Dispatch

Don’t Bring a Dove to a Polish Hawk Fight

As Poland readies for its presidential election, one thing is certain: Russia is a threat.

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WARSAW — On Feb. 14, Magdalena Ogórek, a left-wing candidate in Poland’s presidential race, said if she were elected, she “would pick up the phone to call the Russian president” to normalize relations between Moscow and Warsaw. As it happens, it’s an unlikely scenario: The 36-year-old historian and TV personality is polling just 3 percent. But her comment sparked the question every candidate has now had to think about in the run up to the May 10 presidential election: Would you call Vladimir Putin?

The incumbent, President Bronislaw Komorowski, dismissed it outright. “If someone thinks that peace in Europe depends on a phone call, then they’re a bit out of touch with reality,” he said in a television interview. But that didn’t stop his main rival, Andrzej Duda, from releasing a campaign video showing a snoring Komorowski being woken in the night to take a phone call from Moscow. The clip ends with the words: “Do you want to continue worrying who will answer the phone?”

Foreign policy concerns — far beyond phone calls to the Kremlin — have been more prominent in this Polish election than previous ones, says Marcin Zaborowski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM). According to a recent poll, Poles consider security the most important topic in the presidential campaign. The spotlight has been on the conflict in Ukraine and its implications for Poland and the region.

Eleven candidates, ranging from anti-clerical left to the monarchist far-right, are running for president. But there is a broad consensus between the two main candidates, Komorowski and Duda: Poland must take a hard line toward Russia and keep up support for the embattled government in Kiev, acting as its advocate in the European Union.

Where there is discord is over the details. “Disagreements tend to focus on who is the most competent to achieve those objectives and the best way to achieve them,” says Aleks Szczerbiak, a professor at the University of Sussex, who writes a blog on Polish politics. Komorowski wants Poland in the “European mainstream,” working closely with Germany and others. In contrast, Duda is calling for a more independent Polish foreign policy that steers its Western allies and not the other way around, Szczerbiak adds.

Komorowski, who served as defense minister from 2000 to 2001 and, as president, serves as the commander-in-chief of the Polish Armed Forces, has presented himself as the only candidate capable of guaranteeing Poland’s security. NATO and its eastern flank need to be strengthened, he says. And he’s clear that Poland should take its own defense seriously. He recently announced two major arms purchases — Raytheon Patriot missiles from the United States, and 50 French Airbus Group helicopters — as part of Poland’s program to modernize its army.

Poland also needs to encourage Ukraine’s westward course, says Komorowski, who believes a stable, democratic, European Ukraine is vital to Poland’s security. “The Western world must understand that it will not be safe until Ukraine is safe,” he said in speech at the Ukrainian parliament in April, the first by a Polish president since 1997. Earlier this year, Komorowski stated that Poland was ready to sell weapons to Ukraine.

But if the incumbent sounds hawkish, his challenger, who is currently polling at around 30 percent is even more so. On international affairs, Komorowski and the current government are “flowing in the mainstream,” Duda said in a briefing on Feb. 18. There, the 42-year-old lawyer from Krakow said he believes that “this is not a sovereign policy,” because it means that “someone else is creating that current.” Poland, he added, should be the one to “create that current.”

Duda wants Poland to be “the regional leader of a bloc of post-communist states trying to persuade the Western powers to adopt a more robust response to Russian expansionism,” says Szczerbiak. In this way, his vision resembles that of the late Lech Kaczynski, Komorowski’s predecessor, who died in a plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, in 2010.

The only other contender with double-digit ratings on the eve of the election is Pawel Kukiz, a rock musician, running as an independent. “We should act within the framework of the [NATO] Alliance, but not step ahead of the line,” he said in a television interview on March 8. Poland can send Ukraine humanitarian aid, as well as bulletproof vests — but “no Kalashnikovs.”

Meanwhile, several minor candidates are calling for a more conciliatory attitude towards Russia. Ogórek, who first raised the idea of calling Putin, said at her campaign launch on Feb. 14 that Poland “cannot afford to have the Russian media defining us as Russia’s enemy No. 1.” The agrarian candidate, Adam Jarubas, has drawn attention to the plight of Polish farmers in the wake of Moscow’s ban on Polish agricultural products last summer, which has cost the country at least $550 million, according to government estimates. “We must view the economic dimension of [Poland’s relations with Russia] cooly,” he said at a talk on foreign policy in Warsaw on April 20.

These candidates are a reminder that not all Poles are delighted with Warsaw’s current support for Kiev. But, with each carrying less than 5 percent in polls, they are not serious contenders for the presidency.

Indeed, it’s re-election for Komorowski that still looks the most likely. The timing may work to his advantage: The election comes two days after the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe on May 8. Poland decided to shun the “Victory Day” parade in Moscow and held its own events on May 7 in Gdansk, attended by several leaders from the region, including Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko. These were preceded by a conference on the legacy of World War II that featured international historians — a deliberate contrast to the display of military might planned for Red Square. “Let us remember that the military demonstration [in Moscow on May 9] is not about history, but about today and the future,” Komorowski said ahead of the anniversary.

These commemorative events, in which Komorowski played a leading role, gave him a last minute chance to show that he is taking Poland’s security seriously, emphasizing parallels between the international situation seven decades ago and now, which adds credibility to his campaign’s security theme.

That may not be enough to give the incumbent the outright majority he’d need to avoid a runoff, where he’ll likely face Duda — and win. But even in the case of the unlikely, the Polish president won’t be dialing the Kremlin any time in the near future.

JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images

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