Bartlomiej Zdaniuk: What connects us is the wish to be free. IPN interview

Why does freedom form part of the Poles’ DNA and what is the key condition for ensuring freedom and independence? Why isn’t the victory of 1945 also a victory of the Poles? What is the spectacular progress made by Poland within the EU based on and what lessons can the Republic of Moldova learn from this? Why don’t the Soviet Union and the European Union bear comparison and how can the delay in the development of the former Soviet republics be explained? What is the key word that helps understand how the Poles think and why are the Poles concerned about the Moldovans’ destiny? Why doesn’t Poland see a contradiction between the EU’s position in relation to Moldova and the position of Poland as a member state of the EU? Why does the Association Agreement remain valid for the Republic of Moldova, irrespective of the EU’s development? These and other important things for the bilateral Moldovan-Polish relations in European context were discussed in an interview conducted by Valeriu Vasilică with His Excellence Ambassador of Poland to the Republic of Moldova Bartlomiej Zdaniuk.

- Accidentally or not, but many of the subjects of today’s interview are related to particular events. Yesterday, for example, the Embassy of Poland in Chisinau staged an event to mark the Polish Constitution Day. Why does the Constitution of Poland that was adopted over 200 years ago continue to count for the Poles in the 21st century that is fully different from the 18th century in many regards?

- It should be noted that we celebrate the then Constitution that was voted on May 3, 1791, which didn’t resist in time, for a number of reasons. Other Constitutions followed and we now have a new one that was voted in 1997. We are not in the same situation as the Americans, who adopted a Constitution in 1787 and continue to use the same text. Why do we then mark that Constitution that was voted over 220 years ago?

Poland in the 18th century was a weak state  with many domestic and foreign problems, which was dominated by oligarchs who didn’t think about the welfare of the state. At the same time, we also had foreign powers in our neighborhood that considered it was then opportune to extend their territory using a weak Poland.

The Constitution voted on May 3, 1791 substantially modernized the country. The principle of unanimity was a big problem that existed until then. Each law was to be adopted unanimously in Parliament. It was enough for an MP to say NO and the law wasn’t passed. No law was voted and Poland entered a period of stagnation. That Constitution eliminated this principle and set down the principle of majority vote. It meant that the state institutions from that moment could work normally. This didn’t suit many, first of all our neighbors that saw Poland can be a functional and powerful state. Surely they immediately found several traitors inside the country who allied and were sufficiently powerful to force the then Polish king to abrogate this Constitution. It had been in force for several months only.  In several years, the Polish state disappeared, being dismembered by three of its neighbors.

By adopting this Constitution, we proved yet that if we want, we can  change the situation in the country, can modernize the country and live nicely. Everything depends on our effort. Surely, there are circumstances, but we can be free and independent if we want. When we speak about independence, we speak about freedom. If we want to be free, we should also be independent. If you say you want to be independent, but do nothing in this regard, you renounce the freedom. It’s simple. Our very painful history taught us to make effort daily.

- Tomorrow, May 9, the Republic of Moldova celebrates two holidays simultaneously: Victory Day and Europe Day. It would have been something ordinary if some of our politicians and a part of the Moldovans hadn’t considered that these holidays exclude each other. We understand where this contradictory interpretation comes from, but I don’t think everyone in our country knows solutions for overcoming such a situation and have will to implement them. Do you think the experience of Poland and the Poles, who for a long period had the same ideological roots as we had, can help us in this regard?

- The Victory Day refers to the events of May 1945 and we see several differences and discrepancies here. Like everywhere across the European Union, Poland marks the Victory in Europe Day on May 8, and not on May 9 as per the Soviet tradition. Europe Day is a tribute to an event that happened five years and one day later, when on May 9, 1950 the French foreign minister Robert Schuman famously proposed the creation of a European Coal and Steel Community, which ultimately grew into the present-day European Union. France and Western Germany fought three wars in the period and looked for solutions for not facing other armed conflicts. The idea was to create an authority that would supervise streel production that was then considered the key element for initiating a war. This was the first symbolic step towards the European construct. However, Poland had a limited role in both of those historical events. In 1950, the Western countries formed the nucleus of the European construct and Poland didn’t form part of the Western world. It was under the Communist domination and could not take part. The natural path to Europe that embraces us was resumed in 1989.

The year 1945 was victorious. The question is, was it a victory for the Poles? I think not. The costs of the war had been huge. We suffered the heaviest losses. Of a population of 35 million, Poland lost 6 million people to the war, and its cultural heritage and economy were destroyed. We haven’t yet overcome this discrepancy between us and the Western countries despite the many efforts made. Also, a victory is when you were freed and are free and are among the winners. Regrettably, the system introduced in Poland with the arrival of the Red Army was not something that we chose. It was imposed on us. So can we call it a victory after all? It was only in 1989 that the Poles were able to create a system by their own design. That’s why in our case, today and tomorrow are not nonworking days as the moment of 1945 is not a moment of glory. Our perception is different.

- Poland and several other states recently celebrated the 15th anniversary of Poland’s accession to the EU. It is a more than sufficient period for reaching reasonable conclusions concerning the meeting of expectations of Poland as a state and of the Poles as European citizens. To what extent does this degree satisfy you? Why should the Moldovans tend or not tend to get the status of EU member?

- I could start with a saying, namely that “the appetite grows with eating ”. During 15 years, we managed to do a lot and modernized the country at all levels, including at technical and infrastructural ones. The progress is spectacular – thousands of kilometers of highways and roads that were built and continue to be built and I hope will be yet built. In the period and during the past 30 years, the Poles learned how to function in a market economy. Three decades ago, Poland’s economy was in shambles, as the Poles had purposefully been rendered incapable of functioning in a market economy. “This was in fact the worst damage ever done by the Communist system”, says the ambassador and we see the worst damage caused by the Communist system here. We had to accumulate again money, experience and intellectual capacities to be able to work in such an economy.

Now Poland is the largest economy in the former Eastern bloc, with its small and mid-sized enterprises sector being considered the backbone that has driven the country’s economic growth uninterruptedly since 1994. Since then, we witnessed no year of recession. Why? Because we have a solid domestic demand, small and mid-sized firms and hope to have large firms and even greater presence outside our borders. We have big economic progress and capacity to work in a capitalist world.

We didn’t manage to do everything and face yet many challenges, with the demographic one being probably the most serious one. A lot of Poles left and a labor crunch followed. Some return, but we have achieved a level of development so high that we are unable now to meet our labor market demand on our own.

Despite this progress, Poland has been struggling with negative demographic trends, with the first wave of mass emigration registered way back in 1830. More waves followed. At a current population of 38 million, it is estimated that 20 million more Poles live outside of the country. These are residents that we have lost because of poor economic conditions and also before 1989 pawing to political persecution. That’s why the demographic sector remains a challenge, but the good side is that the birth rate trends have started to improve in recent years. It is yet too early to draw conclusions.

- They say truth can be easier learned by comparison. Earlier Poland was a party to another geopolitical bloc – the so-called Socialist Camp with a military component, named by your capital – “Treaty of Warsaw”. I recently came across a film with 12 episodes of a St. Petersburg-based TV channel from which I learned dreadful details about a less known uprising of the Poles from Poznan of 1956, not even ten years after Poland joined that “camp”. The uprising was suppressed including with the assistance of two tank divisions. There were multiple casualties and mass repression followed. The roots of the uprising were mainly geopolitical in character. Why did Poland experienced so much “discomfort” when forming part of a bloc  and what makes it feel more comfortable as part of another bloc, the EU?

- The Soviet Union and the EU bear no comparison. Such a comparison is even out of place. Poland is a state. The Polish people are a nation that appeared over 1,000  years ago. Our statehood started in 966. At a certain stage, the state disagreed, buy we regained our independence in 1918. Regrettably, in 1939 we were again attacked by two neighbors that, several days before the start of World Wat II, allied through the famous Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact.

We are a people that during the last three centuries  had to struggle for independence. This forms part of our DNA. We are free and will remain free. That’s why we will not accept the dictatorship of a foreign power. We are a profoundly democratic state and the people’s wishes will thus come true. Nothing can be imposed from outside. No one managed to this and will not manage to.

- It was recently ten years of the launch of the Eastern Partnership among whose creators is Poland. Is the creator satisfied with its creation and was it worth putting this idea into practice? How did Poland’s role in the construct of the EaP change?

- “Solidarity” is the key word for understanding how the Poles think as this word does not bear relation only to a particular trade union founded in August 1980. It is actually a value that guides us domestically and internationally. This started to happen not with the creation of the trade union known with such a name, but much earlier, in the 19th century or even earlier. The Poles fought for their freedom alongside other nations. And there are a lot of examples, with Polish General Józef Bem, who fought alongside Hungarians in the Spring of Nations in 1848-1849, is probably the best known one. I would say we also care about others’ destiny, about the situation in other countries. The Eastern Partnership was created ten years ago with the notion of solidarity at its core. Our approach towards others stems from this concept as well. This is why, ten years ago Poland, together with our Swedish partners, proposed this platform called the Eastern Partnership designed for the countries from the Eastern neighborhood of the European Union. It’s a format that aims to accelerate the process of getting closer to the EU or leave a door open for such rapprochement in the future. The reasons are very simple – everybody wants to be surrounded by a favorable and stable environment. The more stable and prosperous the Eastern neighborhood is, the more attractive Poland will become for investors, both domestic and foreign.

- How did the EaP countries develop separately and together and what is Poland’s viewpoint on Moldova’s development as part of this organization. Why did Moldova stop being the “success story of the Eastern Partnership” and how can it regain this name?

- As regards the evolution of the EaP member countries, a broader approach is needed because it is not a uniform process for all. There are six partner countries and each country has a different situation, its own path, so it would be an oversimplification to take only a few examples to measure the overall results of this Partnership.

We should be patient as all six are also former Soviet republics with their specific development conditions. I mentioned earlier how big Poland’s setback was due to the communist system imposed from outside. So obviously the setback experienced by the nations that were directly part of the Soviet Union is even greater. True, there are three former Soviet countries that have already joined the EU, NATO and other institutions. But we should understand that every nation has a different history. Poland is a state with a very long history, with a clear, consolidated identity, culture and language. Nobody questions these elements. In the post-Soviet countries the situation is quite different. Each country has its own past, but one that was much more complex, and still remains so today in all these six countries. As far as the Republic of Moldova is concerned, there are different views on statehood: what kind of state do we want to have and what kind of state project do we have now? And we can see that a debate is going on in Moldova about this. It’s of course not for foreign diplomats to make any comments about this  – we are just stating a fact here. That’s why I said that a lot of patience is needed, European integration will not automatically take away all the issues with the constructions of the state. I’d like to be crystal-clear: I’m not saying let’s build a state and then seek to join the EU. Nor am I saying let’s put statehood on hold for now, join the EU and go back to the state-building business later. These should be done in parallel and in close connection with each other.

Look at the European Union as at a springboard. I mean it’s an instrument, and it depends on you how you use it. We, the Poles ,achieved progress in infrastructure, with roads and airports built, but nobody from the EU comes to actually build them for you. There should be an internal capacity to manage such projects: financial capacity and, first of all, institutional. The EU comes with the funds.  So you want to make this big leap forward, but the leap itself has to be executed with skill, and the springboard is there for you to do it. The same thing exists between the EU and partner countries from the Eastern neighborhood and other areas. It’s an offer, a proposition, but it depends on every country in particular how this opportunity is taken advantage of.

It is too early to draw conclusions, but we can say that no one in Europe closed the door. A lot has been done until now. The visa regime was liberalized five years ago. There was signed the Association Agreement with the EU and created a Free Trade Area. We ask you respectfully to use the existing opportunity. You must improve the institutional capacities so as to follow this direction.

- Moldova now witnesses a “pause” if not a “recession” in its evolution as part of the Eastern Partnership and in its relations with the EU. The officials in Brussels and in Chisinau differently treat the reasons for such a state of affairs. But the bilateral Moldovan - Polish relations seem to be on the ascendant. In the period, the Polish presence in Moldova, especially through the implemented development projects, has increased. Don’t you see here a contradiction between the EU’s position  on Moldova and the position of Poland as a member state?

- There is no difference or contradiction. The European Union and all its member states, including Poland, say so. There are opportunities for the Republic of Moldova created by common agreement. There are documents signed by the EU and the Republic of Moldova and there are commitments undertaken by the Republic of Moldova.

If the country is not attractive for a number of reasons, it will be hard to attract investors with particular projects. These will go to other countries. We should thus answer the question, what we should do to be attractive. Given that principle of solidarity, we continue different projects. In the Republic of Moldova, I met many hardworking people  willing to go on and they cannot be punished somehow by telling them we cannot cooperate for different reasons. There is a huge space where we can work and thus come with these projects.

In the EU, there is the principle of subsidiarity or three levels – local, state and EU level. What can be managed better at the local level, should be managed there and so on. That’s why we come with projects intended for the central power, which is not overlooked, but there are also projects intended for the local power.

The European integration does not mean things will develop themselves. They are done by hard work and the EU acts as an aid. If we want this aid, we must implement the assumed commitments. If we do not assume responsibility, we cannot benefit from those advantages, that launch paid provided by the EU.

- Which are the priority areas in the cooperation between Poland and Moldova and did these priorities undergo changes in time?

We are active in three areas – development of rural areas. We recently worked out an instrument called urban revitalization starting from several municipalities of the Republic of Moldova. We also have several projects related to confidence building on the two sides of the Nistru. The priorities develop somehow naturally, based on the local situation.

- Moldovan society is sufficiently bothered by the lack of progress in the process of forming the new government in Republic of Moldova after the legislative elections held over 70 days ago. Do the foreign partners, in particular Poland, experience the same discomfort. Are the prospects of the bilateral relations and of the Moldova-EU relations in such conditions clear to you?  

- I don’t know if “discomfort” is the most suitable word. First of all, many countries experienced situations when the formation of a government was difficult or even impossible. Quite recently in certain EU countries we saw coalition talks that took a lot of time and perhaps were even painful for some. In some cases they even lasted for more than a year. This is not uncommon. Less so in Poland. Here we have a party which four years ago won the absolute majority in both houses, so there was no need for a coalition. We will have elections this autumn and we will see how things play out.

Each country has own problems and should deal with them responsibly. It’s not for a foreign country to give advice on such matters. First of all, we respect your independence. For us, independence is sacred. Why should a foreign country tell you what to do and what not? You have the privilege of freedom as well as the duty of responsibility.

Where we can continue some projects and initiatives, we do that in cooperation with civil society and local authorities. As concerns various projects at central level, we have to wait as there is still no government formed after the elections. Perhaps this is the only consequence - that we cannot make the most of our cooperation at the moment.

- Let’s return to more special occasions of the current period. Elections to the European Parliament will take place in  two weeks. What does Poland expect of these elections and what impact could they have on Moldova and the Moldovans, on the Moldovan-Polish relations?

- Definitely, each election has a particular impact. In the given case, we speak about the European Parliament whose powers are not negligible and are very important. But the decisions in the European Union are adopted through a much more complex process.

What do we expect? First of all, we expect that the voice of the people will hopefully become the most important. The idea is to find a solution that would suit the people by these European Parliament elections. But we see here, and this is a personal opinion, that it is an invitation to the elites in different countries to respond to people’s wishes.

As to the relations between the EU and the Republic of Moldova, some consider the European Union is a model that either does not have a future, will collapse or will have limited importance. What can we say? Surely, the current variant of the European construct will evolve. How many treaties were signed during the last 25 years?! In Amsterdam, Nice, Lisboan. There were signed many treaties that changed the functioning mechanism of the EU. The EU will evolve. It’s hard to tell in which direction, but it will evolve either the Brexit takes place or not.

Some things are unlikely to change, though. First of all, I think people in Europe value greatly the freedom of movement, the freedom to travel, to move around goods, services and capital. These things have become extremely important. What do you mean we can no longer freely travel from one country to another, do we go back to border checks, visas and passports?! I don’t think anyone wants to go back experiencing such a situation where travel visas are required again. The same thing with trade. If we like a commodity from a certain country and would like to buy it, we certainly wouldn’t want to pay a higher price due to customs duties. This condition of freedom is something that I think cannot be reversed. We like being part of a community. Then, every country has its own interests and lobbies for them, which is something natural.

Whatever happens in the European Union after the upcoming European Parliament elections and in the years to come, everything that is written in the Association Agreement between Moldova and the EU, and in the 20 deliverables by 2020, remains to be implemented for the own benefit of Moldova. By implementing these documents, the Republic of Moldova becomes compatible with other states that already form part of the EU and this cooperation will be thus stronger. This is actually the stake. This is the perspective we should address. That’s why the implementation of reforms should continue.

- You said in a context that the Polish people are avid for freedom and this is an inborn feature. What makes the Poles and the Moldovans resemble each other and differ from each other as people, as nation?

- This is a very difficult question, probably the most difficult of those you put today. I think this wish for freedom exists everywhere in the world. But owing to history, the past, it acquires different proportions. We refer to freedom to mean we have a state that someone wants to take from us. So, we had to defend ourselves not only by military force, but first of all by spiritual force. The occupants in most of the cases during the past 300 years had a more powerful military force than we had and occupied us, deported us, humiliated and imprisoned us. But we never surrendered and kept this identity. We are a different nation, especially by our culture and tradition. We will not be someone’s slaves. We are masters in our court. I think this wish for freedom exists among the Moldovans too. I think they also faced many challenges, possibly even more serious than we did. But this wish for freedom didn’t acquire the same form.

Poland is appreciated by the Republic of Moldova. We realize this. The Poles are also very appreciated. I never heard in Moldova any negative remark or comment concerning Poland. Everyone speaks nicely and knows that they do not speak so for being nice, but because they are really convinced of what they say. We appreciate this a lot. We are very close to each other. Even if we do not have a common border, we are close. The distance between Chisinau and Warsaw is shorter than that between Warsaw and Brussels. We like to be free in our countries. I’m convinced that the potential remains very great and should be realized.

Note IPN:
- The interview was held on May 8, 2019 and its video version is available here;
- The interview forms part of the series of video interviews conducted  by IPN News Agency with senior officials of embassies and representative offices of international organizations working in Chisinau concerning Moldova’s relations with the development partners. The project is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The opinions stated in the interviews do not necessarily represent the Foundation’s views.

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