This article is part of the Urbanization and International Affairs collection, featured in print issue 74.1 (May 2022).

John F. Kennedy famously described West Berlin as “an island of freedom in a Communist sea.” Nowhere else in the Cold War era was the sharp contrast between liberal democracy and authoritarian dictatorship more visible than in that city. The Berlin Wall stood both symbolically and physically as a demarcation line between freedom and subjugation. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s saw an apparent collapse of this divide. Yet, the “end of history” announced at that time turned out to be short lived: a new Iron Curtain has reappeared in Europe and Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was a stark demonstration of this state of affairs. While Berlin continues to play an important role in European and global politics, it is Warsaw, the capital of a former Soviet satellite state, that can be seen as the new “island of freedom” in Eastern Europe. The new reality makes it relevant to understand the role that the Polish capital plays in this region.

Like arguably no other city, Warsaw has emerged over the past 30 years as the hub of pro-Western values in post-Soviet Europe. The city became one of the few places in the region where the wages and standards of living are alike those in Western Europe. While this had long caused migration to Warsaw within Poland, a 2013 labor market reform brought a law targeted at attracting citizens of the former USSR that enabled the city to expand its influence internationally. Warsaw not only had served as an economic magnet attracting already over 2 million migrants to Poland before the Russian attack on Ukraine, but also became a shelter for pro-Western political thinkers from the East. Today the city again achieves notoriety due to an unprecedented inflow of Ukrainian refugees into Poland. Yet Warsaw has in recent years also been a destination for Chechen, Tajik and, most recently, Belarusian political dissidents.

By analyzing the case of the Belarusian pro-democratic movement headquartered in Warsaw, we show how the city inadvertently became a vehicle for realizing the goals of Poland's foreign policy in the post-Soviet world. While Poland is still struggling with a gamut of domestic problems, such as the uncertain future of its rule of law and the rise of populism, Warsaw remains a precious asset that enables the country to win the hearts and minds of its Eastern neighbors. Understanding the role that urban politics plays in the Eastern European political calculus is especially relevant now, in the midst of the war in Ukraine. As demonstrated by U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Poland, the city will likely become a frontier of the West in what appears to be a new Cold War with Russia.

1989: The Making of Eastern Europe
Analyzing the development of Eastern Europe after 1989 enables us to understand Warsaw’s current role as an influential urban center. The concept of path dependency explains how momentous events, such as political or economic shocks, pave the way for particular development outcomes in states. The fall of the Iron Curtain in the 1990s acted as such a critical juncture in Eastern Europe, resulting in a number of different development paths present in the region. In this context, Poland and Belarus are the region’s polar opposites: the former is a pro-Western democracy, whereas the latter is a Moscow-oriented dictatorship with a hint of Soviet governance.

Poland has long been celebrated as the poster child of the neoliberal economic reforms and democratization of Eastern Europe in the 1990s. This resulted in the Polish accession to NATO and the European Union, setting the country’s development trajectory towards the West. While the recent actions of Poland’s conservative government seemingly defy this trend, Poles remain the most pro-EU society in Europe: 84 percent of Poles have a favorable opinion of the Union, compared with the European average of 66 percent. These attitudes formed during the post-communist era provide constraints on anti-EU development paths that any Polish government could attempt to take. This lock-in effect is the essence of path dependency.

On the other hand, the initial years of Belarus’ independence were chaotic and marked by internal political struggles. This period ended with the 1994 electoral victory of a former collective farm worker, Alexander Lukashenko. The previous reforms aiming at liberalizing the Belarusian economy and orienting the country’s development path towards the West were halted. Instead, Lukashenko quickly organized the newly independent Belarus according to the Soviet “best practices.” Cosmetic changes, such as replacement of the West-leaning flag and the coat of arms referring to the legacy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania with symbols of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, were followed by deep political and economic changes. Belarus became a bizarre authoritarian remnant of the previous era, in which an autocrat managed to reverse democratization and created a miniature version of the USSR. This was complemented by a strong economic dependence on Russia, which blocked Belarus’ integration with the West indefinitely.

Figure 1: Comparison of GDP per capita of Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia from 1990 to 2020. (Source: World Bank)

The paths taken during the post-communist period soon translated into dramatically different development outcomes. Poland has flourished economically, whereas Belarus experienced a period of moderate growth followed by years of stagnation. As of 2020, Poland’s GDP per capita was three times that of Belarus. On the level of urban centers, Warsaw became a hub for multinational enterprises and a hotspot of regional migration, whereas Minsk stagnated within a relatively isolated Belarusian economy and became an exotic tourist destination. Dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship,” Belarus continued to be accused of human rights violations, persecuting ethnic minorities and even state terrorism, as demonstrated by the diversion of Ryanair flight FR4978 to Minsk in 2021 to arrest Roman Pratasevich, a prominent Belarusian opposition leader. On top of that, Belarus still holds the dubious title of the last European country to retain capital punishment.

Poland and the East
Poland has historically been an important actor in the geopolitics of Eastern Europe. Being a frontier country of the Western civilization, Poland’s self-perception of its role in the East has evolved repeatedly with time. The medieval idea of the Kingdom of Poland as antemurale christianitatis, the bulwark of Christianity, eventually gave place to an imperial rivalry between Moscow and Warsaw over the vast swaths of land in Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltics in the early modern period. This chapter concluded with the disappearance of Poland in the 19th century which, in turn, was reversed with its rebirth at the end of World War I. In the interwar period, Poland reinvented itself as the beacon of liberty for the nations of the Soviet Union, captured in its semi-imperial doctrine of Prometheism. The outbreak of World War II curtailed this project and the post-1945 Sovietization of Poland, which included a dramatic shift of the country’s borders from the East to the West, seemed to have brought the final nail to the coffin of Polish geopolitical aspirations in the region. Post-communist Poland, born in 1989, was a country whose primary foreign policy objective was to reintegrate with the West. Yet Polish regional ambitions were soon revived and the country advanced to create a safe space in the East: a layer of democracies separating Warsaw from Moscow.

The goals of this foreign policy project were partially realized thanks to the economic prowess of Poland, although in a somewhat inadvertent manner. The years immediately following 1989 were characterized by Poland’s careful approach toward the East, based on a doctrine of non-involvement in the dissolution of the USSR. In this period Poland adhered to the Warsaw Pact, a military alliance between the USSR and its satellite states, due to the tentative status of Poland’s western border with Germany. The collapse of the Soviet empire and the German acceptance of post–World War II territorial changes in the East enabled Poland to adopt a bolder stance in the post-communist sphere. Polish diplomacy embraced the Giedroyc doctrine, a strategy coined in the 1970s by Polish emigres in France, which emphasized supporting the statehood of democratic, prosperous and independent Ukraine, Belarus, and Baltic states in order to create a buffer zone between Poland and Russia.

Yet the Eastern policy soon lost its priority when Poland focused on integration with NATO and the EU. While Poland still supported the development of democracy among its eastern neighbors, Polish actions in that area became largely ineffective. This was exemplified by Polish support for the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which was brought about in 2004 when fraudulent presidential elections led to the victory of Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian candidate, and took thousands of people to the streets of Ukraine. The president of Poland, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, served as the key mediator between the Ukrainian government and the opposition, leading to a peaceful resolution of the crisis: a repeated election. While Polish mediation resulted in the victory of the pro-Western candidate, Viktor Yuschenko, the project of westernizing Ukraine turned out to be short-lived. Only five years later, Viktor Yanukovych became Ukraine’s president again, and later ordered Ukrainian police to shoot at the protestors of the Maidan Revolution of 2014 and eventually fled the country to a dacha on the outskirts of Moscow. At the same time, the authorities in Warsaw undertook a project to democratize Minsk by supporting the Polish ethnic minority in Belarus. Poland provided funding for independent media, such as TV Belsat, as well as scholarships for politically active and anti-Lukashenko, Belarusian students. Yet this resulted only in what resembled a cold war between Poland and Belarus, with no sign of the spring of democracy east of the Bug River that Poland had envisioned.

Russian aggression against Georgia in 2008 dramatically changed Poland’s approach towards its east. Acknowledging its limited leverage when acting alone, Polish diplomacy shifted its efforts towards multilateral involvement within NATO and the EU. This shift directly resulted in the creation of the Eastern Partnership and the European Endowment for Democracy policy programs during the Polish presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2013, two initiatives aimed at promoting democracy and closer ties with Brussels among the post-Soviet states. Yet, these policy efforts were often seen as too general and ignorant of the diversity of realities among the EU’s eastern neighbors. The conservative Law and Justice government elected to rule Poland in 2015 attempted to redefine Poland’s Eastern policy, resulting in a brief reset in relations with Belarus. At that time, the policymakers in Warsaw openly considered cutting funding for the Belarusian opposition movement in order to normalize relations with Minsk. Despite that, Lukashenko continued to persecute the opposition and the Polish ethnic minority. Consequently, Warsaw abandoned its plan to forge a détente.

The overall direction of Poland’s Eastern policy after 1989 had been rather chaotic. While its underlying principle was to ensure the existence of a belt of independent states in the area between Warsaw and Moscow, and the democratization of other post-Soviet states, the implementation of these goals was often inconsequential. Cordial relations with Ukraine stood as a priority, although they were often undermined by conflicts over historical narratives. Such was also the cooperation with Lithuania, which became Poland’s close economic partner within the EU, yet the question of the Polish ethnic minority frequently disturbed relations on the Warsaw-Vilnius axis. Relations with Belarus were kept to the minimum necessary level, whereas Poland’s presence in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, with the exception of Kazakhstan, was almost nonexistent due to the lack of official diplomatic missions.

Following a brief period of reconciliation in the 1990s sparked by Russia’s withdrawal of troops from Polish territory and acknowledgment of crimes committed by the USSR, Poland’s relationship with Russia was persistently cold and marked by mutual distrust. Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, led by Vladimir Putin, was perceived by Warsaw as the harbinger of revived imperial ambitions. Lech Kaczyński, then head of state, flew to Tbilisi in the midst of the war to express Poland’s solidarity with Georgia. The presidential stunt, unlike that of Aleksander Kwaśniewski in Ukraine, yielded a moderate success, although Russia gave up the idea of annexing the entire country. The death of Kaczyński in the 2010 plane crash in Russia made Poland’s relationship with Russia a function of domestic politics: the conservative Law and Justice party, led by Kaczyński’s identical twin brother, used the tragedy to insinuate a series of conspiracy theories that helped it win the parliamentary election of 2015. Yet importantly, Lech Kaczyński’s speech delivered during the war in Georgia later turned out to be prophetic: “this is the real face of Russia that we have known for hundreds of years—it believes that the nations around it should be its subjects… Today it is Georgia [that is under Russian attack], tomorrow Ukraine, then the Baltic States, and then perhaps the time will come for my country, Poland.”

Poland’s relationship with Russia turned decisively in 2014 when, following the Maidan Revolution in Kyiv, Russia annexed Crimea and orchestrated a separatist war in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. These events foregrounded the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, which has threatened the existence of the entire Polish Eastern policy project. The prelude to the war included geopolitical wrestling over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and increasingly turbulent domestic politics in Belarus. In 2020 mass protests took Belarusian people to the streets in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, in response to a fraudulent presidential election that granted Alexander Lukashenko a sixth presidential term. This revived Polish interest in supporting the democratization of Belarus. While the protest movement did not achieve its aim, Poland became a host country of the Belarusian opposition movement. The Polish government openly supported the Belarusian opposition both politically and financially. Continuous escalation between Minsk and Warsaw culminated in the Poland-Belarus border crisis of 2021 when Belarus launched what is seen as hybrid warfare against Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, using migration as a weapon. As we show further, the Belarusian case illustrates well the role of Warsaw as an influential urban center in the politics of Eastern Europe.

Warsaw: Eastern Europe’s Melting Pot
That Warsaw is currently a hotspot of the Belarusian democratic movement is hardly a result of Polish diplomacy. Rather, it is an outcome of economically driven migration to Poland from the countries of the former USSR, including Belarus, which gradually shaped the city into the region’s melting pot: an urban hub of the region at the confluence of its cultures and ideas. The making of multicultural Warsaw is best analyzed by tracking Poland’s recent story of migration. It can be broadly divided into three chapters.

The first is that of stagnation. Historically, Poland’s culture was a mosaic of Eastern Europe’s different ethnicities and religions. Its capital city exemplified this best: it was Warsaw where in 1573 the freedom of belief became one of the foundations of the legal order of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, an outlier in Europe engulfed in religious wars in the aftermath of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. This enabled the city to become home to the largest Jewish urban diaspora in the world, as well as a range of other sizable ethnic groups. However, such diversity went missing from Poland’s social landscape 70 years ago as the aftermath of World War II turned the country into a homogenous society: the Holocaust eradicated Poland’s Jews and the dramatic border changes designed by Joseph Stalin resulted in the forced resettlement of German, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Lithuanian populations. Thus, post-1945 Warsaw itself was in no way different from other Polish cities in terms of its demography. At that time, the distinguishing characteristic of Warsaw was the fact that the city became the decision-making center of the highly centralized communist regime. The lack of diversity in Poland’s population continued well into the post-communist period of the 1990s. While the transition from a centrally planned to a market-based economy, combined with political liberalization, allowed Poland to technically be open to a two-way migration, low wages and modest standards of living made the country unattractive for potential migrants when compared to Western Europe. Poland continued to be a supplier of migrants, although with restricted mobility due to the relative weakness of the Polish passport at that time.

The second chapter of Poland’s migration story began with its accession to the EU in 2004. Vast quantities of Polish citizens have looked to Western Europe in search of better economic opportunities: over 2.5 million people have emigrated to the United Kingdom, Germany, France and other countries since 2004. This period is the first since World War II in which Polish society has been exposed to such an immense interaction with the West through the bilateral flow of people. Many emigrants retained direct ties to their home as they were allowed to travel freely between Poland and their new countries, differentiating this from the migration experienced during the communist era, when emigration usually meant a one-way ticket. During this same period, Poland has experienced sustained economic growth, increasing the gap in economic status between Warsaw and the rest of the country. As a result, Warsaw has become Poland’s economic heart in addition to its political center.

Figure 2: Population of immigrants from the former USSR in Poland measured by the number of temporary work permits.(Source: Statistics Poland)

The third chapter was initiated in 2013 with the introduction of an immigration law intended to address the shortage of human capital in Poland created by the mass outflow of Polish citizens to Western Europe. The new legal framework was aimed at attracting the citizens of several countries of the former USSR—Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Russia, Georgia, and Moldova—by allowing them to work in Poland temporarily without a particular visa. The law simply required an employer to formally declare an intention to hire a foreigner. By utilizing such a legal device, Poland differed significantly from other EU countries, which required non-EU citizens to go through a lengthy employment certification process. The immigration reform facilitated the largest influx of people in Poland’s recent history. This reform, alongside rising wages and the persistence of a wide gap between the standards of living in Poland and those in the former Soviet republics, was crucial in establishing Warsaw as Eastern Europe’s melting pot.