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Poland: NATO Entry Impacts Relations With Neighboring Countries

Warsaw, 1 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In less than two weeks Poland is to become a full member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek last week spoke in Warsaw with an RFE/RL correspondent about the possible effects of Poland's NATO membership on its relations with Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

Noting that the entry into the Western military alliance would give Poland a much needed and long-awaited guarantee of national security, Geremek also said that the move would inevitably have an impact on relations with neighboring countries. But he was quick to emphasize that "Poland as a member of NATO is even better prepared to improve those relations." Geremek said that this was particularly true with regard to Ukraine.

"Ukraine is, as we call it, a strategic partner for Poland, and Ukrainian independence is deeply rooted in the Polish national interest. And we have a very good relationship, we have the feeling that Ukraine sees Poland's accession to NATO as a chance for her security."

Poland's Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek is visiting Kyiv this week to boost economic contacts, in the latest demonstration of developing friendly relations between the two countries.

Geremek was less certain when he spoke about Poland's relations with Belarus, which, he said, currently appears to "be lacking trust" in Poland's accession to NATO and, as he put it, "is angry with NATO enlargement."

Belarusian officials, and particularly its president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, have consistently and vociferously opposed NATO's eastern enlargement, seeing in it a threat to their country's security and a danger to peace in the region.

Geremek questioned the scope of the fears expressed in Belarus.

"But the question is whether [this anger and fear] concerns the political elite of the country, the president of the country or also the Belarusian nation. Poland wants to obtain a good relationship with Belarus, with the Belarusian state and with the Belarusian people."

Geremek said that Poland would make every effort to convince Belarus, by moving gradually in a "step by step" fashion, that Warsaw's NATO entry is "in the interest of Belarus". He said Poland's membership in the Alliance would contribute to strengthening political stability and the elimination of conflicts in the region.

But for Poland the central foreign policy issue is still, as it has long been, the character of its relations with Russia. Geremek recalled centuries of Polish-Russian conflict -- Russia had been the main player in a series of partitions of Poland during past centuries and more recently dominated, under communist rule, its government and politics for more than four decades. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has suffered a major decline in its international influence. But it still remains an important regional power. Geremek noted that "the shadow of Russia is still in the region."

Moscow has strongly opposed Poland's entry into NATO, having finally been forced to accept it only owing to circumstances rather than any change of mind. It is still opposed to any further eastern NATO expansion. Even recently, Geremek said, Russia has tried to use negotiations with the West on conventional forces in Europe as "an instrument" to reduce Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic's status within NATO by imposing restrictions on their military strength.

Yet, Geremek appeared optimistic about the future:

"I have the feeling, and I am saying this just some weeks after my visit to Moscow (Jan. 26-28) that [by] becoming a member of NATO we can, in a more sure way, obtain loyal dialogue and cooperation with Russia. Russia understood that Poland is becoming a member of NATO, and Russia cannot say no, [there is] no room for a Russian veto in this case. And Russia can see in Poland's accession to NATO a good argument for her good relations with NATO. Poland will be, as member of NATO, the nation the most interested in the establishment of a good relationship between Russia and NATO."

Geremek emphasized that Poland is, and will remain, interested in developing friendly relations with Russia for a number of reasons: economic, cultural and political. He said Russia is still a big power. He noted that while Russia may currently be a "sick power", and that this sickness could last for some time, and even for a very long time, it still "matters" for Poland.

(This is the third of three features based on an interview with Bronislaw Geremek, Polish Foreign Minister and former chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.)