Cooperation and investments – we are absolutely up for it. However, we prefer to keep a certain degree of caution when it comes to entrusting the transfer of technology and critical infrastructure to external investors. The security of Poland and the EU should be considered more important than even the greatest economic gains. – an Interview with Marcin Przydacz, Under-Secretary of State for Security, US Policy, Asian and East Policy in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Patrycja Pendrakowska, Krzysztof M. Zalewski
Translated by: Michelle Atallah, Piotr Machajek
Patrycja Pendrakowska: The beginning of a new year is a good time for summaries… What do you think was the most important achievement of Polish foreign policy in Asia in 2020?
Marcin Przydacz: First, let me thank you for having me here and providing an opportunity to exchange our views. It is of utmost importance for me to stay in touch with experts, so we can discuss the priorities and actions of our diplomacy. I believe that we do not discuss Asia, its international contexts, and challenges as much as we should. That is why every event and every interview are small steps that attract interest in Asia, the continent of the 21st century.
The role of respective Asian economies and countries is steadily growing, and Polish diplomacy is concentrating its efforts to address this development. As for conducting diplomacy and international politics, the last year was unlike any other. Basically, we had to face the pandemic from the very beginning of 2020. In the course of this experience, the attention of policymakers shifted from international relations mostly to internal situations and healthcare. Yet, I cannot not stress enough: it is our cordial relations with partners in Asia that helped us through the first week of the pandemic when it was crucial to acquire personal protective equipment, medical equipment, and semi-finished medical products – all as soon as possible.
At that time, logistics and obtaining consent for flights posed a significant challenge. The trust that we had built throughout the years was instrumental when implementing the “Flight Home” (Lot do domu) campaign, coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was, very well-received. We are strengthening our diplomacy, following current events, developing bilateral relations, and maintaining an active dialogue with our Asian partners.
PP: Would you please tell us what achievements were made before the pandemic?
MP: 2020 was supposed to be a very active one in terms of our foreign relations. At the very beginning of the year, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki made a very significant visit to Japan, where the heads of governments conducted a successful consultation. Unfortunately, the later broad plans for Polish activity in Asia were curtailed by the pandemic. Although I should mention that just before its outbreak, we, as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, made a number of visits to some of the largest countries in Asia, mostly for political consultations. I could name Japan, and China, which I had a chance to visit in the winter of 2020.
In Tokyo, we discussed the topic of South-East Asian security, especially in the domain of the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Of course economic relations represent the core topic in overall relations between Poland and Japan, and so Japanese investment activity in Poland is very important to us.
Also, when it comes to our talks with the Chinese partners, the issues of our trade exchange and the existing blockades in access to the Chinese market for Polish products were of key importance. The cooperation within the 17 + 1 format and the summit planned for April of last year did not take place due to the pandemic, yet cooperation itself remains a widely discussed topic. An additional element of the discussion with the Chinese partners was the potential that Poland has in terms of geography, institutional structures, and logistic attributes for the existing and planned transport routes. We fully realize that global trade is dominated by maritime transport, and we believe it will remain as such, while in Eurasia, the role of land transport corridors will increase. Our location makes us well suited to play the leading role in this aspect, not to mention our stability and healthy development. Being the border state of the EU is yet another advantage.
Values and human rights form another side of Polish – Chinese relations, and this topic also involves a multilateral dimension. We sometimes have views and assessments of the events taking place in this country that greatly differ from those of the Chinese counterparts. Poland is a member of the European Union and the Transatlantic Community – it is based on a community of values, including respect for individual freedoms and human rights. Our Chinese partners are well aware of this, and they understand the axiological sources of our policy.
The unequal trade turnover and the need to reduce the trade deficit being the consequence of that have always been a challenge in our bilateral relations. We are all aware that the volume of imports from China compared to the export of our products is enormous, and we are no exception here. Many countries in the world, including those with strong economies, face such problems. However, it doesn’t release us from the obligation to strive to increase our exports. Thus, the transit of goods is an area that offers an opportunity for us. After all, some of the products that go across the Polish border are then re-exported to other countries. Polish entrepreneurs also earn money as a result.
When talking about values and opportunities, we must not forget that it is essential for us to gain greater access to the Chinese market. China is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO); according to its regulations, the Chinese market should be more open. Let’s remember that China partially uses non-tariff barriers, regulating access to its greatest asset: a large and absorbent market. We need political decisions here, and these can be made by active diplomacy and talks at the highest level.
PP: Apart from China, which other partners are of particular importance to us?
MP: I have already mentioned Japan, but the Republic of [South] Korea is also important for us, since it is one of the largest Asian investors in Poland. We have been holding talks and making efforts to further increase its interest in investments in Poland.
Since we’ve mentioned Korea, I’d like to say that we have had talks regarding the Central Communication Port (CPK), the largest ongoing logistics and infrastructure investment in Poland. The decision regarding the selection of the strategic partner has already been made: the airport will be built in cooperation with Korean partners.
Yet, we are still keeping our paths open: we’re still trying to attract Koreans, Japanese and other countries of the world to make them interested in being active in the development of logistics and transport. The airport itself is only a part of the plan to increase the mobility of Poles, in addition to which there is, for example, the construction of high-speed railways.
Furthermore, we are seeking to intensify our dialogue with partners in South-East Asia (ASEAN). This is an important region geopolitically and in terms of international politics and world trade. Such talks are already taking place, but this year they are mostly held online due to the lack of travel opportunities. In recent months, I have been engaged in intensive dialogue with our partners from the region, for example with Vietnam and Indonesia. At the turn of 2019 and 2020, I was on a visit to Thailand, where we discussed economic and defense industry cooperation. We also made visits to Bangladesh and Myanmar, both interesting and opening markets, despite all the problems they have. During those visits, important agreements and memoranda of cooperation were signed.
India is the world’s biggest democracy and a huge market with tremendous opportunities. The country remains an important economic partner of ours, and we’re doing everything we can to maintain good relations. Apart from that, there are few Polish investments on the Indian subcontinent. We have obviously noted the assertive policy of New Delhi under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as well as some tensions in relations with Pakistan and China, but also the strengthening of US-India and India-EU relations, and the fact that India is a member of the Quad (The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – editorial note). We are fully aware of those phenomena, and we are analyzing areas for potential cooperation on a broader scale. I believe that relations between Warsaw and New Delhi, also in personal terms, will intensify in the coming months and years.
Krzysztof M. Zalewski: Minister, you have evoked the largest country and the biggest geopolitical challenge, that is China and its growth. We are, of course, very pleased about the prospects of trade development, and the fact that at least part is going to pass through Poland. However, I would like to offer the example of Australia, which, since 2009, has owed its economic growth to the Chinese market, particularly through the export of raw materials. I have the following question: as the Sino-Australian relationship may deteriorate at such a rapid rate, are you not concerned by this example and by the fact that – to put it bluntly – Beijing tends to use trade for political purposes, for example, to detach certain countries from their alliance with the United States?
MP: That is correct, the world is witnessing China taking on a much bigger role than before, as well as a more assertive approach in Beijing’s foreign policy. Many factors help us explain this: firstly, the Middle Kingdom’s deep cultural and political conviction of its major role, secondly – its growing economic power. China’s role in the world economy is growing every year.
The Chinese elite’s awareness of its role in global politics is also growing. As a result, China feels free to cross its mental boundaries to pursue a more active policy. They not only have a strong state apparatus but, above all, a well-functioning economy.
The bulk of the world’s production is based in China. The issue of China’s internal market is a kind of magnet for world economies to enhance cooperation. And indeed, the entire economic policy is a tool of political influence.
Tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, off the coast of China, do not come from anywhere. We are observing all these developments, also the tensions between Washington and Beijing are a matter of concern to us, as they probably are to every country in the world.
We would like to see more dialogue and openness for cooperation, rather than diplomatic hassles. Poland is a part of the wider Western world, the Euro-Atlantic family. This world, built in recent years on freedom of trade, freedom of access to markets, freedom of navigation, based on principles developed globally based on the activities of international organizations, is a world which, in our view, should continue to exist. Of course, we can see the growing role of China, but cooperation cannot neglect the fundamental principles, rights, and values that we hold dear.
Going back to the topic of Australia. Indeed, for many years Australia has, particularly under previous governments, opened up more and more to cooperation with China – despite all sorts of signals from culturally and politically similar countries that perhaps this openness is going too far. The strong presence of foreign investments, on the one hand, and the opening up of the market, on the other, make the economy profoundly dependent. Subsequently, when there is a desire to change the political course, such dependence becomes a restriction. We are certainly not in favor of cooperation that involves opening up to all possibilities, the unwanted effect of which would be to lose some of the steering power of the policy.
Cooperation and investments – we are absolutely up for it. However, we prefer to keep a certain degree of caution when it comes to entrusting the transfer of technology and critical infrastructure to external investors. The security of Poland and the EU should be considered more important than even the greatest economic gains.
A few years ago, under the influence of external players, Australians took a slightly conservative approach to Quad cooperation and the concept of the Indo-Pacific. Today, we are witnessing an in-depth discussion on increased cooperation between like-minded countries in that region. I hope that this will be a lesson to us all, including Australia and the PRC. Cooperation should rely on certain principles, building trust between states, instead of exploiting economic advantages.
KZ: As we speak, there are dozens of ships with Australian coal being unloaded at the entrance to Chinese ports. Let us imagine then the following case. Copper, delivered by our champion, is one of the products to balance the enormous volume of Chinese imports to Poland. What do you think our response should be, purely hypothetically, if it were copper from Poland or Chile. What should we do?
MP: I assume it to be a thought experiment, an attempt to create an alternative scenario of our relations with China.
Firstly, we are doing everything that we can to avoid any situation of the kind. There’s no secret in saying that sometimes containers get stuck on their way out of Poland, precisely because of non-tariff blockades. We try to monitor this on an ongoing basis to prevent such phenomena, and if they occur – to solve them. This is a difficult task. Some problems require a “below the water level” approach, that is, we should try not to make them appear in the media because once they do, the situation becomes much more difficult. Both partners kind of “stiffen up” and any dialogue turns out to be much more difficult. Our diplomacy works quietly and effectively. When talking about such challenges, it is crucial to maintain a certain coherence and speak in one voice about these problems with our Western partners, including the United States.
Coming back to the topic, we are mostly focused on 17+1. China expressed its interest in this format, but the cooperation should rely on certain principles and predictability. Poland has an important role to play since the format originated in Poland. Naturally, there is an asymmetry in the problems resulting from the blockade of specific shipments, but we always try to look for solutions to eliminate that asymmetry by diplomatic means. Let us remember that China has evident advantages over smaller economies. These advantages can be eliminated through cooperation between these smaller economies, common stances between states, and consistent political signals. In this case, there is considerable scope for the Euro-Atlantic community to coordinate its approach in this context with both Washington and Brussels on an ongoing basis, to be able to react sometimes firmly, but above all always coherently, to actions that are unfavorable to us. Any smaller player, with the exception of the US, Germany, and several other major countries, is in a weaker position versus China. Our strength is in unity. Unity is built through trust and long-term cooperation. Some of countries tried to build their relations with China without looking at others, and only when faced with an assertive move on the part of the Chinese, did they seek unity and cooperation. There are plenty examples of that, but every single case results in further difficulties in implementing a common policy later on.
For those reasons, we are active within the EU in developing a broad strategy. That is why we are in favor of enhanced cooperation in the western world. We also encourage this cooperation, for example, with Australia and New Zealand as countries that are culturally and politically close to us.
PP: Large and medium-sized European countries are in the process of redefining their Asia-Pacific policy, such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Will Poland redefine its Asia policy?
MP: The ever-changing reality requires us to continuously adapt. The growing role of Asia forces us to adapt our policies, both at the national and EU level. We are already observing work at the EU level in terms of strategic documents concerning Asia. Poland, as a member of the EU, wants to influence their final content. Our sensitivity and perception should also be reflected in these documents. When creating European agenda-setting concerning Asia, our strategic ideas and our thinking on Asia should be made visible, but we must not haste. The development of national policies towards Asia should be coherent with EU strategy. It is clear from our discussion today that Poland has defined its interests and has an appropriate strategy towards Asia. Some of these ideas and initiatives are reflected in the relevant documents. We should be aware that such documents are already in operation about individual bilateral relations, like those with China, Korea, or Japan. These are our strategic partners, and we have such specific strategies for them, but we are also constantly updating our ideas.
Since the role of Asia is growing, Polish policy should also be more Asia-oriented, particularly in economics, digital security, or global issues in general. For example, the whole discussion on climate seems to make no sense without mentioning Asia, since the continent is home to economies that can hardly be called low-carbon.
This constant adaptation and analytical process on Asian policy are ongoing in the Polish government. We are conducting detailed internal discussions, including meetings of the inter-ministerial team for strategic relations with China, where we exchange opinions and information on sectoral cooperation with the PRC. The cohesion of which we spoke at the European level is also important at the national level. We are trying to prevent any discrepancies in activities carried out by the ministries.
KZ: If I may, I would like to again raise the topic of the new EU strategy. What are the three most important points, from our perspective, that such a stratregy should contain?
MP: The EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy is currently under discussion, and many interests are influencing its final form. The most important thing is to maintain European cohesion, so as not to allow the EU to be hijacked by the particular interests of individual states. There is a certain tendency among the large European economies to frame cooperation with their most important partners in Asia in terms of their interests. It is tempting, of course, just think of large markets, real investment opportunities, and a middle class growing rich in Asia. On the other hand, China, for example, is aware of its superiority and, above all, wants to be able to play out its interests bilaterally. China’s political and economic superiority make them very likely to achieve its goals. All the risks I’ve mentioned are weakening the EU and, in fact, its members. We should prevent those hazards, which is why we are calling for greater cooperation within the EU and greater cohesion. This could be achieved by ensuring that as many EU Member States as possible, including medium-sized and smaller ones, are involved in implementing the new strategy towards Asia and gradually increase their involvement. That would allow the benefits of cooperation between Europe and that part of the world to be spread more evenly. The strategy must not serve only the interests of selected countries.
Secondly, it is crucial to maintain transatlantic coherence, because the more we cooperate within the wider family of the Western world, the stronger we are. The attempt to play up differences between allies has been a feature of the approach of many countries in recent years. To retain our advantage, also in civilizational and economic terms, we should strive to develop cooperation with the United States, including in Asian affairs. Poland and the Law and Justice government even more so, have always been advocates of deepening Euro-Atlantic cooperation, so I warmly welcome President Joe Biden’s announcement of intensifying the Euro-Atlantic dialogue. Poland and the countries of the region should act as an active agent in this field.
Thirdly, the EU’s relations with Asian countries – I am talking primarily about China – should be based on principles that are important to us. Like fair trade, for example. The whole world order was built on certain principles, and we should not deviate from them, even at the expense of economic benefits. Then we have certain advantages resulting from the competitiveness of our economy which can be exploited. If we abandon these principles and if we are guided by rules other than those of the law in European-Chinese cooperation, we will lose this advantage. At the same time, we are losing our credibility as an EU standard-bearer and value bearer. Why should other partners talk to us about European values, about all the ideas that guide us, if we concentrate only on talking about them and, in reality, set up different ones once we close the door?
PP: How does our presence in the 17+1 format fit in with what you’ve said regarding developing an EU policy towards China? Does this format complement or partly replace relations at the EU level? How does Poland deal with criticism? For example, some German politicians are skeptical of this format.
MP: We have already become accustomed to the fact that any project affecting European countries that is not exclusively conceived, created, and controlled by the major European players, is frowned upon by them. However, the Member States have the right to decide on the priorities of their policies beyond the exclusive competencies of the EU. Foreign policy remains the domain of the Member States and can be coordinated at the EU level, but we cannot accept that some can pursue their interests while others are criticized for regional cooperation, even if this does not in any way run counter to European interests. European policy is not, after all, a complete substitute for regional cooperation and bilateral relations. As early as 2012, Poland, the previous government, to be exact, decided to co-create and host the 16+1 format before Greece’s accession. Countries like Germany, France, the Netherlands, or the United Kingdom have been active in pursuing purely bilateral cooperation with China. They didn’t ask Poland for the opinion either. We have decided that cooperation with China at the EU and bilateral level should also be supplemented by such a regional format. We do, however, want this format to be transparent. Poland has recognized the value of building this format, but we always try to emphasize that it is a complementary arrangement and does not in any way oppose European unity.
The accusations of an alleged attempt to split the Union are formulated every time any format that is not dominated by the largest partners appears. If we intensify cooperation within the framework of the Visegrad Group (V4), we are told that we are dismantling the EU’s unity. Yet the V4 does nothing but bring together EU countries, and its purpose is to coordinate our policies. The situation is quite similar when we talk about the Three Seas Initiative, i.e., a format of informal cooperation of twelve EU states. Poland has strongly advocated that this platform should include only EU states. However, we hear accusations from Western partners that this project is breaking down the unity of the EU. There is full commitment on our part to keep this platform coherent with European policy.
However, we must not ignore that Central Europe sometimes has to face different challenges when compared to Western Europe, for example, when it comes to infrastructure or the scope of trade with non-European economies.
It is easier to conduct foreign policy when we take a look at a map. It is enough to look at a map of the road and rail network in Central Europe and compare it with Western Europe. Anyone, regardless of their political views, will see the differences. We should not be accused of trying to solve these logistical problems and civilizational backwardness in the region.
The reason why we are looking for new opportunities is also – that is a bit of a pebble in the pot of European politics – the EU, dominated by Western well-developed countries, once the transformation started, has above all helped to build infrastructure networks that were important for its commercial interests. You can see that the A4 motorway going from east to west, connecting Germany, via Poland, with Eastern Europe, was built much faster than, for example, Via Carpatia. And the A2 motorway to Berlin was again ahead of these North-South road or rail routes. Connections to Western Europe are important for us, but infrastructure networks on the North-South line are equally important, including the Baltic-Adriatic connection. Hence the decision to intensify cooperation within the framework of the Three Seas Initiative.
The decision to join the 16+1 format was made because we were aware of this data and the ever-widening disproportion in individual countries’ trade with the Middle Kingdom. As government officials, we try to use this format of co-operation with China to build up Poland’s position and recognition, but also to discuss a possible and safe investment presence. However, we always emphasize that greenfield investments are important for us. We are not interested in cooperation based on the sale of the most profitable enterprises, but in attracting safe capital that would bring know-how and technology, which would positively influence the further development of the Polish economy.
As for the 17+1, we are conducting dialogue with our partners, including China, intending to take stock of these last eight years in some way. It is worth reflecting on what has and has not worked. We are sending the right signals to Beijing with our assessment of this cooperation. We still see potential that has not yet been fully exploited in economic cooperation. It is also the signal to our Chinese partners to consider what they expect from this cooperation. Our expectations are clear. We want to catch up with the history of the last two centuries, and we encourage the various partners to join us.
All the regional cooperation formats serve to address the challenges that we have defined, and their vitality is more than needed. However, the EU remains the most vital cooperation format, and this is not likely to change.
KZ: What you said is important in terms of continuity and the longer life of the mentioned formats. If I understood your previous statements correctly, we do not want our Asia policy to be overly Sinocentric. So let me turn to the second largest country in Asia, India. We’ve taken over the presidency of the Visegrad Group. Moreover, India now seems to see that Europe is more a “Europe of regions”, way more polycentric than they thought. They realized that Europe is much more than just Berlin and Paris. Is there a chance for our understanding of Eurasian cooperation and India’s understanding of Europe to meet? For example, how likely are we to host the Prime Minister of India in Poland? That would be the first time in many, many years…
MP: Yes, it is a challenge. On the one hand, we recognize India’s great potential and see many opportunities to intensify political and economic dialogue. It is a large, receptive economy, and in places, also a competitive one. We are also seeking to increase our presence on the subcontinent. I had the pleasure of opening a new flight route to New Delhi. Its aim is to strengthen the presence of Poland, Poles, and Polish business in India. We are aware that our country is not yet fully known to Indians. The map of their interests and perceptions does not always include Poland. Therefore, we try to use every opportunity to broaden our recognition, also with elements of historical and cultural policy. A good foundation for this is the history of the Second World War. We remember the help given by Jam sahib Digvijaysinhji, the so-called Good Maharaja, to Polish children who ended up there straight from the hell of Siberia. In 2019, we organized a series of events in India related to this story, and they were warmly received. Our investment presence is also growing, trade exchange is growing, chambers of commerce are functioning, Bollywood was shooting films in Poland, tourist traffic was growing at a high rate until last year. This shows the great potential on which we can build the Polish – Indian agenda.
I understand that you were expecting a specific answer to the question of whether a top-level visit could be arranged. We have some activities going on here, and I have recently spoken to my Visegrad partners hoping to highlight cooperation with India. There are talks about top-level visits from our side and the Indian side. It is worth recalling that a summit of European Union leaders with India is planned to be held in Porto in 2021. We have the European-Asian ASEM Summit in Cambodia ahead of us, which was to be held in the autumn of 2020, but has been postponed to 2021. There will be good opportunities to continue discussions with our Asian partners, hopefully also with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There is also the September session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, and opportunities for dialogue are also present there as well. We have several options.
This is the world we’re living in. The policy of the authorities in New Delhi is based on the contacts focused on intensive relations with large foreign partners, like relations with China or Russia, and on the other hand, relations with the US and the EU. Large economies such as Japan, Korea, and Australia have been at the forefront of India’s policy. In Europe, Britain, which had been Indians biggest partner for over 200 years. Added to this, Berlin, Paris, and Moscow were also important partners.
When we talk about knowledge about Poland in Asia, we should ask ourselves: what do we know about Asia? When I talk to Polish entrepreneurs, analysts, politicians, and journalists, the awareness of Asian potential is still too low. A more intense presence requires greater involvement and engagement. To reap, one must first sow. This requires a change of mentality among many of us. Thus we also need courage and interest on the Polish side. This is the only way can we think about a stronger presence in Asia, on a political, economic, and cultural level.
For all these reasons, I am very glad that we’re having this conversation. The activity of experts and analysts in this field is extremely helpful. We all need to break away a little from strictly Eurocentric thinking. This was natural in the 1990s and even more so after 2004 when Polish entrepreneurs focused on European markets and politicians on their EU partners. Such Eurocentricity is a fact, and we should not deny it. However, we should look for new partners, and Asian countries look like a promising partner. Let us, therefore, be bold.
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