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1 Sep, 2009 21:51

Russia-Poland relations strained over “revised” history

Leaders from 20 counties are in Poland, the first country that was attacked by Nazi Germany, to mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of Second World War.

Memorial ceremonies are being held in the Polish city of Gdansk, the scene of the first battle.

All countries should acknowledge mistakes – Putin

Other countries should follow Russia’s example and acknowledge the mistakes that led to the outbreak of World War II, the Russian premier stated at the commemorative ceremony in Gdansk, marking the 70th anniversary of the war’s start.

“The State Duma – Russia’s parliament – has condemned the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. And we have every right to expect other countries that clenched a bargain with the Nazis to do the same – not at the level of statements by political leaders, but at the level of political decisions,” the prime minister said.

According to him, “attempts to appease the Nazis by striking all sorts of agreements and pacts were unacceptable from the moral point of view, and senseless, harmful and dangerous from the practical political point of view”. Putin added that it was the combination of all of these that led to a tragedy – the start of the Second World War.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed that Germany felt sorry for all the losses it caused other countries. She noted that rather than looking backward and dwelling on the past, Europe needs to look to the future.

“Words cannot adequately describe the suffering unleashed by this war and the Holocaust,” Merkel said. “I bow my head before victims. We all know that the horrors of World War II can’t be undone, but our mission is to shape the future and continue raising awareness of our everlasting responsibility.”

Putin and Merkel are among the guests who are paying tribute to the victims of the bloodiest conflict in history.

The Russian prime minister's visit is also marked with a series of two-way talks with the heads of several European states.

A meeting with his host, the Polish Prime minister Donald Tusk, was the first on Putin’s agenda. Topics discussed have included current cooperation as well as a look at the countries’ common past.

Disagreements are mainly based on the fact that Russia and Poland have very different understandings of WWII, its beginning and aftermath.

“Revision” of history – or looking for an objective view?

According to Poland, the Soviet Union was as responsible for starting WWII as Nazi Germany. In Russia this opinion is considered offensive, which was emphasized once more by Vladimir Putin at a joint press conference with Tusk:

“Russians can see that constant and persistent attempts to make it look that the Second World War was possible exclusively due to the Molotov-Ribentropp pact,” Putin said.

“I would like to draw attention that this pact was the last document signed with Nazi Germany before the war, but before that was the Polish-German agreement of 1934 and other agreements of bilateral non-aggression, just like the Molotov-Ribentropp pact.”

Vladimir Putin further pointed out that Poland had annexed parts of Czechoslovakia shortly before the onset of the Second World War.

There is a debate going on in both Russia and Poland regarding the so-called “revision” of history that both countries are accusing each other of. Some Russian officials have said that Poland is using WWII history for its own internal political games.

On Tuesday the countries’ leaders agreed that they are both looking for an objective view of history and announced that they will set up two centers in the respective countries to deal with a fair analysis of the War’s events.

Putin indicated that access for Polish historians to the Russian archives on the Katyn incident is possible. The mass killing of captive servicemen of the Polish Army and law enforcement institutions took place in 1940 in a forest near Katyn, a village some 25 kilometers to the west of the Russian city of Smolensk. The Russian premier said that access to the documents is only possible on the conditions of reciprocity.

“That means Polish experts will get access to the Russian archives if our experts will get access to the archive in Poland,” Putin noted.

He added that this problem requires a coordinated and depoliticized approach.

“One shouldn’t act in a way resembling a physician who first infects a person and then profiteers on the resultant illness,” the premier pointed out.

Donald Tusk expressed hope that the countries could establish a good working relationship as both of them have managed to do with Germany. Germany is currently the biggest trading partner for both Poland and Russia.

Meanwhile, the Russian foreign intelligence service has declassified documents, which show that Poland had plans to disrupt and ultimately break up the Soviet Union before the beginning of WWII.

Russia and Poland at swords' points

This kind of debate has been preventing the two countries from developing friendly relations over recent years. There are also a number of other Polish policies that have been perceived by Moscow as purely anti-Russian. The Polish intention to host American anti-missile base is just one of them.

In addition, Poland is actively against the Nord Stream gas pipeline project, a joint venture of Russia’s gas monopoly Gazprom and Germany’s E.ON.

Some of these controversial issues will definitely be on the agenda of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s talks with Polish officials.

In his article published yesterday in one of Polish newspapers, Vladimir Putin said that it is time for Russia and Poland to move ahead and even expressed hope that one day relations between Moscow and Warsaw will be as good as relations between Russia and Germany as despite being Russia’s enemy in WWII, Germany is now Russia’s main partner in Europe. Whether this will be heard in Warsaw is yet to be seen.

There are concerns that such issues could overshadow the commemorating of the tragic events that brought so many world leaders to Poland. There is a saying in Poland that Poles and Germans, for example, can discuss all sorts of things: from the economy to culture while when Russians and Poles come together, they can speak of history only – or, to be more specific, what happened in the past and who is responsible.

Read also: Europe, the Second World War and historical revisionism