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In favour of dialogue against the tide

An interview with Ernest Wyciszkiewicz, director of the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding. Interviewer: Grzegorz Szymborski.

November 18, 2021 - Ernest Wyciszkiewicz Grzegorz Szymborski - Interviews

Ernest Wyciszkiewicz in conversation with Grzegorz Szymborski. Photo: Katarzyna Kołakowska from the CPRDiP

On October 19th, the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding (CPRDiP) celebrated its tenth anniversary. An accompanying event was luckily organised shortly before an increase in COVID-19 cases. The meeting was held in Warsaw and offered an excellent opportunity for the CPRDiP to summarise the last decade of its activities. Speculation on the future of Polish-Russian relations in general was also a key topic of debate. The event was moderated by the CPRDiP’s Director Ernest Wyciszkiewicz. Other participants included many professionals whose work focuses on relations between the two countries. This includes the CPRDiP’s founder and director of the Polish Institute of Foreign Affairs Sławomir Dębski, former Polish ambassador to Russia Katarzyna Pełczyńska-Nałęcz, Professor Igor Gretskiy of Saint Petersburg State University, Sergey Utkin of the Centre for Situation Analysis of the Russian Academy of Science, and director of the Centre for Eastern Studies Adam Eberhardt. The event was made even more inclusive and interesting by the presence of Ukrainian analyst Hennadiy Maksak from the country’s Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism”. He commented on Polish-Russian affairs and offered insight into Kyiv’s point of view.

The very establishment and existence of the centre in Poland have unfortunately led to suspicions as to its true profile and mission. These problems still persist to this day. Despite this, Dębski stressed in his own speech at the event that such criticism only strengthens the centre’s desire to prove its worth. In spite of various shifts of power in the country, different Polish governments throughout the last decade have recognised the CPRDiP’s mission as valuable and desirable.

The event’s discussion was naturally full of questions. As a result, it was perhaps for the best that the delicate issue of Polish-Russian dialogue was accompanied by a fantastic concert. It was given by the Gruppa Wschód band and featured songs in both Polish and Russian. This cultural interlude offered inspiration for the event’s challenging conversations and provided a great example of both Poles and Russians enjoying something together.

Many insightful and clever thoughts were expressed during that night by the participants. This includes questions such as “What would have happened to Putin if the USSR had not collapsed?” Wyciszkiewicz stressed that the famous British saying “We agree to disagree” is inevitable during attempts of the Polish-Russian rapprochement. However, it is clear that such honesty can only help Polish-Russian relations, as it can help redirect discussion towards more fruitful issues.

Of course, some less optimistic messages were conveyed as well. Pełczyńska-Nałęcz noted the general lack of willingness for bilateral dialogue. In her opinion, the countries’ contradicting interests objectively make any relations harder as they simply do not lead to anything productive. She stressed that it is only currently possible to talk about issues that are of immediate mutual benefit and which support security of both states with no rotten compromises on the back. Pełczyńska-Nałęcz further stated that Poland needs to build its own strength if Moscow is to respect Warsaw. She also admitted her belief that Polish-Russian relations do not really exist at the moment, as Warsaw’s neighbour is currently viewed by the Polish public opinion merely as entanglement and some sort of negative archetype. The supposed Polish-Russian “brotherhood” that many Russian dissidents persecuted during the Soviet era had hoped for is now gone and it is unlikely that this idea will ever be greatly popular in Poland.

Utkin made a diplomatic and reasonable comment by stating that cooperation in spheres such as culture does not have to lead to spectacular results in the short run. This may be more fruitful than any serious exchange of thoughts at the political level.

Eberhardt noted that Poland will never be properly recognised by Russia as Warsaw supports the world as it was shaped after 1989. Russia, on the other hand, is an advocate of revisionism. It therefore appears that both Poland and Russia are drifting apart in every single imaginable way. In order to show how Moscow continues to ignore Warsaw, he gave the example of Russia’s prioritisation of the much smaller Czech market when it comes to economic cooperation.

During discussion with the audience Robert Śmigielski of the CPRDiP also shared some interesting thoughts. According to him, Poles are still influenced by many stereotypes about Russia, while in Russia people simply know very little about Poland. Despite this, Poles are still viewed as “the closest among strangers”.

In contrast to this, Eberhardt mentioned Polish society’s decreasing interest in Russia in favour of Ukrainians, who have themselves become closer to the Poles in recent years.

Unofficial discussion was also held late into the night. This helped participants get to know each other better on a more personal level.

The event only further proved that the CPRDiP is already well-rooted, well-known and most of all: credible institution that plays a unique role in the field of Poland’s Eastern policy. It is to face many challenges in the upcoming decade, countering worrying trends and expanding the scope of its mission through the attendance of Ukrainian, Belorussian and other actors, with whom the Polish-Russian dialogue may gain a broader picture. This year’s high-level meeting also offered an opportunity to ask Ernest Wyciszkiewicz about his impressions of the event and the CPRDiP’s fortunes over the last ten years.

GRZEGORZ SZYMBORSKI: Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Ernest Wyciszkiewicz, PhD, director of the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding (the CPRDiP), which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. Let me go straight to the first question concerning the event itself. Did you expect such a crowd at the event?

ERNEST WYCISZKIEWICZ: For sure, it exceeded our expectations. I am glad that some of our Russian partners also managed to show up. The event wouldn’t be the same without their presence. To be honest, shortly before the meeting I was a bit worried about the attendance, as the media have been reporting on an increasing number of COVID-19 cases. We received some cancellations, surely affected by this news. That was absolutely understandable, but still, so many friends of ours took part in this memorable event.

Many crucial issues were mentioned during the debate you were moderating. Right now I would ask you to share the point of view of the CPRDiP. Just to make it clear for our foreign readers, could you please briefly describe your institution. What exactly is your mission?

At a time when Putin describes Poland as Russia’s main historical enemy, here in Warsaw there is a public institution that tries to foster serious bilateral dialogue and make Russians look at Poland with no preconceptions and prejudices. Our mission to a certain degree is to counter the Kremlin’s claims and black-and-white propaganda. Of course, according to Sputnik we plant the seeds of Russophobia and this is how we are described by top Russian propaganda outlets. However, this is actually a positive development as it means that we are doing the right thing, acting as a troublemaker for those who prefer disinformation over conversation.

In spite of the Kremlin’s agenda, in truth the main problem is that Russian society does not bother itself with Poland too much. In recent years, the CPRDiP has run a couple of public opinion polls to check what Russians and Poles know about each other. The results were not impressive. Poles know a bit more about Russia than Russians about Poland, though one might expect more than this from neighbours. This is why we run the online journal Novaya Polsha (Новая Польша), which aims to tell the story of Poland in Russian and for Russians. We need to offer them serious source of information about our country, its history, society, politics and culture. We need a source that is different from Russian public outlets full of fake news. And I must say, we are quite happy about the readership.

During the debate we listened to various experts and they appear to be rather sceptical about the future of bilateral political relations. The CPRDiP on the other hand focuses on personal relationships. What can Poles and Russians offer one another today in 2021 and how has this changed since the establishment of the CPRDiP in 2011?

At the societal level we can still offer stronger individual contacts, as well as institutional relations. This, however, has become more and more difficult due to multiple red lines that are now being drawn by the Russian authorities. Not only are there few mutually acceptable topics for discussion, but cooperation can be problematic for some Russians due to the risk of being labelled a “foreign agent”. The CPRDiP has examined our societies in three respective surveys and this has included analysis of our countries’ mutual perceptions. The conclusion was that our societies do not know much about each other. We are no longer interested in each other as well. This has not necessarily been caused by any intentional aversion, we are simply going in different directions. There is currently little that could lead to an increase in mutual interest. Moreover, the way Poland has been described in Russian state media has not encouraged people to seek potential cooperation. Motivation for serious dialogue has been, therefore, undermined by the state. Yet, we are doing our best to counter that tendency. We are still able to engage with a significant number of Russians who are immune to propaganda and really interested in conversation regarding bilateral relations. We know that we have been drifting apart as societies, but we can at least moderate this process by tackling ignorance and lack of knowledge and increasing opportunities for discussion. We need more day-to-day contacts and joint projects involving schools, local governments and NGOs or the trend I’ve mentioned will accelerate. These contacts are more and more risky for Russian entities nowadays due to the political situation. It is becoming increasingly problematic for some Russian partners to receive payments or rely on services provided from abroad. Of course, this cooperation is just a fact of life if you participate in international projects. Our decade of experience has taught us that there is no other option but to organise as many meetings as possible. We are aware that we cannot count on these meetings having an immediate effect. Instead, they should be viewed as a long-term investment. If we manage to continue to connect thousands of people from both countries in the next ten years, be it through our youth exchange programme, winter and summer schools, expert meetings, academic conferences or public discussions, (so far it is more than ten thousand), then we can speak of success. This is especially true given the fact that political relations are unlikely to receive a boost anytime soon.

The question of language is essential for the development of bilateral ties. Poland should invest in teaching Polish in Russia in order to let people directly engage with our culture and not only through translations. There are already signs that there is growing demand for Polish language teaching in Russia. A language class was recently organised in a significant Russian academic centre and the number of applicants exceeded not only expectations but the institution’s capacity. We decided to seize the opportunity and launched an additional course for those who did not get into the first one. This will pay off for sure.

You speak of long-term results. Of course, this is largely due to the uncertain political outlook. Any gesture from the Kremlin would therefore be a noticeable development. In mid-August Sergey Lavrov expressed his concern for the future of local border traffic related to Kaliningrad Oblast and cooperation over this mutual issue. What could this possibly mean?

Local border traffic lost its previous importance within bilateral relations. It was suspended in 2016 due to various international events hosted in Poland and prolonged for security reasons. Despite this, it turned out that many Russians had already been granted various types of short and long-term permission to enter Poland or the EU in general. As a consequence, mobility across the border did not rapidly decrease. There are some local government representatives in Poland’s northern counties who complain a bit about the decrease in traffic crossing over the Polish-Russian border. However, I don’t think that this is an urgent issue, especially when the pandemic is far from over and the region is increasingly subject to militarisation. Nowadays, it is hard to think about local border traffic as the key factor in Polish-Russian relations. I assume putting this topic on the agenda may be an attempt to initiate low level discussions.

So it seems that you think that this move was more like a pretext. Is this an exception or has Moscow tried to reset relations with Poland from time to time?

Frankly speaking, at both the ministerial and bureaucratic level bilateral relations are frozen. Contacts and consultations are not regular and the pandemic has only exacerbated this issue. I can’t recall any serious offer that would let us find new opportunities for cooperation. Poland’s presidency of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 2022 could lead to new developments, or at least provide us with a pretext to start talking. But this issue cuts both ways, as it may simply lead to a possible clash on topics such as free elections and human rights. These are a core part of the OSCE agenda. Positions like the presidency of a multilateral organisation such as the OSCE often encourage states to show more self-restraint in order to act as an effective negotiator and intermediary. Perhaps the Kremlin initiated contact to check what Poland’s priorities will be during the presidency. Despite this, I am not optimistic. The Kremlin recently blocked a high-level meeting in Warsaw about human rights in mid-October. Russian dissidents were meant to attend the meeting under the OSCE’s jurisdiction, but Moscow’s refusal to cooperate meant that the meeting lost its international patronage. I can hardly see any scenario in which Russia puts constructive proposals on the table that could normalise relations with Poland under the OSCE umbrella. Frankly speaking, it seems now that any attempt to boost bilateral relations are doomed to generate such high political costs that rapprochement is rather unlikely.

The first decade of the CPRDiP’s existence was very challenging. Shortly after you started operations, the Euromaidan protests broke out in Ukraine in late 2013. I assume that when you opened the CPRDiPin 2011 you would have never expected such a shift in international relations to happen so soon. I am very curious as to how you managed to adjust to this new political reality, as it presumably affected your perception of your own mission, the CPRDiP’s plans for the future, and your personal views and wishes. 

From the very beginning we knew that we were witnessing events of great importance that would significantly impact our operations. It did not affect the mission of the CPRDiP but the circumstances of our work changed dramatically. We had to react in order to survive as a credible institution since we focused so heavily on the axiological foundations of the Polish-Russian dialogue. We simply could not have ignored the political situation. Obviously, we also were thinking about Polish national interests. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine threatened the very foundations of the international and European order that have served Polish interests well since 1989. We had to reorganise, re-evaluate and reinvent ourselves to a certain degree. Thousands of people were dying because of the Kremlin’s actions and we were not going to pretend that this would not affect Polish-Russian dialogue. Russian officials tried to persuade us that the crisis was just an unfortunate episode and a temporary issue. They also explained to us how Crimea was an emotional question for Russians. They tried to ensure that the question would be settled and forgotten soon enough. Naturally, we could not accept such rhetoric. Continuing our mission without an updated strategy could not work within the new security environment. We were not going to switch to simply organising cultural festivals, which was the Russian side’s preferred approach. At the same time, we were not interested in dialogue for the sake of dialogue. The concept of the CPRDiP was developed by the Polish-Russian Group for Difficult Matters and we stick to the idea that difficult matters should remain at the heart of our activities.

So what has changed in practice?

After 2014 we recalibrated our projects that used to only be open to Russians. We transformed them into multilateral endeavours that included Belarusians and Ukrainians, sometimes also Czechs and Lithuanians. Polish-Russian dialogue cannot be disentangled from regional developments. It is of course unfortunate that this enhanced approach was ultimately the result of Russian aggression.

Today, some of the CPRDiP’s activities also focus on attempts to understand in what direction Russia is going. This decade was very difficult for Polish-Russian relations but we must keep in mind, the upcoming one may be even more challenging. Unfortunately, the internal situation in Russia worries us and affects our planning. In contrast to e.g. Polish-German relations, we cannot foreshadow and plan too many things in advance. For us, it is essential that any potential legislation that discourages and even penalises Russians for international collaboration is challenged in the coming months and years. For now, we can still do some projects in Russia.

Have you noticed any desire for further contacts after the projects you organise? I believe that in many cases you are providing both Poles and Russians with their first opportunity to engage with each other.

What you ask about is one of the main indicators of our projects’ effectiveness. There is a saying: “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. This is how our funds work. We hope that our work encourages people to develop their own initiatives without our help. For example, cities or schools may maintain the projects that they started with us. If this happens, it means that we have fulfilled our mission at that particular direction. Apart from political obstacles we have to remember that organising meetings with partners from Russia is logistically challenging in comparison to French, Germans or Spaniards. For instance, you can go to Spain whenever you want with 100 euros. That is not the case for Russian partners, especially those living outside Moscow or Saint Petersburg. The cost of exchange continues to increase . The pandemic hit our exchange programmes hard. We went online with a lot of our activities but it is just a half-measure that cannot replace contacts in person. The demand is there so we are looking forward to getting back to business as usual when restrictions are lifted. The CPRDiP is all about mutual contacts at different professional and age levels.

Is there any specific group of Russians particularly keen on Poland?

Yes. There is still a (decreasing) number of elderly Russians who feel some affection towards Poland, some sort of nostalgia. These people are fantastic to cooperate with, but it is a relatively small and shrinking group. We want to go beyond that. Our main targets are people aged between 20 and 50 years old.

 …Which still can and should be shaped.

Unfortunately, these people are very often shaped by the system and not by their own direct experience. To be clear, we are not interested in influencing anybody. Russia’s fate is in Russian hands. The best way for us is to facilitate contacts and show Russians our own experience of getting rid of a repressive and harmful system. We want to show them how a democratic state and society can be built but with no hidden agenda or invasive narratives. Believe me, sometimes it is enough to simply invite a group of Russians (e.g. journalists, students, bloggers), ask about their interests and organise some relevant meetings. An let it go.

To let them make up their own minds.

Exactly. We also need to remember that we are not here to convince everyone. But sometimes it is really satisfying to see some well-known critics of Poland change their minds a little bit after spending a week or so on a study trip around the country. If you have never been to Poland, you may take on board some of the Kremlin’s narratives. After being told the Polish point of view, many sensible Russians are likely to ask themselves whether or not they can fully hold on to these narratives. Even if someone does not change their mind, at least their narrative becomes more inclusive and open to the Polish position. These details are extremely valuable. We do not count just on the experts who express good feelings towards Poland. If any fair critic responsible for shaping Russians’ minds engages with a Polish point view, then it is already a positive development.

So is it a question of respect?

And trust. This is the key. Sometimes our events are not publicised. Sometimes it is better to keep a low profile. Staying in touch, building networks, doing joint projects, honouring formal and informal arrangements all leads to the growth of mutual trust. This is what propaganda tries to undermine, as it hopes to confuse people and especially those who have never encountered Poland at all. We should not respond with counter-propaganda but instead focus on building relations little by little. Sometimes this approach works well even with public Russian institutions. For example, we would like to retrieve some records on various cultural artefacts of Polish origin that are currently held in Russia (mostly dating from the 19th century). These items were somehow kept hidden until recently. We offer financial support to research, catalogue, publicise and promote such common historical legacies. As soon as our partners realise that we are truly interested in mutually beneficial cooperation and not a zero-sum game (quite a typical approach for many Russian entities), they become more open to us and very soon other projects are being organised.

Sergey Utkin, who took part in your event’s panel discussions, claimed that there is a clear path to follow with regards to improving Polish-Russian relations. But, according to him, a clear path may not simply result in immediate changes.

We would of course like some authentic and measurable criteria to verify our capacities and effectiveness. But, as a matter of fact, our activities cannot be easily measured. Naturally, we can count the number of participants engaged in our projects. We can use other quantitative measures, but they cannot tell you too much about the content and quality of any project. The numbers are important, but are not crucial when assessing the effectiveness of our job. The path has been marked and we will keep treading it despite more and more challenging conditions. With regards to what will come of our contacts with Russians, I simply do not know. For now, our mission is unaccomplished and we have to keep investing.

In that case, I can only wish you the best as you continue to tread this path and hope that you will meet some Russian counterparts who acknowledge your credibility and meet you in the middle.

Thank you for your kind words and conversation.

Ernest Wyciszkiewicz, PhD, Political scientist. Director of the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding since 2016. Formerly Deputy Director of the Centre, Head of International Economy and Energy Security Programme and Senior Research Fellow at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), managing editor of the Russian-language quarterly on European affairs Evropa (2003-2009). Member of the Editorial Board of the “Intersection Project” (2015-2018). Editor-in-chief of Novaya Polsha.

Grzegorz Szymborski is a graduate at the College of Europe in Natolin (Poland), a graduate from the Faculty of Law and Administration at the University of Warsaw and author of the books: Wolność niejedno ma imię (2013), Wyprawa Fryderyka Augusta I do Inflant w latach 1700 – 1701 w świetle wojny domowej na Litwie (2015) and Działania zbrojne w Rzeczypospolitej podczas intwerwencji rosyjskiej 1764 roku (2020). He cooperates with The Jan Nowak-Jezioranski College of Eastern Europe in Wroclaw and publishes articles in New Eastern Europe, Przegląd Bałtycki and Więź.

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