“Words that stopped Russia”: Polish President’s Georgia speech remembered

Poland's President Lech Kaczyński during the 2008 Tbilisi rally. Photo: PAP/Radek Pietruszka

On Sunday, Poland’s Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak paid his tribute to Poland’s late President, Lech Kaczyński, recalling his historic visit to Georgia’s capital Tbilisi which took place just as Russian forces were mounting an invasion of the country.

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The minister laid a wreath at the monument dedicated to the victims of the 2010 Smoleńsk plane crash which claimed the life of President Kaczyński along with 95 other people on board. He also praised Poland’s President during a subsequent speech made at an army parade rehearsal, saying that “as history has taught us, the late President Lech Kaczyński was right,” referring to his famous words concerning Russia’s military aggression.

On August 12, 2008, President Kaczyński appeared in Tbilisi alongside the leaders of Ukraine and the Baltic States, making a defiant speech in which he famously summarized Russia’s imperialist ambitions as extending not just to Georgia, but to other parts of Eastern Europe as well. At the time, Georgia was facing an imminent threat in the form of invading Russian forces, which crossed the border under the pretext of “peacekeeping operations” after the conflict in the contested region of South Ossetia began to escalate.

Speaking to about 150,000 people gathered in front of the Georgian parliament, President Kaczyński warned that Russia was now attempting to reestablish its domination in the region. “Today Georgia, tomorrow Ukraine, the day after tomorrow – the Baltic States and later, perhaps, time will come for my country, Poland,” the President proclaimed. His speech would later take on portentous significance as Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and sparked an ongoing armed conflict in the country’s Donbass region.

During his speech, Poland’s President also urged the international community to take action. “We are here to make sure the world makes an even more powerful response, including, in particular, the European Union and NATO,” the President said. The hostilities ceased shortly thereafter, with the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announcing the end of Russia’s “peacekeeping mission” on the very same day. No matter how brief, however, the conflict had a profound geopolitical impact, being widely considered as Russia’s warning, intended for all countries within its sphere of influence, against embarking on a course towards western organizations such as NATO. Just a few days ago, Russia reiterated its opposition towards possible Georgian NATO membership, adding that a “terrible conflict” may ensue if such a move was ever made.

Last Tuesday, Poland’s Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz reiterated his support for Georgia’s territorial integrity, which was put to the test after Russia’s largely failed push for international recognition of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In a joint statement made with his counterparts from Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine, Mr Czaputowicz stated in no uncertain terms that these regions “are still part of Georgia” – a view shared by the majority of the international community, since only Syria, Nicaragua, Venezuela and the Pacific Island of Nauru heeded Russia’s call for the recognition of the secessionist territories as sovereign states.