Russia's Medvedev on key visit to Poland amid thaw in ties

6th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

President Dmitry Medvedev kicks 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.

Moscow hopes two days of talks with leaders including Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski will cement a "reset" in a rocky relationship.

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 within NATO and the EU.

Medvedev's state 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 fuelled a renaissance of bilateral ties, which had been improving since Poland's liberal Prime Minister Donald Tusk beat Kaczynski's nationalist twin Jaroslaw Kaczynski in a 2007 general election.

Medvedev was one of the few leaders to fly to Poland for Kaczynski's April 18 funeral, despite the ash from an Icelandic volcano which grounded most air traffic in Europe.

In recent months, Russia 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 ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the massacre, which the Kremlin blamed on Nazi Germany for decades.

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

Last month, however, Russia's parliament blamed Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin personally, a move hailed by Poland.

Medvedev's visit is being watched closely by other ex-communist nations.

Lithuania's Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, who visited Poland Sunday, underscored the "very positive dynamics" between Warsaw and Moscow.

He called the visit "a very important step, not only for Poland but for the whole region".

Marek Menkiszak of Warsaw think-tank the Centre for Eastern Studies echoed that: "This relaunch of Russo-Polish relations is not limited to Poland, but is indicative of Russia's foreign policy in Europe and even globally."

The visit also has a 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 takes the rotating helm of the EU in the second half of 2011.

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

A major concern for Russia is a planned European missile defence shield -- which Washington says is needed to ward off 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 former satellite nations have been wary.

Last year, US President Barack Obama reconsidered 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 military 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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