Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. (Photographer: Kostas Tsironis/Bloomberg)

Suspicion of Putin Is Making Poland Some Useful Friends

(Bloomberg) -- Paying homage to former President Lech Kaczynski is a way to win friends in nationalist Poland. At least 150 memorials have gone up since the plane crash that killed him in 2010. There are Kaczynski boulevards across the country and a new statue in central Warsaw.

There’s one street now carrying his name that says more about shifting allegiances in the increasingly unpredictable world of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin than Poland’s cult of personality.

Suspicion of Putin Is Making Poland Some Useful Friends

In Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, the municipality named a road next to its headquarters after Kaczynski this month. Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis said at the ceremony that it would honor “a sincere friend” of his country, a bitter Polish neighbor during much of the 20th century. Kaczynski had visited Lithuania more than a dozen times during his presidency. “The existence of this street is an obligation for us that the golden age between our countries must come back,” he said.

Lithuania leads the three tiny Baltic nations on NATO’s eastern frontier in deepening ties with Poland, where the governing nationalist party run by Kaczynski’s twin brother has been tightening its grip. The blossoming relationship reflects a new reality for the former Soviet states. With Trump in the White House and German Chancellor Angela Merkel preparing to step down as Europe’s go-to leader, it’s time to seek more allegiances to counter the threat of Putin’s Russia.

Poland’s governing Law & Justice party has been in open conflict with the European Union over its power grab of the courts and public media, but it’s a loyal NATO member that won backing from the Trump administration. While other ex-communist states such as Hungary and Romania prefer to balance their interests between east and west, Poland makes no secret of its deep suspicion of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Kaczynski died when a government plane carrying dozens of Poland’s elite came down in thick fog near the Russian city of Smolensk eight years ago. Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski blames Putin for having a hand in what he calls a political assassination and the incident has become a lightning rod for supporters of the party.

Suspicion of Putin Is Making Poland Some Useful Friends

It makes Poland an expedient ally for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, all of which regained independence in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union broke up. The three countries also sealed a deal this year to synchronize electricity grids with western Europe through Poland, which will end the region’s dependence on the Soviet-era network.

Militarily, Poland’s cooperation is vital to securing the Suwalki Gap, the 100-kilometer land strip stretching between the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus. The corridor is NATO’s physical link between the Baltics and the rest of Europe. NATO has troops stationed in Lithuania and the Polish government is keen to host a permanent posting too. Polish President Andrzej Duda  lobbied Trump to set up an American base when he visited Washington in September.

Estonia hailed Poland as one of its closest partners. The countries’ chief of defense forces this week agreed Russia’s activities must be monitored because of the security situation.

“Poland is the Baltic region’s leading country, which has considerable military might,” Estonian chief Riho Terras said in a statement on Thursday. “Estonia is grateful for fruitful cooperation both in forming common positions on NATO and the EU as well as in bilateral activities.”

In Latvia, Janis Bordans, the first party leader nominated to form a government after inconclusive elections in October, put it more bluntly: “God forbid, but in the event of a conflict then they will probably be the first and last remaining ally,” he said in an interview with a local magazine last month.

Suspicion of Putin Is Making Poland Some Useful Friends

The three Baltic states are still firmly in the western European camp. They, like Poland, joined the EU and NATO, but also switched to Europe’s common currency, further cementing their split from the old eastern orbit.

For sure, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the impending loss of the U.K. -- a Russia hawk -- from the EU are making them more wary about security and the divisions within the bloc. Lithuania welcomed Benjamin Netanyahu in August as the Israeli prime minister looks at ways of undermining European unity over Middle East issues.

But the Baltic states also know where their interests lie, said Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw bureau of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“They are very pragmatic and care about good relationship with Germany and don’t want to be seen as being in one camp with Poland, which is perceived negatively in Europe,” said Buras. “This closeness has limitations.”

For the government in Warsaw, there’s an obvious quid pro quo. Lithuania, for one, has said it would back Law & Justice in its battle with the EU, which is threatening sanctions over Poland’s takeover of the independent judiciary. Poland gets more money from the EU on a net basis than any other member and can’t afford to lose too many allies.

The Polish government made a major concession to Brussels on Wednesday by submitting legislation to reverse the forced retirement of Supreme Court judges that triggered legal action by the European Commission.

Suspicion of Putin Is Making Poland Some Useful Friends

Trips to Lithuania by top Polish leaders surged this year and included the president’s first visit there in five years. At Poland’s showpiece economic forum in the city of Krynica in September, Prime Minister Skvernelis was awarded the person of the year for fostering good relations.

The mutual benefits were evident this month as Polish government officials marched with far-right groups to mark the centenary of the country’s hard-fought independence in 1918 on Nov. 11. All three Baltic countries have vowed not to vote against Poland in its conflict with the EU, with Lithuania reiterating its stance.

“There’s never one truth in a dispute,” Skvernelis said in an interview in Vilnius. “This is our closest neighbor, a strategic partner and our support from the Lithuanian government to the Polish government will certainly be there.”

He said he’s now speaking and exchanging text messages with Poland’s premier in both Polish and English.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.