Poland and Russia in disagreement over Yalta legacy

18-02-2005

A debate is on in Poland over whether the Polish president should visit Moscow in May for ceremonies marking the anniversary of the victory of the Soviet Red Army over Nazi Germany. The controversy began after the Russian Foreign Ministry accused Poland and other countries of attempts to 'distort the results of the Yalta conference'.

Yalta 1945Yalta 1945 The leaders of the Soviet Union, US and Great Britain met in the Crimean resort of Yalta in February 1945 to establish the shape of borders in Central Europe after World war Two. As a result, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and other states in the region fell into the Soviet sphere of influence. But in spite of the collapse of communism, Russia and Poland are poles apart concerning the impact that the decisions made in Yalta had on the whole of the region. Jakub Boratynski of the Batory Foundation, expert on Poland's relations with its eastern neighbours.

"This is a very unpleasant return to the old rhetoric from the communist times to claim that actually discussing Yalta's role in enslaving eastern European nations is something of an insult to the war efforts of the Soviet Union. The Russian perception of the history is very different from the perception of the history that is common probably to Poles, Lithuanians or Czechs."

Indeed, what Poles know very well is that shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany signed the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, in which they agreed to split Poland between them. The Yalta Conference confirmed the shape of the Polish borders insisted upon by Stalin. Latvia, whose prime minister, Aigars Kalvitis, was in Warsaw at the time the statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry was published, supported Poland's view on Moscow's role in enslaving Eastern Europe.

"We like to get common understanding also from Russia about the history of the Second World War and their exact position how Russia could explain the Ribentrop-Molotov Pact."

Ordinary Polish citizens, like this young man, also tend to blame the Yalta conference for putting Eastern Europe behind the iron curtain for all of fifty years.

"Well, the Yalta conference gave Poland its place in Europe after World War Two for sure. But, in fact, it meant isolation and dependence on the Soviet Union - both political and economic - for many, many years. And, in my opinion, the statement of the Russian foreign ministry was really inappropriate."

According to Polish historians, it is natural that views on such crucial events as the Yalta conference are bound to differ, especially between the nations that consider themselves victims of oppression. Yet, according to Jakub Boratynski, expert on Central and Eastern Europe, the recent declaration by Moscow that Poland was trying to re-write post-war history cannot be attributed entirely to different understanding of a common past.

"It is, I would guess, also a calculated foreign policy gesture. We now have a situation where Poland's opposition is demanding from Polish president to abstain from participating in the 60th anniversary of World War Two victory in Moscow. And I'm afraid that this is exactly the result that the Russian decision-makers might have in mind while deciding to air such a statement."

The normally fragmented Polish opposition is this time united in its calls on president Kwasniewski to cancel his visit to Moscow this May. Prominent historian and Euro Deputy Wojciech Roszkowski would like to see a clear act of protest from the Polish side.

"President Kwasniewski should reconsider his plans to go to Moscow because, I think, that finally we need a strong signal by Poland to Moscow that we are not going to listen to the old style propaganda."

Observers think that the controversy over Stalin's role in the outcome of the Yalta conference will do nothing to improve already strained Polish-Russian relations. But Polish politicians seem determined to show that according to them, Moscow is still not entirely free from the old thinking, which in part, is precisely the aftermath of the Yalta conference.

18-02-2005