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posted by eagle on December, 2013 as ANALYSIS / OPINION


Paul Goble
Institute of World Politics (Washington)

Next Friday, will mark the sixth anniversary of an event that is likely to pass unnoticed
but that symbolizes one of the most important trends in Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space
that has emerged since 1989. On November 22, 2007, Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his
Georgian counterpart Mikhail Saakashvili jointly dedicated in Tbilisi a statue of Prometheus, the
Greek who stole fire from the gods and was punished by them for giving it to man. That statue is
a vivid reminder not only of Poland’s approach to the Soviet borderlands in the 1920s and 1930s
but also of the important ways that this approach has been vindicated and revived since 1989, a
development that has made Poland the most important country in Eastern Europe for most of the
non-Russian post-Soviet countries.

Poland’s pre-war Promethean movement was anticipated by a memorandum that Jozef
Pilsudski wrote to the Japanese government in 1904 underscoring the need to cooperate with the
non-Russian peoples of the Russian Empire in order to weaken that state and ultimately to secure
their independence. Pilsudski argued that his own country Poland, then under Russian rule, was
"by virtue of its history, love of freedom and uncompromising stance” should "beyond any
doubt” assume "a position of leadership and help promote the emancipation of the other nations”
oppressed by Russia.

"Poland’s strength and importance among the constituent parts of the Russian state,”
Pilsudski wrote, "embolden us to set ourselves the political goal of breaking up the Russian state
into its main constituents and emancipating the countries that have been forcibly incorporated
into that empire. We regard this not only as the fulfilment of our country’s cultural strivings for
independent existence, but also as a guarantee of that existence, since a Russia divested of her
conquests will be sufficiently weakened that she will cease to be a formidable and dangerous

Many of these nations, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, the
Crimean Tatars, the Georgians, the Armenians, the Azerbaijanis, the peoples of Idel-Ural, and
those in Central Asia, already had organized more or less active national movements, and they
were eager to gain international support. Most countries at that time were unwilling to extend it
lest they offend St. Petersburg, but Japan, which in 1904 was locked in a war with the Russian
Empire, was certainly willing to consider such steps. Tokyo had already begun to build up
expertise on portions of the Russian Empire, particularly Central Asia, but if it was to be
effective, it needed an ally and that is exactly what Pilsudski was offering.

But because the Russo-Japanese war soon ended, little came of this exchange of ideas,
until World War I. That conflict and its aftermath had three major consequences that led
Marshal Pilsudski to revive and implement what became known as the Promethean idea. First,
the Russian Empire disintegrated. Poland, along with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, became
independent, and the national movements in other parts of the former empire demonstrated that
peoples there wanted independence even though a combination of Bolshevik strength and
cleverness and White Russian opposition and Western indecision allowed the Soviet to restore
the empire in the form of the USSR. Consequently, Warsaw could and subsequently did say that
the Soviet Union was an empire and would ultimately die.

Second, although not as numerous as the first Russian emigration, hundreds if not
thousands of people from the oppressed nationalities fled to Turkey, the Balkans, Eastern
Europe, and Western Europe. Many of them sought to continue the fight against the Bolsheviks
and sought the assistance of outside governments to help them. Some of them offered their
expertise, others were prepared to engage in espionage against the Soviets, and a few were even
interested in participating in covert attacks on Soviet authorities in their homelands, confident
that a single spark could ignite a conflagration against Moscow. Such people constituted a
veritable army that interested governments could and did make use of. Because of its own
interests, Warsaw was the most important of these, although other governments did as well (Such
emigres also were the target of Trust-like operations by the Soviet security services.)
And third, thanks to US President Woodrow Wilson, the idea that nations have a right to
self-determination became widespread. It informed some but hardly all the decisions of the
Versailles Peace Conference, but more important, its dissemination opened the way to discuss
the status of peoples subordinate to empires. That helped power the anti-colonial movements in
the empires of the major European states, and it meant that discussions of greater autonomy or
even independence for peoples subordinate to the Soviet government could now take place
without being dismissed out of hand. Moscow’s brutality in Ukraine and elsewhere and its
subversive actions beyond the borders of the USSR made such conversations more common,
even though many governments and analysts continued to adopt a status quo approach.
Prometheanism, like Pilsudki’s other conception, an Intermarium federation from the
Baltic to the Black Sea, was a doctrine rather than an organization. While the idea generated
various structures at various times, such as the Promethean League and was responsible for
various publications, including most prominently the journal "Le Promethee,” it never had a
single formal structure. Instead, it reflected the combined efforts of officials and scholars who
shared Pilsudski’s vision but who were to be found in the foreign ministry, the defense ministry,
the interior ministry, the general staff, the journalistic community and the universities. It is
important to stress this because sometimes the actions or approach of one set of officials is
presented as reflecting a single organizing center. Thus, the fact that some in the Polish general
staff thought Warsaw could use the non-Russian emigrations to penetrate and spy on the Soviet
Union has often been invoked to dismiss the entire enterprise as little more than cover for an
intelligence operation.

Viewed more generally as a congeries of ideas current in Warsaw between 1918 and 1939, Prometheanism use a variety of strategies to promote the liberation of countries betweenthe Baltic and Black Seas as well as those of the Middle Volga, the Caucasus and Central Asia from Soviet domination, the formation of a defensive alliance against Moscow, and – and this is especially important – to develop cooperation among these peoples for the greater good. Thus, the Warsaw supporters of Prometheanism insisted that each of its national components recognize the rights of the other nationalities involved lest one or more of them be played against the others. That sometimes limited the success of the enterprise, but it laid down an important principle which has affected many of the nations involved to this day.

The Polish government was the only state to promote this idea, although it enjoyed the
sympathetic backing of both France and Great Britain and the occasion, if often half-hearted
interest of Germany, especially in the periods before these countries established diplomatic
relations with the USSR or when tensions between them and the Soviets intensified, something
that happened a number of times before Hitler came to power.

Within Poland, Prometheanism was something of an orphan despite Pilsudski’s backing.
No Polish political party of any stripe openly supported it, and many within Pilsudski’s own
circle objected to it on pragmatic grounds. That too limited its activities to things like
publications, conferences, and some travel by participants.

After recovering its own independence, Poland recognized the independence of Estonia,
Finland, Latvia and Lithuania and supported Ukraine during that country’s brief period of
independence after 1917. Warsaw also sent military missions to the Caucasus and secured
support within the League of Nations in May 1920 to have Crimea given the status of a Polish

At the conclusion of the Russian civil war, Prometheanism in Poland went into a brief
eclipse. Many of the national emigres who had come to Poland in the expectation that Warsaw
would always back them moved to other countries. Thus, many Ukrainians went to Paris and
Prague, Georgians to Paris, Azerbaijani to Istanbul and Paris, the North Caucasian Mountaineers
wen to Istanbul, the Armenians to Paris, and the Tatars (Crimean, Idel Ural and Turkestani) left
for Istanbul and Paris as well. What remained of the Promethean impulse increasingly was
concentrated in Section II (Intelligence) of the Polish General Staff, which continued to work
with those emigres who had not moved on. One example of this was that in 1922, a group of
Georgians were allowed to join the ranks of the Polish Army.

With the departure of Pilsudski from the center of power, Warsaw explicitly turned away
from Prometheanism, a reflection both of the declining prospects of nationalist movements
within the USSR and Polish calculations about Polish national interests. But this turning away
from Promethean ideas was only temporary. In May1926, Pilsudski staged a coup and for the
next six years, until the conclusion of the Polish-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, Prometheanism
was not only official government policy but took on its most active forms. Overseeing this
program were newly-established offices for it in both the foreign ministry and general staff.
Among the steps Warsaw took during these six years was the creation of an Eastern Institute to promote the study of the Promethean nationalities, an institute that still exists, the creation of Promethean League offices and clubs in Europe and the Far East, and the publication of Wschod and Le Promethee. In addition to these pan-Promethean activities, Warsaw also took specific steps with respect to each of its target audience’s component parts:

• For Ukraine, it recruited Ukrainians into the Polish Army, it set up Ukrainian press
agencies to report on developments in Ukraine, it published the Polish-Ukrainian
Bulletin, it established a Ukrainian Institute in Warsaw, and it helped organize the
Supreme Ukrainian Council in Europe.

• For the nations of the Caucasus and Central Asia, Warsaw established a Caucasus
National Committee, drafted a constitution for a Caucasus Federation, recruited people
from the Caucasus into the Polish Army, and promoted expeditions to the region and to
émigré groups in the Middle East and beyond.

• For Turkic affairs, Warsaw set up publications for each of the three groups, the Crimeans,
the Idel Ural group, and the Turkestanis, it promoted the integration of these groups into
Islamic movements abroad, and it helped these small emigrations to counter Soviet
propaganda and active measures directed against them.

• And for the Cossacks, whom Warsaw viewed as wedge issue within the ranks of the anti-
Bolshevik Russian emigration, it promoted Cossack publications and organizations,
especially in Western Europe

Not surprisingly, the Soviet government responded sharply, conducting anti-Promethean
propaganda in Poland’s ethnically mixed eastern regions, attacking and even killing emigres
associated with Promethean League activities, and keeping up a barrage of criticism of Warsaw
for supposedly seeking to dismember or at least destabilize the USSR. The rise of fascism in
Western Europe and Poland’s own immediate security needs ultimately led the Polish
government to back away from active promotion of the Promethean idea and then to dispense
with the idea at least publicly after Warsaw and Moscow signed their non-aggression pact in
1932. Some covert activities nonetheless continued, but these too declined as well especially
after the death of Marshal Pilsudki in May 1935, Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, and the
formation of the anti-communist bloc by Berlin, Rome and Tokyo. Warsaw had no interest in
being associated with that or with engaging in any actions that could threaten its security along
its eastern border.

After the Soviet-German dismemberment of Poland in 1939, Warsaw was no longer in a
position to act, and after World War II, many assumed that with the communist occupation, that
continued to be the case until the victory of Solidarity. That is not strictly true. On the one hand,
Poles in the emigration continued to talk about Promethean ideas which became the point of
departure for many Western efforts in the Cold War including RFE/RL, the Munich Institute for
the Study of the USSR, and the like. One of the most important of these was Edmund
Charaszkiewicz, whose 1940 history of the Promethean movement informs much of the above.
And on the other, the academic institutions which focused on the peoples of the Soviet Union in
many cases continued to operate, allowed to do so because the Soviets assumed this would
promote the integration of Poland into the Soviet bloc but actually creating a body of expertise
that others and then Poles could and have used especially since 1989.

Nonetheless, it is appropriate to speak of a break during the Soviet period. But what is
striking is the extent to which Warsaw has returned to many of the ideas of the inter-war period,
including Prometheanism, in the course of the elaboration of its policies toward the countries that
have emerged following the collapse of the USSR and more generally.

In a 2005 report, the Congressional Research Service put it succinctly: "More than most
countries, Poland’s relations today with the rest of the world are influenced by its past. The
victim of historical forces and powerful neighbors, Poland was partitioned in the 18th century,
and once again in the 20th. This loss of sovereignty may partly explain its assertive foreign
policy. Poland has carved out a unique, sometimes maverick role for itself in Europe. A NATO
member since 1999, and an EU member since 2004, Poland has forcefully pursued its national
interests and has not been reluctant to assert itself with major powers — for example, with
Germany, its leading trading partner; with the European Union; and with the United States.”
In an important respect, the events of 1989 and 1991 were a vindication of Poland’s
Prometheanism. Many of the nations that it earlier hoped to see as independent countries now are
from the Baltic to the Black Sea and from the Caspian to China. But that very victory means that
Polish policy makers have had to operate in a totally different environment. While there are
places like Belarus which has been under an authoritarian dictatorship for 20 years and Idel-Ural
which is still under Moscow’s control where Warsaw has been able to use some of the same
tactics it employed earlier – including radio broadcasting to Belarus, the hosting of emigres and
the active encouragement of research and publications – in many cases it has been constrained by
the fact that it must first and foremost deal with independent countries rather than with
suppressed nationalities. Such states, however friendly to Poland, would be put off by the kind
of activities members of their own nationalities welcomed in the past.

But if the policy environment has changed, many of Poland’s impulses have not. First
and foremost, it seeks to create an alliance of states from the Baltic to the Black Sea to protect
them and itself from Russian aggression. No country moved more quickly than Poland to sign
bilateral cooperation accords with these states in 1992-1993. And it has taken the lead in
promoting ties between these countries and the two key Western institutions, NATO and the
European Union, first as an aspirant country itself and then as the leader of the expansionist
group with them. Moreover, it has sought to promote democracy and freedom in all these
countries, playing a key role in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Rose Revolution in
Georgia, and political change in Kyrgystan. Not only did Warsaw actively help the political
insurgents with aid and advice, it equally important served as the explicator and defender of
these changes in the councils of NATO and the EU and also among its neighbors, the Czechs and
the Hungarians.

The history of Poland’s relationship with Ukraine is especially instructive in the ways in
which Promethean ideas have informed Warsaw’s policies since 1989. In October 1990, Poland
became the first country in the world to back the idea of Ukrainian sovereignty. The presidents
of the two countries have visited one another repeatedly. And most important, this cooperation
produced in both capitals the sense that the support by one country for the independence of the
other was vital to itself. Now, Poland is the leading supporter of including Ukraine in European
and Western institutions. Whether Ukraine will do so is a question appears still open. But that
Poland is trying so hard shows that Prometheanism remains very much alive and too important to
ignore. And by its active support, Warsaw has helped bridge the divide that has sometimes
existed between the Polish and Ukrainian peoples – and equally important, one that Moscow has
repeatedly attempted to exploit including during the current crisis.

But there are three other areas where Prometheanism remains on display. First, Warsaw
continues to promote democratic change and a Western rather than Moscow orientation in the
other countries around the periphery of Russia. Second, it has become the leader of what might
for want of a better term be called "the Baltic-Nordic caucus” within the West, a grouping of
countries led by Poland and Estonia who want to ensure that the northeastern portion of Europe
is more closely tied to the West. And third, Poland has become even more important as a center
for the study of the peoples and politics of Eurasia, not only by attracting scholars and journalists
from east and west as the pre-war Promethean League did but also, again recapitulating the
earlier experience, conducting research and issuing publications that are helping to define how
each side views the other. Indeed, it is fair comment that no one can study the non-Russian
peoples of the former Soviet Union without a solid grounding in the Polish language and
familiarity with Polish publications in this regard.

Each of these three deserves some additional comments. Over the past two decades,
Warsaw has used its new or restored diplomatic muscle to promote democracy in Georgia,
Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus. In the first two cases, Polish involvement in the so-called "color
revolutions” of a decade ago was fundamental. Warsaw preferred to remain in the background,
but just as was the case with the original "color” revolution in Ukraine, Polish publications,
Polish activists, and Polish advocacy in the West for the new governments played a critical role,
one that is only beginning to be appreciated. In the case of the third, Poland, even more than
Lithuania, has served as a place of asylum for many of the opponents of the Lukashenka
dictatorship. It has sponsored radio and even television broadcasting. And it has maintained an
active Belarusian democratic press, to the annoyance not only of Mensk but of Moscow. Given
that Poland has relations with both countries and a compelling interest in having at least normal
ties with the Russian government, such actions are striking, especially given where Poland is
located on the map.

Poland’s role in the Baltic-Nordic caucus has been equally impressive. Despite some
difficulties initially, Warsaw has developed good relations with Vilnius, but its relations with the
two other Baltic capitals and the Scandinavians are impressive. Estonia now maintains its largest
embassy in the world not in Washington or Brussels or Moscow but in Warsaw, a reflection of
Tallinn’s appreciation that Poland is its most reliable ally and advocate in promoting the
European integration of northwestern Europe. Polish officials and experts now routinely join
their Baltic and Scandinavian counterparts, sometimes at an official level and sometimes at a
more informal one, to promote Swedish and Finnish membership in NATO and thus broader
defense cooperation. The initiative for this appears to have come from Tallinn and Helsinki
initially, but Warsaw has taken the lead. If the two eastern Scandinavian countries do join
NATO in the next several years, they in the first instance will have Poland to thank for that
outcome. This too reflects Promethean or perhaps better intermarium ideas of the pre-war period.
But it is the third area that I would like to stress especially at a meeting like this. Poland
is as it was in the 1920s and early 1930s an essential center for the study of the peoples of the
former Soviet periphery and indeed parts of its interior like the Finno-Ugric and Idel-Ural
nations. No one can study these nations without following publications like "Polityka
Wschodnia” as well as many books and other serials. The materials contained in them are
simply too rich and unique for that. Indeed, it is rapidly becoming the case that after English,
Polish rather than Russian, is the language of scholarship on this area, a development that
enrages many Russians, has been ignored by many Russianists in the West, but must be
recognized if scholarship is to go forward. One hopes that more Western specialists will learn
Polish, and in the meantime, one can only hope that more Polish scholarship in this area will
become available in translation. Pilsudski and his fellow Prometheans would certainly agree.
In summing up, I want to address a question that must be on the minds of many of you:

How much of what is going on now is a reflection of the Promethean impulse? And how much of
it is simply a product of the increasing role of geography in defining international relations, a
role that has led many to speak about the new geopolitics?

It is an old joke among geopoliticians that countries do not change their foreign policies
very much because, except for Poland, countries do not move around very much. Poland, of
course, thanks to the Soviets has been moved west physically over the last century. Polish
foreign policies, however, have been even more stable and consistent than those of most other
countries. A major reason for that is that Poland and Poles have lived in the shadow of Russia
and Russians for centuries, and Russia quite naturally is the focus of Polish policy makers. One
would not expect it to be otherwise, but there are examples of how other countries neighboring
Russia have adopted a different approach than have the Poles. Finland is the obvious example,
but the diversity of responses among the Baltic countries and the former Soviet republics is an
even clearer one.

Geography alone does not explain why Poles have promoted not only an alliance of
countries from the Baltic to the Black Sea against Russia and in defense of Poland and Europe.
There are deeper reasons for that rooted not only in Russian antagonism to Poles since the times
of the Commonwealth and 1612 but also in the nature of Polish nationalism, something many in
this audience know far more about than I do. That nationalism at least since the nineteenth
century has been summed up in the slogan "For your freedom and ours,” a slogan that when
translated into foreign policy is the essence of Prometheanism. That is something Marshal
Pilsudski understood and that the architects of Poland’s eastern policies now understand as well.
Consequently, the rebirth of Prometheanism is a very real thing, something Poles, the West, and
especially those who have been or still are oppressed or threatened by the Russian state.

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