A Polish-Russian thaw?
Compiled by Our Warsaw Correspondent Robert Strybel

WARSAW--Poland recently rolled out the red carpet for Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who was treated like a visiting head of satte. Normally foreign government visitors hold talks with the host country’s counterparts, but Lavrov not only conferred with Polish Foreign Minister Anna Fotyga but was also cordially received by President Lech Kaczyński and his twin brother, Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński. It was obvious that Warsaw wanted to ease the strained relations that have separated the two countries in recent years. For his part, Lavrov, the first high-ranking Russian official to visit Poland in two years, said his country is interested in good relations with Poland.

Speaking at a joint Warsaw news conference with Minister Fotyga, Lavrov stressed good relations were needed to solve existing problems in bilateral contacts. One such positive example has been the establishing of a consultative group to tackle difficult issues, including historical controversies such as the Katyń Massacre. Lavrov assured Poland that Russia would be seeking to two-way trade and increase Polish investments.

Relations between Warsaw and Moscow became especially strained in the 1990s over Poland’s successful bid to join NATO. The Kremlin warned that would amount to rolling the NATO war machine up to Russia’s borders and called such a move a threat to its national security. For its part, Russia banned imports of Polish meat and other foods, arguing that the required health certificates had been forged. Recent disputes have centered on a Russian-German deal to build a gas pipeline on the Baltic seabed which would bypass Poland—a move Warsaw has compared to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Russia, which has been using its huge gas and oil resources as a strategic weapon not only against Poland, has shut down its oil pipeline to Lithuania. The move was seen as retaliation for the purchase of that country’s Mazeikiu Nafta, the Baltic region’s only refinery, by Polish petroleum giant PKN Orlen. Unhappy that a Polish firm outbid companies Moscow wanted to win the tender, the Russians stopped the flow of 250,000 barrels of oil a day to Lithuania, but said the shut-down was “for testing purposes,” whatever that means. Shortly after Lavrov left Poland, a mysterious fire broke out at the Lithuanian refinery which seriously curtailed its output and worried the Lithuanian authorities that the Polish oil group may abandon its $2.6 billion deal to acquire Mazeikiu.

Although tentative Polish plans to allow the US to install a missile-defense system on Polish territory are still in the discussion stage, Russia has been threatening Poland with unspecified “political and diplomatic measures” if the project is approved. The Strategic Defense Initiative is aimed at protecting the US and Europe against missile attacks by “rogue states” such as Iran and North Korea, but the Russians claim it poses a security threat to their country and disrupts the entire world’s “strategic equilibrium”.

Poland has also irked Moscow by siding with Russia’s Chechen separatists who want their tiny country in the Caucases to be free of Russian domination. The Kremlin views the Chechens as “bandits” and “terrorists”, while Poles regard them as patriots trying to throw off the Russian yoke. Recently Poland again ruffled Russian feathers, when it expressed support for independent Georgia in its latest dispute with the Russian Federation.

Poles have also been scolded for constantly “griping about the past”. At a recent news briefing, Sergei Prikhodko, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign-policy adviser, said “bad past memories should be set aside in favor of future-minded cooperation.” Many Poles have bad memories of Stalin’s 1939 invasion and annexation of one-half of Poland’s territory, which was never returned, the Katyń massacre of 22,000 Polish officers and 45 years of Soviet post-war domination.

During his recent visit to Warsaw Lavrov adopted a conciliatory stance, touching lightly on controversial topics and saying Polish-Russian differences, including the embargo on Polish food exports to Russia should, be calmly studied. He even couched Moscow’s strong opposition to a US anti-missile base in Poland in diplomatic language by saying “Russia expects clear and straightforward negotiations, approaching the subject from a wide strategic perspective.”

One of the results of Lavrov’s visit was to pave the way for a possible 2007 Polish-Russian summit meeting between President Putin and Polish President Lech Kaczyński. The Russian diplomatic chief indicated Putin was interested in meeting Kaczyński, adding that it was of secondary importance where the meeting takes place. Putin does not want to come to Poland and Kaczyński will not go to Russia, so a third country will most likely be chosen. The too men met briefly at an October 2006 European Union energy summit held in Finland, but that exchange of greetings could hardly be called two-way talks.

Observers disagreed as to whether the meeting marked a thaw in two-way relations or whether it merely opened the way for further talks that could lead to less frosty ties between Warsaw and Moscow. From a historical perspective, good relations between the two countries would be quite a novelty. Russian Unity Day celebrated in November recalls a 1612 popular revolt that expelled Polish troops that had been occupying the Kremlin during a period the Russians called the “smuta” (time of sorrow).

In the late 18th century, Russia took over the largest chunk of Polish territory when the country was partitioned, and the bloodiest 19th-century Polish insurrections were directed against Imperial Russia. In 1920, Poles were proud that they had once again saved Europe from invading eastern hordes by defeating the attacking Bolshevik armies. However, less than two decades later Stalin gloated that he had wiped off the map the “bastard of Versailles”, which had stopped the “triumphant march of communism”. When the Red Army entered Poland in 1944, Moscow called it a liberation. To Poles it merely meant replacing Nazi subjugation with the Soviet domination.