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Updated: December 6, 2010 16:19 IST

Russian leader visits Poland amid warming ties

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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. File photo: AP.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. File photo: AP.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev arrives in Poland on Monday for a visit that comes as a sign of improvement in the long-troubled relationship between the Slavic nations and with high hopes for a further breakthrough.

“I count on this being a new chapter in Polish-Russian cooperation, God willing, and the start of reconciliation,” Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said on Friday.

But he warned- “This is not going to be a one-time event. We have a long march ahead of us.”

Ties have long been burdened by history, with Polish memories still strong of Moscow’s invasion of Poland’s eastern half in 1939 and its dominance of the country during the Cold War. Ties were also badly strained when Poland threw off communism and Moscow’s dominance in 1989, going on to join NATO and the European Union.

Now expectations are high for a new era. An opinion poll published on the eve of Mr. Medvedev’s visit shows that 93 percent of Poles believe it will have a positive influence on Polish-Russian relations. Only two percent said they think it would hurt the relationship. The poll, which was carried out by the Homo Homini institute for Polish state radio, gave a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

A visit by a Russian leader is a major event in Poland, and fairly rare compared to the frequent high-level contacts that take place now with Germany and other Western countries. Mr. Medvedev attended the funeral of President Lech Kaczynski in Krakow in April, but this will mark his first political visit to Poland.

The last political visit of a Russian leader was in 2002 when Vladimir Putin came to Poland. Mr. Putin returned in 2005 but only to attend ceremonies of the 60th anniversary of liberation by the Soviet troops of the Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz in southern Poland.

Eugeniusz Smolar, a political analyst at the Polish Institute for International Affairs, said the visit to Poland reflects Russia’s push for better ties with the West.

Russia’s relationship with Poland has long been an irritant in its dealings with Europe and “the Russians want to eliminate an element that could prevent them from having better relations with NATO and the European Union,” he said.

Poland can also benefit by shaking off a reputation for being “Russophobic”, a charge that has at times sidelined Poland within the EU in the bloc’s dealings with Russia. Poland, a nation of 38 million, aspires to be taken seriously on the world stage and hopes that better ties with Russia would improve its standing and give it a key role in dealings between the West and Moscow.

The economy is also an area where each side could benefit. Poland and Russia signed a major gas deal this fall and there has been a rapid growth in trade between the two countries, at $15 billion so far this year, which is a jump of more than 40 percent on last.

Russia is seeking to modernize its economy and will sign a number of agreements with Poland on Monday, including deals on strengthening cooperation in the economy, in sea transport and in fighting pollution of the Baltic Sea.

This year has so far brought signs of political reconciliation.

A major turning point has come with a series of acknowledgments’ of Soviet guilt and of remorse for the 1940 slaughter of 20,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest in 1940 by Josef Stalin’s secret police.

During the communist era, Moscow blamed the crimes on the Nazis and it was not until 1993 that it released documents blaming Soviet leader Josef Stalin for ordering the killings. Further steps taken this year by Russian leaders have gone far in appeasing Poland, which wants a full acknowledgment of the truth by Moscow.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin jointly commemorated the victims in April alongside the Polish Prime Minister in April. And just over a week ago, the Russian Duma passed a resolution acknowledging that the crimes were ordered by Stalin and expressing “deep sympathy for the victims of this unjustified repression.”

A tragedy that struck this year has also added a new chapter to the complex Polish-Russian relationship- the death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others in a plane crash near Smolensk, Russia. The presidential delegation was travelling to Katyn to honour the victims of the massacre.

An outpouring of sympathy by Mr. Putin and regular Russians met with great appreciation in Poland, a catalyst of sorts.

Russian and Polish investigators are seeking the cause of the crash in separate probes and their efforts are also expected to be a theme of talks.


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