But we shouldn't over-evaluate Minsk's role in this process – it shouldn't be the only reason for shifts in policy to Minsk, says Undersecretary of State for Eastern Policy, Polish Foreign Minister
On the eve of the EaP Summit Adam Reichardt interviewed Konrad Pawlik, Undersecretary of State for Eastern Policy in Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Now, after the Summit, we can see what prognoses of Polish state officer came true and what expectations remain unfulfilled.
ADAM REICHARDT: This week, Riga will host the Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit – the first one since Ukraine’s EuroMaidan Revolution and the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. Obviously there is a lot at stake for the EaP. Considering that Poland was one of the initiators of the Eastern Partnership – what specifically are Poland’s goals for this year’s summit? And what outcomes would Poland like to see in order for this summit to be successful?
KONRAD PAWLIK: First of all, we have to recognise that during this summit, when compared to the previous summit, the geopolitical situation has completely changed. And I believe that the upcoming summit will be equally as difficult as the previous one. Secondly, the previous summit was very much about association, while this summit will be more about mobility. Of course we have to manage the expectations. We hope that the negotiations of visa facilitation and the readmission agreements with Belarus will progress in Riga. The signing of the Partnership for Mobility with Belarus might be a concrete deliverable as well. The Summit should also get us closer to concluding the second phase of Visa Liberalisation Action Plans (VLAP) with Ukraine and Georgia. On May 8th, the European Commission circulated reports on progress achieved by these countries within the framework of VLAP and the overall assessment has been positive, especially in regards to Georgia. By the end of 2015 we should have a new report. Therefore we expect that the Riga summit will confirm that we can conclude the VLAP and proceed with a visa free regime as soon as all recommendations from the reports are implemented.
It will also be important at the summit to discuss the post-Eastern Partnership agenda – what do we want to do further? In Warsaw we believe it is important to clearly acknowledge the European choice and aspirations of the partners who have made significant progress on their European paths, namely Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. Recognising the principle of territorial integrity is another important issue which we would like to have inscribed into the declaration at Riga.
Do you believe that there should be an offer of EU membership perspective on the table at the summit or in the near future?
It is still too early for that. The association agreements are not yet in full working force – they are still being provisionally applied. In the case of Ukraine, they are not even provisionally applied. Looking at the historical perspective, any discussions on Poland’s EU perspective took place only after the Association Agreement was fully implemented and when the first reforms were in place. We submitted our application in 1994; while we signed the association agreement in 1991 – which came into force in 1993. So there is still time and we believe that the Riga Summit should be the right moment to conclude what has been done so far and determine what is to be done in the coming months.
Discussions on the ratifications of the Association Agreements by the EU member states will also be a key topic for the Riga Summit. By the time the summit takes place, we expect about 20 EU countries to have ratified the agreements and we expect the whole ratification process to be completed by the end of the year.
It seems to me that the Eastern Partnership has developed a two-tiered approach when it comes to its six members. On the one hand you have three countries which actively pursue European integration – Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova; and on the other you have three countries who are less interested, Armenia, Belarus and Azerbaijan. How do you assess this development?
We have to recognise the fact that this two-tiered approach exists because our partners have different aspirations and different expectations. We have two countries which are in the Eurasian Economic Union – Belarus and Armenia. These two countries, along with Azerbaijan, have indicated they prefer a different approach to Europe. I want to point out that the European Neighbourhood policy is an offer to the countries. The offer is on the table and they can take as much as they want. Clearly, three countries (Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) have taken most of the offer. The other three have different aspirations and we should recognise that and respect it. At the same time we should keep the offer on the table. And in this case we should be ready to prepare tailor-made offers to each of the countries. I should also underline that our offer is not targeted against anyone, including neighbours of neighbours. In other words, we should pursue a policy for each of these countries that best fits their needs. This is the approach that needs to be discussed and accepted at the upcoming summit as a way to deal with the other partners after Riga.
There was a big push in the beginning of the EaP for a multilateral dimension – that these six countries work closely together. Do you still see this as a feasible approach, considering the two tiers that have developed?
It is definitely still feasible for these countries to work together. We encourage the partners to do so. We have our own experience with the Visegrad Group. A multilateral approach is useful because we see that these countries are not only focused on themselves, but they are sharing knowledge and experience about Europe, its standards and norms with each other. This is something new that is developing and should be encouraged further.
You mentioned Belarus as a country that should be engaged more. Recently, the European Council on Foreign Relations published a new policy memo which suggests that the EU should engage with Belarus more despite it having no interest in opening up to democracy. Do you agree with this approach? And what can Poland specifically do to facilitate stronger EU relations with Belarus?
First of all, we appreciate Belarus’s engagement in the de-escalation process in Ukraine. But we should not over-evaluate the role of Minsk in this process. It should not be the only argument for any shifts in policy towards Minsk. And we do not see any real chances for a deep change in policy of Belarus before their elections. We will monitor the elections very thoroughly and will see what happens afterwards.
The main challenge for Minsk is the economic situation which is related to the economic crisis in Russia and we see the necessities of deeper reforms in Belarus. The IMF has provided concrete recommendations for Belarus’s economic policy, so let’s see how this will move forward. Poland has been quite active in the process of facilitating modernisation in Belarus. We were the initiators in 2011 of the “modernisation dialogue for Belarus” policy created at the EU level. We are helping Belarus move closer to WTO membership and OECD standards. And we are willing to continue to support and facilitate these processes if there really is a will on the side of Minsk. We still do not know to what extent Minsk really wants to reform its economic system. More than 60 per cent of GDP is generated by the public sector, to a large extent it is still a centrally-planned economy.
Shifting to Ukraine, Poland played a significantly active role during the EuroMaidan Revolution. However, since the last half of 2014 it seems Poland’s role has become less vocal and more supportive of other de-escalation efforts. How would you respond to those who criticise Poland’s current position in the Ukraine crisis, claiming that it has lost its voice and is no longer actively playing a role either in resolving the crisis or in supporting Ukraine?
I disagree with criticism along those lines. In terms of support for Ukraine, we have significantly increased our support in multiple terms – humanitarian, development as well as technical assistance. The funds that we have at the disposal of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, have tripled in 2014 comparing to the figures from 2013. The amount we spent on Ukraine was around 24 million zlotys (5.88 million euros) last year, and this year we are looking at 29 million zlotys (7.1 million euros). We have organised several humanitarian convoys and soon we will organise a joint convoy with Germany. We have funded and provided countless technical assistance projects in Ukraine including such priority issues as decentralisation reforms, anti-corruption reforms and de-regulation reforms. We are also very active in development projects such as building institutional capacity and strengthening democratic institutions. We are also working with other partners in supporting Ukraine, such as the recent joint Polish-Canadian democracy support programme which is funded at 15 million zlotys (3.7 million euros) for the years 2014-2016.
We also support the media in Ukraine and give significant assistance which is financed by other Polish ministries directly to the relevant ministries in Ukraine. There is also significant assistance taking place on the local-to-local level, between municipalities in Poland and Ukraine. We have the largest number of partnership agreements between cities in Europe. Out of 800 cities in Poland, 75 of them have partnership agreements with relative cities in Ukraine; Germany has 45. So this shows the large extent of co-operation that exists between Poland and Ukraine.
Regarding the de-escalation process, as you know Poland was very much involved in de-escalating the situation inside Ukraine when the former foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski with other Weimar ministers, facilitated the dialogue with Viktor Yanukovich and the protesters. Poland supports the de-escalation of the situation which took place afterwards, namely the annexation of Crimea and the situation in Donbas. We support any format of talks such as the Geneva format, the Normandy format or the Minsk group.
Poland does not have to be present in all the formats. It is much more important that Poland is consulted on these dialogues on how we should stabilise and de-escalate the Ukrainian conflict. We were very actively involved in the EU and G7 policy towards Russia. In other words, presence in certain talks does not mean effective policy. You can do this policy in close co-operation with partners and we are extremely active.
Obviously Poland has a lot of experience to share with Ukraine when it comes to its transition. How do assess the current state of Ukraine’s reforms?
We should remember that the process of reforms has essentially begun a little over a year ago. It is still too early to fully assess the process of reforms. So far, the reforms that are related to macro-economic stabilisation that stem from the IMF programme have been implemented quite diligently and quite effectively. Of course these reforms are socially painful. For instance, an increase of gas prices by 300 per cent which were implemented in the spring of this year. They will be probably felt much more in the autumn when the consumption of gas will increase. In that regard, Ukraine has made substantial progress. If we talk about the European reform agenda, this process is a bit slower. These reforms are medium- to long-term and much more substantial and it is a long march. And we must keep in mind that the provisional application of the Association Agreement will start on January 1st 2016.
Of course there will always be critical voices. On one side you will hear criticism on the negative effects of the reforms. On the other will be voices that say the reforms are not quick enough. Nevertheless, in comparison with previous years – Ukraine in the last year has done an incredible amount of work. But of course there is still a lot of work to be done.
You had mentioned Poland’s role in keeping EU unity in its policy towards Russia. In June, the EU Council will meet in order to discuss the sanctions against Russia. There are some indications that countries like Greece or Austria may be pushing for an end of the sanctions. How do you see it? Is there a real threat? And does Poland support maintaining the sanctions against Russia?
If the situation will not change significantly in a negative direction then, in our view, we will have no other option but to roll-over the sanctions and this will be the main subject of the discussion at the European Council in June – not whether to soften or expand the sanctions, but about rolling them over. Poland believes that the EU should synchronise the sanctions system with the outcomes of the Minsk agreement – which is applicable for the whole year. That is why the sanctions should be rolled-over until the end of 2015. At the end of the year we can then assess how the Minsk agreement is being fulfilled and then make further decisions. At the moment asymmetry between Kyiv and pro-Russian separatists in fulfilling the obligations is particularly visible when it comes to the withdrawal of heavy weaponry. No doubt, Russia has a role to play in facilitating this process. More action and less words – that is what we look forward to.
How do you assess the effectiveness of the sanctions? Are they having an impact on Russia’s policy towards Ukraine and the situation in the east?
The sanctions are having quite a significant impact on Russia – but we should remember that Russia’s economic situation is not exclusively related to the sanctions; the drop in oil prices as well as Russia’s lack of reforms over the last 15 years are also key factors. Sanctions only make these problems more robust and we do believe that the sanctions pushed Russia towards the agreements we saw in Minsk.
The relations between Poland and Russia have also been affected by the situation in Ukraine. What areas can Poland still work with Russia in the region and globally and what are the chances for any improvement in relations with Russia?
As you know there was a period when we had a rapprochement with Russia which roughly overlapped with the period of the so-called “reset” in US-Russia relations. Poland tried to improve relations with Russia discussing many things frankly and openly. But unfortunately this chance was not taken seriously by Moscow. The dialogue right now is primarily related to the situation in Ukraine which is not just an issue of Poland’s concern but of the European Union countries in general. Secondly, any dialogue is related towards Russia itself. How does Russia want to build relations with us? Does Russia see itself playing an important role with Europe in the process of stabilising Ukraine?
Our relations with Russia over the last 25 years have had different moments. But the number of problems in the bilateral relations has been increasing from year-to-year. As a matter of fact, the improvement of relations we did experience did not solve the fundamental problems in bilateral relations. We are ready for better neighbourly relations with Russia. We were the ones that pushed the EU decision on opening local border traffic with Kaliningrad which had positive results for those living in the region on both sides of the border. We have shown that we are ready for a frank partnership and dialogue with Russia. Yet we have a new context today which we cannot forget about: the de-escalation and stabilisation of the situation in Ukraine and the key role that Russia has to play.