April 15, 2010

Russia-Poland: A thaw in public sentiment


Analysts covering Russian-Polish relations have changed their opinions from positive to negative several times in the last two days.

Immediately after the plane crash near Smolensk on April 10, in which Polish President Lech Kaczynski died, they wrote that the tragedy would incite hatred of Russia in Poland. But when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin flew to the site, Russians laid flowers at the Polish Embassy and President Dmitry Medvedev made an unprecedented announcement of a day of mourning for the death of foreign citizens (the Polish press emphasized the latter), Polish society expressed gratitude.

Even people who usually post critical comments on the web sites of Polish newspapers have expressed gratitude and even a sincere desire for unity with Russians.

Then it was reported that the airport tower controllers at Severny Airport in Smolensk did not speak English fluently and so could be indirectly responsible for the crash, which again provoked negative sentiments.

These public opinion tides are a mirror reflection of difficult Russian-Polish relations, even though a majority of Poles and Russians view each other positively despite the anti-Russian and anti-Polish propaganda in their countries.

Russians visiting Poland don't see Russia haters there, unless, of course, you discuss openly in a restaurant the problem of Katyn from Stalin's viewpoint or demand, while having a traditional walk in downtown Warsaw, that a tsarist envoy be returned to the Belvedere Palace. Poles have a genuine interest in events in Russia, and central Polish newspapers carry Russian news. But then, there are reports and there are reports.

For example, Polish TV and newspapers present Russia as a country where members of the Memorial international history and human rights society are the only honest people in Russia, where the Russian special services and the Nashi youth movement terrorize Russians morally and even physically, and Garri Kasparov is the last incorruptible Russian politician.

They have forgotten that Kasparov invited Yury Mukhin, a man who refused to admit that it was the NKVD secret police who shot Poles at Katyn, to address his National Assembly coalition.

At the same time, recent reports in the Russian media regarding Poland have concentrated mostly on the aborted U.S. plans to deploy a ballistic missile defense system there, or on other similar events.

This has created a huge gap between what common Russians and Poles feel and the reports and statements by the media, politicians and diplomats.

The wave of empathy in Russia after the death of the Polish president, flowers laid at the Polish Embassy in Moscow, and a positive change in bloggers attitudes have shown that nationalists make up a minority in both countries. Unfortunately, they are a very active and influential minority that has access to the media and the ear of the men in power.

This is not surprising; the same has happened in other countries. We have seen an aggressive and politically active minority in Ukraine force their will on the inert majority for five years.

Most Poles, just like most Russians, have no time for finding their way through a maze of diplomatic and historical intricacies. They only pay attention after dramatic events such as the crash of the plane that carried the Polish president.

The 9/11 tragedy in the United States, when Russians expressed sincere sympathy for Americans, is indirect proof that flowers at the Polish Embassy do not guarantee long-term improvement in bilateral relations.

In a few days, the well-wishing majority will return to their everyday problems, job, kids, and TV news in the evening. But the aggressive minority, which has representatives in all parties in both the Polish and Russian parliaments, will not sit back. They have already advanced the idea of a conspiracy behind Kaczynski's death.

Negative information about neighboring countries is known to travel faster and sell better than positive news. But the huge wave of public sympathy will not be forgotten. Evidence of that is a reader's commentary posted on the web site of the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, which said: "We are all Slavs, but we have been fighting each other like a pack of dogs. It is pleasant to see human faces and feel support extended from people you never expected."

It is not the president but the parliament (Sejm), and in particular the ruling party or coalition, who holds the key place in the Polish political system. Therefore, we cannot expect any dramatic shift in Poland's foreign policy.

The most favored candidate at the upcoming presidential election in Poland is Bronislaw Komorowski, the marshal (speaker) of the Sejm who is currently the acting president. Several weeks ago his nomination in the presidential race was supported by most members of his party, Civic Platform, which holds the majority in parliament.

Another candidate is Michal Kleiber, president of the Polish Academy of Sciences, and more candidates could still be nominated.

But no matter who is nominated and who wins the election set for June 20, 2010, the new president will have to take into account the unexpected April thaw in Polish-Russian relations. That is, if Poland is really a democratic country.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

MOSCOW (RIA Novosti commentator Dmitry Babich)

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