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Why Poland needs a post-Giedroyc doctrine towards Ukraine

Today’s Polish-Ukrainian disputes can no longer be resolved by referring to Jerzy Giedroyc’s ideals alone. Although it has largely gone unnoticed, the Ukrainian component of the Kultura programme has already been achieved.

March 22, 2018 - Wojciech Konończuk - Stories and ideas

The fundamental changes that Ukraine has undergone since 2014 are mostly positive from the Polish point of view. Simultaneously the changes have brought on new challenges leading to the most serious re-evaluations of bilateral relations in the last 25 years.

The Polish-Ukrainian dispute over history has led to renewed calls from both sides of the border to return to the “Giedroyc Doctrine” (named after Jerzy Giedroyc, the founder and editor in chief of the Polish-émigré magazine Kultura) which is supposed to be a remedy for the current crisis. The eastern programme shaped by Kultura was an important roadmap for an independent Poland after the Cold War. However, each concept, no matter how great, needs to be verified and revised when the reality changes. In recent years the doctrine often attributed to Giedroyc (actually largely shaped by Juliusz Mieroszewski) was often used instrumentally, mythologised or misunderstood. At times it was used for purposes far removed from the original messages Kultura attempted to spread. Its “romantic” interpretation became a symbol of good Polish-Ukrainian relations. Yet, the Giedroyc-Mieroszewski creed should not be forcibly applied to every situation or exalted for its own sake. The Kultura programme had its part in making history and – without a doubt – is one of the greatest phenomena in Polish political thought with a scope broader than Poland itself.

The Ukrainian question was and still remains the key issue of Poland’s eastern policy. It will always be one of the priorities along with the German/EU, American and Russian focus in Polish foreign policy. Polish-Ukrainian relations are important also because of their impact on the wider region. This is why there is a need for a debate about a new vision of Poland’s relationship with Ukraine, encompassing the new challenges to bilateral relations and adapted to the changes that have taken place across the Dnieper.

Kultura and its Ukraine programme

The foundations of Poland’s eastern policy after 1991 were laid down meticulously over several decades by the editors of Kultura. In Polish history it was an initiative without precedence. While waiting for a better international situation, Giedroyc and his colleagues were writing up in Maisons-Laffitte near Paris the programme for a future independent Poland, which – as they were deeply convinced –would be just a matter of time. It needed a lot of imagination and bravery to think of then (starting at Stalinist times) how to resolve Polish matters.

Among the topics designated as crucial by Kultura were the relations between a democratic Poland and its eastern neighbours. The most important element of this policy was to recognise the right to self-determination of the subdued nations and renounce any territorial claims Poland might have towards them. The idea put forward was visionary and controversial at that time. It called Poles to recognise the post-Yalta eastern borders as a prerequisite for future co-operation with an independent Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus.

“Let the Lithuanians … enjoy their Vilnius and let the yellow and blue flag fly over Lviv”, wrote a priest Józef Majewski in a 1952 issue of Kultura. It can be considered as a formal initiation of this difficult, albeit successful idea. Without co-operation and normalisation in relations between Poles and Ukrainians, Belarusians and Lithuanians, nations that were once a part of Poland, it would be impossible to disarm and defeat Russian imperialism. As Mieroszewski put it: “A Russia dominating over eastern European nations is an invincible rival.”

In its eastern policy, Kultura designated a special place for Ukraine, as it was viewed as a pivotal component of regional security and a key to de-imperialise Russia. According to this thinking Poland’s freedom depended on Ukraine’s. This was the reason Giedroyc and his colleagues systematically worked for an independent Ukraine and brought up the Ukrainian question on international forums. Furthermore they worked towards improving Polish-Ukrainian relations and developing a network of contacts within the Ukrainian émigré community.

This eventually led Kultura to the creation of a new vision of Polish-Ukrainian relations. Its main points were adopted by the democratic opposition in communist Poland and later became a cornerstone of policy in independent Poland. Even if we tend to exaggerate and idealise the role Kultura played in making Poles accept losing the eastern territories, it remains true that after 1989-1991 not a single party in the Polish parliament had a revisionist programme. The question relating to Poland’s eastern border was forever closed.

Kultura collectively caused a dramatic breakthrough in Polish thinking about its eastern neighbours. The political elite of independent Poland began to implement by consensus its eastern programme. All in all it was a logical choice and the only rational option the Poles had after 1989. Pursing any other strategy would have been suicidal.

The Ukrainian question became one of the most important issues for the sovereign Polish state. Poland passed the test by being the first country in the world to recognise Ukraine’s independence. Kultura updated Mieroszewski’s vision and kept convincing the Polish elite to support Kyiv into the 1990s. Consecutive Polish governments understood it themselves and supported the new Ukraine, its international subjectivity, democratisation and European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Part of this was to bring up the Ukrainian cause on the international arena under the informal slogan “Ukraine is not Russia” (which later became the title of famous Leonid Kuchma’s book).

Poland was and remains one of the few European countries that puts Ukraine ahead of Russia in its Eastern Europe policy. At the same time difficult topics in bilateral relations, such as the Volhynian massacre, were raised in a rather subtle manner, waiting for maturing processes within Ukraine itself. The most crucial goal of this policy was to support the construction of an independent Ukrainian state, so that it would never become a vassal state to Russia. Zdzisław Najder precisely remarked that the ideas of Kultura had become “a canonical concept in Polish foreign policy”.

The formation of a new Ukraine

The Ukrainian message of Kultura remained valid for the two decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the appearance of an independent Ukraine on the political map of Eastern Europe. During this time the question of Ukraine’s stability and durability remained open. Many had doubts that Ukraine could retain its sovereignty. The greatest threat for Ukraine’s future was Russia’s revisionist policy which never accepted an independent Ukraine. In fact, regaining control over the Ukrainian state remains one of the priorities of Russian policy. During the rule of Viktor Yanukovych, when Kyiv was increasingly falling into the orbit of the Russian sphere of influence, it seemed that Moscow was close to reaching this goal.

The Revolution of Dignity and the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict became a turning point in modern Ukrainian history. This resulted in accelerating the process of building and enforcing Ukraine’s state identity and its “expansion” towards the eastern and southern regions. Kyiv left the Russian sphere of influence and univocally shifted to the West as a strategic direction. What is important – this was supported by a majority of the society not just the elite. This was probably one of the most pivotal strategic shifts in the last decades on the European continent. It eventually led to the creation of a new Ukraine that would rearrange the situation in the whole region. It seems that neither Poland nor the West are fully aware of the significance of this shift. The ongoing war with Russia will not lead to an immediate Europeanisation of Ukraine but this shift towards the West will remain a choice without alternatives. There is no return to former models of Ukrainian-Russian relations as Kyiv has irreversibly achieved subjectivity. Normalising bilateral relations with its imperial neighbour will most likely take many years and one could presume that Ukraine would effectively use this time. This fast track identity building process we have been witnessing since 2014 is undefined in its final form. But it is also an attempt to leave the Russian world and everything indicates that it will bring success.

Yet, Ukraine still faces serious challenges. Dangers greater than Russia are found in Ukrainian internal politics. Although it has been four years since the Revolution of Dignity, it has turned out to be difficult to form a critical mass that would enable political and economic development. The reform process has been rather disappointing. In order to succeed, there is a need to change the rules of Ukrainian politics, replacement of the elite and a real breakthrough in the fight against corruption. It is also necessary to create the conditions that would allow for the country to leave the long-term economic collapse, which has made Ukraine the poorest country in Europe alongside Moldova. Despite regular domestic difficulties and numerous headaches, the experience of the post-Maidan period proves that the weak and corrupt Ukrainian state is able to fight for its interests in relation with its neighbours. This concerns mainly Russia, who has not yet realised that it will not win a war with Ukraine. Just as Mieroszewski noticed half a century ago – Moscow usually underestimates the Ukrainians. This new assertiveness that Kyiv projects is seen also in relation with other neighbours: Hungary, Poland, Romania, Belarus and even the European Union. The goal of this essay is not to evaluate who is right in these ongoing disputes, but rather to highlight the fact that Ukraine seems to be a difficult and stubborn negotiator when it comes to issues it regards as prestigious or connected to national pride.

A triumph of Giedroyc and new challenges

The aforementioned internal changes in Ukraine are far from being completed, but already irrevocable. What is crucial, they mean that a fundamental goal of Poland’s eastern policy has been implemented. A sovereign Ukrainian state, independent from Russia, being a durable element of the international order and unambiguously taking the Euro-Atlantic integration as a strategy has emerged. From the point of view of Polish national interest (including security which always remains in Russia’s shadow) these developments are incredibly favourable. In this way the main component of the Ukrainian part of the Giedroyc doctrine has been implemented.

Paradoxically, these positive developments mixed together with a more assertive Polish policy towards Ukraine after 2015, including changes in Polish historical policy, have led to the most serious crisis in bilateral relations since 1991. Its catalyst has been history. The new Ukraine, which obviously remains one of the priorities of Polish foreign policy, presents new challenges to Warsaw. It is crucial to notice and understand the changes (still ongoing) that Ukraine has undergone in order to react in an appropriate way. This does not mean that all Polish policy towards Ukraine has to be revised. Its main objectives remain the same: support Ukraine on the international stage, its democratisation and reform process as well as European integration. One can repeat Włodzimierz Bączkowski’s words that “We are not Ukrainophiles”, but a stable and developing European Ukraine is in the best interest of Poland.

The eastern programme of Kultura was a deeply realistic vision. Today we ought to view Ukraine through the lens of realism, without naïve and hurtful romanticism. Poles need to suppress their patronising attitudes and unskilfully masked superiority complex towards Ukraine, as well as a non-critical Ukrainophile approach aimed at excusing the Ukrainian side at all cost.

In both Poland and Ukraine there is a belief prevailing that “there is no independent Poland without an independent Ukraine”. It is important to keep in mind that this line of thought stems from an émigré community part of the Polish opposition. It gained popularity in the last two decades as a basis for developing strategic ties between Poland and Ukraine. However, it lost its relevance after Poland’s accession to NATO in 1999. Polish security today is not dependent on Ukraine but rather on the future and stability of NATO and the EU. Mieroszewski was convinced Poland could only retain its freedom as a part of an international security framework. The theoretical disappearance of an independent Ukraine would obviously lead to a significant decrease in Polish security, but would not be equal to its losing independence. Interestingly that on the other side of the border there is no conviction that Polish independence contributed to Ukraine gaining and maintaining its own sovereignty.

A second thesis created half a century ago by Kultura claims that Poland’s standing in the East determines its position in the West. It was often quoted and accepted uncritically as dogma. Undoubtedly there is a correlation between effective Polish eastern policy and enhanced capabilities in the West. However, Poland’s standing on the world stage does not rest on its relations with Ukraine. It is rather dependent on a few other factors such as the strength of its economy, effectiveness of Polish policy inside the EU and keeping the US strategic presence in Europe. These are the real indicators with which one can measure Poland’s position. The existence of an independent Ukraine, and hopefully Belarus as well, is a “multiplier of our strength”, as Włodzimierz Bączkowski claimed. The sovereignty of these two states corrects the disadvantageous of regional situation that has lasted for most of the previous 300 years. But the developments across Poland’s western border will be much more important.

Overvaluation of the paradigm

The discussions on Ukraine and Poland’s policy towards the country usually follow the same paradigm without realising that it has been outdated. Many participants of these debates have allowed emotions to take the upper hand, instead of a cold-headed, rational approach. The views of commentators on the matter are also affected by their general sentiment towards the ruling party Law and Justice, which only deforms the real picture of the situation. As a result the changes inside Ukraine, as well as inside Poland, are barely noticed. In addition to the Polish-Ukrainian conflict there is an intense Polish-Polish disagreement. In order for Polish policy towards Kyiv (or other places of strategic importance) to succeed there is a need for a political consensus above party ranks. There is room for differences in tactics, but not strategy. The idea of Kultura, that there is no room for more than one eastern programme, is still relevant. It is not concerning just the current Polish government, but also the future ones.

It is quite obvious that Ukraine will remain a difficult partner for Poland in the future, primarily due to the different interpretations of history. So, how does one proceed in such a situation? In 1976 Jerzy Giedroyc wrote to Ivan Kedryn-Rudnycki, a prominent Ukrainian historian and émigré activist: “There are a lot of issues common to Poles and Ukrainians – both heart-breaking and difficult … Normalisation of the relations between our nations is in our interest. It demands that we tell each other the whole truth – and just the truth.” This recipe is certainly relevant.

Yet, there should be no illusions. A critical view of their own actions will take the Ukrainians many years to develop. There is no nation that this would come easy for. In the long term, one can hope that there will be a more common view and assessment of the past. This requires a gesture from the Ukrainian authorities that would lead to a clear and unquestionable assessment of the events in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia. Reconciliation is in the interests of both sides as it would “detoxify” the current atmosphere. Poles are not able to do this alone as there have been years-long efforts to patiently explain to the Ukrainians our point of view. They either did not want to understand it or they took it as a sign of our weakness because, after all, “there is no independent Poland without an independent Ukraine”. In accordance with this mantra, Warsaw needs Ukraine more than the other way around, something that gives Kyiv a sense of relief in pursuing good relations. Therefore Ukrainian decision-makers should halt their meaningless calls to “leave history to the historians” and understand that without bold decisions the past will lay a shadow over the relations between our countries and societies for many years to come.

The main demand outlining Polish policy towards Ukraine should be neutralising the destructive influence history has on bilateral relations. At the same time it is of utmost importance to underline the common interests which are numerous. The Polish-Ukrainian partnership has a great chance of succeeding, but a lot depends on trust-building and finding a new way of communicating. The Ukrainian side should also stop trivialising historical problems. The Polish support of Ukraine in strategic importance matters was and remains unequivocal and unconditional. Furthermore, in the last two years the co-operation in some spheres has reached new heights and intensity, including military and defence. Unfortunately, this remains largely unnoticed. Poland is one of the countries that strongly supports Ukraine on the international stage and explains its significance. Kyiv tends to ignore this role and misjudges the amount of allies they have in the West. This is why it is important to keep in mind that 87 per cent of Poles view Ukraine as a European country; while only 54 per cent of Germans, 48 per cent French and 43 per cent of the Dutch do so respectively (Kantar Public, September 2017). These results show how important the promise of a western opening towards Ukraine is, but also that it is not irreversible. Poland can still play a significant role in this regard.

Another important new dimension to the bilateral relations is the fact that there are nearly a million Ukrainians working in Poland. The Polish economy needs them and the financial transfers they send back home are helping many Ukrainian households make ends meet (the transfers make up some 3.5 per cent of Ukraine’s GDP). The presence of Ukrainian migrants poses many challenges to Polish society in terms of tension and xenophobia. As a result the larger Polish cities are becoming multi-ethnic for the first time since the Second World War and Ukrainian is again the second most frequently spoken language in the country. Are we ready to pass this maturity exam? This depends on the Poles themselves and on wise state policy. The alternative is a problem so extensive that it would push aside any arguments over history.

A Strategic Neighbourhood?

If a Polish-Ukrainian partnership is to be something more in the future than a propaganda slogan, Ukraine will have to take on more responsibility for the relationship, as Warsaw has been the driving force behind it for a quarter of a century. In the 1990s there was a notion of a “strategic partnership” from the Ukrainian side, but it was never filled with real substance. While the Ukrainian question has always been one of the most important ones in Polish foreign policy, Poland is not of a corresponding significance to Ukraine’s foreign policy. There has never been a political concept in Kyiv on how to approach relations with Poland. A Ukrainian Giedroyc doctrine never came to be. Besides that, it would be difficult to find a text written by any influential decision-maker in Ukraine that would attempt to outline what Ukraine expects from Poland and where our country stands in Ukrainian western policy.

This is a stunning expression of political short-sightedness. The sentiments of a large part of the Ukrainian elite are under the influence of a traditional distrust towards Poland. It has been mitigated over the last two decades, but came back with new impetus after the 2016 Polish parliament resolution on the Volhynian genocide. Tensions reached new heights in the fall of 2017 after several undiplomatic statements from the Polish side and other mistakes (such as the attempt to add the Cemetery of the Defenders of Lwów to Polish passports).

Today, the main concern on both sides of the border is the Russian threat. The postulate to fight it is correct. Yet, it is not enough to create a basis for co-operation by simply highlighting the dangers of Russia’s neo-imperial policy. Especially if one is to blame for creating the conditions that are favourable for Moscow’s actions. This is why Mieroszewski’s postulate to “clear the field of ghastly mistakes” that propel Moscow’s actions further is so important. Today, many Ukrainians are not as ready to demonstrate the Polish-Ukrainian friendship as they are to manifest common hate towards Russians. In the latest round of quarrels it almost seems as Russia is taking a back seat and acting as the third man winning, where the other two argue. It is imperative to keep in mind Bohdan Osadchuk’s warning that “the Kremlin knows how to create a rift between Poland and Ukraine. It is a key issue for Russian diplomacy in our region”. Those words are more relevant than ever.

A Ukrainian rapprochement with Russia seems to be impossible for many years. But the question of a Polish-Ukrainian understanding is open. In order for it to succeed there are certain requirements and conditions for both sides as well as a more pragmatic approach in general. It would be much help if there was a change in the romantic and naïve attitude Poles have towards Ukraine since 1991. Let us repeat again: The Ukrainian state has changed and there is no way back to the past. The current redefinition is a natural consequence of these processes.

An effective policy needs a realistic assessment. Polish-Ukrainian relations probably face more crises. One should not have any illusions – with the current emotions in swing and the political dynamics that accompany them, accord will still be far away. Even Giedroyc was not fully aware of the potential of a symbolic and historical disagreement between Poles and Ukrainians. These are also unfortunately the hardest to resolve, as they lead to situations where symbols and a false image of prestige are more important than real interests.

In the 1990s, one of the founding fathers of modern Lithuania was against calling Polish-Lithuanian relations brotherly claiming: “We are not brothers, we are neighbours”. Even if similar words have not still been used to describe the Polish-Ukrainian relationship, it seems as if it is in a similar moment as Warsaw and Vilnius were a quarter of a century ago. Our relations are being reshaped and paradoxically acquiring more mature dimensions. It might be that this is just the beginning of the road. We do not have to be friends, but we should bear in mind the number of common interests we have. Good relations are without a doubt in the national interest for both Poland and Ukraine.

Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht

Wojciech Konończuk is the head of the Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova department at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw.

This text was originally published in the Polish bimonthly Nowa Europa Wschodnia issue 1/2018.

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