18 Dec 2012

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski: Polish-Russian relations are on the rise, but complicated issues need to be solved

During Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski's visit to Moscow on Tuesday, December 17, he had an interview with Interfax in the wake of his talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in which he speaks about the Polish position on the Katyn case, the return of the Polish presidential jet wreckage and EU-Russia visa relations.

Question: Mr. Sikorski, you visited Russia a year ago. Have Russian-Polish relations improved over this period and have the two countries come to better understand each other?

Answer: Both positive and negative shifts have occurred recently. For example, the agreement on border crossing [which is valid for Kaliningrad region residents and several Polish provinces] has come into force. According to the agreement, three million Polish and Russian citizens may cross the border without visas. We registered more than 100,000 border crossings by citizens of both countries.
There has been success in the economic sphere. We now have the highest volume of trade in history. Imports from Russia grew 10% and export - 16% last year alone. Trade reached $27.6 billion in the first nine months of this year, while it will greatly surpass $30 billion by the end of the year.
We have implemented ambitious projects. We think that small- and medium-sized Polish businesses is a great success of our transition period. We can see great cooperation prospects in this area.
Agricultural cooperation was once a huge problem in our relations. Now it is thriving. We also have good ties with Russian regions and cities.
We have proposed sharing our experience in organizing big sporting events because we see many similarities between our Euro 2012 and the World Cup [that Russia will host in 2018]. We built new stadiums, roads, railway stations and airports. This is what Russia may use, and we are ready to share our experience and get involved in the implementation of projects on Russian territory.
We also agreed on several important issues in the cultural exchanges sphere, in particular, holding the Year of Russia in Poland and the Year of Poland in Russia in 2015.

Q.: We get the impression that there is a certain pause in contacts at the highest level. Are any visits scheduled for 2013?

A.: Yes, naturally. We expect a visit at a very high level next month in connection with the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi German concentration camp Auschwitz (Oswiecim) and the opening of a Russian exhibition. All of us in Poland can remember that Soviet war prisoners were the first victims of that Nazi camp and the first victims of the gas chambers. We would like this visit to be an element of conciliation and to draw attention to what is good about our relations.

Q.: So you expect that Russian President Vladimir Putin will pay a visit?

A.: We would be glad to receive him. We appreciate the fact that Vladimir Putin, when he was prime minister, visited events in Gdansk that marked the anniversary of the beginning of World War II. Later, there were negotiations between our prime ministers - this happened three days before the disaster in Smolensk - and they were also held in a good atmosphere, raising hopes for an improvement in our relations.

Q.: The Polish presidency in the EU was marked by huge progress in the Russian-EU visa dialogue; however, we get the impression now that the EU is slowing down the implementation of ‘joint steps‘, thus hindering the switch to visa-free travels. Do you think it is possible to approach it in 2014, the thing is Russia insists on saying that technically it is possible and that everything depends on political will?

A.: I agree that much depends on political will. We have no disagreements on this issue. We proved that. We implemented the agreement on border crossings, we see no problem with abolishing visas for holders of diplomatic passports. And I assure you that there are some countries in the EU that have serious doubts in this respect. We support visa-free travel, which would be valid for Russia around the whole of Europe. But one should not forget about the need to accomplish rigid technical conditions: the adherence to provisions of readmission agreements with neighbors, introduction of biometric passports, and the existence of a database of issued passports. It should not be forgotten that the European Union is a legal institution, and for anything to happen, the European Commission and all member-states should first give their consent. Any technical flaws would be used to slow down this process. But if technical criteria are observed, Poland will be an ally of visa-free travel.

Q.: Gazprom has stated recently that it is going to expand the gas transportation system in Belarus, thus increasing the volumes transited through your country. Does this prove plans to implement the Yamal-Europe-2 pipeline project which was discussed in Warsaw?

A.: I do not consider myself as a pipeline expert, but Gazprom has so many ambitious plans: Nord Stream, South Stream, Naftogaz purchase, and the Far East direction… It is hard for us to orient ourselves in this ambitious investment project. But indeed, we want to earn on transporting, transiting gas. We said for many years that the construction of Yamal-2 would be cheaper than the construction of Nord Stream or other routes. If Gazprom returns to this project, we would consider it in detail.

Q.: Let me return to the issues that burden our bilateral relations. The aircraft that crashed near Smolensk… It looks like Minister Lavrov failed to convince you that Poland will get the wreckage after the investigation is over. In general, have the positions come closer together after the talks with Lavrov?

A.: We do not understand why they will not return our property, which is the wreckage of our Air Force One, to us. The promise that President Dmitry Medvedev gave us two years ago has not been fulfilled. This, as our president and your prime minster said, burdens our relations.
Minister Lavrov assured me that the second, and we hope the last group of logistics experts, that will define technical conditions for transporting the wreckage, will have access to the wreckage in January. But what we need is a ‘green light‘ for actual transportation. There are some delays on this track. Minister Lavrov said that the Russian side will do this in the short term. I took Minister Lavrov‘s word, because after two and a half years of waiting we need solutions at the highest level rather than promises

Q.: There were reports that Poland discussed the possibility of launching an international investigation into the Smolensk air crash. Is this true? Does Poland intend to bring this issue to the international level? You have recently turned to EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy on this issue.

A.: No. We trust our commission investigating the air crash, the report of which is known to us and has been translated into the Russian, Polish and English languages. Of course, some additional details may emerge, but in general the Polish government has no doubt about the reasons for the crash. It was an accident, an air crash. At the same time, it‘s one thing to ask to investigate the reasons anew, which the Polish side does not do, and another thing to demand the return of our property: the wreckage and ‘black boxes‘. Our bilateral dialogue has not brought about any results on this issue for over two and a half years. And Russia shouldn‘t be surprised, if we take other measures in order to draw attention to what the case is.
Imagine that you, Russians, that your president aboard your plane dies in a crash, for example, in the United States, and you demand that the Americans return your property to you, and they will not allow you to do that for two and a half years or they will not say when your property will be returned to you. It seems to me that you would doubt the sincerity of feelings of the U.S. people.

Q.: Polish media reported some time ago that explosive substances, for example, TNT, were found on the site of the wreckage. Could you comment on this?

A.: Indeed, this information aroused much controversy. Our president said the other day that those who build a theory of an attempt not only make a mistake but also harm the case. Once again the Polish government does not doubt that it was an accident.

Q.: Let me ask you one more technical question. What is the position of the Polish side: will the investigation continue after the transfer of the wreckage or will this mean it is officially complete?

A.: Neither you, nor we know when either Poland‘s or Russia‘s investigation will be completed. And after the transfer of the wreckage to Poland, Russian prosecutors will still have, if necessary, access to the wreckage. For apparent reasons, this issue is more important for us than for you. That is why Polish prosecutors will study this issue in detail, maybe for some time more. But the return of the wreckage would be a good moment for Polish-Russian relations, for Russia‘s reputation, for feelings of families of victims, for all victims. This would lift excessive suspicions of Russia in this respect.

Q.: You used the word ‘reconciliation‘ in one of your answers. In your opinion, when can a final reconciliation in Russian-Polish relations be awaited? How long will the Katyn issue be one of the most complicated and acute issues in our relations?

A.: Reconciliation is a process that cannot be reduced to a single issue. I think that the visit of Patriarch Kirill to Poland this summer was an important step. We consider the Orthodox Church a trustworthy partner of the dialogue on the issue of sufferings of the Stalin era, because it also was a victim of Communist persecutions. The group on complicated historic issues and the centers and dialogue and consent play an important role in the reconciliation process.

Q.: The Polish side raises the issue of final legal rehabilitation of the victims of the Katyn disaster. What does the Polish side mean? There were official statements by then Russian President Boris Yeltsin, there was a declaration of the Russian parliament. Does the Polish side consider what has been done as insufficient? If it is insufficient, what else has to be done?

A.: In the case with Katyn, we reached, as you said, a lot. The act of political rehabilitation has happened, but for purely formal reasons the process of legal rehabilitation has yet to be completed. I think we would not have to sue each other at international courts if the reasonable claims of the Katyn families were met.

Q.: Does this mean the demand for material compensation?

A.: Families of deceased officers who are seeking justice in Strasbourg primarily expect full disclosure of documents and legal rehabilitation. As far as I know, the Katyn families are not making any financial claims.
The Polish government would welcome juridical reconciliation between the Katyn families and the Russian Federation. We insist that this must be done for preserving reasonable conditions of this reconciliation. That is, archive files must be disclosed fully, all case files of executed persons must be transferred and victims must be rehabilitated pursuant to Russian laws.

Q.: I would like to ask you one more question which is not well known at least in Russia, but which is also linked to one of the saddest pages in our bilateral history. Is the Polish side going to demand excuses or raise the issue of rehabilitation of victims of the so-called Little Katyn of 1945, when around 600 people were killed in Poland?

A.: Primarily, we expect access to information about what happened to those people, not compensations.

Q.: I cannot forget to ask you about missile defense. It has been occurring for several years in a row. Did you discuss the European missile defense at your current talks in Moscow and does Poland continue to perceive Russia as a threat, as it had earlier?

A.: We are in a dialogue on the missile defense issue. Today we decided with Minister Lavrov to urge our defense ministers to meet. The last such meeting took place 10 years ago. Poland and Russia are members of different security organizations. Poland restored independence in order to be able to independently decide on its membership in various unions and on issues of deploying defense systems. But we do not want to influence your defense systems. We only want together with our allies to protect Europe from the missile threat coming from Middle East. And it is not a theoretical threat. We know that just a few weeks ago missiles were launched to Israel‘s territory. And some countries of the region build missiles of greater range. We hope that Poland and Russia, as well as NATO and Russia, will be able to create such measures of confidence, monitoring and tracking down the air situation that the security of both sides will only be boosted. And the last thing we want is a regional arms race.

Q.: What is Poland‘s assessment of the demands to provide legal guarantees that European missile defense elements are not directed against Russia?

A.: This is an interesting question. I think that it should be discussed mainly between the nuclear powers - Russia and the United States. Americans say they do not understand what the notion ‘legal guarantees‘ means. In relations between sovereign nuclear states, I think, only political guarantees are possible.
In any case, Poland is not interested in restricting Russia‘s defense capability in any way.

Q.: Russia once heatedly discussed the case against Ignatenko, and it is still a focus of the media. Recently, Polish officials have said that they are going to extradite him to Russia no later than February. According to your information, will this promise be fulfilled and are you satisfied with the general cooperation on legal issues between relevant agencies of Russia and Poland?

A.: I do not know this issue in detail, but in the Polish juridical system, prosecutors are totally independent from the government: neither our prime minister nor justice minister can give directives to prosecutors. As far as I know, that is a criminal case, and Poland will render legal assistance to Russia; the man will be extradited. We also hope that Russia will duly consider our requests for legal assistance to the Smolensk air crash inquiry.