We have to be patient

Minister Witold Waszczykowski talks to Gość Niedzielny about the challenges facing Poland’s eastern policy.

Andrzej Grajewski: What are the main challenges that we face in the East in 2017?

Witold Waszczykowski: It won’t be one single challenge but rather a whole collection of problems that will affect us or are already affecting us. Fortunately, we are starting this year having previously made good decisions regarding Poland’s security. They were made at the NATO Summit in Warsaw and despite the new president in the White House there are no indications that these will be put into doubt.

So there is not a risk that the guarantees made to us at the NATO Summit will be reneged on or that the construction of the anti-missile shield in Redzikowo will be discontinued?

There have not been any signals that would indicate this. There weren’t any corrections to the American budget for this year, which also confirms the readiness to realize the plans, both within the NATO framework as well as concerning the U.S. decision to deploy a brigade to Poland. We expect the first American soldiers to arrive in January. The base in Redzikowo is being built and is due to be ready for use in 2018.

President Trump’s Administration sees Russia as an important partner. What could therefore materialize is the appearance of transactional politics, making gains in one field in return for concessions in other fields.

Please show me a president in the last twenty years who has not tried to lead such a policy. President Obama’s re-set had a direct impact on us. The price that Barack Obama paid for this was abandoning the construction of the anti-missile shield as well as blocking further NATO expansion to the East. George W. Bush looked into the eyes of Vladimir Putin and saw the soul of a democrat and Bill Clinton signed an agreement in 1997 that effectively made sure that the security status of NATO’s new members was lower than that of Western European members. I assume therefore that the new American administration will seek to reach a pragmatic arrangement with Russia. Our task is to make sure that this is not done at our cost, as we have negative experiences in this regard. The Americans have come to see that adopting a “something for something” strategy in dealing with the Russians often does not produce the desired results as that “something” is not delivered by Moscow.

Whilst the U.S. sees Russia as an important partner, you are effectively saying: either give us back the Tupolev wreckage or our relations will be frozen.

Strictly speaking, what I said was that there is no chance of our relations improving until the wreckage, which is Polish property, is returned to us. The fact that it is still in Russia is a major cause of irritation for the Polish leadership and society, which also makes it impossible to carry out a reliable investigation into the causes of the Smolensk disaster. We also made an intervention with an official diplomatic note following President Putin’s statement that the plane’s crew was forced to land. We demanded an explanation for what basis the Russian president had to say this. There was no document, not even the MAK report, that noted a dialogue that apparently took place according to the investigation documents that President Putin alluded to. Returning the wreckage will remove from the Russians a cause of irritation for Poles.

President Putin will not want to return it.

We therefore have a dilemma. Do we simply give up on all of this – and this “everything” includes the death of a Polish president and the people who died with him – and in the name of a geopolitical arrangement with Russia never find out what circumstances led to the disaster? This cannot happen.

Alternatively, we can hold our ground; relations with Russia will be bad and we will not get the wreckage back.

At some point the balance of power in Russia will change. Putin will not rule forever. We have to be patient.

We want to wait out Putin?

One could put it that way, because on their side we see no indication of wanting to reach an agreement with the Poles, none at all. They also want to wait us out. Although during the credentials ceremony of the new Polish ambassador, Putin said that he is ready to do everything in order to improve Polish-Russia relations, this was, as we can see, an unsubstantiated statement. The Russians don’t have to do everything. It’s worth starting with a few gestures, for example by lifting the embargo on Polish food products. Let us close the investigation, may the plane wreckage return to Poland. On various occasions I have told the Russians: the longer that you keep the wreckage, the more reason you give Poles to suspect that you are in some way culpable for what happened in Smolensk.

Is the return of the wreckage a condition for a new opening in relations with Russia? 

It constitutes a certain gesture that we expect to be made.

An essential gesture?

An important and essential gesture.

Have you called on the U.S. to provide assistance in explaining the circumstances surrounding the Smolensk disaster?

Of course. I did so while I was still a member of parliament, as a member of the Polish delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, to U.S. congressmen as well. At the time, I was told that the Polish government should make an official request for this to happen, but it didn’t – there is no information indicating that the Polish government made such a request.

You yourself did so as minister. With what effect?

During my first meeting with John Kerry in December 2015 I appealed for assistance in clarifying the circumstances surrounding the causes of the disaster, I also did so during other meetings with the Americans. The response I received was that the issue is already dated, that something has already been given to the Polish side.

And was it?

Not to my knowledge. We have to remember that the outgoing American administration was very attached to the reset of relations with Russia, later on it hoped that there would be co-operation regarding Syrian issues. It appears that our efforts played second fiddle to these plans.

Do the Americans know something about the circumstances of the Smolensk disaster?

I don’t know.  There is also the question if such information exists whether they will want to share it without giving away their operational capabilities. The issue of explaining why the disaster happened was mishandled in the first days and weeks following the tragedy. After all, the commander of a NATO member country’s armed forces died so we had the right according to Article 4 of the Washington Treaty to demand consultations and request co-operation regarding the return of the wreckage. Now it is difficult to make up for the lost time.

After the Netherlands refused to ratify the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine, a question arises: did people in the Maidan die in vain?

Definitely not. The Maidan led to the signing of the Association Agreement and its economic aspects are being implemented. Poland and Europe provide Ukraine with significant support in the areas of democratic, legal and administrative transformation. This is taking place at a slow pace and many Ukrainians are unhappy with the pace of the reforms. A part of Ukrainian territory is annexed, a part is occupied by rebels that are directly supported by Russia, which of course has a negative impact on investors. No one likes to invest in a country that is at war.

Do you not feel, also within your own political camp, that enthusiasm for supporting Ukraine is diminishing? Members of certain groups in Poland are demanding that support for Ukraine be stopped. They point to the issue of historical accountability, in particular the genocide in Volyn, there are even whispers about coming to an arrangement with Russia.

There is indeed a group in Poland who live by a myth: if one were to reach an agreement with Russia, everything would be better. But that is not true. Russia’s leadership does not accept Poland as an equal partner. Our predecessors in 2010, following the Smolensk disaster, believed that they would be able to benefit from the Russian empathy and reach agreements with Russia in many areas. But it quickly turned out that if we want to live in agreement with them then we would have to provide further concessions, for example with regards to Orlen, Azoty, Lotos and many other things. We can live in agreement with the Russians but only on the condition that our state is concessioned by them. We do not agree to such conditions. We are a sovereign state that independently chooses our alliances and economic development and political model. That is why the proposals put forward by the so-called borderland groups are based on a false myth, one that is rejected by the majority of society.

But we do have problems with Ukraine in the area of historical memory.

No one denies this. Ukraine does not recognize certain facts within Polish-Ukrainian history, ones that – unless they are clarified according to historical truth – will continue to impede us in the future. Some politicians in Ukraine admit that there are problems resulting from the lack of accountability with the past, but in their opinion these are secondary problems. The only thing that counts are current challenges and geopolitics. We cannot agree with this because we have negative experiences. It is best to clarify these historical issues right away. President Andrzej Duda proposed this to President Petro Poroshenko recently, suggesting that our two countries jointly honour and decorate those who saved the lives of representatives of the other nation. Unfortunately, no interest in this proposal was shown by the Ukrainian side. Perhaps because in their historical conscience, Volyn is not seen as a huge crime against Poles. In 2017, Ukraine will mark the 75th anniversary of the creation of the UPA. If these ceremonies are unreflective, not taking into account the fact that many UPA fighters had Polish blood on their hands, then this will have a negative impact on current relations with Poland, which is its closest neighbour and the country most engaged in providing assistance to Ukraine.

Has the Belarusian side provided signals that the country is opening up?

It is a small country that is subjected to great pressure from Russia and is drawing conclusions from what is happening in Ukraine. They don’t want a Maidan to place in Minsk. That is why the leadership of this country is steering Belarus towards closer relations with the West, including Poland. Belarus is our neighbour and we have a duty to open ourselves up to friendly relations with this country. We want to present it with a European alternative. Perhaps membership in the European Union is a far-off prospect for Belarus but there are various statuses that can be applied to the country in the meantime. And above all open our borders – by initially introducing moderate cross-border movement, followed by a visa-free system. There are also interesting prospect for economic co-operation. An important component of this package is the good treatment of the Polish minority in Belarus. They want to have access to Poland, for example by accessing Polish television channels. This is what we have offered them and so far we have been met with a positive response. What is also important is the position of the Belarus leadership with regards to historical accountability. Minsk recently provided us with over a dozen names most likely taken from the so-called Belarusian Katyn list, which enables us to pursue further verification efforts of the victims killed by the NKVD on Belarusian territory within the framework of the Katyn massacre.

Will Bielsat TV, which supports the opposition in Belarus, be sacrificed in order to improve relations with the Lukashenko regime?

That is not the case. The MFA simply does not have sufficient means to support Bielsat as it has done so in the past. Bielsat is part of a wider project implemented by public television. I do not want to liquidate Bielsat. It will receive a portion of the funds, although I openly say that after ten years in existence it is an ineffective station, in need of modernization and reform. Thus one needs to talk to Belarus but one has to be patient. In the East, one has to be patient and consequent, not expecting our efforts to provide immediate results. The process of achieving closer relations, followed by reconciliation, needs to mature.

gosc niedzielny.jpg Source: Gość Niedzielny