Russia unleashes charm offensive on Poland

Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hug at the funeral of Polish President Lech Kaczynski who died in a plane crash earlier this year - picture courtesy of Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Russia's Putin consoled his Polish counterpart at Kaczynski's funeral

Russia has adopted different diplomatic tactics to those it employed two years ago during its armed conflict with Georgia in South Ossetia. Poland is one country basking in its charm offensive as it works to develop economic ties after the global downturn.

There are some business people you meet who seem permanently to be spinning a line. And then there are those who genuinely appear to believe in whatever product or service their company provides.

Eugeniusz Sabik fell firmly in the latter category. At a Warsaw supermarket, he took great delight pointing out the wide variety of soap products for which his company, Betasoap, is responsible. You got the impression he might refuse to wash with anything else.

But what gets Eugeniusz really excited, is the chance to talk about his main export market. More than half of Betasoap's output is now sold in Russia.

"Russia is huge," he said. "And the middle class is fast growing, therefore the market is developing... You just have to go to Russia, look for the right people, in order to secure your business."

Smiling face

This is precisely the kind of positive attitude the Russian government seems keen to encourage, and not only in the commercial sphere.

In an interview in April, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said his country should present the world with "a smiling face".

What's more, he added, Russia should not "gnash its teeth at anyone, get angry, sulk or feel offended".

Poland has certainly felt the "gnash" of Russian teeth in the past. It endured more than 40 years of communism, imposed by the Soviet Union after World War II.

But that followed centuries of occupation, and war between the two countries. So Mr Medvedev's new tone has been welcomed by many Poles.

"This is hope, this is very important for us," said Andrzej Halicki, a Polish MP, and chairman of the Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.

"We have to have good relations with the neighbours," he said. "I would like to think that they [Russians] would like to live as others are living, and to be a member of European society."

It certainly marks a change that such a charitable interpretation should come from a leading political figure.

The previous Polish government was particularly hostile towards its powerful neighbour to the east.

And the present administration's stance is not universally popular in Poland; nor does everyone accept Mr Halicki's interpretation of Russia's new-found friendliness.

Image caption Eugeniusz Sabik is proud of his product and his team as sales to Russia boom

"The Russians really need West European technology," said Jacek Adamski, head of economics at the Polish employers' organisation, Lewiatan.

He believes that Mr Medvedev is determined to build strong ties with all European Union members, but that this is only to dissuade any EU governments from blocking Russia's access to European markets, in technology and other areas.

"The Russians decided to make peace with Poland, because that would remove one of the last remaining obstacles," he argued. "They dream of buying shares or taking over companies all over Europe."

Whatever the motive, few in Poland would deny that a concerted Russian charm offensive is under way.

This became most obvious after the plane crash near the Russian town of Smolensk earlier this year, which killed Poland's president, Lech Kaczynski and dozens of other dignitaries.

They were on their way to a commemoration of the Katyn Massacre - a notorious wartime episode in which Soviet troops murdered around 20,000 Polish officers.

Stalin blamed Nazi Germany for the crime, a fiction that was maintained throughout the Soviet period.

But after the Smolensk crash, Russian leaders went out of their way to acknowledge Soviet responsibility for Katyn, and a recent Polish feature film on the subject was shown on peak-time Russian television.

Image caption Andrzej Blikle said he expected an apology from Russia of its treatment of Poland over the years

Many Poles greeted this as marking the dawn of a new era in Polish-Russian relations. But once again, the welcome is often qualified.

"It is a positive sign," said Andrzej Blikle, the owner of a landmark Warsaw cafe which famously survived intact throughout the communist era. "But Russians only started to talk this way. We expect an apology."

The apology Andrzej has in mind would be a comprehensive one. He wants to hear Russia say sorry for all the "crimes" it committed in Poland over the past years, particularly for its imposition of communism.

I asked him if he was not allowing history to stand in the way of a better future, it being after all, two decades since communism in Poland came to an end.

"If you are over 70, two decades is not that much. I am in favour of developing friendly relations with Russia. But good relations are impossible if they are not based on common understanding," he said.

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