Russia and Poland vowed Monday to put history behind them as President Dmitry Medvedev made the first state visit by a Kremlin leader to Poland in nine years, amid thawing ties spurred by the Smolensk air disaster.
“I see that the majority of Poles expect an improvement of Russian-Polish relations, and we cannot fail them,” Medvedev said following talks with his Polish counterpart Bronislaw Komorowski.
Medvedev’s visit comes eight months after the April 10 air crash in Smolensk, western Russia, which killed president Lech Kaczynski and 95 other Poles as they landed for a World War II memorial ceremony for Polish officers massacred on orders of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1940.
Common mourning after the accident helped strengthen long-strained bilateral ties.
Komorowski echoed the Russian leader’s optimism about cementing a “reset” in a historically rocky relationship.
“I’m convinced we are beginning not only a new chapter in Polish-Russian relations, but also a good chapter in the book of bilateral relations that we have been writing for the last 1,000 years,” Komorowski said.
“It will most certainly be a long road but we will walk this road at an ever quicker pace with ever clearer and more precise goals,” 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 European Union and NATO.
Warsaw is to assume the EU’s rotating presidency in the second half of 2011.
“Our countries are in Europe and even if Russia does not belong to NATO or the EU, we are building our relationships with both organisations,” Medvedev said.
“I hope that Poland’s more active participation will address the issues of reconciliation between Russia and the European Union and NATO,” he added.
NATO and Russia agreed to deepen missile defence cooperation at last month’s summit in Lisbon.
Laying bad blood over history to rest, Russia’s parliament last month openly blamed Stalin for the 1940 shooting of some 22,000 captured Polish officers.
Know as the Katyn massacre, the crime had long remained a sticking-point in Polish-Russian relations, with the Kremlin for decades blaming Nazi Germany for the crime. Moscow only admitted responsibility in 1990.
Adding to Katyn’s significance for Poles, the late president Kaczynski had been heading to a commemoration of the massacre when his plane crashed.
“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 Poland’s Wprost weekly news magazine on Monday.
“Otherwise, we will always be hostage of the past.”
Later Monday he awarded the Russian medal of the Order of Friendship to celebrated Polish film director Andrzej Wajda, who brought the story of Katyn to the silver screen and whose father was among those who perished in the massacre.
The Russian head of state then met with Poland’s liberal Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
“We are ready for open, and if need be, firm yet friendly relations and negotiations,” Tusk said.
Bilateral agreements on economic, environmental and legal cooperation were signed during this visit, which was closely watched by other ex-communist nations.
Lithuania’s Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, visiting Poland on Sunday, called it “a very important step, not only for Poland but for the whole region”.
Komorowski meanwhile threw Poland’s support behind Russia’s swift accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
“This is something that could certainly serve to enliven economic cooperation between our two countries and (Russian cooperation with) all EU states as well,” the Polish head of state said.
His statement came on the eve of an EU-Russia summit in Brussels, where Medvedev and EU representatives aim to overcome obstacles to Russian membership of the WTO and give new impetus to warming Russia-EU ties.
The last major global economy not to be incorporated into the WTO, Russia hopes to join the organisation in 2011.
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.