Duda’s regional focus

President Andrzej Duda’s first trips abroad signal the direction his foreign policy will take

There will be no revolution in Poland’s foreign policy, Andrzej Duda announced on the eve of his presidential inauguration in August. There would just be “corrections,” he said, “sometimes deep”. His words came amid questions about what sort of president the 43-year-old Duda, of the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), would be at home and abroad. Would his presidency mark a return to the more confrontational foreign policy associated with veteran PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, whose party was last in power from 2005 to 2007? Or would he strive to maintain Warsaw’s close relations with Berlin? This early into Duda’s presidency, many questions remain. Nevertheless, the first weeks already contain clues.

Announcing Duda’s foreign visits for the first hundred days of his presidency, Krzysztof Szczerski, the presidential minister for foreign affairs, said that they aim to “show the main directions” of Duda’s foreign policy. Duda himself warned against reading too much into the order of the trips, adding that he views it “more pragmatically”. Still, his first two trips abroad – to Tallinn and Berlin – sketch out two key vectors in his foreign policy, and set the tone for the months ahead.

Spotlight on regional security Duda’s decision to start with Estonia raised some eyebrows. Duda’s predecessor Bronisław Komorowski, who lost the presidential election to him in May, commented that Tallinn is “a pretty city, a nice city” and that Estonia is an important partner in NATO and the EU . Still, he suggested that his successor “supplement it with a European accent”, pointing out that he had made important trips to Paris, Berlin and Brussels early in his term. All the same, Tallinn was an apt, if unusual, choice. The date of his trip, 23 August, was a symbolic one for Poland and Estonia. It was the 76th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the non-aggression agreement signed between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in 1939, leaving them to carve up the countries lying between them. These days, it is the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism.

Duda and his Estonian counterpart, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, were quick to draw parallels between World War II and the security situation in Central and Eastern Europe today. Their statements reflect a shared anxiety about Russia’s growing assertiveness since it annexed Crimea in March 2014. Poland and Estonia are better off today than they were 76 years ago, Ilves pointed out – they are both members of the EU and NATO now. Nonetheless, both presidents used their meeting to call for a greater NATO presence along the alliance’s eastern flank. Permanent NATO bases or equipment in the region are “justified not just in historical but in present-day terms”, Duda said.

More broadly, Duda’s Estonia trip highlights his foreign policy’s focus on the region stretching from the Baltic States in the north to the Visegrad Group (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) in the south. In Tallinn, he called for a “Chain of Freedom” across central Europe that would implement “a certain dream, a great ideal of creating and building a community”. Duda’s schedule already includes opportunities to share this vision, first with the three other Visegrad presidents in the Hungarian resort of Balatonfüred in October. At the start of November, he and his Romanian counterpart Klaus Iohannis are co-hosting a broader meeting of central European presidents in Bucharest ahead of the next NATO summit, which will take place in Warsaw in July 2016.

Eye on Germany Less than a week after Tallinn, Duda was on a plane to Berlin. For all the curiosity surrounding his first trip, the one on 28 August was to be the real test. Some observers in Poland and Germany were concerned that Duda’s presidency would be characterised by the anti-German paranoia they saw in PiS’s previous stint in power. To some extent, these concerns were amplified by a widely cited interview with Szczerski in daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita a few weeks after the presidential election.

There, Duda’s right-hand man for foreign affairs set out four “conditions” for good relations between Warsaw and Berlin: Germany respecting the rights of Poles, including Poland in the Ukraine peace talks in Ukraine, agreeing to NATO bases in Poland and being more understanding towards Poland’s reliance on coal. Amid this sense of expectation, both Duda and his German hosts paid tribute to the importance of Polish-German relations. “I have absolutely no doubt that our great task, my task on the Polish side, is to build the best-possible strategic relations with Germany,” the Polish president said in Berlin. In turn, Joachim Gauck, Germany’s largely ceremonial president, greeted Duda’s decision to visit so early into his presidency as “an important signal”. Duda was not just in Berlin to exchange pleasantries, though. His talks with Gauck and Chancellor Angela Merkel covered tough topics such as Europe’s migration crisis and the security situation with Russia. Here, differences became apparent. Duda replied to Gauck’s calls for solidarity amid Europe’s migration crisis by pointing to the volatile situation to Poland’s east. Unless the conflict in eastern Ukraine is brought to an end, Poland could see an increase in refugees from the country, he warned. The situation in Ukraine is closely linked with Duda’s demands regarding security.

Firstly, he said that Poland ought to be included in the Ukraine peace talks, rather than the current Normandy format, which comprises the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany. Secondly, he has called for NATO bases to be placed in Poland – a demand that Berlin has been deaf to so far, apparently out of concern that it would irk Moscow. All the same, Duda went home feeling that he had “found understanding” on the German side, as he put it. His visit had got his dealings with Germany off to a positive start, despite earlier concerns. “I am only just beginning this work, but I see a good forecast for the future,” he said following his meetings in Berlin, pointing out that it was just his first visit to Germany as president.

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