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The Warsaw Voice » National Voice » November 30, 2010
The Sky Is the Limit
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The Sky Is the Limit
November 30, 2010   
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Alexander Alexeyev, Russia’s new ambassador to Poland, talks to Witold Żygulski.

How would you assess the current state of relations between Poland and Russia?
I believe what we have is a new beginning. Relations have significantly improved of late and an opportunity has appeared for serious progress to be made. I think the coming months, weeks even, should open a genuinely new chapter in mutual relations. This will be a much more constructive, dynamic and interesting chapter for both sides.

Will the impetus come when the Russian president finally makes his long-awaited visit to Poland?
A visit by President Dmitry Medvedev should indeed open the new chapter in our relations, but I wouldn’t say it should be the impetus. It should rather serve as a summary of what has been accomplished recently and outline further scenarios in all possible areas and directions, including politics, the economy, culture, and contacts between young people.

You mentioned summing up recent accomplishments. What accomplishments are these and what have Poland and Russia done to improve relations?
To begin with, the political dialogue has been revived. In September and October, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Poland. Topics discussed during his second visit included plans to establish a strategic Polish-Russian committee to examine fundamental issues in relations between the two countries.

As for economic affairs, trade between Poland and Russia is going back to what it was before the crisis broke out. Data for the first eight months of this year show that trade was worth over $13 million, which means that, compared with the same period of last year, it grew by 38 percent.

As far as culture is concerned, all those who keep track of the contacts between Russia and Poland know that a number of highly interesting and pleasing events have taken place recently. The recent Chopin Competition ended with the victory of Russia’s Yulia Avdeeva and several other Russian contestants made it to the finals. I should mention that Frederic Chopin holds a special place in the hearts of Russians. Back in 1918, the authorities at the time issued a decree on the veneration of great people, and, alongside revolutionaries and writers, the decree listed three composers: Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Scriabin and Chopin. We are now looking forward to see Polish contestants at the Pyotr Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

Warsaw recently hosted a highly popular film festival called Sputnik Over Poland, one of the most comprehensive reviews of Russian cinema abroad.

It all goes to show that a lot has been achieved in every area of Polish-Russian relations and, more importantly, prospects for further progress are evidently there in all areas. We are very happy about this.

What are the main problems, or obstacles, to a further improvement in Polish-Russian relations?
Our relations are obviously still burdened by the complicated history we share. A hugely important role in overcoming this difficult legacy is played by the Polish-Russian Group for Difficult Issues, whose latest meeting was held in Warsaw in September. The meeting was attended by the Group’s deputy chairman on the Russian side, Prof. Anatoly Torkunov. The participants made further progress in solving some controversial issues.

As far as political dialogue between Poland and Russia is concerned, I believe there aren’t really any serious problems that could stall the improvement of our mutual relations. Poland and Russia differ in their positions on some issues, but this is only natural and nobody should over-dramatize this. You just need to keep going, create an atmosphere of trust and make bilateral contacts as intensive as possible. You also need to constantly seek solutions to problems that may still lie ahead. This has to be done by experts in both Moscow and Warsaw.

Is the Group for Difficult Issues really changing the Russian public’s attitude to the more sensitive chapters in the common history of Poland and Russia? Or is it that the work of the Group is just an inside project handled by a small group of historians and experts?
I wouldn’t say the work of the Group is only of interest to a small group of specialists and politicians. After all, the problems the Group has been working on concern the entire nation and its history and so the public in Russia are following the developments closely. Let me assure you that there are no groups among either leading politicians in Russia or the Russian public that would object to a further revival of relations with Poland. Russians are very fond of the Polish people and Poland and therefore Prof. Torkunov does not really need to try to persuade anyone that the two states and nations ought to get closer together. We have been seeking the historical truth, but at the same time we have been seeking a compromise wherever positions and opinions differ considerably. We have to overcome all those barriers that still have a negative impact on our relations. In my opinion, we have been successful in that department.

In the latter half of next year, Poland will for the first time assume the rotating, six-month presidency of the European Union. What expectations does Russia have of the Polish presidency?
As you well know, relations with the EU are a top priority for Russia. We are neighbors and strategic partners of the EU. One of the bottom lines of our policy has been to get as close to the EU as possible without formally becoming a member of the organization. What we primarily expect of the Polish presidency is for the interests of Russia as a state to be taken into account and respected the way the interests of a strategic partner should be. The most urgent affair our partners in the EU and we need to deal with at the moment is to introduce a visa waiver program for Russian citizens as soon as possible. This is a matter of fundamental importance for Russia. On the political level, Russia and the EU have achieved a lot in this department, but the problem is that it all has little or no impact on the lives of ordinary citizens. When Russians want to travel to Europe to visit their friends or just take a vacation, they frequently get to endure the entire bureaucratic procedure, stand in lines and so on. This is a totally anachronistic situation to me. If our Polish friends help overcome this visa obstacle during their presidency, we will feel much obliged.

There are plenty of other issues that reflect on the continuation and development of the political dialogue and the overall economic relations between Russia and the EU. We will welcome Poland’s support on all of these. We are ready to take part in interstate consultations prior to the Polish presidency during which our experts could present, in detail, the Russian stance on all the matters in order to determine what can be done together.

What do you think of economic relations between Russia and Poland the way they are today?
Poland is a top 10 economic partner for the Russian Federation. Discussing economic relations, I would like to focus on two essential problems. One of them is the necessity to radically improve the structure of trade between Poland and Russia. For the time being, energy accounts for too large a part of Russia’s exports to Poland while finished goods are just a fraction of overall exports.

The other problem is that the deficit in Poland’s trade with Russia has to be decreased. We do believe a change has to take place and we have no interest whatsoever in keeping this imbalance anymore. But how can this be done? A lower deficit has to be the result of soaring Polish exports instead of a reduced exchange of goods as a whole. We are ready to do this and I believe it will be achieved in the coming years.

One more important issue is joint work in terms of investment projects. The value of Russian investment in Poland stands at around $42 million at the moment. Need I say what a laughable amount this is? This has to be changed as soon as possible.

What do you think is the future of Russian investment in Poland then?
The sky is the limit, really. Just look at any map and you will see that Poland is a natural partner for Russia in every aspect of the economy. Russia is not going to demand any preferential treatment for Russian investors who want to make their mark on the Polish market. We would only like for Russian companies and enterprises to be able to operate along the same lines as other foreign investors in Poland. Should that be the case, they will be able to fully demonstrate their ability to compete on a free market. I am confident that, when undisturbed, Russian companies will prove they are perfectly capable of winning tenders in Poland, for example. All we want is to have the same starting point. We really need nothing else to bring investment to the Polish market.

I would like to add that Polish investment capital is welcome in Russia as well. Polish investment in Russia totals $500 million and we believe this is far too little. We are ready to create the right conditions to make Polish companies feel at home in Russia. The fact that the overall climate in mutual relations is improving presents new opportunities.

What sectors of the economy do you think offer the best prospects for investment and bilateral trade?
All sectors, no exceptions. I would, however, like to highlight the role of the energy sector, heavy industry, the machine industry and the chemical sector, including petrochemicals. Innovative technology is extremely important as well. I am confident that both Poland and Russia have a lot to offer in all these sectors. If Poland and Russia can coordinate their efforts, both will come out winners.

The much-anticipated long-term contract on the deliveries of Russian natural gas to Poland was signed recently…

And it is a perfect example of how we could and should solve important problems as far as economic cooperation is concerned. The document which the deputy prime ministers, Igor Sechin and Waldemar Pawlak, signed in Warsaw is of fundamental significance to the economy and has an important social dimension. It provides Polish industry and residents in Polish cities with guarantees that Poland will receive uninterrupted deliveries of natural gas in winter at agreed prices and on conditions that are satisfactory to both countries. Let me say this again, it is an example of what can be achieved through working together.

Are economic relations between Poland and Russia still regulated mostly at the governmental level or are there also direct initiatives by individual companies?
There is no way the central authorities or the embassy could possibly determine relations in the modern economy. The economies of both Poland and Russia switched to the free-market system a long time ago. The authorities can only provide the right conditions to facilitate contacts and that is their role. They can remove barriers, foster the right political or psychological environment, but the rest is up to businesses. It is only businesses that can accurately define their interests and decide what is worth putting money in.

How can business ties between Poland and Russia be strengthened?
Only free-market methods can do the trick and this primarily takes information and advertising. Take tourism for example. To Russia, the number one partner in tourism is Turkey, which for years has used all means available to advise Russians of what it has to offer. I think Polish and Russian tour operators should also focus on promotion and the effects will follow in no time. Polish mountain resorts like Zakopane are already popular among Russians and there are other promising sectors such as cultural tourism, historical tourism and agrotourism. What’s especially important in this context is that Russian tourists are usually very keen to spend their money in the countries they visit.

Economic affairs aside, what do Poland-Russia relations look like in terms of culture and science these days?
Cultural ties are thriving and I am happy to say that, alongside the two capital cities, local communities are also becoming increasingly active in this department. Polish provinces and cities maintain direct cultural contacts with their sister cities and regions in Russia. Wherever I go to in Poland, I am told about Russian ensembles, including youth bands, which have performed in such cities and towns. Naturally, the mechanism to foster direct contacts needs to be refined further, especially when it comes to youth exchange programs. Over the past two decades, relations between Poland and Russia have cooled several times and as a result, we have lost a whole generation of young people who could have otherwise gotten to know one another better and become friends. We need to catch up fast.

As for scientific ties, they are a natural necessity in every modern society. Young researchers have to exchange experience, work in an international environment and be up to date with the work of their colleagues abroad.

Do you think people in Russia have enough information about Poland and people in Poland have enough information about Russia?
There is definitely not enough information. Good relations require much more information and information has to be as objective as possible. The difficulties that have appeared in mutual relations in recent years have affected mutual understanding between the Poles and Russians, leading to misconceptions and false stereotypes. The worst stereotype is that of Russia as an eternal enemy of Poland. That is obviously not true, but the very stereotype has prompted Russians to think of Poland as an unfriendly country that is not worth visiting. Just compare the numbers of Russian tourists in Poland and other neighboring countries and you will see the disastrous effects of such false beliefs. Reliable information should eliminate the stereotypes. People in Poland should know they are welcome visitors to Russia and vice versa.

What else can and has to be done to ensure a long-lasting thaw in Poland-Russia relations?
There are three conditions that need to be met: good political atmosphere, good will of all the parties concerned, and assistance from the state. I believe that all these conditions have been met when it comes to relations between Poland and Russia. We have magnificent traditions of working together in all possible areas. Sadly, we ruined these mechanisms at some point and now have to work hard to rebuild them. The obvious question is why we ruined them in the first place, but that is up to historians to answer.
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