19th Feb 2019

Poland keen to shed anti-Russian image inside the EU

Positive chemistry between Russia and Poland at a World War II remembrance event on Tuesday (1 September) could open a new chapter of realpolitik in bilateral ties, with implications for Poland's place in the EU.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Polish leader Donald Tusk on Tuesday morning spent 30 minutes chatting in a friendly manner in view of cameras on a pier in the Polish town of Sopot on the Baltic Sea coast.

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  • Some 20 European leaders gathered in Poland on 1 September 2009, 70 years after Germany started World War II by shelling the Polish town of Westerplatte (Photo: premier.gov.ru)

The meeting - the first of its type in eight years - stood out next to ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II in nearby Westerplatte, where around 20 European leaders gathered to pay respects.

Mr Putin in an open letter in Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza the same day held out the prospect of putting Russian-Polish relations on the same privileged footing as Russian-German ties.

"The Russian-German partnership has become an example of reaching out to one another, of looking to the future while paying attention to past memories ...I am sure that Russian-Polish relations will sooner or later attain the same level," he wrote.

The Russian premier offered to open national archives on the Katyn massacre, where Russian soldiers in 1940 killed 21,768 Polish officers and intellectuals being held as prisoners of war.

He also signed an agreement giving Polish ships passage to Polish waters - the Zalew Wislany - through a Russian-controlled gap in a Baltic Sea promontory.

For their part, Polish politicians avoided any Russia-critical remarks.

Even the nationalistic Polish President, Lech Kaczynski, restrained himself to a muted allusion to Russia's 2008 partition of Georgia, saying that infringements of territorial integrity are "wrong also today."

"Russia and Poland have a perspective of working together as partners, of building relations appropriate to two great European nations," Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski said. "This [Mr Putin's letter] is the kind language that one partner should use with another."

Prickly relations

Poland and Russia have endured prickly relations since Poland joined Nato and the EU, culminating in Poland's veto in 2006 of an EU-Russia partnership pact under the government of Lech Kaczynski's brother, Jaroslaw.

The Kaczynski twins' style of diplomacy reinforced Poland's reputation in EU circles as a Russophobe country, which should be marginalised in the interest of broader EU-Russia ties.

The reputation did not help Mr Sikorski's failed bid in 2009 to become the new chief of Nato. It also threatens to complicate Poland's role as the EU presidency in 2011 and its relationship with the new, Russia-friendly US government.

The Polish administration remains sceptical about Russia's strategic intentions despite the thaw in Sopot, however.

One test of the reconciliation will come in Russian-Polish negotiations on prices for Russian gas in 2010. If the talks end in disruption of supplies, as in Ukraine earlier this year, they may revive Polish accusations that Russia uses energy as a political weapon against former Communist states.

Personal image

Mr Putin's personal image in Polish society as a cynical ex-KGB agent will also be hard to erase.

Anti-Putin protesters in Sopot on Tuesday erected a three metre-high phallus with "Putin" written on the side of the structure, leading to three arrests, Polish daily Dziennik reports.

"We consider Vladimir Putin as a person responsible for war crimes in Chechnya, violations of human rights law, and the murder and intimidation of activists," one of the protesters said.

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