Viewpoint: Is Poland moving on from its turbulent past?

Remains of crashed Polish aircraft The air crash which killed nearly 100 Polish dignitaries in Russia brought the countries' relationship into sharp focus

Poland's relationship with Russia has often been troubled; dominated by Tsarist Russia, then invaded by the Soviets in 1920 and 1939, and nearly five decades as a satellite of Moscow.

But after improving relations with neighbouring Germany - itself a cause of much Polish turmoil - can a meaningful detente with Russia be forged, asks Polish journalist Marek Rybarczyk.

It seems quite unusual for an MP to declare war on a nearby superpower.

Antoni Macierewicz, a maverick member of the right-wing Law and Justice Party, managed to do that and even more: he suggested in an interview that Russia had been "at war" with Poland. He believed the air crash near Smolensk in 2010 which killed the Polish president was not a crash at all but a declaration of war.

The left-of-centre magazine Przeglad asked last week on its cover about the consequences of spreading political paranoia. Newsweek bore Mr Macierewicz's head in a Taliban turban with the caption "Running amok". And Mr Macierewicz is not the only politician making controversial statements about the bear next door.

Delicate history

The leader of the opposition and former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski recently openly accused someone of blowing up the plane, which killed his brother, the president, and scores of other deputies and officials.

The government headed by Prime Minister Donald Tusk was accused of treason and turning the country into a Russian-German "condominium". Poland has not seen reactions like this since the end of the Cold War.

Poland Direct branding

Any discussion about Poland's foreign policy is delicate, for historical reasons.

Sandwiched between powerful Germany and unpredictable Russia, Poland's political elite have been careful not to bring up the ghosts of the 20th Century. The Russian invasion of 1920 which almost killed the fledgling state, and the Soviet-Nazi pact in 1939 that divided a defeated Poland, lie deep in the national psyche.

The heated language from Warsaw is often because of bitter political infighting between the ruling Civic Platform and the opposition. Policies carried out by the country's foreign office, and what the average Pole believes, are becoming more clear-headed and reasonable.

Poland now has good relations with Russia, Germany and the US. Its international reputation is probably the highest it has ever been, and the country has never been safer. Poland may also be richer than at any other point in its history.

Eight years into EU membership, Poles have learned how profitable it can be. For most of the period Poland's economic growth was above 4% of GDP (at one point almost 7%). Before the present economic crisis the zloty shot up in value against the US dollar and euro. The average salary has grown by more than 30%. Up to now Poland has remained a green island of growth on Europe's economic map.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the Law and Justice Party Jaroslaw Kaczynski's Law and Justice Party has accused Russia of being "at war" with Poland

The idea that the Germans come to buy up Poland's industries and the Russians roll in their tanks when we relax our guard has long gone. Compare that to eight years ago, when the accusation that Mr Tusk's grandfather was a volunteer member of the World War II German units was enough to destroy his reputation. No longer.

The elderly may still tell you perhaps at a wedding in the countryside over a glass of vodka how treacherous the Russians are and how the Germans are still eyeing our lands. But those xenophobic sentiments are disappearing in a new society of young city-dwellers hunting for jobs all over Europe.

Extreme Eurosceptics remain in the minority. Poland now favours the so-called community approach in solving various EU problems.

'Fully European'

"The government-to-government approach means that the biggest and the strongest win at the possible expense of others, smaller and weaker," says Eugeniusz Smolar, the former Chairman of Warsaw's International Relations Centre, a leading think tank.

This sentiment is mostly echoed by Jakub Kumoch, a conservative analyst from the Sobieski Institute. "EU membership is perceived as a guarantee of Poland's further development and security," he says. "The debate on the degree of integration is going on, but none of the political parties in parliament questions this direction of the country's European foreign policy."

Poland appears to be enjoying its membership of the EU - possibly at the expense of the close Polish-American ties earlier this century.

"The younger generation of Poles have become fully European, they enjoy open borders and possibilities to study or work almost anywhere. Not in the US though, because of the very unpopular American visa requirements," Mr Smolar says.

One of the reasons is certainly Polish disappointment with their involvement in the American-led interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Signing of the Soviet-Nazi Non-Aggression Pact The Soviet-Nazi Non-Aggression pact which divided Poland still haunts Poles

"In view of US attention switching to Asia, Europe tends to play a more decisive role in its security and defence," Mr Smolar says.

There is a relative lack of focus of the present US administration on Central Europe. When the anti-missile shield was scrapped in 2009, Warsaw was the last to know. Polish diplomacy more than once felt - though did not dare to utter it aloud - a bitter sentiment: like in a bad marriage, in American-Polish relations there was too often a third hidden party: Russia.

Both Poland's ruling party and the opposition believe more democracy in Eastern Europe (Belarus, Ukraine and others) is one of Europe's most important challenges. "Britain and Scandinavian countries share our point of view. Should we abandon our commitment to human rights just because Russia's leadership doesn't like it?" asks Mr Kumoch.

The Smolensk air disaster was perceived at first as political catharsis but ended up being another painful episode in Polish history.

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One could believe that Poland is becoming a regional superpower in Europe”

End Quote Wawrzyniec Smoczynski Polityka

Poland and Russia had a healthier working relationship before the crash. Germany had persuaded the Russians to try and improve things. But this soured after the accident. According to Mr Smolar, the Polish view was that the Russians did not deliver on promises to fully investigate the crash.

Poland, however, may be in a better position now to deal with such painful episodes. "We are less obsessed by the potential threats coming from the neighbours - Russia and Germany - and by the possibility of them jointly working together against Poland's interests," Mr Smolar says.

Last November Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski called on Germany to do more to resolve the debt crisis in the eurozone. The speech, however important, would not have gone into history books but for one crucial and brave sentence: "I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity."

Polish journalist Wawrzyniec Smoczynski, who writes for the influential Polityka, says: "Listening to Radoslaw Sikorski's recent expose in parliament one could believe that Poland is becoming a regional superpower in Europe: Germany remains our main partner, we have had numerous successes in EU and a stronger position in the east".

Even if this is not the whole story, it is at least a hopeful chapter.

Marek Rybarczyk is a writer for Newsweek's Polish edition

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