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Democracy, Statecraft and the Partitions of Poland, 1772-1795

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Poland, as a government over local sovereigns, might not improperly be taken notice of. Nor could any proof more striking be given of the calamities flowing from such institutions. Equally unfit for self-government and self-defense, it has long been at the mercy of its powerful neighbors; who have lately had the mercy to disburden it of one third of its people and territories.” – James Madison, The Federalist No. 19 (1787)

Mr Madison was writing some fifteen years after the first partition of Poland, and eager for the nascent United States of America to avoid the same fate (only an opening episode as was later to be found out); an understandable anxiety, which echoes to this day in the minds of statesmen.

The partitions and dissolution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is one of history’s most mysterious episodes, and has become imprinted in enigmatic ways befitting the elusive nature of the country and the processes by which it was wiped out of the map. It had been because of this episode that a nationalistic Marie Curie named one of her discoveries, polonium, after her native of Poland in 1898 – when that country had been non-existent for about a hundred years and had to wait for about another twenty years for it to be restored by the League of Nations after the Great War. And when some glimmer of independence of his nation, Italy, was beginning to shine and steeped in remembrance of the victimhood she and Poland both suffered under Hapsburg ambition, Goffredo Mameli paid homage to a still-dominated Poland’s misfortunes by adding to what would later become the anthem of the land:

Son giunchi che piegano le spade vendute: già l’Aquila d’Austria le penne ha perdute. Il sangue d’Italia, il sangue Polacco, bevé, col cosacco, ma il cor le bruciò. (‘Mercenary swords, they’re feeble reeds. The Austrian eagle has already lost its plumes. The blood of Italy and the Polish blood it drank, along with the Cossack, but it burned its heart.’)

How a nation so strong, itself having added to her territory much to the chagrin of other nations, came to be overpowered and at last vaporised by her neighbours is one of those rapid, mysterious incidents of European history that cannot be ascribed to a single cause but to a whole battery of these. The thought of a nation, now there in a map big and apparently insurmountable, then the next gone can easily lend itself to mythologizing and misunderstanding. Inevitably, it would seem, that the easier and intuitive explanation wins the day. For some, no doubt swept by the splendid potentates whose names are synonymous with the eighteenth century, Maria Theresa, Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great, see in contrast a Poland which denied her executives the power to do as they saw fit, unopposed and unchallenged, and this, they tell us, was the beginning of her demise. Rather than constraining him with the liberum veto through the Sejm, the parliamentary body which met every two years without whose absolute consent the King of Poland could neither levy tax nor make military-related decisions, and latter day constitutions, they ought to have let him rule instead of presiding; act instead of deliberate; in other words, be more like his neighbours. He should have been allowed to build a dynasty, the motion carries; for then he would have much a reason to act with a prudence and ambition as the crowns around him. He should, that is, not have been elected.

And yet this view suffers from a number of ailments which, crucial to its argument, do not stand up to scrutiny. The main argument of my thesis is that the Polish-Lithuanian partition by Russia, Prussia and Austria cannot be accounted to a failure of democracy.

In order to do so, I will give a brief historical account of the Polish partitions of 1772, 1793 and 1795. Upon which, I will evoke and then dismiss the thesis which argues that Poland was partitioned because of the existence of a check on the Kings’ power by making the case that there is no historical precedent to lay claim that unchallengeable Polish sovereigns would not make decisions contrary to the unity of that Kingdom, and by way of epilogue question the extent to which the Polish arrangement could have been called democratic in the first place.

The Partition of Poland: A Brief History

The first instance in a series of events which would culminate in the total dismemberment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a demand by Catherine the Great of Russia for political and religious equality for the Dissidents (Orthodox Catholics and Protestants) in Poland, of whom there were about a million. Russian troops forced the acceptance of this measure by the Sejm. This led to a Roman Catholic and anti-Russian revolt by a group of nobles in the Ukraine, then a part of Poland as well. A Russian army suppressed this patriotic rising and defeated the Turks who supported it. Frederick the Great of Prussia, who had always bemoaned the separation of East Prussia from the rest of Prussia by the “Polish Corridor”, seized the opportunity to extend his territories by suggesting to Catharine and to Maria Theresa of Austria that each of them take parts of Poland-Lithuania without interfering with the interests of the other two. The result was the First Partition in 1772.

By this partition, Prussia took West Prussia (excluding Danzig), Austria took a large area in the south including Lvov, and Russia took the north-eastern provinces of Lithuania. In one big sweep – the First Treaty of Partition was signed between Prussia and Russia at St. Petersburg on Feb. 6/17, 1772, supplemented in August by one admitting Austria as a partner in the spoliation – Poland-Lithuania lost about a quarter of her territory.

But in 1772, at the time of the First Partition, Poland still held a huge territory, the third largest in Europe in fact, stretching north and south from the Baltic to the Dniester and Carpathians, and east and west from the Dnieper almost to the Oder, though with an insufficient hold on the Baltic coast. And the 1772 disaster brought some good, as it showed the need to modernise on a number of fronts. Pope Clement XIV ‘s suppression or the Jesuit order in 1773 provided the opportunity to secularise and modernise education. Trade and industry made progress. And in 1791, after much debate a new constitution was introduced. The liberum veto was abolished, the monarchy was made hereditary, the lot of the peasants was improved, and the nobles were subjected to taxation, something to which they were very much, and very unsurprisingly, opposed.

And the interest of the predatory Powers was to prevent effective reform of the Constitution, which would have added to her power of resistance. Nevertheless, in large measure under the heady influence of the French Revolution, reform was made, and a new Constitution was voted by the Diet and accepted by the King on May 3, 1791. In the meantime, Frederick William, King of Prussia, tried to detach Poland from Russian tutelage, and on March 20, 1791, a Prussian-Polish treaty was signed in which Prussia guaranteed the integrity of the reduced kingdom of Poland. And in 1792, when war with France appeared inevitable, Austria and Prussia concluded a treaty on February 7, 1792, providing among other things that the two Powers should respect the integrity of Poland, but with clear reservations on the Prussian side. And then on April 8, 1792, Russia invaded Poland, and, although the Poles offered a stout resistance under the patriot Kosciuszko, Poland was practically under Russian control by the end of July that year.

This time Russia took a huge area in the east, including most of the western Ukraine, and Prussia, having been included by Russia, took Danzig and Thorn with the districts of Poznan, Kalisz, and Plock (the greater part of what was then known as Great Poland). Poland-Lithuania was now reduced to about a third of its size and population before the First Partition. A national insurrection was then organised by Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a distinguished army officer, democrat, and patriot. At first Kosciuszko was successful, and much of the ancient Polish land was recovered; but the might of the Russian and Prussian armies prevailed.

In 1795 the Third Partition removed Poland-Lithuania from the map of Europe entirely. Russia took most of the rest of Lithuania; Prussia took the remains of northern Poland including Warsaw, which had served as the capital of Poland since 1595, and Austria joined in the partition, acquiring the rest of southern Poland, with Cracow. King Stanislas who was King at the time, was forced to abdicate and placed in a Russian prison in St Petersburg.

Crippling Democracy?

The main diagnosis has been that it was democracy that failed Poland. It was the crippling effects of the liberum veto which made her susceptible to infiltration and at last partition. According to the Cracow School, as it was identified, the fall of Poland was her own fault (“wina wiasna”). As the British historian Charles Morley summarized the view held by this interpretation: “[Poland] had, in fact, committed suicide by allowing certain conditions to develop and to exist, i.e., the elective monarchy, the liberum veto… Providence inflicted the partitions on Poland as “penalty for her sins”.”

The syllogism seems to go as follows:

  • Unopposed, the King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth would make good decisions on behalf of his country;
  • The liberum veto gave each member of the Sejm the power to oppose the king;
  • Therefore the King was prevented from making decisions that would strengthen Poland.

There are a number of loopholes in this historiography. Not in the least is the ahistorical and retrospective assumption that the King would make decisions that would necessarily benefit Poland, or in the very least maintain her unity. Let us recall that prior to the advent of the liberum veto, when the King could act essentially unopposed, one of the kings, Boleslaw III, chose to break up and divide Poland into five principalities for his many sons in the twelfth century. The result was several principalities and Poland, not very much unlike to what was to come at the acting of foreign hands, was virtually no more. In other words, a very strong Sovereign of Poland, through that very strength, broke Poland apart and eliminated its coherence on the map.

This brings us to another error with this analysis. It essentially fails to give agency to foreign ambitions and calculations. The Soviet Union did not collapse purely as a result of decisions made by Gorbachev (and in fact, even when he did, it was not purely because of endogenous forces). There was external pressure to bear; from its European neighbours and most notably from the United States. It therefore makes little sense to believe that the domestic processes of nations are purely as a result of what takes place within their borders. It would serve us well to consider that the partition has two components; that of being partitioned and that of partitioning. The latter is what many of the historiographers who blame the liberum veto overlook. In other words, had the three Powers not incepted the idea of partitioning Poland-Lithuania, there would have been no partition to speak of. But they did, and attacked by three powerful neighbours, Poland “lost an uneven struggle” (as the Polish historian Alexander Gieysztor put it), as states who bear the brunt of powerful coalitions eventually must.

We may, as an epilogue, consider that the political system employed by Poland was hardly a democracy in the present sense. Hardly 5% of the population could partake in the elections, while the rest were living in feudal conditions and lorded over. That qualifies more as a form of oligarchy than a democracy. Moreover, the idea of a single individual bringing to a halt an entire government indicates not a majoritarian form of governance but essentially a personalised structure which could be swayed by the whims of haughty, self-interested nobles – with the entire system being conducive to the outcome that did, in fact, take place. Instead of being seen as a reason to doubt inclusive, democratic state structures, the Polish episode should be pointed to as one of the many reasons why democracy is the only institutional arrangement that makes sense; not only for moral reasons, but also, as we have seen, for strategic and political reasons.

Bhaso Ndzendze is the Research Director at the University of Johannesburg-Nanjing Tech University Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS). His research interests include international economics, security studies, and International Relations methodology and he has taught and written on Africa-China relations, the politics of the Middle East, soft power, and the war on terror among other topics at the University of the Witwatersrand. His work has appeared in numerous journals and in the popular press including Business Day, Mail and Guardian, The Sunday Independent and The Mercury among others. His most recent publication is the Beginner’s Dictionary of Contemporary International Relations.

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Eastern Europe

Did Russia Really Win in the 2008 August War?

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Eleven years have passed since the short Georgian-Russian war started on August 7-8 in 2008. As every discussion on who started the war generally is, the Georgian-Russian one too is about finding moral grounds for military actions which both sides took at the time.

Morality in geopolitics, and the Georgian-Russian conflict is indeed caused by pure geopolitical calculations, is at most times a superfluous thing. All these years the Russians have been trying to convince the world and the public inside the country that the Russian military moves actions and subsequent recognition of the independence of the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions were the only possible and correct actions to be taken. The Georgians also have their dilemmas: some marginal political figures still believe that it was the Georgian government that was most to blame for the catastrophe of 2008. Though close geographically, these diverging narratives and the constant need to prove one’s own truth says a lot about how far apart Georgia and Russia have grown in the past decade.

11 years since the war and it is still unclear what Russia has gained from its military and diplomatic actions since 2008. True, military build-up in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region limited Tbilisi’s ability to become an EU/NATO member state. Moreover, Russian intervention into Georgia in 2008 also showed the West how far Moscow can go if a strategic decision is made to draw Georgia into the alliances. At the time (August-September 2008) those seemed to be long-term (strategic) victories for Moscow. In international relations and geopolitical calculations, you can stop a country from attaining the aims harmful to you, but in the long run you will be unable to reverse the process by forceful actions alone: you have to provide a counter-policy to turn an unfriendly state into an amenable neighbor.

Put all of this into the Russian case. More than a decade has passed since 2008, only a few not-so-important states recognized Georgia’s territories as independent entities. The Georgian public is overwhelmingly anti-Russian, the last hopes of a grand geopolitical bargain – the return of the territories in exchange for reversing EU/NATO aspirations – have disappeared among the Georgian public, and support for western institutions so far has only increased.

In the end, though Moscow waged a reasonably costly war in 2008, took and still experiences a diplomatic burden for its moves against the West, and has yet to attain its grand geopolitical goal of reversing Georgia’s pro-western course. Politicians in Moscow, at least strategists behind the scenes, all understand that Georgia’s persistence, which seems naive today, might turn into serious business if Russia’s geopolitical positions worsen elsewhere in Eurasia.

Indeed, there are signs that Russian influence is set to diminish further in the former Soviet space as the country’s economy is unlikely to be attractive to the neighboring states. Imagine a scenario where Russian internal problems (Putin’s upcoming succession, economic downturns, China’s rise, stronger Ukraine, etc.) weigh ever stronger upon the Russian decision-makers in the 2020s, then Georgia’s western aspirations might become more concrete – it will be easier for the West to make a strategic decision to draw Tbilisi into EU/NATO.

Overall, Russia definitely gained significant results in 2008, but in the long run it did not change the strategic picture in the South Caucasus, though it did produce a grand design for geopolitical domination in north Eurasia: years after the war, Moscow initiated its Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) to draw its neighbors into one economic space – a prerequisite for building a world power. Ideally, it should have attracted Russia’s major neighbors and it would have served the people of the former Soviet space economically. But Moscow failed to get Ukraine and other states involved: without Kiev, the EEU, if not dead, is at least a marginal project. This means that Russian policies towards Georgia and the wider South Caucasus remain the same as before 2008 – keeping foreign powers out of the region, while failing to provide an alternative vision for Tbilisi.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

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Lithuania’s new chief of defence has no chance

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Lithuania’s new chief of defence, Major General Valdemaras Rupsys calls himself a realist though it seems as if he is a fatalist with no hope to change anything in the national armed forces.

In a detailed interview with BNS Valdemaras Rupsys demonstrates his inability and even lack of hope to modify national military system. He distinctly reveals his plans.

Major General Valdemaras Rupsys says he will seek to accelerate new armored vehicle and artillery system purchases if the country’s defense spending makes this possible.

The key words here are “if the country’s defense spending makes this possible”. The matter is Lithuania itself can rely only on foreign financing and help to strengthen its defence. Thus, he informs that a number of Boxer IFVs are currently being delivered to Lithuania. Renamed “Vilkas”, or “wolf” in Lithuanian, the vehicles will be provided only to two battalions of the Iron Wolf mechanized infantry brigade, in Rukla and Alytus. It should be noted that Mechanized Infantry Brigade “Iron Wolf” is the core unit of the Lithuanian Army and forms the country’s contribution to NATO collective defence. But even this unit will not be provided with all necessary vehicles and equipment.

The brigade’s other two battalions, in Rukla and Panevezys, will continue to use old M113 armored personnel carriers, with plans to replace them with more advanced vehicles by 2030. No budget money – no vehicles!

Major General Valdemaras Rupsys admits that the only thing he can definitely do – to speak to the authorities. “We’ll definitely have to speak to the ministry about whether there are possibilities to replace their platform earlier than planned,” the general told in an interview. “Plans call for doing so in around 2030 but everything depends on financial resources. There won’t be any drastic decisions to replace the acquisitions that we are already planning now,” he added.

When he answers to the question if the Iron Wolf brigade needs tanks he is very flexible and says that “being aware of our means and financial capacity, I don’t dream about tanks right now. We don’t have such plans.

Another question is if he dreams about fighter jets in the Lithuanian army. And he again says – “No, I don’t today. I am a realist and don’t dream about things we cannot have.”

The worst thing is his full satisfaction with the existing situation. He will not even try to change things. In terms of conscription system he shifts the responsibility on the political leadership, on the whole, which should decide on that. And then what is his responsibility? Does Lithuania need such a chief of defence who decides nothing from the very beginning?

Obviously, Lithuania has no money, but according to Major General Valdemaras Rupsys Lithuania even lacks of ambitious either to be a strong country. Possibly, this aim could be reached at the expense of others. At least he is honest.

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Eastern Europe

Polonia: Poland’s diaspora policy

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In 2007, the Polish authorities for the first time adopted a government program to promote cooperation with the Polish diaspora (Polonia) and Poles abroad. In 2002, they introduced May 2 as Day of Polonia and Poles Abroad.

The strategic objectives of this program for 2015-2020 include support for the development of Polish language and culture among Poles abroad, strengthening Polish national identity among representatives of Polonia, contributing to the popularity of Polonian organizations abroad and the return of Poles living abroad to their homeland, establishing economic, scientific and cultural contacts between Poland and Polonia .

The Polish Foreign Ministry estimates the number of members of the Polish diaspora, including ethnic Poles and people of Polish descent, at 18-20 million, one third of them were born in Poland. Polonia and the Poles rank the sixth if we compare the proportion of members of the diaspora abroad with the population of the country of origin. 18% of tourists visiting Poland are members of Polish organizations abroad and ethnic Poles.

The largest Polish diasporas are in the USA (9.6 million according to 2012 reports), in Germany (1.5 million) and Canada (1 million). Poles are also living in France and the United Kingdom (0.8 million in each), the Netherlands (0.2 million), Ireland and Italy (0.15 million in each), the Czech Republic (0.12 million), Sweden and Norway ( 0.11 million in either), Belgium (0.1 million). In countries such as Austria, Spain, Denmark, and Iceland, members of the Polish diasporas number less than 100 thousand people.

According to the Polish Foreign Ministry, more than 1 million Poles and people of Polish descent live in post-Soviet countries. According to the ministry, these estimates are not accurate – for one,  in Belarus, the most “Polish” republic of the former USSR, the number of Poles and people of Polish origin could amount to up to 1 million (official reports estimate the number of Poles living in Belarus at 295 thousand).

Lithuania comes second by the number of Poles residing there – (250 thousand), the third is Ukraine (144 thousand), then Russia (47 thousand), Latvia (46 thousand) and Kazakhstan (34 thousand) – the fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively.

Polonia is conditionally divided by the Polish Foreign Ministry into ten functionality-based geographical groups: 1. Lithuania 2. Belarus 3. Ukraine 4. Latvia, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic 5. Western European countries (Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, etc.). 6. USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand 7. Other European countries 8. Russia, the Caucasus, Central Asia 9. Brazil, Argentina 10.Other countries of the world.

This division was carried out on the functional, rather than numerical basis and there is no universal approach as to how to categorize Poles living abroad – each of the above mentioned countries sets its own requirements for working with Polonia. People who have Polish roots but do not speak Polish and who reside in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and Brazil are regarded as Polish diaspora by Warsaw. In this case, there is a need to popularize Polish informational and ideological products for Polonia in these countries in the language of the country of residence with emphasis on the economic and cultural components and projects for the study of the Polish language.

The latter bears particular importance. In Brazil, for one, there are more than a dozen Polish language courses. People who go there are provided with social benefits and all the necessary documents – student ID passes for students, work certificates for teaching staff (teachers get discounts 33% to 49% on public and rail transport in Poland, etc.), certificates of Polish schools for distance learning, etc.

Given the presence of anti-Russian sentiment in Poland’s policy, it is not surprising that Russia, the republics of the Caucasus, and countries of Central Asia are among those that Warsaw accuses of breaching the rights of ethnic minorities, including Poles, which is not true. Working with Polonia in these regions carries a clear ideological touch, as historical grievances prevail over culture and economy. By intentionally inciting conflict, concocting accusations of violating the rights of ethnic minorities,Warsaw equips itself with ideological tools to justify its aggressive Eastern policy towards Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

In particular, there are noticeable attempts by Warsaw to force Polish organizations in Russia to participate in anti-Russian propaganda campaigns, especially regarding retrospective assessments of Russian-Polish and Soviet-Polish relations. Polish diplomacy cites the unsuccessful Polish uprisings of the 18th-19th centuries, exiled and repressed Poles of the tsarist and Stalinist times, return of Poland’s western lands to Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Belarus following the Red Army’s Polish campaign in 1939, etc.

The Polish Institute of National Memory (PINP), being an exclusively ideological structure, is on the list of state institutions and ministries that are responsible for cooperating with Polonia. A projecttitled “The Next Stop is History” has been launched in order to promote the historical and ideological heritage of Poland. Implemented within the framework of the Polish diaspora program of the Department of National Education of PINP in several countries at once (conferences, exhibitions, symposia, film screenings, lectures, military sports games), the project has no geographical restrictions and is conducted with the participation of certified teachers.

Let us focus on some characteristic features of the Polish diaspora policy:

– the prevalence of economic aspects while establishing cooperation with ethnic Poles living in the USA, EU and South America;

– a powerful propagandistic and political emphasis and a minimal presence of  economy while dealing with Polonia in countries of the former USSR;

– abandoning tactics of interaction with Polonia which presuppose acting through Polonian organizations only and which have proved ineffective;

– coverage by social, cultural and other projects of the largest possible number of ethnic Poles, in the first place, those who are not members of diaspora organizations;

– absence of heavy vertical hierarchy in disapora organizations in favor of horizontal links and shuttle diplomacy;

– contribute to the formation of a protest and opposition-minded stratum amongst the young in countries of the former USSR (Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine) with further placement of its representatives in local government structures, the media and other socially important projects. 

Summing up, we can say that Warsaw’s diaspora politics abroad are focused on strengthening its positions in the Western community and pursuing unilateral and controversial goals in the eastern direction. From our partner International Affairs

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