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Polish minister of foreign affairs, Witold Waszczykowski: “we see Russia in a diffrent way than Hungary”

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Interview conducted by Szabolcs Vörös for the Hungarian newspaper Heti Válasz ( Originally published in English on October 19, 2017.

Poland – When it comes to Hungary, its relationship with Russia and its support of Donald Tusk still offend the government in Warsaw. Polish minister of foreign affairs, Witold Waszczykowski, told Heti Válasz when Warsaw may lose patience due to the too frequent Budapest visits of Vladimir Putin.

Szabolcs Vörös: Due to the new Ukrainian educational law, Hungary will not support the EU integration of Ukraine anymore, something Poland has always been a key advocate of. I assume you are not so happy.

Witold Waszczykowski: The purpose of the law was to clarify the state of the Russian language and schools which indirectly affected other minorities, including the Polish one, however, other minorities have only a few schools which are bilingual. We do hope that with the cooperation of the Polish and the Ukrainian education ministries, a compromise could be reached. That is why we have not joined Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjártó’s very emotional statement. But I understand Hungary’s position: Hungarians in Ukraine live in a bigger enclave, they have much more schools where the main language is Hungarian which – frankly speaking – sounds a bit unnatural for me. People living in Ukraine should speak not only their own language but also the official one.

You called the statement of Peter Szijjártó emotional. As a matter of fact he had reason to be so.

I will not judge it because it is a bilateral issue between Hungary and Ukraine. I would not politicise the problem though, given the hardships of Ukraine caused by the Russian aggression. I am confident that the problem could be solved in a peaceful and less emotional way.

Have you told it to your Hungarian colleague, too?

Yes, I have, when he contacted me suggesting to write a joint letter to Kiev. I explained him the Polish standpoint which was that our situation was not so severe and the issue could be solved on a bilateral – however not necessarily foreign ministerial – level.

By the way, are you unconditionally supporting the EU integration of Ukraine? Because there are unsettled issues between your countries as well, like the Volhynian massacre in 1943-44 which was defined as genocide by the Polish parliament last summer.

We have conveyed our message to Ukraine that solving historical debates with their neighbours is essential before their EU accession. For that we established a bilateral committee of experts…

…which has been unsuccessful so far.

So far yes but Ukraine’s EU accession will not happen tomorrow. So we have time, however, the sooner the better. But I would like to add here, which I have already said earlier that with Bandera flags there will be no EU accession. The only thing we ask is to clarify the historical facts.

People hold flags picturing Ukrainian politician Stepan Bandera (L), one of the leaders of Ukrainian national movement and leader of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and his ally Roman Shukhevych (R) during a march in Kiev on January 1, 2017, to mark the 108th anniversary of the birth of the Ukrainian politician. / AFP PHOTO / GENYA SAVILOV

Which would be a political suicide for any Ukrainian leader.

Let us give space for the work of historians. But our political message is clear.

In August the president of Russia paid his second visit to Budapest this year. What is your take on that?

We are not happy because we see Russia in a different way. But this is natural because our geopolitical position is different, too. Fortunately Hungary has no borders with Russia therefore it is not directly threatened. The Polish–Russian border at Kaliningrad is more than 200 kms long, ballistic missiles have been deployed in the region and from time to time we receive direct threats.

You said you were not happy…

… no because the EU should have a common position on Russia.

Is there any channel through which you can express your dissatisfaction?

We are speaking openly about it with Peter Szijjártó and prime minister Viktor Orbán.

And how do they explain the twice-in-a-year Putin visit for instance?

They say that they do not feel any direct threat from Russia. Hungary desperately needs gas and it seems it is the only option because others – like LNG terminals in Poland and Croatia, pipelines and interconnectors – are not available, yet. So Hungary’s position is that it is still better and cheaper to buy Russian gas directly than through intermediaries. I understand their point. However, our goal is to be completely independent of Russian gas by 2022.

We were also dependent on Russian gas during Orbán’s first session as prime minister between 1998 and 2002 but that time he was not labeled as the friend of the Russian president.

We do not label him so either. He is a pragmatic politician who has no other option. As I said, we are on the path to provide an alternative. But if there will be an alternative and Hungary will not use it, we might change our mind.

How is the Polish–Russian relationship? After recent American military movements in Poland, Moscow threatened your country by deploying additional missiles to Kaliningrad. Is this wartime rhetoric reversible?

Everything is reversible. In the ’80s I was forced to emigrate from Poland because I had no perspective – 4-5 years later the Soviet block collapsed. The power of Putin will not last forever either, sooner or later – I hope sooner – there will be a change in Russia. While the EU and the NATO are ready for dialogue, Russia refuses it because they want to re-establish the position the Soviet Union used to have. This is the most Putin can achieve but I do not think he will succeed. Therefore his minimum plan is to decide over the future of the Transatlantic region according to the logic of balance of powers that was created in the 19th century. Due to this imperial mindset, any conciliation is pretty difficult with Russia.

US troops land with parachutes at the military compound near Torun, central Poland, on June 7, 2016, as part of the NATO Anaconda-16 military exercise.
Anaconda is the largest-ever military exercise involving NATO partners, amid the West’s worst standoff with Russia since the end of the Cold War. / AFP PHOTO / JANEK SKARZYNSKI

Do you trust Article 5 of the Washington Treaty – according to which those American soldiers who are stationed in Poland would go to war for you?

Every normal politician should trust but also verify. We have asked NATO to verify Article 5 since our accession in 1999 and finally it was fulfilled during last year’s NATO summit in Warsaw. The alliance has sent troops to Poland as well as to the Baltic states, while the USA has sent an armored brigade and the deployment of an anti-missile system is also on the table. This is tangible evidence of the commitment written in Article 5.

Is it enough? The joint military drill of Belarus and Russia, Zapad-2017, has just ended in your back door with tens of thousands of troops involved.

It is enough to face a low intensity conflict or some hybrid operations. But it is not enough to face a large scale conflict like the one exercised during Zapad. Therefore we agreed with NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, that we have to respond to this issue.

Do you think that president Trump, as the main stakeholder in NATO, is ready for this?

There is no decision yet, but discussions have already started. So if diplomacy fails and Russia keeps doing what it has done so far then we should not only discuss but send additional forces to the region.

“If diplomacy fails.”Are you seriously thinking about it?

As a diplomat, I am supposed to be optimistic. If I were not optimistic, probably I would work as a journalist.

Thank you… The 2010 Smolensk catastrophy is the other sensitive element of the Polish–Russian relationship. The head of the governing PiS party, Jarosław Kaczyński, said the other day “we might never find the truth”. Does it mark the end of an era?

I would not judge this statement. What I can say is that the previous government did not do everything according to its capacities to clarify and solve the situation. Here in the ministry I have not found any documents either which could have proven that my predecessors aimed to find out the truth. They lost five years because, for example, they let the Russians conduct the investigation. Our message is clear: as long as they do not give the plane back to us, we maintain the right to think that something was not okay and we can accuse them of that.

Poland’s Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski looks on as he arrives to take part in a foreign defence affair council on March 6, 2017 at the European Council, in Brussels. / AFP PHOTO / EMMANUEL DUNAND

Are you also among those who think that the previous government – including prime minister Donald Tusk and foreign minister Radosław Sikorski – was “involved” in Smolensk?

Mr. Tusk paid a visit to Russia three days before the catastrophy which was considered as an official state visit, while president Kaczyński’s visit was considered only a personal pilgrimage. Therefore it is quite likely that the security measures were different. And during the two election campaigns held after the catastrophy, it was even beneficial for them to let the Russians conduct the investigation because they did not have to justify the reasons of not having any results.

This spring in the European Council, Hungary supported the re-election of Donald Tusk who you called „the icon of evil and stupidity”.

Are these my words?

You referred to it in a radio interview in January. So were you surprised that Orbán voted for Tusk?

Fidesz is a member of the European People’s Party so I understand that they followed the directive of Angela Merkel and other leaders of the party.

So it was a directive of Mrs. Merkel.

It could be.

How do you know that?

I do not know it.

Yet, this was your first thought.

We have discussed it with prime minister Orbán and he knows our opinion: it is sad for us that such a friendly country and party openly supports Tusk who was the candidate of the previous Polish government, not ours. In fact, there was not even a proper vote.

27:1. This is how the Poles call it.

It was only asked who was against him.

Hungary was not. By the way, has Viktor Orbán promised not to support Tusk?

He wrote an ambiguous – and not public – letter about this issue to Polish prime minister Beata Szydło but there was no open promise in it.

Budapest, 2017. october 11.
Hungarian Foreign Affairs minister Péter Szijjártó (L) and Witold Waszczykowski at the meeting of the V4 countries, alongside with Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania, in Budapest.
MTI Photo: Kovács Tamás

Poland and Hungary share the same opinion about migration, though Poland managed to integrate some 100.000 Chechen refugees in the ’90s. Why are you so afraid now?

The majority of the Chechens has left to the West and those who stayed did have shallow Muslim identity. Also terrorist attacks were not part of the toolkit then.

Well, if one remembers something about Chechens, those are the terrorist attacks.

But plenty of them were Russian provocations. Those who stayed in Poland, did not commit any attacks.

And why would Syrians do so? They leave to the West, too.

Then why does Brussels try to bring them here at all costs? Two years ago the European Commission made a terrible mistake by labeling these people refugees although only a few per cent of them were real refugees. God knows why they did it.

And you obviously suspect that…

There are speculations. Social and humanitarian reasons; some countries feel themselves guilty because of their imperial past or because of war crimes and holocaust; Soros.

Please do not tell me that you also believe in the Soros Plan.

I do not believe in any speculations, just listing them. I do not know which one is true. And it is also unclear why the Commission considers only North-African and Mid-Eastern people and not the Ukrainians as refugees. There are around 1 million Ukrainians living in Poland.

Among them only 16 people were granted asylum.

Maybe more. But why did that 1 million people come here? Because of the hardships caused by the war.

And you welcome them with open arms because your economy badly needs them.

It is not the only reason. But why cannot a Ukrainian be valued at the same level as a Libyan for instance? We cannot accept double standard.

Won’t you alienate yourselves with this?

In what way?

You are mentioned together with Hungary.

So what? Just recently ten foreign ministers had arrived to Warsaw then I met 14 of my colleagues in Budapest before going to London. I do not even have time for my family.

So you are not afraid of Article 7.

Not at all.

Is it because Mr. Orbán promised to exercise a veto?

This is one of the reasons.

Is it not an ambiguous promise – like his letter was before?

No. This was an open promise from him.