Old Foes See Reasons to Get Along

By Judy Dempsey

President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia awarded the Order of Friendship this week to Andrzej Wajda, the celebrated Polish film director, an event few Poles or Russians could have imagined taking place.

Renowned for his films about his country’s stubborn resistance to Soviet domination, Mr. Wajda in 2007 touched a nerve among Russians with “Katyn,” his epic on the murder in 1940 of Poland’s officer corps in the forests of western Russia. Under the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, the Kremlin never acknowledged responsibility for the massacre of more than 20,000 Poles, including 14,000 officers. The Nazis were blamed. When “Katyn” was released, no Russian cinema showed it.

What a turnaround then for Mr. Wajda when Mr. Medvedev praised him for improving relations between these two Slavic nations plagued over centuries by war, distrust and enmity.

> Map Of Poland
This change of attitude by Poland and Russia goes beyond the bilateral. Rather, it is about Warsaw’s, and especially Moscow’s, relationship with Europe, according to Dmitri V. Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Because Russia was hit hard by the global economic crisis and is seeking ways to modernize its economy, the importance of theEuropean Union has increased. “That is why Warsaw, as the E.U.’s gatekeeper, has to be managed more carefully by Russia,” argues Dr. Trenin. A rapprochement with Warsaw could also allow Russian companies to use Poland as a gateway to Europe’s lucrative energy market, to which Mr. Medvedev alluded during his visit here.

It may seem strange that as a relative newcomer to the European Union, Poland should be so important to Russia. Yet because Poland is now anchored in the Euro-Atlantic structures of NATO and the Union, it can pull more of its weight. The Polish president, Bronislaw Komorowski, said as much after talks with Mr. Medvedev. He said he wanted the Union to have the best possible relations with Russia, with Poland “wanting influence in that relationship.”

Of course it was this influence — or rather Russia’s loss of what was one of its most important satellites during the Cold War — that the Kremlin feared when Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. Then, Russian officials, including Prime MinisterVladimir V. Putin, who was president at the time, accused Poland of preventing better ties between the Union and Moscow for anti-Russian reasons.

So when Russia banned the import of Polish meat products to Russia in 2005 for alleged health reasons, Poland retaliated by blocking a new E.U.-Russian trade and cooperation accord. Several E.U. member states criticized what they interpreted as Poland’s uncompromising stance toward Russia, and several East European countries supported Poland’s position. The Kremlin, adept at exploiting its bilateral ties, expected that its closest E.U. ally, Germany, would side with Russia. But Chancellor Angela Merkel said E.U. solidarity would prevail over Moscow’s attempts to play Germany and other “old” member states against Poland and the “new” ones.

Since becoming chancellor in 2005, Mrs. Merkel had worked hard to improve ties between Warsaw and Berlin, never easy because of Germany’s history of occupying Poland and of doing deals with Russia behind Poland’s back. Analysts say the vibrant political and economic relationship now existing between Berlin and Warsaw has given Poland the self-confidence to engage rather than confront Russia.

Poland has toned down its anti-Russian rhetoric, and not only because Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s center-right Civic Platform government has forged a strong relationship with the German government, which supports Warsaw engaging Russia. Mr. Tusk wants a more pragmatic relationship with Russia for another reason.

“The Poles realized that if they wanted influence in the E.U., particularly in foreign and security policy, they had to be more constructive in the E.U.,” said Susan Stewart, a Russia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

Mr. Medvedev acknowledged as much this week in Warsaw. “As Russia does not belong to NATO or the E.U., our relations with both organizations are important. And good relations with our Polish comrades will help us,” he said. To achieve this, Mr. Medvedev said, Russia would continue “cleaning up its historical debris,” a reference to Katyn.

Mr. Putin had begun clearing away some of that debris last year when he wrote an astonishing article for the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza that coincided with the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. “The people of Russia, whose destiny was crippled by the totalitarian regime, fully understand the sensitivities of Poles about Katyn, where thousands of servicemen lie,” Mr. Putin wrote.

Last April he invited Mr. Tusk to attend a ceremony at Katyn, where Mr. Putin, pausing to kneel, laid a wreath at the memorial. “It was there and then that the ice was broken between Poland and Russia,” according to Dr. Trenin from Carnegie Moscow.

Lech Kaczynski, the Polish president at the time, traveled to the memorial three days later with his wife and 94 officials, including leading civil servants. They were all killed when the plane carrying them crashed in thick fog in Smolensk, not far from Katyn. In response, Russia declared a national day of mourning. Days later, Mr. Wajda’s film “Katyn” was shown on Russian television. Mr. Medvedev began declassifying the Katyn archives and handing them over to the Polish government. Two weeks ago, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, the Duma, directly blamed Stalin for the murders.

These gestures have greatly reduced Poles’ fears of Russia. A poll by the Public Opinion Poll Center in Warsaw showed that by last May, fewer than 50 percent of Poles said Russia was the country they feared most, down from 68 percent in 2005.

Despite these trends, Mr. Komorowski was cautious about the future, saying the path toward reconciliation was a marathon, not a sprint. Mr. Medvedev said it depended on trust, “starting with relations between state leaders and ending with trust between the nations” — which is how, after 1945, the Franco-German reconciliation began that created stability and peace in Western Europe.
The New York Times