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20th Jan 2022

Poland seeks robust EU-Russia policy

  • Mr Tombinski signs an EU energy memo, with EU leaders in the background (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Keen to place itself at the centre of EU policy-making on Russia, Poland has flagged up some concerns over preparations for the upcoming European summit in Rostov-on-Don.

Speaking in an interview with EUobserver on Wednesday (18 May), Polish EU ambassador Jan Tombinski said that Warsaw backs new EU plans to help modernise the Russian economy and to move toward visa-free travel with its vast neighbour in the east.

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The European Commission is currently negotiating a "Partnership for Modernisation" with Moscow, to be unveiled in Rostov at the end of this month, envisaging more investment in Russia by EU firms in high-tech sectors such as microelectronics in return for Russian improvements to the rule of law.

The summit could also see the EU give Russia a 'political' promise to lift visa requirements in the coming years, despite worries in some EU capitals, including Berlin, that the move could encourage migrants from Central Asia to flock to Europe.

"We like the idea of a modern Russia very much - a modern country is one which does not have to choose between stability and democratic principles. One that practices predictable politics, which supports pluralistic political life," Mr Tombinski said.

Russian President Dmitry Medvdedev in his two years in office has increased the appetite for reform in the Russian political elite, the ambassador added.

He noted that lifting visas for Russia or other post-Soviet countries would not be a radical change for Poland, which had no local visa barriers until 2003, when it changed rules to meet EU accession criteria: "In that sense, today's discussion is for us a way to return to normality in contacts with Russia and the region."

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has since coming to power in 2007 tried to put relations with Russia on a more friendly footing after a series of messy disagreements between Warsaw and Moscow under Mr Tusk's predecessors, the Kaczynski twins.

With the Polish EU presidency coming up in 2011, Warsaw hopes its pragmatic approach will give it more clout in EU discussions on Russia policy. But despite the change in tone, Mr Tombinski said the "modernisation" initiative should take into account some difficult questions about Russia's intentions.

"It would be a danger if the EU, by engaging with Russia didn't actually help it to modernise itself. If the EU, for example, with the new 'partnership' allowed a transfer of know-how that strengthened the powers of its military and security bodies and put at risk the development of civil society and the rule of law," he said.

The ambassador said the EU should keep talks on a broader bilateral treaty, the so-called "post-PCA," which includes stronger commitments on human rights, at the top of its agenda. "We don't want the Partnership for Modernisation to become a side-alley for making progress in EU-Russia relations only on subjects which are comfortable for Russia," he explained.

He added that a visa-free promise for Russia should be accompanied by a similar offer to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The EU could extend the visa perspective to the group-of-six during informal remarks in the post-Rostov press conference or in the conclusions of the EU foreign ministers' gathering in June, he said.

The Polish diplomat pointed out that EU visas are a political and security issue in post-Soviet Europe.

In the run-up to the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, Moscow handed out Russian passports to people in Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. The Russian passports were more attractive than Georgian travel documents because Russian passport-holders already pay less to enter the EU than Georgians. The process undermined Georgia's territorial integrity and gave Russia a pretext to invade South Ossetia to protect 'its citizens,' however.

"The experience of 2008 shows that Russian passportisation policy uses access to the EU as a way of undermining certain countries," Mr Tombinski said.

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