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17th Apr 2021

EU could benefit from Polish-Russian rapprochement

  • Polish leader Donald Tusk and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn killings on Wednesday (Photo: European Commission)

Russia's greater openness toward examining Soviet-era crimes such as the Katyn massacre could help normalise its relations with the EU's eastern flank.

When Polish leader Donald Tusk meets Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Katyn, near Smolensk in western Russia, on Wednesday (7 April) to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn killings, the solemnities will be watched with interest in the eight former Communist and Soviet countries which joined the EU in 2004.

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Stalin's secret police, the NKVD, in 1940 murdered some 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in the forests around Katyn and other locations, most of them with a shot to the back of the head, in order to facilitate the Soviet Union's occupation of Poland.

Poland would like Mr Putin, a former agent of the NKVD's successor organisation, the KGB, to apologise, classify the killings as a "war crime" or even "genocide" and to release historical documents, such as papers showing that Stalin ordered the massacre.

Realistically, Warsaw hopes that he condemns the killings in an unequivocal way, without, for example, asking Poland to be grateful for its Soviet "liberation" from Nazi Germany - a sentiment voiced by Russian academics in a TV debate on Katyn at the weekend.

"The very fact that he has invited Mr Tusk is significant. The meeting will be shown on Russian TV and it will increase awareness about this crime in Russian society at large," a senior Polish diplomat told EUobserver.

The Russian government's unwillingness to definitively break off with Soviet-era ideology has deepened mistrust among its neighbours, complicating EU-Russia relations.

"The famous Polish meat veto shows how easily problems of a technical character can lead to a breakdown in relations if there is a climate of mistrust," Polish analyst Pawel Swieboda said, referring to Warsaw's 2006 veto on a wide-ranging new EU-Russia pact after Russia blocked Polish meat exports on phytosanitary grounds.

"If there is an artificial reconciliation, without an open dialogue about these painful aspects of history, then you can make gestures, you can write treaties, but things explode very quickly," Lithuania's deputy foreign minister, Evaldas Ignatavicius, told this website.

Mr Ignatavicius believes that Russia and its former vassals need to undergo the same process of profound historical reckoning as Germany did with France and Poland after World War II before the enlarged EU can "press the reset button" with Moscow, in a phrase recalling the new US administration's policy on Russia.

But opinion is divided as to how far Mr Putin's elite is open to change.

"Russia has been waiting for years to take this step [on Katyn reconciliation] but it has been waiting for the right moment. It needed somebody less anti-Russian," Valery Shiriaev, the deputy editor of Russia's independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper, said, referring to the Russia-hostile government which preceded Mr Tusk in Poland.

"If Russia is willing to break off from its Soviet past, as Germany did from its Nazi past, it could help the country go in a more liberal direction, maybe even one day to become a democracy," Polish centre-right MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski said.

Mr Swieboda, the head of the Warsaw-based DemosEUROPA think tank, believes that Mr Putin's motives are short-term and pragmatic, however.

"Russia is undergoing a financial crisis and a security crisis. It needs better relations with the EU to solve its problems and at the same time Poland is becoming a more important player in the EU," he said.

"This [the joint meeting with Mr Tusk in Katyn] is a political decision to improve relations with Europe. We should not expect a golden era in Russia relations, but a bit more normality perhaps."

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