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THE WORLD

Poland, Russia Begin to Heal Old Wounds

January 17, 2002|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WARSAW — The presidents of Russia and Poland, both former Communists, declared a new era of friendlier ties Wednesday after a decade of tension between their two countries.

"I firmly believe that the difficult period of the 1990s is over," Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said at a joint news conference with Russia's Vladimir V. Putin.

After the collapse of communism in Poland in 1989, the two countries' ties were strained by Warsaw's rapid turn to the West and its 1999 admission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization despite vehement Russian protests.

Relations hit a low point in January 2000 when Warsaw expelled nine Russian diplomats for alleged espionage. Moscow responded the next day by kicking out nine Polish diplomats.

But Kwasniewski said Poland and Russia are now democratic countries with an opportunity to build a relationship "based on the same values, the same way of thinking, the same approach to good-neighborly relations." Kwasniewski, a fluent Russian speaker, met Putin in July 2000 for a summit in Moscow that launched the turnaround in relations.

"Today's meeting is decisive because it really closes a certain stage and creates a platform for moving forward," said Putin, whose visit to Poland is the first by a Russian president since Boris N. Yeltsin came in 1993. "We have succeeded in jointly overcoming old stereotypes."

The Russian delegation stressed that the visit, which ends today, focuses on economic ties as well as political and security issues. But the Polish public and media were largely interested in its symbolism. There was great speculation before Putin's arrival that he might make some dramatic gesture of reconciliation.

Step Toward an Apology

Putin went halfway toward fulfilling those hopes by placing flowers at the Monument to the Home Army Soldiers, a memorial to Poland's underground army that resisted Nazi Germany during World War II. Many of the army's commanders were imprisoned or executed by Poland's Soviet-installed Communist regime after the end of the war, so Putin's act could be seen as implying a certain degree of contrition or apology.

But the Russian leader stayed away from two other monuments that Poles regard with even more emotion. One is the Monument to the Warsaw Uprising, a 1944 rebellion against Nazi rule that was crushed by the Germans while the Soviet army sat on the other side of the Vistula River from the main part of Warsaw. That defeat--which most Poles believe the Soviet army could have prevented--led to enormous loss of Polish lives and the almost complete destruction of the capital.

The other monument recalls the deportation of many Poles to the Soviet Union after the Soviets and Germany partitioned Poland in the early stages of World War II, before they went to war against each other. Many deportees did not survive.

At the news conference, Putin offered a blunt assessment of Soviet behavior that fell short of an apology for decades of repression but still could help heal old wounds.

"The former Soviet Union tried to dominate not only in Eastern Europe but also in other parts of the world," Putin said. "This was not to the benefit of the Russian nation, nor did it create a positive reaction by our quasi-partners, partners who did not have free choice. Particularly Poles are not willing to accept any form of dictate."

Poland Called 'Partner'

But now Russia wants to build its economic and political ties with Poland, Putin said. "Poland is a full partner for us," he said.

Polish Public Television had strong praise for Putin's visit to the Home Army monument, saying it proved wrong those who considered him incapable of an unexpected gesture.

But the private TVN network compared Putin's gesture unfavorably with far more dramatic ones, including Kwasniewski's apology last year for a 1941 massacre of Polish Jews by their neighbors during Nazi occupation and former German Chancellor Willy Brandt's demonstration of remorse at a monument to the failed 1943 ghetto uprising by Warsaw's doomed Jews.

Rzeczpospolita, a leading newspaper, said in an editorial Wednesday that it was premature for Putin to make a gesture similar to Brandt's when polls indicate that Russians would not be ready to accept it.

Kwasniewski appealed at the news conference for both countries to put their differences aside and work together to build a united Europe.

"All divisions of Europe always led to hardship," Kwasniewski said. "Whenever there were attempts to divide Europe, be it for political reasons, or religious or economic reasons, it resulted in wars and conflicts. We have to draw a lesson from that. Europe, by its very nature, because of its common roots, values and common legacy over 1,000 years of history, has to be treated in an integrated way."

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