Georgia and missile shield cloud Lavrov trip to Poland

A04981818.jpgWARSAW (Reuters) – Russia’s relations with Poland have rarely been easy but Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visits Warsaw on Thursday amid particularly sharp disputes over missile defense and Moscow’s army offensive in Georgia.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski has been among the most vocal critics of Russia’s policy in Georgia, flying to Tbilisi to demonstrate Poland’s solidarity with the ex-Soviet republic and helping to mobilize protests in the European Union.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s government has been more measured but its decision to host part of a U.S. missile defense shield on Polish soil has also infuriated Moscow.

Poles view the fact that Lavrov is coming at such a time as proof that being firm with Moscow pays off and that the Kremlin has understood the need for dialogue with Poland, the largest ex-communist member of the EU and NATO, and with Europe.

Lavrov is due to meet Tusk and Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski but not the more combative Kaczynski.

“I don’t expect a new era of love and 100 percent trust to break out between Warsaw and Moscow because we differ about too much, but neighbors need to have good, normal ties,” Krzysztof Lisek, head of parliament’s foreign affairs commission and a member of Tusk’s Civic Platform, told Reuters.

“I think this visit should mainly be seen as a sign of good will from Russia, which is willing to mend relations with all of the European Union, without excluding any country.”

Tusk has said the visit shows Poland has moved toward improving relations with Russia after they hit rock bottom under the previous cabinet of Kaczynski’s twin brother Jaroslaw.

“We will not allow a situation in which Poland, of all EU countries, has the worst relations with Russia and is isolated in its radicalism. This would be a dramatic mistake,” Tusk told the Polish edition of Newsweek in an interview this month.

Poland relies on Russia, its communist era overlord, for 95 percent of its oil and nearly half of its gas. Russia is also Poland’s second biggest trade partner after Germany, with trade worth some $18 billion.

HOSTILITY

But few expect any major breakthroughs in the Lavrov talks.

Poland is expected to try to reassure Lavrov that the decision to host 10 interceptor missiles on its territory is not aimed against Russia but, as Washington has long argued, against possible attack by ‘rogue states’ or terrorist groups.

“The shield issue can only be discussed in terms of reassuring Russia again that this base is in no way a threat to its own security and in terms of possible Russian inspections of the (missile shield) site,” Lisek said.

Moscow sees the shield as a threat to its nuclear defenses and Medvedev has vowed a military response to the shield decision, without specifying what shape that might take.

Warsaw has also irked Moscow by championing the bid of both Georgia and Ukraine, Poland’s large ex-Soviet neighbor, to join NATO and the EU. The EU was set on Tuesday to offer Ukraine encouragement on closer ties at a meeting in Paris.

Opinion polls show most Poles believe Russia is hostile towards Poland and behaves aggressively towards its neighbors.

“The Lavrov visit is an important sign for many Poles that when you are tough with Russia they will treat you seriously,” said Lena Kolarska-Bobinska, head of the Institute of Public Affairs, a Warsaw think-tank.

“It also shows that Russia, despite its hostility, wants to talk to us and to the EU. Despite all the perceptions of imperialism, there is a dialogue, there is a will to talk.”

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