Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 14

A two-day visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Poland last week–the first by a Russian head of state since 1993–provided further evidence that the deep chill in relations between the two countries may be finally drawing to a close. But those hoping that the Russian leader’s talks with President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Prime Minister Leszek Miller might mark the first step in a process that could ultimately lead to a historical reconciliation between Warsaw and Moscow were probably left disappointed. Reports prior to the visit had suggested that the Polish and Russian leaders would focus their attention on pragmatic trade and economic issues. Yet, afterward, no such agreements of any significance had been signed.

The visit seems also to have been, in symbolic terms, a partial success only. Putin and Kwasniewski did appear to solidify their personal friendship–a task made easier by the fact that the Polish President is a fluent Russian speaker and, like Putin, a former communist. The two-day visit also produced plenty of rhetoric on the “equal partnership” that Putin said now characterizes relations between the two countries. In addition, Putin paid a pair of visits on January 16 and 17 to important Polish monuments, one honoring the main Polish underground army in World War II and the other dedicated to victims of the 1956 uprising against Soviet rule. But he avoided other monuments more revered by Poles and more directly damning of Soviet actions, such as the Monument to the Warsaw Uprising and another commemorating the deportation of thousands of Poles to the Soviet Union. Moreover, Putin’s remarks criticizing Soviet behavior in Eastern Europe, while probably welcomed by the Polish people, fell short of a more explicit apology for the roughly half century of repressive rule by Soviet authorities. The Russian president’s words apparently satisfied some media commentators in Poland, but left others complaining that he had not gone far enough.

Indeed, Putin’s visit was apparently a tightly controlled affair, one in which he avoided potentially controversial sites and kept public appearances to a minimum. Reports said that in that regard it contrasted sharply with the emotional and high-profile visit U.S. President George W. Bush paid to Poland last year. Polish authorities, meanwhile, appear to have done their best to ensure that Putin’s visit was not soured by public protests. About forty Poles demonstrating against Russian actions in Chechnya were arrested on January 17 prior to Putin’s arrival in the city of Poznan; three had been detained following a flag-burning protest a day earlier in Krakow. Those actions came despite a government ban on demonstrations during the Russian president’s visit.

The focus of Putin’s visit was clearly on trade and economic issues, however. Here the Russian leader was playing with a stronger hand than he would have been able to even two short years ago. Polish exports to Russia have plunged since the 1998 ruble crisis, which raised the cost of Polish goods on the Russian market. At the same time, Polish imports of Russian gas have left Warsaw facing a trade deficit with Russia now estimated at US$3.7 billion. Against that background, and amid a slowing of Poland’s economy more generally, the government in Warsaw is looking for ways to reestablish markets for Polish companies in Russia. Putin, in turn, arrived in Warsaw to convey Russia’s concerns that Poland’s possible entry into the European Union in 2004 does not result in the erection of a new barrier between Russia and the West, and especially that it does not lead to the economic isolation of Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave that will be surrounded by EU territory once Poland and Lithuania win membership in the Union.

Energy was also a central issue. Poland is hoping to renegotiate the terms of a 1993 contract (later amended) that locked it into receiving larger quantities of Russian gas supplies than it needs, particularly as it moves to diversify its energy sources en route to joining the EU. Warsaw is said also to be unhappy with transit fees Russia is paying for gas transported to Europe via the Yamal pipeline, which runs through Poland. Polish officials say that the fees are lower than those paid in Western Europe. At the same time, the two countries have been negotiating on two Russian proposals–one that would boost the capacity of the existing Yamal line and another that would involve the construction of a new gas pipeline transiting Poland.

It is a measure of the problems still to be overcome in Polish-Russian relations that, despite efforts made prior to Putin’s arrival, the two sides were unable to reach agreements either on these energy issues or on an important investment protection accord. The two sides did agree to hold twice-yearly meetings of their prime ministers to discuss economic issues. But news sources noted last week that the Putin visit was curiously devoid of concrete results, this agreement and a few other minor accords notwithstanding.

Exactly what this failure portends for bilateral ties between the two countries is not yet clear. In Poland, discussions are taking place over whether Russia has now become a “normal” country with which Poland can have normal economic relations, or whether Moscow–a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union–continues to look at these trade and economic issues primarily as levers by which it might exert geopolitical power. Those opposed to this view, on the other hand, see the Kremlin’s more general turn toward the West in recent months, and especially Putin’s embrace of the U.S. antiterror campaign, as a sign that Moscow is emerging as a viable international partner. For Warsaw, the issue could be a critical one. The Russian market presents significant opportunities for Polish businesses. A restoration of trade between the two former Soviet-bloc countries could provide a shot in the arm for Poland’s slowing economy. Russia too has an obvious interest in making Poland its window into an expanded European Union (Financial Times,, January 16; Los Angeles Times, January 16, 18; Reuters, AFP, January 16-18; New York Times, January 18; Interfax, January 17).