Australia’s ambassador to Poland and why Canada’s world-stage win isn’t helping at home.
It was 34c when Paul Wojciechowski left Canberra in January 2016 to take up his post as Australia’s ambassador to Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania. When he and his wife (also an Australian diplomat) landed in Warsaw 25 hours later, it was winter. It was the first time their daughter, who was two at the time, had seen snow.
Poland was new yet familiar. Wojciechowski was born in the country but left with his parents in 1981 as refugees. Awaiting resettlement in Austria, his parents picked Australia from a handful of offers, despite not speaking English. “We had to find out what Brisbane was – and this was before the internet. You can find it on the map but you can’t even get a book when you’re in a refugee camp in Austria,” says Wojciechowski, who was 12 at the time. “It was a huge gamble and an adventure.”
His story reflects the growth of Australia, which has seen its population double to 25 million since 1970. Today only half of residents have two Australian-born parents. Indeed, it was a Polish-born sociologist who moved to Canberra in the 1950s, Jerzy Zubrzycki, who is now considered the “father of Australian multiculturalism”. After joining the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1992, Wojciechowski served at Australia’s embassies in Seoul, Jakarta and Brussels. Then he was offered the post of ambassador in Warsaw. “I didn’t know contemporary Poland so it has been a surprise, particularly on the economic side, which is hugely dynamic,” he says. “Warsaw is a terrific place to live and work.”
Wojciechowski’s arrival coincided with a populist turn in Poland, with the election of the anti-immigration Law and Justice (PiS) party in October 2015. Yet, despite this rightward turn, he says officials in Warsaw have welcomed him with goodwill. As ambassador he has focused on public and economic diplomacy, ensuring good access for Australian investment. “There has been a strong emergence of central and eastern European countries that are incredibly open and pro-trade,” he says, contrasting it to the rise of protectionism in other parts of the world. His perfect Polish, in addition to his Korean and Indonesian, has been a huge asset. “It has given me an unprecedented level of access,” he says.
Wojciechowski’s airy residence in Warsaw’s Mokotow district is decorated with paintings from Artbank, an Australian government programme that loans out contemporary art. Flat whites are served in china decorated with the Australian coat of arms: a kangaroo and an emu. Snow is no longer a novelty and, to Wojciechowski’s parents’ delight, his daughter has picked up Polish at nursery. “They never expected my children to speak Polish like that,” he says. “We have come full circle.”
By building a rapport with other central Asian leaders and resolving land disputes with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan’s president Shavkat Mirziyoyev is turning sharp foreign policy corners from his predecessor Islam Karimov. “He realises relaxed borders and good relationships with neighbours are key to boosting the economy,” says intelligence analyst Mollie Saltskog.
Russia and China vie for influence in central Asia but face competition from the US; Donald Trump hosted Mirziyoyev there last May.
The Trudeau government’s ambitious plans to welcome nearly one million new migrants to Canada by 2020 will continue apace this year. It’s a domestic goal that Ottawa also hopes can be replicated internationally. In December, Canadian Louise Arbour spearheaded the implementation of the UN’s Global Compact on Migration – the first agreement of its kind on the rights of migrants, safeguarding refugees and enshrining legal migration among the 164 signatories.
But the compact is facing trouble. The US abandoned the agreement last year and Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsanaro, has also rejected it. A handful of other countries also opted out.
Meanwhile, Trudeau is facing increasing pressure at home too. While Canada has, for the most part, resisted the anti-immigration waves that have swept other western nations, a recent surge in asylum seekers crossing the American border has stoked fears and made it a hot-button topic in public discourse. In early December, the newly elected government of Québec – Canada’s Francophone province – announced a plan to slim the number of annual immigrants from more than 50,000 in 2018 to 40,000 for the year ahead. With a general election slated for October, immigration will continue to be a test for Trudeau at home and abroad.