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Poland: Ties Affirmed, But No Major Breakthroughs On Putin's Visit

  • Kathleen Moore

Russian President Vladimir Putin today continued his state visit to Poland, the first by a Russian leader in eight years. So far he's squeezed in meetings with President Alexander Kwasniewski, Prime Minister Leszek Miller, business leaders, and a Polish olympic judo champion. After talks with Kwasniewski yesterday, Putin hailed a new era in relations between the two countries.

Prague, 17 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The last time a Russian leader visited Poland was in 1993, when Boris Yeltsin hinted Russia would accept Central European membership in NATO -- and then hastily backtracked upon returning to Moscow.

Since then, of course, Poland has joined the alliance and relations remained cool between the two for much of the last decade. One of the low points came in early 2000, when Poland expelled nine Russian diplomats it said were spies, and Moscow responded in kind, also expelling nine Polish diplomats.

But relations have been warming of late, and analysts say this week's visit is the fruit of those efforts.

The visit began on a chummy note, with Putin speaking of a "decisive turning point" in relations. This was the Russian president speaking yesterday: "Poland is interested in creating complex relations with Russia, and Russia is interested in not only economic, but also in political relations with Poland."

Jakub Boratynski is director of the European affairs program at Warsaw's Stefan Batory Foundation. He told RFE/RL: "There's certainly an element, if not [of a] new era, then of substantial warming up in relations between the two countries. In fact, the process started over a year ago and I think it's just the result of recognition of Russian interests and a general shift in Russian policy, which especially under the leadership of Putin became more pragmatic."

Some have expressed disappointment at the gaps in Putin's program. Reuters quotes Marek Borowski, the speaker of the Sejm, Poland's lower house of parliament, as saying he had hoped Putin would address parliament -- as he did in Germany last year.

There is also some disappointment that Putin did not offer apologies for Soviet-era atrocities, such as the massacre of thousands of Polish officers in Russia's Katyn forest during World War II. And Putin did not visit the monument to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, an event in which historians say Soviet troops failed to offer help.

Putin also said there will be no compensation for Polish victims of Stalinism -- though he said they might benefit from a law offering official rehabilitation: "As you know, Russia has passed a law on rehabilitation of people who have suffered from political repression. This concerns mostly the Stalin period of Soviet history. I think that also citizens of Poland who have been repressed during that time can profit from this law."

Slawomir Debski specializes in Russian foreign policy at the Polish Institute for International Affairs. He says the lack of apologies so far is understandable given what he politely calls a difference in Russian and Polish perspectives on the era: "I think we have to wait -- for these kinds of apologies -- maybe until the next generation. We have to remember that the father of Mr. Putin fought against the Nazis, the fascists. It's very difficult for [Putin] and his generation, not to mention the older [generation], [for whom Stalin] is a kind of hero and Stalinism is sometimes perceived as the period [of success] of Russia."

Commentators note there were some reconciliatory gestures. Putin handed Kwasniewski some documents relating to General Wladyslaw Sikorski, who led Poland's wartime government in exile. And he paid an unscheduled visit to the monument to the Polish underground, an event featured on the front page of the daily "Rzeczppospolita" under the headline "The Russian President's Gestures."

Both Debski and Boratynski say the two countries' relationship is now firmly pragmatic. Poland wants a friendly Russia and a market for its goods to address Poland's huge trade deficit with Russia -- some $3.5 billion.

But economic ties are where the trickiest problems lie. Poland has been trying to renegotiate a deal that has it agreeing to buy more Russian gas than it needs. It also wants to diversify its gas supplies and has signed agreements with Norway and Denmark. Then there's the issue of transit fees for the part of the Yamal pipeline that goes through Poland. And the two sides have yet to agree on a route for a second gas pipeline.

Boratynski says the visit has not produced any breakthrough on these main points of contention: "There is also a dispute, a difference of opinion inside Poland on the issue of, for example, how determined Poland should be in finalizing the gas deals with Norway and Denmark, which would certainly not be very much welcomed by Russia. So I think at the current stage it's very difficult to say what will be the development. But certainly the fact of Putin's visit is somehow easing the situation and opening channels of communication."

Boratynski says there's a lot of optimism in the business sector that the visit will help improve Polish access to Russian markets. "It will certainly not be a return to the pre-Russian crisis situation when Poland was massively selling food and other products, because one of the elements or effects of the crisis is that this kind of domestic production has developed in Russia. But again taking into account the huge deficit in trade relations, there's clearly the hope for development of institutions and a framework for cooperation between the two countries."

Putin traveled on to Poznan today to attend a Polish-Russian business forum.

Before he left Warsaw he laid a wreath at the monument to Soviet war dead -- 57 years to the day Soviet troops entered Warsaw. Both Boratynski and Debski say that, though the date may be symbolic, it had little significance for the visit or for Polish-Russian relations.

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