The relationship between Moscow and Warsaw, never particularly easy throughout the last decade, appears to have degraded to the level of fistfights. Exactly a week after the July 31 mugging of three teenage sons of Russian diplomats in a Warsaw park, a Polish embassy employee was beaten in Moscow on August 7. A second embassy employee was attacked on August 10.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to publicly denounce the Warsaw incident as “an unfriendly act that cannot be characterized as anything other than a crime.” Shortly after Putin spoke, the Russian Foreign Ministry demanded a formal apology and claimed that anti-Russian attitudes had inspired the attack. The Polish Foreign Ministry instead expressed deep regret over the incident, said it was a case of common hooliganism, and promised to find the attackers. But after a telecommunications worker in the Polish embassy’s technical department was attacked last Sunday, it was Warsaw’s turn to make appeals. On August 8, the Polish embassy asked Russian authorities for an explanation. In a diplomatic note to Russia’s Foreign Ministry, the Polish embassy called the attack “unacceptable” and requested that “all necessary measures” be taken to secure the safety of embassy and consulate employees.” A Moscow police spokesman said it was unlikely that the incident was politically motivated, commenting, “It looks more like a random attack.”
The recent nasty incidents seem to reflect the dramatic souring of relations between the two East European neighbors and perennial geopolitical competitors. Indeed, the present poor state of relations between Russia and Poland has plenty of historical precedents. Some Poles, for example, take pride in the fact that their ancestors were the first ones to occupy the Kremlin in the beginning of the 17th century — two hundred years before Napoleon’s Grande Armee managed to repeat the feat, if only for a much shorter period of time. Symptomatically, in Russia not long ago, the national day celebration was switched from November 7, commemorating the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, to November 4, when the Russian forces rid the Kremlin of the occupying Poles.
The present-day mutual irritation can easily be discerned in the recent exchange in Warsaw reported by the Polish media. While on a visit to the Polish capital, the Kremlin spin-doctor Gleb Pavlovsky asserted, “The Poles talk about Russians the way anti-Semites talk about Jews.” Poland’s foreign minister, Adam Rotfeld, replied, “You are looking for an enemy and you find it in Poland.”
The historically tangled relations between Russia and Poland started sharply deteriorating at the end of last year, when Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski spoke against the rigged presidential election in Ukraine and subsequently played a key role in settling the Ukrainian political crisis in favor of the pro-Western contender, Viktor Yushchenko. Following the victory of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, the public rhetoric in both Moscow and Warsaw took on an embittered and, at times, even accusatory tone. First, Kwasniewski stepped on the Kremlin’s toe when he openly questioned the democratic nature of contemporary Russia. Then Putin, at his traditional end-of-the-year news conference, rudely advised his Polish counterpart to mind his own business instead of lecturing Russia on democracy. Concrete actions soon followed the angry words. The official Russian commission investigating the infamous 1940 Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish officers by Stalinist troops issued a ruling that caused outrage in Poland. The commission determined that the massacre was not a crime against humanity or a war crime, but an ordinary criminal act. The Poles were infuriated anew when the Russians then refused to open their archives to a Polish commission of inquiry.
Last May, when Kwasniewski visited Moscow to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, he was given what the Poles considered to be an intentionally conspicuous second-class treatment. The frictions intensified further when, in late June, Putin invited German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the founding of Konigsberg/Kaliningrad, but not the leaders of Poland and Lithuania — the countries that border the tiny Russian exclave.
As some Russian analysts note, the Kremlin regards Poland not only as a major factor in the triumph of the Orange Revolution in Kyiv but also as a key geopolitical “link in the ‘tier of unfriendly states’ that is being formed along Russia’s western borders from the Baltics to Ukraine.”
For a number of Polish and Russian commentators, Warsaw’s active role in the 2004 Ukrainian political upheaval that ended in what Moscow perceives as its largest strategic defeat is but an element of a broader trend. The Kremlin views last year’s sweeping eastward expansion of the European Union, and especially the emergence of the “Eastern Dimension” sponsored by Poland, as a serious geopolitical threat — particularly due to the perceived “tendency of selectively offering partnership arrangements” to the countries sandwiched between Russia and United Europe. “There exists a widespread feeling in Russia,” one commentary argues, “that Poland is reluctant to accept the common rules of the game and is eager to distinguish Ukraine (and potentially Moldova and Belarus) from other eastern neighbors, which transfers the whole issue to the domain of power politics.”
(Rossiiskiye vesti, February 17; Gazeta.ru, May 12, August 8, New York Times, July 3, Moscow Times, August 9)