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Poland-Turkey relations: Cordial and growing ever closer

February 15, 2023

Turkey is unilaterally blocking Sweden's accession to NATO. Can Poland use its close relationship with Turkey to end the impasse? DW takes a closer look at the history of the relations between these two countries.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and Poland's President Andrzej Duda shake hands in front of Turkish and Polish flags, Warsaw, October 17, 2017
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) visited Poland's President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw for talks focused on bolstering trade in October 2017Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Skarzynski

Finland and Sweden have been waiting for months to join NATO. In the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the two Scandinavian countries applied to join the military alliance in May 2022. Out of NATO's 30 members, only Hungary and Turkey blocked their membership bids.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban recently declared that he would no longer obstruct the northern expansion of the alliance. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on the other hand, has suggested that Ankara could approve Finland's application for membership but attached conditions to his approval of Sweden's bid.

Swedish PM Ulf Kristersson listens while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) speaks during a press conference, Istanbul, November 2022
Swedish PM Ulf Kristersson (left) met President Erdogan in Istanbul in November 2022 in an effort to clinch Turkish approval for his country's bid to join NATO Image: Burhan Ozbilici/AP/picture alliance

Erdogan is demanding that Sweden take a harder line on the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Gulen movement and extradite to Turkey activists from both organizations who have been granted asylum in Sweden.

Now Poland's PM Mateusz Morawiecki hopes to be able to end the stalemate. During a visit to Stockholm on Monday, he promised to use the excellent relations between Poland and Turkey to convince the Turkish president to approve Sweden's accession to NATO.

Poland recognizes Turkey as a geopolitical power

It is true that despite geographic distance and cultural differences, relations between the two countries have been cordial for several hundred years.

"Sentimentality, which has grown up over the course of several centuries, plays an important role in relations between Poland and Turkey," said Bruno Surdel, Turkey expert at the Polish Centre for International Relations (CIR). "And then there is Poland's political realism in recognizing Turkey as a superregional geopolitical power."

Mutual respect

This is illustrated by the numerous meetings between Poland's President Andrzej Duda and Erdogan in recent years.

"Because of their longstanding bilateral contacts, the relationship between the two presidents is marked by mutual respect," said Aleksandra Spancerska of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM).

Bloody and bitter past

But it certainly wasn't always this way: Poland and Turkey have in the past been bitter enemies. In the 17th century, both states — then the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire — shared a common border along the Dniester River (now in Ukraine) and waged several bloody wars against each other.

Painting of the Battle of Vienna (1698) by Jan Wyck
Polish King John III Sobieski (on horseback, brandishing sabre) depicted at the Battle of Vienna in a painting by Jan WyckImage: AKG/picture-alliance

In 1683, Polish King John III Sobieski played a key role in the defeat of Kara Mustafa Pasha, grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire, stopping the Ottoman advance into Central Europe outside Vienna.

United by a common foe, Russia

But these old conflicts are a thing of the past. For 300 years, Poland and Turkey (the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I) have been seen as allies. "Russia, the common foe, brought the two nations together and cemented the friendship," explains Bruno Surdel.

When Poland was divided up at the end of the 18th century between Russia, Prussia, and Austria — disappearing entirely from the world map for 123 years — the Ottoman Empire refused to recognize the partition.

Turkey: Haven for 18th-century Polish rebels

After several failed insurrections against the partitioning powers, Turkey became a safe haven for many Polish migrants. In 1842, Polish settlers established a Polish village, Polonezkoy (Adampol in Polish), near Istanbul.

People in a cafe in Polenezkoy, Istanbul
A cafe in Polenezkoy, once a village established by Polish settlers in the 19th century, now part of the Beykoz district of IstanbulImage: imago images/GocherImagery

In the middle of the 19th century, Poland's national poet Adam Mickiewicz worked to set up a Polish military unit in the Ottoman Empire to fight Russia in the Crimean War. He died in Constantinople (Istanbul) in November 1855 while preparations were still ongoing.

Relations in the 20th century

The alliance between the two countries remained strong into the 20th century. Poland was the first European country to recognize the Turkish Republic declared by Ataturk in 1923.

During World War II, when Poland was occupied first by Nazi Germany and later by Soviet Russia, the Polish Embassy in Ankara remained operational.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881–1938), founder and first president of the Turkish Republic
Poland was the first European country to recognize the Turkish Republic declared by Ataturk in 1923Image: Ann Ronan/Picture Library/imago images

During the Cold War, Communist Poland and Turkey belonged to two enemy alliances — the Warsaw Pact and NATO respectively. With the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, however, relations between the two countries were restored in the early 1990s.

Poland's accession to NATO further strengthened the close relationship. Warsaw backed Turkey's attempt to join the EU and was restrained in its criticism of Ankara for the persecution of opposition figures after the failed coup of 2016.

Turkey as a mediator

Most recently, Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine has given Turkey a more significant role at international level. At a time when there were hardly any countries with which both Moscow and Kyiv were willing to talk, Turkey offered to act as a mediator. The historic agreement between Ukraine and Russia that allowed for the resumption of grain exports was concluded thanks to Turkey's mediation.

The Malta-flagged bulk carrier Zante en-route to Belgium transits the Bosphorus carrying 47,270 metric tons of rapeseed from Ukraine, November 2022
A ship carrying rapeseed from Ukraine transits the Bosphorus after Turkey helped seal an agreement between Moscow and Kyiv on the export of grain from Ukraine Image: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

"Poland recognizes the geopolitical significance of Turkey, its function as a bridge between the Middle East and Europe, between Russia and Europe, and its military strength," said Bruno Surdel. "Poland does not have such strong relations with any other important country outside Europe."

The devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria on February 6 triggered a wave of help and support in Poland. On the very same day, 76 Polish firefighters and eight rescue dogs flew to the region from Warsaw. A group of emergency doctors followed soon after. The Polish rescue teams were deployed in Adiayaman and Besni and were able to rescue 13 people in one week. They also set up a Polish field hospital where over 100 people were treated.

This article was originally published in German.

A gray-haired man (Jacek Lepiarz) stands in front of bookcases full of books
Jacek Lepiarz Journalist for DW's Polish Service who specializes in German-Polish subjects
Burak Ünveren standing in a newsroom, wearing a suit
Burak Ünveren Multimedia editor with a focus on Turkish foreign policy and German-Turkish relations.