Russia's Medvedev on key Poland visit amid thaw

6th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

President Dmitry Medvedev kicked off the first state visit by a Kremlin leader to Poland in nine years Monday, amid thawing ties spurred by shared mourning after his Polish counterpart Lech Kaczynski died in a crash in Russia in April.

Talks with leaders including Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski aim to cement a "reset" in a rocky relationship.

"We have reached a situation where a change is possible in relations between Russia and Poland," Medvedev told the Polish news weekly Wprost.

Poland's stance is similar.

"Chances are we'll open a new chapter," Komorowski said ahead of the visit.

"It will be a long road, a long march, but we are starting strong, strengthened by the support of the European Union and NATO and by Poland's good economic situation," he added.

Poland, a Soviet satellite from the end of World War II until its communist regime's 1989 demise, has growing clout in the EU and NATO.

Medvedev's visit comes eight months after the April 10 air crash in Smolensk, western Russia, which killed Kaczynski and 95 other Poles as they landed for a World War II memorial ceremony.

The crash boosted bilateral ties which already had been improving after Poland's liberals beat a conservative, nationalist government in a 2007 general election.

Russia recently has released archives on the Katyn massacre, the 1940 shooting of some 22,000 captured Polish officers by the Soviets.

Kaczynski had been heading to a commemoration of the massacre, which the Kremlin blamed on Nazi Germany for decades.

Although Moscow admitted responsibility in 1990, a year before the Soviet Union's collapse, Katyn remained a stumbling block.

"In our history, there were bright sides, but also difficult and dark ones. And in life, it is important to try to separate history, whatever it may be, from the present," Medvedev told Wprost. "Otherwise, we will always be hostage of the past".

Last month, Russia's parliament blamed Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin personally, a move hailed by Poland. Medvedev told Wprost it was Russia's "duty" to tell the truth.

Poland's communist-era Solidarity opposition chief, Lech Walesa, who was elected president after the regime's fall, said good ties were crucial.

"We're condemned to co-exist. When we fall out, others take advantage," he told Polish news channel TVN24 Monday.

The visit is being watched closely by other ex-communist nations.

Lithuania's Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, visiting Poland Sunday, called the visit "a very important step, not only for Poland but for the whole region".

There is also an economic flavour.

Poland depends on Russian gas and the two sides agreed in October to boost supplies. Senior Russian energy industry officials including Gazprom's Alexei Miller are due in Warsaw.

With 38 million people, Poland is the heavyweight among 10 ex-communist states that have joined the EU since 2004. It was the only member of the 27-nation bloc to post economic growth last year.

Warsaw will lead the EU in the second half of 2011.

Talks will also touch upon military issues. Poland, which joined NATO in 1999, is a major alliance player and vocal US ally.

A top concern for Russia is a planned European anti-missile shield -- which Washington says is needed against potential attacks by what it dubs rogue states, chiefly Iran.

Moscow has warned of a new arms race unless it can take part in the project, but its ex-satellites have been wary.

Last year, US President Barack Obama shelved plans which had enraged Russia to station an anti-missile battery in Poland.

But Moscow cried foul in May when Washington deployed a Patriot missile training unit -- albeit minus warheads -- at a Polish base near Russia's Kaliningrad territory.

"Poland is perceived in Russia as an influential member of NATO and the European Union and we would like very much that our Polish friends use the potential to contribute to improving ties between these organisations and Russia," Moscow's ambassador to Warsaw Alexander Alekseyev said last week.

© 2010 AFP

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