Jan Cienski in Warsaw -
There are few better ways to outrage and unite Poles than to bring up the 1940 murder of 20,000 imprisoned officers by the Soviet Union, which is why a prominent Russian newspaper doing just that shows the depths to which the Polish-Russian relationship has sunk.
Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia's top-selling tabloid, reports that Russia's Society of Military History is raising money to build a monument to Red Army prisoners of war who died in Polish custody – actually in “Polish death camps” according to the article - during the 1920 Polish-Soviet war. It wants to plant a cross in the middle of a historic cemetery in Krakow.
“In Katyn, about 4,000 Polish citizens were killed, and in Poland tens of thousands of Russians,” Yuri Nikiforov, head of the military society's scientific committee, told the paper.
The idea provoked immediate Polish outrage. Grzegorz Schetyna, the new foreign minister, called it “an obvious provocation”.
While there is some historical debate over how Soviet POWs were treated by the Poles – many of them died from diseases then sweeping the country – there is still little comparison to the order by Josef Stalin to execute his Polish prisoners in the early days of World War II.
The previous prime minister Donald Tusk did try a Polish version of a “re-set” of relations with Russia. The culmination was a successful 2010 meeting with Vladimir Putin at the cemetery in Katyn.
“In this ground lie Soviet citizens killed in the terror, and Polish officers murdered on secret orders,” the Russian leader said at the time – a breakthrough in getting him to admit that the Poles were killed on Soviet orders.
But any attempts at warmth have been frozen over by the situation in Ukraine. Poland was one of the EU's most vocal advocates of punishing Russia for annexing Crimea and for fomenting war in eastern Ukraine. Although Ewa Kopacz, the new prime minister, has promised to hew closer to a common European line on the issue, her government is still making tough comments about Ukraine.
“If Russia does not change its policies, then the sanctions will be tightened and they will be felt even more in Russia,” Schetyna said in a recent interview.
To which Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a pro-government daily, responded that Poland was being ignored in Washington and in European capitals and that the new Polish government could be suspected of having delusions of grandeur.
The tit-for-tat has a more serious side as well.
Poland is being hurt by Russian sanctions levied against the US and EU agricultural imports. Poland sells about $1.6bn in food products to Russia, second place in the EU behind Germany with $1.8bn in sales. Last week, Russia imposed an embargo on the re-export of Polish agricultural goods, as Poles had tried to find a way around the sanctions.
The Polish statistical agency calculates that Polish exports to Russia fell by 8.6 per cent to $6.5bn in the first eight months of this year.
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