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Poland Expects to Capitalize on Closer Links With Russia

January 18, 2002|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WARSAW — After meeting with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin on Thursday, Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller confidently predicted that Poland will benefit economically from their two countries' warming political ties.

It is a hope shared widely in Polish society: In recent years, sales to Russia have dropped off sharply, while energy imports are high, resulting in a $3-billion trade deficit last year, one-quarter of Poland's total trade gap. Cutting that deficit by selling more to Russia could create jobs in Poland, where unemployment is running at 17%.

"I hope we're going to have better economic cooperation with Russia, just like the newspapers say," pensioner Henryk Nestorowicz, 62, said when asked his view of Putin's visit. He suggested that textile and furniture sales to Russia, strong in the days when Poland was part of the Soviet bloc, might revive.

The focus of Putin's diplomacy Thursday was on encouraging--and perhaps even realizing--some of those hopes. He discussed knotty economic issues with Miller in Warsaw, then flew to the western Polish city of Poznan to attend a trade fair before returning to Moscow. Putin was accompanied in both cities by a delegation of 150 Russian businesspeople.

Skeptics argue that Poland is expecting far too much from the two-day visit.

"I consider the general tone of Polish commentaries on the Putin visit to be simple wishful thinking," prominent analyst Rafal Ziemkiewicz wrote in Thursday's Rzeczpospolita, a leading newspaper. "This constant repetition that we count on normalizing economic relations with Russia makes no sense at all, because one can have normal economic relations only with a normal country. Russia is not and does not intend to be a normal country in our meaning of the word."

Russia is a country of "not individualism but collectivism, not democracy but authoritarian rule, not human rights and the government serving its citizens, but subjugation of the individual to the state," Ziemkiewicz continued. "What results is not capitalism motivated exclusively by profit, but a directed economy, subordinated like all other spheres of life to the interests of the state."

Russia's attitude toward Poland is still that of an imperial power, Ziemkiewicz argued, predicting that its goal is for economic cooperation to be "a tool making Poland dependent on Russia and building here a pro-Moscow lobby." The period of Poland's "best economic ties with Russia," he added, came in the 19th century when one-third of the country was under direct Russian rule.

Before Putin's visit, efforts were made to hammer out an investment protection accord between the two countries, to agree on a route for a second pipeline to take Russian natural gas to Western Europe, and to reach a deal on reducing Poland's commitment to buy natural gas. Poland wants to revise a 25-year natural-gas contract signed in 1995, at a time when it overestimated its needs. But no agreement was reached in any of these areas.

Miller said Thursday that to push cooperation forward, the prime ministers of the two countries will hold twice-yearly talks focused on economic issues.

Calling the rise in Poland's trade deficit with Russia "very disquieting," Miller said the two sides agreed it could be brought down by Polish exports not only of goods but also of services.

One possibility broached in Poznan on Thursday was the participation of Polish firms in Russian construction projects--particularly in the Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad, which abuts northern Poland.

Poland's deficit with Russia "is no cause for joy for us," Putin said in Poznan. "We would like our trade to be in balance."

During Putin's visit, there have been a few scattered protests against Russia's policy toward its rebellious republic of Chechnya. Before his arrival in Poznan on Thursday, police detained 40 people who tried to unfurl anti-Russian banners outside the trade fair grounds in defiance of a ban on demonstrations.

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