Leaders meeting in Warsaw for a NATO summit this week will be surrounded by the ghosts of Communism as they endorse the defence alliance’s biggest military buildup since the Cold War in response to a newly resurgent Russia.
On Friday (8 July), US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other top officials will dine in a ballroom considered a symbol of the West’s triumph over Communist ideology and Soviet expansionism.
It is there, in the presidential palace ballroom, that the USSR inked the 1955 Warsaw Pact with its Soviet satellites, forming a defence alliance that became NATO’s military adversary.
But decades later, that same ballroom was the site of the 1989 Round Table talks that sounded the death knell for Communism.
The talks between the Communist government and the freedom-fighting Solidarity, the Soviet bloc’s only independent trade union, led up to Poland’s first semi-free elections.
More recently, in 1999 and 2004 respectively, Poland joined NATO and the European Union in the same venue.
Now Warsaw is banking on an event of similar historical significance, when the 28-nation defence alliance approves the military measures meant to offer Poles and their Baltic neighbours security in the face of Russia.
Fears of Russian expansionism have sent a chill through the region since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its alleged masterminding of a separatist uprising in Ukraine.
Pile of rubble
Crowned by a massive chandelier of 80 lightbulbs and 3,600 crystals, the ballroom is the largest space in the presidential palace.
Built in the 17th century by a family of aristocrats and rebuilt two centuries later after a fire, the Koniecpolski palace became the seat of government when Poland regained independence in 1918 at the end of World War I.
Nazi Germany transformed the building for a spell into a German cultural centre and luxury hotel while occupying Poland, before it became once more the seat of the head of state after World War II.
It has served as the presidential palace since a renovation in the early 1990s.
The actual work of the NATO summit will take place in the National Stadium, built to host the Euro 2012 football championships.
That site too boasts a place in Polish history.
It was earlier occupied by another stadium, a contemporary of the Warsaw Pact, which rose from the ruins of war after the Nazis reduced the city to rubble.
The location on the right bank of the Vistula river is also where Red Army soldiers sunbathed in the summer of 1944 while waiting — on Stalin’s orders — for Hitler’s Wehrmacht to crush the Polish resistance in the Warsaw Uprising.
This episode still weighs on Polish-Russian ties.
The Warsaw event is seen as a watershed gathering for the organisation, as it will be the first NATO forum following the UK Brexit referendum on 23 June.
Britain’s shock vote to leave the EU is bad news for NATO and for Europe’s defence cooperation in general, experts said ahead of this week’s NATO summit.
“It’s bad news for everyone,” said Camille Grand, director of the Fondation pour la recherche strategique (RFS, or Strategic Research Foundation) in Paris.
“In NATO, the British will have less influence because the US will no longer necessarily rely on them,” as Washington has long seen London as a useful lever to exert US influence within the EU, he added.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg of Norway said he was “certain” that Britain would remain a key force in the alliance despite its June 23 Brexit vote to leave the 28-nation European Union.