As Poland commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion in 1939 which marked the beginning of World War II, Russian PM Vladimir Putin has called for a “page to be turned” in the simmering war of words between Moscow and Warsaw.
Polish leaders, diplomats and veterans gathered early on Tuesday in Westerplatte near Gdansk, in northern Poland, to mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II.
Foreign leaders from 20 countries, including former belligerents Germany and Russia, were to meet later in the day in Gdansk for the main ceremony.
Exactly 70 years ago, a Nazi German battleship opened fire on a Polish fort in Westerplatte on the Baltic Sea, triggering the start of the world’s most brutal and costly conflict. The fort's 180 defenders put up a heroic resistance for a week against 3,500 German soldiers.
The ceremonies began against the backdrop of a bitter dispute between Moscow and Warsaw over who should bear responsibility for the start of World War Two.
After a meeting with his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin struck a conciliatory tone as he recalled that “Russians and Poles had fought side by side against a common enemy” during a conflict in which Russians “had looked upon Poles as their brothers in arms”.
Ahead of the commemorations, Putin had already sought to defuse the tension in an article published in Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza.
"The shadows of the past should not darken cooperation today and even more tomorrow between Russia and Poland," he wrote.
Putin also acknowledged that the massacre of an estimated 22,000 Polish officers by the Red Army at Katyn forest in 1940 had stirred considerable emotion in Poland. For decades after the war, Soviet authorities had insisted that the massacre had been perpetrated by the Nazis.
The Russian prime minister urged Poland to follow modern Germany's example in putting aside historical bitterness and building a strong economic and political partnership with Russia.
"Our duty is to remove the burden of distrust and prejudice left from the past in Polish-Russian relations," Putin wrote.
The head of Poland’s lower legislative house Bronislaw Momorowski said Putin’s conciliatory stance in the article was a “big step in the right direction”.
Poland’s ‘secret plans’
The latest episode in the ugly spat between Moscow and Warsaw was the publication by Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) of archive material claiming to demonstrate Polish collusion in Hitler’s ill-fated invasion of the USSR in 1941.
The SVR has said it will publish what it calls "unedited documents" detailing Polish policy at the time, including Warsaw's "secret plans" between 1935 and 1945.
Putin is unlikely to defend this viewpoint as he meets other European leaders at the ceremonies this afternoon.
In June, the Russian defence ministry was heavily criticised both at home and abroad for publishing an article on its internet site accusing Poland of having provoked World War II by refusing to concede to the "moderate" demands of Nazi Germany.
The controversy has hindered efforts by Poland’s prime minister to secure a thaw in relations between Warsaw and Moscow.
In a move designed to ease tensions, Poland has reduced the official number of Polish nationals it believes were deported to Siberia during the war, bringing it in line with Moscow’s own figures.
Wartime Soviet supremo Joseph Stalin used the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany to seize Polish lands and start mass deportations and executions, a fact seared into Polish national conscience.
Germany invaded the USSR two years later in June 1941.
After the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, Poland fell to the east of the Iron Curtain, unable until the late 1980s to shake off its Soviet overlord.
Date created : 2009-09-01