Eastern Europe after the tragedy in Smolensk

The tragedy of the Smolensk plane crash has led to a strengthening of the rapprochement between Moscow and Warsaw. But is the reconciliation built upon more than a hug between Vladimir Putin and Donald Tusk?

Hear a podcast with Andrew talking about Eastern Europe after Smolensk here

Last week I was one of the legions of the stranded. First I was trapped by the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Ukraine; then I found a car to Warsaw on the Monday after the service to commemorate the victims of the Smolensk crash in Kraków. There were still so many people to bury, with thousands watching the funeral of Ryszard Kaczorowski, the last president on the wartime government-in-exile, on a giant TV screen in the main square. But what struck me most was the candle wax, which was underfoot everywhere within two-hundred metres of the presidential palace. At the height of the mourning, teams of scouts and guides had to be recruited to replace one old candle in a lamp for every new one that was brought. Then overnight on Sunday there was the weird sound of constant breaking glass as most were taken away – though there were still hundreds left on Monday.

Many are calling it Poland’s ‘Princess Diana moment’, with the media and the Church taking the lead on the Polish side. Vladimir Putin’s embrace of an unsteady Prime Minister Donald Tusk at the remembrance ceremony in Smolensk is widely compared to Mitterrand and Kohl holding hands at Verdun in 1984.   

Jarosław Kaczyński could replace his dead brother Lech and win the Polish presidency on a tide of sympathy, though the chair of parliament Bronisław Komorowski is still the favourite to win for Tusk’s Civic Platform party on 20 June, with early polls after the tragedy still putting him about twenty points ahead. One thing is clear however – the crisis itself has dramatically strengthened the Polish-Russian rapprochement that began with Putin’s first speech in Gdańsk on the seventieth anniversary of the opening shots of the Second World War in September 2009. There are short-term motives on both sides: Russia is desperate to show it had nothing to do with the disaster (though Belarusian TV, ironically, showed workers hastily putting in light bulbs to show that Smolensk was a ‘normal airport’), and the Polish Church has tried to canonise President Kaczyński’s legacy and sacralise his social policies. But the deeper changes are profoundly ironic. Lech Kaczyński stood for a policy of confrontation with Russia. After his death it is suddenly impossible, in Poland at least, to step outside the limits of the reconciliation dialogue; any criticism of Russia is currently seen as untimely. But the reconciliation will have wider affects. Tusk’s pragmatic and business-friendly policies towards Russia will reshape the whole of Eastern Europe and potentially the EU-Russia relationship as a whole.

Poland and Russia

The disaster has produced much Slavic emotionality on both sides. But emotional moments are not epiphenomenal. In fact, only by changing old stereotypes will the rapprochement have substance. One is the idea that Poland and Russia are locked in a historical contest for influence in Eastern Europe; an idée fixe that was revived by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and strengthened by the coming to power of the Kaczyńskis in 2005. The Kaczyńskis’s Poland provided strong support for foreign friends like the opposition in Belarus, although this only played into the hands of Kremlin political technologists who were seeking to inoculate Russia (and Belarus) against the spread of foreign-inspired ‘coloured revolution’. In the 2006 Belarusian presidential election, for example, the main opposition candidate Aliaksandr Milinkevich was ruthlessly pilloried as a Vatican-backed Polish stooge, despite being both ethnically Belarusian and Orthodox.

The Tusk government that replaced one half of the Kaczyński double act in 2007 was from the very beginning less interested in historical and ideological issues. One reason why President Kaczyński’s plane was heading for a second commemoration at Katyń after Putin and Tusk had already held the official ceremony three days earlier was that he feared the two were already subverting his agenda. Even after the disaster, dealing with Katyń itself remains a problem (significantly Katyń material was everywhere back on the streets of Warsaw once the ceremonies were over). Russia has shown Andrzej Wajda’s searing film on the original 1940 tragedy twice already, but the Russian ‘siloviki’ despise any hint of post-modern apology politics. Putin went out too far on a limb in his support for the USA after September 11 and was forced to reign back. Something similar could happen again, with Russian elections due in 2011-12.

Nor has Poland changed its spots overnight. Warsaw still favours a strong relationship with the USA, and is one of the primary worriers about Washington’s drift towards a position of ‘offshore balancing’. Poland is in for the long haul in Afghanistan, and wants NATO to shift capacities from ‘old’ to ‘new’ Europe.

Poland and the EU

But the rapprochement has been cemented by two factors. First, the Tusk government prefers business over geopolitics. Second, both sides are looking beyond the bilateral relationship to bigger strategic gains. Germany’s idea of a ‘partnership for modernisation’ with Russia will fly more easily if the Poles approve. Poland’s added weight, and influence on Germany, would mean that most of the big EU states now favour some kind of renewal of relations with Russia. France, Germany and Italy were always in favour, as has been the Spanish Presidency. The Swedes dropped their objections to Nordstream in late 2009. The UK still maintains its protests over the Litvinenko affair, but also talks of a new pragmatism.

Poland, conversely, hopes to cement its position as part of a ‘big six’ in EU affairs. Good Polish-Russian relations will only further strengthen the position of Poland in the EU. Poland also hopes to help revive the ‘Weimar triangle’ (Poland, Germany and France), which could play a leading role in a new collective ‘reset’ with Russia. The secret of Poland’s diplomatic success under Tusk is that it has combined continued advocacy of special interests, the Eastern Partnership in particular, with showing a face that is more communautaire.

Tusk’s Eastern Policy

Both sides have moved fast. The Russians had already invited the Poles to sit down to lunch to talk business with Putin and Igor Sechin at the first Katyń ceremony on 7 April. Kaczyński declined the invitation to join them. Tusk is open to most ideas on business cooperation. Cezary Grabarcyk, minister of infrastructure, coordinates the talks with Russia. A Russian-Polish economic forum will be rescheduled soon. The Russians want to build a nuclear station in Kaliningrad after the closure of the Ignalina plant in Lithuania gifted Belarus a role in supplying electricity to the enclave, which it brazenly exploited during the recent oil dispute with Russia. But the plant will not be economical if it supplies Kaliningrad alone, so Poland is the obvious other market (though it will be an important sop to the restless locals).

Waldemar Pawlak, deputy prime minister and minister of the economy, represents the Peasants’ Party, a remodelled hangover from the Communist era whose members traditionally sell much of their produce to the east. Pawlak also favours good relations with Belarus, as does the Polish magnate Jan Kalczyk, who wants to build a ‘traditional’ ‘dirty’ power station using lower grade Polish coal out of reach of the EU over the border in western Belarus. Polish support for the Belarusian opposition in the 2011 election will therefore not be as rigorous as it was in 2006. Which is bad news for Milinkevich, and can only make President Lukashenka’s reelection even more assured.

Russia also wants to keep Poland in place as a key link in its oil and gas exports. Russia is nervous about Poland using new technologies to exploit its shale gas and become a mini net exporter of its own. The Baltic States may worry whether Tusk and Komorowski would maintain the commitment to a Polish-Baltic gas connection that Lech Kaczyński made in Vilnius on 8 April.

Ukrainian Nervousness

Tusk expected Yuliya Tymoshenko to win the Ukrainian election in February, but his preference was not strong, and there was a good Polish turnout for the inauguration of Viktor Yanukovych, including Lech Kaczyński and the chair of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek.

But there are no big projects to revive the Polish-Ukrainian relationship, and Russia understands this well. Lech Kaczyński was interested in the Odessa-Brody pipeline that would give Ukraine a stake in the transit of energy from Azerbaijan, Donald Tusk is not. Of the big three Ukrainian oligarchical business projects in Poland, the Industrial Union of the Donbass bought the Huta Częstochowa steelworks in 2005 but was itself sold to Russians in January 2010, the Gdańsk shipyards are in constant trouble, though the Warsaw car plant owned by Avto ZAZ continues to produce.

But with Poland and Russia hugging each other close, Yanukovych now fears unexpected isolation, and Poland and Russia deciding things over his head. Yanukovych also expected to have a Polish prop in his balancing games with Russia. Now he is playing the game dangerously close to Moscow, betting everything on cheap gas. The 30%-odd discount on the current price of over $300 per 1,000 m3 announced in Kharkiv on 21 April is less than some Ukrainians had hoped for (Belarus still pays only $171.50). In return, Ukraine has given Russia a twenty five year extension for its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol seemingly without defining what Russia will be allowed to base there. And Ukraine is giving away a lot more in other areas, including abolishing committees on NATO cooperation and putting the future of annual joint exercises in doubt, and debating replacing a 2003 law that sets Ukraine’s basic Euro-Atlantic foreign policy direction with a new law on ‘neutral’ and ‘non-block’ status.


Even if historical stereotypes fade away, Poland and Russia are historically the two main players in the region. A shift in their priorities affects every country from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Most of these changes can only be welcomed, but not by all concerned. Poland traditionally worries when Germany and Russia decide things over its head; there are plenty of smaller countries between Poland and Russia too.


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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