KWAŚNIEWSKI: Politics is reacting to the situation (INTERVIEW)

KWAŚNIEWSKI: Politics is reacting to the situation (INTERVIEW)

Dariusz Bilski (EAD): Mister President, as a native of Skarżysko, I cannot waste my opportunity here and ask whether you remember which one of your close colleagues came from this city?

Aleksander Kwaśniewski: Marek Ungier.

That was too easy.

It was easy, but thanks to him, I really came to know Skarżysko well, because back then both his mum, and his sister were still living there. I have had great affection for it since then. Marek as the Chief of Cabinet was in my closest circle of three, four colleagues. The second person was Marek Siwiec from Cracow who was the Chief of National Security Bureau, and the third was Edward Szymański from Włocławek, a bit older than us, who was dealing with administrative and financial affairs.

Mister President, let’s get back in time. It’s early 1996, you have just taken office. Looking at the events of this period, it’s hard not to call it turbulent. In the spring of 1996, as the freshly-elected president, you had two very important visits: first was the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in Warsaw, which you wrote about extensively in your book and which has been widely commented on. In April of that year, you flew to Moscow. There is an opinion that Russians were hoping that you, as a freshly-elected, leftist president, would steer away from the Atlantic course that Poland has chosen. How do you remember that visit? Were the Russians making advances at you?

Maybe those were the hopes, but they were quickly ended, because our stance was very firm. By the way, I have to say that my first term started in a rather bizarre atmosphere, with the accusations of then-Prime Minister, Józef Oleksy – the famous Olin scandal. (Translator’s note – PM was accused of cooperating with KGB residents in Poland and being a spy code-named “Olin”; the accusations were not proved substantial, however they led to a resignation of Józef Oleksy and negatively affected his political career) From today’s perspective, I have no doubt that it was inspired by the Russians and was supposed to hinder our efforts to join NATO. Even then, we had strong suspicions that Russians were involved which made the bilateral relations, I would say, difficult. We wanted to do our job which frankly speaking was begun by my predecessor, Lech Wałęsa, who demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Poland. We focused our efforts on NATO, so talks with Yeltsin were very difficult, but we did not budge, not even an inch. To be honest: thank God that Yeltsin was the Russian President then, because if it was Putin, there’s no telling what it would look like. Surely the entire process would have been extended. However, if the Russians were hoping that they might have an easier time working with me since I spoke Russian and had a, let’s say, pre-transformation past, they were quickly disappointed.

Were the Russians trying to affront you for it? I’m asking because not long after your visit, Prime Minister Cimoszewicz visited Moscow and they did not spare him: Luzhkov made him wait, and instead of a courteous meeting with Yeltsin, he was invited to the cabinet of… Chubais – then-Chief of the Presidential Administration of Russia.

In April there were no explicit affronts, but it also wasn’t a widely celebrated visit in Russia. Cimoszewicz could already feel those insults, because after my visit, it was clear that we would not steer away from the NATO course. But the real affronts began after the Orange Revolution in 2005, when I decided to go to Moscow for the Victory in Europe Day. I considered that it is an important day for Russia and they are quite sensitive about it. However, since I was involved, quite seriously too, in the Orange Revolution, they decided to not only put me and Yushchenko in a further row, but also Putin, while listing all the Allies of World War II, decided to exclude Poland, which was, let’s be honest, an offensive move, since it was contrary to the history and done demonstratively.

Slightly earlier, in January 1996, Boris Yeltsin announced the proposal to build the so-called Suwalki Corridor – highway connecting Belarus with the Russian enclave. The proposal was categorically rejected by Warsaw, but Stefan Meller in his memoirs claimed that some Polish officials were treating this dangerous idea as worthwhile.

Maybe he felt it at the MFA level, but I never treated this proposal seriously. Besides, Yeltsin’s period was the time when the republics liberated themselves and tried to act independently. Belarus was one of them. Today, we correctly judge Lukashenko as the authoritarian leader lacking the social mandate, however, back then, in the second half of the ‘90s he had that mandate and was working hard for Belarus’ independence – obviously, thinking about about himself, since he wanted to be a real president, not in name only. Moreover, the MFA has to be a place for intellectual discussions where various options are discussed and decision makers are given some alternatives and possibilities. I’m also saying this in the context of today’s media sensations. Being upset that some official wrote “maybe we should get closer to Russia” is absolute nonsense, because that’s why the MFA exists! MFA documents hide many different studies, reflections, and speculations, but that’s why we have them. General staff in the army is required not only to wage war, but also to analyze various scenarios. If those analyses are read without knowing the historical context, some might say “bloody hell, they made a fool out of themselves,” but I repeat – that’s why they’re there – to present scenarios “outside the box,” to trigger thinking.

The responsibility of which falls, for instance, on the Department of Strategy of the Ministry.

Yes, but this applies to the entire MFA. When I received a note from the ambassador or a department dedicated to a certain country that I was about to visit which stated that “the country is mountainous, weather is generally nice, the president is called so-and-so; all of which I could’ve read in the encyclopedia or today even on Google! However, when I received information, for example, that this country experiences significant social tensions, that in the power structures someone is undermining the president who in turn uses methods so-and-so – now, that was a truly interesting document.

How does the President of the Republic of Poland prepare for a visit like the one to Moscow in April 1996?

Obviously the question is how one wants to prepare for such a visit. I prepared myself very seriously. I read the materials sent by the MFA. Additionally, I had access to the intelligence documents, so I asked for them to contain opinions about the internal situation, as well as the one at the top. It can be said that if one wants to be prepared, one can be very well prepared. Of course it does not relieve you from being up-to-date with everyday affairs in the international sphere. Another important aspect from a preparatory point of view is to have contacts, which I had a lot and to which I paid a lot of attention. With Russia it was extremely difficult, as those Russians who came to Poland and with whom I wanted to meet, always had their strings pulled by the Kremlin. So, when it came to Russia, contrary to other countries, nothing in this social area happened spontaneously.

Ambassador to Moscow was then, the late Stanisław Ciosek. I assume you also seeked his counsel.

Yes. Ambassador Ciosek had many informal contacts, including politicians or in academic circles, and that’s why he knew a lot and could reach relevant people. He was great material for a fantastic ambassador: not malicious, friendly, spontaneous, etc. Ciosek was not only a source of knowledge on Russia, but an ocean of it, which was extremely useful. Furthermore, he was a unique ambassador since he began as the Ambassador of Polish People’s Republic to the USSR, then Ambassador of the Republic of Poland to the USSR, and he finished his mission as the Ambassador of the Republic of Poland to the Russian Federation. In one term then, he wore three different hats. Great ambassador and at the same time someone who understood the Russian soul.

Whose voice did you also deem important in Russian affairs?

Besides aforementioned Ciosek, who held the formal position of ambassador, greatly important was also a journalist, writer, and Editor-in-chief of Nowaja Polsza, Jerzy Pomianowski and his circles. It was a place of really interesting analyses of what is happening in Russia. A source of knowledge about the rebellious Russia, its cultural world, and civil society was always, undoubtedly, Adam Michnik, who dedicated a lot of time to this country and had a lot of friends there. Someone with whom you could talk to about Russia, albeit from a more conservative angle, was director Krzystof Zanussi who had an extensive network of contacts in Russian cultural circles. Although we didn’t always seem eye-to-eye, our talks were always interesting. In Poland, we have a lot of people who are very knowledgeable. Gargantuan work is being done by the Centre for Eastern Studies which hires a lot of fantastic analysts.

Poles like to think of themselves as experts in Eastern affairs. Are we really?

Yes, in my opinion Poles are experts in Eastern affairs. We have deep-rooted knowledge, but it has to be constantly verified. It’s not as if we learnt something a hundred years ago and it’s still valid today. There’s obviously a question: how well can we analyze what is going on in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia and how to use that knowledge in both the EU and NATO. We should also think about how active we are in those organizations and whether we have influence there. Sadly, we have lost that asset in the past years. We should get back to it.

What type of negotiators are the Russians? Is it just a zero-sum game for them? It is said that peace-seeking solutions are treated as weakness, and adversaries are always tested. Polish politicians and diplomats frequently noted the Russian professionalism in this regard, as well as their cunningness. Prime Minister Cimoszewicz in his memoirs wrote that when we were moving towards NATO, the Russians – through Chernomyrdin – offered him a chance to co-produce the Su-27 plane, to drive a wedge between Poland and the alliance and to cast suspicion on us in the West.

If a person overcomes the naïveté, it is possible to negotiate with them. It has to be said that Russians value strength. They don’t have a problem with saying “no”. In other countries, it has to be packaged, communicated elegantly. Because Russians use hard negotiation techniques themselves and have very limited understanding of their partner’s sensitivity, they do understand the word “no”. They make far-reaching conclusions, put their partner in a very negative position, but it is possible to talk to them. On the other hand, the apparatus of the Russian power, especially diplomacy is really, very well-organized. They have long traditions, both Soviet and Tsarist, and well-educated staff who have no problems with lying while keeping their expressions blank. For me, Lavrov here is a world champion. He could easily get an award for his poker face. Russians are partners who don’t trust tears or weaknesses and don’t care about their partner’s sensitivity. They implement their policies with a heavy hand, they do not resist lying, and what can be seen today – they do not hesitate to use military power. It is not the friendliest partner for talks, but they understand the language that they use. Reagan understood it very well, talking with Russia by accelerating the arms race. Certainly, a position that they understand today is that the West is not going to hesitate to provide Ukraine with money and weapons.

You mentioned lying as a tool in doing politics. In the Russian propaganda Poles are equal to russophobes. Russia, for many years, has played the anti-Russian card to undermine our, or for example, Lithuanian politics. Is this narrative bearing any fruits? Did you have any first-hand experiences of it?

Yes, certainly. Historical experiences that apply to a majority of Polish families would not allow one to be a russophile. In this sense, our distrust that Russians took as russophobia was justified. It could be felt. Especially when the West was proposing different ways of getting closer to Russia through a rest or the German Wandel durch Handel. (Translator’s note – Change through trade) Our warnings and concerns were interpreted then as resistance to positive change or lack of understanding that such change is even possible. Today we can see that it was not possible and that we were right. But the price we pay for this naïveté in relations with Russia is huge.

In September 1996, President Chirac visited Poland. He heavily invested in his relations with Yeltsin, and earlier – as the Mayor of Paris – he eagerly manifested his fascination with Russia. In front of the National Assembly, he supported the Polish movement to join NATO, but behind closed doors, supposedly, he was not as enthusiastic about this project which could weaken the relations between Paris and Moscow. Did you have to fight him about it?

In NATO-related matters Chirac and France were not the biggest problem and opponent. Problems began when he started talking about Russia with great optimism and openness. It is partly due to French history. The French have a certain sentiment and respect for the Russian power. I had many arguments with Chirac about democratization of Russia and whether it can be changed. Correctly phrased question should be not whether Russia can be changed but whether Russians can be changed. Are the citizens ready to reject the concept of imperialism and understand that other countries have their place and they need to be respected. In this regard, there were troubles not only with Chirac but also with Schröder. However the staunchest criticism of our Eastern policy was always coming from Paris. Germany was more moderate, but they also supported the warming-up of relations with Russia. I do, in fact, have a theory that the slight improvement in Polish-Russian relations in 2009-2010, just before the Smolensk air disaster, and gestures of Putin himself, came from German policies. They seemed to have been saying: “Poles are in the UN, they will be influencing the Union’s decisions, so you better start working together.” Sadly, it quickly turned out to be insignificant, but I think that there was a moment when the Russians understood that they needed to work together with the Polish side. Europe was also hoping that Russian would evolve in a positive way. Today we know what happened, but it does not mean that those attempts of cooperation were wrong. If we want to think seriously about politics and diplomacy, we cannot think ahistorically. If someone in 2009 was working on improving relations between Poland and Russia, it does not make them a traitor, nor a criminal. Politics is reacting to the situation at hand.

Let’s now talk a little bit about diplomatic backstage. What did you like to know about your interlocutors before the meeting? The Protocol or the Presidential Chancellery was likely making profiles of your adversaries.

The profiles were made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in cooperation with the intelligence agencies and they were always a great read, because they gave some background on the person with whom  I met later. Some of them also included, let’s say – gossip, but those pieces of information came mostly from open-source intelligence. Today, when it comes to the profiles of politicians, there’s no need to use the information coming from the intelligence agencies, because all of this is available on the Internet – Twitter or Instagram of the politician.

Were you able to deduct, on this basis, what gift you could give to your guest?

When it comes to gifts, especially in relations with other democratic countries, there is not much room for maneuver – they tend to be on the modest side. However, I heard a story, from outside the democratic countries’ circle, when the President of Austria was given a camel! In Poland, we were giving to our guests an e.g. set of Krosno glassware – wine or whisky glasses. Russians were frequently giving porcelaine to their guests.

From your book, we have learnt that you had a bit of influence over the agenda of your foreign visits – such as the one in London where you visited the Arsenal football stadium.

Usually during the official visits, the host leaves a bit of space for the guest – a chance for a private element. It could be a visit to a restaurant that they like or a meeting with someone. On my first trip to London, as a very young man, I used to live near the Arsenal stadium of which I was and still am a big fan, so I asked for a possibility to enter the Highbury. But those are exceptions and cannot be done spontaneously. However, I can tell you a story: when we were on an official visit to China, there was a party organized by the Polish Embassy and, as you can imagine, a lot of people were invited. Everyone wanted to talk to us, so we did not get a chance to eat. When we were leaving, we proposed to go to a restaurant to try some Chinese food. Ambassador Góralczyk started to organize it, but after a while he said that it would not be advised as the Chinese side would need to involve the military garrison to protect us. We came back to the ambassador’s residence where we were staying and there was absolutely nothing there. On the way was however the McDonald’s restaurant. Our guards bought some hamburgers, fries, and coke. So imagine, in this country, known for fantastic food, we’re eating hamburgers and fries in an empty residence. That’s the life of a public figure.

If we’re talking about spontaneity, there’s not much space for it in a diplomatic protocol. Your diplomatic protocol was handled by experts of our Academy: Ambassador Piekarski, Ambassador Niesyto, Vice-Directors of Protocol Department: Grzegorz Chmielewski and Bogumiła Więcław. I want to ask about the role of protocol in the president’s life? How important is it for a head of state?

First, I remember all of those mentioned and I think they’re absolutely fantastic. I find that they excelled at given tasks, so I can assure you that they can offer immense knowledge and expertise to your Academy and that you should absolutely listen to them. When it comes to the protocol itself, when I first took office, I thought it was really archaic and restrictive, very often annoying, as well. With time, though, I began to treat protocol as a blessing. I believe that protocol – as the letter of the law and realization of those rules – has saved us from countless conflicts, and possibly even wars. Because it turns out that problems that might arise from ambitious considerations, are not really problems. That’s what the famous “precedence” rule is for – the more “important” one is the person who is holding the office for longer. Protocol then makes our lives easier, but the mastery of it is not easy. It is a set of rules that does help a lot. Certainly, presidents or prime ministers do not have a lot of time to master everything, but then come the very smart people who can guide us through the minefield of diplomatic protocol, such as Jan Wojciech Piekarski, Janusz Niesyto, Bogumiła Więcław or Grzegorz Chmielewski. With them, you could feel safe knowing that someone was looking after the rules. From the outsider’s perspective, protocol can seem a bit silly and many people do not appreciate it fully. It is very important, especially in multilateral situations, to know how long a meeting should be, who speaks first, who sits where, what are the rules of interpretation, who and when gives the document or a gift. Protocol is very significant for all of them, and yet it’s only a sliver of the activities of the department. So, with current perspective, I consider it an institution which has prevented many wars and conflicts.

Our flagship program – the Academy of Young Diplomats, during which you have also given keynote lectures, has around 100 graduates each year. I want to ask: what key competencies do they need to thrive and move freely around the world of diplomacy and politics?

There’s no doubt that knowledge is the key. Of course you cannot have it in all aspects but diplomats usually specialize in either regions or topics. Competencies are number one. Number two are languages. A good diplomat is one who speaks not only in fluent English, but also well in less common languages. It opens many doors. Third is talking with people and having good social skills. I cannot imagine a good diplomat who is also a strong introvert. Last but not least is probably the hardest skill to gain for diplomats and that is to have absolute integrity. Governments and leaders may change, but you need a strong sense of statehood – a feeling that everything you do is to serve your country no matter which political party is currently in power. It’s very important.

I can see behind you an enormous bookcase and I would love to know – what’s one book that you would recommend to future politicians, diplomats, or more broadly, leaders?

It came out recently. It’s a talk with me (laugh). But seriously, I think there’s a lot of background knowledge there. To answer your question: I am currently reading many books focused on Eastern affairs and I can recommend many authors. A couple of years ago I read “The Romanovs” by Simon Sebag Montefiore, an Oxford historian, and I can highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand Russia better. Great books about Ukraine are written by a Ukrainian professor, currently in the US, Serhii Plokhy. I think that many great books about the region were also written by Timothy Snyder or Anne Applebaum. There’s an abundance of books. There’s not enough time to read them, but I encourage it, because good politics and good diplomacy have to have solid historical background, because nothing appears out of a vacuum. Every situation has roots in the past and it often determines the way of thinking and behaving of people.

Mister President, to finish, I have a proposal: five statements with which you can only agree or disagree or use one tomato to escape the statement. Can we begin?


My second term was better than my first.


But the third one would be even better.


I would not be able to be re-elected without the efforts and talents of my wife.


After 2005, I was offered multiple international positions, but Russia was effectively blocking them each time.


NATO Secretary General? The role of the former president completely suits me.

It has to (laugh).

Was that a “tomato”?

No (laugh). It has to suit me, because I have not received any propositions.

Mister President, thank you very much for our talk, it’s been a pleasure.

Interview was recorded over Zoom by the Executive Director of the European Academy of Diplomacy – Dariusz Bilski. Translation to English by Małgorzata Zacheja – International Programs Coordinator.

Foto: Maciej Stanik /