On July 31, 2017, the Russian government warned Poland that it will face “asymmetric consequences,” including possible sanctions and visa withdrawals, should Poland choose to remove Soviet World War II monuments. The warning comes after Poland updated its de-communization and anti-propaganda legislation last month, which now classifies the memorial of a Soviet tank from WWII as one among many “symbols of [the] totalitarian regime.” There are an estimated 500 Soviet war monuments still standing in Poland.
In a statement, the speaker of the Russian parliament’s upper house, Valentina Matvienko, argued that the removal of the “totalitarian regime propaganda monuments” is violating bilateral agreements made between the two countries to preserve burial sites and memorials of WWII victims. Matvienko is referencing the 1992 Russian-Polish Agreement on Friendly and Neighborly Cooperation, which agreed to respect the Russian minority in Poland by protecting monuments and promoting cultural contact. Additionally, the Russian foreign ministry states that the removal of the monuments would be disrespectful to the 600,000 Soviet soldiers who lost their lives liberating Poland from the Nazi occupation in 1945, “Polish authorities, undoubtedly, are well aware of how insulting their actions are to the Russian people.”
Yet, many Poles believe differently, arguing that Poland was not liberated by the Soviet Union but, rather full occupation was transferred from the Nazis to the Soviets. The argument stems from the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact which split Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Poland remained under Soviet occupation for over 40 years following WWII, with the last Russian soldiers vacating Poland in 1993.
This incident is not the first time that Russia has warned Poland against removing Soviet monuments; in September of 2015, Poland removed the monument of Soviet General Ivan Chernyakhovsky, who died of wounds while liberating Poland in 1945. The Polish government argued that he fostered ideas of communism and was a symbol of oppression, while Russians believed he was a national hero. Putin himself spoke out against the removal, accusing “Russia’s opponents” of using “absurd and even shameful declarations to contain Russia and, in the end, alter history.”
It is unclear whether or not the actions of Poland will result in heavy consequences from Russia; during the 2015 incident, Russia only prevented Polish fishing imports. In 2015, Russia was facing heavy sanctions from the European Union and the United States because of their 2014 actions in the Ukraine – Russia would have been reluctant to place heavy sanctions on Poland and further harm their economy. In 2017, the situation may not be much different. The US has since proposed new sanctions caused by Russian interference in the 2016 US election, on top of the 2014 Ukraine sanctions that remain in place.
Not all consequences are economically related, however. For instance, in 2007, Estonia controversially relocated a Red Army statue in Tallinn to the outskirts of the city, only to face a large cyber attack that was later determined to be caused by Russian hackers. Online services for banks, media outlets, and governmental departments were destroyed and huge amounts of spam and automated online requests overloaded servers. The result for Estonians was that banks were scrambling and ATMs were dysfunctional, a government that was unable to communicate, and no way for the media to deliver the news.
Nonetheless, whatever the consequences may be, Polish authorities stand by their actions. For example, Wadim Tyszkiewicz, the Mayor of Nowa Sol in western Poland, declares, “Times have changed. We have grown up. The Russians are long gone.”
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