23rd Nov 2017

'Genocide' text points to limits of Polish-Russian reconciliation

  • Candles in Warsaw for the late president. Conspiracy theories are circulating in the Polish foreign ministry (Photo: Piotr Pawlowski)

MEPs have watered down a statement on the Soviet Union's killings of Polish officers in 1940 amid underlying tensions between Warsaw and Moscow.

The communique by the EU-Russia inter-parliamentary delegation was adopted on Tuesday (11 May) and said in reference to the fateful flight in April of the late Polish president Lech Kaczynski: "The presidential plane was carrying a delegation to Katyn, to commemorate a war crime having the character of genocide."

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The first draft of the text, penned personally by Polish MEP Marek Migalski, who hails from the late president's right-wing Law and Justice party, had said more forcefully that the 1940 killings were "genocide."

Other deputies, including the delegation chairman, German centre-left MEP Knut Fleckenstein, forced the alteration.

They also inserted the phrase: "The Delegation thanks the responsible Russian authorities for their emphatic support of the investigation of this tragedy [the plane crash]."

Mr Migalski's first draft goes beyond what has been said on Katyn by the Polish sejm, by the Polish president of the EU parliament, Jerzy Buzek, and by Russian authorities.

He was sanguine about the change, saying: "For me, there's no great difference. If something 'has the character' of genocide, then it's the same thing as calling it 'genocide'." He intends to push for another Katyn statement at the level of the Brussels plenary assembly, however.

Mr Fleckenstein believes the change is important and says further statements are not needed: "It's up to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to decide if Katyn was a genocide or not. The ruling is pending and we should wait."

The difference in approach is illuminating at a time when many commentators in western Europe predict a rapprochement in Polish-Russian relations on the back of the Kaczynski tragedy, but observers in Poland see a lot of unfinished historic business.

"Poland already plays the role of an expert in dealing with the EU's eastern neighbors. It is clear for Russia, when it approaches us to propose initiatives on the Kaliningrad circuit. It is clear for countries in the region interested in developing the EU's Eastern Partnership policy. And it is becoming clear for our partners in Brussels, where we are discussing a strategic partnership [with Russia]," the spokesman for the Polish mission to the EU said.

Another Polish diplomat suggested that Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk's recent warm rhetoric on Russia is merely a tactical move to increase Warsaw's influence in Brussels, however: "Tusk wants to become the main interlocutor between the EU and Russia in order to increase Poland's importance inside the EU."

Behind the political facade, many Polish officials still mistrust the Kremlin to the extent that they nurture private conspiracy theories about the Kaczynski crash.

"It took away in one fell swoop the whole anti-Russian Polish elite. Whose interests does that serve?" a contact said.

Another Polish source said: "They should have convened an international commission to investigate the crash right away. Instead they let Russia take charge of it. Russia is a hostile country to Poland. It's not a normal country."

The spokesman for the Polish EU mission put forward a different point of view: "I wonder whom it would serve to reinforce the faded cliche that there is anti-Russian elite in Poland? I am convinced that after the Polish presidential elections we will be able to calmly evaluate the effects on Polish-Russian relations of [Russian] gestures after the tragedy of 10 April."

The joint Russian-Polish probe is still ongoing, with investigators on Wednesday saying that heavy use of mobile phones by Polish passengers may have brought the plane down.

For his part, Mr Migalski said it would be "unacceptable, irresponsible" to speak of any plots before the official results come out. "Not for a moment did I think of this, that somewhere behind this could stand the Russian secret services," he said.

The article was updated on 13 April, adding the quotes from the Polish spokesman

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