poland entered the European Union, Germany followed a Russia-first policy, which strongly points to Russia as the most important partner in Eastern Europe. The actions of Poland, with the support of partners from the region, especially the Czech Republic and Sweden, have allowed to overcome the resistance of several reluctant or uninterested countries and have led to the establishment of the Eastern Partnership.

And what should we base our image on in the wider East? Not only in our neighbors but in the entire Eastern Partnership and even in Central Asia. We have some similarities – we were under the influence of the Soviet Union, we can refer to a shared history. We can also be a model example of how we have been transformed. Now we are part of Western structures.

Of course, we are much closer to the South Caucasus, culturally as well as due to our historical ties and especially quite close Polish-Georgian relations. The image of Poland in the Caucasus is good. In particular, Georgia, which has aspirations to join NATO and the EU. Poland is a natural link with the western community and an example showing that it is possible to get out of the systemic underdevelopment. The Eastern Partnership continues to be an important tool.

Thinking about the East, it is also worth stopping referring to it as the post-Soviet area, even if we are aware of some common characteristics of the countries making up this region. We all do it sometimes to simplify the analytical and journalistic life; however, this mental shortcut gives the false impression that we are dealing with some homogeneous creation, in addition, implicitly, with Moscow metropolis.

It is important to send a diversified message to these countries. In Poland, the concept of eastern policy has already been criticized in the past precisely because of lumping together very diverse entities. However, especially over the last dozen or so years, the differences between Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, and Azerbaijan have become immense and we cannot treat all these countries in the same way.

Central Asia is an entirely different situation because there Poland is on the margins of strategic thinking. The game in the area of investment and infrastructure is at a level that is unattainable for us. We need to be realistic about our potential impact in that region.

Poland should try to be visible everywhere, however, with an emphasis on the nearest neighborhood and strengthening partnership and realizing our potential of soft power where we have the most of it, namely Ukraine and Belarus.

Polish version is available here.

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The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2020 – nowy wymiar”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.