Poland: The Jagiellonian Alternative


Polish foreign policy has traditionally been distinguished by two mutually exclusive paradigms named after the two most famous dynasties that ruled the country during different times: the Piast and Jagiellonian. The first paradigm involves a focus on the West paired with an active policy in Central Europe[i].

This “Piast” paradigm implies that Poland maintain friendly, or at least neutral relations with Russia, which is seen as acting as a counterbalance to Germany and, when in conflict with this western neighbor, even as Poland’s ally. Germany’s ambitions towards Poland are seen as necessarily counterbalanced by enlisting the support of Poland’s eastern neighbors.

One of the most important characteristics of this orientation is the desire to construct an ethnically homogenous Polish nation-state which either rejects or substantially limits Poland’s imperial ambition in regards to the former lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Piast orientation was characteristically influential during the interwar period of Polish foreign policy as formulated by one of the most prominent ideologues of the Polish national movement, the founder of “Endecja” (National Democracy), Roman Dmowski[ii].

Unlike the Piast paradigm, the Jagiellonian paradigm orients Polish foreign policy towards the East, insisting on the recovery of the former territorial integrity of parts of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Jagiellonian idea cultivates among Poles the desire to exercise control over the lands of modern Ukraine and Belarus.

Proceeding from this position, the expansions of Polish influence to the East is regarded as instigating the transition of these states to the “European” and Western civilizational matrix and promoting their development along these lines. Poland is thus conceptualized as a regional power responsible for the situation on the territories of modern Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania[iii].

Józef Piłsudski, the main opponent of R. Dmowski in the Polish national movement and a significantly famous figure of the interwar period, is traditionally considered to be an adherent of the Jagiellonian geopolitical project. The Jagiellonian strategy of the Polish state under Piłsudski was characterized by the intention to establish a protectorate out of Ukraine with the aid of Symon Petliura, which in turn led to the Soviet-Polish war of 1919-1921. Due to Piłsudski’s efforts, the newly independent Polish state was carved out of such boundaries and inevitably became ethnically heterogeneous. Poland consisted of the Vilnius region (the current capital of Lithuania) and the territories of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus. In turn, the development of the Jagiellonian geopolitical project yielded the emergence of the ideological project of “Prometheism” and the formation of the “Intermarium” geopolitical concept which remains influential to this day.

The doctrine of “Prometheism”, as developed by J. Piłsudski, is built on A. Mickiewicz’s presentation of Poland as the “Christ of Europe” as well as on the ideas of J. Slowacki, B. Trentowski, A. Towiański, and others. These and similar thinkers (except J. Hoene-Wroński who considered the Poles to be carriers of the worldwide Slavic mission together with Russians) formulated the basis of Polish messianic ideology which insisted on the Polish people’s particularly exclusive role in global as well as Eastern European history[iv]. As the Polish sociologist Ilya Prizel notes, the formation of this messianic complex produced a deep contradiction between the Western and Slavic roots of Polish identity whose heightened awareness is peculiar to the conservative nationalism and romantic self-determination of the Poles. Prizel writes: “On the one hand, Polish romantics endorsed the cult of nativism and remained suspicious of Western-originated ideas. On the other, they rejected the Russian style Slavophilia as an Asian aberration. As the result, because the Poles were both Roman Catholic and Slavic, the romantics believed that they were the “chosen people” destined to civilize the Slavs and save the world.”[v]

The anti-Russian component of Polish messianism thus becomes part of a special geopolitical doctrine which preaches the necessity of maximally weakening Russia and disintegrating the Russian state in accordance with “Prometheism.” In this view, Poles should initiate and lead the struggle to “liberate” the peoples of Russia for their national self-determination. Regarding the interconnection of Poland’s national identity and foreign policy, Prizel writes: “believing that Poland was locked in a perennial battle with Russia, Piłsudski continued to trust in Poland’s Promethean “civilizing mission” in the East, which required a powerful Poland and deserved Western support.”[vi]  

The main objective of the geopolitical doctrine of Prometheism was the weakening and subsequent division of Tsarist and then Soviet Russia by supporting the nationalist movements of the non-Russian peoples. According to recently declassified documents from the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the Polish secret services and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs developed their “Prometheist” activism by urging the development of independent centers among the nationalist emigrations which could struggle against the Soviet Union, the ultimate goal being the maximal fragmentation of the USSR and its division into the largest number of individual parts[vii]. From 1926, the Polish Prometheus Organization began functioning in Paris and involved representatives of the various nationalist movements among the Soviet peoples of Azerbaijan, the Don Cossacks, Tatars, Georgians, Karelians, Komi, Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, Ingrians, and various peoples of the North Caucasus. The Oriental Institute in Warsaw and the Research Institute of Eastern Europe in Vilnius also participated in this project[viii].

In basic geopolitical terms, which contrasts tellurocratic to thalassocratic approaches to domination and the opposition between the interests of Atlanticist vs. continental powers, this Polish project bears a clearly anti-Russian and therefore Atlanticist orientation.

The geopolitical project of the Intermarium authored by the Polish cartographer and geographer E. Romer can be considered a concept that fits within the framework of the Jagiellonian paradigm. This project has as its end goal the creation of a federal union of Eastern European states situated between the Baltic and Black Seas. This project, although it might be appealing to a certain extent in terms of developing regional connections, is simultaneously, from a geopolitical point of view, nothing more than a form of “cordon sanitaire” separating Germany from Russia. Such a geopolitical entity was envisioned to wield a military and economic potential comparable to both Germany and the USSR and, if necessary, be capable of resisting both powers[ix].

At the beginning of World War II, the movement for an Eastern European federation opened a center in New York where, with the support of the American business elite and influential scholars, the Central and Eastern European Planning Board was launched[x].

According to the contemporary American geopolitician Alexandros Petersen, the “Prometheist Intermarium” strategy is a typically Atlanticist doctrine that functions as an alternative to Kennan’s policy of containment. Petersen calls this the “strategic involvement” of the “myriad of captive Eurasian peoples within the Russian orbit” in an Atlanticist project.[xi] Petersen remarks: “Piłsudski’s vision had been partly realized with the break up of the Soviet Union … Eurasia today still encompass hundreds of minorities, and the small states of Eurasia are still fighting for their sovereignty,”[xii].

The geopolitical concept of “Prometheism-Intermarium” can be directly traced back to the ideas of H. Mackinder on the establishment of a number of puppet states in and around the territory of Russia (Belarus, Ukraine, South Russia, Dagestan, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan)[xiii] as well as the ideas of Z. Brzezinski (who is in fact Polish by birth) on the desirable division of Russia[xiv]. Evidence of the aggressive anti-Russian thinking of the “Prometheism-Intermarium” doctrine that is typical of current Polish foreign policy can be seen in Poland’s support for the “Orange Revolution” in 2004 and the 2014 coup d’etat in Ukraine, Poland’s active support for Georgia during the Russian-Georgian military conflict of August 2008, and in Poland’s favorable attitude towards Chechen separatists during and after the Second Chechen War[xv].

We can see a revival of interest in the “Intermarium” project even today. This proposal appears in discussions between Eastern European politicians and scholars either by its true name or under the guise of a “Baltic-Black Sea axis,” “Baltic-Black Sea arc,” “Baltic-Black Sea cooperation”, or a “Baltic-Black Sea corridor”[xvi]. According to the American scholar of federal projects in Eastern Europe, Jonathan Levy, the echoes of the “Intermarium” can still be heard in contemporary Polish foreign policy in its paying close attention to the East, specifically Ukraine and Belarus on the one hand and, on the other hand, Poland’s strengthening of ties with its neighbors in the region, particularly the Visegrad Group member countries[xvii]. The head of the Confederation of Independent Poland, the conservative political Leszek Moczulski, actively insists on the revival of the Intermarium idea. Moczulski’s suggestion rests on his conviction of the need to create a geopolitical bloc of countries stretching between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas opposed to both the West (primarily Germany and the EU) and Russia[xviii]. The Kaczynski brothers’ party, Law and Justice, actively exploited the theme of the Intermarium during the 2005 election campaign and based their political platform on the “Intermarium ABC” which, for example, supported Croatia in its efforts to join the EU and strove for cooperation with Yushchenko’s Ukraine[xix].

We can mention yet another theory which to this day still affects the formulation of Polish policy towards its eastern neighbors, the Giedroyc-Meroshevsky doctrine formulated by Polish emigrants in 1960s-70s. This project’s basic principles were published in Paris in the Polish newspaper Kultura, whose editor was the writer, journalist, and former diplomat Jerzy Giedroyc. Compared to the classical Jagiellonian paradigm, the novelty of this concept rests on its recognition of a special region between Russia and Poland, noted as ULB (Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus). Giedroyc and his co-author, Meroshevky, urged the abandonment of geopolitical revisionism in the East and, first and foremost, a revision of the desire to return the Polish territories annexed by the USSR in 1939[xx]. This concept’s authors called for respect for the right to national self-determination and independence of Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Belarusians and criticized the views of Poles “who dream of not only a Polish Lvov and Vilnius, but even a Polish Minsk and Kiev” and “find their ideal in an independent Poland in federation with Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus.”[xxi] The view that “the alternative to Russian imperialism can only be Polish imperialism, and always has been” was rejected by Meroshevsky as inadequate in the realities of our time[xxii]. In an article published in Kultura entitled “The Polish Complex: Russia and the ULB Zone”, Meroshevsky also called the “noble Jagiellonian idea” a version of Polish imperialism and called upon his compatriots to understand that “the Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Belarusians in the 20th century can no longer be pawns in the historic Polish-Russian game.”[xxiii]

According to A. Miller, despite the declarative condemnation of imperialism and the criticism of both Russian and Polish former strategies of control, already in its developmental stage this doctrine exhibited a mostly anti-Russian character. This can be explained by the fact that it still strove for the “liberation” of Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Belarusians from historical Russian (and then Soviet) control.

Miller refers to an interesting statement by the well-known Ukrainian emigrant figure, Jarosław Pełenski, who in the 1990’s worked as the director of the Institute for Eastern European Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and who previously maintained close ties with Giedroyc.  Motivated by antipathy towards Russia, Pełenski insisted that Giedroyc and Meroshevsky excluded this country from their vision without any reason in terms of principles. Pełenski, on the other hand, though that the concept of Ukrainian-Belarusian-Lithuanian formation would need to expand even to include parts of Russia. He was echoed by the prominent Polish politician former Solidarity activist Dariusz Rosati, who also admitted that that the essence of this doctrine was the fact that Ukraine and Belarus have rather anti-Russian sentiments.[xxiv]

In fact, the Giedroyc-Meroshevsky doctrine, despite always claiming to be the opposite, is merely a cosmetically retouched version of the Jagiellonian idea. The East, not the West, is declared as the priority of this geopolitical approach in Polish foreign policy. Thus, it cannot be regarded as a variation of the Piast paradigm of Polish geopolitics. In addition, the anti-Russian nature of this idea is clearly visible in that one of its main goals for Poland in the East is the ULB zone’s declaration of independence from Russia. It is only natural that the notion of “independence” can be interpreted quite broadly, and thus be stretched to understand any kind of integration projects in the post-Soviet space as “attacks” upon the independence of the ULB region. The very fact that Poland designates a special relationship with these countries and, as the concept preaches, is destined to play the unique role of defending their independence, is proof of an effort to harbor the region and, thus, establish an unequal relationship.

As O. Nemensky notes, yet another important factor which characterizes the partial implementation of the Giedroyc-Meroshevsky doctrine and its provisions as characteristic of the “Jagiellonian doctrine” is the inability on the part of a considerable number of Poles to accept that old Polish policy was imperialist in nature[xxv]. Additionally, despite the nominal acceptance of this in Polish foreign policy towards the East, the very same doctrine declares that it is Russian, not Polish imperialism of the past, that is the main danger to Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus.

Thus, despite the seemingly anti-imperialist theses of the doctrine under consideration, its adaptation by the Polish elite has only strengthened the expansionist, messianic and anti-Russian character of Polish foreign policy. The selections of Ukraine and Belarus as priority objects of Polish eastern policy and its general nature (this will be later discussed) are directly connected to this influence. Another important characteristic of this “new” geopolitical project is favoring Poland’s further participation in European integration which would be combined with the maintenance of liberal-democratic regimes in the countries to the East[xxvi]. Currently, the combination of these ideologies is demonstrated by the active participation of Poland in the EU “Eastern Partnership”.

Giedroyc and Meroshevsky’s contributions offer what is essentially a new, softened version of the old Jagiellonian idea promoting an active foreign policy towards the East with an eye toward Poland's patronage over the nations of Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus. This trend obviously did not disappear in foreign policy after 1989. In fact, A. Lorak claims that E. Giedroyc’s notion of the ULB formed the basis of Poland’s new eastern policy following 1989[xxvii] and has now been used to justify Poland’s active role in the “Eastern Partnership.” This author states that the Giedroyc-Meroshevsky doctrine is essentially kin to the doctrine of Prometheism, whose basic principle centers around ensuring Poland’s security and leadership through its eastern neighbors’s emancipation from Russia[xxviii]. This path has been continued in Polish foreign policy since the collapse of the bipolar world system[xxix].

Moreover, the Polish National Security Strategy in action from 2007 to 2014 postulated that the contemporary Polish state is of fundamental importance to promoting the expansion of the EU and NATO, especially to Ukraine, Moldova, the South Caucasus, and the Western Balkans[xxx]. The document states, for example, that “the democratization of Belarus would have a positive reinforcing effect on Poland’s security.”[xxxi] The Atlanticist nature of this strategy can be seen in both the proclamation that the USA is Poland’s main ally and the recognition that the “ambition to treat the EU as a counterweight to the United States”[xxxii] is a threat to Polish security. This unambiguous focus on the US and NATO was renewed in the strategy update of 2014, which focuses extensively on the need to restrain Russia.

The most important element of Poland's current eastern policy is its attitude towards the Polish diaspora in foreign countries and its manipulation as an instrument of foreign policy and cultural expansion. As the Ukrainian analyst Vladislav Gulevich noted, the intensification of this diaspora policy since 2006 “can be seen as a desire to create a religious and cultural environment predominated by Catholicism and Polish culture of the Roman Rite.”[xxxiii]

Indeed, the idea of “Polonia,” the Polish World, is actively used in Polish political discourse which unites the Polish nation regardless of its members’ place of residence. According to Giedroyc, since 1990 the Senate of the Republic of Poland has provided extensive funding for the development of “Polonia.” If initially only one organization was involved in such an initiative - the Association of Polish Communities - then by 2008 more than 75 NGO’s were included, the largest being Polish Community, Semper Polonia, and the Foundation for Assistance to Poles in the East. These organizations receive more than 76% of all government subsidies aimed at supporting the Polish diaspora ($17.1 million). The Polish Senate has clearly identified the main priorities of such “Polonia” work as being the development of educational projects for Poles abroad (26% of funding), the development of Polish culture (more than 17%), and the development of Polish and pro-Polish foreign media (10%)[xxxiv].

The fact of the combination of policies supporting compatriots and the foreign policy of Poland is shown by how in 2006 one of the candidates for the presidency of Belarus was the representative of the united opposition, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, who is a member of the Union of Poles in Belarus[xxxv].

A reliance on non-governmental organizations, “humanitarian diplomacy”, and cultural penetration on the former territories of the Polish-Lithuanian state are the distinguishing facets of Polish policy towards Ukraine and Belarus. Kiev and Minsk are both home to functioning departments of the Polish Institute which works with local scholars, teachers, and students on fomenting ideas about the common history and destiny of Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus, the important cultural contribution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to the development of the two nations, the promotion of the Polish perspective in the history of Ukraine and Belarus, and Ukrainian and Belarusian relations with Poles and Russians. Polonia's labor exchange is also an active component which employs graduates in the branches of Polish companies or local companies interested in cooperation with Poland, thereby strengthening Poland’s economic presence in the region. Within the Polonia framework, special attention is paid to Catholicism. Poles make up approximately 50% of the clergy in the Belarusian Catholic community which serves 20% of the population. Contributions are also made to the growing Catholic community in Ukraine. “According to the Annuario Pontificio, the total number of Catholics (all rites) in Ukraine is now about 5 million people (about 10% of the population).”[xxxvi]

As the Polish researcher K. Pomorska notes, the eastern orientation (especially Ukraine, Belarus and Russia) continues to be a major priority in Polish foreign policy. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the subsequent pro-Western bias in the foreign policy of the Ukrainian state are considered to be achievements of Polish foreign policy[xxxvii]. Supporting the opposition in Belarus and cold relations with Russia remain the “Europeanized” characteristics of Polish foreign policy strategy which, despite using EU instruments, is strategically oriented towards the USA.

[i] Неменский О. IV Речь Посполитая: взгляд на Восток [Электронный ресурс] URL: http://www.apn.ru/opinions/article9544.htm (дата доступа - 17.08.2011).

[ii] См.: Дмовский Р. Германия, Россия и польский вопрос. СПб., 1909.

[iii] Fawn R. Ideology and national identity in post-communist foreign policies. N.Y.: Routledge, 2003. P. 187.

[iv] Гулевич В. Границы евразийства и их преодоление / Левиафан: материалы семинара «Геополитика/Геостратегия». М., 2011. С.201-202.

[v] Prizel I. National identity and foreign policy: nationalism and leadership in Poland, Russia and Ukraine. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1998. P. 57.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Соцков Л. Секреты польской политики. 1935-1945гг. Рассекреченные документы Службы внешней разведки Российской Федерации. М., 2010. С. 269-290.

[viii] Woytak R. The Promethean Movement in Interwar Poland //East European Quarterly, 1984. vol. XVIII, no. 3. Pp. 273-278.

[ix] Levy J. The Intermarium: Wilson, Madison, & East Central European Federalism. N.Y.: Universal-Publishers, 2007.  P. 175.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Petersen A. The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2011. P. 60.

[xii] Ibid. P. 74.

[xiii] Mackinder H. Situation in South Russia. 21 January 1920 / Documents on foreign policy 1919 – 1939. First series. V. III. 1919. London, 1949. C. 786–787.

[xiv] Бжезинский З. Великая шахматная доска. Американское превосходство и его геостратегические императивы. М.: Международные отношения, 2010. С. 239.

[xv] Дворовенко П. «Чеченская карта» польской политики. Империя: информационно-аналитический портал [Электронный ресурс] URL: http://www.imperiya.by/politics1-8490.html (время доступа - 12.08.2011)

[xvi] Савин Л.В. Проект Междуморья и геополитика региональных рисков // Геополитика. 2011. Вып. 10. С.45-47.

[xvii] Levy J. The Intermarium: Wilson, Madison, & East Central European Federalism. N.Y. Universal-Publishers, 2007.   P. 340.

[xviii] Reprintsev V. Ukraine in Polish Foreign-Policy Doctrines / [Ukrainian Statehood in the Twentieth Century: Historical and Political Analysis. Kyiv: Political Thought, 1996. P. 156.

[xix]   Андреев А. Новая Речь Посполитая [Электронный ресурс] URL: http://www.apn.ru/opinions/article9504.htm (дата обращения - 20.08.2011).

[xx] Spero J.D. Bridging the European divide: middle power politics and regional security dilemmas. N.Y.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. P. 35.

[xxi] Мерошевский Ю. «Польский комплекс» России и территория УЛБ. [Электронный ресурс] URL: http://www.polonica.ru/node/136 (дата доступа - 13.08.2011).

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Миллер А.И. Тема Центральной Европы: История, современные дискурсы и место в них России // Регионализация посткоммунистической Европы: Сб. науч. тр. М.: ИНИОН, 2001. С. 35.

[xxv] Неменский О. IV Речь Посполитая: взгляд на Восток [Электронный ресурс] URL: http://www.apn.ru/opinions/article9544.htm (дата доступа - 17.08.2011).

[xxvi] Lacroix J., Nicolaīdis K. European Stories: Intellectual Debates on Europe in National Contexts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. P. 226.

[xxvii] Lorek A. Poland's Role in the Development of an 'Eastern Dimension' of the European Union. Munich: GRIN Verlag, 2009. P. 24.

[xxviii] Ibid. P.88

[xxix] Ibid. P. 24

[xxx] Polish National Security Strategy. Warsaw 2007. P.7.

[xxxi] Polish National Security Strategy. Warsaw 2007. P. 7.

[xxxii] Ibid. P. 9.

[xxxiii] Гулевич В. Диаспоральная политика Польши на "Восточных территориях" (Украина, Беларусь) [Электронный ресурс]URL: http://www.geopolitika.ru/Articles/Page/320 (дата обращения - 20.07.2011).

[xxxiv] Гулевич В. Указ. соч.

[xxxv] Неменский О. Указ. соч.

[xxxvi] Гулевич В. Указ. соч.

[xxxvii] Pomorska K. Are we there yet? From adaptation to Europeanisation of Polish foreign policy [Электронный ресурс]URL: http://euce.org/eusa/2011/papers/7j_pomorska.pdf (дата обращения - 20.08.2011).