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Poland and Russia: a fresh start or business as usual?

Russia’s sympathy after the Polish government air crash in April 2010 gave real hope that relations between them would improve. Publishing secret Soviet documents relating to Katyn was a good start, but there was political calculation too. Russia is still playing its old imperial game in which Poland’s EU activities and promotion of democracy in Belarus play no part, warns Rafal Wonicki
Rafal Wonicki
2 August 2010

On 10 April the Polish presidential airplane crashed near Katyn forest, killing all the 96 top officials on board, including President Lech Kaczynski and his wife. This was the worst political tragedy in Poland’s postwar history, but many people consider it has led to the opening of a new chapter in Polish-Russian relations. However, the situation is not completely clear: Russian sympathy for Polish society’s great loss was very welcome, but there is a need to analyze the future of Polish-Russian relations. Russia belongs to the category of states whose behaviour on the international scene is determined by its ambition to be a superpower. Thus, the main imperative of Russian domestic and foreign policies is the existence of a strong state with a tough government, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its leadership in the eastern hemisphere.

We need to be aware of the fact that Russia wants to regain its former international position in Central and Eastern Europe too. At risk are Eastern countries’ independent foreign policy and, especially, their energy and security policies. In this respect Russia was very successful, for example, when it foiled US plans to locate elements of their anti-rocket shields in Poland and the Czech Republic. 

Contradictory strategic interests are the main obstacle to creating good Polish - Russian relations. Poland’s main objective is to protect its sovereign policy and the only way to achieve this is closer integration and cooperation with EU member states. Russia’s aim is to protect its integrity against Western influences. One of the ways of achieving this is to weaken Polish eastern foreign policy.

The behaviour of the Russian authorities after the catastrophe in Smolensk leads us to conclude that we must give consideration to the geopolitical factors determining Russian domestic and international politics. Gestures of sympathy, such as President Vladimir Putin’s compassionate hug of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk at the site of the crash are important, but one must not lose sight of the fact that Russian foreign policy is almost always calculated, rather than dictated by emotion. For this reason the Smolensk Tragedy can be treated as a new beginning in relations between Polish and Russian people, but not yet between their governments.  Past Russian foreign policy gives us little hope that her political elites will now redefine the principles governing their relations with Poland. Russia treats its western neighbours (Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia) as its natural sphere of influence. For Poland they are partners, states that should be sufficiently strong and democratic to counterbalance Russia.

It is of course true that the Smolensk tragedy will give new life to relations between societies in Poland and Russia, even at the diplomatic level. However, the new trend will not change either Russia’s main Western foreign policy or her geopolitical viewpoint and interests. Even if we admit that after the Georgia war in 2008 relations between the EU and Russia improved significantly (Open Democracy, Europe and the Georgia-Russia Conflict by Katinka Barysch) and that Russia has been making efforts to change its external image and internal policy (Open Democracy Eastern Europe’s Great Game by Katinka Barysch), this does not change the fact that Russia is playing its old imperial game with Poland. The strategy is a game of double politics: a nice gesture to show international opinion the friendly face of Russian authorities, and at the same time action to weaken and subdue Ukraine, Poland and the other Eastern European countries or diminish their international position.

There is no doubt that after the Smolensk tragedy the Russian authorities were active at the highest level. Katyń, the film by Andrzej Wajda, was shown on Russian public television and the original top secret documents concerning the crime committed in Katyn seventy years ago were made public. These actions were motivated by feelings of solidarity and compassion, but there was also an element of political calculation as part of the broader Russian strategy. The aim of the strategy is to show that Polish-Russian relations are good and that Poland’s anti-Russian stance in the EU is unjustified. Polish participation in the EU Eastern Partnership project, her position on possible membership of the EU for Ukraine and support for democratic change in Belarus: all are against Russian interests. After the Smolensk tragedy Russia had a unique opportunity to neutralize, at least partially, Polish eastern policy. Russia’s leadership probably considers that its friendly gestures could lead Poland to change its eastern policy.

Moreover, there is an apparent contrast in the eyes of the international public between the reasonable behaviour of Russian representatives and the emotional behaviour of the main opposition party in the Polish Parliament, the Law and Justice Party, whose leaders and members work up strong anti-Russian feeling. The Polish government, however, reacts reasonably and does not stir up anti-Russian emotion within Polish society. It has also established a friendly relationship with the Russian leaders and appointed Russia’s Interstate Aviation Committee to investigate the causes of the tragedy. The reaction of the Law and Justice Party is definitely extreme, but we should not allow ourselves to be blinded by the impression that Warsaw’s relations with Moscow are now better. There is no sign that Russia has changed its thinking about Poland and its plans concerning Eastern Europe. The Polish government should be aware that the current good relations between Poland and Russia can be used as means of weakening Polish eastern policy and eliminating Polish ideas of promoting EU and NATO expansion eastwards. Good relations with Moscow are crucial, but Poland should not neglect its own strategic interests.  It should continue to maintain its support for a democratic Belarus and to influence the EU common energy policy.

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