The Polish-Russian rapprochement gathers steam

The tragic plane crash in Smolensk has brought Russia and Poland closer together. Emotions aside, what do they both want to gain from the rapprochement?

Andrzej Wajda is Poland’s most famous film director. His latest film Katyń  is a horrifying indictment of the murder of 22,000 Polish officers by the NKVD in the woods outside Smolensk in April-May 1940. Its final scenes are graphic; the camera shows the Polish officers being ‘processed’ by the Soviet machine and mechanically shot one-by-one. These scenes in particular made a huge impact on a massive audience when the film was shown for a second time on Russian TV  – this time, after the tragic plane crash in Smolensk. Then Wajda made an extraordinary gesture on 3 May, placing a candle at the Soviet Red Army cemetery outside Warsaw, and calling on his fellow Poles to do the same to mark Soviet ‘Victory Day’ on 9 May.

The emotional rapprochement between Poland and Russia after the death of President Lech Kaczyński and 95 members of the Polish elite is clearly still strong. On the other hand, Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski has said that an ‘emotional breakthrough’ does not necessarily mean a ‘political breakthrough’, and the Speaker of the Sejm Bronisław Komorowski has admitted that ‘normal’ arguments between the two sides will resume soon enough. Russia initially promised a full and open investigation into the plane tragedy, but this means the official line keeps changing. It now seems clear that President Kaczyński’s plane crashed on the first, not the fourth, attempt to land. Conspiracy theories flourish on both sides, but there is more hard evidence than for the death of Princess Diana or Poland’s own wartime leader Władysław Sikorski in a helicopter crash in 1943. Some of the ‘black boxes’ are still in Moscow. Any surprise or hint of Russian obstruction of the plane’s attempt to land could still ignite a fragile public mood.

Much still depends on the Polish presidential election due on 20 June. Jarosław Kaczyński, the candidate of the Law and Justice party, could still succeed his twin brother as head of state. He has risen in the polls, but from a low starting point of less than 10%. Most polls still put him around 20% behind, but the atmosphere is febrile. Komorowski is still the favourite. Even if Kaczyński won and changed the political atmosphere, the Polish constitution would still leave most power with the Civic Platform government led by Donald Tusk; and the rapprochement policy is firmly embedded in the Polish MFA, where it is guided by Jarosław Bratkiewicz, the head of the Eastern Department and a graduate of MGIMO, Moscow’s University of International Relations.

So what do the two sides hope to gain from the rapprochement, assuming it keeps it momentum? As yet, there are a lot of signals and few clear proposals, but the Russian side is defining its objectives much better than the Polish side. There are still plenty of potential stumbling blocks that have been pushed back into the future, when the new-found rhetoric of friendship will count for much less. Neither side has yet reached a moment of truth that could derail the discussions.

One point of view is that progress will largely be confined to the immediate issue of Katyń itself. According to the former Minister of Defence Janusz Onyszkiewicz, ‘this is an opportunity for Russia to sort out some of its  problems’. Just as Germany ‘needed a rapprochement with Israel after World War II to improve its standing with the rest of the world’, Russia can use a policy of limited disclosure on the Katyń issue as a ‘ticket to the community of respectable nations’. The war in Georgia in 2008 showed the limits of Russian hard power, Russian soft power has not been making the impact that many in the Kremlin had hoped after they discovered the idea relatively recently. Katyń and the rapprochement give Russia a chance to improve its image. The rapprochement is also a potential resource to use against the opponents of Russia’s modernisation, assuming that Russia is ready and willing to take such steps. Medvedev has talked much about modernisation in recent months, but lacks other levers of power. The Russian ‘siloviki’ have licensed the Russian Communist Party, which only acts with approval from its Kremlin masters, to continue pushing the traditional Soviet line on Katyń, claiming that nothing is proven and that the Germans probably committed the murders, so that Putin can claim to the international community that his room for maneuver on the issue is limited. For the moment, however, the rapprochement is costing Russia little, so there is little opposition to pushing it further.

But there is also a broader agenda for both Poland and Russia. A lot of options are open. Russia has already neutralised Poland’s negative potential in the EU and NATO. The days of Kaczyński vetoes on the EU’s Russia policy are long gone. Tusk did much of the initial work in re-establishing Poland’s reputation as a constructive player after he took over from Jarosław Kaczyński as Prime Minister in 2007, but active Polish diplomacy can achieve much more. Germany currently feels out on a limb with its Russia policy. But with Polish support, the German idea of a ‘partnership for modernisation’ with Russia will have much greater chances of success, and could be formally anointed at the EU-Russia summit due in Rostov-on-Don on 31 May-1 June. On 26 April Jarosław Bratkiewicz published a telling article in Gazeta Wyborcza depicting Medvedev as the latest in a series of heroes in Russia’s historical struggle for modernisation.

Poland can also help lift Medvedev’s European Security Treaty proposal out of the so-called ‘Corfu Process’, where the OSCE is currently talking it to death.

For Poland a good eastern policy is an asset in Brussels, but business is priority number one. Poland hopes to get cheaper gas in the ten year agreement it is on the verge of signing with Russia, and is hyping up its discovery of shale gas to increase the pressure on Russia, talking of energy self-sufficiency in ten years. Poland has toned down its opposition to Nordstream and could even one day link up with it at the German end. Export prospects in the east, especially for Polish agriculture and light industry (TVs, fridges, microwaves) largely stagnated in the Kaczyński years, and are now recovering. There are several ‘big projects’ that Polish business would like to discuss with Russia, including the Polish-owned Ma?eikiai oil refinery in Lithuania, currently starved of Russian supply.

Meanwhile, supporters of the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative launched in 2009 are hoping that Poland will use its EU Presidency in 2011 to give the project greater momentum. Russia has the opposite aim, and would like to sabotage the Eastern Partnership. Poland does not object to German plans to host the next round of the Eastern Partnership’s Civil Society initiative in Berlin in December with Russian participation. Russia would like Poland to ditch Georgia and go slow on backing Moldova and any Romanian push on the ‘frozen conflict’ in Transnistria. But ultimately Poland will not want to ditch the whole policy, which could be the biggest stumbling block for the rapprochement – as it was a joint Polish-Swedish initiative in the first place (though the Polish could do more to bring the Baltic States, Slovakia, Romania, etc on board).

But the biggest question is Ukraine. Poland has experienced the same ‘Ukraine fatigue’ as the rest of Europe over the last few years. President Yanukovych is not a natural ally, but the ‘Bandera affair’ has ironically left Poland siding with Russia and Yanukovych’s power base among Russian-speaking Ukrainians against West Ukraine. (Outgoing Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko controversially declared wartime nationalist leader Stepan Bandera a ‘hero of Ukraine’ between the two rounds of the Ukrainian elections in February. Poland responded by adding a critical paragraph to the European Parliament’s otherwise positive resolution on the elections). Russia has long wanted Poland to ‘stay out’ of Ukraine, but it may now be pushing at a more open door. Warsaw has shifted from seeing the Russia-Poland-Ukraine triangle as a zero-sum game, and is less keen on acting as Ukraine’s main lobbyist in the EU. But, to be honest the Ukrainian side also had its doubts, and has increasingly tended to put its case directly to Berlin, Paris and London – not necessarily with much success.

Even if Jarosław Kaczyński wins the presidency the rapprochement is likely to continue, but in an atmosphere in which normal politics has been resumed and the policy’s critics given renewed voice. If Komorowski wins, it is full steam ahead and a rough ride for some of Poland’s neighbours.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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