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May Warsaw be called the new island of freedom?

J. F. Kennedy once described Berlin as an island of freedom in a Communist sea [2]. Berlin Wall stood there marking the demarcation line between the part of the world ruled by freedom and the subjugative one. Nowadays people are looking for a different island of freedom in Europe. Can we consider Warsaw in such way? If we are to compare Poland to the other Post-Soviet states, it becomes clear that most of them are still struggling in both economical and political field, while in Poland the situation has been far more similar to the Western Europe countries. According to Bartoszewski and Richter, 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 had become a shelter for pro-Western political thinkers from the East. Today the city is once again in the headlines due to an unprecedented inflow of Ukrainian refugees into Poland. Yet in the past Warsaw has been a focal point for Chechen, Tajik and, most recently, Belarusian political dissidents [1].

Moscow’s influence on post-soviet world

1991, the fall of Iron Curtain – would Poland become a new pro-Western democracy? To think about that, we have to be aware of the fact that each of post-soviet orientated countries went in a different direction. While Poland may have favoured western democracy values, Bartoszewski and Richter call Belarus a Moscow-oriented dictatorship with a hint of Soviet governance. We can not deny that this particular statement, even if a little controversial, is correct.

While in 1990s there have been neoliberal economic reforms in Poland (which resulted in  accession to NATO and the European Union),  Belarus has been becoming less and less democratic since Alexander Lukaszenko won the presidential election in 1994. According to the authors of the work mentioned before: 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” (…). [It] 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 [1] [6].

As the result of the reforms, introduced mainly in 1990s, Poland has been growing economically much more than Belarus or Ukraine, which were still dependent on Moscow’s supremacy. It has been well-shown on the diagram below [3]. In 2020, Belarus’ GDP per capitala was three times smaller than in Poland. Warsaw has also developed into a centre of regional migration, while Minsk stagnated in the relatively isolated Belarusian economy. Belarus is referred to as “the last dictatorship in Europe” and it continues to be accused of wide range of human rights violations. It is also considered to be the last European country to retain the death penalty [4].

Poland and the East

Post-communist Poland born in 1989 was a country whose primary foreign policy objective was to reintegrate with the West. Yet, the 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 [1].

The first years after the transformation of the system, were marked by a cautious rapprochement between Poland and the West. According to Bartoszewski and Richter, the actions of Poles were based a doctrine of non-involvement in the dissolution of the USSR [1] but  Poland later joined both NATO (1999) and European Union (2004), which practically improved the democratic development process. Even though the Poles supported most of the democratic efforts in the Eastern European countries, it was not always effective, as well-shown by the example of Polish support for the so-called Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004). The presidential elections, that were rigged at the time, led to the victory of Yanukovych, who was a pro-Russia candidate. Aleksander Kwasniewski, who was a president of Poland back then, served as the key mediator in the conflict between Ukrainian government and the opposition. While the mediation led to a repeated election, it was all short-lived, as the Yanukovych won the presidential elections again only 5 years later.

When Russia attacked Georgia in 2008, Poland changed its approach to the East and the diplomacy shifted its efforts towards involvement within European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as working alone towards the improvement of the East seemed to be pointless. It 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 EU. The main aim of those initiatives was to promote democracy and closer ties with Brussels among the East Europe countries. After Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) won the elections in 2015, the party attempted to redefine Poland’s Eastern policy. Polish policymakers 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 [1].

Today it is Georgia, tomorrow Ukraine, then the Baltic States, and then perhaps the time will come for my country, Poland.

“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.” – Lech Kaczyński, the president of Poland (speech delivered during the war in Georgia)

According to J. A. Bartoszewski and M. M. Richter: The turning point came in 2014 when, following the pro-Western Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv, Russia annexed Ukraine’s region of Crimea and orchestrated a separatist war in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk [4]. These events gradually led to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, which threatened the existence of the entire Polish Eastern policy project. The prelude to the war was marked by the geopolitical wrestling in the realm of energy over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and increasingly more turbulent events in Belarus [10]. In 2020 mass protests took Belarusian people to the streets in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The reason was the fraudulent presidential election that granted Alexander Lukashenko a 6th term, making him the country’s leader for the consecutive 28 years [5]. This revived Polish interests in supporting the democratization of Belarus. Even though the revolution failed, Poland is still considered a host country for all of the people who are concentrated in the opposition movement. That opposition were openly supported by the polish government (both financially and politically), which culminated in the border crisis (2021).

The making of multicultural Warsaw 

The first mass influx of people of different nations to Warsaw took time in 1573 and it was caused by a fact that there was a freedom of belief in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. As a result the city of Warsaw became the largest Jewish urban diaspora in the world, as well as a range of other sizable ethnic groups [1]. The German Holocaust which took place in Poland during the World War II led to the death of a large number of Jews and the border changes inititated by Stalin resulted in forced resettlement of Ukrainian, Belarusian, Lithuanian and German populations (which are currently considered national minorities in Poland) so the landscape of people living in Poland changed drastically.

According to the authors of the research, Poland’s accession to the European Union marked the beginning of the second of the biggest phases of migration. Vast quantities of Polish citizens emigrated to Western Europe in the search of better economic opportunities: over 2.5 million people have left Poland to the United Kingdom, Germany, France and other countries since 2004 [7]. This was the first time since WWII when Polish society was exposed to such an immense interaction with the West through the bilateral flow of people. Moreover, the inhabitants of the East emigrated to Poland in search of the new economic possibilities – this happened on a mass scale in 2013, because of the introduction of an immigration law, which was intended to address the shortage of human capital in Poland  caused by the mass outflow of Poles to Western Europe. The new legal framework attracted people from the east because of the allowance of working in Poland temporarily without a work visa. In the course of five years the Polish labor market attracted approximately 2 million immigrants from the former USSR [8]. While the vast majority of migrants came from Ukraine, Belarusians became the second largest group of newcomers, followed by Moldovans and Russians [9][1].

May Warsaw be called the new island of freedom?

While Poland itself is currently far more conservative than Western Europe countries, Warsaw seems to be a deviation from those conservative trends, which clearly underlines its role as the new island of freedom. The historical context however sketches a picture of the city as an oasis of liberty in the region troubled by the post-communist legacy [1]. Currently Poland definitely has its own problems with democracy, but given more information we can proudly say, that the capital city goes away from these tendencies, as it is far more tolerant in a lot of areas. If you would like to learn more on this subject, we recommend you to read the article by J. A. Bartoszewski and M. M. Richter.


  1. EASTERN EUROPE’S MELTING POT, Jakub A. Bartoszewski and Michael Martin Richter, Journal of International Affairs , Fall/Winter 2021, Vol. 74, No. 1, Global Urbanization: Nations, Cities, and Communities in Transformation (Fall/Winter 2021), pp. 297-316; Published by: Journal of International Affairs Editorial Board Stable URL:
  2. John F. Kennedy, “The Berlin Crisis,” July 25, 1961, accessed April 1, 2022, U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Germany,
  3.  8 Grigory Ioffe, “Understanding Belarus: economy and political landscape,” Europe-Asia Studies 56, no. 1 (2004): 85–92.
  4. Marples, Belarus: A Denationalized Nation.
  5. International Crisis Group. “Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine,” International Crisis Group, 2016, tists-eastern-ukraine.
  6. Grigory Ioffe, “Understanding Belarus: economy and political landscape,” Europe-Asia Studies 56, no. 1 (2004): 85–92.
  7. Główny Urzad Statystyczny (Statistics Poland) database, last accessed May 24, 2021, https://stat.
  8. Główny Urzad Statystyczny (Statistics Poland), database.
  9. White, “The impact of migration into Poland by non-Poles”
  10.  Nowakowski et al. “Polityka Wschodnia Polski. Raport Konferencji Ambasadorów.”
Magda Marynowska

A law student of the Law and Administration Department at the University of Warsaw. She gained her editorial experience as a leader of a social project called Do not touch me where her main task was to create and edit educational content. The project was nominated to Golden Wolves in three categories, one of them being Pitch Contest. She was also a vice-head of Operational Team at the non-profit organization Student Initiative for Education.

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Magda Marynowska

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