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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » February 20, 2008
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Breaking the Ice?
February 20, 2008   
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Prime Minister Donald Tusk's one-day working visit to Moscow Feb. 8 was hailed as an icebreaker by many Polish and Russian observers, even though neither country has budged on key disputes hampering bilateral relations.

Tusk is the first Polish prime minister to visit Russia since Leszek Miller in 2002. Relations between the two countries deteriorated significantly during the past two years when the Law and Justice (PiS)- led coalition ruled Poland. Bilateral relations reached their nadir in November 2005 when Russia banned Polish imports of meat and certain plant products and Poland retaliated by vetoing the renewal of a 1997 EU-Russian partnership agreement.

Tusk met with President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, widely tipped to succeed Putin after Russia's presidential elections in March. The meetings were cordial although Russia did not soften its stance on any of the key issues regarding Poland.

Putin said that problems in relations with Poland should not be dramatized or given a political dimension. "Let me assure you that the problems affecting our relations over recent years are not due to any intention to hurt our partners. They have been dictated by the need to defend our own economic interests," he said. Putin expressed hope that relations with Poland would develop positively, adding that Poland was among Russia's most important trading partners in Europe.

"The talks in Moscow demonstrate that both sides have had enough of the chilly atmosphere," said Tusk after the meeting. "It suddenly turned out that this could be discussed in plain language." Tusk said that "the most important thing-basic trust" had been achieved at state level and in interpersonal relations.

Tusk declared that Poland was not trying to stymie EU-Russian negotiations on partnership agreement but rather to ensure that "[EU] energy policy will be included as a topic for negotiation." Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski will be discussing this with his EU counterparts with a view to lifting Warsaw's veto on the agreement while protecting Polish interests.

Nordstream is a major sticking point in Polish-Russian relations. This is a Russian-German project to build a natural gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea to supply Germany while bypassing Poland and the Baltic States. According to Tusk, the Russians are "strongly determined" to press ahead. At the same time, they assured him they did not want any problems or disputes over natural gas supplies to Poland.

Zubkov declared that Nordstream would not affect Russia's contractual obligations to supply natural gas to Poland. He said that the project was being carried out with a wide range of factors, including ecological factors, in mind and that it was "big, good, and European."

Plans to base parts of a U.S. anti-missile shield in Poland are another key point of contention in Warsaw's relations with Moscow. The plan, currently in the final stages of negotiation, envisages interceptor missiles in Poland and radar installations in the Czech Republic. Moscow has protested vigorously from the outset, arguing that this would place U.S. military installations "dangerously" close to the Russian border.

The head of the foreign committee of the Russian parliament, Konstantin Kosachov, speaking on the eve of Tusk's visit, said the shield might be targeted by Russian defense systems. While the subject was not raised during Putin's talks with Tusk, Russia has clearly not changed its position. Putin warned at an annual press conference Feb. 14 that Russia would have to redirect some of its missile systems to target parts of the U.S. system located in Poland and the Czech Republic. He said that installing elements of the shield in Poland would "lower the level of safety in Europe."

The strong words from senior Russian officials a few days after Tusk's visit prompted questions in Poland about what the trip had achieved.

PiS politicians are claiming the visit had been designed as an exercise in propaganda and that Tusk should have visited the United States and Ukraine before Russia.

But politicians from the ruling coalition led by the Civic Platform (PO) said it was time to end to the chill in Polish-Russian relations. Jarosław Kalinowski, a leader of junior governing coalition partner the Polish People's Party (PSL), said the visit was effective in terms of improving Poland's image in the European Union. "We are perceived as Russophobes in the EU and this visit can only improve our image," he said.

Politicians from the Left and Democrats (LiD) expressed similar opinions. Former leftist Prime Minister Leszek Miller said that Tusk had successfully opened up a dialogue that had been impossible under PiS rule.

The Russian media were unanimous in their approval of Tusk's visit, saying that since taking over the reins in Warsaw, his new government has "energetically set about removing the obstacles to relations" that had been piling up under "the open Russophobe [former Prime Minister] Jarosław Kaczyński."

Public opinion polls cited 81 percent of respondents rating Tusk's visit a success, with 11 percent dissenting and 8 percent undecided.
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