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Poland and Russia share a long history that has been full of grievances and unresolved traumas. And while 2007 saw a positive shift in the relationship, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 put an end to this “reset.” Since February, Poland has been a steadfast ally of Ukraine and a fierce opponent of Russia. Nina Rozhanovskaya talked with Polish political scientist Iwona Reichardt, deputy editor of New Eastern Europe magazine, about Poland’s fears and hopes vis-à-vis Russia and the effects of the war in Ukraine on Polish politics, economy, and society.

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Show Notes

Episode Transcript

  • The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

    Nina Rozhanovskaya: Hello and welcome to The Russia File. I am Nina Rozhanovskaya. We are recording this conversation shortly before National Unity Day, which is a relatively new state holiday, celebrated in Russia on the 4th of November. It was instituted during Vladimir Putin's second presidential term and is actually somewhat relevant to today's topic, because National Unity Day commemorates the expulsion of Polish invaders from the Kremlin in 1612. So the choice of the date reminds us that Poland and Russia go way back. But we are not going to delve that deep into history today. Instead, we'll look at the current state of Polish-Russian relations, mainly looking at them from the Polish perspective.

    And for that conversation, my guest today is Dr. Iwona Reichardt. Dr. Reichardt is the deputy editor of the New Eastern Europe magazine. She holds a PhD in political science from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. And she's the author of multiple academic and policy papers in both Polish and English. Iwona, welcome to the program.

    Iwona Reichardt: Thank you, Nina. Thank you for the introduction and thank you for having me. Hello, everyone.

    NR: And before we start, I would like to ask you to say just a few words about New Eastern Europe.

    IR: This is a magazine that I helped co-create in 2011, which means this is a magazine which is already 11 years old. It's a journal published in Poland, focusing mainly on the region of post-Soviet space—that is, countries that emerged from the Soviet Union, from its collapse in 1991. However, predominantly, we are focusing on Poland's neighbors, because we are a Polish magazine. So in our editorial philosophy, we also derive the main assumption as an editorial line from Polish foreign policy, which specifically focuses on Ukraine and Belarus, but also Lithuania, as direct neighbors of Poland. However, also, of course, Russia. It also includes countries that were once under the Soviet influence. So we also cover the Balkans. We also cover, a little bit, Central Europe. However, we predominantly focus on the countries that are not part of the European Union yet.

    NR: We’ll make sure to include the link to the magazine in the show notes so that those who listen to us could check it out. And now let's indeed chat about Poland and Russia. And I should say today it feels like the relations between Poland and Russia are at their lowest point since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And well, there is a clear reason for that. But was there actually any time during the past 30 years when relations between Russia and Poland were better, when the two countries got along well?

    IR: Yes, of course. And I thank you for pointing to history, because Poland and Russia are direct neighbors. Right now, we have about 200 kilometers of common border. In the past, we had a longer border between the two states; especially during the Soviet times our border was indeed very, very long. So naturally, when two countries are neighbors, there is history. There is not always nice history; there is a painful history. Poland still today holds grievances about the 19th century and Russia's control over our territory, let alone the 20th century. So the relations that existed are marked by this history.

    But there are moments when history maybe is less important, and when we all agreed that maybe this is the moment to put history a little bit aside and focus on the present, or maybe, even better, on the future. These good moments in Poland, for sure, in terms of relations with Russia, started in the ‘90s, because the Soviet Union ceased to exist and both countries started to democratize themselves. Today we see that this democratization process was not a straight line, not necessarily.

    And at that time, it was, I think, an impression that maybe we’ll reach some sort of reconciliation also in regards to these difficult historical matters. Poland was especially hoping for some sort of apology from Russia for the 1939 invasion and also for the Katyn massacre and was seeing this as a sort of a precondition for good relations with Russia. However, I would say that this is the period when the countries are mostly focused on themselves, on the processes taking place internally.

    The 2000s are an interesting decade. First of all, Poland chose the Western path. It joined NATO in 1999. It joined the European [Union] in 2004, [which was] not necessarily very well perceived by the Kremlin, or maybe by some Russian conservative forces that started now pushing for a stronger Russia and seeing NATO as a threat. But nonetheless, this is still not an impediment to relations. And Poland is starting to feel stronger. And Poland sees itself as a country whose allies are Germany, are the United States.

    And here I think we have to keep in mind the policies of these countries at that time. Germany has always had the so-called Ostpolitik, which assumed good relations with Russia. And the United States at that time—that is the Obama administration period—started the so-called reset policy, the policy that led to what we call the normalization of relations with Russia. So Russia is not a threat, Russia is a partner in international affairs (or equal player), and we have to normalize relations. And Poland at that time, led by a liberal government, understood that to have a good standing with the United States and with Germany, it has to have good relations with Russia. It cannot be Russophobic, because Poland tends to be called a Russophobic state, because, as I said, we have troubled history.

    NR: Looking back, I would actually recall that indeed, once Poland became a member state of NATO and the EU, Russia perceived it as a strong anti-Russian force in those alliances and organizations. And I remember reading some publications by prominent Russian IR experts, and you could see that even when the relations were warming up, the tone was a bit condescending, still probably not very ready to accept Poland as an equal partner. So I guess there was a bit of a mismatch in that, since Poland had its ambitions in both NATO and the EU.

    IR: Indeed, I think that this asymmetry is always visible in Polish-Russian relations. Poland, nonetheless, is a middle-sized country. Russia is a large country. This terrifies Poland for sure, but Poland does not want to admit that. Poland is also an ambitious country. And so Polish politicians, especially in foreign policy, they want to be active and ambitious, whereas Russia is very aware of its size and of its international importance.

    So for Russia, Poland has always been and will always be a middle-sized country, which means not an equal partner. I would say probably more of a troublemaker in the region, but not really an equal partner. And that frustrates Poland, and it has also an impact on relations. I think with NATO it's a little more complicated, I think, because, like you said, Russia was not happy about Poland joining NATO. But there were times when actually even Russia's membership in NATO was discussed.

    NR: It's hard to imagine that now, looking from today. But I remember as a student of international relations, I was part of student discussions and workshops where we could indeed imagine a future like that.

    IR: The ‘90s were a very different period indeed. I mean, at the same time, there’s future oriented optimism, that we're going all in a better direction towards democratization and the ideas that were put forward and have never been fulfilled. Today, when we see that things went actually the opposite, we only remember the ‘90s as this dark period. I think this myth of the ‘90s blinds us to the real situation that was and the complexity of the ‘90s that really were, I think, the case.

    NR: Indeed, and I wanted to come back to one point that you made. You've mentioned the liberal government. Let's stop here for a second, because as I understand it, the main parties and the main forces that were deciding domestic and foreign policy in Poland in the 2000s are basically pretty much the same forces that we have now. Could you say a few words about them?

    IR: In Poland, we basically have two major players. Well, now maybe three, but two are dominant, which set up the political agenda since 2005. And this is the liberal Civic Platform, which was in power at the time of the reset, from 2007 till 2015. So it was for eight years in power. This is a party whose origins are actually still in the communist period, because it's a party whose politicians were often the former dissidents from the Solidarity circles. So this is a party which definitely would never sign its name under any progressive policies, which it considers leftish, Marxist, etc.

    Then on the other side, we have the Law and Justice, which was in power between 2005 and 2007, then lost elections to the Civic Platform and won again in 2015. And it's ruling Poland until today. It's the main party in the coalition, which is called the United Right. And this is a more nationalistically minded, conservative party.

    So the difference between the two is that they are both, we could say, right-wing actually, but the liberal Civic Platform is more democratic, more pro-Western, of course, for a free market, whereas Law and Justice is right-wing in more social terms, meaning traditional values, social conservatism. Economically, it is actually more protective of citizens, so providing the social policies, economic security to citizens, etc.

    NR: And when it comes to foreign policy, as I understand it, this division was already clear back then, and it's probably still somewhat clear now. Liberals, the Civic Platform, were more willing to talk to Russia and reach out to Russia than the conservatives. Is that correct?

    IR: Yes. And also liberals are very focused on the European Union and good relations with the West.

    NR: And Donald Tusk, who was the prime minister from that party, he went on to be the head of the European Council within the European Union.

    IR: Yes, correct. And he was also a very close, let's say, friend with Angela Merkel, so established very good Polish-German relations. But he also established the better Polish-Russian relations. And he believed that these relations need to be bilateral. And that was the difference between him and the minister of foreign affairs at the time, who was Radoslaw Sikorski. I would call him more hawkish in his foreign policy visions and especially [in his] approach towards Russia. He has experience still from Afghanistan, from years ago. So he is a strong anti-communist, anti-Soviet politician. He also wanted Poland to be strong in Eastern Europe, but not so much with Russia. He actually thought the democratization of the former Soviet republics is the key. And then probably later, this will lead to Russia's democratization. Whereas Tusk was more focused on bilateral relations. So we had a government which had sort of two visions of relations with Russia.

    NR: This all happened around the same time as an American reset in relations with Russia. So it's also the time when Russia had President Medvedev, which gave it a chance for a bit, for a few years, to pursue a more conciliatory, a more friendly foreign policy and also project the image of a more democratic country than what we saw later. So this reset, I don't know if this term is actually widely used to talk about Poland and Russia, but it's so familiar from the American agenda. So this reset in relations between Poland and Russia, what did it actually look like in practice?

    IR: We actually called it a reset here as well; we use the English term. It actually meant meetings with Minister Lavrov, which is another surprising fact, like Russia wanting to join NATO in the ‘90s. Minister Lavrov was minister of foreign affairs at that time. Of course, it meant bilateral political meetings, but it also meant increased trade relations. For Poland, Russia was a serious trade partner. I mean, it is a huge economy, and it was a very big consumer of Polish goods. The famous apples that Russians loved until 2014, when they lost the apples and we started producing cider, because we didn't know what to do with the apples that we were exporting to Russia at that time.

    NR: Well, it's Russia's loss and Poland's gain, one could say. I mean, there is this expression about lemons and lemonade. I guess one could also come up with something exactly the same about apples and cider for the Polish case.

    IR: Exactly. To explain maybe to our listeners why Poland stops exporting apples to Russia. This was the result of the annexation of Crimea and the first round of sanctions that the European Union introduced. And Poland was a big supporter of these sanctions. So as a sort of punishment, Russia stopped importing Polish apples.

    NR: Before we focus on the Crimea and the post-Crimea state of policy, let's dwell a bit on those few positive years. In addition to some of the surprising things we've mentioned already, there were some other things that seem incredible from today.

    Like, for example, in 2009, Vladimir Putin himself published a letter in one of Poland's major newspapers, where he condemned the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. And then in 2010, the year of the anniversary of the Katyn massacre, the film made by the celebrated Polish director Andrzej Wajda was shown on Russian state television. And these things that seemed so normal and so promising then, look, I would say, incredible to someone in 2022. So I guess it means that time was indeed a very successful reset. It just didn't get to last.

    IR: Indeed, indeed. We also had a lot of Russian tourists in Poland. Poland was quite a popular destination. And I remember in 2014 when Russian tourists stopped coming to Poland, also because the ruble devaluated after the sanctions; Polish hotel owners were crying because Russian tourists were one of the best tourists in our mountains and at the seaside. They were very good buyers, very good consumers in Polish shops. So, yes, the people-to-people relations were also increasing. Also, in the area of culture. We had the Polish Year in Russia, the Russian Year in Poland.

    This is the period when Russian studies became very popular. It was quite popular for students to go and study Russian, which for me, for example, was quite surprising, because I remember the time when Polish people did not want to learn Russian, because we had to learn Russian in school. And this was the first generation that rid itself of this complex, that Russian is something forced. It became the language that people wanted to learn because they saw value in it, and they started actually traveling to Russia. I remember I was talking to our junior editor at the time after his first trip to St. Petersburg, and I said, “so what is your impression? How do you like it?” He said, “now I understand my parents better.” So this was the first generation which was free of this prejudice. And this was the good moment. Yes, too bad, this window of opportunity got closed.

    NR: This period also wasn't without its challenges. At some points it seemed that it can never happen—Russia and Poland can never be truly good friends—because sometimes just life was against it. You probably see that I'm trying to bring us to the topic of the airplane crash over Smolensk, because it was supposed to be the highlight of this reset, or at least one of the highlights, when the Polish delegation was invited to Katyn to commemorate that massacre and to give Russia yet another chance to apologize. And then the president of the country, together with 100 other public officials and public intellectuals, all perished in April 2010 near Smolensk in that airplane crash. So what effect did that have? How was this tragic event, how was it perceived by the Polish public?

    IR: Well, in the beginning, Poland was very united in the reaction to this tragedy, because it was a huge shock. We had the president of our country—even if somebody didn't vote for this president, nonetheless, this is the president of our country—who is killed, with 90 other people, I think 94 on board, in a plane crash. So we had to come to terms, and it took us probably a week, to what really happened. However, Poland suffers from the same disease that many countries worldwide suffer these days: that is, polarization. And our polarization goes along this line of the Civic Platform and the Law and Justice, which I explained to you.

    Unfortunately, there is hatred between the two political parties, which is transferred into our society. And it happens that the late president of Poland was the twin brother of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who is the leader of the political party Law and Justice. And still today, probably one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, people in Poland. Kaczynski took it very, very personally. For him, I mean, it was a personal tragedy, there is no doubt about this. But he did not take this crash as a rational adult, I would say, who would listen to the investigation. Because an investigation was carried out on the Polish and on the Russian side. And it was determined that the cause of the crash was the crew's unwillingness to land in complicated weather conditions. There was fog.

    NR: So even though it's so symbolic, at least according to the investigation this plane crash is indeed just a tragic coincidence, with no malicious intent?

    IR: This is the official interpretation of the investigators. The problem is that the main piece of evidence—that is, the wreckage of the plane—is in Russia. And Russian authorities promised to return [it] to Poland after they complete their investigation. However, from what I understand, they completed the investigation, but they never returned the wreckage. And here the reset started showing its weakness, because the Tusk government was accused of being too soft, having some sort of alliance with Putin. The conservatives were accusing the government of collaborating with the Russians, purposefully killing the president, etc. Very strong statements were used. And Kaczynski played the Smolensk card for a long time. He played a victim. In Poland, victimhood is always something sacred. So he played the right emotions and he gathered enough people who started questioning the official investigation and believing in conspiracy theories.

    NR: So this plane crash, even though it was not the end of the reset yet, it was a bad omen for the future of reset. And from what I understand, from what you've said earlier, it did finally end this attempt at a rational, mutually productive and mutually beneficial relationship. It ended with the annexation of Crimea. Is that right?

    IR: Correct. After the crash, it was safer not to touch Russia. I mean, not to improve relations with Russia; maybe not to deteriorate them, not to get them worsened, but not to openly improve them. That was politically risky already.

    But maybe, before we get to 2014, I mentioned before Sikorski, who created, together with Carl Bildt of Sweden, this program called Eastern Partnership, which is aimed at the democratization of the post-Soviet republics, but not Russia. Mostly Belarus, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia, etc. Georgia. And the goal is that they get closely integrated with the European Union. They don't need to become European [Union] members, but the view was, the assumption was they will get closer to Europe. This becomes Poland's official policy.

    And this is when Russia started what we said before—recognizing the EU as a threat. I mean, it was recognizing before, but now it's seeing that this is becoming really serious, because it's no longer talk. There will be legal acts and there is a really serious threat that these countries will move towards Europe. So Russia came with a counteroffer. It came with a counteroffer to Armenia. Armenia opted for that. But it also came up with a counteroffer to Ukraine. There was this famous meeting between Yanukovych and Putin in Sochi and Yanukovych, who was preparing Ukraine for the signing of the EU association agreement, suddenly changed the course, suddenly rethought the whole process. And when he arrived in Vilnius, he decided not to sign the agreement.

    NR: And this is what triggered the Euromaidan process and what came to be known as the Revolution of Dignity. Right?

    IR: Exactly, and one of the consequences is the annexation of Crimea, because the Revolution of Dignity ended with the failure of Yanukovych. He had to escape from Kyiv, and Russia uses that moment when there was a transition of power in Kyiv. A referendum was organized in Crimea, very quickly, very rapidly, clearly with disrespect to international norms.

    NR: And what was Poland's reaction to that?

    IR: It was a huge red light because this was interpreted as a breaking of Ukraine's territorial integrity by illegal means. And as I told you, we had the reset. But despite the reset, Poland, especially under pressure of the society, supported the Ukrainian revolution. Tusk maybe did not go to Maidan and did not stand with the protesters, but Sikorski did. And right away, when annexation took place, Poland realized that it can no longer stick to the reset. It really sees the breaking of the international norms and Russia as an aggressor state towards Ukraine. And that role became even more evident a little bit later when Russia started supporting separatists in the east of Ukraine. So Poland is seeing that Russia can actively interfere in the neighbor states, and as such, it poses a risk to Poland security as well.

    NR: How did Poland react in practical terms when it became clear that that's the direction in which the events are moving?

    IR: In 2014, where we are, Poland is no longer the strong Poland that I was telling you about in 2007. It is eaten up by its internal political conflict. So whatever the Tusk government does outside is criticized heavily inside by the Law and Justice. So this weakens Poland's ability to act effectively, in my opinion. Sikorski tried to play an active role, but he got marginalized, because his behavior during the Maidan was interpreted as arrogant; he uttered the infamous words towards the protesters. He said, “You have to sign the agreement with the authorities, or you will all die,” which was considered almost colonialist.

    But at the same time, Poland was very active in condemning the annexation. So it was active on the UN level, championing a resolution proclaiming Ukraine's territorial integrity, and it was active at the EU level in terms of supporting sanctions against Russia. It was marginalized in the so-called Normandy format, which, as you know, included four players: Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine. This was taken hard here in Poland. Why are we marginalized? That shows that we’re maybe not such an important player. The government disregarded these accusations, but the opposition and the public opinion here interpreted them as a failure of Polish foreign policy.

    NR: And I'm assuming those eight years were the time when not even the liberals already talked about trying to reach out to Russia as a partner or see Russia as a partner in international relations. Or were there still voices calling to continue the same path?

    IR: No, this is a time of foreign policy consensus. We do have some pro-Russian parties like Partia Zmiana, called Change, and they played a very suspicious role during the annexation. Its members, who were at the time, I think, even in the Polish parliament, went to Crimea, photographed themselves on the Russian tanks, and had some relations with Russian authorities or secret services. We don't know the details yet. But they're the shady characters and they emerged in 2014. But the mainstream of Polish politics, despite the dispute between them, agrees on Russia as being a security threat or a security risk for Poland and for the region.

    NR: And if we fast forward from 2014 to today, we obviously know that Poland has been affected by the current war in more than one way, that Poland has been extremely supportive as a state and society of Ukraine and welcomed millions of refugees. So what is the mood in the country now vis-à-vis Russia and also vis-à-vis Ukraine? Do you feel that there is—now that the war has been going on for months—is there the same level of solidarity with Ukraine? Do you see the same level of support from Polish society for the Ukrainian cause?

    IR: I think yes, especially today or the last two weeks, when we see another stage of escalation. So there is support for Ukraine, which is perceived as a victim, of course. The support towards Ukrainian refugees, of course, has changed, because in the beginning we welcomed Ukrainian refugees with open [arms]. And I'm not saying that we don't welcome them today, but people got tired, naturally. We're also affected by a very high inflation and economic crisis. So it's hard for Polish families to make ends meet. But the support for the cause, I think, is still there. There are extreme right groups which have a slogan, “Stop Ukrainization of Poland.” But they're very few. They organized a demonstration, and from what I saw online—I mean, I don't know how much is true, but it looked legit—one person came only. This is encouraging. I don't see anti-Ukrainian sentiment yet.

    I think we also have to distinguish between Polish sentiment towards the Russian state as an aggressor and Russian immigrants in Poland. We have, and maybe we can even say, a Russian diaspora in Poland. And it's not since March. There are many people who came here in 2014 or even earlier, but especially since 2014. And there are even the activists organized in Russian organizations and operating in Poland. The Polish minister of foreign affairs, together with these organizations, organized the Nemtsov Forum in 2019…

    NR: …named after Boris Nemtsov, Russian oppositional politician who was murdered, right, near the walls of the Kremlin?

    IR: Exactly. And his daughter, Zhanna Nemtsov, was the guest of honor, along with Alexey Navalny and his wife in Warsaw. And this was a very important event. So Poland has been strongly supporting the Russian civil society and its activists who are in Poland. And also, of course, in other European countries and in Russia. However, after February, the situation has changed and I see—at least in my bubble on Facebook and in these discussions—that some people would now claim: this is not the moment to even work with Russians, this is the moment where we have to show full, 100 percent support for Ukraine. However, there is this discussion. This is what I would say [is] good, that it's not a complete taboo. It's even discussed in the media, in the liberal press; these voices, by even Russian activists, are published to express how they feel about this.

    NR: And probably we should mention, for context, that Poland has been and is still issuing the so-called Karta Polaka to Russians of Polish descent, not just to Russians, but people from former Soviet republics who come from Polish families. And many of those families found themselves in Russia or Kazakhstan or Belarus, not by their choice, but [because they] were exiled, banished, sent to all those places by various political regimes at different times of Russian and Polish history. And Poland has created the Karta Polaka, the Polish card, to unite all of this Polish community outside Poland and to reach out to that community. So there is yet another link between Polish society and Russian society and, in fact, Ukrainian and Belarusian societies.

    IR: And if I may add, I also know Russians who live in Poland and are very actively involved in helping Ukrainian refugees. And this has been the case since the beginning of the war. Many people went to the border and worked at the shelters there or were simply distributing food or helping with translation.

    And the same goes about the Belarusians. They also have been involved in helping Ukrainians here in Poland. I know people who would go from my city to the border and transport refugees and go and pick them up and bring them to Krakow. They were quite involved here in Krakow, even at the city level, working with Krakow authorities in helping Ukrainian refugees. So there's, of course, always the official policy, the freezing of relations, but at the same time, Poland is home to many Russians. And this is true.

    NR: And speaking of freezing relations: on the one hand, Poland joined Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania and Finland in closing its borders in September to all Russian passport holders with tourist visas. And at the same time, Poland has been actively issuing the so-called humanitarian visas to those people from Belarus who had to flee the country, fleeing from the Lukashenka regime. And I don't know about the scale, but I know that Poland is doing the same now, extending the same form of support to at least some Russian independent journalists and activists.

    IR: We have the so-called Giedroyc Doctrine. It was [named for the] Polish editor of a magazine called Kultura, which was operating from Paris post-World War II. Poland was a communist state at the time, and such a magazine could not exist in Poland. And in the pages of this magazine, a vision of Poland's future foreign policy was formulated.

    Imagine, this is the time of the Soviet Union and in the pages of this magazine it is formulated that Poland's future stability depends on democratic and independent Ukraine, democratic and independent Belarus, democratic and independent Lithuania, and a dialogue with democratizing Russia. So I think conditions one democratic Lithuania: fulfilled. Democratic Ukraine: yes, but of course, unfortunately, affected by the war. Democratic Belarus: that's why we're supporting democratic society in Belarus and democratization of Belarus. And dialogue with democratizing Russia. Democratic Russia is this ultimate goal, maybe the last stage of this vision, but nonetheless exists.

    And it was formulated by the editor, who himself experienced Poland from before the war. He knew multi-ethnic Poland. He knew Poland that was actually larger than it is now and that included the regions that are now independent states. So this is formulated by a person who understood the region like no other, with its complexity, with its history, but also social tissue and ethnic tissue. And that other vision, I think it never loses its validity, and I hope it leads us into the future.

    NR: And as far as I can see, today's public intellectuals in Poland continue this respectable tradition. From what I've read, people like Adam Michnik, a prominent dissident, and some other people like him, actually ask the state and society to try to separate Russian civil society from the Russian criminal political regime. So it looks like this tradition goes on, despite how difficult is to differentiate this in the time of war.

    IR: Absolutely, and let's hope that this is our future. The mood here in Poland is very serious. I mean, it's concerning to see what is happening in Kyiv, the discussions about possible nuclear attack. So I think we have to have some vision that one day these things will change and we will have democracy in this region. And peace.

    NR: And indeed, for Poland as a neighbor, it's especially alarming because the military side of things does affect Poland, because it's so close to its borders. So it's not just the solidarity; it's also the fact that the war is being waged so close to Poland itself. And one cannot feel properly safe until it's over.

    IR: Absolutely true. And we cannot forget that Poland is a transfer country for most of the weapons.

    NR: Oh, that’s actually something that we haven't touched upon. But indeed, let's emphasize that it's not just helping the refugees, it's also taking part in the military assistance.

    And coming back to what you have briefly touched upon, the fact that right now Poland is, like many other countries, going through an economic crisis. The Polish currency has dropped against the dollar, to the lowest level since 1995, I think. And it has one of the highest levels of inflation in Europe. And there is a general European energy crisis looming on the horizon. And at the same time, there is a parliamentary election coming up next year. So what do you think is going to affect the chances of the Law and Justice party to be reelected: the economic hardships or the fact that [it] stood with Ukraine during this difficult time?

    IR: To be honest, I don't know, because for the moment, the Polish political future is very uncertain. There is a lot of criticism of the government and the opinion polls point to that. The government has about 30 percent of [public] support. But in Poland, it's not enough to have a majority of the society to support you. Our electoral system is so complicated that sometimes you can have the majority of the society support you and you still lose political power. However, it seems plausible that the opposition will win and form a government. But I think right now the question is not who will win and who will lose. The point is that it’s extremely toxic. And I think a lot of black PR and a lot of nasty tricks will be used. But they're internal. I don't think that the war will be used in this political fight. Actually, the EU—the anti-EU—card is played more strongly, unfortunately. Because Poland, which does not obey law and order as we should, is not receiving the EU funds, for example, for the post-COVID recovery.

    So the populist forces are actually playing the so-called Polexit card or showing the EU as the bad guy, to such an absurd point that I've read a couple days ago that we have been hurt by the EU more than Russia with the sanctions. I think Polish people are nonetheless rational, and they will not choose Polexit. But you never know. I mean, I don't know what the political marketing methods will be used during the campaign, but we can expect a nasty campaign, unfortunately. The war has an effect on the Polish economy. But I'm not sure if it's only the war. I think we are also in the post-pandemic transition. I think there are many factors.

    The government is a populist government, so it is trying to react and especially help people who it considers its voters. So the elderly, the pensioners—they help [them] with the gas prices, with electricity prices. They're looking for tools to decrease the anger, the social anger, but I think that anger is there. But nobody, for the moment, at least en masse, is making the connection that, oh, we should stop supporting Ukraine, because of the economic crisis.

    NR: And I'm assuming whoever comes to power, Poland will still be pushing for a strong stance on Russia in every international organization where it’s a member, right? So what kind of sanctions does Poland currently support or push for?

    IR: I think all economic sanctions that are in place; Poland was a huge supporter of them, of course. Poland was a huge opponent of the Nord Stream 2, so Poland welcomed the end of the project. However, we don't know what will happen in the future, but for the moment it's frozen. But Poland will also demand justice for the victims, some sort of international tribunal for the aggressors. And this is in public debate, quite present, that Putin should go to the Hague and follow the fate of, for example, Milosevic.

    NR: And just to conclude, I would like to ask you a somewhat hypothetical question. What would you say are the prerequisites for a future Polish-Russian reconciliation or at least a new rapprochement? I'm asking this, assuming that this can only happen when the war ends, and [it] probably only can happen if the war ends on certain terms. But assuming that, what would a future Russian government have to do for Poland to even consider it as a potential partner again?

    IR: Well, I think Russia needs to change. Russia has to, like the Giedroyc Doctrine says, it has to start democratizing itself and has to choose the path towards democratization. In specifically Polish-Russian relations, I think Russia needs to admit the guilt and needs to do what Germany did. I think the Polish public expects this sort of apology for the Soviet period, for the 1939 invasion of Poland. This definitely would improve trust and understanding or facilitate building trust and reconciliation on the Polish side with the Russian society. But first and foremost, Russia needs to be held accountable for what it did to Ukraine and needs to pay the price. So I think the complete reconciliation process is still ahead of us, way ahead of us. And it will require a change, a huge change inside Russia.

    If you ask me personally, I think it will be [in the best interests] of the Russian people and the Russian Federation to go through this process internally, like Germany did after World War II. It became a completely different society, a completely different state. As we now see, Germany doesn’t want to be involved in Ukraine, because it's so anti-war. It became a very pacifistic society. And I really wish the Russian Federation and the Russian society [would] go through this process. And Poland will need to recognize that Russia is no longer a threat to its security. So this would be what Poland would expect from reconciliation.

    NR: Well, let's only hope that we will all live long enough to see it all happen. And indeed, it cannot be an easy process, but at least looking back, we can see some positive examples of when one of the countries reached out, the other was ready to respond accordingly. So this sort of dialogue in the future, under different circumstances is, I guess, what we can only hope for from 2022.

    Iwona, thank you so much for joining me today. It was fascinating, and it was a great pleasure to have you here.

    IR: Thank you so much, Nina. And thank you to everybody who listened to us. Thank you so much.

    NR: From the Kennan Institute, this is Nina Rozhanovskaya. Thank you for listening. And we look forward to having you with us on the next episode of The Russia File.


Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more