Polish-Russian Reconciliation: Achievements and Challenges

On April 17, 2013, the AICGS Society, Culture & Politics Program hosted a roundtable discussion on “Polish-Russian Reconciliation: Achievements and Challenges” with Dr. Sławomir Dębski, Director of the Center for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding. Dr. Lily Gardner Feldman, Harry & Helen Gray Senior Fellow and Director of the Society, Culture & Politics Program at AICGS, provided comments highlighting similarities and differences between Polish-Russian and Polish-German reconciliation.

Dr. Dębski opened the discussion with a brief overview of Polish-Russian relations. Generally, the countries have experienced a tumultuous history. Since the fifteenth century there have been ten conflicts between Poland and Russia, eight of which were initiated by Russia, two by Poland. During the nineteenth century, a time that witnessed an increased amount of nationalism globally, Poland wanted independence from Russia. In 1918, Poland gained its independence but was occupied by Germany (and until 1941 also the Soviet Union) during World War II. In 1940, Polish officers were slaughtered by Soviet secret police in Katyn and a variety of surrounding areas. Today, this event is referred to as the “Katyn Massacre.” After World War II, the Soviet Union reoccupied Poland and installed a puppet regime. The fall of the USSR in 1991 solidified a new era of independence for Poland, whose democratic transformation had begun already in 1989. Today, Poland is a sovereign state and a member of both NATO and the European Union.

After providing this brief historical context, Dr. Dębski outlined the institutional structures and organizations that currently guide Polish-Russian reconciliation efforts. He believes that systemic change, rather than ad hoc compromises or agreements, is one of the most important paths to successful reconciliation efforts. In 2011 the Polish and Russian governments fund the Center for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding and its Russian counterpart, each of which is officially overseen by their respective Ministers of Culture. These endeavors help standardize the reconciliation process in both countries.

While institutionalized frameworks can provide the platform for exchange and dialogue, aligning goals and strategies is imperative. From a Polish perspective, successful reconciliation with Russia is an effective way to wield more room for maneuvering in foreign affairs, which in turn optimizes its foreign policy objectives. Reconciliation with Russia is Poland’s final step in making peace with its eastern neighbors.  From a Russian perspective, involvement in the development and modernization processes of eastern European countries enhances regional security. Reconciliation with Poland, therefore, naturally plays a role in achieving these goals.  Institutionalization on a grassroots level, for example via youth exchanges, provides another tangible means to connect Russian and Polish communities. Despite similar aspirations, Poland and Russia face a variety of obstacles that inhibit reconciliation, such as a very different legal framework and administrative culture. Dr. Dębski also feels that if Russia is willing, the EU could do more as a mediator to catalyze reconciliation efforts.

To augment Dr. Dębski’s discussion, Dr. Lily Gardner Feldman highlighted some of the similarities and differences between the Polish-Russian and Polish-German reconciliation processes. She began by mentioning analogous necessities and challenges.  First, in both situations, Poland played the role of the “victim” vis-à-vis Germany and Russia historically. Second, Russia and Germany have recognized their historical aggression toward Poland in order to open dialogue. For example, in the 1970 German-Polish Treaty Germany officially stated that Poland was the first victim of a murderous World War II. In 2012, the Russian parliament officially recognized the 1940 Katyn Massacre as a crime ordered by Stalin. Third, civil society actors are key ingredients of reconciliation efforts that provide stability, predictability, and solidarity during hard times. Fourth, both sides need visionary leaders not only to help overcome obstacles but also to inspire civil society to reinforce reconciliation.  Fifth, the habits of reconciliation stimulate a willingness the part of both parties to compromise in the inevitable political crises encountered as new relations develop.

Dr. Gardner Feldman also underlined differences between the two reconciliation processes that make the reconciliation process anything but a “one size fits all” approach. First, the absence of a common multi-lateral organization similar to the European Union means the Polish-Russian reconciliation process lacks an international body that provides a venue for airing and managing grievances and developing common projects. Second, the process lacks a well-entrenched bilateral textbook commission that can help “decontaminate” history and reduce stereotypes. Such an endeavor would provide a parallel understanding of Polish-Russian history while appropriately educating future generations.

Dr. Dębski and Dr. Gardner Feldman agreed that the reconciliation process has no finish line and that no “copy-paste” option exists to expedite processes. Each step is morally, historically, and pragmatically significant for all countries involved and necessary to foster bilateral relations.


Kimberly Frank

April 17, 2013