Wrocław Global Forum: Day 1

The Wrocław Global Forum debated issues of transatlantic security and economic partnership in the opening day of a conference spotlighted by this week’s visit to Poland of US President Barack Obama. The fifth annual forum, in the 1,000-year-old Polish cultural center of Wrocław, found speakers debating how the US and its European partners can best implement the commitments made this week by Obama and his host, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, to strengthen the transatlantic relationship in the face of the challenge posed by Russia.

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves opened the Forum’s deliberations noting the contrast between this week’s celebrations in Poland of the 1989 elections that set the country firmly on a path to democratization, and the reality in 2014 that Russia is waging war to prevent that same process from advancing in Poland’s neighbor, Ukraine. Europe’s “liberal order is being challenged by authoritarian, illiberal, yet often successful market economies in ways we did not foresee when the first free elections were held in Poland twenty-five years ago,” Ilves said.

Highlights from the first day of the Forum are below, as well as a full list of sessions from the day that link to the full summaries on wroclawglobalforum.com.

 DAY 1

Poland and Transatlantic Relations

A key theme that emerged during the day was the link between Poland’s recent past and Ukraine’s current challenge. Specialists on defense, economic reform, and democratic development noted that Poland’s growth and democratization in the post-Soviet era serves as a model for a Ukraine that continues to struggle with changing its Soviet-built institutions. Discussions during the day focused on Poland’s progress, the further growth and improvement of Polish-American relations, and the potential for the country to further take a leading role in Central and Eastern Europe.


Every panel touched on Ukraine in one way or another. An underlying question seemed to be: Will Ukraine remain mired in corruption and Soviet-style bureaucratic rule, or can it build a modern democratic state? Panels addressed this central question from several directions. Some of them were:

  • Civil Society: The Maidan movement toppled former President Viktor Yanukovych and changed Ukraine’s political culture with its months of mass anti-corruption, pro-democracy demonstrations. But Maidan activist Kateryna Kruk raised the question of how deep and lasting will be the change in Ukraine’s governance: “We’ve changed the people in government but not the system, and the many of the current workers in the government were former Yanukovych staff,” she said. 
  • Energy: Ukraine cannot afford gas at the prices being charged by Russia, its main supplier, and must come to a compromise arrangement with Moscow. Speakers voiced a clear need for the EU and US to help Ukraine find alternative gas supplies to reduce its reliance on Russia.  
  • Support from EU and US: All argued that Western support for Ukraine is necessary. Monetary, strategic, civil, democratic, and material support were all posited as viable and important contributions. Senator John McCain called for the US government to supply weaponry as part of its military support, and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said Congress should be open to considering that step. 
  • Russia: The Russian government is using its intelligence agencies and its domination of Russian-language media to sustain the secessionist uprising in eastern Ukraine, speakers said. Ukrainian Minister of Finance and Economy Pavlo Sheremeta said: “There is no civil war in Russia. The government is fighting not rebels but armed bands.” Speakers throughout the day were direct in their characterization and condemnation of Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Defense and Security

“If NATO commanders were worried about their role after Afghanistan, they should thank Vladimir Putin,” said Atlantic Council President Frederick Kempe. Speakers on defense and security addressed not just Ukraine’s crisis but the major revisions that must be made to the concept of collective defense in Europe. Speakers as disparate as US Senator John McCain and Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak voiced concern about whether European governments will make the needed commitments to NATO defense, notably by boosting their own defense budgets to the alliance’s target of 2 percent of gross domestic product. Siemoniak re-affirmed the Polish government’s vow to do so, saying that Warsaw recognized a need to provide an example to other alliance members.

Economy and Trade

Interconnections of trade and finance were central to many of the panel discussions. European Commissioner for Trade Karel De Gucht spoke on the need to complete the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). “I do not for a moment pretend that TTIP will change the world as much as that election of May 1989 [the first substantially free election in Poland, twenty-five years ago this month] or the fall of the wall in Berlin six months later. But I do assert that by creating new economic opportunities, and by strengthening shared Atlantic values in a changing world, it will change people’s lives for the better.”

Day One Closing Panel with US Senators McCain and Murphy

The Russia-Ukraine crisis is contributing to what Senator Chris Murphy called “a growing level of bipartisan support for re-investing in this [transatlantic] relationship.” Both he and Senator John McCain called on Congress to provide support for President Obama’s effort this week in Poland to reassure Eastern European allies of the US commitment to help in their defense against an aggressive Russia.

The two Senators also urged tougher action against Russian President Vladimir Putin over his annexation of Crimea and his government’s support for a secessionist insurrection in eastern Ukraine. “If Putin does not pay a price – and I think it’s arguable, right now, whether the United States and Europe are going to join together to force Putin to pay a price – this might not be the end of his provocations,” said Murphy.

Atlantic Council Freedom Awards

The annual Atlantic Council Freedom Awards recognize extraordinary individuals and organizations that defend and advance the cause of freedom around the world. These awards embody the Council’s mission to strengthen transatlantic leadership on global values. The recipients of the 2014 Freedom Awards were: Baroness Catherine Ashton, European Union Vice President and High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy; Toomas Hendrik Ilves, President of the Republic of Estonia; Miklós Németh, former Prime Minister of Hungary; the People of the Maidan in Ukraine, accepted on the Maidan movement’s behalf by Ruslana Lyzhychko and Kateryna Kruk; and The Polish American Freedom Foundation and Jerzy Kozminski.

In accepting the Freedom Award on behalf of the people of Maidan, Katryna Kruk and Ruslana Lyzhychko were unflinching in their characterization of the fight for freedom that took place in Kyiv. Kruk commented on those historic events by saying: “The lives of people and existence of countries make sense only when we fight for freedom, dignity and justice” Ruslana concluded her remarks by singing the Ukrainian national anthem leaving the entire room on their feet and many with tears in their eyes.

Part 1

Part 2