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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

Ukraine war’s first anniversary and beyond

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photo source: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

The first anniversary of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine falls on February 24. The Russian strategy of attrition war has not yet produced the desired political outcome but has been a success nonetheless, writes Indian Ambassador and prominent international observer M.K. Bhadrakumar.

The delusional “westernist” notions of the Moscow elite that Russia can be a dialogue partner of the West have dissipated thoroughly, with ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s stunning disclosure recently that the West’s negotiations with Russia regarding the Minsk Agreement were an “attempt to give Ukraine time” and that Kiev had used it “to become stronger.”

Thus, the accession to Russia four ex-Ukrainian regions — Donetsk and Lugansk [Donbass], Zaporozhye, Kherson oblasts – accounting for around one-fifth of Ukrainian territory, is a fait accompli now, and Kiev’s recognition of it is a pre-requisite for any future peace talks.

The Kremlin has put necessary mechanisms in place to galvanise the defence industry and the economy to meet the needs of the military operations in Ukraine. From a long-term perspective, one historic outcome of the conflict is going to be Russia’s emergence as an unassailable military power that draws comparison with the Soviet Red Army, which the West will never again dare to confront. This is yet to sink in.

Under the plan approved by Putin, the Moscow and the Leningrad military districts will be created, three motorised rifle divisions will be formed in the Kherson and the Zaporozhye oblasts (that have been annexed in September) and an army corps will be built in the northwestern region of Karelia bordering Finland.

The internal western assessment is that the war is going badly for Ukraine. Spiegel reported last week that Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) “informed security politicians of the Bundestag in a secret meeting this week that the Ukrainian army is currently losing a three-digit number of soldiers every day in battles.”

The Biden Administration is hoping to buy time till spring to revamp the pulverised Ukrainian military and equip it with advanced weaponry. The old stocks of Soviet-era weaponry have been exhausted and future supplies to Ukraine will have to be from hardware in service with NATO countries. That is easier said than done, and western defence industry will need time to restart production.

All the bravado that ‘Kiev is preparing for an offensive to drive the Russians out of Ukraine’ has vanished.

The big picture, therefore, as the war enters the second year is that the West is working feverishly on plans, with the Biden Administration leading from the rear, to deliver heavy armour to the Ukrainian military by spring, including German Leopard tanks. If that happens, Russia is sure to retaliate with strikes on supply routes and warehouses in western Ukraine.

Dmitry Medvedev, the outspoken former Russian president who is close to Putin and serves as deputy chairman of the powerful security council, explicitly warned, “Nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depends.”

There is the ‘X’ factor — US domestic politics as it approaches the 2024 election year. The Republicans are insisting on an auditing of the tens of billions of dollars spent on Ukraine — $110 billion in military aid alone — making the Biden Administration accountable.

The CIA chief William Burns paid an unpublicised visit to Kiev, reportedly to transmit the message that US arms supplies beyond July may become problematic.

International Affairs

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China Still Ambivalent About the Middle Corridor

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Image Source: Mbkv717/Flickr

Despite the oft-touted momentum behind the Eurasian Middle Corridor circumventing Russia, China still appears not to be fully behind the project beset by geopolitical challenges and infrastructure hurdles.

Overlapping Interests

Russia’s war on Ukraine has been a game-changer for Eurasian connectivity. The route through north Eurasia running from China to Europe that served as a major conduit between the two is now less attractive as a result of the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow. China-EU shipments along the Northern Corridor have decreased by 40 percent according to data from October 2022. This new reality serves as a major incentive for finding alternative routes.

It is rare in geopolitics that so many states in such a short timeframe would agree on advancing a certain project. The Middle Corridor, connecting China and Europe via Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Black Sea, is a good example of a vision where different countries from across Eurasia have accelerated the work not only on promoting the idea, but also laying the ground for its expansion.

In the months following the invasion of Ukraine, the EU has re-invigorated its policies toward the wider Black Sea region and has actively engaged Central Asia through high-level visits, pledging economic and political support. No longer willing to trade with China through Russia, Brussels is now pushing for the expansion of the Middle Corridor.

Small nations along the Corridor, too, have upped their diplomatic game. Leaders of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Central Asian states have grasped the emerging opportunity and begun inter-state cooperation through bilateral visits and the signing of memorandums on the minimization of tariffs and border crossing hurdles.

The effects of such cooperation are already evident. Indeed, emerging connectivity opportunities push the governments to reconsider their previous position on long-stalled projects such as the Anaklia deep sea port in the case of Georgia or the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, which the cooperating states pledged to begin work on in 2023.

Then, there is Turkey. Seeing an opening in the region, Ankara has increased its outreach to Central Asia already following Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in 2020. Effectively the initiator of the Middle Corridor idea back in 2000s, Turkey is now arguably one of the critical players driving the concept. A series of “block train” transports were initiated in recent years, traversing the corridor. In February 2021, a train reached China from Turkey’s eastern provinces after nearly twenty days of transit. In April 2022, another train was dispatched via the same route. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Kazakh colleague Kassym-Jomart Tokayev commended during their summit in Ankara in 2022 “the growth of cargo transit via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad and the East-West Middle Corridor.” Moreover, the two sides “stressed the importance of strengthening coordination between the relevant institutions for the effective and sustainable use of the Middle Corridor.”

Yet, one critical player– China – is largely missing. Beijing has rarely commented on the Middle Corridor and Chinese analysts write exceptionally little on the issue. Most importantly, Beijing has invested very little in the actual development of the corridor.

Significant Constraints

China’s reticence so far can be explained by pure pragmatism. Of course, there is a major imperative for Beijing to find alternative routes as transit through Russia becomes problematic. In that regard, the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus indeed constitute geographically the shortest link to Europe.

Yet, the route is not an easy one – it is multimodal, i.e. consists of both sea lines and land routes and crosses multiple countries which have made little effort to synchronize their transit capabilities and develop infrastructure before 2022.

Currently, there is close to no joint tariff coordination, effective inter-governmental dialogue and adequate infrastructure to process the throughput which has been shipped through Russia. For instance, lack of infrastructure in the Caspian Sea prevents convenient transit from Central Asian ports to Azerbaijan. Similar troubles beset the Georgian side of the Black Sea, especially as there is no deep sea port. The construction of the Anaklia port was postponed due to political infighting in the country with new construction plans only recently announced. In 2022, the Middle Corridor could only absorb 3-5 percent of the China-EU trade, which limits Beijing’s interest in the route.

Finally, geopolitical factors, such as instability in the South Caucasus, have contributed to making the Middle Corridor not as attractive for China as it might seem on the first sight. Russian influence is a primary factor. Despite Russia’s current weakness and incrementally growing dependence on China, the latter will have to carefully measure how Moscow will be responding to the development of a route which circumvents it from the south, in the region where Moscow has four military bases.

Kremlin could potentially rupture the connection both politically and through the use of more radical measures if deemed necessary. Much will depend on how Moscow fares in Ukraine. Perhaps a victory might even embolden it to prevent the corridor from materializing. But even if defeated or bogged down in a protracted war, Russia’s behavior will remain unpredictable, keeping China at unease.

From the South Caucasus, the Middle Corridor continues to either the Black Sea or Turkey. The former is currently a war theater, with chances for peaceful implementation of the corridor quite limited. This leaves China with Turkey.

Ankara and Beijing have promoted inherently competing visions of Eurasian connectivity. There were even hints that Turkish and Chinese influence clashed in Azerbaijan, which limited China’s engagement in the expansion of the Middle Corridor. After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the situation seems to have changed and Turkey and China have opened more active talks on cooperation along the corridor. For instance, China-Turkey Communication Forum was held in September 2022, focusing, among other things, on synergizing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the Turkey’s Middle Corridor. Yet, the pace of cooperation remains slow with little practical steps taken so far.

Looking Ahead

China might eventually grow interested in the re-invigorated Middle Corridor as a part of a hedging strategy. As was the case with silk roads in ancient and medieval times, trade corridors rarely remain static. They constantly adjust to emerging opportunities and evade potential geopolitical dangers. In the same vein, China’s massive BRI is far from stationary, but constantly evolving and adjusting to varying circumstances instead.

Although the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea have not featured high in the BRI documents published by Beijing, the region can rise to rank higher among Chinese interests amid a new emerging geopolitical reality. This is especially the case if Russia grows even more sidelined in Eurasian geopolitics and Beijing realizes that betting on Russia long-term is a dead-end.

Author’s note: first published in chinaobservers

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A turning moment in Ukraine Crisis

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Germany’s decision to send tanks to Ukraine is a major moment in the Ukraine Crisis. It will have a far-reaching impact and may turn it into World War III. It is a tradition of the US to gang up to counter its adversaries. Iraq war, Libyan attacks, Syrian aggression, and the Occupation of Afghanistan, all were the result of allied forces, the US has the skills to make allies in addition to NATO and achieve its political objectives.

The US lobbies against its adversaries, and use all dirty tricks including media to malign its adversaries. They mislead the public and level the ground for the next stage – armed intervention. Looking at US interventions in any part of the world, you may conclude a similar approach.

Ukraine is also no exception. The US was preparing grounds for this crisis for a long and dragged Russia into it. Including Ukraine in NATO, was a red line for Russia, but, deliberately, this path was chosen to spoil global peace.

After failing all negotiations, Russia was left with no option except launch a special military operation on the same line as the 2014 Crimea operation. It was just a limited operation and should have been over after securing Russian borders only.

Unfortunately, the US had different intentions and trapped Russia in Ukraine and a full-scale war started. It was purely American war against Russia, but, as usual, America ganged up with NATO and also sought assistance and support from friendly countries.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the move on Wednesday, bowing to intensifying international pressure – led by the United States, Poland, and a bloc of other European nations, which called on Berlin to step up its military support and commit to sending their sought-after vehicles. The influx of Western tanks into the conflict has the potential to change the shape of the war. The shipments are a breakthrough in the West’s military support for Kyiv, signaling a bullish view around the world about Ukraine’s ability to reclaim occupied territory. Crucially, they may allow Ukraine to take the fighting to Moscow’s forces and re-capture more occupied land, rather than focusing primarily on beating back Russian attacks.

The US has increased its defense budget and military aid to Ukraine. It is aimed to attack Russia, not limited to liberating Ukraine only. It will prolong the war and let Russia bleed for longer.

Participation of Europe in conflict may worsen the situation and may harm Europe more. Although there are public rallies, protests, and agitations in major cities in Europe to end the Ukraine war or at least oppose Europe’s active participation. Some were chanting slogans to leave NATO. It seems the public understands the consequences but the rulers are blindly following US policies. It might create a rift between the public and rulers.

Blunders made by rulers, but, the price is being paid by the public, in the form of inflation, hikes in the price of fuel, energy, food, etc., are a common phenomenon all over Europe. The danger of spreading the war is at high risk.

Imagine, if Russia also seeks assistance from its allies and gangs up to conform to NATO aggression, it will be certainly a Word War III. Today, the World is obviously polarized and blocks are emerging rapidly.

It also can turn into nuclear war too. The 8 declared nuclear states have enough piles of nuclear weapons to destroy the whole world completely. It is scaring scenario.

But despite knowing the consequences, no one is taking any initiative to end the war and seek political solutions to the crisis. The US is not interested in the peaceful resolution of the disputes and Europe is blindly following America.

It is urged that the UN may intervene proactively and initiate a dialogue to reach an acceptable solution for all stakeholders. Unbiased, non-partisan nations may come forward to initiate peace dialogues. All peace-loving countries and individuals may act proactively and struggle to end the Ukraine crisis. Satisfying all concerned parties may achieve sustainable peace and avert any big disaster.

Humankind is the most precious thing in this universe and must be respected. Value human lives, save human lives, and without any discrimination protects human lives across the board all over the globe.

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