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Poland–Ukraine relations: The ball is in your court

Poland and Ukraine have recently been falling apart and it is clear that the undisputed friendship from the EuroMaidan days has been stalled.

October 31, 2017 - Oleksandra Iwaniuk - Stories and ideas

Image by George Valkov

The worsening of Polish-Ukrainian relations has many fathers. The Law and Justice (PiS) party’s increasingly antagonistic approach towards Ukraine, the controversial narrative promoted by the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, glorifying Stepan Bandera and the wartime nationalist partisans, and the Ukrainian elite’s diplomatic ineptitude – as evinced by countless faux pas and poorly timed decisions, such as renaming a Kyiv avenue after Bandera while President Poroshenko was in Warsaw – have all contributed to the current state of affairs.  

The tough talk from Polish officials, exemplified by Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski’s assertion that “Ukraine will not enter Europe with Bandera” as well as the Polish government’s sudden drive to raise awareness of the 1943-44 Volhynia massacres, when the “Banderites” murdered 100,000 Poles did not help either. Just like the decades of sweeping that trauma under the carpet. There are many reasons why the two countries have recently been falling apart and it is clear that the undisputed friendship from the EuroMaidan days has been stalled.

Aspiring leader

Even before it spearheaded the creation of the Eastern Partnership in 2009, Poland used to consider itself as somehow responsible for the EU’s eastern neighbours. However, this regional role has increasingly come into question. Poland has not been invited to participate in talks on the Ukrainian crisis, something the PiS government regards as a slight. You can often hear in Warsaw that Kyiv is not grateful enough for the help that Poland has been providing to the country in many regards. Ukraine does not, the view goes, “stop in Warsaw on its way to Berlin”. Poland expects from Ukraine gestures that would show at least some appreciation of Polish help. But diplomacy is not Ukraine’s strongest asset: it is, after all, a country that passed a law officially banning disrespect for Bandera on the day of Polish president Komorowski’s visit to Kyiv.

In addition, Poland’s position in the EU has been gradually weakening, mainly because of the Commission’s concerns over the government’s respect for the rule of law. This has stimulated Warsaw to come up with regional initiatives, such as the Intermarium concept (Józef Piłsudski’s idea to cast Poland in the role of the leader in Central and Eastern Europe) and the more recent “Three Seas Initiative”, calling for deeper integration of the EU’s eastern members in terms of logistics, energy security, connectivity and infrastructure.

While the idea of Poland as a regional leader is enjoying an increasing support among the ruling elite and the general public, Kyiv is questioning the credibility of Poland as a bridge between Ukraine and the EU. Ukrainian experts and politicians have started to doubt the value of maintaining good relations with Poland. At one of the meetings of the Polish-Ukrainian dialogue group, one participant reportedly asked: “what do we need Poland for?” Poles may be disappointed by Ukraine’s inability to keep up the pace of reform and develop a balanced and well-thought-out historical policy, but Ukrainians are also disappointed with Poland, or at least surprised by the apparent rollback of democracy in a country that used to serve as a model for economic and political success.

New policy

Recently Warsaw has shifted some of its focus from Kyiv to Minsk. The PiS government finds it easier to present improving relations with Belarus (there have been a flurry of visits and warm words) or pan-regional initiatives as evidence of Poland’s continued leadership role, while Warsaw has been side-lined on Ukraine.

In reality, however, the declared leadership is being questioned not only as part of the Three Seas Initiative, but also within the Visegrad group: both the Czech Republic and Slovakia remain sceptical. They are suspicious of Polish leadership and unclear of the value of such regional initiatives as a counterweight to German and French pre-eminence in the EU. In its turn, Poland is against the concept of multi-speed EU, which might compound larger members’ dominance and relegate Central and Eastern European states to the bloc’s second tier. Particularly, Poland is afraid that dominant EU members will promote an anti-American position, acknowledging the interests of Russia and going back to a business-as-usual approach towards Moscow.

The main question remains whether the previous Polish policy on Ukraine has really come to an end and whether the new foreign policy vectors mean leaving Kyiv to its own fate. The deterioration of relations between the countries is clear not only on the symbolic level: there has also been a radical reduction of state funds that Ukrainian minority organisations in Poland received in 2017.

For the past two years, the government has been preventing non-governmental organisations from applying for EU funds for integration of foreigners. This is particularly striking considering that the numbers of immigrants (mostly from Ukraine) have significantly increased over the last few years. In addition, this year, for the first time since 1989, the Union of Ukrainians in Poland did not receive any funds for commemorations related to the anniversary of Operation Vistula, which marks the 70th anniversary of the deportations.

The Ukrainian-language internet portal Prostir.pl was initially refused funding, though on appeal it was granted 30,000 zloty of the 50,000 it had requested. The chairman of the Union of Ukrainians in Poland, Piotr Tyma, claims that the red tape in funding application process is getting worse and worse, while there is a clear lack of dialogue between non-governmental organisations and the state. He adds that due to the politicisation of all spheres of life, the role of the National and Ethnic Minorities Committee in the Sejm has significantly diminished, which weakens its control over the government activities concerning minority issues.

The head of the Our Choice Foundation in Warsaw, Myroslava Keryk, says organisations that used to help and consult Ukrainian migrants on numerous issues have been left without funding for their activities. The government cancelled the call for applications for funds from the EU’s Asylum Migration Integration Fund (AMIF) and instead, these funds have been distributed via wojewodas (regional governors), who decide which organisations to support. It means that only a few organisations can get funding, which makes the selection procedure is opaque. In the end, most groups which supported migrant integration have been left without any funding. 

Not so black and white

Yet, Ukraine and Poland continue to deepen their cooperation in the areas of trade, energy, transport, infrastructure, finance, cybersecurity, among others. As the Deputy Minister of Development Tadeusz Kościński has claimed, Poland wants to become a gateway to Europe for the Ukrainian economy, and in 2016 the commodity turnover between Poland and Ukraine increased by 17 per cent.

During the Industrial Congress of Defence and Energy: Europe and Ukraine 2017, cooperation and development within the armaments and energy industries were discussed. Ukraine and Poland are working on plans for military-technical cooperation within the framework of the European Defence Program, which aims to establish a short-range anti-aircraft defence system. A Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian Brigade is in place, which Ukrainian Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak calls “a symbol of the unity of our peoples”.

Moreover, the Consultative Committee of the Presidents of Ukraine and Poland has been relaunched, as well as the Partnership Forum under the patronage of the foreign ministries of both countries. Importantly, a Ukrainian-Polish Dialogue Group, which works on the countries’ common history and relations, has been set up. Poland continues to provide assistance to Ukraine in the area of decentralisation, which is an expensive and important project, aimed at strengthening local governments in Ukraine. In addition, many Polish NGOs (such as Caritas Poland, Polish Medical Mission, Kulczyk Foundation, Polish Humanitarian Action) are also engaged in helping Ukrainians by raising funds, sending humanitarian aid to the east, providing medical services, warm clothes and equipment.

However, there has been an increase in voices claiming that Poland should stop helping Ukraine as the latter not only does not appreciate the help, but openly spits in its neighbour’s face with its historical policy. This has been associated with a hostile rhetoric towards Ukrainians in Polish media along with strong statements from some Polish politicians.

The Kukiz’15 party leader, Paweł Kukiz, recently declared that “Poland should stop helping Ukraine for as long as Ukrainians keep naming streets after the devil”. There are openly anti-Ukrainian communities in Poland such as the Kresowianie (representing the successors of the Eastern part of the Second Polish Republic), who are accused of transmitting Russian propaganda in Poland and inciting hatred towards Ukraine. Over the past several years, the influence of these groups has significantly strengthened.

Polish media has been attentively following the decommunisation process in Ukraine, which entails renaming streets in a way that often damages Ukraine’s image in the eyes of Poles. At the same time, Polish media seem to neglect the positive developments in Polish-Ukrainian relations: perhaps most importantly, the fact that Petro Poroshenko apologised for the Volhynia massacres and kneeled before the monument to the victims. In addition, the Polish authorities show a striking reluctance to punish anyone for hate speech towards Ukrainians, as it was in the case of Wojciech Cejrowski, who called Ukrainians “butches and rapists” or the case of the former Catholic priest Jacek Międlar, who has called for hatred against Jews and Ukrainians.  

The way forward

If a few years ago, Poles actively attended Ukrainian festivals and cultural events, now the interest in Ukrainian culture has radically dropped. For example, there was a thin house during the recent Ukrainian film festival in Warsaw. Andrzej Warchił, editor of the Ukrainian-language magazine Telenowyny claims that this is a trend of the last several years. Interpersonal relations are worsening as well: though there is an increasing number of Ukrainians coming to Poland to work and study, they complain of unfriendly treatment. At the same time, however, the last International Organization for Migration (IOM) survey of attitudes towards foreigners in Poland shows that the number of those declaring a positive attitude towards Ukrainians has actually increased.

One of the most active Polish intellectuals working on the development of Polish-Ukrainian relations, Iza Kruślińska, claims that most of those involved in Polish-Ukrainian affairs – both on the Polish and the Ukrainian side – feel as if their huge collective achievements over the last 26 years have been called into question.

The problem is that both Ukraine and Poland are convinced that the ball is in the other side’s court: Jarosław Kaczyński is claiming that everything depends on Ukraine, while Kyiv is waiting for a change of the government in Poland, which it believes would bring back unconditional support for Ukraine and turning a blind eye to controversial street names, the glorification of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, and the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory’s narrative.

This is wishful thinking. A quick change of government in Poland is unlikely and, moreover, the current situation is not only PiS’s fault. The strategy of passing the buck might only cause further deterioration of Polish-Ukrainian relations, which would be especially painful for Ukraine due to its worsening relations with other EU countries. Hungary and Romania, for example, have opposed Kyiv’s new education policy that reduces the scope for teaching in minority languages.

During his last visit to Warsaw, Timothy Snyder said that knowledge on the Holocaust rarely changes people’s mindset. On the contrary, people tend to adjust history to their worldviews and use it to justify their ideology and political decisions. This seems to be the case in both Poland and Ukraine. According to Snyder, the best way to learn from history is to realise that the experience of being a victim in the past can help those who are victims today. For that to happen, we should stop bouncing the ball and focus on our own court.

Gulliver Cragg contributed to this article.

Oleksandra Iwaniuk is a PhD candidate at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University specialising in elites’ studies and alumna of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and the College of Europe. Her dissertation focuses on social practices of parliamentarian elites in Ukraine.

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