Polish fears of Russia run high on war anniversary

Polish fears of Russia run high on war anniversary

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WARSAW, Poland (AP) — It was an unexpected question from a woman hoping to sell me her Warsaw apartment: "Are you sure you want to buy now, when war could be coming?"

Though she was half joking, her comment revealed an anxiety Poles express frequently these days — that Russian aggression in Ukraine could spread, upending this NATO and European Union member's most peaceful and prosperous era in centuries.

The woman was the third Pole in the past couple weeks to advise me to think twice about investing in Polish real estate, forcing me to start wondering if it really is wise for me, an American, to risk my savings here.

Anxieties hang in the air as Poland marks the 75th anniversary Wednesday of the Soviet invasion of Poland at the start of World War II, one of several Russian attacks on its neighbor over the past centuries. With President Vladimir Putin showing renewed imperial inclinations, some Poles can't help but wonder if the 1939 invasion by the Red Army really was the last time Russia will make an unwanted foray here.

It's not that most Poles believe Russian troops will cross the border again; in fact, many believe Putin will probably limit his aggression to Ukraine. And there is a sense that NATO does enhance Poland's security. But now, suddenly, the long theoretical notion of war has entered people's minds as a concrete possibility.

For older Poles war isn't even a theoretical notion. They remember well atrocities inflicted by Germans and the Soviets during World War II. One of the most painful episodes of all was the Soviet killing of 22,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest, an attempt to eliminate a swath of the country's elite.

While Polish leaders have been asking NATO to do more to protect them, regular Poles ponder how far Putin will go in Ukraine. They ask: If the West doesn't put up a more forceful front, will Putin feel empowered to meddle in the Baltic states, which have sizeable ethnic Russian minorities? If so will Poland be next? And if things get really bad, will NATO be there for us?

I witnessed the emotion at a recent dinner with a Polish friend and her American husband. They clashed over whether NATO offers Poland any real protection — she accusing him of naivety for believing the alliance would go to war to protect Poland, he arguing that Poland was much safer because of NATO's Article 5 that requires members to come to the aid of any fellow member subject to attack.

Where they agreed was on their gratitude that they both held U.S. passports — allowing them to escape if the worst ever happened.

This is the tense mood that has defined the summer of 2014 in Warsaw. It's a stark contrast to the summer of 2012, when Poland and Ukraine teamed up to host the European football championships.

On match days during the tournament, my Polish partner Pawel and I would stroll among the football fans just to enjoy the upbeat vibe even though we don't care much about the sport. We kept exclaiming to each other that Poland finally felt like a normal, optimistic Western country, after so many years of struggle to overcome the devastating legacy of World War II and communism.

But since the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Pawel keeps trying to make plans for what we should do if war breaks out, talk I dismiss because the prospect of war in Poland feels impossible to me.

"Rush to the airport with the baby and get on the first plane out of Poland," he told me again this week. "After that I'll figure out how to join you."

"OK, whatever," I replied.

There have been some anecdotal cases reported in the media of Poles preparing for war by making sure passports are updated, getting some of their savings out of Polish banks and stockpiling food.

But those appear to be isolated cases. Economists say that there are no signs of a panicked sell-off of the currency or stocks.

Konrad Wierzbicki, 23, said rage toward Russia is a more appropriate emotion than fear, and that he ultimately feels that Poland now is much safer than it was on the eve of World War II.

Still, Poles should remain on alert, he argues.

"And if something happens in the Baltics and NATO doesn't react, then we know we will be alone," said Wierzbicki, who is completing a master's in psychology.

I suppose my American optimism — and my desire to get out of a rented apartment that is starting to feel too small with a baby — motivate me to keep on looking for a place to buy.

But after looking for many months, I do find myself putting less energy into the search now.

This is partly because the market seems overpriced — but also because it's hard not to be affected by the anxiety I sense all around me.


Vanessa Gera has reported from Poland since 2004. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/VanessaGera

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