Adam Easton in Warsaw -
For Poles the celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany are coloured both by what happened before it and what came afterwards.
In Western Europe and in Russia the end of the war is seen as a great victory over fascism. The Red Army played a decisive role in defeating the Wehrmacht and liberated numerous countries in Central and Eastern Europe.
But Poles were and remain ambivalent about the country’s liberation by the Red Army in 1945 because its troops represented the former imperial power that had ruled eastern Poland throughout the 19th century.
More recently they were the same troops that had invaded and annexed Eastern Poland two weeks after the Nazi invasion on September 1, 1939. The Soviet occupation lasted until Hitler attacked the USSR in June 1941.
During that time Stalin tried to eliminate opponents of the occupation, sending around one million Poles to Siberia. In the single most bloody act more than 20,000 Polish prisoners of war were murdered by the Soviet secret police in Katyn and elsewhere. About 100,000 Polish civilians died under the Soviets during the war, historian Timothy Snyder estimates.
After Poland’s liberation Stalin imposed a Soviet-style system on Warsaw despite the fact that there were few communists in the country, prompting the dictator to remark that it was “like fitting a cow with a saddle”.
“The end of this war, which overturned German occupation, did not bring freedom to our part of Europe, because the countries there were subordinated against their will to Stalin’s empire,” Poland’s President, Bronislaw Komorowski, said in an interview with the daily Gazeta Wyborcza recently.
To mark the 70th anniversary, Central and Eastern European leaders, as well as UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and European Council President, Donald Tusk, joined Komorowski to discuss the war at a conference in Gdansk on May 7.
It was followed by a midnight ceremony at nearby Westerplatte, where the Germans fired the first shots of the war against a Polish garrison.
Originally Warsaw wanted Western leaders to attend and have Gdansk rival Russia’s celebrations on May 9. Although most have boycotted Putin’s parade, few have taken up Poland’s offer. The highest-ranking Western European officials taking part are the French defence minister and Spanish parliamentary speaker.
That will at least have pleased the Kremlin, which has somewhat successfully portrayed Poles to some of its EU partners as rabid Russophobes, whose opinion should not be trusted. Just last month Warsaw fell into this trap again, some Poles said, after it decided to ban Putin’s favourite biker gang, the Night Wolves, from entering the country on a planned trip to Berlin for the anniversary celebrations.
Komorowski had been invited to Moscow’s ceremony but he declined, citing Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. According to an opinion poll on Thursday, 65% of respondents backed his decision. Ten years ago, Poland’s then president, former communist Aleksander Kwasniewski, attended the Moscow celebrations.
Six years ago Putin spoke at Westerplatte in a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II. He said the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact that divided Poland between Nazi Germany and the USSR was “amoral”, in an interview with Gazeta Wyborcza.
It appeared a breakthrough was being made. A year later Putin jointly commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre alongside the then Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
A few days later the plane carrying President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others crashed in dense fog trying to land at nearby Smolensk to attend a separate ceremony. Hours later, standing amid the wreckage, Putin embraced Tusk in a show of sympathy. Poles overwhelmingly appreciated the support Russians gave to the visiting relatives of the victims.
But relations cooled amid differences over who was responsible for the crash – the Poles agreed it was pilot error but said the Russian air traffic controllers made mistakes – and the refusal to this day by Moscow to return the wreckage of the plane.
Putin’s actions in Ukraine and Warsaw’s critical response to them have led to a further deterioration in relations, causing widespread anxiety among Poles about whether his future plans involve Poland.
A poll last month found that half of respondents felt threatened by Russia’s military exercises near its borders and the stationing of Iskander missiles in neighbouring Kaliningrad.
That’s why Warsaw is investing in a €5bn-6.5bn deterrent and will begin talks with Washington later this month about acquiring Patriot missiles capable of shooting down the Iskanders.
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