“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.
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.
Thorny path towards peace and reconciliation in Karabakh
On January 11 the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a deal to develop cross-border transportation routes and boost economic growth to benefit the South Caucasus and the Wider Region. This meeting took place two months after the Moscow-brokered armistice between Armenia and Azerbaijan ended a 44-day war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
This ethno-territorial conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has drawn dividing lines between Armenia and Azerbaijan for almost 30 years. Some estimates put the number of deaths on both sides at 30,000 after the First Karabakh war before a ceasefire was reached in May 1994. As a result of this war, one fifth of the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan was occupied and the entire Azerbaijani population of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and seven adjacent districts (Lachin, Kalbajar, Agdam, Fizuly, Jabrail, Gubatli and Zangilan) was forcibly expelled by the Armenian armed forces. Incidentally, due to sporadic frontline skirmishes and clashes, both military personnel and civilians have been killed along the Line of Contact, devoid of any peacekeeping force, since 1994.
Over the years, Armenia and the separatist regime that emerged in the occupied Azerbaijani territories refused any final status short of independence for Nagorno-Karabakh and tried to preserve this status quo and achieve international security guarantees on the non-resumption of hostilities while avoiding the withdrawal of its armed forces from the occupied territories and preventing the safe return of expelled Azerbaijani inhabitants to their permanent places of residence. However, such a policy, in its turn, polarized the region and reduced to naught any meaningful regional cooperation between the three South Caucasus states.
The Second Karabakh war, which took place from September 27 to November 9, 2020, and the subsequent Russia-brokered peace deal on November 10, significantly changed the facts on the ground and created a new political reality that replaced the “no war, no peace” situation that had been hanging over the region for almost 30 years. As a result of this war, more than 6,000 soldiers died on both sides in fighting.
This war came to an end because of a clear victory for Azerbaijan, which has restored its territorial integrity and sovereignty. Owing to the humiliating defeat of Armenia,the myth of the invincibility of the Armenian armed forces has been shattered and the Prime Minister of this country has been under continuous pressure from the opposition to step down.
Thus, after the Second Karabakh war, the pendulum has swung from devastating war towards actual peace. The question, is, however, whether the conflicting parties will be able to achieve lasting peace in the coming years: How can a relationship that has been completely destroyed owing to this protracted armed conflict and previous wars be restored?
The fate of all inhabitants of both the highlands and lowlands of Karabakh, irrespective of their ethnic origin, is crucial in this context. Security arrangements for the Armenian minority residing in this area are currently organized through the deployment of 1,960 Russian peacekeepers for at least five years to monitor the implementation of the trilateral statement signed by the heads of state of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the Russian Federation on November 10 (hereafter, the trilateral statement). At the same time, the return of the former Azerbaijani inhabitants to their permanent places of residence previously occupied by the Armenian armed forces is envisaged by the trilateral statement and the UNHCR has been assigned to oversee this task.
It is paramount that Azerbaijan has to demonstrate a policy of “strategic patience” in the coming years to entice the Armenians of Karabakh region into closer incorporation through attractive political, economic, social, and other development.
On the other hand, Armenia has to concentrate on its own internationally recognized sovereign territory. Today, it is important that this country changes its external minority policy and withdraws its territorial claims against Azerbaijan. As a next step, both Armenia and Azerbaijan can recognize the territorial integrity of one other.
Such rapprochement can lead to the opening of the borders between Armenia and Turkey and Armenia and Azerbaijan, which would increase economic opportunities for landlocked Armenia. It can thereby contribute to regional stability, development, and trans-regional cooperation among the three South Caucasian states. At the same time, it would create an enabling environment that could be more conducive for future dialogue and interactions between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
We must face the fact that a stable equilibrium between these two nations has never previously been achieved. However, despite ups and downs, there was peaceful coexistence between the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities in Karabakh as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan’s respective minorities in Azerbaijan and Armenia. This protracted conflict has, however, led Armenians and Azerbaijanis to live in parallel realities for almost 30 years.
In light of the recent past, we cannot soon reconcile our different narratives. It is a long process; however, reconciliation is not only an outcome, it is also a process. Although the gestation period might be long, the process of reconciliation itself can be extremely rewarding.
In fact, the Armenian and Azerbaijani inhabitants of Karabakh have lived together in this region in the past. However, for almost 30 years this was impossible. Will and determination should be put to good use in order to arrive at such a peaceful coexistence once again.
Dawn of great power competition in South Caucasus
The pace of geopolitical change in the South Caucasus is staggering, with the recent Karabakh war only underlining several major geopolitical trends in the region.
The first noticeable trend being the undercutting of democratic ideals and achievements of the region’s states. Take Armenia, its young democracy had high hopes following the 2018 revolution, but now it will be more even more dependent on Russia.
It is not a matter of whether a democratic model is better or not, the matter lies in the incompatibility of an aspiring democracy with a powerful nondemocracy such as Russia.
The Armenian leadership will now have to make extensive concessions to Moscow to shore up its military, backtracking on its democratic values. Building a fair political system cannot go hand in hand with the Russian political model.
The war also put an end to any hopes of Armenia implementing a multivector foreign policy, an already highly scrutinized issue. Mistakes were made continuously along the way, the biggest being an overreliance on Russia.
In the buildup to 2020, Armenia’s multiaxial foreign policy efforts gradually deteriorated, with the 2016 fighting showing the limits. Armenian politicians attempted to develop ties with other regional powers in the aftermath, but Russian influence had already begun to incrementally increase.
Tipping the scales in a no longer balanced alliance culminated in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan thanks to Yerevan’s maneuvering. More crucially, the war has obliterated Yerevan’s multiaxial policy efforts for years to come.
Now, Armenia’s dependence on Russia would be even more pronounced with no viable geopolitical alternatives.
With no more foreign policy diversification, the three South Caucasus states are divided by larger regional powers, further fracturing the region.
The return of Turkey and the growth of the Russian military could resurrect the great power competition, in which a nation’s military power, infrastructure projects and economic might are directly translated into their geopolitical influence over the region, ultimately deterring long-term conflict resolution.
The Western stance
The Karabakh war highlighted a regression in Western peacekeeping standards. The Western approach to conflict resolution based on equality rather than geopolitical interests has been trumped by the Russian alternative.
Moscow is not looking to resolve the conflict (it never does in territorial conflicts); instead, it is seeking to prolong it under its close watch in a bid to increase its influence.
Looking at the situation from the Russian perspective, it is clear the country will continue to influence Armenia and Azerbaijan, only now to a far greater extent than before.
The West’s inability to accommodate fluid geopolitical realities in the South Caucasus also raises questions about its commitment to resolving the issues at hand. The second Karabakh war was in a way a by-product of the West’s declining engagement in the region over the past several years.
The West can no longer treat the South Caucasus as a monolithic entity, and a diversified foreign policy should be applied in line with realities on the ground.
Policies should reflect each individual state, and the West should, perhaps, be more geopolitical in its approach.
Turkey’s recent suggestion to create a six-nation pact bringing together the South Caucasus states, Russia, Turkey and Iran, shows the regression of Western influence in the region. But the geopolitical vacuum is never empty for long, and Turkey and Russia approach.
Georgia could act as the last bastion of dominant Western influence, but even there, the West should be cautious. The country is on the cusp of Europe, making it susceptible to foreign influence.
Bordered by Russia and Turkey, two powers often discerning of Europe, Georgia also feels the pressure to adapt to the changing circumstances on the ground.
The lack of Western resolve in the region and the Black Sea could propel Tbilisi if not toward a total reconsideration of its foreign policy, toward diversifying its foreign ties – one could call a “rebalancing.”
The war also solidified that the Caspian basin and South Caucasus are inextricably linked to the greater Middle East.
Russia and Turkey are basing their strategies in the region on developments in the Middle East and the Black Sea region. Not since the end of the Soviet Union has the South Caucasus been such a critical point for the West, especially the incoming Biden administration.
But time is critical and any further delay in active U.S. policy could spell disaster for Georgia, which serves as a door to the Caspian and on to Central Asia.
The West has been in regression in the region for quite some time now; the Karabakh war only brought it to the light, and it must be proactive if things are to change.
Much will depend on the U.S. and its new administration, but the West will have to come to an understanding with Turkey, even if it be limited, to salvage its deteriorating position in the region.
After all, the South Caucasus has always been the only theater where Turkish and Western interests have always coincided. Considering its limited presence in the region, the West could consider backing Turkey.
Not only would it serve as a reconciliatory gesture pleasing Ankara, but it would also limit Russia’s movement in the region. With the ink about to dry on who will influence the region, the West must immediately adapt its approach if it wishes to have any input in the rapidly changing geopolitics of the South Caucasus.
Author’s note: first published in dailysabah
An Impending Revolution
Even on the end note, the year contains surprises enough to deem it as a year of instability and chaos given every nook and cranny around the globe is riddled with a new crisis every day. Latest down in the tally is the country of Belarus that has hardly streamlined over at least half a decade but now is hosting up as a venue to rippling protests in almost all the districts of its capital, Minsk. The outrage has resulted from the massive rigging imputed on the communist party in ruling for almost three decades since the split of Soviet Union in 1994. With Europe and Russia divided on the front as the protests and violence continue to rage: a revolution is emerging as a possibility.
The historical map of Belarus is nearly as complex as the geographical landscape which might only stand next to Afghanistan in terms of the intricacies faced by a landlocked country as such. Belarus is located in the Eastern European region bordered by Russia to the north-eastern perimeter. Poland borderlines the country to the West while Ukraine shares a border in the South. The NATO members, Lithuania and Latvia, outskirt the borders of Belarus in the Northwest, making the region as a prime buffer between the Russian regime and the western world. As Belarus stands as a junction between the European Union (EU) and Russia, the proximal nature brings about interests of either parties in the internal affairs of Minsk. However, the nature of the bond shared between the trio is by no means a triangle unlike other former soviet nations since Belarus has casted its absolute loyalty to Russia since the split of Soviet Union and ultimate accession to power of president, Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of the Communist Party of Belarus. Along with the alliance, however, came the unwanted dependency since over the 26-year rule of Lukashenko, he crippled the economy and the political writ of Belarus, using every last ounce of authority to subdue the opposition and the democratic mechanism of the country, earning him the nefarious title ‘Europe’s last dictator’.
The outburst of protests today stems from this very problem that is more deep-rooted than what comes across as apparent. The excessive and draconian use of power and autonomy has invalidated the independence of Belarusians and turned them haplessly at the mercy of Russian aid and support while blocking out any western support in the name of guarding national sovereignty. The ongoing surge of dissent was triggered earlier in August when the elections turned about to be absurdly rigged in favour of Alexander Lukashenko, granting him an indelible majority of 80% of the total vote count along with a lifetime of rule over the country despite his blatant unpopularity across the country. The accusations were further solidified when one of the popular opposing candidates, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, casted a complaint with the authorities regarding the falsification of election results. Instead of being appeased, she was detained for 7 straight hours and was even forced to exile to the neighbouring country of Lithuania. This resulted in major tide of riots and protests erupting all across Minsk, preceding over 3000 arrests over the election night.
On the official front, however, an aggressive stance was upheld along with a constant refusal of Lukashenko from stepping down from the long-held office or even considering a review of the polls counted despite exorbitant reports of unfair results. Heavy use of rubber bullets and tear gas was an eccentric protocol adopted by the local police force which instead of placating the rioters, further ignited the protests in more districts of the capital city. The anti-government relies also entitled ‘March of Neighbours’ transitioned into a high scale protest with many of the state employees resigning from their positions to stand upright against the long overdue corrupt regime. With the protests raging over months and the Lukashenko government getting more and more aggressive with their policies, the fear that once sparkled in the eyes of the natives is dwindling exceedingly and is turning into a cry for an outright revolution, which would be a ground-breaking one ever since the revolution of Iran back in 1979.
European counties have taken their conventional passive position in the crisis sinceEU is well aware of the Russian influence in Belarus and does not want to interfere with a probability of a direct conflict with Russia. However, they did call out their protest over the rigged elections, slapping sanctions over Belarus yet have not accused Lukashenko directly but instead have proposed a thorough international dialogue. Russia, on the other hand, faces a complex position since the dependence of Belarus bought Moscow a base against the West along with other regional rogues like Ukraine. However, high scale protests and rising chances of a full-blown revolution is hardly the choice Russian intends to opt. As the situation continues to unfold, economic reforms, as promised by Lukashenko, appears to be the only option that both EU and Russia could encourage as a bipartisan plan. Despite that, with six months of protests erupting as an outrage over a tyranny of 26 years, the reform-offering might be a bit late an offer since its no more about the country anymore, it’s about a struggle between a liberal or a communist Belarus.
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