Closing the gap in understanding

  • 2011-12-15

Poland is the link between the three Baltic States and the heart of Europe. This Baltic neighbor also currently holds the EU presidency. It plays an increasingly powerful role in international politics, boosted by an economy that has virtually sailed through the ongoing global crisis. Despite this, Poland and the life of the Polish people are not very familiar themes to the Latvians. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Poland to the Republic of Latvia Jerzy Marek Nowakowski is on the front line, from a diplomatic perspective, in working to keep communication channels open and to enhance relations with his northern neighbors. An expert historian with extensive experience in the political arena, the Ambassador met with The Baltic Times to discuss regional issues, and where Poland wants to take the EU during its presidency.

You must be very busy with Poland having the presidency of the EU.

Well, not very, but busy is the best explanation. In the EU, for the diplomats, the presidency is a little easier [for working within the EU] than [in working with those] outside the EU, because outside the EU the presidency is permanent cooperation, permanent harmonization of all European diplomatic activities. In the EU member countries, it is a little more active cooperation with the local governments, because 90 percent of political issues are decided at the European level, not the local, diplomatic level. For this reason it is busy, but not very busy, and also there are some special events related to the presidency; especially related to the priorities of the presidency. One of these is a conference organized by our Embassy with cooperation with the French and European Commission representations concerning the economic cooperation in the Baltic Sea area especially oriented to energy and transportation; it was on Nov. 3. Also, we organize special events, meetings of the European ambassadors with the top representatives of the Latvian authorities, the president, the minister of foreign affairs, prime minister, the traditional duty of the presidency. Finally, coordination of some initiatives at the local level.

Our understanding is that the presidency has very little room to make an impact. One of your issues on the agenda was to make better relations with Eastern and Southern EU neighbors.

Yes, this is the initiative of the EU neighborhood policy, especially the Eastern Partnership, which is very important for Poland, also for Latvia as a way of deepening the relationship between the Union and the Eastern neighbors, and finally we hope the opening of the gate of the European community for Eastern neighbors.

That ultimately would lead to EU membership?

Let me say a little softer: maybe. First of all, this is the choice of the societies of Eastern Europe.

This is Ukraine?

Ukraine, Moldova… also a large question mark, I hope: Belarus. Because Belarusian society is very pro-European, but we still have some problems with European standards there, especially in human rights.

Another concern with Poland in taking over the EU presidency was in the area of environmentalism. Considering Poland is very coal energy-oriented … how can Poland balance that perception with, let’s say, the Baltic Sea, a very polluted sea. What is Poland doing in a leadership position to address environmental issues?

If we speak about the issues of the defense of the natural environment, the first of the priorities of the Polish presidency is to preserve economic growth, to keep Europe on track for economic growth. Our perception of the problem of the so-called Green Europe, in connection with the environment, is important for us, if it doesn’t break economic growth. This is a question of balance between growth and environmental protection. Poland absolutely agrees with the majority of the pro-governmental steps of the European Union; it’s a question of the comfort of life for people, the future of society; unfortunately, we’re afraid that breaking the economic growth will have a very negative impact on governmental protection. We try to balance both. Of course Poland is frequently criticized, maybe for the not so fast involvement in the reducing of emissions of CO2, but, step by step we’re going this way, to European standards. But, it’s not only a Polish problem. We try to keep the balance, not stop economic growth, development. This is really dangerous also from the point of view of the politicians, because if the majority of society will not accept the green policy…  It’s absolutely clear if you pay too much for environmental protection, you aren’t ready for the acceptance that still these politics should be balanced, the policy of small steps to this completely acceptable destination.

Considering the three Baltic States are an energy island, that we’re still connected to Russia, what is the possibility of connecting the gas grid in Lithuania to Poland? Also, Ignalina?

Ignalina is one issue, the gas interconnection another. The electricity grid and the problem of distribution of oil [are others]. We are absolutely ready for very deep cooperation with the Baltics. The Polish presidency has expressed our position also towards new directives of the European Union. November 24 was the session of the energy council of the EU under the Polish presidency, which expressed our readiness for cooperation in this area, and for connection of the Baltic area with the whole of Europe. I met the president of the Polish company Gas-System, talking about the gas pipeline between Poland and Lithuania, but not only between Poland and Lithuania because it should be expanded to Latvia and Estonia, connecting the whole Baltic region with Poland for an alternative way of transportation for supplies of natural gas. We have very clear promises from the European Commission for financial support for this initiative. Polish companies also make very technical discussions with representatives of the European Commission. I believe also in a visit of the president of this company to Latvia in the near future, to start cooperation with the Latvian government and companies with Polish Gas-System and Poland, as Gas-System is a state-owned company.

That would be in conflict with Gazprom in Latvia?

The competition is good for economic development, for all of the players. Any monopoly has a breaking impact on an economy. I hope for the gas companies, like Gazprom or some others, that it would be good news, the start of real competition in the Baltics. I hope for the connecting between the European Union and the Baltic island. It’s a part of the Acquis communautaire of the European Union. If you ask about the electricity, the process of the construction of the electricity bridge is in progress between Poland and Lithuania, which is the most serious step in the participation of the Baltic region in the European electricity system.

The economic situation is now testing the strength of the EU. What is the role of Poland, now that Poland has the rotating presidency?

On one hand, we have the rotating presidency of the EU council. On the other hand we are, unfortunately, outside the eurozone. A large part of the decisions concerning the economic crisis are the issue of the eurozone. With Poland’s role as an observer, we don’t participate in the meeting of the ministers of the eurozone. We still discuss, our minister of finance, with the representatives of the eurozone; we still keep on track our process of accession to the eurozone. But our position is very sensitive with the presidency; we should represent the interests of all the European countries. Our duty first of all is to harmonize the interests in the European Union. Our priority is to keep and to strengthen the EU as a structure, also as an economy; very clearly this was expressed by Minister Sikorski a few days ago in Berlin. But also, this is our priority, to keep Europe as a strong political and economic entity, because European integration, cooperation is one of the most important elements, on one hand, for the political future; on the other, [for] our economic growth. These same issues are in the Baltic area.

Should Europe, not just the eurozone, move towards closer fiscal union?

Yes. Exactly. There is only one realistic future for Europe. Let me say, if I travel to South Africa, or South America, they don’t divide Europe into [separate] countries; Europe in the eyes of Asia, or South America, is one political and economic body. It is a special value, because in comparison with the largest powers around the world, the European countries, including France or Britain, are too small compared with China, the U.S., India. Only Europe as a harmonized entity, one political entity, is a realistic partner. It means also for Latvians, Poles, Lithuanians, this is the chance for participation in the globalization process, as a partner, not as a second category player.

But inside Europe there are appearing critical voices against the European Union.

Let’s remember about the very critical position toward the federation in the majority of the United States’ states. I think this is the problem of psychology; in the European Union, the last years developed so fast. Maybe social psychology doesn’t keep up. It’s a problem of politicians in harmonizing, on the one hand, all these juridical questions with the national conscience of different people living in Europe. These critical voices are pronounced from the position of sentiments for something that already has passed forever – the world has gone for this. This is a kind of transitional period for Europe. I think after this crisis the whole European Union will change; the dissolution of the EU would be a defeat for everyone.

But in the unlikely event of a euro collapse, there should still be European unity. The euro is one aspect of this unity, but it’s not the only thing that brings European countries together.
Our Minister of Finance, Jacek Rostowski, has announced that he does not believe that the euro could break apart. In his opinion, this theory will not happen.

Poland was the only country in Europe not to go into recession; what can we learn from Poland?

That’s a difficult question. It’s a kind of joke, that we say that the Poles are some kind of anarchists – they don’t believe in any kind of power or authority. But seriously speaking, one of the important factors for keeping economic growth was the internal market. Polish consumers didn’t believe the political information about the crisis and still kept up the structure of consumption; from 2007 they still bought more and more. Second is the very positive impact of the reduction of taxes. In Poland, exactly some months before the start of the crisis, [there was a] reduction of taxes for enterprises. Also, there was the very important influence of the flexibility of the Polish national currency, the exchange rate.

For example, our economy received an important part of the additional money given by the German government for the buyers of cars. Because of the very good exchange rate, many Germans bought Germans cars in Poland during the crisis, receiving 2,000 euros from the [German] government in exchange for their [old] cars. Thousands and thousands of Lithuanians, Latvians and Slovaks came to Polish shops, because it was cheaper. This is the first element of the anti-crisis tendencies in the Polish economy. And fourth, finally, is the very moderate but consequent policy of the government, for the support for entrepreneurs, for support, first of all, in increasing employment. Today in the Polish press I have read information that the number of employers in Poland is the highest in the history of the last twenty years.

Despite the unemployment, despite the crisis, the number of the enterprises and working places grows and grows. Of course, it means that the people pay the taxes, the people go to the shops and they make some small businesses. On the other hand, the government has made a change, a small change, on the policy for small businesses, first of all by making it easier to open one’s own business, in showing bureaucracy procedures… I believe that this was the fourth element of the anti-crisis package, which was the base for keeping Poland on the track of economic growth.

Yes, but it is supposed that the situation in neighboring countries affects Poland in areas like imports, exports…
Of course, Poland is part of the European Union and is part of the global economy. But still, the preliminary information about the economy is quite optimistic because for next year, very careful opinions of the experts are that economic growth will be approximately 2 to 2.1 percent next year. This year it was over 4 percent. It means that Poland is still on track for growth of the development of the economy. The situation in the neighboring countries is also very interesting because, for example, the limited crisis in Germany had a good impact on the Polish economy, because Germany is the largest partner for Poland. [Foreign] Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, in Berlin two days ago, said that the economic exchange between Poland and Germany is larger than between Germany and Russia. And, paradoxically, the breaking of the economic growth in Germany had a good impact for Polish exports, because Polish exports to Germany were the mid- to lower-level goods. For example, the German consumers who don’t have so much money, they bought Polish articles that are cheaper, but whose quality is as good as the German ones. But, unfortunately, the situation maybe will change and the opinion about Polish [goods] (that are as good as the prestigious articles that one can buy in Germany) will change the situation and the prices can go up.

Poland and the Baltics have, maybe, a similar history or fear of Russia in defense matters. Do we need a bigger NATO military presence on the ground in the Baltics, maybe for deterrence?
The Baltic region is a member of NATO and the NATO presence depends on the decision of the Alliance, of course. It is ready for participation in the Air Policing operation, the most important NATO mission in the Baltic States and, of course, our business is to strengthen the defense capacity for the whole region.

We don’t need troops on the ground, a base in Latvia?
It depends not on the Polish decision; I believe this is an issue for the local governments of the Baltics States and the NATO headquarters. But we are absolutely against, in the European and Atlantic framework, categorization of the states. One of the top issues for NATO in the European Union is to keep one standard for all the members of the Alliance, for all of the Union.

It was only last spring when this Eagle Guardian [defense] program finally included the Baltics in an actual defense plan…The Baltics have been left out on the actual military planning until very recently.
We are absolutely ready for the support of the Baltic countries for the preparation of the full-sized strategy, of course.

Minister Sikorski, in his speech in Berlin last week, mentioned that it is not Russian missiles, but the euro crisis which is the biggest threat to (Baltic) security. With the recent heated talk from Russia, reactivating radar bases…Could you agree with that?
It is very complicated and a very serious question. I think that it is the Russian announcement, the statement by [President Dmitri] Medvedev, which was related not only, and maybe not first of all, to the European question, but based on two pillars. The first one, as usual, is the product of the [parliamentary election] campaign in Russia. And the second one is the Russia-U.S. talks about military cooperation, or military discussions; partnership is better than the cooperation. It is not related directly to the European question. I absolutely agree with Minister Sikorski that the largest enemy for Europe and for European security is the crisis, not the Russian missiles. Now, I don’t know about the future. But now we should first of all decide about the crisis problem. Because if we don’t agree for serious anti-crisis steps, Europe would be so weak that any one neighbor doesn’t need missiles or tanks.

What is the perception in Poland about Latvia, and vice versa?
Frankly speaking, it is one of my problems. The perception is not good or bad; more good, but, first of all, it’s very weak. The stereotypes between Latvians and Poles, on both sides, are too soft. Latvia in the eyes of Poles [they think that Latvia] is a very far country. A good friend, but very far. It is funny. I frequently talk about this funny map, which was distributed on the Internet; on this map is a list of stereotypes of countries around Europe in the eyes of the Poles: Russia is, of course, named by ‘Stalin,’ Italy ‘Spaghetti,’ and some others… And what is the name of Latvia? Lithuania number two? It is very soft; a soft and very unclear picture in the eyes of Poles. Unfortunately, I believe that also, I am afraid, in the eyes of the Latvians, Poland is a far [off] country. It’s big, but a far [off] country. And in the eyes of drivers, this is the large, empty territory between Latvia and Europe. And one of my top duties as ambassador is to strengthen [understanding] on both sides. Of course, first of all, this is the question of the serious economic presence of Polish companies in Latvia, not only Polish products, because exactly one third of products in supermarkets in Riga are provided with products from Poland. The second one, this is a deeper and more serious discussion about the common history. Exactly last week we opened an exhibition about the ‘Treaty of Vilnius,’ or ‘Vilnius Union’ that was concluded four hundred and fifty years ago [on November 28, 1561]. The document concerning the federation was signed by the Great Master of the Livonian Order and the Polish king. The territory of Livonia was divided in two parts: one was the great Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, and the second one was the Duchy of Trans-Daugava. And after this treaty, for approximately one hundred years the whole Latvian territory and a large part of Estonia participated in the multinational and multi-religious federation named Rzeczpospolita. It was a time of very fast development for the country. So till the end of the 18th century, the current Latgalian region was a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and it means that Latvia was a part of our common historical space. I believe it was the first European Union, five hundred years ago, and we should remember this common history; we should remember that we were neighbors; until the Soviet Occupation in 1939, we had a common border. Latvia was the second, following Germany, goal for the emigration of the Polish gastarbeiters [agricultural guest workers] before the second world war. And many others; the more frequent the discussion about a common history - this is also a good way to the creation of a more clear and stronger picture in both countries. Finally, we should develop tourism, because tourism, every year, the number of tourist grows and grows between Poland and Latvia. We hope for the keeping of these tendencies in Poland, and in Latvia too. Because, for example, Polish mountains are the closest mountains for Latvians for skiing, for tourism, also in the summer time. And, on the other hand, Latvia is very interesting and a still unknown territory for tourism for the Poles, the traditional tourism to the sea region. And the second, very popular in the last years, especially after the crisis in North Africa, is the so-called historical tourism, the tourism on the historical ways, related to history. Last week I was in Poland and I see in the Polish bookstores many guides, historical guides to Russia, Croatia, to Lithuania, to Ukraine. Also, the historical tourism in Latvia would be a very interesting initiative, because many customs and many Polish families were closely related to Latvia, including the family of the present Polish president. Part of Komorowski’s family were large land owners in the southern part of Latvia [Kurmene, near Bauska].

But now the Poles are leaving the Baltic States; their population here in Latvia is decreasing…
I believe that before the liberation of Latvia, before the liberation of the Baltic States, especially in Latvia, the Polish national identification [was] a political choice: “we are Poles, we are people from the western hemisphere.” But after the reestablishing of Latvia independence, after Latvian accession to the EU, it’s not necessary to identify through the national identity as a member of the Western population. I think that many in Latvia remember the Polish roots, but they declared “we are Latvians. We are Latvians first of all in the sense of citizenship, not in the national identification. National identification, strengthening of the national identity is important in the crisis situation. In the common Europe, it is more or less a private question, not for public expression. And maybe it is one condition in the decreasing of the number of the Polish minority, but it is a slow process, also related to the decreasing of the population as a whole.