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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

Lithuanians fight for silence

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The Ministry of Defence of Denmark has made an important decision supporting human rights of Danish citizens.

Thus, Denmark’s new fleet of F-35s, which are to replace the F-16s currently in use, will arrive at Skrydstrup air base in South Jutland starting in 2023. When the new air force is finally ready, far more neighbours will be bothered by the noise exceeding limit values, calculations by the Danish Defence Ministry show. The 100 worst-affected homes will have to suffer noise levels of over 100 decibels, which is comparable to a rock concert or a busy motorway.

The noise pollution from F-35s is projected to exceed that of the F-16s, though noise pollution from F-16 also bother locals. Discontent of citizens reduced their confidence not only in the Ministry of Defence but in their current government and NATO as well.

Thus decided to compensate the victims.This step has improved the image of the armed forces and showed the population the care that the Ministry of Defense shows to a residents of the country.

A similar situation has developed in Lithuania. Lithuanian citizens demand compensation from the Ministry of National Defense due to high noise level made by fighter flights from Šiauliai airbase as part of NATO’s Baltic Air Policing.

Lithuania is a NATO member state and contribute to the collective defence of the Alliance. Thus, Šiauliai airbase hosts fighter jets that conduct missions of the NATO’s Baltic Air Policing.
Citizens also initiated on-line petitions in order to attract supporters and demonstrate their strong will to fight violation of human rights in Lithuania.

According to peticijos.lt, the petition was viewed more than 5 thousand times. This shows great interest of Lithuanian society in the subject.At the same time existing control over any political activity, as well as silence of current government and Ministry of National Defence don’t allow people openly support such idea. All websites with petitions demand the provision of personal data. Nobody wants to be punished and executed.

The lack of response is not a very good position of the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence in case Lithuania wants to prove the existence of democracy. Denmark is a prime example of a democratic society caring for its people.

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Eastern Europe

Georgia Returns to the Old New Silk Road

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Georgia has historically been at the edge of empires. This has been both an asset and a hindrance to the development of the country. Hindrance because Georgia’s geography requires major investments to override its mountains, gorges and rivers. An asset because Georgia’s location allowed the country from time to time to position itself as a major transit territory between Europe and the Central Asia, and China further away.

This geographic paradigm has been well in play in shaping Georgia’s geopolitical position even since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the rise of modern technologies. Thereafter, Georgia has been playing a rebalancing game by turning to other regional powers to counter the resurgent Russia. Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran (partly) and bigger players such as the EU and the US are those which have their own interest in the South Caucasus. However, over the past several years yet another power, China, with its still evolving Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has been slowly emerging in the South Caucasus.

This how a new Silk Road concept gradually emerged at the borders of Georgia. In fact, a closer look at historical sources from the ancient, medieval or even 15th-19th cc. history of Georgia shows an unchanged pattern of major trade routes running to the south, west, east and north of Georgia. Those routes were usually connected to outer Middle East, Central Asia, and the Russian hinterland.

Only rarely did the routes include parts of the Georgian land and, when it happened, it lasted for merely a short period of time as geography precluded transit through Georgia: the Caucasus Mountains and seas constrained movement, while general geographic knowledge for centuries remained limited.

It was only in the 11th-12th cc. that Georgian kings, David IV, Giorgi III and Queen Tamar, spent decades of their rule trying to gain control over neighboring territories with the goal to control the famous Silk Roads. Since, foreign invasions (Mongols, Ottomans, Persians, Russians) have largely prevented Georgia from playing a major transit role for transcontinental trade.

This lasted until the break-up of the Soviet Union. After 1991, Georgia has returned to its positioning between the Black and Caspian seas, between Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Major roads, pipelines and railway lines go through Georgian territory. Moreover, major works are being done to expand and build existing and new Georgian ports on the Black Sea with the potential to transform Georgia into a sea trade hub.

A good representation of Georgia’s rising position on the Silk Road was a major event held in Tbilisi on October 22-23 when up to 2000 politicians, potential investors from all over the world, visited the Georgian capital. The event was held for the third time since 2015 and attracted due attention. In total, 300 different meetings were held during the event.

The hosting of the event underscores how Georgia has recently upped its historical role as a regional hub connecting Europe and Asia. On the map, it is in fact the shortest route between China and Europe. There is a revitalization of the ancient Silk Road taking place in Georgia. This could in turn make the country an increasingly attractive destination for foreign investment. Indeed, the regional context also helps Tbilisi to position itself, as Georgia has Free Trade Agreements with Turkey, the CIS countries, the EFTA and China and a DCFTA with the European Union, comprising a 2.3 billion consumer market.

Thus, from a historical perspective, the modern Silk Road concept emanating from China arguably represents the biggest opportunity Georgia has had since the dissolution of the unified Georgian monarchy in 1490 when major roads criss-crossed the Georgian territory. In the future, when/if successive Georgian governments continue to carry out large infrastructural projects (roads, railways, sea ports), Tbilisi will be able to use those modern ‘Silk Roads’ to its geopolitical benefit, namely, gain bigger security guarantees from various global and regional powers to uphold its territorial integrity.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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Eastern Europe

Strategic Black Sea falls by the wayside in impeachment controversy

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Presidents Donald J. Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a plateful of thorny issues on their agenda when they met in the White House this week.

None of the issues, including Turkey’s recent invasion of northern Syria, its acquisition of a Russian anti-missile system and its close ties to Russia and Iran, appear to have been resolved during the meeting between the two men in which five Republican senators critical of Turkey participated.

The failure to narrow differences didn’t stop Mr. Trump from declaring that “we’ve been friends for a long time, almost from day-one. We understand each other’s country. We understand where we are coming from.”

Mr. Trump’s display of empathy for an illiberal leader was however not the only tell-tale sign of the president’s instincts. So was what was not on the two men’s agenda: security in the Black Sea that lies at the crossroads of Russia, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and NATO member Turkey.

The Black Sea is a flashpoint in multiple disputes involving Russia and its civilizationalist definition of a Russian world that stretches far beyond the country’s internationally recognized borders and justifies its interventions in Black Sea littoral states like Ukraine and Georgia.

The significance of the absence of the Black Sea on the White House agenda is magnified by the disclosure days earlier that Mr. Trump had initially cancelled a US freedom of navigation naval mission in the Black Sea after CNN had portrayed it as American pushback in the region.

The disclosure came in a transcript of closed-door testimony in the US House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry of Mr. Trump’s policy towards Ukraine by Christopher Anderson, a former advisor to Kurt Volker, the US special representative to Ukraine until he resigned in September.

Mr. Anderson testified that Mr. Trump phoned his then national security advisor, John Bolton, at home to complain about the CNN story. He said the story prompted the president to cancel the routine operation of which Turkey had already been notified.

The cancellation occurred at a moment that reports were circulating in the State Department about an effort to review US assistance to Ukraine.

“We met with Ambassador Bolton and discussed this, and he made it clear that the president had called him to complain about that news report… I can’t speculate as to why…but that…operation was cancelled, but then we were able to get a second one for later in February. And we had an Arleigh-class destroyer arrive in Odessa on the fifth anniversary of the Crimea invasion,” Mr. Anderson said.

The operation was cancelled weeks after the Russian coast guard fired on Ukrainian vessels transiting the Strait of Kerch that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov and separates Russian-annexed Crimea from Russian mainland. ‘This was a dramatic escalation,” Mr. Anderson said.

Mr. Trump at the time put a temporary hold on a condemnatory statement similar to ones that had been issued by America’s European allies. Ultimately, statements were issued by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley but not by the White House.

The Black Sea’s absence in Mr. Trump’s talks with the Turkish leader coupled with the initial cancellation of the freedom of navigation operation, the initially meek US response to the Strait of Kerch incident, and the fallout of the impeachment inquiry do little to inspire confidence in US policy in key Black Sea countries that include not only Turkey, Ukraine and Georgia, a strategic gateway to Central Asia, but also NATO members Bulgaria and Romania.

In Georgia, protesters gathered this week outside of parliament after lawmakers failed to pass a constitutional amendment that would have introduced a proportional election system in advance of elections scheduled for next year.

The amendment was one demand of protesters that have taken to the streets in Georgia since June in demonstrations that at times included anti-Russian slogans.

Russia and Georgia fought a brief war in 2008 and Russia has since recognized the self-declared independence of two Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Some 1500 US troops participated in June in annual joint exercises with the Georgian military that were originally initiated to prepare Georgian units for service in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The absence of the Black Sea in Mr. Trump’s talks with Mr. Erdogan raises the spectre that the region could become a victim of the partisan divide in Washington and/or Mr. Trump’s political priorities.

The Republican-dominated US Senate has yet to consider a bipartisan Georgia Support Act that was last month passed by the House of Representatives. The act would significantly strengthen US defense, economic, and cyber security ties with Georgia.

A Chinese delegation that included representatives of several Chinese-led business associations as well as mobile operator China Unicom visited the breakaway republic of Abkhazia this week to discuss the creation of a special trade zone to manufacture cell phones as well as electric cars.

The Black Sea is one region where the United States cannot afford to sow doubt. The damage, however, may already have been done.

Warned Black Sea security scholar Iulia-Sabina Joja in a recent study: “The region is (already) inhospitable for Western countries as they struggle to provide security… The primary cause of this insecurity is the Russian Federation… Today, Russia uses its enhanced Black Sea capabilities not only to destabilize the region militarily, politically, and economically, but also to move borders, acquire territory, and project power into the Mediterranean.”

Ms. Joja went on to suggest that “a common threat assessment of NATO members and partners is the key to a stable Black Sea. Only by exploring common ground and working towards shared deterrence can they enhance regional security.”

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