Russian and foreign experts indicate warming trend in difficult Russian-Polish relations
15 February 2013. PenzaNews. Regular meeting of the Committee for Russian-Polish Cooperation Strategy, destined to sum up the results of cooperation of the two states, was held in Moscow on December 17 and was chaired by the Foreign Ministers Sergey Lavrov and Radoslaw Sikorski. According to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “the parties analyzed the state and prospects of bilateral relations, stated the ongoing development of the political dialogue, systematic expansion of inter-regional and interdepartmental ties, correct and stable functioning of basic mechanisms of the Russian-Polish cooperation, and dynamic growth of bilateral trade.”
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However despite the seeming optimism, relations between Russia and Poland are far from ideal, as the foreign ministers of the two countries do not have enough pragmatism in addressing the most pressing and topical issues.
According to observers, the Polish diplomacy in Kaliningrad cannot be considered a success, which is evidenced by a number of facts widely discussed in the media since the beginning of fall 2012.
In particular, one of the most discussed topics was the Indian outsourcing company VFS Global’s victory in the tender for provision of visa services in Kaliningrad, Chernyakhovsk and Sovetsk.
According to the media reports, the Kaliningrad Information Center for Tourism Development, which also participated in the bidding to provide visa and border movement application service, offered the most beneficial terms: its cost of service was 11 Euros, while VFS Global’s — 17 Euros. Moreover, the Indian company said that at the time it did not have a building of appropriate size for the reception of visitors. However, despite the difference in price, lack of infrastructure and remoteness of the main office, the Poland’s choice fell on Indian partners, and that aroused the suspicions of the director of the Information Center for Tourism Development Vladimir Radzinovsky.
“The course of the bidding and the further proceedings give reason to suspect collusion between the Polish diplomats and the representatives of the company that won the tender,” he stated.
According to some journalists, suspicion of “collusion” is not baseless: in mid-2012, the staff of the Consulate General of Poland in the Ukrainian city of Lutsk organized a similar tender for provision of visa services. Then VFS Global also won the tender, though the price for its service was higher than of the Ukrainian competitors. But after the inspection carried out by the Foreign Ministry of Poland, the country recalled all its visa consuls from the Polish Consulate in Lutsk in connection with the abuses in the issuance of visas, which included the provision of the “preferential conditions” to some applicants who could get a visa out of turn, and the creation of a “virtual queue” by the VFS Global visa center in Lutsk, whose activity was controlled by the consular staff.
However, the head of the Passport and Visa Department of the Consulate General of Poland in Kaliningrad Janusz Jablonski said that following 2012, the Indian company fully met the expectations of the Foreign Ministry. According to him, the number of documents for visas and local border traffic (LBT) cards received by VFS Global reached 1.5 thousand per day, while in the Consulate General this figure did not exceed 700.
Nevertheless, many observers consider the implementation of preferential visa regime between the residents of the Kaliningrad region and the northern provinces of Poland not effective enough.
The LBT agreement came into force on 27 July 2012, but in August admission of applications for LBT cards was temporarily stopped. The Consul General of Poland in Kaliningrad Marek Golkowski explained it by a large number of persons willing to visit the republic in a privileged mode, but soon Kaliningradians who had already submitted the documents, complained that they could not get a card at the appointed time.
Now it is also impossible to apply for LBT card in the Kaliningrad department of VFS Global as there are no dates available in February 2013.
“The registration for March is not started. You can obtain the information about the beginning of registration on the website of the visa center, or via our call-center,” explained the VFS Global employee.
Another step of the Polish Consulate General in Kaliningrad, which caused outrage of Kaliningradians, is related to Schengen visas. In late 2012, the Polish diplomatic mission in coordination with the Foreign Ministry significantly tightened the issuance of these documents for Russians, while the VFS Global visa center increased the cost of its services. Now to get multiple Schengen visa, Russians have to provide hotel booking form in Poland for at least 7 days, and the proof of payment.
However despite the difficulties, Russian and foreign analysts indicate a warming trend in uneasy relations between Russia and Poland. Thus, for example, Evgeniya Vojko, foreign policy expert of the Russian Center of Political Conjuncture called the ties of the two countries “moderately positive.”
“When Bronislaw Komorowski won presidential election in Poland, political system became relatively stabilized and came to a common denominator, as both prime minister and president are members of one political force – Civic Platform. This party is disposed towards quite constructive relations with Russia. Some time ago, sharp points connected with historical issues in relations between Moscow and Warsaw were removed, or at least smoothed. They are not discussed at the highest political level. The emphasis is on the development of trade and economic relations,” she said.
According to her, visa issue remains one of the most painful topics for Russia and Poland, but the difficulty with the issue of LBT cards the expert connects with the technical reasons.
“I do not think that there are any political obstacles to simplify visa procedures. The scheme itself has not been fully worked out and is still in the stage of searching for optimal models. I think there are some technical difficulties rather than any political reasons,” Evgeniya Vojko noted.
She also stressed that recent rhetoric of official Moscow and Warsaw had noticeably changed.
“It had a positive impact on the process of obtaining visas, but the impact was not yet as strong as it might be desired in Russia,” the foreign policy expert said.
Konstanty Gebert, a Polish journalist, ECFR associate fellow, finds no political reasons, which could complicate the procedure of issuing permits for local border traffic as well.
“If in fact there has been a suspension, it must be a local glitch. Sikorski lobbied hard for the LBT agreement in the EU and considers it − in private as well as in public − a major success,” the analyst said.
He also added that Poland’s Eastern policies have been moderately successful and pointed to the relative thaw in relations with Russia and Lithuania, while criticized the policy of Poland towards Belarus.
In addition, Konstanty Gebert stressed that there is no simple method of further improving Polish-Russian relations.
“They are in part hostage to internal developments, especially on the Polish side, where a substantial part of the electorate still perceives Russia as such as implacably hostile. Most Poles, however, do differentiate between the Russia as a country and its government, and while having limited trust in the latter, do want to have good relations with the former. The Polish government certainly is dedicated to that last goal, and is willing to pay the price in internal politics. If the Russian government, however, continues on its present authoritarian path, relations not only with Poland but with the EU as a whole will be adversely affected,” he noted.
Columbia University professor John Micgiel suggested that Russia’s relations with Poland could improve at least in small part if the Russian authorities would formally close the investigation of the TU-154 crash and release the wreck of the aircraft to Polish authorities.
“Russian investigators have nothing more to learn from the airplane, while the wreck has much symbolic importance for the Poles,” the American expert said.
According to him, the LBT agreement is one of the small steps in right direction.
“It has been in operation for a mere seven months and its efficacy is too early to judge. One can be sure, however, that the European Union will be watching and evaluating the experience of this bilateral cooperation as it considers a visa-free regime with the Russian Federation,” John Micgiel noted.
In turn, editor-in-chief of the New Eastern Europe (Nowa Europa Wschodnia) magazine Andrzej Brzeziecki gave a positive assessment of the relations between the two neighboring states.
“There are no serious scandals, no significant progress. It’s just peaceful cooperation, which can be developed further. But still, I would call this relationship the best in the last 20 years,” he said in an interview with news agency “PenzaNews.”
According to him, Poland changed its emotional approach to Russia for a more pragmatic – there is more trust and willingness to cooperate.
“There is no previous fear in Poland. Today we focus on cooperation,” Andrzej Brzeziecki said, calling the change of approach towards Russia the most important success of the republic in this direction of foreign policy. And, in his opinion, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski deserves great credit for this.
“It was he who initiated many ideas, lobbied for the introduction of LBT agreement between Poland and Russia. The work of our consulates in Eastern Europe has become more efficient. Sikorsky does a good job, but with only one exception –it is Belarus. He has emotional approach towards President Lukashenko, and this is unacceptable in politics,” editor-in-chief of the New Eastern Europe said.
At the same time, Andrzej Brzeziecki reacted negatively to tightening the issuance of Schengen multivisa for the residents of the Kaliningrad region.
“I am not sure whose initiative it was – Poland’s or the whole EU’s. But I can say that this is very bad because representatives of the Polish tourism business – owners of travel agencies and hotels – say that the number of tourists from Russia decreased,” he said.
Dean of the Faculty of Sociology and Political Science at the Financial University of the Russian government Alexander Shatilov also believes that the simplification of visa regime should be one of the priorities of the two states’ cooperation.
“We should welcome any agreement to facilitate travel between Russia and Poland, because such public diplomacy makes a far greater contribution to understanding, rather than the activity of the officials,” he said, stressing that it is beneficial for both the Polish and the Russian side.
According to the expert, now Poland has no bitterness towards the Russian Federation.
“For a long time, Poland and Russia were critical of each other, often having subjective complaints, and tried to politicize historical issues, which did little to improve bilateral ties. But now the situation has stabilized, and the relationship between the two countries can be described as rational, constructive and sane. Political passions have died down, there is now more interest in economic cooperation,” he said.
“Joining the European Union, Poland to some extent got rid of its historical complexes with regard to Russia. Warming of the policy became possible largely due to the fact that Moscow and Warsaw move from historical grievances to mutual pragmatic cooperation,” Alexander Shatilov concluded.