Poland puts EU-Russia relations in the cold

By bne IntelliNews November 20, 2006

Jan Cienski in Warsaw -

Contrary to the perception it's just throwing a hissy fit, Poland is digging its heels in over blocking EU-Russia talks on a trade agreement until its disputes with Moscow are resolved.

Poland's decision to veto the EU's upcoming partnership talks with Russia set off a diplomatic storm across the continent, where resorting to such measures is considered bad form, but in Warsaw there is solid political support for the government, which is showing no sign of backing down.

Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski stressed Monday that Poland is defending its vital interests by blocking the start of talks on a new agreement between the EU and Russia covering energy and trade. The agreement is supposed to be negotiated during a summit set for this Friday.

Before allowing the talks to begin, Poland wants Russia to end its year-long embargo on Polish meat and vegetables. The ban was imposed by Russia ostensibly on health grounds, with Moscow citing instances of Polish exporters forging veterinary certificates. But Poland insists that all the issues were resolved months ago, and the blockade is now political – a way of exerting leverage over a former satellite.

PM Kaczynski said that by standing up now, Poland is defending its position within the Union.

"If we agreed to this situation it would mean that Russia, which is an important partner of the EU, would be able to treat Poland as if it were not an EU member," he said.

In a recent interview with bne, Kaczynski's twin brother Lech, Poland's president, made it clear that his country would be willing to dig in its heels and stand alone if it meant defending its national security within the EU.

"In the EU in certain areas there is a principle of unanimity," said the Polish president. "I know that it is very uncomfortable in the Union to be alone, but that does not mean we are afraid of that."

Unhappy relations

Polish fears of Russia may seem overblown from the comfortable offices of Brussels, London or Paris, but Poland has a long and almost entirely unpleasant history with Russia. That historical experience – from losing independence in the 18th century, to the Russian-German pact to dismember the country in 1939, to long and grey years of communist rule – is key to the foreign policy of the Kaczynskis' conservative and nationalist government.

Warsaw has long been uneasy about taking almost all of its crude and two-thirds of its gas from Russia. The risk of being overly dependent on Russia was made clear first in 2004, when Russia briefly shut off gas deliveries to Poland during a payment dispute between Russia and Belarus. Those fears were crystallized earlier this year, during Russia's standoff with Ukraine over gas deliveries.

That fight roused the rest of Europe to the potential danger posed by Russia, but Polish ideas of adding an energy security dimension to the EU haven't got very far.

Warsaw is also looking on as Moscow puts an economic squeeze on Georgia, which has annoyed Russia by trying to gain entrance to Western clubs like NATO.

Unlike Georgia, Poland successfully made it first into NATO and then into the EU. While no one in Warsaw fears the reappearance of Russian ships on the Vistula River, there is concern Russia has not fully reconciled itself to the loss of its empire and will try to use whatever weapons it can – in this case energy and a trade embargo – to retain some level of control over its former satrapies.

"There is no immediate military threat," Lech Kaczynski said in the interview. "But on the one hand, there is a strong dependence on Russian energy, and on the other hand a continuing powerful military strength."

All for one and one for all

Warsaw had hoped that being in the EU would provide a solid buffer against Russia, but there are signs of what should be a common solidarity fraying when it comes to relations with Russia.

Poland was particularly disturbed by Germany's decision to work with Russia to build a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea, raising the possibility that Russia could shut off exports to Poland while continuing to supply Western Europe.

"It cannot be that in this area, a single European country, even a very powerful one, decides on a particular solution, almost as if it had stepped momentarily outside of the Union, and then says it will not change even if that solution contradicts the interests of other EU countries," said Lech Kaczynski.

Poland's leading oil company, PKN Orlen is in the midst of purchasing Lithuania's Mazeikiu refinery, but there have been increasing problems with Russian crude deliveries, key to making the investment work.

There is also disappointment that Brussels has done very little to help Poland in the food export ban, preferring to treat it as a bilateral issue.

"Poland hasn't received any help in resolving this issue and, as a member of the European Union, it should have received some help," says Witold Choinski, director of the Polish Meat Council, which represents 100 leading producers. "It's difficult to talk of any help at all."

For Poland, the upcoming summit provides a rare moment of leverage over Moscow and the rest of the EU.

"In these sorts of issues we are not ready to compromise," Jaroslaw Kaczynski said – words that are sure to worry his EU counterparts.

Send comments to Jan Cienski

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