Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz, the former Prime Minister, Foreign Minister of Poland and former speaker of the Sejm, gives his views on current Russian-Polish and Belorussian-Polish relations and areas for their improvement. This interview was conducted on the sidelines of the international conference: “Russia and the European Union: Partnership and Potential” organized by RIAC.
The recent period suggests that Russian-Polish relations appear to be improving. Do you believe this trend will continue in the long run or even lead to a historical rapprochement between our nations?
I hope that it will lead to this end, although this is not guaranteed because it is not easy to resolve historical problematic issues, which are quite complex and can elicit strong passions on both sides. In recent years, we have achieved quite a lot, but problems still exist and we should not just close our eyes and declare that everything is resolved. What is needed is good political will and an understanding that the process of improving relations is very important for both countries.
Sometimes I wonder, considering the structural differences between Russia and Poland, if a tendency exists in Russia to perhaps neglect the role of Poland. Of course, I am realistic and try not to exaggerate our economic and political potential. However, when you speak to people living in the European Union, nearly everywhere you hear many positive stories about Poland, about what Poland has achieved and so on. Over the last 20 years, we have suffered a lot of domestic problems, but we have managed to consistently implement economic reforms, develop clear concepts of statehood and democracy, etc. These reforms have helped us become a more accepted and respected country in Europe.
Nowadays, taking into account the problems faced by some of our European partners (which, of course, concern us greatly), the relative influence of Poland may grow. And as far as I understand, the current Polish government shares this view. Personally, I strongly believe that we need to continue the process of reconciliation between the Polish and Russian nations. At last, we see a clear opportunity to resolve our historical issues and disagreements. In fact, it was Igor Sergeyevich Ivanov and myself, who 11 years ago proposed to create a working group to specifically address these issues. On the one hand, we understood that we could not forget our history, but on the other hand we wanted to separate out the social, economic and other problems of the past in order to prevent them from interfering with our present relations. It took us several years to achieve results. Nevertheless, some problems still exist.
I recommend that both sides intensify individual contacts in various areas. Here lies the paradox: we are neighbors, close nations, yet today we know very little about one another’s culture. Perhaps 90% of Polish people cannot comment on modern Russian cinematography, and I am afraid, that vice versa the situation is the same. This must be changed. However, what is most important is that wise, dispassionate, and good-minded political contact is made between leaders and political elites from both countries. Another desire I have is to see the first ever meeting of the heads of each country’s parliamentary committee responsible for foreign relations. And I believe through joint efforts with Mr. M. Margelov and Mr. A. Pushkov, we have managed to establish a new mechanism of less official dialogue between our countries, which we hope to continue in the future.
In your opinion, in which areas do you see the most potential for cooperation between Russia and Poland? How has Russia’s accession to the WTO affected the relationship between our countries?
Russia’s membership in the World Trade Organization has unlocked opportunities for the two countries to operate according to the same principles, standards, deadlines and so on. However, Russian has just begun the process and it will take some time, even years, until its economy is fully integrated into the WTO system. Personally I do not see major changes in our foreign economic and trade relations as a result of Russia’s accession to this organization. Nevertheless, bilateral trade is growing. Unfortunately, the statistics remain unbalanced, since we buy almost all oil and gas from Russia, and over the past several years, the prices have been quite high. I believe last year’s trade deficit reached 18 billion euros.
However, when I recall our financial situation 16-17 years ago when I was Prime Minister, we always had problems paying for importing our energy needs. Today this is not the case. Of course, we are not pleased with the current level of the trade deficit, but nowadays we can afford to pay it. Moreover, we welcome growth in our exports and hope to continue to capitalize on the unexplored potential. It appears a little bit strange to me that Poland can export six or seven times as much to the complex German market, than to Russia. That indicates that there is lots of room to move forward. However, this problem is on our side, most critically with regards to our entrepreneurs and businessmen who need to be more active on the Russian market. And of course, positive steps taken by Russian government and officials are also very important.
Relations between Poland and Belarus continue to be strained. What measures can be taken by both sides in order to normalize contacts between the countries?
I must say our relationship is very unfortunate, especially from my personal point of view. I live in northwest Poland, in Belovezhskaya Pushcha, which is located ten kilometers from the border with Belarus. As a result of our history, there is a large Polish minority in Belarus, as well a large Belorussian minority in Poland. Belarus is a very important neighbor to us, but we cannot accept their political practices and their autocratic regime.
We just have to recognize the fact that, until now, neither the European Union nor us have been effective in our efforts to convince the Belorussian government to make positive changes in their country. There are few good ideas left of what to do, as we have tried almost everything. For instance, we have tried to encourage Belarus to intensify regional cooperation, in such areas as ecology, etc. But in a country where everything is controlled by the central government, it is hard to imagine any spontaneous developments. Most likely, changes will be more forthcoming if Russia joined in criticizing the political practices in Belarus, but I am afraid this is still not the case.