Poland-Russian relations are going through a tough phase. Both sides add fuel to the fire regularly making some purely symbolic but unfriendly moves. Poland did not invite Russian representatives to events marking the beginning of World War II and continues demolishing monuments to the Soviet soldiers. Russia, despite the insistent demands, did not hand the Tu-154 wreckage over to Poland which crashed near Smolensk almost ten years ago and took the life of Polish President Lech Kaczynski. Polish Ambassador to Russia Wlodzimierz Marchinyak discussed these and other pressing issues of bilateral relations with News.ru.
About historical memory
— Of course, you are asked a lot about why relations between Russia and Poland are at a low point at the moment. I just want to recall that in one of the previous interviews you said that, despite the difficult relations between our states, relations between people can be described as good. At the same time, the constant reports about the dismantling of the monuments to Soviet soldiers who liberated Poland from Nazism do not contribute to the positive image of Poland in Russian society. What is Poland trying to achieve with these actions?
— As for the first part of the question, this is my subjective assessment. In the cultural, scientific fields and at the level of interpersonal relations the mood, in my opinion, is positive. There are a lot of examples. More and more Russians come to Poland as tourists and we see a growing, albeit slow, interest. Turning to the topic that you touched on, we understand that our policy on the monuments' dismantling can raise many questions in Russia. Therefore, for us, for me, it is very important to bring our point across to the people in Russia. It seems to me that the media gives somewhat one-sided coverage.
A law banning the public demonstration of the totalitarian symbols both National Socialist and Communist was introduced in Poland. This is a distant consequence of the changes that took place in Poland 30 years ago. The decision to demolish the Soviet army monuments is the implementation of this particular law. It is directed not against the memory of the Soviet army but the totalitarian symbolism. It seems obvious to me that there is no reason for such a great number of symbols associated with the Soviet empire to exist in the public space. Which, by the way, were created precisely to promote communist ideology.
This in no way contradicts the good historical memory shared by the Poles about the soldiers of the Soviet army who fought in World War II and made a significant, and in the case of Poland, decisive contribution to the victory over the Third Reich. Evidence of this is the many cemeteries of Soviet soldiers located on our territory. Some buried soldiers died during the fighting but also there are prisoners of war and this should also be remembered. These cemeteries are well taken care of, we spend a lot of money on their maintenance. Monuments, symbols of the Soviet army are placed there, they are not demolished. The law banning the symbols of communism applies exclusively to public space, that is, cities, squares, parks and so on. Taking this opportunity, I would invite your readers to come to Poland and see how we care for these places of memory.
— Poland did not invite Russia to visit the events marking the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II although it was a key participant. At the same time, representatives of Germany which was the aggressor were invited. How do you explain this decision?
— We invited representatives of Germany precisely because it was an aggressor. This is a practice that initiated many years ago. This year we slightly changed the format of the «marking» of the Second World War beginning. Typically, the main events would take place in Gdansk where the German army attacked the Polish detachment. This year, the events were held in the small town of Wielun which was bombed by the Luftwaffe two hours before the main attack began. The people who spoke there were only the President of Poland Andrzej Duda and the President of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier who deeply apologized and, which is very important for us, spoke about the fault of the German nation. This event was attended by representatives of only two states: the victim and the aggressor.
The event in which NATO member countries, the European Union and members of the Eastern Partnership took place was a separate event of the allied countries. Since participation in this event was determined by the current political context but not historical one other states were not invited.
— Is Poland not going to invite Russian representatives to events related to the Second World War in the future?
— Why not? President Vladimir Putin is invited to the annual ceremony of the Auschwitz death camp liberation and we look forward to his participation. This is a Holocaust remembrance day, and the museum always invites foreign leaders. This event will take place in January next year, it will be the anniversary. According to the practice adopted in Poland, the museum sends its own invitations to such events.
— Do you have the impression that history comes in the way of the development of bilateral relations? Russia and Germany, for example, have a more difficult history than Poland and Russia. Nevertheless, Berlin and Moscow are building mutually beneficial cooperation today including in the economic sphere. Perhaps the time has come for Russia and Poland to launch an honest, open dialogue on common history issues and turn the page which prevents us from moving forward?
— Of course, if we talk about direct investments in the Russian economy they are not very high, but if we talk about the volume of trade exchange then we are steadily holding a fourth-fifth position among the countries of the European Union. There is such a general idea that we do not have very intensive economic contacts but this is not true. Truth is that we import raw materials from Russia which also applies to other EU countries.
I do not share the view that the controversial, complex events in our past affect the current relations between Russia and Poland. I think the opposite: a certain pause in our political relations, alas, influences the historical discussions and political assessments. However, I completely agree with you that the time has come to resume the historical dialogue also in the institutional forms. We had such forms of dialogue, I personally took part in them, and it was useful for both sides. We constantly offer Moscow to resume those formats or create new ones. Sadly we regularly get rejected. Recently, our minister Yatsek Chaputowicz suggested to Sergey Lavrov to create a group on important issues if the Russian side does not want to resume the work of the group on complex issues that once existed. There are a lot of important issues, and they are not necessarily complex or controversial.
Fortunately, there are small initiatives on the Russian side that come, above all, from the scientific community. The joint conferences are held in universities and academic institutes. Last year, the embassy and the cultural center held many such conferences. So in this regard, I am optimistic. At least we are taking steps in the right direction.
— Recently, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Yatsek Chaputowicz said that Poland needs the presence of international, especially American, troops because of Russian aggression. Is there any reason to believe that Russia is planning a military invasion?
— There are obvious indisputable facts, in particular, the tension in the eastern part of Ukraine. Polish assessments, as well as the assessments of the whole West, differ from Russian ones. We are talking about Russian aggression in Donbas, about the annexation of Crimea, about the violation of international law, the obvious tension arising from military exercises. This assessment requires strengthening NATO's eastern flank which is common for Alliance. The strengthening of the international presence within the NATO pact framework in Poland and other Central European countries is a reaction to the increased risks that we face. We believe that in this way we increase our own security guarantees which we really need. Naturally, Poland is very much interested in peace. As you know, our country's economy is developing very well in recent years and the level of well-being is growing. We have great ambitions and great hopes for the future, and we need to create a safe environment to maintain this trend.
— The Russo-American treaty on intermediate and shorter-range missiles expired on August 2. Will Poland be ready to host American missiles that were previously prohibited by this treaty on its territory if Washington suggests this?
— President Andrzej Duda received a letter from President Vladimir Putin proposing a moratorium on the deployment of weapons banned by the agreement which expired in August. It was at the end of September and we are carefully studying the letter, analyzing this issue. Naturally, we will hold consultations within the NATO framework. But so far, we have not received proposals from the United States to deploy medium and shorter-range missiles.
About problems with Russia
— The 10th anniversary of the Tu-154 plane crash near Smolensk is approaching. Is the Polish side satisfied with the results of the investigation of the disaster?
— We do not comment on the investigation conducted by the Russian prosecutor's office. Sometimes the Russian authorities refer to the ongoing investigation when justifying the refusal to return the Tu-154 wreckage to Poland. As for the investigation of the Polish prosecutor's office, it is also ongoing and very active. But it can't be completed because we do not have an important object which is the aircraft, located in Russia. Of course, we are completely dissatisfied with the Russian position which refuses to return the airplane and there is no legal ground that would justify such a position from the perspective of the international law. The catastrophe took place in 2010 and the aircraft was supposed to be returned to Polan a long time ago especially since then-President Medvedev promised this when he was in our country in December 2010. He said that the airplane would be returned to Poland by the first anniversary. And the first anniversary was on April 10, 2011. Eight years have passed and there is no ground for this delay.
The Polish side has taken initiatives within the Council of Europe's framework, in particular, the mediation initiative of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe. We hoped that this would allow the Russian Federation to fulfill its obligations based on international law but it did not happen. Nevertheless, there are small shifts: our prosecutors got access to the airplane which is located in Smolensk. They have already been there twice as a part of the cooperation with the Russian prosecutor’s office. And answering your question, we can say that there is progress in this context. But these are small steps since only a few Warsaw's requests have been taken into account by the Russian side. We do not see the most important step being taken — the return of the airplane. And I fear that the Russian side does not understand the whole symbolic meaning of such a step. This is a burden that hangs over our relationship, and the longer it does — the harder it becomes. Those who hope that we forget are deeply mistaken. And this affects the Russian reputation negatively.
— The ruling party won the recent parliamentary elections in Poland. Does this mean that nothing will change in relations between Moscow and Warsaw in the next few years?
— It will depend on whether Russia would understand that the changes in Poland are serious and will last long, that this is not a seasonal phenomenon. And then maybe something will change. But this question shouldn't be addressed to me. I do not think that the elections themselves could bring serious changes in our foreign policy as it was not the main topic during the election. The debates focused on domestic issues and the issues that arise from our membership in the European Union. The second most important topic is our relationship with the United States.
— Why is the US more important for Polish citizens than relations with Russia, its closest neighbor? America is on a different continent, after all.
— This is due to our membership in the European Union and NATO, that's where our foreign policy interests and economic contacts lie. Let's take trade: Poland is the agricultural product exporter and the main importers of our products are the EU countries, and outside the EU it's the United States, even though they are overseas. Russia takes second place. Once it was the other way around. This is a consequence of the embargo on the agricultural products import imposed by Moscow. But we constantly underline that we are ready to revive the political dialogue and raise it to a higher level. We proposed it back in 2016 after the formation of the new government. But sadly Russia gave an inadequate answer.
Of course, we have contacts at the level of departments but the foreign ministers met in Helsinki in May for the first time in many years. We sent an invitation to the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov some time ago but have not received the response yet.