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[Column] The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is back

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Among the many unforeseen consequences of Russia´s attempted invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, Europe's mental map is shifting.

Since the fall of communism, countries like Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova were perceived as lingering in a twilight zone between the EU and Russia. Not anymore.

  • The millions of Ukrainian refugees across Europe are ambassadors for their country. The deep bond between Poland and Ukraine is likely to become a standing feature of European politics

For Western Europeans, it is the second major shift of their mental map. After 1989 they re-discovered Central Europe, which — from their perspective — had disappeared behind the Iron Curtain for half a century.

Now it is about Eastern Europe.

The conceptions and misconceptions about the space between Central Europe and Russia are deep and old. They result from Europe's imperial histories. Until the late 18th century, large parts of Central and Eastern Europe were ruled by the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, for more than 200 years. For most Europeans, Russia was a distant presence.

Then Prussia, Russia and Austria partitioned the Commonwealth. Poland only resurfaced in 1918 as a state. An independent Ukrainian state emerged as well, but was short-lived as the Red Army quickly integrated it into the Soviet Union.

In 1939 Poland was partitioned and invaded by Hitler and Stalin, beginning years of darkness as the region became what the historian Timothy Snyder called the "Bloodlands", where the horrors of the Second World War were more concentrated than in other parts of Europe.

Theoretically the story ended with the fall of the Soviet Union.

Ukraine and Belarus became independent states with recognised borders. But for most Europeans they remained somehow part of the Russian orbit, often labelled as "ex-Soviet states".

Through a Russian lens?

Most university history and language departments kept looking at these countries through the lenses of Russian language and history, although in reality their languages and history were as intertwined with their Western neighbours, Poland in particular, as with Russia.

In Germany, much of the dealing with the past was focused on Russia, often strangely mixed with long-standing interest in Russia's natural resources. Last year, German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier claimed that the North Stream gas pipelines represented the "last bridge" between Germany and Russia which should not be demolished, especially in light of the horrors that Germany inflicted on the Soviet Union during Second World War.

It should have been clear, by 2013 at the latest, that Ukrainians did not want to be in the Russian orbit anymore.

The Maidan protests started because then-president Viktor Yanukovich suddenly declared that he would not sign an association agreement with the European Union.

The subsequent illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia and its instigation of the Donbas conflict broke most bonds that Ukrainians had felt towards Russia.

The invasion of 24 February has made the break irreversible for the foreseeable future. Ukrainians want to be part of EU/Europe, they do not want to live in the post-Soviet twilight zone.

Belarusians too have shown that they too do not want to live under eternal ex-communist dictatorship. They should not be forgotten. If Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko or Russian president Vladimir Putin fell from power, they would have a chance to gain their freedom.

For our mental map, this means that Eastern European states are becoming actors in their own right, independent of Russia.

Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth

And in this sense the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth is back. It is not back in the sense of Polish dominance. The EU logic of inviolable borders and good neighbourly relations applies. Much as the Polish postwar Polish émigré Jerzy Giedroyc had advocated.

Ukraine is finally understood — and hopefully Belarus will be soon too — as a self-standing society and state with close links to its EU neighbours, rather being relegated to Russia's backyard. Eastern Europe is becoming a subject, after 200 years of being an object.

The shift will be deep. The millions of Ukrainian refugees across Europe are ambassadors for their country. This is especially true for Poland. Many Ukrainians already lived there and most refugees have sought its protection. The deep bond between Poland and Ukraine is likely to become a standing feature of European politics.

Poles are reliving their own traumas of annihilation by brutal neighbours and are determined not to let it happen to Ukraine again. A contrast to the somewhat lukewarm support by the German and French governments.

The powerful appearance of Ukraine in the European consciousness has made many in the EU nervous. French president Emmanuel Macron recently suggested that Ukraine's EU accession would take decades and that a wider European club should be created to provide a degree of integration which is less intensive than the EU.

For Ukrainians, this sounds like a consolation prize.

The hesitations are understandable. The EU can already look overstretched with its 27 member states. My organisation, Democracy Reporting International, has, for years, monitored the EU's failings in protecting democracy in its member states. Hungary has become an authoritarian state. The Polish government is trying to tear down the legal structures of the EU.

There is a risk that this is understood as some problem of Central or Eastern Europe. It is not.

Attacks on democracy have been ferocious in the US or Brazil. France was eight percent away from a rule-of-law breakdown. Marine Le Pen, who garnered 42-percent of the vote in the presidential election, had announced that she would dismantle the French rule of law through constitutional referenda.

The EU should not have preconceptions about Ukraine's future development. It is its own country. It is defending itself against the biggest military attack in Europe since 1945.

Ukraine should be offered membership on the basis of the same conditions as any other country. This is what president Volodomyr Zelensky asked for and this is what Ukraine should get.

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