As their leaders spar with Russia, Poles press for a bit of pragmatism

Poland and Russia expelled each other's diplomats this week and canceled cultural exchanges. But many Poles, driven by longstanding ties as well as business interests, want more dialogue. Will the new PM deliver?

Czarek Sokolowski/Ap
Poland's Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, left, former minister of foreign affairs, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited an exhibition to commemorate 25 years since a symbolic reconciliation between the two neighboring nations on Thursday. Some expect a more moderate tone toward Russia from new Prime Minister Kopacz.

Anyone who has been listening to the Polish government this year would think Poles want nothing to do with Russia.

Just this week, Russia said several of its diplomats were expelled from Poland, and in return, Polish diplomats were asked to leave Moscow. The Polish government cancelled a series of cultural events that were to be held next year to celebrate ties between the two nations, and both are fighting over plans for monuments in each other’s towns and cities. For much of this year, under the leadership of former prime minister Donald Tusk and former foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland has been the champion of harsher European Union sanctions on Russia.

But the sentiment of Poles isn’t necessarily reflected in the political rhetoric. In fact, Poles are much more in line with their German neighbors: They are afraid of Russia but want a practical, responsible coexistence with Russia – a sentiment that could pressure Poland's leaders to step back from their hawkish positions.

“Most public opinion polls show that people in Poland want a more pragmatic and middle-of-the-road politics toward Russia,” says Maciej Ras, an expert on Russia at the Institute of International Relations at the University of Warsaw. “And spin doctors of the political parties will keep this in their minds, especially before next year's elections.”

In a May 2014 survey by polling institute CBOS, 60 percent of respondents said that Poland should be pragmatic in foreign policy and look to its own interests first. Thirty-eight percent said they preferred, if they had to choose, to have better relations with Russia than with Ukraine or Georgia. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Ukraine's Crimea last March seemed to validate what was once dismissed as Polish paranoia over Russia’s intentions in Europe. Yet as the Tusk-Sikorski team called for a firm response from Europe, they came up against other European countries, from Italy to Germany, which championed more leniency and dialogue – driven by everything from business and energy interest to historic ties.

But a change in tone is under way in Warsaw. It began with Mr. Tusk’s election to the head of the European Council, and thus a new cabinet in Warsaw. New Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz and Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna don’t talk as tough as their predecessors.

But it's the business community in particular that could shift the debate, especially after the fallout from Russia's decision to ban agricultural products from Europe this summer, in retaliation to another round of EU sanctions.

Polish growers feeling the pinch

The embargo imposed in August has hit Polish fruits and vegetables growers hard. The agriculture minister said in July that Polish farmers could expect to lose around 500 million euros. Apple growers are the worst off: More than half the total Polish export of apples went to Russia last year. 

Poles reacted immediately with the online campaign “Stand up to Putin by eating apples,” which garnered 55,000 fans on Facebook. Twitter was full of photos of Poles across the country eating apples and drinking cider.  

But the campaign has been overshadowed by public frustration in the business community about Polish intransigence. Joanka Szewczyk, who runs a company Ekojablka that grows organic apples in Ziemiecin outside of Warsaw, says the campaign is too Russophobic.  “I don't support the campaign ‘Eat apples to annoy Putin,’ because this initiative is insulting for our neighbors and business partners,” she says. “This campaign could have a negative impact on our future business relations with Russia.”

In November, fruit and vegetable growers protested in Warsaw, dumping mounds of apples in front of the prime minister's office.

Dr. Ras says that business does not have the same kind of clout in Polish politics as it does in Germany, for example, but that pressure from farmers and losses in the transport and other sectors have caused the government to rethink its position, he says.

There are other outside factors that could provide an opening for a different Polish-Russian relationship in the future. Russia depends on Poland to transit its gas and oil, as well as to buy it, and has a stake in improved relations. “For Russia, Poland is not the most important player in the EU and NATO, but it is seen as a country which is strong enough to harm its interests,” says Marek Menkiszak, head of the Russian Department at the Center for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw. “Poland is also regarded as a country which plays an active role in Eastern Europe.”

Ras argues that Polish-Russia relations are ultimately determined by Moscow’s relations with the West overall. “If they are good, then Poland’s relations with Russia are also good,” he says. Because economic problems and conflict in the Middle East have become bigger concerns for the West than Ukraine, he says, relations could improve in the future.

Yet if Poland’s parliamentary elections next year see the return of the opposition Law and Justice Party, as polls indicate, Polish-Russian relations could take a turn for the worse. Many consider it a Russophobic party.

On a much smaller scale, Poles are trying to improve understanding regardless of politics.

One activist from Krakow, Dawid Lasut, says he has been running Russian language and cultural workshops to help his compatriots see a different face of Russia. He's invited Russians to Poland, too.

“We can't erase Russia from the map or pretend that it doesn't exist, so we have to learn how to live together,” he says. “I don't want Poles to love Russia, I just want them to see this enormous country as it really is. Russia's image is not just black as it is often presented in the Polish or Western media, and it's not so white, as we can see in Russian newspapers.”

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