This year, Poland and Lithuania held a rather unconventional celebration of the 226th anniversary of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Constitution of May 3. Embassies of both countries in Ukraine decided to hold a concert of Polish-Lithuanian music at the National Opera in Kyiv on May 17.
Let us recall that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Constitution of May 3, 1791 (actually entitled the Government Act) is commonly considered the first European constitution in the modern sense of the term, which was enacted by the Four-Year Sejm in Poland and remade the Commonwealth’s political system in accordance with the ideas of the Enlightenment. While preserving the estates of the realm system, the Constitution strengthened the executive built on the principle of hereditary monarchy, abolished the liberum veto, expanded the rights of burghers and weakened the magnates’ position. The division of the nation into the Crown of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was abolished. The principal framers of the Constitution were King Stanislaw August Poniatowski, Count Ignacy Potocki, and politician and journalist Hugo Kollataj. The Constitution was repealed after the Targowica Confederation’s creation and Russia’s armed intervention.
Ukrainians have every right to consider the Orlyk Constitution of 1710 the first European constitution, which due to unfavorable historical circumstances had not been enacted and implemented. This fact prevents the Ukrainian historical document from “competing” with the Polish one, which was actually enacted and had a wide, though short-lived, impact.
The Constitution of May 3, 1791 came in response to domestic and international situation of the Commonwealth of the Two Nations, which just 150 years before (in the middle of the 17th century) was one of the most powerful European states and the largest country in Europe.
The Constitution of May 3 influenced later democratic movements across the world. After the loss of independence and the start of Poland’s 123-year-long period of foreign domination, it was the Constitution of May 3 that served as the reminder of the struggle for Polish freedom. According to two co-authors of the document, Potocki and Kollataj, the Constitution was “the last will and testament of the dying Homeland.”
On May 5, 1791, May 3 was declared the Constitution Day. The celebration of this holiday was forbidden during the partition era in Poland. In April 1919, the holiday was restored in the newly independent state.
The May 3 Constitution Day was outlawed by the Nazis and the pro-Soviet Communist government that dominated post-WWII Poland. Through 1989, the day was often marked with protests and anti-Communist demonstrations in Poland. It was the new Poland that made the May 3 Constitution Day a public holiday again in April 1990.
On the eve of the celebration, The Day asked the Polish and Lithuanian ambassadors why it had been decided to celebrate the 226th anniversary of the Constitution of May 3 in Ukraine this year.
“FREEDOM IS A COMMON CAUSE”
Jan PIEKLO, Ambassador of the Republic of Poland in Ukraine:
“The essence of our Constitution of May 3 is the spirit of freedom. By the way, Lithuanians also celebrate that date as a public holiday. Basically, this event also concerns Ukraine, which was part of the Commonwealth at the time.
“That is why we will celebrate the 226th anniversary of the enacting of the Constitution of May 3 at the National Opera in Kyiv on May 17. It is the first time that we celebrate the Constitution Day together with the Lithuanians and Ukrainians. We need to show it is a common cause, as was the case with our rebellions, including the formation of the Solidarity movement that led to Poland’s exit from the Soviet domination sphere. Your country had the Orange Revolution, and then the Revolution of Dignity. All these were joint actions taken in a common cause.
“Let us turn now to Polish politicians raising historical issues lately that complicate relations between Ukraine and Poland. This question can be seen in a different way, enabling one to say that if someone wants to look at things from an optimistic perspective, history helps us solve all shared issues, but on the other hand, if someone wants to look at things from a pessimistic perspective, history hinders our cooperation. So, it depends on one’s approach, either optimistic or pessimistic.
“For my part as an ambassador, I wish that we Poles could together with the Ukrainians work hard to shape a common position of the EU, particularly on security, to enable Ukrainians to come to Poland, Germany, Spain, Portugal without obstacles and not needing a visa, and to build a strong bilateral relationship.
“To force Russia to stop its aggression in Ukraine and return Crimea, we need to show that we are together, as ‘together we are many, and we cannot be defeated.’ If we show it to Russia, it will find it harder to keep doing what it is doing. After three years of war, a better understanding has emerged that Russia is an aggressor, and we can even say that it has changed the approach of that part of the European elite who wanted to maintain dialog with Russia. There is an understanding that Russia simply does not want to be a partner, it wants to spoil things.”
“...THIS IS ONE STRIKING EXAMPLE, WHICH YOUR PUBLIC IS STILL NOT FULLY AWARE OF”
Marius JANUKONIS, Ambassador of the Republic of Lithuania in Ukraine:
“The joint celebration of the 226th anniversary of the enacting of the Constitution of May 3 in Kyiv aims to display to the Ukrainian public our shared history more overtly, which Ukraine was a part of. In that, the Constitution of May 3 is one striking example which your public is still not fully aware of. It was the first implemented democratic constitution in Europe and second in the world – after the US Constitution. Of course, it was enacted in a difficult time. Still, this is our common achievement.
“The joint event to be held on the occasion at the National Opera in Kyiv is an example of cooperation between Lithuania and Poland. We decided to celebrate this day in Kyiv together for the first time. I think it is very symbolic and very important for our region to unite on the foundation of our common history.
“Let us turn now to the statement of President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko that by getting visa-free travel to the EU, ‘Ukraine has finalized its divorce with the Russian Empire.’ I think this is an important step towards closer integration with the EU, and Ukraine is one of the leaders in the Eastern Partnership and association with the EU process. Of course, Russia is not moving in the same direction.
“Meanwhile, to move faster towards EU membership, Ukraine should pursue reforms that are important for regular citizens and its business community alike. This will create new opportunities for closer integration.
“To get Vladimir Putin to retreat from Ukraine and return Crimea, we should maintain pressure on Russia. No conditions for lifting of sanctions are present so far, because Russia has failed to comply with the Minsk Agreements. This is the main criterion for normalization of relations with Russia.”