To date, Russo-Polish diplomatic relations have largely kept to a single format of celebrating various events dating from the Second World War. Russia was fighting Germany at the time, with the US and UK as her main allies. Soviet troops managed to fight their way to a dozen countries ranging from China to Finland, but, for several reasons, the war has become a strange combination of obsession and obligation in Russo-Poland relations, and grips both governments to this day.
The leaders of both countries would, it seems, be happy never to have met eachother, but they have been landed with the legacy of these pesky anniversary celebrations. Each time, there has to be some extremely complicated diplomatic footwork: who will be invited and who will be despatched to sit solemnly on the stage during the next ceremony of remembrance? There is the 9 May, the Katyn anniversary, Westerplatte (the beginning of the Second World War in Europe), the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Warsaw uprising, the liberation of Krakow, and Auschwitz … So many important dates that one loses count, and each of them has an anniversary celebration at least once every five years.
The leaders of both countries would seemingly be happy never to have to met eachother, but they have been landed with the legacy of these pesky anniversary celebrations.
The question of whom to invite and to send, relates, on the one hand, to the need to show enough respect for historical memory, and on the other, not to lavish too much attention on the host government. It was always a very complex question for both Russians and Poles, and now, with the Ukrainian crisis, it has become practically insoluble. And since spring 2014, diplomats from both countries have been looking on in horror as the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz draws inexorably closer (today, in fact).
The Auschwitz date
The Auschwitz date has always been considered quite simple from the point of view of organising solemn celebrations. It was nothing like as serious as, for instance, 9 May, when the Poles never knew whether their president should go to the Russian celebrations or not – it was, after all, a real victory, and a Polish one too, but what kind of victory was it when it was followed by years of foreign domination, again?
Or Katyn – should the Polish leaders go to the Smolensk region? And if they did, then who should be sent to meet them there from the Russian side, so as to avoid seeming too contrite? Westerplatte, with its Molotov and Ribbentrop associations, is also not one of the nicest anniversaries.
Against the backdrop of such thorny problems, Auschwitz always seemed a model of clarity. There were never any intrigues connected with its anniversaries and it did not lend itself to a mulitiplicity of interpretations. Whatever one thinks about other liberations, the Auschwitz inmates were indeed liberated, and it was the Russians who did it. For this reason the Poles always sent Moscow invitations at the highest, presidential, level. Even when Lech Kaczynski was president of Poland – and for him grappling with Russia was an important element of Polish foreign policy – he invited then-President Medvedev to the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Because how could he do otherwise?
Russo-Polish diplomatic relations have previously stuck to a single format. (c) Amador Guallar / Demotix.
Russia received these Auschwitz invitations without any particular enthusiasm: we have liberated so much in your country that we can't go to all the celebrations. In 2010, Dmitry Medvedev did not even accept his invitation to the 65th anniversary: he sent his education minister Andrei Fursenko to take the Russophobic Kaczynski down a peg or two.
At that very same time, however, President Putin very willingly travelled to considerably more complex anniversary celebrations, e.g. Westerplatte or Katyn. It was not only that Medvedev's invitation came from the unpopular Kaczynski, whereas Putin's came from Tusk, at the time a friend of Moscow. Both Westerplatte and Katyn opened up opportunities for Putin to make new and creatively different moves: there was the chance to do something strikingly unexpected, to startle everyone and at the same time to get something done. But Auschwitz offered no such opportunities – it was just an official talking-shop, which is why Putin has not attended the event since 2005, when he was invited by socialist president Kwasniewski, who was friendly with Russia.
A different position
But the time of such arrogant refusals has now passed. Russia is in a very different position. It will soon be a year since the annexation of Crimea; Putin's European trips since then can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and one of them was to Serbia. Why care about such foreign negotiations? Because any chance to be seen among peaceful world leaders has to be taken, otherwise one starts feeling like Belarus president Aleksandr Lukashenka. The 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz seemed a reliable guarantee of just such an opportunity – after all, one seemingly can't celebrate a liberation without the liberators. But the Poles spent many months of nifty footwork to ensure that Putin did not actually visit them, and they pulled it off.
One seemingly can't celebrate a liberation without the liberators
Anniversary celebrations are predictable and not difficult to pre-plan, so the Poles started talking about the problems of Putin coming to Auschwitz as early as May 2014. Then-president Donald Tusk did not mince his words on the subject: we will of course invite the Russians, but as for Putin – we'll see how he behaves himself ('this depends on further developments in the Ukrainian conflict'). These advance conditions for receiving an invitation made it pretty likely that Putin would refuse to go – he has little need of Polish rewards for good behaviour.
After the downing of MH17, the situation became even more complicated. The Poles realised that there could be no question of receiving Putin. A few days after the plane tragedy, the directors of the Auschwitz Museum, who were formally in charge of organising the celebrations, announced that they had changed the format, and the ceremony would this time be centred on the survivors of the camp. World leaders would not be offered the chance to make speeches, but could sit silently by so as not to politicise the celebrations.
The last blow, delivered by the Poles, which would guarantee a refusal, was the format of the invitation. For the first time, the Polish foreign ministry decided that since the formal organisers of the events would be a committee of museum staff, historians, and public figures, then they could issue the invitations to the eminent guests. Instead of the usual official invitations, diplomats received unsigned letters with vaguely worded 'notes verbales' attached – come if you feel like it, as it were.
But European governments did not lose heart. They asked the Polish Foreign Ministry for clarification as to whether their leaders were really being invited. The Poles replied that they were. The Russian government, however, decided that it was unsuitable for the liberators to be expected to react to vague notes, and so made no approach to the Polish foreign ministry. The decision was that Putin would not go unless he received a special invitation; and that Russia would be represented by its ambassador to Poland.
The alternative celebration
In spite of the Poles' diplomatic manouuvring, Putin still had a chance of exploiting the 70th anniversary of the liberation, to go to Europe and meet up with at least some European leaders. This year the Czech Republic has decided to have its own, alternative, celebrations to honour the liberation of Auschwitz. The camp may have been in Poland, but some of the inmates there came from the Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, Theresienstadt, so the Czechs decided that they were also entitled to a piece of the celebrations.
It is difficult to work out where this strange Czech initiative originated. Anonymous sources in the Polish and Czech foreign ministries have different tales to tell. The versions vary, from the Poles themselves asking the Czechs to take part in the political part of the meeting, leaving them only the historical part, to the unprincipled Czech government selling out to Putin and setting up its own celebrations so that the Russian president could come and meet up with at least someone.
Whatever the truth, Putin has been officially invited to the Czech liberation of Auschwitz, which will be at the same time as the Polish celebrations, and his invitation came from Czech president Miloš Zeman. The problem is the other participants. The Czechs very fairly sent out invitations to all the 47 countries invited by the Poles, but the majority of them have given preference to the Poles. Obama will not attend either the Polish or the Czech celebrations; France, Germany, Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Malta, Luxemburg, and Slovenia are all sending their leaders to Poland. Even the Czech prime minister is going.
So far only the Bulgarian president has accepted the Czech invitation, and President Zeman will be there to receive him. Approximately 20 speakers from various European parliaments will do little to rectify the situation. It would be really too strange if all the European leaders gather in Auschwitz, even if they make no speeches, while Putin hangs out in the Czech Republic, in the company of the Czech and Bulgarian presidents.
Most upsetting, however, is not that the Russian president will lose the opportunity to go to Europe on a visit to celebrate the Soviet army liberating Auschwitz. What is more noteworthy is that the news Putin had refused to come went almost unnoticed in Poland.
The media hoohah around Putin's visit to Poland has gone through a 180 degree swing. Just a few years ago the Poles would have spent several weeks discussing the visit of a Russian leader, and it would have been headline news, with the media minutely analysing the situation – it's not Merkel coming, it's Putin himself. In Russia the news would have figured somewhere in the background as another working visit, and nothing special.
Now it is the other way round. For a whole week, the Russian media have been discussing the Auschwitz ceremony, Putin's refusal of the invitation, and the ingratitude of the Poles, analysing the reasons and possible outcomes. In Poland it is no more than an insignificant international news item – so he's refused, so he's not coming. In Poland we're worrying about the Swiss franc exchange rate, reforming the coal industry, and other European matters, so we're not bothered about Putin.
This article first appeared in Russian on Slon.ru in January 2015. Standfirst image of tributes before execution wall at Auschwitz-Birkenau. (c) Amador Guallar / Demotix.