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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Polish-Russian Relations Are as Bad as Ever

WARSAW -- The Poles say, not without a certain pride, that they are the only ones ever to occupy the Kremlin. That was in the early 17th century, almost 200 years before Napoleon and 300 before Hitler failed in their attempts to do so.

In Moscow not long ago, a national holiday celebration was switched from Nov. 7, commemorating the Bolshevik Revolution, to Nov. 4, when the Russians rid the Kremlin of the hated Poles.

Clearly, the present bad state of relations between Russia and Poland has plenty of historical precedents. Still, relations between the nations are as bad as they have been since the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989.

An exchange during a recent visit to Warsaw by Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin-linked spin doctor, reported by the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wryborcza, indicated the nastiness of the mood in both countries.

"Poles talk about Russians the way anti-Semites talk about Jews," Pavlovsky said.

Poland's foreign minister, Adam Daniel Rotfeld, replied, "You are looking for an enemy, and you find it in Poland."

The good news is that neither side is threatening the other with invasion or occupation, so the history of wars and partitions seems unlikely to repeat itself. But every day it seems something nasty or angry is said by politicians or commentators on one side or the other of the Polish-Russian divide, and the nastiness echoes loudly of the remaining insecurities and suspicions of Eastern Europe after the Cold War.

"It's not a result of Polish policy but of the internal processes of Russia," Jacek Cichocki, the director of the Polish Center for Eastern Studies, a research group attached to the Foreign Ministry, said explaining, very much from the Polish perspective, the poor state of relations.

Analysts seem to agree that the immediate cause of tension was the lead role played by Poland in the Ukrainian conflict of late last year, when President Aleksander Kwasniewski clearly sided against the Soviet-supported presidential candidate and with the Orange Revolution of Viktor Yushchenko.

As the Poles see it -- and the Poles contend that, for obvious reasons, they have a special understanding of Russia -- Ukraine's reorientation toward the European Union and the West is a major, even historic additional increment in Russia's steady loss of influence in its own region, a loss of influence that began with the success of Solidarity in Poland in 1989.

But Polish-Russian relations, which were good through most of the 1990s, soured well before the Orange Revolution.

"The problem started much earlier last year," Cichocki said. "The first reason was the very nervous reaction of Moscow to the EU enlargement," which took place officially last May, and brought eight former Soviet bloc members, including three former Soviet republics -- Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia -- into the embrace of the democratic West.

The European Union's enlargement was followed by several arguments relating to history. In May, Kwasniewski was invited to Moscow for the 60th anniversary celebration of the end of World War II, but he was given what the Poles regarded as intentionally conspicuous second-class treatment.

President Vladimir Putin not only relegated Kwasniewski to a back row among the visiting dignitaries, he also did not acknowledge Poland as a wartime ally, much less apologize for the Soviet Union's anti-Polish pact with the Nazis of 1939, or mention what Kwasniewski called a half-century of "Stalinist repression" of Poland. All of these omissions were duly noted in Poland.

When, around that time, Poles boycotted a much-heralded tour of Poland by the Bolshoi Ballet -- causing near empty theaters and the cancellation of the tour midway -- one Russian newspaper, Gazeta, attributed the incident to the "proverbial arrogance" of the Poles.

The Polish suspicion of Russia, fueled by the memory of those 50 years, is powerful and appears in many guises. A continuing corruption investigation by the Polish parliament into accusations of misbehavior in the privatization of Poland's largest oil company, Orlen, centers on the possibility that former KGB agents plotted with Polish accomplices to get control of the company. That, many commentators have said, would have threatened Polish national security.

And then, last year, Poland was outraged over an official Russian commission into the massacre of thousands of Poles at Katyn in Ukraine by Stalinist troops in 1940. For years, the Soviets maintained that the Nazis committed that crime. The commission decided that the massacre was not a crime against humanity or a war crime but an ordinary criminal act. The Poles were outraged anew when the Russians then refused to open their archives to a Polish commission of inquiry.

"The war of words revealed that for Poland at least its relations with its giant eastern neighbor remain raw and still fall far short of the happy and settled state of affairs it has forged with its other former great adversary, Germany," Poland Monthly, an English-language magazine, commented.

In late June the friction was freshened when Putin invited Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der of Germany and President Jacques Chirac of France to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the founding of Kaliningrad, but not the leaders of the two nations the tiny Russian exclave is sandwiched between, Poland and Lithuania. Kwasniewski, who rarely loses his diplomatic cool, vented his anger over the celebrations' arrangement during a recent interview on Polish television, criticizing not only the decision not to invite the two leaders, but also Berlin's support for a new Russian gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea that will bypass Lithuania and Poland.

The Russians have long contended that their suffering in World War II dwarfed that of all other countries. The same goes for their suffering under Stalin. Given their own losses, the Russians do not feel an urgent need to acknowledge the lesser losses of others.

Polish analysts attribute what they regard as Russia's bad behavior, especially over Ukraine, to its failure to carve out a post-Cold War identity for itself. That means it retains many aspects of Russian imperialism, the wish to dominate its neighbors, like Ukraine, and certainly never to tarnish its image by admitting past crimes. At the same time, while the Russians are tempted to recognize the European Union and its expansion east as an economic opportunity, they see it as a danger, especially to Russian prestige, and Russia's prestige is related to its ability to hold the fragmenting Russian Federation itself together.

"The emotion connected with the EU's enlargement is bigger than their pragmatic thinking," Cichocki said, predicting that it would be a long time before Russia stopped seeing a vibrant and democratic Poland as a threat.