By supporting Lukashenka, the West is financing Putin’s peaceful life.
The head of the European Parliament’s Committee on Security and Defence, former Foreign Minister of Poland, Anna Fotyga, gave an exclusive interview to Natalia Radzina, the editor-in-chief of Charter97.org.
- Pani Anna, in 1981, when you were only 24 years old, you worked in the international negotiations department of the Independent Trade Union „Solidarity”. Why did you decide to join the resistance against the communist dictatorship?
- Probably, there were some deep family traditions originating from pre-war times. I was a scout (“Harcerz” in Polish national scout organization - editor’s note by Charter97.org), I never liked communism.
It happened in some natural way, I never thought much about it. I think I was also greatly influenced by the events in Gdansk, the August strikes (a strike began on August 14, 1980, at the Gdansk Shipyard, which led to the creation of the Solidarity trade union — editor’s Charter97.org).
All this led to the fact that in 1981 I became a full-time employee of Solidarity, and even earlier, in my student years, I was a volunteer there. It was my work, my life, everything that I loved.
- And what was your job?
- Then in Gdansk, one might say, the „spring of freedom” came. A huge number of interested journalists came to this city – everyone to whom the communist authorities couldn’t prohibit entering the country.
In the first place, people from trade unions came, because we tried not to go beyond the official framework of our activities. We collaborated with the International Trade Union Confederation and the International Labour Organization (ILO). Then, in the late 1980s, Solidarity joined both these organizations. Part of the public life of Poland came under international care. It was painful to some extent, but it allowed us to breathe freely.
- How did the mass arrests of Solidarity activists in 1981 affect your life?
- Personally, I managed to avoid arrest, but I was constantly frightened by this during interrogations. Besides, I was pregnant...
It's hard to say why they didn't arrest me. But all this time I continued to work, I helped and supported Solidarity. At that time, I was already married, and at this most difficult time I was constantly outside the house to avoid possible unwanted contacts.
Solidarity was my life. After leaving the union, I was out of work for a long time. This continued until the first relatively independent firms began to appear in Poland. It happened quite late, at the end of 1987. At that time my friends and I opened a small company. Among us there were independent journalists, to whom we felt genuine sympathy. They did not work in the media at times of martial law but tried to find their place in life and earn some money for themselves and their relatives by writing in the underground press and publishing books. We can say that this company helped us live until 1989.
After the Round Table (negotiations between the authorities of the Polish People's Republic and the opposition trade union Solidarity that took place in 1989 – editor’s note by Charter97.org), I returned to the international department of Solidarity.
I stayed in Gdansk for a long time and did not join the big Polish general policy. I was pulled out, a little against my will, by President Lech Kaczynski, a cherished memory to him. The president said: “You'll see, I will make you a politician”. I answered him: “You'll see, you will fail”. But he, as always, was right.
- President Kaczynski highly appreciated you: you headed the Foreign Ministry, and then you became the head of his cabinet.
- This did not happen immediately. Of course, we met and talked when I worked in other posts after my move to Warsaw, and Lech Kaczynski was the Minister of Justice. But true close cooperation began after Lech Kaczynski was elected mayor of Warsaw.
Then I participated in the local elections representing the Law and Justice Party in Gdansk, I made my way to the city council, and then I received the position of vice-mayor of Gdansk. This was the beginning of my serious political activities; I also performed many different functions before, but it was a completely different job.
Then I felt a taste for election-related activities, for winning the support of the people. It is very important for me to convince voters of my views.
Then elections to the European Parliament were held in 2004. But during my work in Brussels, I refused the mandate and became the vice-minister of foreign affairs of Poland, and then I headed the Foreign Ministry.
- These were the first years after Poland joined the European Union and NATO. How did you work at that time? What challenges did Poland face?
- It was fantastic time to work. Those times could not be compared with the current time, which is certainly very difficult at the international level. Maybe it is not quite right to say for those who want to break through to the West. Poland once dreamed of joining Europe too, and I wanted us to involve in this process.
I remember those times as a period of great enthusiasm, a feeling that we are moving forward, that something is happening. At that time, I was not as experienced as I am now, it’s even stupid to compare, although I have been working on international issues for a long time. But after I began taking them to the next level, I began to have a completely different view on the situation in the world.
Now everything is much harder. There is less optimism, unity and, to be honest, rules, but there are more games of different interests.
It always happens in hard times. In short, as I assess that period - it was beautiful, as I learnt a lot. In addition, as a person from Central Europe, just like you, I wanted to learn everything as quickly as possible. It seemed to me that it would be enough to understand the “rules of the game” and everything would turn out. Then, by and large, everything worked that way. The main problem today is that more and more of these rules are being violated. It is not the force of an argument that often wins, but the argument of force.
- You knew Lech Kaczynski well not only as a politician. What kind of person was he?
- First of all, he was unusually wise. He was a great erudite, a very experienced person, with a feeling of great responsibility for his surroundings, for the country.
Especially he was distinguished for his feeling of responsibility for the neighbouring countries, for all those countries that for a long time shared a difficult fate with us. In this collaboration, he saw a chance for us all. It is difficult to say whether this was the lesson he taught us. We all understood it before. It must have come to us from the spirit and time of Solidarity. After all, Solidarity appealed to the peoples of Eastern Europe with the call and offer of cooperation. In addition, we have always considered this a strong point of Polish politics.
Lech Kaczynski loved to repeat that everyone has their own truth in this world, but the truth is for those who fight for freedom.
- Today, in an extremely tense time, you are the head of the Committee on Security and Defence of the European Parliament. What, in your opinion, are Europe’s main threats today?
- I think that the profile of the Security and Defence Committee of the European Parliament changed a little after it was headed by a woman from Central and Eastern Europe.
The threats looming over the eastern border are becoming more serious. Previously, these threats were not so intense and explicit.
Frankly, I do not agree with the opinion that we all suddenly woke up in a completely different situation after the annexation of the Crimea and the Russian aggression towards eastern Ukraine. These trends, the emanation of which was the annexation of the Crimea, emerged long time ago.
We not only warned about them, we very clearly raised the question, tried to take some steps, in some cases successful, calling for solidarity and showing the danger of the policy pursued by Russia.
The problem is that earlier we managed to achieve a common opinion, although trends that could be called mercantile and transactional prevailed. It was said that Russia is still a partner with which it is necessary to maintain contacts. We can say that it was a partial infiltration into the Western elites, especially the economic ones, by the Russian special services.
It turns out that it was partly naive, and partly prevailed by interests that outweighed security issues. And when I begin to recall events from the past, I understand that if we were united, events would have developed very differently.
I can also say that, of course, we had a great opportunity to exert pressure on Lukashenka. Today, threats are emanating from the difficult situation that the Belarusian society and the state have to contend with.
But this, of course, also offers a definite chance. I believe that the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church held in Minsk and the steps Ukraine is taking now show the Belarusian elite that there are events and elections that can be considered key to self-determination.
- Putin is leading a hybrid war against the West today, capturing territories in the post-Soviet space. Are there enough international political and military measures taken to stop Russian aggression?
- For me it is difficult to say to what extent this is the effect of Putin’s policies, and to what extent – the effect of changes in the world politics. I think that both factors have a strong influence.
We are dealing with big disagreements in the West and I can state with complete confidence that these differences weaken and complicate our work on countering consolidated political players. Although I am not naive, and I know that Russia itself also has a lot of problems.
But Putin's regime is conquering new territories. When I say „territories”, it does not necessarily mean „lands”. It is also about influence in different places, about which it was difficult to imagine after the collapse of the USSR. This is a new reality which we must accept, but not give up.
But, of course, there is a threat of a division of the West. I do not blame any individuals, but we are dealing with new elements of economic policy that pose a huge threat. The whole world must deal with this.
The cure for these problems will be a return to cooperation, which should be based on strong ideals and values in the region. You can start at this level, since we understand each other better.
Those who are in a slightly better situation (I mean the countries that belong to NATO and the EU) lack a little courage, clear criteria, and positivity. They should stop „treading water” and start proper prioritization.
It may sound strange, but I'm still an optimist and I think that we will be able to overcome all these difficulties and chaos.
I think that everyone, regardless of the difficulties in the transatlantic relations, especially our region, must remain committed to the transatlantic vector. We need to cooperate with the United States and Canada, with countries that are far from us, but very developed in terms of technology.
Our states, in particular Poland, Ukraine and Belarus, have very big historical ties. And it needs to be saved. It also reinforces our strength within the EU, which today is very segregated.
I constantly say that we are a bit more traditional peoples, it is based on our social characteristics. The roots of our society are in the agricultural traditions, we had a smaller number of industrial ages. All this led to the fact that even in the political differentiation there is the influence of conservatism, even the socialists in our countries are different.
And it would be good for Europe to let us preserve our authenticity. These are our roots and a definite anchor. Now Europe is changing dramatically in demographic terms. I mean not only fertility, education, or national differences. There is a question about the difference of races. All this leads to the fact that we do not know the future, the nearest political trends and directions. Even when I compare my stay in Brussels in 2004 and now, I see huge changes.
- The United States is preparing to strengthen sanctions against Russia. Will Europe join the new sanctions?
- That's the way it has always been, and it will be like this now. Europe will follow the United States. America is a leader, and I think it will remain in the future.
Usually there is a lot of noise at first, but when it comes to business, economic ties are decisive. One may stomp his feet, but everything depends on connections with strong partners. Probably, what I am saying is unpopular, but that is the reality.
- On the example of Belarus, we see a change in the EU policy towards dictatorships in the post-Soviet space. The topic of human rights goes to the background. Did Europe become afraid of democratic transformations in the post-Soviet space because of the war in Ukraine?
- It is hard to say if this is all true. I think that Europe began to think about what is happening after the changes that have occurred in African countries. The process of withdrawing from colonialism and democratization was not entirely determined there.
It seems to me that Europe gives quite a lot of attention to human rights, but it’s also true that some experts consider the new period of global politics to be a period of departure from values and a greater focus on interests. But the picture is not so straightforward, and I believe that all this is due to the fact that we are faced with a huge number of challenges, even in comparison with the last decade.
When I occupied the post of foreign minister, we talked about human rights officially, since this was one of the foundations of Poland’s international policy, which was based on interests and values. It is clear that the interests of the state and the people are very important for politicians, but we have always tried to follow the path of values and promote their strengthening in every way.
My experience suggests that the transformation of Eastern European countries is not such a simple question. When we started our journey and were on the verge of change, I thought: “Three years and we will succeed”. Now, when I am raising my grandchildren, I think that the changes will come, but not so fast.
- It seems that the leadership of the European Union is divided into two parts. On the one hand, the European Parliament supports the democratic opposition, independent media and the civil society of Belarus, fundamentally raises the question of the violation of human rights in the country. On the other hand, European Commissioner Johannes Hahn often comes to Belarus, meets with Lukashenka, says little about human rights violations and blockings of independent sites, and invites the dictator to Europe. How to understand this dissonance?
- The European Parliament has always been a kind of a leader, especially in politics towards Belarus, even before the accession of Poland to the EU, in all conversations, concepts, reports, which were prepared in various Polish „think tanks”. Before joining the EU, we even thought that there should be something like the Northern Dimension in the EU policy that would attract the attention of the Scandinavian countries. We wanted the Eastern dimension to exist.
The Eastern Partnership is a kind of prototype of this, but, to be honest, I had a different vision on this topic. I thought that we should take turns to “pull out” the states of the former USSR that were most interested in democratization in order to engage the rest in this process.
This means that a more differentiated policy is needed. The policy of unification, which began in 2007, has led to the fact that everything has been reduced to a common lower denominator and is not moving forward.
The European Parliament, indeed, is like what you said. And this is despite the difficulties, because today the European Parliament includes various groups and communities that would rather like to divert EU policy from Eastern policy issues in order not to tease the “Russian bear”. It is difficult to say what the situation will look like in the next parliament. The time will come – we will see. I think that we still manage to preserve the leading role of the European Parliament, regardless of convocations.
As for the European Commission, I think Commissioner Hahn is very rational in some things. But in some situations, the European Commission and those commissioners who are engaged in international politics (this is a whole group of people associated with Federica Mogherini), surprisingly carry out „realpolitik”, and not a policy of real involvement.
We try to exert pressure, raise questions, organize hearings and meetings in the commissions of the European Parliament. It brings some results, but you have the right to be impatient.
Especially when you see that the danger posed by the dictatorship of Lukashenka can lead (God forbid!) to the loss of the independence of your country. I also see this threat.
We will do everything to prevent this from happening. Personally, I do not think that Western politicians should neutralize such a threat and cover it with their behaviour. After all, sometimes even the neighbouring countries believe that by “dragging” Lukashenka to their side, they are “pulling” him away from Russia.
Lukashenka uses it very skilfully. Despite the fact that he is trying to bargain with Putin, his dependence on the Kremlin is very high. We must understand that this game does not help the Belarusian society but strengthens the power of Lukashenka. This is a real subject of bargaining, not the sovereignty and independence of the country.
- You understand very well who Lukashenka is. What, in your opinion, should be the EU policy regarding his regime?
- There should be more pressure. This isn’t about the dictator, but about how to behave in case of aggression from the Russian Federation.
Because we are dealing with aggression from the neighbouring state. The existence and support of such regimes, to be honest, is in the interests of Moscow. After all, when the Kremlin cannot afford maintaining “blood circulation” inside Belarus, Lukashenka turns to the West for help. And the West is financing the peaceful life of Putin.
Everything is just like that. For example, Putin is now engaged in the Azov Sea, a political and economic blockade of the Ukrainian state, and we are pumping millions, if not billions, to support the economy of Ukraine, where Russia feels at home. We are ready to pay and leave the spheres of influence of Russia, just not to tease the „bear”. This is stupid and pointless.
My criticism of the policy of the EU and individual countries is based on my life experience, which tells me that nothing good comes out of such an obscure policy, unclear objectives, or incorrect prioritization.
- You were the author of the resolution of the European Parliament “EU strategic communication to counteract propaganda against it by third parties”. However, today we see that independent media in the post-Soviet space are not only subjected to repression by the authorities, but are on the verge of closure due to difficulties in obtaining assistance from Western funds. The financing problems were announced by the Russian Novaya Gazeta, the Belarusian Charter-97, the Crimean Tatar channel ATR, and the media in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Kazakhstan. Why is this happening?
- Firstly, of course, we need large funds for financing, and secondly, we need a clear, consistent and, as I like to repeat, bold policy. Indeed, there is not enough determination and courage.
There are also big controversies around what is dangerous. In the EU, there are states for which all the dangers and threats are associated with the South and the traditional areas of cooperation - Africa, Asia, the Middle East and even the Far East. And the danger of Eastern European countries for them is less obvious and significant.
I remember once in 2005 I went to one large EU country. In the department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs there was a small room in which they were engaged in a policy connected with Russia. Work with such countries as Moldova, Belarus, Armenia was also held there (the list goes on). Those countries were not even mentioned, there were no tablet for them – it was a room that dealt with Russia. What are we talking about? And it was not some small state ...
It is time to look at the historical conditions and traditions. I believe that Russia is constantly overestimated. I don’t know to what extent this is the result of influence, political destabilization and corruption of elites, and to what extent this is the result of historical naivety.
- When the Charter-97 website was blocked in Belarus, you became one of the first European politicians to defend it. What would you wish to the Belarusian readers of the site?
- I wish them the same things that I wished to Poland. My youth was surrounded by beautiful Polish journalists who showed that they could fight. That is why I really appreciate independent information.
I would like the Belarusian society to have exceptionally good journalists who would help them learn how to distinguish truthful information themselves. So that you pass this transformation and do not give in to manipulations. This can give a great power.
External support is crucial, but you yourself must make the changes. And this is what I wish for you. I am a woman of more than average age, I bring up my grandchildren, and I would like to leave them a better world than it is now.
- What is it like to be a strong woman in politics?
- It is difficult to say ... I guess I can say that I am strong (laughs). But I think it depends more on experience. It is not so easy.
Even a strong woman thinks in a bit different categories. She still has more empathy. And politics requires complex and fast decisions. We live in a time when very often the choice is not made between good and evil, but the lesser evil must be chosen.
- It's very hard.
- Especially for a woman.
- Are you going to participate in the next elections to the European Parliament or will you work directly in Polish politics?
- I will rely on the advice of the leader of my party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, with whom I am very connected, also due to my cooperation with Lech Kaczynski, may he rest in peace. Time will show.