Will Poland provoke the Kremlin with its law on monuments?

There's a big row on between Estonia and Russia over the removal of a Soviet era monument from the centre of the capital Tallinn. The Kremlin is furious that the statue of a Red Army Soldier has been moved. And with that dispute simmering away there's another one looming between Warsaw and Moscow as Poland develops a new law on national monuments. That law goes to Parliament in a couple of weeks and it's generating lots of controversy - in Poland and Russia.

The dismantling in the Warsaw city centre of the monument to Feliks Dzierzynski, the first head of the Soviet political police, was one of the first decisions of the city authorities after the collapse of communism in 1989. The law currently being drafted is to provide for the removal of all the remaining symbols from both the Nazi and Soviet eras. The use of the names of communist leaders for streets, schools, ships and trains is to be banned. But what sparked the controversy, especially in the wake of the recent events in Estonia, are plans to remove monuments to Soviet soldiers. In an obvious reference to Poland, the Russian Foreign Minister said that 'attempts to neglect history are unfortunately becoming today an element of foreign policy of certain states.' Polish prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski says that his government is determined to go ahead with its plans.

"No-one has the right to interfere in the question of Polish street names and the monuments of Polish squares."

The minister for culture and national heritage Kazimierz Ujazdowski stresses that the graveyards of Soviet soldiers on Polish soil would not be affected.

"The graves and cemeteries are under protection and are treated with due respect. No amendments are planned to existing legislation on these sites."

There are some fifty Red Army monuments across Poland that glorify the USSR's role in the so called 'liberation' of Poland. Jacek Kucharczyk of the Institute of Public Affairs is not happy to see them but he has some doubts if the government should step in to solve the problem.

"I have no enthusiasm for monuments to Soviet soldiers who brought 50 years of communist captivity to this part of the world. On the other hand I have a strong feeling that national memory is very fragile in a way and it's better to leave it to historians and maybe to local governments to deal with its subtleties. They will deal with it in a much better way than any government-sponsored programme."

Most people in the 20 to 30 age bracket I spoke to look at the issue in a very pragmatic way, wondering if a further deterioration of relations with Moscow is in Poland's interest:

"Those monuments should have been removed a long time ago when Russia was weak. Now when it's very strong we shouldn't do it because it will only mess in our contacts with them. It can do more harm than good"

"People right now are not very much interested in history."

"If we do the same as in Estonia, Russia will ban some products from Poland and our economy will have problems with Russia. I think the decision whether to destroy these monuments or not should be taken by the local governments."

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
According to most analysts, the planned removal of monuments to Soviet soldiers is likely to be used as ideological ammunition by president Putin who has already done much to portray Poland as Russophobic. Jacek Kucharczyk again.

"I think he will use this in his propaganda in other countries of the European Union which have less acute awareness of what Russia really is than we have."

Historical grievances, particularly those rooted in World War Two and its aftermath, weigh heavily on Polish-Russian relations. According to Polish MEP Wojciech Roszkowski, Russia treats history as part of a political game.

"For Poland, it's not a matter of political games. It's a statement of reality, the definition of a certain reality. We cannot establish good relations if we live in a false reality."

The proposed laws on national remembrance sites are in line with the conservative government's drive to remove the vestiges of the communist system from Polish life. It includes plans to lower the pensions of communist-era secret police agents.