Poland and Estonia still keeping an eye out to the East

9 May 2015

Poland and Estonia still keeping an eye out to the East

By Eric Smaling - In these turbulent times it’s hard to decide which foreign news most preoccupies you. The refugee boats on the Mediterranean Sea, the caliphate of ISIS, the refugee camps in and around Syria, the earthquake in Nepal, Boko Haram, the ever more precarious situation in Yemen, the rapprochement between the US and Cuba, or Ukraine? And without the appalling fate of the MH-17 and its passengers, would Ukraine still stand so high on the list?

This last consideration goes also for Poland and Estonia, where I found myself from 6th-8th May with a parliamentary delegation. Looking at the world for three days from a Polish and Estonian perspective is enough to reset yourself and realise how carefree were our own 1960s and 1970s in a country where everything seemed possible and tolerance was the hallmark. So twenty-five years on, as was 1970 from 1945, so is it now twenty-five years since 1990 and the revolutionary changes in Eastern Europe. These are countries which, partly thanks to European Union support since their accession in 2004, are doing well economically – Poland even had few problems as a result of the crisis in 2008 – have young populations who look with curiosity out at the world, a lightness of atmosphere with far fewer disgruntled faces, countries in which optimism prevails.

These are also countries whose people are determined to hold on to what they now have. Poland in particular does not want for the umpteenth time to wither after briefly flourishing. This makes the Ukraine question very tricky. Poland has strong links to its neighbour to the east. Until the end of the 18th century Poland and Lithuania formed a single great kingdom, one which included a large part of Belarus and of Ukraine. After that, the country was divided between Russia, Prussia and the Habsburg Empire Just after the First World War the country once again gained its independence, but this was to last only twenty years. The Second World War was catastrophic for the entire country, but especially for Warsaw’s Jews. In total, six million Poles lost their lives. The post-war period from 1945 saw Poland on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Poland has tried to play a mediating role in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but history means that it is not in a good position to do so. Estonia has a long history in which the German nobility ruled the roost, including being in charge in the glittering Medieval Hanseatic port of Tallinn. Later the great neighbour to the west annexed the region, but after the Second World War it became a republic of the Soviet Union.

From independence in the early 1990s right up to our own times, a quarter of the small country of Estonia’s inhabitants (the total population is 1.3 million) has been and remains of Russian origin. This creates conflicts, especially around the requirement that one has very good Estonian in order to qualify for citizenship, a criterion which has rendered many Russian-speakers stateless. Russia’s invasion of the Crimea has made Estonia and Latvia nervous. Because the standard of living is higher in the Baltic countries it seems unlikely that the Russian minority will want to return east or that they will revolt. What makes the situation nevertheless quite urgent is the fact that the Baltic Republics have joined not only the EU, but NATO. With Finland and Sweden considering applying to the latter, the whole of the Ukraine/Baltic Sea region is taking on NATO colours. And NATO’s rules mean that if a member state is attacked, the whole of the alliance must contribute to a counter-attack, so provocation and escalation sit side-by-side.

While we still mark the Second World War each year, I formed the impression that for Estonia and Poland the Soviet past plays a bigger role in their memories. This is especially true when it comes to resistance to the way things were done in those times, with everyone being spied on. Years of organised suspicion and gossip hit them like a sledge-hammer and the general view is that Putin uses the same techniques. In consequence, these countries, as well as their EU neighbours, adopt a harsh tone when dealing with Russia. The desire that the European Union address the Russian question ‘with a single voice’ reveals immediately the impossibility and undesirability of a common EU foreign policy.

Opinions are just as divided over the reception of the thousands of refugees crossing the Mediterranean. Although Hungary has made a major contribution to meeting this demand, I got the impression that Poland and Estonia are anxious about it. These are ethnically homogenous countries, with no history of colonialism, no history of guest workers in their country apart from some Ukrainians, without decades of development aid. The obligatory acceptance of Syrians and Africans is not high on their ‘to do’ list. What we also heard – and there is certainly a lot in this – is that Poland or Estonia is not what comes immediately into an asylum seeker’s mind when he or she sets off for Europe. Experiences in Poland show that refugees had gone in the shortest time possible on towards Germany or Sweden.

Thanks to the as always excellent preparations on the part of the embassies, we were able in three days to meet with politicians, business people, representatives of NGOs concerned with minorities and with the cultural heritage, an architect whose father had been in charge of the reconstruction of Warsaw’s city centre, students, opinion leaders and ICT nerds, ‘Skype-land’ Estonia being the leader in the field.

It’s important that we follow how the eastern EU member states are developing. European aid is still flowing and these countries have done well out of it. Like the entrepreneurs we are, the Dutch are trying to do business everywhere in the region. The EU has immense support there, just as does NATO. Freedom, security and welfare stand high on the list of people’s priorities. The aversion towards their big eastern neighbour is understandable, but also shows straight away that their perspective is not per se the same as that of other member states. And quite apart from that you are constantly coming up against countless national priorities, which people aren’t willing to give up just for the sake of the European idea. In Poland, for example, agriculture and the coal industry are ‘protected zones’, which is also understandable from a national point of view.

The grumpy faces of the past are slowly but surely disappearing from the streets. Every journey turns out to be an eye opener, but let’s be honest: when we talk about Poles here in the Netherlands we are talking about building workers or horticultural workers, badly housed, without the protection of collective agreements on wages and conditions; or about truck drivers who drive too many hours and take work from Dutch drivers. We have more to say about the fact that they drink hard than that they work hard.

And the idea that the Baltic States form a unity? Forget it. They are totally different. The way in which the EU ‘organises’ the internal market reinforces the image of inequality, uneven development, and unfair competition. Yet these are in reality interesting, dynamic countries which deserve our full attention, good will and friendship.

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