Letter from Warsaw

It snowed non-stop from Sunday, April 6, when we landed in Warsaw, until the afternoon of Thursday, April 10, when we left. Unusually for this time of year, temperatures were freezing. No wonder many people associate Poland with the North Pole, which in this case was almost true. On the other hand, others confuse it with the Netherlands, which is of course, absolutely false. Of the 10 new European Union members, whose accession treaties will be signed under the Greek Presidency on Wednesday in Athens, eight were behind the old Iron Curtain. Among them is Poland, one of the most economically successful of the former Soviet Bloc countries. History still plays a role here, even if it is for very current issues. Sandwiched between the Germans and the Russians, Poles feel strongly that they have been victims of Russia. On the other hand, the Russians feel the Poles have constantly betrayed Slavic brotherhood. «We have always belonged to Europe and not to the East,» said ex-prime Minister Josef Oleksy, who is heading the inter-parliamentary EU commission. He believes this signing ceremony in Athens will be «an event deeply etched in Polish memory» and would also welcome some sort of cooperation between the European Union and Russia, as he emphasized in an interview for ERT-3. Not everybody does. Eastern chasm Distrust between the two countries runs deep. Poles can hardly forget that the Russians occupied their country for most of the past 200 years. Therefore, the fall of communism in 1989 for them is a most significant date. On the other hand, Russians recall that the Poles occupied Moscow and the Kremlin in the 17th century and that in 1920 they defeated the Red Army as it was approaching Warsaw. In the beginning of Poland’s «new era,» there were even voices insisting on tearing down Warsaw’s largest building – the mish-mash Stalinist-Gothic Palace of Culture and Science – a gift of the Soviet Union, which was supposed to symbolize the «eternal» Polish-Russian friendship. Now that the Soviet Union is no more, tourist guides duly report such useless information as the size of this building (over 230 cubic meters and containing 40 million bricks) and that it has so many rooms, that were a newborn carried from one to another every day, it would only return to its starting point after nine years. On the other hand, they seem to adore everything American. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the biggest urban concentration of Poles today after Warsaw is Chicago. Recently Poland proudly announced that it is once again fighting alongside its British and American allies just as «in the battles of Britain, Tobruk and Monte Cassino» – all of them at least half a century old. This time Poland’s contribution of 200 fighting men, in addition to logistical support in the Gulf, is more than symbolic. It is a rather strange reality for a people for whom war still means mass slaughter and death camps at home rather than foreign expeditions. Also, Poland has represented US interests in Iraq since the first Gulf War. «Since the Iraqi deputy prime minister has mentioned Poland among the four countries of the anti-Iraq coalition, the threat of terrorist attacks in Poland has become very realistic,» says someone who should know, namely Slawomir Petelicki, former commander of the GROM special operations unit in a commentary for Wprost. Although Warsaw during the winter makes a grim first impression, a highlight of my stay in Warsaw has been the opera performance at the Polish National Opera of a hardly known G. Rossini comic opera: «The Voyage to Rheims,» or «The Inn of the Golden Lily.» The world premiere of this opera was on June 19, 1825, in Paris and it has hardly been performed since. The action takes place at the Golden Lily Inn in Plombieres, where an international party has gathered on its way to the coronation of Charles X in Reims. Director Tomasz Konina has skillfully transported the story to a present-day railroad station waiting room and Ewa Podles, considered one of the greatest singers of Rossini’s music, sang the part of the Polish Marquise Melibea admirably. Also currently on, until April 27, is a rather meager exhibition on Greek Jewelry – from the Neolithic to the Byzantine age, on display at the Royal Castle of Warsaw – which is organized by our Ministry of Culture. It is interesting to see, not so much for itself as to continue the visit in the castle’s interior. Even in this bad weather there were tourists, mainly Americans, wandering in the impossible-to-pronounce Wspomnienie starey Warszawy (Historic Warsaw). «America should remember who proved to be a friend in need,» emphasizes Radek Sikorski, a former Polish deputy foreign minister. However, at the present time the country’s two top political figures seem tragically in need: President Alexander Kwasniewski, who was a junior minister in the last communist government, and Prime Minister Leszek Miller. They are both involved in a war of words in what is probably the biggest corruption scandal (concerning the creation of the new radio and television law) that has hit this country over the last few decades. The ruling Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) has been repeatedly hit by internal conflicts, revealing major differences of opinion, even among the party’s top leaders. The presidency in Poland is a prestigious but only moderately powerful role, influential largely because of the president’s power to veto legislation. The Polish premier has been threatening the president («Watch out, or you’ll drop yourself into it too!») and the president has suggested that if the government’s popularity ratings were to jeopardize the outcome of the EU referendum, Miller had better retire. According to a recent poll, almost three-quarters of Poles have a bad opinion of Miller’s government, with over half claiming the prime minister does not perform his duties properly. Of course, none of this will be perceptible during this week’s festivities in the Zappeion Hall in Athens. The 20-member Polish official delegation, consisting of ex- prime ministers and presidents, will participate in another kind of «big bang;» an enlargement deal that will inflate the population of the EU by 75 million to some 453 million, making it the world’s third-largest economic union after China and India.