Today I’m with Michał Łuszczuk, who is a Member of the National Committee on Polar Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences. Until recently, he was a Polish delegate at the International Arctic Science Committee. Could you tell us a bit about your career so far and how you’ve come to specialise in Arctic affairs?
I am a political scientist by training – I have around 20 years of an academic career behind me. Now I do research and teach in the Department of Socio-Economic Geography of Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, Poland. I actually started to be interested in the Arctic because of my students. Around 2007, when I was teaching Political Geography, somebody asked me whether it was possible to get new territories nowadays. I asked the student why he was asking, and he said he’d heard that Russia was submitting something somewhere and was expanding in the Arctic, and I realised I didn’t know anything about this. So, I started to read and I discovered that there was not that much about this topic in the Polish language. It looked like a kind of niche for a researcher interested in international relations like me, and this is how it started. My interest sped up pretty quickly because in 2009, I applied for a short research stay in Norway at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute. I spent a few months there, learning from probably one of the best research institutes on Arctic issues. Therefore, the way it all started was maybe not purposeful, but it was successful.
Of course, very soon I discovered that my first impression that there is not too much about the Arctic was very false. After a few years, I realised how foolish I was at the beginning, but I guess it is something natural when you are just a beginner. The funny thing is that maybe I was interested in the Arctic because I thought it was quite a calm and stable region, with few actors and tensions – not boring, but predictable. I started to discover that this is a very naive approach, because the Arctic is a very tense and lively region in different dimensions. It’s natural that when you start from an international relations perspective that you then discover some economic aspects, then you think about geopolitics, and discover the importance of Indigenous peoples, and so on. You also need to be at least a little familiar with environmental sciences, because understanding the impacts of climate change requires you to know something about rising sea levels, growing temperatures or permafrost. It’s really fascinating for me because I can really learn and develop myself studying the Arctic.
It’s fascinating that some of this came from the bottom up, from a student suggesting something to you.
Well, it was an inspiration, but there was another stimulation coming from the top down, I would say. When I was studying the politics of the Arctic, I learnt about different political documents, statements and policies of Arctic states. Then I thought to myself, ‘I know that Poland is doing something in the Arctic, but do we – as a state – have any particular position on this?’. I found the email address of somebody described as the Polish Arctic Ambassador online and wrote to him saying that I was a researcher studying in Norway who was very interested in what the Polish government was doing in relation to the Arctic. The Ambassador was very open to my request, but rather than telling me what the Polish government was doing, he asked me: ‘if it were up to you, what would you recommend us to do?’. I was surprised with this answer, but of course I suggested some points, which he thought sounded very interesting and worth implementing. This is how my collaboration with Ambassador Jakub Wolski started and it lasted for the next seven years; he’s retired now but I still collaborate with other diplomats from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who have managed to achieve much more during this last decade. Now we have an official Polish Polar Policy which was accepted by our government two years ago. So, I have been a witness of these developments over the last few years. For a political researcher like me, it is very interesting to be an observer and to some extent a participant of this process.
What has your collaboration with the government entailed?
It started with this exchange of emails, then in 2012, during a conference in Norway, Ambassador Wolski came up with an idea inspired by the Japanese government. He mentioned that they had something like a ‘Polar Task Force’ and suggested we could have something similar in our Ministry. He said it would be a small group of experts interested in polar topics who would meet on a regular basis and exchange information to help those in the Ministry receive some support from scientists. This is how the Polish Polar Task Force started; it is still an ongoing body but unfortunately we haven’t met in the last two years because of the pandemic. In 2015, the Ministry commissioned some experts to prepare a large document concerning the aims and tools of Polish Polar Policy in the Arctic, so together with some of my Polish colleagues working on their PhD degrees in Finland and Norway, we wrote the book, Aims and Tools of Polish Arctic Policy. It was published as an academic work but it acted as an impetus for other work. And, as I mentioned, the Polish government accepted a formal Polish Polar Policy two years ago, where we as experts were also invited to give some advice. I would say that, compared to other topics, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs is exceptionally open and interested in advice from the scientific community, maybe because Polish science is our main asset in polar regions. Science is our main way to get to the polar regions, and scientists have the biggest experience and contact with Arctic states (to varying extents depending on the state), so Polish science enables us as a country to be engaged with the polar regions.
Are there any current or recent research projects of yours that you’d like to highlight?
I started with my very general project about international relations in the Arctic, which I undertook in Norway in 2009. Then, I had my project founded by the National Science Centre in Poland, which was dedicated to Arctic policies in the region and ended with a book, so it was a very important and successful project for me. Over the last two years, I have been engaged in an international Polish-German project, concerning sustainable urban development in the European Arctic (SUDEA). The research team includes: Dorothea Wehrmann and Jacqueline Götze from the German Development Institute, and Arne Riedel from the Ecologic Institute. On the Polish side, we have my colleague Katarzyna Radzik-Maruszak from the Institute of Political Sciences and me from the Institute of Social and Economic Geography at the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University. Together we investigate urban development in seven European Arctic cities – in Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland – and how these cities combine local, municipal policies and local needs with the global agenda of sustainable development. We came to our project with the hypothesis that it’s probably very challenging for them to do this because these very general sustainable development goals, to some extent, need to fit everywhere because they are global. And in the Arctic case, with the pace of climate change, the size of the communities, the quality of infrastructure and other factors, all of these pose many challenges for the city authorities, in terms of how to adjust and mitigate.
We investigate this on two levels. From one side, we try to find out what local participation in this field looks like, such as the extent to which people are engaging, the obstacles, as well as the chances for expansion of local participation in urban development processes. At the same time, we look at transnational collaboration of cities. This is based on the assumption that it’s very good to have these kinds of exchanges between cities, because they can stimulate and inspire each other, sharing good practices. But this is just a hypothesis and we try to evaluate and verify. Actually, since we started our (unfortunately online) interviews a few months ago, we’ve seen that some of our ideas were just assumptions. Of course, a new question then arises, which is why are cities not following this way? What are the obstacles and barriers for them? I find this project very interesting, and it will hopefully offer new knowledge, which can be beneficial not only for academic researchers, but predominantly for people living in the Arctic.
I know that sometimes it sounds ridiculous to hear that Polish and German scientists are coming and trying to explore Arctic issues, analyse them and then provide some recommendations. From our experience of doing interviews, however, we have actually found that some respondents feel inspired by our questions because we show them some new aspects. When you have your very local perspective, it’s natural that you don’t always have the chance to think about things in a larger, broader context, right? I think that while the Arctic is a place for Arctic peoples who have the primary rights to do whatever they want, I have a strong conviction that coming from beyond the region and having not only knowledge of but a special sensitivity to the region allows you to notice some issues which are not so visible to people staying in this box.
Could you tell us more about the National Committee on Polar Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences, including your role in it?
The Committee was created in the mid-1970s, which was a very important period for Poland’s activities in polar regions. During that time, we created a year-round research station in Svalbard; the station had actually opened in the 1950s, but it was modernised in the 1970s and since then we have been able to send a group of researchers there every year. We could create this station because Poland had joined the Svalbard Treaty in 1931. In the mid-1970s, we also entered the Antarctic Peninsula, so we had activities taking place in both regions. Somebody then came up with the idea that we should somehow coordinate these activities and the Polish Academy of Sciences was a good place to create such a body as the Committee.
The Committee is not a typical secretariat, like the British Antarctic Survey for example – we are not an institution. We are more like a gathering of representatives of our polar research community. We calculate that there are maybe around 300 or even 400 people in Poland who are somehow involved in research in polar regions. Most of us are in universities, but we also have very strong research institutes, such as the Institute of Geophysics, which is very active in the Svalbard area (it runs the year-round Polish polar station). Our Committee has just under 40 people meeting to discuss the main challenges of doing our research. We try to exchange information and create some common ideas for projects, but we don’t have our own budget or a special institutional background – we are just a small part of the Polish Academy of Sciences. I would say that this body has a very good and strong tradition, but it would be nice to think about modernising this institution.
I have had the pleasure and honour of being part of this body since 2012. Each term consists of four years, so it is now my third term. In the previous term, I was Secretary of the Committee. In this term, I served as Deputy Chair until recently, when I quit. I resigned because, in my opinion, the Committee could have protested more strongly against the war in Ukraine, and at this difficult moment we should not take into account perspectives of cooperation with Russian scientists, but openly condemn the conflict and support its Ukrainian victims. I believe that the Committee will still play its important role in future. The new term is going to start this autumn, and the Committee will hopefully be able to modernise, develop and continue its work.
You mention Russian aggression – what effect do you think the war is going to have on Polish polar research, and polar research in general?
As a scientist, I have a tendency to look at situations like this from a distance. At the same time, this is probably the first time in my life that a war is so close to me, and I feel this impact on my family, friends and my university community – we have a lot of Ukrainian students in Lublin, and one of my PhD students is from Ukraine. So, it’s not possible to keep this distance, because the people who you respect and collaborate with are very much vulnerable in this conflict. Of course, international research collaboration is very important, particularly in a region like the Arctic where it is essential. We have done a lot of marvellous things, thanks to collaboration. The idea of this began in the nineteenth century with international polar years, so it is a very long and strong tradition. However, it’s very difficult for me to pretend that nothing is taking place and that we can just work as we did before.
This was the reason I also disagreed with the IASC authorities, who didn’t issue any statement about Russian aggression in the first days of the conflict. They cited the founding articles, stating that IASC is an apolitical institution and that its position will be discussed in late March. This was not in line with my personal approach. Nowadays, it is very common that organisations, institutions and other entities around the world condemn this war. When we have a situation like this, where Russia is breaking all rules and human rights, we cannot just say that these issues are less important than international research collaboration. I just disagree with such a position. I understand the diplomatic and political context; maybe it was too early for IASC to issue its position, because they were probably waiting to see what the Arctic states would do. As we know, the Arctic Council has now been frozen, which has acted as a suggestion for others involved in Arctic collaboration. A few weeks ago, six members of the Executive Committee of IASC eventually issued an appeal for peace condemning Russia, including the points I had proposed earlier. So, we obviously agree, but the question is how we approach these matters. Maybe I could have been more diplomatic, but it was very hard for me to think of going to Tromsø to sit and discuss while knowing what is actually taking place in Ukraine at the moment. My emotions were very strong,, and I didn’t have any intention of engaging with this kind of academic discussion about whether we should follow regulations and founding articles or not, when people are being killed. Fortunately, I have a feeling that most of the international research community in the Arctic has agreed that collaboration with Russia is not something we can engage with today and in the near future.
Of course, this is also a complex issue now: how to maintain contact with Russian researchers. We have a lot of Russian colleagues who are working in Western countries like the United States, for example, and we know that they are very much against the aggression and they suffer because of it. At the same time, we have received very pro-Kremlin, pro-Putin emails from other researchers still in Russia, in which they condemn our protests and say it is unfair to suspend collaboration and that we are mixing science and policy, so it is our fault if something is not working properly. So, I fully understand that it’s not easy to act when people are having these different opinions and situations. But, for me, it was unacceptable to keep silent and just postpone decisions for later. I felt that I did not want to be involved in such discussions with Russian representatives and in long overdue decisions, so I vacated my seat on the IASC Council.
What kind of relationships does Poland have with Arctic states?
From one side, we are open for collaboration with everyone, however, because of the history of Polish engagement in the Arctic, which has focused for many decades on Svalbard, I would say the closest relations we have are with Norway. They host and support our research. At the same time, I believe that a lot of Polish researchers are engaged through international projects like EU-funded projects, for example. In this context, bilateral relations are less important than this multilateral collaboration that we have. Our bilateral relations can be very fruitful in cases of individual collaborations, for instance, with student exchanges or research stays. But when we think about significant projects lasting years, most of them are internationally funded by institutions, so this is how science is done nowadays.
Are there key areas that Poland specialises in regarding Arctic affairs?
Again, this is a question of tradition. Polish polar research started in the nineteenth century mostly in the field of environmental and natural sciences. It was continued in the interwar period in the 1930s when we sent our first national expeditions to the Arctic – the first one was in the Second International Polar Year. We have had Polish expeditions from the very beginning but in the framework of international collaboration. After the Second World War, most of our researchers were representing geoscience, including geography, geomorphology, glaciology, hydrology, oceanology and ecology.
The first person to actually look at the polar regions in Poland from a non-environmental perspective, who left behind some books and texts, was a lawyer who worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for many years. He was an international lawyer, Professor Jacek Machowski. I would say he was probably one of the first Polish social scientists focused on Arctic and Antarctic matters. Polish social sciences in relation to the Arctic and Antarctic have been developing over the course of the last 15 years or so. There has been some growing interest in climate change and geopolitics in the Arctic. Still, this group is pretty small – maybe 25 people. Some of them are doing this kind of research only occasionally. As I said, we have very strong achievements in natural sciences, and this is a natural field of collaboration with our partners. As for the social sciences, we are just newcomers.
What do you see as the greatest challenges to the Arctic right now?
As an international community, we have probably all made a lot of mistakes in relation to international politics in recent years. I say this, of course, in relation to Russian policy. In the context of the Arctic, there has been a pretty strong narrative that the Arctic is somehow beyond conflict and protected from it. The Arctic was seen as a place of collaboration, even with Russia. Even after some collaboration was suspended following the aggression on Crimea in 2014, having seen little response from the international community to these events, I believe that non-Russian states in the Arctic decided that it was okay to collaborate further. Of course, this collaboration was to some extent successful and a lot of interesting projects took place. This is not to condemn that we made mistakes and suggest we shouldn’t have collaborated. I would just say that we had a situation where one of the partners was not respecting basic rules, or just pretending, having their own geopolitical aims, which to some extent surprised us all. Maybe we were just naive in believing that Russia is “only” defending itself in the Arctic, right? The revitalisation of the Arctic capabilities we have faced in recent years has always been presented as some kind of protection of their territory, as everyone has the right to defend themselves. Now Russia is saying that they are defending themselves in Ukraine, and we see what it means to defend in Russian terms. If we speak the same language but have different understandings of basic terms, it’s very hard to trust each other.
I think that, despite of course the thousands of casualties of this war, what will be very devastating for the international community, including the Arctic, is the lack of trust moving forward. It’s very hard to convince people again that they can trust and relate to each other in a friendly, open manner. Some of my colleagues in Poland, who are much more experienced and to some extent understand my emotions, think that we as polar researchers need to try and keep our distance from politics because politics doesn’t help us when we do our research and fieldwork. This approach is somewhat understandable when you are just focused on doing research and need some kind of support. But this approach is still too narrow when you think about the person helping you, and that maybe somebody close to this person is doing terrible things in another part of the world. It’s really tough to say to what extent you can trust and collaborate. I’ve been telling my Polish colleagues from natural sciences that their research has political significance whether they want it to or not. Our Polish Polar Policy is a good example of this because it clearly states that science diplomacy is something important in political terms for our country and its position in international relations – we are proud to do Polish polar research. So, I know that a lot of researchers in the natural sciences don’t like politics and I personally don’t like politics too, even more so nowadays. At the same time, it’s hard to keep distance from this because it’s coming to us and devastating the lives of our neighbours.
Finally, how do you see the future of Polish Arctic engagement?
Well, I would say that maybe the future will not be so different. Let’s hope that there will be a peaceful future – this is the basic issue. Hopefully the situation will somehow be stabilised. Of course, we cannot just put all our money and strengths into rebuilding Ukraine. We will do whatever we can, but still, we also need to help other people, so we cannot devote everything. Two days ago, I received a copy of an email from the Chair of the Polish Academy of Sciences to the President of IASC, with a request to IASC to not pay the fee so the money could be used to help Ukrainian researchers. This is what we try to do, to direct all the money possible to help victims of this war, so maybe this organisational fee could be a good example of how we can support the future.
In organisational terms, I think that we will keep our positions in all institutions and we will keep the collaboration with our friends, particularly in Svalbard. We haven’t had too much contact with Russian researchers except regarding an Antarctic issue, so there might be an important change with respect to our Dobrowolski Station; otherwise, we can easily continue other issues without feeling that we are doing something wrong. Therefore, the situation has not demolished Polish Arctic research, but I think that it will change the way some of us look at Russian colleagues. I really hope that Russian society and the state will change in the future – it is probably a few generations away.
(This interview took place on Thursday, 10 March 2022)