Memory and Politics: Press Comments on Significance of Moscow Celebrations

Polish News Bulletin
May 19, 2005

Following last week's celebrations in Moscow of the 60th anniversary of
the end of world war II, the press carries comments on the significance
of the event for Poland and on the controversies it raised, including
whether president Kwasniewski should have attended it, and whether
Poland was humiliated by Russia's invitation for general Jaruzelski,
author of the martial law, or Vladimir Putin's failure to mention
Poland as part of the victorious anti-Nazi coalition. - Maciej Letowski

commentator, Tygodnik Solidarnosc

We have a sense of failure and humiliation. Even those who wanted
president Kwasniewski to go to Moscow are disappointed today, as
they had hoped for more. While we cannot change the humiliation, we
can change the policy that resulted in it. Poland is a country that
will not get anything for granted. We owe both successes (Ukraine)
as well as failures (some provisions of the constitutional treaty) to
our activity. Effective in the former case, ineffective in the latter.
There were two ways to make sure that president Kwasniewski would be
seated in the front row in Moscow. Putin reminded us of the first
one by decorating general Jaruzelski, and the Russian TV did so
by broadcasting, for the 100th time, The Four in a Tank and a Dog
[a popular 70s' TV series showing world war II from the communist
perspective]. We rejected that path in 1989. We should have paved
our way to the Red Square ourselves, or stayed at home.

For politicians, history is a toolbox from which they pick only
what fits their current policies. On May 9, president Putin showed,
referring to history, what were his goals and ambitions. He wants
Russia to be treated by the world as a global power equal to the US,
China, Japan, and the EU. Hence the invited guests were seated not in
accordance with their importance in 1945 but in 2005. Can a country
whose gross national product is the size of that of the Netherlands
seriously nurse such ambitions? Putin is aware of Russia's weakness,
so he is seeking a leverage to strengthen his country's potential.
One such leverage is, for instance, Russian-German reconciliation.
The recent Bild interview shows that the time for which Putin and
Schroeder have common sentiment is the beautiful 19th century.

There was and is no place for Poland either on the Red Square or in
Russia's policy. Let us console ourselves, however, that there is
no place in it either for the Baltic states, because they are small,
nor for the UK, because it is America's declared ally. If Poland is
a small country (in the Kremlin's view) and a strategic partner of
the US, then Kwasniewski's place was in the third row.

In the front row, in turn, there was place for the president of France,
whose contribution to defeating Nazi Germany was confined to a three
day-long uprising in a couple of Paris's districts. But the Kremlin
needs France today, and France needs the Kremlin. In this vision
of history there is no room for Britain's heroic and lone fight
from September 1939 to 1941, just as there is no place for the UK
in Moscow's policy today. Here is why Tony Blair decided to stay in
Moscow. The elections, after all, were but a pretext.

If there is anyone in Poland who still does not understand Russia's
policy, the May 9 celebrations were a god lesson. Those vying for
power in Poland must draw practical consequences from that lesson,
and more far-reaching ones than just a simple decision whether or
not to go to Moscow, because that is a crowning of political thought,
not its substitute.

"It was necessary to go to manifest our position," "the absent are
always in the wrong," Kwasniewski argued. Today we already know that
the absent (Lithuania and Estonia on the one hand, Georgia on the
other) were quite in the right. What is more, they managed to send the
right message to the global public. The small states' tough position
was noted and awarded by the European public opinion and the EU leaders
(Verheugen's and Borell's speeches). President Bush went to Moscow
through Riga, and on Monday night was already in Tbilisi. On May 9,
the CNN and BBC cameras were both on the Red Square as well as in
the capitals of the countries that had rejected Moscow's invitation.

That means that Kwasniewski had a choice. If he had stayed, Poland's
prestige would not have been harmed. What is more, his beautiful
speech (no irony here) would have been heard not only by the Polish
TV viewers. Putin failed to notice Kwasniewski's presence in Moscow.
He did notice general Jaruzelski's. He shook hands with him longer
and more cordially, and decorated him for ? well, there is a dispute
here. The kind-hearted say that for his role in overcoming the
Pomeranian Wall in 1945. The sceptics that for suppressing the peaceful
Solidarity uprising in 1981 and the 1968 excursion to Czechoslovakia
? as Czech president Vaclav Klaus and many western commentators said.

Today the mistakes that we made in the recent months have become
clear. Kwasniewski announced too early that he would go to Moscow. He
announced his decision before acquainting himself with the schedule of
the celebrations, and before the Kremlin answered questions about the
Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, Yalta, and Katyn. Acting hastily, he made
things easier for the Russian foreign ministry, and more difficult
for us and our Baltic neighbours. Hurrying is something you simply
do not do in dealing with Russia.

It is also perfectly clear that we made a mistake ? not for the
first time ? by not coordinating our actions with others. Having
received the invitation from Moscow, Poland forgot, for instance,
about Lithuania, though, for historical and political reasons, it
should have remembered. Nor did the Polish diplomacy pay any attention
to Latvia, so close to us historically. Latvia, whose president Vaira
Vike-Freiberga showed more backbone and political instinct in the
recent weeks than anyone else. It is a pity the Polish president did
not stand at her side during that time. At the side of the three Baltic
states for whom Yalta and the Soviet occupation meant even greater
suffering than for Poland. We do not always have to present our wounds
to the world. It is sometimes better to give the floor to others.

Russia sensed a "Polish conspiracy" in the Ukrainian orange
revolution. If Poland had contributed to president Bush's meeting
with the leaders of the Baltic states, and it could have, one would
have been proud of the Polish diplomacy, and would have gladly read
comments in the Russian press about another "Polish plot." Alas,
we were busy brooding over the wrongs done to us, forgetting that we
had already received our share of the world's sympathy during last
year's Warsaw Uprising celebrations.

It became clear once again that our Ukrainian success was rather
accidental. We made it to Kiev at the last moment, but failed to
make it to the GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, Moldova) summit in
Kishinev. Though invited, Kwasniewski did not go in order "not to
irritate Moscow." [See "Wasted Opportunity: Kwasniewski's Absence
from GUAM Summit in Kishinev Illogical and Incomprehensible" in the
May 5 issue of the PNB Weekend Supplement].

If Putin's intention was to convince the world that Russia was a
global power, able to dictate its own vision of history to others,
he did not achieve his goal. Putin had to swallow a number of bitter
pills to have George Bush at the celebrations: from the US president's
itinerary, to his condemnation of Russia's annexation of the Baltic
states. While on May 9 the world televisions showed the Moscow
parade and fragments of Putin's speech, they also featured extensive
historical reports about Stalin's policy, the price of victory and its
consequences for the Central European nations. They showed interviews
with the presidents of Latvia or Georgia. They showed reports about
contemporary Russia, including the images of Khodorkovsky waiting for
his trial in an iron cage. Western reporters commented that the parade
resembled the Stalinist times, and that Russia lived in the past,
unable to critically and creatively interpret its history. In fact,
the celebrations weakened rather than strengthened Russia's image in
the world.

Listening to the opposition, one could conclude that if Lech Kaczynski
or Donald Tusk had been in Kwasniewski's place, they would not have
gone to Moscow. Even if that would have been be the right step,
it would have been insufficient. What the opposition should do is
critically and thoroughly review all the mistakes committed by the
Polish diplomacy in the recent months, and show how to avoid them in
the future.

Table. Poles on Moscow celebrations (percentages of replies)* Is it
good that president Kwasniewski went to Moscow good bad 42 42 Were the
celebrations a humiliation for Poland yes no 55 29 Did Kwasniewski's
image suffer yes no no change 21 7 64 */ PBS, May 10, telephone poll,
500-strong representative adult sample; source: Gazeta Wyborcza

The recent events also showed that the rightwing had an excessive
tendency for cultivating historical politics. True, that is Poland's
important advantage. But it does not make sense to reach for the
historical arguments at any occasion. It does not make sense to
remind the Germans about their crimes when negotiating tax policy,
nor the Russians about Katyn when talking about gas supplies. Those
are "last chance" arguments that should be used as a last resort,
when we really face the wall. - Ireneusz Krzeminski

sociologist, Warsaw University

There is no doubt that the May 9 celebrations in Moscow should become
an important impulse for thinking and acting in Poland's politics. A
cynical vision of politics as rivalry for power and influence, a
legacy of communism, pushed to the background its other important
functions. As it now turns out, politics must not forget about
important social issues, this time related to the past and to the
society's image in its own and others' eyes.

The issue of the second world war and what happened afterwards
divided the Poles. Before we got used to the thought, there had
unexpectedly emerged the issue of different historical memories
in Poland and Germany. The Germans, until then humbly accepting
responsibility for the Nazi crimes, suddenly started raising the
issue of the suffering and losses they had incurred during the
post-war resettlements. Interestingly, they were addressing their
complaints not at the victorious Soviet Union, which had treated the
Germans cruelly, but at Poland and the Poles. We suddenly realised
that Poland and Germany hardly shared a common historical memory,
a very irritating realisation for the majority of Poles.

The Moscow celebrations had prompted a heated debate long before
they started. There is no doubt that Moscow's symbolical gestures
and Putin's failure to mention Poles' wartime contribution will cause
indignation and irritation in Poland. And rightly, because they were
not accidental. President Putin should remember that Polish soldiers
participated in the battle of Berlin ? if only because the Soviet
authorities always celebrated that. The lack of mention was therefore
politically-motivated, showing that Russia was far more skilled than
Poland at using history in shaping up its international image. And
that historical interpretations were an important instrument for
Russian policymakers.

Poland's justified indignation, on the other hand, is a result of
our own failure to implement a permanent strategy regarding the
symbols protecting Poland's national interests. Since the beginning
of the Polish democracy, Poland's image in Europe and the world was
something the politicians cared about only incidentally, when things
got really serious. And yet such moments were a result of long-time
processes and failures.

Above all, it should be remembered that, for the communist regime,
building and cementing a favourable image of Poland and the Poles in
the world was not an important priority, the ideas of internationalism
enjoying preference. The first Solidarity cabinets had, one could
say, more important things on their mind. Still, they did realise
the importance of promoting Poland's favourable image. Under Jan
Krzysztof Bielecki, many debates were held in the government
spokesman's office, and then in the government press office,
about the need for developing a strategy of Poland's promotion,
defalsifying its image, and promoting knowledge about Poland's past
and present. Little came out of it. One of the main obstacles was the
fact that the successive cabinets and successive presidents lacked
a long-term vision of Poland and its presence in the world. That is
especially true for president Kwasniewski.

There is no doubt that the president found himself in a very
inconvenient situation because Russia's unsympathetic ? to say the
least ? position towards Poland had been signalled long before the
May 9 anniversary. The opposition had also made its clear quite early
that it believed the president should not go. Kwasniewski thus had at
least three months to develop initiatives that would clearly present
the Polish perspective on the end of the war. He could have organised
a number of politically significant events and initiatives that,
perhaps, would have even forced president Putin to present a truer
vision of the past. Yet Kwasniewski, while rejecting the rightwing
opposition's ? quite justified ? objections, failed to develop even
a single initiative that would have, loudly and clearly, though
not necessarily polemically, convey to the world the Polish vision
of the end of the war and its consequences. And would have been an
opportunity to not so much remind but tell Europe about our experience
of the past. After all, the European Parliament's recent rejection of
the motion recognising the Katyn massacre of Polish officers by Soviet
Russia as genocide shows that even educated Europeans know very little
about the tragic history of Poland and Central and Eastern Europe as
a whole. Any initiative ? be it a conference of foreign ministers,
or a roadshow exhibition - would have been very welcome. What was
done was insufficient and came much too late.

One has an irresistible impression that the Polish diplomacy's
participation in the discussing and promoting of Poland's national
interests is very superficial. The EU constitution showed that
clearly: a deeper and more committed participation in the drafting
of the document would have produced less tensions and controversies
than actually occurred.

In the context of the European negotiations, it is clear that
the general image of Poland, its interests and values, may be very
important in the negotiations on specific issues. Nursing that image,
and especially the image of the past, telling the world about our
specific experiences ? is a first-rate task for Polish policy,
not only foreign one. Communism's cynical politics of power proved
quite insufficient in the long run: symbols and public perceptions are
always decisive for the course of things in this world. We should draw
conclusions from that. After all, who knows better than the Poles that
national solidarity and its symbols can overcome violence and tanks.

Poland's opening to world after 1989 forced us very quickly to
reconsider our own past. That concerned in the first place the
Polish-Jewish relations and the horrible truth about Polish crimes
against the Jews, and those against outlawed Germans. Poles still find
it difficult to acknowledge the various ignoble acts committed against
defenceless Germans in the immediate post-war period. But the most
complicated of all is the issue of Polish-Soviet and Polish-Russian
relations. The fundamental and obvious for most Poles truth that
liberation from under German occupation was the beginning of Soviet
enslavement and Poland's subsequent dependence on the Soviet Union,
is not being questioned today even by the most fervent post-communist
politicians. At the same time, it is something exotic not only for
the authoritarian, imperialistic pro-Putin elites but also for the
majority of Russians. That cannot be easily changed. - Piotr Pacewicz

Gazeta Wyborcza

The whole national debate declining the word "humiliation" a hundred
ways is harmful and unwise.

It is understandable why the politicians have joined it. Why did
Donald Tusk, standing at the foot of the Westerplatte former military
base in Gdansk [where the first shots on September 1, 1939 were
fired] ask rhetorically "Whom are paying homage to, Mr. President?"
suggesting that Kwasniewski would pay homage to ex-KGB officer Putin?
Because the PO leader is trying to harm Kwasniewski's image and outbid
the Kaczynski brothers, whose Law and Justice had overtaken the PO
in the polls, in anti-Russian rhetoric.

One bets euro against roubles that Tusk understands perfectly well
Kwasniewski's political calculation to go to Moscow, understands
the pros and cons, and, as a decent man, knows that he should not be
exploiting the Westerplatte for his own political ends.

The worse thing is that the media too succumbed to the mood of the
moment, and as a result the whole nation felt humiliated. A poll
conducted by Gazeta on the day following the Moscow celebrations showed
four in 10 Poles thinking that Kwasniewski had done right by going. At
the same time, 55 percent said that Poland had been humiliated.

There is a sense of bitterness as if the Poles expected that our
version of history and our contribution to the ultimate victory over
the Third Reich would be appreciated by Putin. That in a crucial
moment of his speech Putin would address Kwasniewski and thank him
for the Polish-Russian brotherhood of arms.

It is perhaps better that he did not because in Putin's version of
history Poles fought only on the eastern front. He might actually
have said something nasty about the Home Army or those Poles fighting
alongside the western allies.

Imagining that Putin would appreciate the Poles was unreasonable. In
his Russia, the Poles had been cast as such villains that the
anniversary of the Kremlin's liberation from Polish forces in the 17th
century replaced the anniversary of the October Revolution as Russia's
most important official holiday The post-Soviet man still regards
the Poles as revolted subjects of the former empire, especially after
Aleksander Kwasniewski helped Ukraine separate itself from Russia.

It is the victory of the orange revolution that was the real
humiliation for the imperial, arrogant policy that Putin had carried
out in Ukraine, supporting Yanukovych and defending falsified
elections. He threw his whole authority at stake ? and lost.

Putin's words in Moscow were a pathetic version of the imperial
aspirations of a country that not so long ago had sent the first
man into space and ruled half of the globe, and whose gross national
product per head today is sharply lower than Poland's.

Can such Russia, such Putin humiliate the Poles? Does the fact that
his anachronistic speech did not mention the name "Poland" affronts
our national dignity?

Putin was unable to prevent president Kwasniewski's demonstrative
gestures, who, paying homage to the victims of Stalinism in Moscow,
tried to tell to the world the truth about history. It is a pity he
did so in a clumsy way, that his speech at the Don Cemetery was not
translated into Russian, but the Polish protests were still noticed
by the world press on par with those of the Baltic states and Georgia.

Let us not get carried away, let us not succumb to the typical Polish
inferiority complex, let us not create new ones. We are no longer a
pawn in Russia's game with the West.

We are a middle country, and our policy has to be flexible, looking
for opportunities. We did wonderfully in Ukraine, less so in Moscow,
but if Kwasniewski had not gone, Poland's position in Russia and the
world would not have been better.

And national dignity is something the Poles should be looking for
elsewhere than in Vladimir Putin's speeches. - Russia Has Disregard
for the Weak

Russia is not interested in good relations with Poland. What can be
done to change that?

"I don't think this cabinet and this president can really do anything
about it," says Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz, eastern analyst and former
deputy head of the Eastern Studies Centre (OSW), a Warsaw-based in
Gazeta Wyborcza. "The leftwing's mandate has been exhausted. Not
because it made some cardinal mistakes, but because it has been
unable to say out loud that there is a conflict between Poland and
Russia. The causes of that conflict lie with the Russian s."

"For Russia, Poland is not an equal partner. They treat us as a small
country that needs not be reckoned with. Secondly, what for us is
a fundamental national interest, i.e. the EU common foreign policy,
is a threat for them. The third issue is history. Our sense that we
fell victim to two totalitarian regimes is unacceptable for Russia. If
only because of potential compensation claims, but also because it
would equalling Stalin with Hitler."

What does the ostentatious Russian-German reconciliation mean for

"It is worrying because it approaches a situation where other
countries' interests are not taken into consideration. To some extent,
it is doubtless a result of excellent personal communication between
chancellor Schroeder and president Putin, and the Christian Democrats'
potential electoral victory in Germany could change a lot here."

So is there no good news?

"We have to get used to the thought that we're doomed to conflict
with Russia. That there'll be differences, that our interests are
often divergent. We must talk about it openly, because the Russians
disregard the weak. And the key place for Polish-Russian relations
will be neither Warsaw nor Moscow, but Brussels."

How is the EU supposed to help us?

"Our opportunity lies in the formulation and implementation of a common
EU foreign policy. For Russia it is a threat because it wants to deal
directly with the leading EU states, ignoring the smaller ones. The
Russians are also trying to treat the new member states differently
than the old ones. They're controlling the Polish dairy plants,
and I haven't hear about them controlling the German ones."

"A common foreign policy would boost the significance of Poland and
the Baltic states. Only with the EU's support will it be possible to
achieve ambitious goals in the east - democratise Belarus and cement
the reforms in Ukraine."

"The strengthening of the Commission's and the Parliament's position
is also favourable for us. We brought the Parliament over to our side
during the Ukrainian revolution, and we recently scored a small success
in the Commission too - the project of a Baltic pipeline linking
Russia with western Europe wasn't recognised as a priority for the EU."

What about the US, Poland main ally?

"We should nurse no illusions here. Our interests and objectives
are different. For the US, relations with Russia are too important
to put them at risk because of the Polish-Russian dispute. In other
words, the US won't do anything to boost Polish chicken exports to
Russia. That's something only the EU can help us in."