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Putin’s reinterpretation of history is absurd

An interview with Marcin Przydacz, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland. Interviewer: Michał Potocki.

January 27, 2020 - Marcin Przydacz Michał Potocki - Hot TopicsInterviews

Marcin Przydacz, Deputy Minister for Eastern Policy and Asia at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs speaking at the College of Eastern Europe's Polish Eastern Policy seminar 2019 in Wojnowice. Photo: College of Eastern Europe.

MICHAŁ POTOCKI: Why is Russia attacking us? Are the Russians attempting to target the weakest link among states that are against a reset in relations with Moscow?

MARCIN PRZYDACZ: I don’t view it as such. We are not the only ones Russia attacked. The United States was also targeted. We can recall the tweets that blamed American corporations for being responsible for the Second World War. The Russian embassy in Paris wrote about the agreement from Munich between three bloody actors – the French, British and German – in that order. We are dealing with an attack aimed at breaking up the Euro-Atlantic alliance and European unity. The Kremlin wants us to discuss who behaved properly before and during the war, who was an antisemite and who was not. This is a calculated measure that aims at creating discord between us. But the Russians have not been successful in this. The western world reacted decisively. The reinterpretation of history by Vladimir Putin is considered absurd. It is clear that it was Stalin’s wish to revise the Versailles world order. A tool to achieve this was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the direct cause of the Second World War. The Red Army did indeed fight against Nazism later, and that contributed greatly to the Nazi defeat – nobody questions this. It is important to remember that not only who the Red Army fought, but why. It did not bring full freedom with it.

So far these attacks have been targeted to the audience at home, if not for the embassy tweets. Putin is to speak in Jerusalem on January 23rd. We could expect that the main act is ahead of us… (Editor’s note: this interview took place a few days before the January 23rd events)

We have observed such attempts to construct a narrative over the last few months by the Kremlin. We have prepared for it. Outside of Soviet historiography, the world has no doubts as to the reasons behind the outbreak of the Second World War. The resolution of the European Parliament from the autumn of 2019, where the EU officially used “our language” was a great success of Poland and the other countries of the region. It was not accepted in the Kremlin. It was understood as a defeat, which made an answer inevitable. The answer came during the holiday season, designed to use the slowdown of Europe’s administration then.

Successful, as Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s answer came only after a few days…

No. The answer was part of a sequence. Starting in the middle of December we sent a note to [Russian] Ambassador Sergey Andreyev. After Putin’s first speech we published a statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Then, during the holidays, we summoned the Russian ambassador followed by an answer from the prime minister and finally a political resolution by the Sejm (Poland’s parliament). This is evidence of a mature and pragmatic reaction, instead of a situation where everyone reacts on their own. We coordinated this reaction from the ministry with the administrations of the prime minister and president.

Will this sequencing be continued if there is another escalation on or after January 23rd? Have you planned an answer that would reach the same levels of publicity?

There is currently work on a potential countermeasure against such threats. Everyone has a role to play. We are not the factor looking for change. We will promote the generally accepted interpretation of history. If there will be attempts to falsify it, we will react. A great chance will be the speech of President Andrzej Duda on January 27th in the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum. As we know from September 1st of last year, the president is great at explaining history.

The spokesman of the German Foreign Ministry said that before Angela Merkel went to Moscow on January 10th, the minister spent the weekend consulting with partners. Did he call Warsaw?

[German Foreign] Minister Heiko Maas is in constant contact with [Polish Foreign] Minister Jacek Czaputowicz. There were conversations between the two on the topic of Iran among others. We were aware of the chancellor’s visit to Moscow.

What did we recommend to Germany when it comes to relations with Russia?

That the dialogue should be based on Europe’s guiding principles, as not to create a situation where there would be a race between some European states in who is more open for dialogue. Paris’s activities in this regards have been visible. The last weeks have shown that French President Emmanuel Macron, like many leaders prior, has come to learn that talks with Russia are difficult and require that one does not approach them naïvely. The leaders discussed Iran and Libya in Moscow, as well as Nord Stream 2. The modus operandi of Russia is known: first to complicate the situation in difficult regions to later become the subject of the discussion on how to solve problems. Libya is a great example. The Kremlin has been claiming there were no Russian troops there. Now Putin says that they are there as mercenaries, not as Russian units. I understand that such mercenaries can be purchased in any shop with mercenaries. The countries who are in favour of deepening European integration, also in foreign policy, should use the potential of a strong, consolidated EU.

What about Nord Stream 2?

There were no surprises. Chancellor Merkel and President Putin both support the project even in a situation where the companies building the pipeline are covered by American sanctions. We see it is a political project. We do not see the economic reasoning behind it. It aims to make the EU more dependent on Russian gas, while circumventing Central Europe to increase pressure on the countries there. As recent talks between Russia and Ukraine have shown, if there is no alternative – and Nord Stream 2 isn’t completed –Putin is able to withdraw. In the Ukrainian context he agreed to a five year transit deal while pressure on Belarus seemed unsuccessful. Why make the Kremlin’s life easier? This is hard for us to understand. We are satisfied by the American’s activities in this regard. At the same time it is important to emphasise that thanks to the LNG gas port in Świnoujście and the construction of the Baltic Pipe, Poland is strengthening its independence. Other countries are in a worse position. Today we are also able to be a contributing factor in influencing regional energy security threatened by Nord Stream 2.

You mentioned three topics where Germany and Russia have a congruent view. Moscow would like the sanctions to be lifted. Is that a realistic scenario?

The main issues which led to the sanctions in first place have still not been addressed – the annexation of Crimea (there cannot be a discussion on lifting these sanctions) and the aggressive policy in eastern Ukraine (these sanctions are tied to the finalisation of the Minsk Agreements). Some countries can be seen as testing the waters in bettering relations with Moscow, to find out what position others may take, including us. Our answer is clear, just like Germany or France – who participate in the Normandy Format and are fully aware of the progress (or lack thereof). There can be no sanctions relief at the moment. They are continuously prolonged. As long as there will not be a change in Russia’s policy, there should be no talks of changing the current state. We do see, despite declarations, that the sanctions are becoming a growing problem for Russia. It was evident in the letter penned by [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergey Lavrov on the 30th anniversary of EU-USSR relations or the recent article in Kommersiant by Russia’s ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov. Moscow is officially accusing the West, while remaining more open for dialogue.

The Americans go farther with their sanctions than the EU. They cover exports of coal from the occupied Donbas region. Was this perspective discussed at all on the EU level?

It was. The Polish side suggested the coal topic in the context of sanctions, but a few other European countries were less interested. There is no talk today of extending sanctions, just as there has not been any intensification of the armed conflict in Donbas recently. So there are few arguments for expanding them. However, personal sanctions are still being debated, and some have been expanded.

Does it make any sense to you to have a dialogue with Russia today? Will there be another meeting between Minister Czaputowicz and Lavrov?

As a neighbour of Russia, we would like to have good relations. The problem is that Russia’s behaviour is aggressive, trying to raze the security architecture created in this part of the world after 1990. Reinterpreting history. All of this weighs down on bilateral relations. There is no talk of a warming relationship. There needs to be a reflection on the other side. This does not mean that the contact shouldn’t be upheld or talks continued. We are neighbours, we discuss cross-border issues. A separate issue that is putting a strain in our relations is the return of the Tupolev plane wreckage (from the Smolensk crash in April 2010 – editor’s note). This was also discussed between the ministers…

…with no result…

…and Poland will take over the chairmanship of the OSCE in 2022. So contacts will remain, but on civilised ground rules.

You mentioned that Russia is trying to place a wedge in Europe. Would it not be in the Polish interest to drop arguments over the rule of law with the European Commission?

We are trying to lead a constructive dialogue with European institutions. The Polish government met the expectations of the Commission when it came to the bill on the Supreme Court even before the ruling by the European Court of Justice. There is readiness for dialogue with Brussels. On the other side, there is an expectation by society, expressed in the electoral result of Law and Justice, to finish the judiciary reform. Our actions in the last few years have at times been misunderstood in Brussels. Like the discussion with Commissioner Frans Timmermans who was building his political position on its basis. It was filled with emotions rather than legal arguments from his side. I hope that the discussion with Commissioner Vera Jurova will be absent of such emotion.

So far the projects on a new bill on the judiciary create further tension.

The questioning of the status of some of the judges is dangerous and could lead to an unstable judiciary. Counteracting against such tendencies is the obligation of any government.

In 2016-2017 there was increased activity in relations with Belarus. There were several visits, ambitious ideas to invite Polish investors, privatisation of Belarusian companies by the Warsaw stock exchange. Not only did none of this materialise, but it turns out that previous issues were not resolved either; like the status of the Union of Poles in Belarus, the acquisition of the Katyń list or a ratification on local border traffic by Minsk. Why?

Like with other neighbours, we would like to have good relations with Belarus. Because of Russian pressure this country has recently become quite open to contact with the western world. Re-evaluating the previous policy of freezing contacts, we couldn’t note any success. Alyaksandr Lukashenka did not become more of a democrat, economic ties have not improved. So we came to the conclusion that there is a need for a dialogue, without naivety. Lukashenka did not show up yesterday, and we’re all aware what system they have in Belarus. Success in economic relations depend on the Belarusian side as well. You gave an example of investments – it is Minsk that has to be open for investment or privatisation. We are still at the level of trust building. Let’s remember that within Belarus itself, there is a clash of visions. We are trying to encourage entrepreneurs to be more active in Belarus. We have organised several events. The Belarusian economy is not fully efficient as it operates in a closed system. The reason behind the Polish success is leaving that model behind. We are hoping to infect Belarusians with this kind of thinking. This is a process that will last years. Nevertheless, there has been some success.

Such as?

The Belarusian side agreed to expand the number of classes with Polish language in Grodno and Vawkavysk. The number of public schools which offer Polish has increased significantly. We have received permission to renovate over ten cemeteries of Polish soldiers that fell in the Polish-Soviet war. Let us remember that Belarusian historiography has a very different view on that war. Andżelika Borys’s Union of Poles in Belarus has still not been legalised, but remains operational and is developing. No one is imprisoning Polish activists, no one is closing down local branches of the Union of Poles. The number of patriotic, historical and cultural events is growing. This is important for the local communities.

Do we have an offer for Belarus in the context of Russian pressure? Lukashenka mentioned an interest in importing oil and gas through Polish ports.

We are open for talks. If the Belarusian side will work towards diversifying its energy supply, it is in our interest to support that. That is if this is real action, not feigned. We have a gas port, oil port, we’re building the Baltic Pipeline. We can talk.

So this rhetorical openness has not yet turned into concrete proposals?

There are ongoing talks that I would not like to comment on in detail. These discussions are always about specifics.

How do you evaluate the first months of co-operation with Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s team in Ukraine?

We are able to build trust. This is a good sign. We try to talk during the meetings. Not like with Petro Poroshenko, where there was one version during the meetings and another publicly. This did not build trust. Polish-Ukrainian relations are multi-dimensional. We don’t talk only about history. We have numerous economic and political ties. And what is most important is security. Our interests align on many issues. An interesting topic is the transit corridor. And trade is growing, though it could be even better if the investment climate improves. The same goes for increasing legal certainty and the fight against corruption along the Dnieper. An outcome of the talks between Presidents Duda and Zelenskyy was the lifting of the unfair prohibition for searching and exhuming remains. Polish researchers from the Institute of National Remembrance have already completed two searches. Graves have been found of Polish soldiers that died in 1939. I hope that we can exhume them and give them a second burial. This is an example of rebuilding trust. I am glad that the Ukrainian side has a more nuanced historical policy, instead of just basing it on OUN/UPA (organisation of Ukrainian nationalists and the Ukrainian insurgent army – editor’s note). This would be unacceptable for us and dangerous for Ukraine itself, as it would create an identity rupture that would be in the interest of outside actors. The attempt to build an identity just around the Galician experience and organisations that were closely co-operating with Nazi Germany was risky. How would Ukraine join the Euro-Atlantic world with an identity based on integral nationalism? The West has a totally different view on those events. We will of course react to the glorification of OUN/UPA. Not only us. An example of this is the strong worded open letter jointly published from the Polish and Israeli ambassadors.

…after which Polish Ambassador Bartosz Cichocki was summoned to the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This shows that the historical contradictions will remain regardless of who governs in Kyiv.

The Ambassador was called in for a conversation. It was calm and without emotion. The Ukrainian side explained that it has a right to its own view of history, which no one is questioning. We only say that attempts to build such a national identity is dangerous and will not be accepted.

In December 2016, during Poroshenko’s visit in Poland, the presidents declared they would build eight new border crossings. Three years have passed since then, with no new crossings opened. Only one is being built in Malhowice. Why?

There are moments where the situation regarding the border crossings is difficult. The queues were shortened after solving the so called euroblach problem (in essence cars with Polish registration plates owned by Ukrainian drivers attempting to circumvent high taxes and being thoroughly checked – editor’s note). The latest build up in traffic was related to protests by Ukrainian logistics awaiting permits to cross the border. The holiday season was particularly difficult. Additionally, the Ukrainian side is in the midst of its customs services reform. This also adds temporary accumulation on the border. Poland has offered an open loan for Ukrainian improvements on existing border crossings. Our side is modernised with good road access. The open credit line has not yet been used for the last few years.

Sławomir Nowak, until recently the head of the road building Ukravtodor, told Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, that it is the government of Law and Justice that blocks the access to this credit line.

This is false. The credit offer is on the table. As I heard from the government of Oleksiy Honcharuk, they were surprised that no one had used any of those funds for so many years. We are of the opinion that until the efficiency of the existing border crossings is not improved, we will not know if there is really a need to build new ones.

The previous government of Law and Justice in 2005-2007 was active in Georgia. The government of the Civic Platform and the Polish People’s Party was active in Moldova. I have the impression that this government has withdrawn from both these countries. Why?

I disagree with this view. We are interested in drawing both countries into Euro-Atlantic structures. Both countries are experiencing socio-political instability. We are trying to remain active. President Duda was in Tbilisi, while Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili has been in Poland twice. We are the NATO contact office in Tbilisi. Minister Czaputowicz was in Chișinău last year. We are encouraging these countries to continue their reforms and build closer ties with Euro-Atlantic structures.

This article was first published in Dziennik Gazeta Prawna and has been republished here thanks to the kind permission of the editors of DGP.

Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht

Marcin Przydacz is the Deputy Minister for Eastern Policy and Asia at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Michał Potocki is a journalist with Dziennik Gazeta Prawna. A graduate of International Relations at the University of Warsaw, he has an interest in the countries of the former Soviet Union, Belarus and Ukraine in particular.

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