Moscow and Warsaw wage war of words over street names

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Moscow and Warsaw are at loggerheads over the late Chechen president Dzhokar Dudayev, who was killed in an air-strike back in 1996 during the first war in the southern Russian region. The row erupted when Warsaw city councillors decided to name a roundabout at the outskirts of the city after the Chechen freedom fighter. In response, Moscow threatened to name a street next to the Polish embassy after a Tsarist official notorious for hanging Polish freedom fighters.

Situated in a fast growing commercial district of Warsaw it is a surprisingly inconspicuous but busy roundabout. It was picked by Warsaw councillors recently to honor the Chechen president, killed in a Russian missile attack in 1996. Justifying the initiative, Councillor Pawel Turowski, from the opposition Law and Justice Party, says that Poles will demonstrate their solidarity with war-ravaged Chechnya, which declared independence in 1991 but remains an oppressed part of the Russian Federation.

In retaliation, Moscow reached for Mikhail Muravyov, an early 19th century Tsarist official, called the 'Hangman' for mass sentencing of Polish freedom fighters to death. It warned that a street at which Poland's embassy in Moscow is situated will be named after that evil figure. This plan has been abandoned however. The press attaché at the Russian embassy in Warsaw - Vladimir Vasilich - explains:

"Russia has officially denied this measure. The head of the Moscow City Council rejected it. It was just an idea, but no decision was taken to implement it. You see, there are as many ideas as there are people."

Jakub Boratynski, an expert on Russia at the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw, says the row over the future Dudayev roundabout boils down to the fact that for Polish councillors he is a hero, while Russia argues that he is a terrorist:

"In Poland there is fundamental doubt whether we could simply call the Chechen rebels, Chechen insurgents, terrorists. And here comes again the very specific Polish historical memory when in the past, Polish rebels, Polish insurgents, were turned in such derogatory manner by the enemies."

Jakub Boratynski is not sure, however, whether it was good to pick Dudayev as a patron of the roundabout.

"The Warsaw City Council might have gone too far. Maybe it would have been more appropriate not to name the roundabout after Djohar Dudayev but call it Free Chechnya or the Chechen struggle instead. But to actually pick a person with a rather controversial record is risky of course. But by the Polish people, looking at Polish public opinion, it is seen fundamentally different than by Russians."

Russians resident in Poland as well as Poles differ in their assessment of the decision of Warsaw city councillors.

"Poland is a sovereign country and its councillors have the right to name a street or a roundabout in the way they feel is right. I have nothing against it."

"I am against naming a roundabout in Warsaw after the Soviet general Dudayev. I don't think he was a big hero. I also think that Chechnya is an internal problem of Russia."

"I think a more diplomatic formula could have been found to demonstrate support for Chechen people, because Dudayev was a controversial figure. For example they could have dedicated a street or a roundabout to Chechen victims."

"Everybody has a right to name a street according to their democratic decision by the way Dudayev was democratically elected president of Chechnya."

Recent months have seen Moscow come up with many provocative statements towards Poland. For example, it claims that the shameful Yalta agreement, which placed Poland in its sphere of influence, was the start of freedom and democracy in this country, whereas in reality it marked the start of over three decades of enslavement. Such sore points are many and until they are cleared up, it will be difficult to improve the frosty Polish-Russian relations.