- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2005

An assault on the children of Russian diplomats in a Warsaw park last month has helped drop Polish-Russian relations to their lowest ebb since the Cold War and has raised new fears about the stability of Europe’s sensitive east.

The July 31 beating — and subsequent attacks on Polish diplomats and a senior Polish journalist in Moscow — added to an escalating list of grievances between the countries, which have a history of animosity and bloodshed dating back centuries.

After a initial sharp exchange of words, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Polish counterpart Alexander Kwasniewski have tried to calm the situation in recent days.

Following a hot line telephone conversation Friday, the two leaders said the serial assaults, whatever the motivation, cannot be “viewed in isolation from the unfavorable mutual political atmosphere between the two countries.”

Mr. Putin earlier had called the Warsaw attacks “an unfriendly act” and demanded an official apology, while Mr. Kwasniewski complained that “representatives of the Polish state and mass media accredited in Russia have become victims of organized attacks.”

Polish authorities say the July 31 mugging of three teenage sons of Russian diplomats in Warsaw was a “criminal and not political act.” Police have arrested two men suspected of robbing the youths.

Two Polish diplomats in Moscow, including embassy Second Secretary Marek Reszuta, were separately preyed upon by unknown attackers within the ensuing 10 days, with both incidents taking place near the gates of the embassy.

Over the weekend, a correspondent for the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita was beaten up in Moscow.

The motives for the attacks are not clear, but the dispute has deeper roots on both sides.

The Kremlin has accused the Polish government of tolerating what it described as a “wave of anti-Russian hysteria” in the run-up to Poland’s Oct. 9 presidential vote.

Diplomats and Moscow political experts say Russia has not forgiven Mr. Kwasniewski for Poland’s critical role in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution late last year, helping pro-Western reformer Viktor Yushchenko triumph over Kremlin favorite Viktor Yanukovych in the bitterly disputed presidential vote.

Feeding the ill will is a separate Polish dispute with Belarus’ authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko, a Kremlin ally, over the treatment of the large Polish minority in his country.

Russian political analyst Yulia Latynina told the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty news service that Mr. Kwasniewski “played a very big role in what happened in Ukraine and President Putin feels personally insulted.”

For its part, Warsaw has worried openly about what it sees as democratic backsliding in Russia — a contention Mr. Putin has brusquely dismissed.

Polish press outlets expressed outrage when a Russian state investigation appeared to play down the seriousness of the 1940 Katyn massacre of Polish military officers by dictator Josef Stalin’s Red Army.

Many Poles also resent Russia’s refusal to apologize for the Hitler-Stalin pact that cleared the way for World War II and have ripped Mr. Putin’s failure to mention Poland at May ceremonies in Moscow 60 years after the war ended in Europe.

The animosity between Poles and Russians dates at least from the 17th-century occupation of Moscow by Polish troops. When, over the next three centuries, Poland’s stature gradually diminished, Russia was instrumental in erasing the country from the map of Europe.

In 1920, the Poles got their revenge by defeating an advancing Russian army outside Warsaw. The refusal of Russian troops to aid Polish resistance fighters in the 1944 Warsaw uprising against the Nazis created more ill feelings.

The collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe has given new life to old disputes. According to one Polish historian, “without communist constraints, neither the Russians nor the Poles need to pretend they are brothers.”

Andrew Borowiec contributed to this report from Geneva.

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