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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.

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Eastern Europe

What UK defense minister was doing in Odessa, or a taste for farce

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History repeats itself. This popular maxim also rings very true today. Many episodes of the Crimean War are still fresh on the memory of Russians, French and the British. Disregarding the sanctions and “annexation,” Britons and French nationals keep coming to Sevastopol to take part in a historical festival, donning period costumes and engaging in mock battles.

And yet, the distant successors of those who fought Russia during that war still remember, on a genetic level, how Russian soldiers kept fighting on against the tallest of odds (during one of the battles fought  in Sevastopol, mortally wounded and bleeding members of a Russian regiment still refused to plead for mercy and, instead, continued fighting the enemy with their bayonets) even at lunch, after five in the evening, and, most unpleasantly, at night. The war fought not by the book, the freezing cold of the Crimean winter and the well-known “balaclava” headdress is something Russia’s foreign guests will never forget.

It still looks like the lessons of history have been lost on some representatives of the British elite. In December 2018, Britain’s Defense Minister Gavin Williamson arrived in Odessa in southern Ukraine to vent his outrage about the detention by Russia’s Coast Guards of three Ukrainian boats at the approaches to the Kerch Strait, and express London’s support for a second Ukrainian naval foray into the Sea of Azov. It was not Williamson’s first visit to Ukraine though – in September 2018, he bravely spent a whole 20 minutes on the line of disengagement in Donbass.

London is backing up its military-diplomatic efforts with real action.

“At 20:30 local time, on December 17, 2018, the Royal hydrographic survey ship HMS Echo sailed into the Black Sea via the Bosporus Strait. This modern reconnaissance ship is designed to conduct operations in support of submarines and amphibious operations. It can share adapted information almost in real time. (…) This is the first NATO warship to enter the Black Sea in the wake of the Azov crisis to demonstrate the UK’s support for ensuring freedom of navigation in the region,” Ukrainian expert Andrei Klimenko happily wrote.

In the mid-19th century, Britain regarded Russia as an enemy in the Big Game, and opposed it using political and economic means available to it. Simultaneously, it was the case of an empire facing off against another empire – in the Balkans, in the Caucasus and over the straits (Bosporus and Dardanelles). Britain no longer rules the seas, but its keen interest in strategic straits, such the Kerch Strait, is still very much alive.

London’s strategy, being implemented as part of the anti-Russian bloc, can best be described as “I’m doing all I can.” However, the former empire is playing an ever increasing role now that Ukraine is not being viewed by US President Donald Trump as an object worth of any effort. Still, there are powerful anti-Russian forces out there, which will not just sit and watch the presidential elections in Ukraine and, even though they have lost their patron in the person of the US president, they remain hell-bent on making Ukraine instrumental in their efforts to ramp up the conflict with Moscow.

Washington is reviewing international agreements and withdrawing its forces from Syria focusing instead on playing spy games, but now on its own territory, to fight the “Russian threat,” “Russian aggression,” and most importantly – “Russian intervention.” The central events and characters here are the Mueller investigation, the case of Maria Butina, and the recent detention in Moscow of a former US Marine, Paul Whelan, on charges of espionage.

But this is not enough, so you need something else, more dramatic and attention-grabbing, preferably done by someone else.

No matter how opposed to Trump’s policies some top officials in the US government may be, they still can’t afford to openly defy the president and thus destroy the country’s power institutions. And here political analysts  come up with a very interesting version: “Therefore, England takes the burden of orchestrating the Ukrainian-Russian war in its own hands. Well, not England as such, but, rather, the real masters of both England and the United States (…) Poroshenko may not venture a provocation, and to make sure that he gets no ideas about giving up on the war, the British defense minister arrived in Ukraine. (…) Britain is bringing pressure to bear on Kiev to go to war with Russia in the coming week, period.”

Although a second foray into the Kerch Strait planned for the coming week never happened, the plan itself hasn’t gone anywhere. A follow-up to the provocation in the Kerch Strait has gone beyond the time frame outlined by the martial law President Poroshenko imposed ahead of the presidential election, but the threat of new provocations fraught with a confrontation  lingers on nonetheless.

The law “On the adjacent zone of Ukraine,” signed by Petro Poroshenko in December 2018, provides a legal basis for actions by the Ukrainian military and diplomats by expanding Kiev’s border and customs control in the Black Sea.

“In the adjacent zone, the State Border Service of Ukraine will prevent violations of national immigration and sanitary legislation. Border guards will be able to stop vessels, inspect them, detain or seize vessels or their crew members, with the exception of warships and other state ships used for non-commercial purposes.”

The new law sets the stage for further provocations against Russia by portraying it as “an aggressor and invader,” backing this up with “irrefutable evidence” and showing it on TV.

The coordinated nature of the actions and intentions by the “friends” of Russia in ensuring “free navigation in international waters” is too obvious to ignore. Following the provocation in the Kerch Strait, the US guided-missile destroyer McCampbell was allegedly spotted in the vicinity of a Russian naval base in Vladivostok.

US Pacific Fleet spokeswoman Rachel McMarr said that the ship had carried out a “freedom of navigation” operation.

“The USS McCampbell sailed in the vicinity of Peter the Great Bay to challenge Russia’s excessive maritime claims and uphold the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea enjoyed by the United States and other Nations,” McMarr told CNN.

She emphasized that “the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”

Britain’s policy of the past few years has been pretty strange. Execution-wise, its actions are perceived as a farce and essentially as a tragedy for the country’s political elite. London is taking cue from Kiev, with its actions and “projects” (the Skripal case and the Salisbury subproject) very much resembling Ukrainian projects. London came up with the “Skripal poisoning,” and Kiev – with the day-long “Babchenko’s murder” circus.

Sadly, this anti-Russian trend translates into a real policy based on farce and fakes, which does not change the essence of London’s foreign policy projects based on fakes.

Ukraine, for its part, continues its attempts at “coercion to conflict,” which may bring about a clash of civilizations, since this is an attempt to influence the decisions of the “core states of civilization (Samuel Huntington). However, the conflicts that Ukraine has been involved in and has initiated are the result of outside bidding and made possible thanks to the support from and sanctions by external forces.

Ukraine’s foreign policy is by and large determined by the logic of its policy at home. Ending up as a zone of inter-civilization conflict, Kiev is willy-nilly trying to rebuild the cultural foundations of the Ukrainian state and society.

The West appears all set to extract Ukraine from the sphere of the political, economic and socio-cultural influence of Russia. It is within this framework that Kiev and all sorts of other actors are working as they try to achieve their domestic goals thus stoking up tensions and radicalizing both the country’s political forces and some elements of the Ukrainian society.

All this farce and grandstanding by European and overseas leaders and politicians still fails to smokescreen the potential threats to the security of the Russian Federation. In this sense, the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait should be viewed as a place where the West may attempt a series of “tests” similar to the November 2018 attempt by Ukrainian naval boats to break into the Sea of Azov. The recent “heroic” cruise by US naval ships 100 kilometers off Vladivostok, presumably to “challenge Russia’s excessive maritime claims and uphold the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea enjoyed by the United States and other nations,” could be repeated also in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, along the Northern Sea Route, in the Arctic and the Baltic Sea.

The Black Sea region thus becomes a model of counteracting the “sea claims of Russia.” Indeed, it is a really volatile region with an unstable Ukraine ready for any provocations, Crimea, reunited with Russia (plus the Crimean Bridge), a high-handed NATO member, Turkey, which maintains close contacts with both Russia and the West, and the Caucasus region. It poses a problem for Russia due to the flurry of potential and real threats existing there, but it is also a problem for Russia’s “friends,” because of the high degree of security of the Crimean border and other borders of the Russian Federation. This combination of security and threats makes the Black Sea region an ideal place for all sorts of provocations and endurance tests.

Well aware of Russia’s strength, the West is trying to test Moscow’s determination with small, albeit significant, provocations, such as the Ukrainian naval ships’ attempt to enter the Sea of Azov on November 25, 2018. The West is equally aware of Russia’s response to such provocations by Kiev. What is not so clear to the West, however, and London’s activity attests to this, is how Russia will respond to similar passages by multinational flotillas. This uncertainty could only stem from a desire to trigger a conflict or from misguided thoughts about Russia’s indecisiveness to enter into a serious confrontation with the West.

Whatever grounds London or Washington may have for organizing a second cruise to the Crimean Bridge, no matter how many ships will take part and the flags they will sail under, Russia will do all it takes to protect its territory, border, water area, and important infrastructure.

The question London has to answer now is how will the former empire get out of this situation? There are only two options available: either to stage ever new provocations or continue grandstanding and firing verbal broadsides.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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2019: A difficult political year in Lithuania

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2019 will be a big political year in Lithuania, with elections in national focus. Lithuania will hold presidential, municipal and European Parliament elections this year.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite in her traditional New Year congratulation message was very restrained and short-spoken. She clearly understands that she did nothing outstanding to be proud of. This message looked more as a warning. It could be read between the lines that she warned of a new difficult year with the same unsolved problems.

The outgoing president said that “there are many challenges ahead next year – on the international arena and domestically.” It is hard to disagree. Lithuanian politics in 2018 has not been shaped by brilliant economic, social or military policy decisions or results.

Thus, Lithuanian politician, Kęstutis Girnius, is also sure that the coming year will not be easy. He said that the prolonged massive teacher strikes at the end of the year is a very important thing to remember in 2019. “Teachers and medics are those professional groups in Lithuania that always stand up and speak up. Neither this government nor the previous ones were able to solve their issues.”

The authorities did not consider those groups’ problems important in due course and as a result they faced national defiance. Much more seriously the authorities treated the Russian threat, though yet only potential.

In the past year, the military budgets of the Baltic countries swiftly overcame the two percent barrier. The region’s political elite concentrated on anti-Russian rhetoric, very often to the detriment of their economic interests. Though authorities need to recognize the impossibility to change the political course of the giant Russia. For example, Lithuania’s 2 percent of GDP on defence expenditures will not stop Russia, but could seriously harm the welfare of its people. Supporting the US’ idea of increasing defence expending, at the same time Lithuanian government overlooked the real problems of teachers and doctors putting them at risk of poverty.

The more so, the authorities believe in vain that ordinary people do not understand the threat of an armed conflict between Russia and the US on the territory of the Baltics. Providing the territory for conducting large-scale maneuvers the Baltic States irritate Russia and necessitate her to deploy troops closer to their borders. Closed circle: even small increasing of defence capabilities in the Baltic States causes huge increasing of defence capabilities in Russia.

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A new old minister of defense in Latvia

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Ministry of Defence, Latvia. photo: Wikipedia

The process of forming a new government in Latvia has become an exciting political show. And show must go on. And it really goes on. After three unsuccessful attempts to find a candidate for the prime-minister post who could overcome disagreement between political parties, President Vejonis hopes that Krišjānis Kariņš after all will gain support and will be able to form the government.

Though this question remains open, it is already known that For Development/For alliance (after 2018 Latvian parliamentary election it is the 4th largest party in Latvia) has decided to support a government proposed by the New Unity’s Krišjānis Kariņš and is delegating Artis Pabriks, Juris Pūce and Ilze Viņķele for ministerial positions, told the alliance’s representative Laila Spaliņa.

For Development/For proposes Pabriks for the position of defence minister, Puce for environmental protection and regional development minister and Viņķele for health minister.

For Development/For co-chairman Pūce believes that Pabriks’ previous job experience as minister of foreign affairs and defence makes him a good candidate for defence minister and vice-premier. Pabriks would be able to “successfully introduce a comprehensive defence system in Latvia, coordinating the work of various institutions and cooperation between the public and private sector.”

It must be noted, that Artis Pabriks is a controversial person in Latvian politics. Though he has some political support, Latvians do not like him. His statements very often became headlines and were severely criticised by his colleges and ordinary people.

For example in 2006 he had an idea to create movies and documentaries that objectively would reflect the history of the country. Another question is how this objectiveness was understood. “I think, that Latvia is not so poor and we could allocate at least two million euros …”, said Pabriks in the interview to Neatkarīgā. Latvians did not like the idea to spend money on its realization.

He also has not achieved yet one of his aims: to persuade Russia to accept the fact of Latvia’s occupation. He wanted public recognition, and he insisted that Russia conduct public survey or referendum where he hopes people admit Latvia’s occupation.

His political incompetence is visible to the naked eye. Russia will never rewrite its history and will never admit something that downplays its significance on the international arena. But the worst thing in the internal affairs in Latvia is lack of new politicians, lack of new ideas and thus lack of new possibilities to male life better.

Latvians who want to see new faces in politics could not really expect changes in the defence system because of a new “old” minister. Everything will remain the same. Why then a new government?

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