Russia 110419 Basic Political Developments

Russians start questioning Polish witnesses of Smolensk air crash

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Russians start questioning Polish witnesses of Smolensk air crash

14:29, April 19, 2011

A Polish witness to the April 10, 2010 Smolensk plane crash testified at the Warsaw Military Prosecutor's Office on Monday, local media reported.

Three Russian prosecutors, present during the interrogation, had the right to ask him questions, spokesperson of the military prosecutor's office Colonel Zbigniew Rzepa told the PAP news agency.

The prosecutors of the Russian Federation Investigation Committee arrived in Warsaw on Saturday to take part in the questioning of Polish witnesses for the needs of the Russian investigation into the Polish plane crash.

Until April 30 the Russian prosecutors are to take part in the questioning of more than 20 witnesses, the spokesperson said, refusing to divulge the names of the witnesses.

Russian prosecutors may be willing to talk to the media next week, the spokesperson said.

The questioning of Polish witnesses is analogous to the questioning of Russian air traffic controllers at Severny airport near Smolensk in February, which was attended by two Polish prosecutors.

On April 10, 2010, a Polish government Tupolev-154M carrying then president Lech Kaczynski, his wife and a large delegation of VIPs crashed near a military airfield in Russia's Smolensk, killing all of the 96 people on board. The delegation was on its way to the Russian locality of Katyn for anniversary ceremonies of the 1940 mass executions of some 22,000 Polish POWs by the Soviet Union in the nearby Katyn Forest.

Earlier this year, Russia's Interstate Aviation Committee (IAC) investigating the crash said in its report that the main cause of the crash was the Polish crew's decision to land in a bad weather, and refusal to divert to another airport.

Poland, for its part, said the Russian report on the plane crash was incomplete and erroneous. Polish officials promised that Poland will carry out its own investigation and will release a report as soon as possible.

Source: Xinhua

Russia-Poland rapprochement against a backdrop of contradictions
09:15 19/04/2011

It is now a year since the Smolensk crash. This anniversary was marked by ongoing conflicts in Russian-Polish relations. The Polish Foreign Ministry has expressed discontent with the report by the Interstate Aviation Committee on the causes of the disaster. The opposition party Law and Justice, headed by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, sharply criticized both President Bronislaw Komorowski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk being too soft on Russia. Warsaw protested against the Smolensk authorities replacing the memory plaque, since the new one makes no mention of the fact that the events of 1940 at Katyn should be considered an act of “genocide”. It was reported that, due to this, President Komorowski might even refuse to lay flowers on the grave.

The Polish President went ahead and laid the flowers, though. But the controversy surrounding the Smolensk crash still remains. The Polish authorities are demonstrating growing displeasure with the Russian version of what caused the crash. In Russia, by contrast, there is growing dissatisfaction with the stance Warsaw has taken. Russians view it as simply looking for any excuse to stoke international conflict. Bluntly: there is, as yet no sign of the Russian-Polish rapprochement anticipated a year ago.

In general, last year was quite positive for Russian-Polish relations. Over the past six months discussions have been held about energy issues, the “Katyn affair”, the opportunity for increased contact between the two countries’ military chiefs, transportation projects and the “European missile defense system” to name but a few. At their meeting in Warsaw, December 6, 2010, Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Bronislaw Komorowski signed a package of documents: from the Declaration on Cooperation for economic modernization to the Memorandum of Understanding on the establishment of the Center for Russian-Polish dialogue. The government of Donald Tusk declared its intention to build “a new format of relations” with Russia.

However, these changes in rhetoric have not caused any change in the two states’ strategic priorities. On the eve of the NATO summit in Lisbon (19-20 November 2010) President Komorowski confirmed the inviolability of the basic principles of Polish foreign policy, namely: the perception of Russia as a potential threat; assistance in preserving U.S. military presence in Europe, and assistance in integrating former Soviet republics into “Transatlantic institutions.” During the Warsaw meeting Komorowski also added that Poland would only countenance cooperation with Russia in the broader context of relations with the EU and NATO. Besides, Warsaw did not withdraw from the plan to allow U.S. TMD systems to be based on its territory or “the promotion of democracy” in Ukraine and Belarus. Such moves prompted hesitant but harsh criticism from Russia.

Some analysts see these trends as being part of the two countries’ complicated historical legacy. Yet, the differences between Moscow and Warsaw could well have much more serious implications.

After the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, Poland saw itself as being the leading state in East-Central Europe. The objective clash of interests between Warsaw and Russia has its roots in that perception. First, Poland is interested in seeing a strengthened U.S. presence in Eastern Europe and NATO mechanisms. Poland’s political elite feel they need a powerful ally to counterbalance Russia and Germany.

Second, Poland’s leadership considers their country the “engine” for other Central- Eastern European countries’ integration into the EU and NATO. Russian policy, naturally, is seen in Warsaw running counter to this trend.

Third, Poland is opposed to any expansion in Russian-German dialogue. Over the last 20 years, the Polish Foreign Ministry has twice protested against bilateral contacts between Moscow and Berlin. The first case related to the two countries’ independent discussion of energy security issues without involving the EU (in 2007) and the second case related to bilateral Russian-German collaboration on the draft European Security Treaty (in 2009). Polish media compared these bilateral Russia-Germany initiatives with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and, even, with the division of the Rzeczpospolita of the 18th century. This rhetoric may seem archaic, but it conceals the Polish elite’s fear of a rapprochement between Russia and Germany.

Fourth, Poland considers itself an important hub through which Russia transports its energy resources to Central-Western Europe. Thus, lobbying the “European Energy Security” project, Warsaw wants to win concessions from Russia over transit conditions and prevent Russian hydrocarbons bypassing Poland. So, the emphasis on “historical wrongs” is seen in Warsaw as a means of putting pressure on Russia to force it to make concessions.

These contradictions in the Russian-Polish relations are nonfatal. But any rapprochement between Moscow and Warsaw is likely to be fragile. Russia’s aim is to push Poland to develop a more constructive position within the EU and on the Euro-Atlantic security initiative. Realistically, for the time being, this is the minimum that can be expected from the two countries’ bilateral relations in the near future.

Alexei Fenenko is Leading Research Fellow, Institute of International Security Studies of RAS, Russian Academy of Sciences

This article first appeared in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 14  April, 2011

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