Other Former Soviet Republics

Poland Table of Contents

From the outset, Foreign Minister Skubiszewski pursued a dual-track policy toward Poland's eastern neighbors, Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, and Ukraine. This approach enabled Warsaw to negotiate for Polish interests with the central political authority that remained in Moscow as the Soviet Union dissolved, while simultaneously developing bilateral ties with the individual republics that would emerge from that process as independent neighbors. The failure of the August coup signaled to Warsaw the end of the highly centralized Soviet state and the feasibility of officially recognizing independence-minded republics. Accordingly, immediately after the coup Poland became the first East European country to extend diplomatic recognition to the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. On the day following the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union, Poland announced that it was prepared to open normal diplomatic relations with all the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Although it supported national self-determination, Warsaw feared that the breakup of the Soviet Union might bring regional instability, armed conflict fueled by rival territorial claims, and perhaps millions of displaced persons crossing into Poland. Still struggling with its own economic and political transition, Poland could not have borne the burden of resettling huge numbers of refugees. These concerns moved President Walesa to declare his support for Gorbachev's last-ditch effort in December 1991 to reconstitute the Soviet Union as a loose confederation. Then, after the formal demise of the Soviet Union, Walesa called for massive Western aid for the newly created CIS to avoid what he called a "mass exodus of hungry refugees."

Baltic States

On numerous occasions after mid-1989, the Polish government demonstrated sympathy for the increasingly vocal Lithuanian independence movement. After the Lithuanian declaration of independence in March 1990, a Polish senator was the first foreign government representative to address the Lithuanian parliament. Poland provided important moral support during the economic blockade imposed by the Kremlin, and after the Soviet military crackdown in Vilnius in January 1991, Poland joined Scandinavian nations, the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic, and Hungary in calling for a discussion of the action by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE).

Despite Warsaw's sympathetic actions, Vilnius grew impatient at the Poles' unwillingness to grant diplomatic recognition. At that time, however, such an action would have jeopardized negotiations on withdrawal of Soviet troops from Poland-- especially because no major Western power had recognized Lithuania. Skubiszewski noted that although good relations with the Baltics were important to Poland, relations with the Soviet Union had immediate strategic significance.

The demise of the Soviet Union transformed Poland's relationship with Lithuania. As the threat of repression from Moscow diminished, Vilnius began to perceive Warsaw as a likely source of external pressure. The Lithuanian government grew suspicious that Warsaw coveted lost territories in Lithuania, where ethnic Poles still resided in heavy concentrations. From Poland's perspective, the respect of minority rights for roughly 260,000 ethnic Poles residing in Lithuania emerged as the most important issue in the bilateral relationship.

In 1988 and 1989, relations of the Polish minority in Lithuania with the Lithuanian government deteriorated with the enactment of language laws that discriminated against nonLithuanian speakers. The laws provoked leaders of the Polish minority to declare an autonomous Polish national territorial district. In response, Vilnius dismissed numerous ethnic Polish local officials and placed districts with large Polish populations under direct parliamentary administration. Further contributing to the worsening relations between the two communities was a citizenship law requiring a loyalty oath that the Polish community viewed as oppressive. Relations reached their nadir in late 1991 when the Lithuanian defense minister called Poland his country's greatest threat. The following March, Skubiszewski charged Lithuania with delaying elections to local councils in districts with large concentrations of ethnic Poles.

Early 1992 also brought hopeful developments, however. The foreign ministers of the two nations signed a wide-ranging tenpoint declaration of friendship and neighborly relations and a consular convention. In the declaration, each country renounced all territorial claims against the other and pledged to adhere to European standards in respecting the rights of its minorities, including native-language education rights.

Polish relations with the other two Baltic states were less complicated. In mid-1992, Skubiszewski visited Latvia to sign the first Polish bilateral treaty with any of the newly independent Baltic states. He also signed important accords on trade, travel, and minority rights. Skubiszewski praised Latvia's treatment of its sizable Polish population, which in mid-1992 was estimated at between 60,000 and 100,000. Skubiszewski then signed a similar treaty in Tallinn, where the Estonian foreign minister described relations with Warsaw as excellent. Both Estonia and Latvia viewed Poland as a benign neighbor whose experience in economic and political reform could facilitate their own transition and could promote their integration into Western Europe.


For several reasons, Polish relations with Belarus were slow to develop. Belarus, which had never existed as an independent state, had been so firmly incorporated into the Soviet Union that it lacked the intense sense of nationhood found in the Baltic states and in Ukraine. Prior to the August coup attempt, Polish overtures were frustrated because the Belorussian Republic (as it was known before independence) hesitated to pursue foreign policy initiatives without the Kremlin's blessing. Most notably, in late 1990 the Belorussians refused to sign a declaration of friendship and cooperation, although Russia and Ukraine had already signed similar agreements. Minsk specifically objected to wording about its borders with Poland and to the treatment of the approximately 300,000 ethnic Belorussians in Poland.

After August 1991, relations evolved rapidly once Belarus had declared its independence. In a declaration of friendship and cooperation, signed in October 1991, each party renounced territorial claims against the other and promised to respect minority rights. In December 1991, Poland extended diplomatic recognition to Belarus. Commercial ties between the two countries flourished in 1991 and 1992, and several important transportation and economic agreements took effect. A bilateral treaty of wideranging cooperation in security, environmental, economic, and other matters was prepared for signing in mid-1992.


Despite a centuries-old legacy of conflict, relations between Poland and Ukraine steadily improved after 1989, particularly after Ukraine gained its independence in late 1991. In the fall of 1990, the countries signed a declaration of friendship and cooperation, renouncing all territorial claims against one another and guaranteeing the rights of national minorities on their territories. Ground-breaking bilateral economic and cultural agreements followed in 1991, as Ukraine emerged from Moscow's domination and reoriented itself toward Central Europe and Western Europe.

Both countries had much to gain from improved ties. Kiev sought Polish intercession to gain acceptance in European economic and security organizations; Warsaw welcomed the prospect of a nonthreatening, denuclearized neighbor on its eastern border.

Hours after the results of a referendum on Ukrainian independence were announced in December 1991, Poland was the first country to grant diplomatic recognition to the new nation. A bilateral cooperation treaty ensuring minority rights on each side of the border was signed during the May 1992 visit to Warsaw of Ukraine's President, Leonid Kravchuk. The treaty called for annual consultations between the countries' foreign ministers and cooperation in economic, cultural, scientific, and environmental affairs. During Walesa's visit to Moscow (also in May 1992) to sign long-awaited troop withdrawal and bilateral cooperation treaties, Walesa noted the rapid progress in bilateral relations since 1989 and hailed the countries' new emphasis on future goals rather than past conflicts. Walesa also noted that the concept of a Warsaw-Moscow-Kiev alliance, raised in his talks with Yeltsin, would depend most heavily on peaceful relations between Russia and Ukraine. This observation reaffirmed Poland's neutrality in ongoing Russian-Ukrainian disagreements over the ownership of the Black Sea Fleet, Crimea, and other territories.

Southern Neighbors and the Visegrád Triangle

With the demise of the Warsaw Pact and Comecon, the so-called upper tier nations of Eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, which in 1990 became the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic) found themselves in a security vacuum with both military and economic dimensions. But by late 1991, all three had gained associate status with NATO and the EC and were pursuing full membership in those organizations.

Poland, the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic, and Hungary all supported an enhanced peacekeeping role for the CSCE, and all joined emerging regional integration associations such as the Central European Initiative. Originally called the Pentagonale and including Italy, Yugoslavia, Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, this grouping aimed to strengthen economic, cultural, and ecological cooperation in the region. The organization became known as the Hexagonale when Poland joined in July 1991, only to be renamed the Central European Initiative a few months later when Yugoslavia's breakup brought the withdrawal of that nation.

Already in 1990, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia had begun to coordinate efforts toward shared goals, including the end of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact and Comecon and entry into Western institutions. A milestone in trilateral cooperation was the February 1991 summit meeting of Hungary's Prime Minister József Antall, President Václav Havel of the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic, and Lech Walesa at Visegrád, Hungary. An earlier summit at Bratislava had initiated a series of meetings and exchanges among the leaders of the three potential partners, leading to the formation of a consultative committee to coordinate policy on regional problems. The following January, the foreign ministers met in Budapest and issued a joint communiqué criticizing the Kremlin's military crackdown in the Baltics. The foreign ministers also issued a statement of support for the United States-led coalition in the Kuwait crisis.

The outcome of the Visegrád summit was the Declaration on the Cooperation of the Hungarian Republic, the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic, and the Republic of Poland on the Road to European Integration. The document committed the signatories to eliminate the vestiges of totalitarianism, build democracy, ensure human rights, and totally integrate themselves into the "European political, economic, security, and legislative order." The triangle was not intended to become a military alliance, as Foreign Minister Skubiszewski carefully emphasized to allay fears in Moscow. Poland subsequently signed bilateral military accords with the other triangle partners, again insisting that the agreements were designed to promote communication and understanding and posed no threat to any specific country.

During the August coup attempt in Moscow, triangle political and military leaders were in frequent contact, agreeing to adopt a common position toward the crisis and the refugee and border security problems that might result from it. In October 1991, a second summit in Kraków formalized the Visegrád declaration, accelerated efforts to gain NATO and EC membership, and advocated an expanded role for the CSCE. The eight-point Kraków declaration also chastised Serbia as the aggressor in the Yugoslav conflict and called for national self-determination and the preservation of the previously existing republic boundaries in that country.

In the months following the Kraków summit, several key events strengthened ties among the triangle members and with the West. The triangle supported a proposal by the United States and Germany to establish a North Atlantic Cooperation Council that would promote stability and communication between NATO and the nations of Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. And in December, the triangle countries were accorded associate membership in the EC. This step established routine political contacts with the EC and set the course toward eventual full membership. Also in December, the triangle members agreed to coordinate their policy on recognition of the independence of Slovenia and Croatia, which they granted in January 1992. In April 1992, they jointly recognized the independence of Bosnia and Hercegovina.

By early autumn 1992, the future of the triangle was clouded by the impending division of the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic and by tensions between Hungary and Slovakia over a series of issues. After meeting Czech prime minister Václav Klaus in September, Polish prime minister Suchocka stated that Poland viewed the split as a settled matter and would treat the Czech Republic and Slovakia on equal terms. Klaus stressed that trilateral relations would become less important, and that closer bilateral ties among the members would be the way of the future. Polish foreign minister Skubiszewski, however, favored continuing the Visegrád Triangle, stating that there were problems that could be resolved better through regional cooperation than by unilateral or bilateral action.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress