How Poles See Putin

The election of Vladimir Putin as Russia’s president received heavy coverage in Poland’s press.  Most analysts felt that the accelerated pace set for the race negated the chances of all candidates not named Putin.

Opinions in the major Polish papers reveal the complex and contrary way in which Poles perceive their neighbor. Poland’s suffering at Russia’s hands is quickly and bitterly recalled. The free market-friendly European nation still regards Russia as a five-century-old Asiatic threat on its eastern border.

According to the leftist Warsaw weekly Polityka (March 29), Putin did not bother with an aggressive campaign.  With the backing of Boris Yeltsin and unlimited access to the media, he did not have to.

Polityka quoted Sergei Shoigu, leader of the pro-Putin Unity Party, as saying:  “Our current democracy is a borrowed, foreign one. Russia must have a democracy in tune with its present and historic reality.”  The  slogan of the 1996 elections—communism versus democracy—is no longer valid.  Putin’s Communist rival, Gennady Zhuganov, was right in saying:  “The present choice is a very difficult one—the Communist Party or the KGB.”

The independent Zycie Warszawy (April 1-2) considered Putin to be the lesser of two evils. His KGB background and  the fact that he lacks a real program were  emphasized. The paper said that voters turned out more to bolster dreams of a strong Russia than to vote in a truly open election.

Some observers were also puzzled by the West’s unanimous praise for the new president, which seems to almost ignore the war in Chechnya.

Poles say that the reason why Russia has not degenerated further is its nuclear arsenal and the fears it provokes. The main worry is not that the Russians will employ these weapons, but that they will let them fall into the wrong hands because they need the money.  The Polish press said this is why the West will continue to pour money into Russia.

Gazeta Wyborcza (March 29) asked:  “Is Putin a fox or a wolf?”  The liberal Warsaw paper said the West’s strategy concerning Russia is a clumsy and overly compliant acceptance of reality.  The West has no alternative to Putin, wrote Gazeta’s Leopold Unger, adding that there is no question about Putin’s quick wit and cunning—he enters the Kremlin straddling two horses: the war in Chechnya and the Russians’ yearning for a bit of order, social  justice, and dignity. Putin’s party—with no past and no real base—is the second-strongest in parliament, while the Communists, despite their majority in the Duma, have been neutralized.

Unger quoted French President Chirac as saying:  “We should not humiliate the Russians,” but the writer argued that Russians are humiliating themselves by granting such tremendous power to a man who has never held elective office and who has emerged from the double nest of the KGB and Yeltsin’s “family.” 

Putin may turn out to be nothing more than an opportunist, but he may also become a sober young leader capable of breaking away from his roots and his sponsors, who will reform a demoralized Russia. He may grow into the enormity of his power. Unger agreed with other Polish journalists that the West has no alternative to Putin, so all it can do is  hope for the best.