The worsening human rights situation in Russia has recently come under scrutiny like never before, becoming a commonplace topic for international news and investigative journalism. Such coverage naturally attracts the attention of the world’s political elite and experts on Russia. Both Germany’s Bundestag and the European Parliament have officially and explicitly stated their dissatisfaction with the state of human rights in the Russian Federation, and the United States has gone further by adopting the controversial Magnitsky Act, which punishes Russian officials implicated in human rights violations.

Amid this increased criticism, several stakeholders have turned to Poland—the “poster child” of post-Socialist success—to observe its attitude toward Moscow’s human rights record, particularly in light of its historically forthright stance concerning Russian politics. But except for selectively superficial statements concerning the broader state of Russian human rights, the Polish government has published surprisingly few critiques of its gargantuan neighbor.

Poland’s decision to refrain from overtly criticizing Russia’s human rights record is an act not of indifference but of rationality. Warsaw benefits from being on good terms with Moscow, and Poland has carved out a role for itself as a bridge between Russia and the EU. But the Polish-Russian relationship is fragile. The two countries grapple with numerous issues at the bilateral level, and Poland contends with internal divisions that inhibit its ability to formulate a coherent policy on Russia. Warsaw fears that direct bilateral criticism on top of these existing issues could jeopardize the already-precarious relationship and undermine Poland’s position in the EU as a crucial foreign policy player.

So instead, Poland attempts to foster smooth relations with Russia. Warsaw has made the strategic decision to indirectly criticize Moscow on human rights issues as part of the EU and not as a single state. This allows Poland to voice its concerns while still maintaining its position in the EU and reaping the benefits of productive relations with Moscow.

Internal Factors and Precarious Polish-Russian Relations

Poland has trouble coming up with a unified national policy toward Russia in part because there is a wide diversity of opinions between the major opposition party (Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party) and the government on how to approach the Polish-Russian relationship. Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s government stands for a more integrated Europe and calls for cooperation with Russia. At the same time, the Law and Justice Party criticizes Poland’s pro-European path and the various steps taken to normalize relations with Russia, accusing Warsaw of becoming a “German-Russian condominium.”

Given the long and tumultuous history of Polish-Russian interactions, it is unsurprising that relations between the two countries have not always been strong or stable. But when Tusk’s government came to power in 2007 and replaced Kaczynski’s national-patriotic team, commentators from Central and Western Europe anticipated a diametrical change in the official Polish attitude toward Russia. The two countries appeared to be trying to normalize bilateral relations, with then Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin’s appearance in Gdansk at the 2009 ceremony commemorating the beginning of World War II serving as a certain sign of both sides’ willingness to improve the relationship.

The catastrophic 2010 plane crash near Smolensk, Russia, that killed the Polish president and 95 other passengers (among them numerous high-ranking officials from the political and military sphere) looked as if it would mark a turning point in Polish-Russian relations. Putin’s embrace of Tusk while visiting the crash site became a gesture that symbolized the desire of both governments and large parts of both societies for Polish-Russian reconciliation. The appearance of seas of flowers in front of Polish diplomatic buildings in various parts of Russia immediately following the catastrophe, which was televised by the Polish media, further emphasized this desire.

This moment marked a shift because many Poles had maintained residual fear of their Russian neighbor. Western media seized upon the idea that the painful Smolensk events would serve as a promising impetus for improving Russian-Polish relations.

Such an improvement could perhaps have freed Warsaw to criticize Moscow without fearing lasting damage to already-tense relations, but the transformation never came. Cooperation on the Smolensk issue—from transporting the plane wreckage to supporting the investigation—failed to meet the high expectations of Poland and the world.

But even without an improvement in Polish-Russian relations, Poland wants to maintain them not only for reasons of energy dependence (Poland’s dependence on Russia affects its gas and oil prices) but also because of bilateral trade (Russia is the second-largest export target for Polish goods after the EU). Warsaw also hopes that improved relations will result in better cooperation on the Smolensk issue and will positively influence further efforts to resolve outstanding historic questions.

There is another concern that makes Poland hesitant to issue bilateral criticism of the Kremlin’s approach toward human rights—and it is a challenge concerning the Russian opposition. Despite great initial support, Polish media has started to present the Russian opposition as less integrated, having diametrically different aims (except for replacing Vladimir Putin), and filled with celebrities (such as Ksenia Sobchak, who is often described as Russia’s “it girl” and is also a prominent political activist) rather than politicians who could build a new, strong, and cooperative Russia. Moreover, it is highly disputable whether the opposition, if it were to gain power, would be more pro-Western than the current regime and take a less “imperial” approach to foreign affairs in the post-Soviet region. (A less imperial approach might entail acknowledging Georgian territorial integrity, refusing to use energy sources in a coercive manner, effectively supporting the Moldavian authorities in solving the Transnistria issue, and treating other post-Soviet states more equally.)

Polish politicians are hesitant to risk otherwise effective—though certainly not ideal—Polish-Russian relations or face deteriorating relations with Moscow as long as they are uncertain about the opposition. Any overt support of those criticizing the Kremlin could have repercussions on the internal and external affairs of Poland.

Poland’s Role in the EU and the Region

Poland sees its potential power in both the EU and some states of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative and recognizes that this power depends in some part on maintaining good relations with Russia. It does not want to undermine its position with short-term criticism of Moscow on broad democratic issues, incurring the displeasure of the Kremlin.

Poland’s effective relations with Moscow and its position as one of the strongest states in the EU in terms of economic performance during the financial crisis, pro-Europeanism, and foreign affairs ambitions have allowed it to adopt the role of “East-West facilitator” in the European Union. In order to maintain the sort of relations with Russia that have afforded Poland this key position, Tusk’s government has chosen only a few issues on which to take a harder stance toward Russia to avoid alienating the Kremlin. Moscow’s human rights record, it seems, was not crucial enough to be put on the agenda.

In addition to its prominent role in the EU, Poland seems to be one of the major players in the post-Soviet region. It has proven to be a crucial actor in forging integration and democratization efforts in the states of the EaP (Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova). Warsaw’s democratization efforts have included financing independent media in Belarus and assisting opposition parties in Ukraine and Belarus. Polish authorities often emphasize the need for EU nations to focus on EaP states, which serves to remind Europeans who tend to be focused only on the Mediterranean region that there are other areas that could become a source of major instability.

Moscow, however, perceives the EaP as meddling in Russia’s affairs. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov has called it a tool to expand the EU’s “sphere of influence.” Thus, Russia sees Poland—one of driving forces of the EaP and one of the key supporters of democratization, human rights, and efforts for greater EU cooperation with Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus—as playing against Moscow’s interests. This conflict adds another level of fragility to Polish-Russian relations.

Poland’s Solution: Speaking Through the EU

In order to work within the constraints of the complicated Polish-Russian relationship but still criticize Russia on human rights, Tusk and Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski at times prefer to merge Polish criticism into the European choir of critical voices. Polish leaders recognize that the EU is more positively and respectably perceived in and by Russia than Poland—which is often still seen as not the “real,” developed West but instead part of Eastern or Central Europe (and therefore historically significantly influenced by the Soviet empire in the framework of the Warsaw Pact). Poland thus prefers to blend into the EU, strengthening the united European voice.

Poland’s EU membership gives it a more influential economic, political, and international position than it would enjoy on its own. The EU has also become a crucial tool for Poland to defend its own interests on the international level. Speaking about the EU-Russian relations, President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso even remarked that that “the Polish problem is a European problem.” Criticizing its eastern neighbor as a part of a united group of strong and developed countries gives the Polish voice more weight and simultaneously safeguards Warsaw from backlash from Moscow.

From the Polish point of view, the EU is the best and most trustworthy catalyst of the democratizing voice as well as the safest one. It enables Poland to share EU values with the EaP states. It also makes more probable a closer Polish-Russian bilateral dialogue due to the fact that any Polish criticism of Moscow “has the face” of EU officials. For example, Sikorski and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle composed a letter in 2011 to the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton and other European ministers for foreign affairs that called for a strong, united, and pro-modernization stance toward Moscow. A few months ago, Sikorski even tried to use the Polish position in the EU by requesting Ashton’s help in getting back the wreckage from the Smolensk crash.

Thus, recognizing that good relations with Russia are crucial to Poland’s position in the EU, Warsaw has found a way to support Russian reform without upsetting the Kremlin by eschewing direct, bilateral criticism and instead working through the EU. And Poland has reason to hope that Moscow heeds the EU voices calling for Russia’s reform.

Warsaw would be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Russia’s democratic “Westernization,” as Sikorski says. A pro-Western Russia would diminish security challenges for Poland, potentially lead to more developed Polish-Russian trade relations, and, most importantly, support the Polish and European drive toward a democratic and stable common neighborhood with Russia. For the foreseeable future, the pro-European Tusk is likely to continue criticizing Russia as part of the strong and united European voice as it serves the Polish interest.

Paweł Dariusz Wiśniewski is an intern at the Carnegie Moscow Center.