The Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski aptly noticed that there is no greater injustice in the world than the fact that some suffer much more than others. This can remind one of the radically different fates that met East-Central Europe and Tibet. In the past century, stronger communist neighbours conquered both.
However, while East-Central Europe has become reintegrated with the West and again enjoys political freedom, Tibet’s plight is conveniently ignored. Tibetan Uprising Day, when people around the world show their solidarity with the oppressed Tibetan nation on 10 March each year, is a perfect opportunity to make the case that the Visegrad Group should become a leading advocate for Tibetan freedom.
History in a nutshell
The nations of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland have ancient histories. Poland and Hungary’s respective statehood dates over a thousand years, and although Czechoslovakia appeared as a state in 1918, the Bohemians are the most ancient of these nations. While Slovakia emerged as an independent state only in 1993, for centuries it was a distinct Slavic culture overruled by the Hungarians, but always maintaining its unique identity. At the end of the Second World War, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland were “liberated” by Red Army tanks, and subsequently endured half a century of communist oppression at the hands of the Soviet Union.
Similarly, Tibet is an ancient nation. Like Bohemia, Poland, and Hungary, it is a country with a glorious past (between the seventh and ninth centuries, Tibet was a major Asian power). In 1950, Tibet was brutally “liberated” by Maoist China. As many as a million Tibetans were killed during the Great Leap Forward. Under Maoism, 6,000 of 7,000 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries were ruined.
Today, Beijing is promoting a false historical narrative according to which Tibet was always a region of China and is cracking down on Tibetan culture, forcefully assimilating Tibetans and transforming Tibet into a tourist attraction where ancient monuments like Potala Palace are trampled on. Tibetan culture is withering in Tibet and thriving only in Tibetan exile communities, primarily in India. Since 2009, 130 Tibetan monks have killed themselves through self-immolation in order to draw the world’s attention to Tibet’s pain.
A great historical irony is that Chinese tanks crushed student protests at Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989, the day when the Polish people voted in the first semi-free elections in post-Second World War Eastern Europe. Indeed, while the Soviet Empire has long gone to the “ash heap of history” as Ronald Reagan said (quoting Trotsky), the People’s Republic of China remains an oppressive communist dictatorship.
Although the West put much pressure on the Soviet Union in the 1980s, today’s West cares little about Tibet or about human rights abuses in China, a lucrative business partner. In an insulting gesture that perfectly symbolizes Washington’s attitude towards the plight of the Tibetan people, in 2010 Barack Obama escorted the Dalai Lama outside of the White House through the “stakeout area” where garbage is stored.
While the V4 countries still suffer from many problems and have living standards that have not quite reached those in the West, they have been enjoying a quarter century of democracy, full sovereignty, and a market economy.
In recent years, the Polish government has tried to emerge as a voice defending the former Soviet republics against Putin’s aggression and aiding their accession to the European Union and NATO. Such was the rationale for the launching of the Eastern Partnership, a Polish-Swedish initiative. In particular, the Polish political elites have emerged as an aggressive voice in the current crisis in Ukraine.
However, the V4 countries should emerge not only as a voice encouraging the expansion of NATO and the EU, but should also speak out against communism crimes. It is commonplace to speak of the “fall of communism” in 1989, but this did not happen everywhere. Communism continues to oppress millions in places like Cuba or Tibet. In the 1980s, the West greatly supported Eastern Europeans’ struggle for freedom. Ronald Reagan, Helmut Kohl, and Margaret Thatcher all encouraged the fall of the Iron Curtain.
When General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s junta cracked down on Solidarity in Poland in 1981, Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra, Michel Foucault, and Jane Fonda publicly expressed their solidarity with the Polish people, wearing Solidarity pins on their lapels. Catholic and Protestant churches from North America and Western Europe sent canned food and clothes to the countries now in the Visegrad Group.
Because Eastern Europe’s freedom was won in large part thanks to aid from the West, it is only fair that the V4 countries aid other nations in their struggle for freedom from communist tyranny. The Tibetans are such a nation, yet their cause is inconvenient.
It is easy to criticize Putin. He is at odds with the West, and while Russia is a large economy, Europe can find alternative sources of energy (such as Norway). It is much more difficult, however, to speak out against China. It will soon overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy. Lucrative trade contracts frequently make Western politicians hesitate when speaking out about Chinese human rights abuses.
Solidarity with Tibet
Have the V4 countries been expressing solidarity with the politically inconvenient plight of the oppressed people of Tibet?
By far, the country that emerges as the leader in this respect is Poland. While the Polish government continues to increase its trade with China irrespective of human rights abuses there, in 2008 Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk and President Lech Kaczyński boycotted the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing as a protest against China’s human rights abuses. Several Polish NGOs are devoted to fighting for Tibet, while drivers can pass through a Free Tibet Roundabout in Warsaw decorated by a huge mural with the Tibetan flag.
Each year, pro-Tibetan marches are organized in Poland, some by Polish parliamentarians. However, the biggest Polish friend of the Tibetan people was Pope John Paul II, who met eight times with the Dalai Lama, more than with any other dignitary. The two men enjoyed a warm friendship.
Slovakia similarly shows symbolic solidarity with Tibet. The Slovakian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee frequently hosts Tibetan delegations, and its chairman has on many occasions explicitly expressed his solidarity with Tibet. Each year on Tibetan Uprising Day, 160 Tibetan flags are hoisted across Slovakia.
Although several hundred Tibetan flags also fly in the Czech Republic each year on 10 March, the Czech government’s stance towards Tibet has been scandalous. The Czech Foreign Minister, Lubomír Zaorálek, has repeatedly said that he supports China’s “territorial integrity” and believes that Tibet is a part of China. In 2013, future Czech president Miloš Zeman said he would never meet with the Dalai Lama unless he were a big investor. During a visit to Beijin, Zeman said that, “Tibet and Taiwan are parts of China and I don’t give a damn about the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan government-in exile.”
While perhaps not so vulgar as its Czech counterpart, the Hungarian government has also not been particularly supportive of the Tibetan cause. When the Tibetan premier visited Budapest in 2011, the Hungarian government prevented a pro-Tibetan march.
The bottom line
While Polish and Slovak solidarity with Tibet should serve as an example to the governments in Prague and Budapest, a Free Tibet Roundabout in Warsaw, Tibetan flags flying across Slovakia, and a Polish boycott of the opening of the Beijing Olympics can only achieve so much.
The Visegrad Group’s leaders need to be as aggressive in defending Tibetan liberty as Western leaders were in standing up for Eastern Europeans’ rights in the 1980s.
Filip Mazurczak studied history and Latin American literature at Creighton University and international relations at The George Washington University.