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Poland and Ukraine: Time to get serious

I have been professionally involved in various aspects of Polish-Ukrainian relations for years. I can even say that I grew up in the shadow of these relations. I spent my formative years in direct proximity of the still most divisive issue for both communities – the border region. I have been discovering Ukraine since 1991, since its very beginnings as an independent state.

December 1, 2017 - Łukasz Jasina - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Silar (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

This text is a part of a two-voice series: “Poland and Ukraine – Two voices”. Read the other voice here.

I am a historian focusing on Central and Eastern Europe and historians know all too well about what happened and that history is somewhat complex. I therefore value the calm debates, refraining from overusing big words as well as the ability maintain a distanced outlook. I have always avoided the myths which dominated the common debates and the simplified visions. Between Poles and Ukrainians a lot is changing for the better, but one thing continues to haunt us – the inclination to make generalisations. That is why, I would like to look at the reality.

First issue: Knowledge

Above all, we still know too little about each other. If it was only about the “common people” that would, of course, not be a problem, as it is not their role to have a wide knowledge on their country’s neighbours. In this regard integration between Poles and Ukrainians is improving. The former no longer pop into Lviv only as part of sentimental trips, but also visit other parts of Ukraine, which is further facilitated by the falling value of the hryvnia following the Russian aggression. The latter move to Poland temporarily or for good. There is a certain risk related to interpersonal contacts, but I will come back to that later.

The problem is the lack of knowledge of the representatives of the political, intellectual and social elite. It is no secret that in the current Ukrainian government, the number of those with expertise in Polish matters is low. Many Ukrainian journalists and commentators who are seen as specialists in Poland use information either coming from the media which supports one side of the Polish conflict, or clearly sparks the atmosphere of conflict. In both countries, for about two decades, there is a certain group of people specialising in Ukraine, Poland and the two’s bilateral relations. Many of them were involved in the reconciliation process from the very beginning and the changes on both sides are often surprising.   

The situation will soon change. The number of people acquainted with mutual relations will grow, although at the expense of believing in ideals. We will know each other better, but we will not see our relationship in terms of a “historical mission”. We will look at the real Poland and real Ukraine – as only relations based on the real basis and interests can bear fruit.     

Second issue: History  

History was not meant to be a problem in Polish-Ukrainian relations after the fall of communism. In the 1990s the Polish political elite made a deliberate decision, limiting their assertiveness in relations to their Ukrainian partners, focusing on coming to terms with their own mistakes and waiting for social evolution in their eastern neighbour which was meant to increase its sensitivity towards the Polish view of the past. Practically every crime committed against the Ukrainian people by the institutions of the Polish state (including the communist state) was directly named and condemned either in the form of a parliamentary bill (by the Sejm or the Senate) or a presidential statement. Crimes in Jaworzno were condemned by Aleksander Kwaśniewski and those in Pawłokoma by Lech Kaczyński. In Ukraine, even a compromise project of a bill on the anniversary of the Volhynia massacre in 2003 (not naming the perpetrators) invoked objections.

The situation slightly improved after the Orange Revolution, but it soon returned to the old track. The first elements of the crisis in historical relations of the two countries appeared in autumn of 2009 when Poland did allow participants of the so-called “Bandera raid” (a group of fans of Stepan Bandera himself and UPA wanted to cross into Polish Bieszczady – where those formation fulfilled many crimes). Its second opening took place in 2013 during the celebrations commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Volhynia massacre and the third one began in April 2015, when President Bronisław Komorowski visited the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada upon which it passed a number of bills penalising critique of formations seen in Poland as criminal. The conflict, thus, did not begin after the Law in Justice government came to power.

For several years, Poland has been highlighting its relationship with the lands currently under Ukrainian control and there is no agreement to refer to Poland as a colonial power and its relation to Red Rus, Volhynia, Podole or Ukraine (its various parts in various periods) as an occupation. What it sees as important is the burial and exhumation of Polish soldiers and civilian victims who perished on Ukraine’s territory. In retaliation for dismantling a monument to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) soldiers in Hruszowice, the Ukrainian authorities banned the exhumation works conducted by Poland in Ukraine. It sparked an outrage in Poland, as the country never reacted in such a way – after 1990 even the soldiers of Wehrmacht occupational forces were put in graves.

The condemnation of the Volhynia massacre by the Polish Sejm as genocide was almost received in Ukraine as an intervention in the country’s internal affairs, although the earlier bills of the Polish parliament related to Holodomor (or “Great Hunger”) were not condemned. In the Verecke Pass, a memorial to alleged Ukrainian victims of the Polish army from spring of 1939 was erected, although this fact is not proved by any serious historical source. Poland is the primary (after Russia) object of critique of people implementing Ukrainian historical policy. We can even hear voices suggesting that a Polish-Russian rapprochement is taking place in opposition to Ukraine. This is quite more bizarre, since the “historical war” between Poland and Russia has an even harsher trajectory.

Third issue: The border

 The border is a real problem. Together with the increase in the number of Ukrainians travelling to Poland and the lifting of visas for Ukrainians to enter the EU, the number of commuters has increased and the border crossing is often backed up. Poland has transferred loans to Ukraine for the purpose of improving its infrastructure. Unfortunately, the roads connecting Poland and Ukraine still have not improved, although rail and flight connections have. Nevertheless, the borderland is still hardly a showcase for Polish-Ukrainian rapprochement. Thanks to European Union funds the situation may improve. Yet, taking into consideration that the majority of social tensions caused by history are based in that area, improving the situation locally can only benefit both countries.

Fourth issue: Who needs whom more?

Already during Ewa Kopacz’s time in office (2014-2015) Ukraine’s strategic partnership with Poland weakened. After the revolution, Ukraine had more “windows to Europe” and hoped for the improvement and building of strong relations with the countries participating in the Minsk ceasefire process – France and Germany, as well as the United States. After the political change in Poland and the beginning of the crisis between Poland and some European institutions, declarations about the Poland’s diminishing importance for Ukraine became more frequent.

But this is not the case. Four per cent of Ukraine’s GDP are remittances sent by Ukrainians working in Poland. Military co-operation is deepening and Poland’s support has greatly contributed to the lifting of visas for Ukrainian citizens. Poland is also fighting against the German-Russian project of building a second Nord Stream pipeline, whose completion will more significantly affect the Ukrainian side than the Polish economy and deprive the former of fees for gas transfers to Western Europe. Poland is also a staunch supporter of sanctions against Russia and refuses to accept the illegal annexation of Crimea.

In fact, Ukraine needs Poland more. It is a European Union country, without whose approval Ukraine’s integration with EU structures will not take place. It is Poland where Ukrainian citizens find employment and not the other way around; and Poland’s support in the EU has significance. It is about time that the Ukrainian political elite realise this truth.

Ukrainians’ migration to Poland.

Ukrainians coming to Poland are the largest migration wave in the latter’s contemporary history. A majority of them will stay in Poland, increasing the importance of the Ukrainian minority. The scale of xenophobic attacks against the newcomers is minimal, which given the scope of the economic exodus seems to be a positive development.

Ukrainian migrants help build the Polish economy, create a positive myth of a Ukrainian in Poland and successfully integrate in the society. During the same time period, many of our fellow citizens emigrated for economic reasons to more developed EU countries. Several dozen thousands Ukrainians are discovering Poland with its merits and flaws. Surprisingly, they do not participate in the political-historical conflicts. I think that the majority of them would even be surprised to hear that we have a crisis in relations. We have to take this into account, as they represent the future of Polish-Ukrainian relations.

Translated by Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska

Łukasz Jasina is an Eastern Europe Programme Expert at the Polish Institute of International Affairs and Assistant Editor of the Polish Diplomatic Review. He is a historian focused on the East-Central Europe and politics of memory.

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