Poland vs. Russia in a war of words, rents and history

Westerplatte-Denkmal Gedenken Ausbruch Zweiter Weltkrieg 2014

A war of words and real estate has heated up between Poland and Russia after Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna gave his support to an idea by President Bronislaw Komorowski to celebrate the anniversary of the end of World War II with EU leaders on May 8 in Gdansk, and not with Russian officials a day later in Moscow.

Russian and Polish envoys have accused each other of rewriting history and "shameful" acts. It is going to be a long diplomatic war, writes DW correspondent Roman Imielski in Warsaw.

On February 3, following Schetyna's announcement, a Russian arbitration court for the St. Petersburg area ruled that the Polish consulate had to move out of its building and pay city authorities $1.12 million (1 million euros) in back rent. The dispute over the property in the historic center of the city had gone on for three years - since the building's owner had begun demanding what Polish officials have called ridiculously high rent.

On that same day, municipal authorities in Warsaw and Gdansk demanded the return of 2 million euros in rent for five buildings that had been used by Russia. According to Polish officials, Russia had been using these properties without any contract since 2012. The USSR received the properties in the 1970s, the officials say, and Poland should in return have received real estate in Moscow, but Russia did not honor that agreement.

Save the date

The suggestion to move the World War II commemoration to Poland and the date a day up would give European politicians a good excuse not to appear in photos alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin - grinning for the cameras next to the man many believe responsible for stoking separatist aggression in Ukraine.

"It is not natural that the celebration of the end of the war should be organized there, where the war started," Schetyna said in a radio interview at the time, referring to the coastal city of Gdansk, known also to Germans as Danzig. "But how did everyone get so accustomed to the idea that it should be celebrated in Moscow - and not, for example, London and Berlin, which would be more natural? "

That did not play well in Moscow. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin responded by saying that Schetyna had "brought a disgrace not only to himself, but also the entire diplomatic service of his country and the Polish political culture." Karasin called Schetyna's words "another clumsy attempt to challenge the results of the Second World War and the role of the Soviet Union as the winner." The Russian news agency RIA Novosti even posted a satirical cartoon depicting Schetyna as a dog on a chain held by the Americans. None of which, of course, went over well back in Poland.

"We would like to show the Russian side that we don't accept things like that in diplomacy," Marcin Wojciechowski, a spokesman for Poland's Foreign Ministry, said after an official letter of protest had been given to Russia's ambassador to Warsaw on February 2.

'Governed by emotions'

Schetyna has been the target of Russian propaganda since he mispoke ahead of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, saying that Ukrainians had brought an end to that, the largest of the Nazi death camps. In fact, it was the Soviet Red Army's First Ukrainian Front, but the soldiers were mostly Russians and, the foreign minister's unfortunate statement met with widespread criticism - even at home in Poland. Schetyna later explained that his intent was to draw attention to the fact that not only Russians had served in the Red Army.

President Komorowski also joined this diplomatic wrestling. In a radio interview, he emphasized that the idea of organizing the ceremony on May 8 in Gdansk was not intended to "impede Russians' military anniversary" a day later, and added that the Soviet Union's decisive contribution to defeating the Nazis in World War II could not be questioned. But he also underlined the point of view of some American historians who claim that it was the US's entry into the war that was decisive in defeating Hitler. President Komorowski added that the victory of the Soviet Union for many nations, including Poles, did not mean freedom, because they stayed in the Soviet camp for almost 50 years.

On Friday, Schetyna went even further, saying in an interview with a Polish newspaper that "Moscow is governed by emotions" and "Russian propaganda is back to the '50s and '60s." Addressing the words and actions of contemporary officials in Moscow, Schetyna added: "It must be made clear that the Russians are going to do similar propaganda even without specific reasons."

As of late Friday evening, Russian officials had not yet reacted in the press to those words, but one can assume that they will. A team from Russia's TV Channel 5 has arrived in Poland and begun collecting materials for an apparent reportage aimed at discrediting Schetyna. They want to link the foreign minister to corruption cases from the past, in which his friends from the ruling Civic Platform party were proved to have taken part. Schetyna himself has never had any charges against him or been accused of taking part in the scheme, but creative editing by the news crew could find a way around those facts.

This diplomatic war will likely last. Poland does not appear ready to withdraw its support for Ukraine: Warsaw even appears willing to demand further sanctions against Russia for its alleged support of separatists.

By DW

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