Matthew Day: Poles rolling out welcome wagon as Russians are coming

There is an old political joke about a Pole who, having been granted three wishes by a genie from a lamp, each time asks for the Chinese army to invade Poland.

Puzzled, the genie asks the Pole why he wanted such a terrible fate visited upon his country. "Well," he replies, "the Chinese had to go through Russia six times."

As the joke makes clear, traditionally few Poles have little time for the Russia and the Russians.

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Or at least they did. Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president has arrived in Poland for a short state visit this week, and rather than welcoming him with knives sharpened by a long history of oppression, the vast majority of Poles are - if the opinion polls are to believed - happy to see him.

In fact, Poland and Russia have probably surprised each other by becoming remarkably close.

By "close" here, we don't mean best friends, or even friends, but rather an advantageous relationship of mutual respect and common understanding.

This differs from the past. Only a few years ago, relations between the two nations were Cold War cold, with many in Poland seeing Russia as a neo-imperialist state, still smarting from the loss of its central European empire, and worse, one that showed no sign of repentance or atonement for the sins inflicted on Poland.

In turn, Russia saw a country fixated by history that seemed too willing to let this fixation dominate its foreign policy to the detriment of all other considerations.

However, since the election of the current Polish government three years ago, Warsaw has pursued a policy of pragmatic engagement with Russia.

History, while not forgotten, now travels in the back seat.

The Smolensk air disaster, which claimed the lives of Lech Kaczynski, the Polish president, his wife and dozens of Poland's political elite when the presidential plane crashed in western Russia in April, also improved ties.

Poles were genuinely impressed, if not a little surprised, by the apparent and sincere compassion shown by both Mr Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, in the wake of the crash.

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In addition, Poles have not forgotten that the Russian president was the only world leader of note who braved the volcanic dust cloud spreading from Iceland by flying to Poland by airliner to attend President Kaczynski's funeral few weeks later.

Russia has also done its preparation for the Medvedev trip.

A few days ago the Russian parliament condemned the slaughter of some 22,000 Polish military officers by Stalin's secret police in 1940 - a crime that is still a raw sore in Poland - and last week Russian officials handed over dozens of documents relating to the massacre.

By doing this, Russia hopes to bring onside a troublesome neighbour that has helped cause it all sorts of problems in Nato and the EU, and through Poland's energetic promotion of democratic values in the former Soviet Union.

In return, Poland should be able to enjoy a stable relationship with its biggest trading partner outside the European Union, and a country that it relies heavily on for energy. Bilateral trade was $10 billion in the first six months of 2010, growing by up to 50 per cent from same period in 2009.

Differences do, however, remain.

For all the talk about rapprochement and "reset", Poland remains inherently cautious about Russia's motives towards Central Europe, and the government's enthusiasm to play host to some form of United States or Nato anti-missile shield, despite Russian opposition and reservations, has been interpreted as Warsaw communicating to Moscow that it has big and powerful friends.

The Polish government has also come in for intense internal criticism over its policy towards Russia, with critics accusing it of selling out Poland's political interests in order to court Moscow on commercial grounds.

In addition, you don't have to look hard to find a Pole who believes that Russia has got something to hide when it comes to the Smolensk crash.

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But still, to get the Russian and Polish president standing side by side and talking about a fresh start is still quite something, and while it may not herald a new era in east-west relations, it might start to usher the old anti-Russian jokes into history.