Kourosh Ziabari – Fair Observer: Aleksander Kwasniewski is a respected name in Polish politics. He served as the president of Poland from 1995 to 2005. He is known for negotiating the accession of Poland to the European Union (EU) and NATO.
Kwasniewski was a critic of the Iraq War in 2003. However, he now says the early withdrawal of US troops from the country was not the correct decision, and that Iraq is a model example of “unfinished business,” in terms of ill-prepared stabilization plans.
The veteran politician says the United States is Poland’s “strongest and the most reliable ally.” He also believes that US plans for installing a missile defense shield in Poland is a necessity, given the unstable and turbulent situation in the Middle East and Iran’s “lack of transparency” in its nuclear activities.
Kwasniewski was appointed as the European Parliament’s envoy to Ukraine to investigate criminal charges against former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and the crisis in the Crimean Peninsula. He tells Fair Observer that the biggest difference between Europe and Russia is that Europeans “invite” while Russians “invade.”
In this edition of The Interview, a series of conversations with individuals from around the world, Fair Observer talks to President Kwasniewski about the Iraq War, NATO and the European Union.
Kourosh Ziabari: A 2013 BBC World Service poll showed that 55% of Poles view the US global influence favorably. What do you think is the source of this strong alliance between Poland and the United States? Notably, however, holders of Polish passports cannot travel to the US without obtaining a visa from the US Embassy. Is this restriction going to be eased in the near future?
Aleksander Kwasniewski: Polish-US relations have been traditionally close and warm, even at the interpersonal level, since the very beginning of mutual relations back in the 18th and 19th centuries. From a Polish perspective, the United States of America appears to be the strongest and most reliable ally. This is an outcome of our historical experience, mostly from the 20th century. The popular feeling in Poland is that good relations with the US are undoubtedly needed for our stability and security.
The visa question has proved problematic and contentious for two countries that share such warm bilateral relations. I am positive, however, this problem is going to be solved quickly, as there is no objective reason to keep Poland out of the Visa Waiver Program.
Ziabari: The US missile defense complex in Poland has been one of the most controversial security issues in recent years. President Barack Obama stated in 2009 that as long as the “threat from Iran” persists, the United States will go forward with a missile defense system. Do you believe that Iran poses a threat to the security of Europe?
Kwasniewski: The US missile defense system has been some kind of a response to the fast changing international situation in the Middle East and the southeastern flank of the European strategic theater. The lack of security is generally perceived as a mix of objective, well-known and visible threats. In this context one should remember that Iran has never put its nuclear and missile programs in full transparency in front of the international community. There is no honest dialogue between Tehran and the international community, especially the West. And without such a true dialogue, there is no confidence and, in turn, there is no sense of security. Last but not least, insecurity brings the necessity of creating some defense measures, like the missile defense system.
Talking about insecurity and dangers originating from the Middle East, one should remember the outcome of the so-called “Arab Spring.” After the 2011 revolutions in many Arab countries, the whole region became more dangerous and unstable, generating more threats than in the past. One of these threats is unrestricted proliferation of ballistic missiles and rocket technology. The US missile defense system should be seen as a response to these dangers.
Ziabari: Poland was a major contributor of military forces to Iraq following the war in 2003. Poland, along with the United States, Britain and Australia, sent the largest number of troops. You announced on March 17, 2003, that Poland would deploy some 2,000 soldiers, even though most ofthem were withdrawn between 2008 and 2011. Now, more than a decade after the invasion and the removal of Saddam Hussein, how do you see the situation in Iraq? Why hasn’t security and peace returned to the country?
Kwasniewski: Nowadays, Iraq is the model example of “unfinished business” — in terms of an ill-prepared and ill-executed stabilization mission. American troops pulled out too early before the stabilization work had been finished. Of course, the current dramatic situation in Iraq is also an outcome of a long-lasting war in Syria. However, in 2011, when the last American soldier left Iraq, no one could have predicted the origin of the caliphate and the existence of an Islamic State.
Now, the Syrian carnage seems to be out of order, spilling all over the region and its boundaries. Iraq is the first victim, but other countries in the region are also in danger — Lebanon and Jordan, among others. What is worse, the so-called “war on the caliphate” has brought out the demons of long-lasting rivalry between Shiite and Sunni communities within Islam. It won’t bode well for the future developments in the region, particularly in Iraq itself.
Ziabari: The accession of Poland to NATO and the European Union became a reality while you were president. How beneficial has it been for Poland to join NATO and the EU? Haven’t some of the decisions made by the two bodies, including the Iraq War and the sanctions against Russia, affected your country adversely?
Kwasniewski: Poland’s accession into NATO and the European Union are my biggest presidential achievements. I cannot imagine modern and safe Poland outside these organizations.
The EU’s structural funds, open borders and access to the European labor market positively affected millions of Poles. Approximately 2 million Polish people work abroad in other EU countries. They are seeking their welfare over there. It wouldn’t be possible outside the EU.
Regarding NATO, I can say that being a member of the strongest military alliance gave Polish people confidence that in case of emergency, we will not be alone as we have been many times in our history.
Our intervention in Iraq in 2003 had both positive and negative sides. First of all, we have shown our American allies that Poland is a reliable partner, but we paid the price inside the EU for that. Some politicians from the “old EU” said that we lost “a chance to be silent.” If we are talking about the Russian economic sanctions, of course the Polish economy suffers a little, but if it is a price for Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence, we can or even must pay it. I wonder who will lose more — the biggest economy in the world (the common European market) or the old-fashioned Russian economy based on gas and oil?
Ziabari: You have been closely involved with developments in Ukraine as the European Parliament’s co-envoy to the country. Do you agree that the majority of people in Crimea want to be associated with Russia instead of the European Union? Won’t a possible admission of Ukraine to the European Union trigger a more complicated conflict between Russia and the West, and lead to further instability in the region?
Kwasniewski: First of all, I would like to underline that so-called referendum in Crimea was non-legitimate — that event was not about joining the EU or Russia.
The association agreement with the EU was a first step toward Europe. It doesn’t mean Ukraine will be a member of the EU in one week, one month or one year. It was only the beginning of the process, and the majority of Ukrainians were and are in favor of the EU’s perspective for Ukraine. The EU’s perspective is clear and honest.
But this is Ukraine’s choice only. The EU wouldn’t send troops to Ukraine if most Ukrainians would choose, for example, the Eurasian Customs Union. This is the biggest difference between us and our Russian colleagues. We “invite” and they “invade.”
Ziabari: It is reported that Poland survived the financial crisis safely and unscathed, and it was the only EU member state that registered a positive economic growth rate in 2009 and 2010. Would the situation have been the same had Poland been a member of the eurozone? Why do you think the common currency for EU member states will lead to further prosperity and welfare for the people of the region?
Kwasniewski: It is only partly true that the Polish economy has not felt negative consequences of the economic crisis. Yes, we didn’t have a recession, our GDP growth has been constantly in progress, but Polish youth paid the price. Almost 70% of young people in Poland work in unstable and bad-paid jobs called “junk jobs.” I hope this will pass in the near future.
Nevertheless, in Poland, we have a strong domestic market and consumption. For that reason, many companies have had a chance to sell their products and services domestically; a low dependence from external export markets brought fruits. Another reason was the flexible exchange rate, which allowed for a depreciation of the Polish currency and an increase of the competitiveness of our products abroad. Membership in the EU and inflow of investments — private and EU structural funds — kept the investment rate high, which further curbed the economy.
Joining the eurozone is today a more political than economic decision. Economic reasoning puts two issues at the forefront: the currency exchange rate when joining the euro system, and whether Poland will be able to keep the competitiveness afterward. In other words, whether or not we will fall into the trap of Spain or Greece. Adopting the euro means higher requirements for management skills in the area of systemic reforms and governance. I do not think public administration and political class are ready for this challenge. There are many reforms still to be carried out in Poland as to health, pensions and fiscal [issues].
Politically, Poland should be in the European first league, namely the eurozone, but the common currency union must be reformed. Then, when all regulatory tools are implemented, I will be the first person who will advise Polish political elites that it is time to join the euro currency.
This interview was originally published on Fair Observer.