Adam Michnik: Crimea for Putin will be like Kosovo for Miloshevich
12:44, — Interview
Adam Michnik is the editor in chief of the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza, an intellectual and authority for many people all over the world.
In an interview to editor in chief of charter97.org Natallia Radzina Adam Michnik told about Solidarność, Putin’s Russia, 25th anniversary of Gazeta Wyborcza and about collapse of dictatorships.
- Mister Michnik, despite the Geneva Agreements, Russian special units still operate in Ukraine. They occupy entire cities and split the country. What can help Ukraine today?
- Had I been a realist I would say – only a miracle. But I believe that there is always a way out. What can help Ukraine is a very firm position of the West, or Putin and his people realizing that an open intervention to Ukraine can mean a total disaster for Russia’s image.
The short-term goal of the Russian politics is to destabilize the situation in Ukraine so much that the presidential elections will become cancelled or illegitimate. I have already heard on TV a pro-Russia candidate from eastern Ukraine Oleg Tsariov say: what kind of voting is it if there are lots of people walking around with machine guns, shooting, frightening. We already see a campaign targeted at making the elections illegitimate.
In my view, this position is very short-sighted and risky. And it is possible that Ukraine will become for Putin’s Russia what Afghanistan was for Soviet Russia. Russia will crush its teeth and choke on Crimea, just like Slobodan Miloshevich choked on Kosovo.
- Since Putin doesn’t care about how Europe and the USA react, the sanctions against Russia’s leadership are obviously not enough. What else should be done to stop him?
- This is a very good question that I cannot answer. Should they stop buying Russian oil and gas? If he persists, it will happen, and then he will lose everything. But it can take five, eight, ten years.
I’m afraid that the West has the tools, but lacks certain decisions that would not have a negative impact on the economies of Germany, the UK or other country.
The West is in a plight. The realization that without an open confrontation with Russia they cannot defend Ukraine is missing. There are too many common interests: business, Iran, Syria. Long story short, psychologically the West is not ready for a confrontation.
Then there is the spirit of the Munich Agreement of 1938, the idea that Hitler should get his will through: intrusion to the Rhine demilitarized zone, the Saar basin, Austria, Sudetes, Czechoslovakia. They stopped in Poland because Poland said “no”.
Had the Poles listened to the wise strategists and politicians of that time, they would have lost Gdansk, the “corridor” – everything. But they didn’t, and that’s why the war began. Vladimir Zhirinovsky still blames Poland for having started the war and refused to sign a peace agreement with Stalin because he was “so much better than Hitler”…
- In other words, today western officials lack courage to oppose Putin’s aggression?
- This is the number one question, but this is also Ukraine’s drama. The West and the USA press the Ukrainian powers and tell them not to use force. That is why they gave away Crimea with no gunshot.
- And today they risk losing the eastern part of the country.
- Exactly. No matter what they do now, it’s going to be bad. If they are calm, Russia will take Ukraine with not a single gunshot. If they shoot, Russia will intervene. Both ways are bad. But I think that Poland would have already fired the gun.
The West is acting this way because it fears a conflict with Russia and tries to avoid a war, even a “cold” one.
- But this is a betrayal of Ukraine.
- No country wants a war, apart from militarist, authoritarian and totalitarian countries. Even Roosevelt had major problems entering the WW2. The anti-militarist lobby was so strong that had the Japanese not crushed Perl Harbor, I don’t know how things would have developed.
They had no majority either in the Congress or in the Senate. The Americans didn’t want a war, and I do understand why because neither do I want a war. But there are situations when you cannot make more concessions. And a local war seems better than a world war. But in my view, this is a wrong assumption. If we don’t get a better answer today, we will give green light to Putin’s imperialism.
- Do you mean that he may attack the Baltic States, as you have recently mentioned in an article?
- This would be a problem because here we have NATO. But as for Moldova and Georgia, there is a risk.
- There are Russian troops in Belarus.
- I can’t really say anything about it. Does Russia intend to incorporate Belarus even more, or will Russia prefer a vassal? I don’t know.
Probably Lukashenka at the helm of a vassal country suits Putin best, because in case anything happens in Belarus Lukashenka will be expected to fix it with his own KGB.
It may be Putin’s idea to turn the CIS into a Eurasian union, dominated by Moscow of course.
- Who knew what ideas Hitler had?
- That’s true. That is why I cannot make forecasts. It did seem unreal that Hitler would start a war against the entire mankind: America, England, France and Stalin’s Russia.
- Can a stronger presence of NATO troops in the EU help Ukraine?
- It may serve as a signal to Russia that it is time to stop. In practice it means total reformatting of the eastern politics of the EU and USA.
I recall that the West didn’t believe at all that Ukraine can exist without Russia. Had Boris Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislau Shushkievich not signed the agreement on the dissolution of the USSR in the Belavezhskaya Pushcha, there could be no independent Ukraine at all. In summer 1991 in Kyiv George Bush Senior told the Ukrainians not to split from Russia.
- As I heard, in the late 80s, during the life-changing period of the Polish history the leaders of Solidarność, too, experienced certain pressure from western “strategists”.
- In 1998, they pressed us hard to accept a government project without Solidarność and register as a democratic organization instead. But we didn’t agree.
After the elections, Bush pressed not us but Jaruzelski to make him accept the presidential post. There was certain playing for the Kremlin, to show that there won’t be anything catastrophic in Poland. Bush writes about this in his memoires. But we already had Mazowiecki’s government, victory at the elections and a completely different country. It was clear that Poland would become de-communized.
- Putin’s regime has many lobbyists in Europe, the Russian oligarch business has penetrated many spheres of life, we hear about scandals related to Russia supporting some political forces in the EU. What threat does it pose?
- There is a threat, obviously not as big as Hitler or Stalin though. And we need to be able to diagnose this threat. If we can’t, we cannot treat the disease.
The Russian imperialism is a disease of the modern world. There are other maladies, but this is the most serious, possibly even lethal.
- You are an “anti-soviet Russophile”, author of the article Shame on Russia that has recently been published. Who are you now, a Russophobe or anti-Putin Russophile?
- I am an anti-Putin Russophile, because I have many friends in Russia, I love Russian culture, literature, cinema, theater. And I do believe that Russia has a huge democratic potential.
I am very sorry that so many wonderful people support Putin. Pavel Lungin whom I know personally, an excellent director and actor, is one of them. I do not understand this.
However, there are equally wonderful people among those who do not support Putin. Russia’s discontent and those 20 thousands that went out to the streets of Moscow to the Peace March were extremely important.
- The Russian society is obviously experiencing a period of keen chauvinism.
- Nearly everyone in Russia is going through this period. The Russians keep on saying that they are one whole with Ukraine: Great Russia and Little Russia. So the way the Russians are reacting is evidently nationalist, chauvinist and imperialist.
For a Belarusian, it is very hard to comprehend, because the Belarusians lack the gene of this imperialist chauvinism. It is like a brain-eating drug, an axiological catastrophe: a person suddenly becomes unable to see the line between truth and lies, good and evil, and is only concerned with whether “the nation has risen from its knees.”
I do understand that because I have seen similar things happening in Poland. It is very hard to oppose such nationalist emotions in public when the situation is not that simple.
Russian Petrov or Ivanov believe that Nikita Khrushchev had taken Crimea away from them, and Vladimir Putin got it back. Nevertheless, there was never any referendum in Chechnya. This is imperialist politics, but common people don’t see it that way.
They used to say, “Chicken is not quite a bird, Poland is not quite abroad'. It used to be a region near Vilnia. Pushkin wrote in a letter to Viazemsky after the revolt of 1831: “We took what was ours”. He meant Warsaw.
- You witnessed the collapse of the USSR. Today Russia is working the same pattern: aggression outside, repressions in the country, everything feeds from oil money. What is your prognosis for the situation in Russia?
- I’d like to emphasize that Russia is still an authoritarian, not totalitarian country. Today they are experiencing a euphoria after having annexed Crimea. But how long will it last? Six months? A year? And then it will turn out that they need to change everything. The situation will be very difficult, and the motto “Russia without Putin” will become popular again.
And as a result, Putin can be removed, just like Nikita Khrushchev back then. Maybe the Red Square in Moscow will get its Maidan. Everything is possible. But I still believe that Russia will get rid of its shell built by Putin and his KGB.
And, by the way, it could open new opportunities for Belarus. But you have to work in this direction already today. You need to translate into Belarusian two essays of Polish writer Andrzej Kijewski. In 1978, he wrote that Poland would be free. Read it, we should meet and discuss the essays afterwards.
- Why has Belarus never interested the West? Putin does see the strategic weight of our country.
- From the point of view of Western strategic analysts, this is Russia. For them, even Poland used to be a “seasonal state” because there had been no Poland during 123 years.
- You mean that we shouldn’t count on the West’s support?
- Not at this moment. You cannot expect the USA, Indonesia, New Zealand and the entire world to focus on Belarus. Neither Americans, nor Poles or Germans will remove Lukashenka if Belarusians won’t do it.
- We don’t need them to remove Lukashenka, we just need them to stop helping him, stop re-launching “dialogs” and use real sanctions instead.
- Lukashenka has no friends in Poland. All contacts with him are frozen. On the contrary, we are criticized for being so aggressive with the Belarusian regime. There was an attempt to re-launch the dialog but Lukashenka destroyed it himself.
Natasha, all dissidents make this dangerous assumption. They enjoy looking for someone to blame for their defeats abroad. The same thing happened in Poland. The West failed to help Solidarność. But how could they help? Should they have sent jets and tanks?
- It’s not about tanks. So you don’t blame Churchill and Roosevelt who let Stalin occupy Poland?
- Indeed. We, Poles, do realize that what happened in Yalta was a cold-blooded betrayal. But it would be naïve to expect Churchill and Roosevelt to start a war against Stalin in 1945.
Hadn’t we done the same to Ukraine and Belarus 20 years before that? When we signed the Riga peace agreement with the Bolsheviks we split Belarus and Ukraine, guided by our own concerns. Pilsudski was displeased with this decision, but he didn’t want to risk the existence of the Polish state miraculously restored after the three-year war with the Bolsheviks.
What lesson should we learn from that? When I was with the opposition, I always knew that help would not come from the west. But there still can be a strategy that would give you a structure, ideas and strength when you need them. This is what we did in 1989. And in my view, the Belarusian opposition must prepare for a similar moment. Lukashenka will not last forever, and the moment will come when he no longer will rule the country.
- Would Solidarność have won in 1989 if the Soviet Union had not been so close to its end? Today there is a risk that Russian troops will come to help Lukashenka if people start to protest.
- This is the reason you need a strategy that would make changes in Belarus more attractive for the Russians. In Poland, we were on very thin ice – right after Karabakh, during the events in Tbilisi. We didn’t know what would come next.
When we already had the new government, there began rallies in the Baltic states. We had to be very cautious and we and Mazowiecki got criticized for being so cautious. But I am sure that he was right. We always said in situation like this that you can play “Dąbrowski's Mazurka” on different instruments – piano, violin…
In the future you will have to find a common tongue with the West and Russia. I believe that today this is the best for Belarus.
The Belarusians are a calm tolerant people that has never organized any kind of ethnical pogrom or cleansing. Polish writers used to call your country “Dobrorus”.
- Today during the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, some European politicians regained their illusions about the Belarusian dictator. Some even assume that “Lukashenka is trying to leave the sphere of Russia’s impact”.
- But he did say that he supports united Ukraine and is opposed to its federalization. He also said that the Russian troops located in Belarus will not enter Ukraine.
- He’s playing his games. Lukashenka has let Russian troops in the country. You can’t possibly believe him.
- I don’t believe him, but if we talk about a certain game, such statements are not good for the Kremlin. Of course Lukashenka is playing. He wants to show the West that he doesn’t refuse to talk to the “banderivtsi” and that he maintains a communication with Sergey Lavrov.
- Lukashenka has been the Kremlin’s marionette for the last 20 years. Some of Yanukovich’s people have found shelter in Belarus. But against all logic and common sense the Ukrainian powers are trying to make Lukashenka a middleman in their conflict with Russia.
- Right now they are walking on very thin ice. They should avoid any unnecessary risk. It doesn’t mean anything. If everything turns out fine their relations with Lukashenka will change after the elections.
And why did the Polish government negotiate with Yanukovich? People ask Sikorski why he had visited Lukashenka. What did Gribauskaite do? The countries in this region are small and frightened. And they believe that such tricky games can help.
Donald Tusk is still criticized for having reloaded relations with Putin. Poland had a reputation of Europe’s worst Russophobe, and we had to change this and become an ambassador of good will.
- Perhaps there should be tougher principles regarding people like Putin and Lukashenka, to keep them from trouble in the future?
- There are tough principles. It’s not about it. For example, in Europe it is unacceptable to hit women. But for Putin, there is nothing wrong in hitting a woman. And the Europeans do not understand that. Like with Hitler: they couldn’t understand how he thought.
And it’s the same with Putin. I cannot trust him. I have noticed that Putin never looks one in the eye and that every word he says is a lie. “American instructors”, “banderivtsi attacking supporters of federalization in Lugansk”, “occasionally heard conversations in English”, “fighters trained in Lithuania and Poland” – this is all Putin’s discourse.
The very concept of truth, the understanding that the truth is an acceptance of the reality seems to be non-existent. This is a new situation and we have to learn to understand it, which is very hard if you live in a democratic country.
I studied history, I love to debate and talk to other people, I have much to learn out. But when I was thrown to prison I knew that they put me there not to talk but to listen carefully to every word I say, compromise and destroy me. Therefore, I said nothing.
As a friend of mine often says, “one should never chat with KGBists and prostitutes”.
- What a remarkable principle. In May you will celebrate the 25th anniversary of Gazeta Wyborcza. Normally around such big dates, we analyze our past work and make conclusions. Have you made yours?
- Some of them. I will write about it. After 25 years, we have kept our status and today we are the key opinion platform in Poland and entire Eastern Europe. We are not just a newspaper, but we have become a democratic institution. Our democracy and Poland would suffer without Gazeta Wyborcza.
- You were an opposition member for more than 20 years, you spent on the total 5 years as a convict, and then you launched the newspaper. Where does the strength come from?
- (laughing) This is a question for Putin. When I was at his press conference in Sochi, I saw Russian political analyst Narochnitskaya there. People asked different questions. I asked Putin about Khodorkovsky. Narochnitskaya asked Putin: where do you get the strength to act this way?
Working for Gazeta Wyborcza is not only torture and prison. I love my work and I believe that it is useful. We make a newspaper that helps people get more intelligent, sober, conscious, democratic and capable of reflection. This is a good work.
- So you haven’t suffered from the dissident syndrome.
- I think about it a lot, I read books by Vladimir Bukovsky. Indeed, it is a huge problem. Before Gagarin went to space, he could drink vodka and had had a normal life. But my life has always been normal (laughing).
- As Zbigniew Bujak has recently told me, Michnik’s writing made people run to the stores the first thing in the morning to get the paper.
- It used to be a real adventure! It was right after the peaceful transition from the communist dictatorship to democracy, a global experiment. The time was truly exiting.
I knew that everything was very fragile, that the nature of democracy itself is very fragile because democracy is for everyone, even for enemies. But it never led to confrontations. Democracy was destroyed in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, but not in Poland.
- Why haven’t you become a politician?
- (Adam Michnik replies with a lyrics fragment of a famous song from the movie Heavenly Slug)
Because we are pilots and the sky is our shelter,Airplanes are number one, girls come always later.
I have never wanted to be a politician. During the war, I was a soldier, not a politician. I took the overcoat and went to fight.
I used to engage myself in politics because with all censorship, lies and other things I couldn’t afford being a free intellectual. I was one of the leaders of Solidarność but I always knew that I wouldn’t remain a politician when times change. Only once I worked in the Parliament for two years, and it was enough.
- Is it easier to remain yourself?
- Of course. Politics demands that you play games, which I don’t like to do and can’t do.