Opinion: Seeds of Crisis in Polish-Ukrainian Relations

On Sunday, October 25th, two large central European neighbors – Poland and Ukraine – hold nationwide polls. As Poland elects a new national parliament, Ukraine will conduct local elections to replace mayors and municipal councils. The Ukrainian polls are potentially profoundly transformative, and the civilized world hopes they result in fairer and more transparent local politics that bring Ukraine closer to the democratic community of Western states. Ukraine’s closest and most important regional ally – Poland – stands to gain from such a scenario perhaps most of all in the short term. The two countries are important to each other and to the region on a number of levels. Apart from a shared history going back centuries, linking them culturally and socially, Poland and Ukraine today both confront a resurgent, aggressive Russia on their borders.

Troops from Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine in formation as part of the trilateral Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian Brigade in 2014

Troops from Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine in formation as part of the trilateral Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian Brigade in 2014

Thus far Ukraine has benefited from Polish diplomatic and material support in its war with Russia, and a joint Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian force has been established to inject heavy symbolic value into bilateral relations. Stronger pro-Western local bodies and officials in Ukraine should theoretically contribute to even stronger relations with Poland.

But behind the public show of solidarity there are problems between the two countries going into Sunday’s elections, and these are playing into the hands of the revanchist regime in Moscow. Difficulties in Polish-Ukrainian relations stem largely from their respective differences in the treatment of history. The two nations clashed bitterly during the period when Nazi Germany and the USSR were dividing Poland and other central European territories between them, deporting and exterminating the subject populations. Since the Republic of Poland had not supported Ukrainians in their independence movement between the two world wars, Ukrainian nationalists at the time viewed Poland as an enemy and oppressor. Some Ukrainians allied with the Third Reich to try to defeat the Soviet regime in Ukraine, and in doing so fought and killed Poles. Many Poles, meanwhile, found themselves fighting on the side of the Soviet Red Army trying to defeat Germany, which did not even allow for the nominal sovereignty of Poland. Fighting and killing was intense on both sides, and the official Soviet bloc history of the region and period portrayed all anti-Soviet Ukrainian fighters as simply fascists or criminals (or both). In many cases, the Ukrainians who sided with Hitler against Stalin had memories of the Soviet terror-famine (Holodomor) and other unspeakable Stalinist atrocities in their country, and they probably did not believe Hitler could possibly be worse.

Members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in 1943

Members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in 1943

Yet the post-Soviet Ukrainian government has officially lionized the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and its most prominent leader, Stepan Bandera, as a symbol of resistance to Soviet domination, and sadly, many Poles resent this attitude because the UPA killed many Poles. Compounding problems, even though the official Ukrainian commemoration of the UPA is not meant to be directed against current-day Poland, Ukraine has not been very tactful, adept or straightforward in clearing up its western ally’s misunderstandings.

Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the Institute of World Policy, analyzes the problem in an article for Evropeyskaya Pravda called ‘How We Are Losing Pro-Ukrainian Poland.’ She indicates, credibly, that the passage of a law by the Ukrainian parliament recognizing the UPA as freedom fighters on the very day that Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski addressed the national legislature in Kyiv in April 2015 may have contributed significantly to Komorowski’s loss in the presidential election.

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski (left) with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in the Verkhovna Rada, 9 April 2015

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski (left) with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in the Verkhovna Rada, 9 April 2015

She interprets the passage of the UPA resolution almost immediately after Komorowski had ended his visit to Ukraine as a ‘slap in the face’ to the Polish leader, leading ultimately to the victory of Andrzej Duda, a politician whose ‘Law and Justice’ party is purportedly less inclined to tolerate such apparent Ukrainian indifference to Polish national feelings and sensibilities. An indication that the Putin regime is capitalizing on fallout between Warsaw and Kyiv is that the article was picked up in an ecstatic tone by the English-language Kremlin-propaganda mouthpiece Sputnik News, in an anonymous opinion piece entitled ‘Kiev Hysterical Over Prospect of Losing Poland Due to Historical Bad Blood.’ Ms. Getmanchuk summarizes the main points in the current crisis of relations, outlining the challenges for Ukraine in salvaging vital relations with its most important neighbor in the current crisis.

How We Are Losing Pro-Ukrainian Poland

Alyona Getmanchuk, Institute of World Policy / Evropeyskaya Pravda ~ 22 October 2015


In Poland, as in Ukraine, elections are being held on October 25th. We have local; they have parliamentary. After these, Poland will finally be able to get out of a protracted election campaign, which has clearly not benefited our relations.

But the more you talk with our Polish partners, the more you delves into the discourse on Ukraine, the stronger the fear becomes that even after the dust of electoral passion settles, our relationship with Poland will be different.

Maybe not worse, but different.

It can’t fail to be surprising that in Ukraine few people notice the disturbing trends visible in Poland over the past year.

The Wishes of the Voters

Many still believe that support for Kyiv is something akin to Warsaw’s lifelong duty. They say that Poland is bound to support Ukraine under any government, in either capital.

We’ve really grown accustomed to there always being a political and social consensus in Poland to support Ukraine, and we don’t think about the fact that sometimes this consensus is based on anti-Russian rather than pro-Ukrainian sentiments.

We take for granted that the Poles should be the first to protect any Ukrainian interests in the European Union.

We, happily rubbing our hands, closed a chapter in the history of Ukrainian-Polish relations under the heading of ‘historic reconciliation,’ counting it as one of the international success stories.

We stopped working on the relationship too early, basically, and instead we romantically trusted in ‘eternal love’ between our two countries.

But the time for romance has passed – fortunately or unfortunately.

The author’s meetings with Warsaw politicians and diplomats prove that the relationship has obviously regressed.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk (3rd from left) and Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz (4th from left) have met regularly, but Kopacz will likely be replaced after the election (Photo: UNIAN)

Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk (3rd from left) and Polish PM Ewa Kopacz (4th from left) have met regularly. Kopacz will likely be gone after the election. (Photo: UNIAN)

The subtle irritation is barely felt from Ukraine, but it’s bad.

Instead of focusing on how to fulfill the agenda, we’re seeing attempts to delve into the past, to put relations on the level of historical heritage.

No, on the surface everything is more or less okay.

The schedule of our ambassador, Andriy Deshchytsia, does not accommodate all the events and meetings at which they would have wanted to see and hear him, without regard to the results. This year there were three meetings of the prime ministers. In New York Poroshenko finally met with Andrzej Duda, and by the end of the year they may meet two more times.

But the problems become evident when discussions begin. Warsaw responds to public demand, but it doesn’t contribute to positive relations with Kyiv.

The electoral filter has ceased to work to our advantage.

In these parliamentary elections, excessively open support for Ukraine works as a minus, not a plus.

This became apparent in May, when rock musician Pawel Kukiz took third place in the presidential election. He claimed 21% of the vote despite his openly anti-Ukrainian rhetoric.

Of course, he received this support not because of his anti-Ukrainian promises, but then again they didn’t turn out to be an obstacle in his path to success.

There are several reasons for such changes.


Firstly, Poland is very concerned that the issue of the UPA, Bandera and the red and black flag is no longer regional and marginal after the Revolution of Dignity.

As Polish colleagues say, this is now ‘not our dialogue with Galicia, but our dialogue with Ukraine.’

Monument in Volyn, Ukraine, to Poles killed by the UPA in 1943

Monument in Volyn, Ukraine, to Poles killed by the UPA in 1943

For ordinary Poles, UPA is one of five key associations with Ukraine (the survey was conducted by order of the Institute of World Policy). And for voters of the late Lech Kaczynski’s party, ‘Law and Justice’ (PiS), which is preparing for victory in this election, this is of greater concern than for the voters of Donald Tusk’s ‘Civic Platform.’

Yes, I know, in Ukraine, it was customary to assume that the real pro-Ukrainian party was ‘Law and Justice.’ There were a lot of happy words when PiS candidate Andrzej Duda was elected president.

But in fact, PiS today is no longer what it was in the days of Lech Kaczynski.

People who understand the strategic importance of Ukraine have mostly been relegated to the background. Some of them will not even get into the Sejm this time.

Those whose sentiments and approaches resemble the so-called ‘armchair societies’ are coming to the forefront now.

These are the people for whom the formula of ‘we will forgive and ask forgiveness’ is not enough. I’m not sure that some of them would be satisfied even if the Ukrainian president went down on his knees, as Willy Brandt did in his time.

And one of the representatives of PiS, who is predicted to hold a key post in the future government, warned unambiguously in the closed part of the recent ‘Ukraine-Poland’ forum: ‘Ukrainians should understand that revitalization of Bandera images harms the image of Ukraine as much corruption.’

Now PiS does not want to lose a single vote, and especially not because of Ukraine. For that reason, therefore, it is running away from Ukrainian topics like from a fire. And that’s why Andrzej Duda was in no hurry to meet with Poroshenko, to say nothing of receiving him in Poland.

But the problem is not in the election campaign. In Warsaw, they say that the current approach of Duda and PiS toward Ukraine in general is not a tactic, but a strategy.

‘The period of unconditional assistance to Ukraine is passing,’ say respected Polish commentators in one voice on both sides, whether simply informing or warning.

And the fact that this has happened is to a considerable extent the fault of the Ukrainian side.

A Slap at Komorowski

In my opinion, Ukraine has not yet realized what happened during President Bronislaw Komorowski’s last visit to Ukraine, namely, the adoption of a law on the recognition of UPA as fighters for independence immediately after his speech in the Verkhovna Rada.

According to my sources, Komorowski had the opportunity to choose the last foreign trip before the presidential elections – either Ukraine or Britain, where, as we know, a large Polish community lives.

Komorowski made a bid for Ukraine.

And in Kyiv he received not only a slap, but a humiliation.

Some serious Polish experts say that the visit to Ukraine cost him approximately 1.5% of the votes in the presidential election.

We cannot say that because of Ukraine Komorowski was not re-elected, but we did ‘help’ a little.

The question is therefore appropriate: was the vote for these laws on the day of his visit an accident or a provocation? If it was a provocation, then by whom?

The answer to this question should be found if there is a desire to work with Poland so that the Polish president is not afraid to go to Kyiv in anticipation of the next – in their view – humiliation.

3rd Pic

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski addresses the Verkhovna Rada on 9 April 2015

The case of Komorowski has shown that Ukraine must be careful, because sincere support can twist the knife in the back. This is what Lech Kaczynski felt with Yushchenko and the famous ‘Bandera – Hero of Ukraine’ decree; this is what Bronislaw Komorowski felt.

And, as they say in Warsaw, it was one of the reasons why Duda ‘could not’ meet with Poroshenko immediately after the election.

The Russian Factor

Today, there is a risk that an emphatically different vision of the Ukrainian past could significantly alter Warsaw’s support for Ukraine’s desired future.

It is possible that the idea of a country that ‘glorifies terrorist methods of struggle’ having a dubious right to be in the EU or NATO is still outside the mainstream, but it is being discussed with increasing frequency.

Ukrainian postage stamp issued in 2009, the 100th anniversary of Stepan Bandera's birth

Ukrainian postage stamp issued in 2009, the 100th anniversary of Stepan Bandera’s birth

There is still much to do so that Polish questions inspired by history do not resemble demands on Ukrainians to give up their national heroes – and so that Poles at all levels realize that the surge of sympathy in Ukraine for the UPA and Bandera has no anti-Polish content.

But first it is necessary for Ukrainians to work on the mistakes of the very recent past.

Secondly, since last year serious concerns have taken root in the Poles that the more Poland supports Ukraine, the more powerfully it ricochets to hit back at Poland.

A year ago, Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz made the exponential statement that in the Ukrainian question Poland should behave ‘like a sensitive Polish woman: our security, our country, our home and our children should come first.’

Economic relations with Russia and the harm caused to the economy because of the conflict surrounding Ukraine – this is a new factor in the Polish debate on Ukraine.

It is turning out to be pretty interesting: while in Germany, pragmatic political expediency won the debate with respect to the economy of Ukraine, in Poland, economic feasibility is competing with politics.

Besides which, migrants from Ukraine are beginning to be perceived as a threat. Just one detail: according to a survey of the International Organization for Migration, 55% of Poles perceive Arabs as a threat, and 35% – Ukrainians. And this is despite the fact that it is the Poles – along with the Georgians and Belarusians – who generate the warmest feelings among Ukrainians (survey of the ‘Rating’ group).

Leader or Participant?

Władysław II Jagiełło was simultaneously Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland from 1386-1434, and laid the foundations for the Polish-Lithuanian Union.

Władysław II Jagiełło was simultaneously Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland from 1386-1434. He laid the foundations of the Polish-Lithuanian union.

In Poland there has been an attempt to somehow adapt two well-known doctrines to external political realities. The first is the so-called Jagiellonian, with a focus on Central and Eastern Europe. The second is the so-called Piast, which envisions strict linkage to Western Europe, especially Germany.

The Piast approach was consolidated under the government of the ‘Platform.’ Today, Duda is credited with the desire to restore elements of the Jagiellonian strategy.

Some see Poland as strong when it is a leader, number one in the ‘coalition of the weak’; others, when it is only a participant, but in the ‘coalition of the powerful.’

Mieszko I was a member of the Piast dynasty who ruled from about 960-992. His baptism in 966 subordinated him and his dominion to the Holy Roman Emperor.

Mieszko I was a member of the Piast dynasty who ruled from about 960-992 and is considered the creator of the Polish state. His baptism in 966 brought Poland into the community of western Latin rite Roman Catholic states of Europe.

In all his years in power, Tusk tried to prove that Poland was much more powerful when it played in the ‘coalition of the powerful,’ in one team with Germany, than when it tried to create its own coalition in Central and Eastern Europe.

For Ukraine, this approach has worked as a ‘plus’ more than once. Donald Tusk had good personal relations with Angela Merkel, and his role on the issue of sanctions at some stage was important, though not very visible from Kyiv.

Polish President Andrzej Duda and First Lady Agatą Kornhauser-Dudą in Berlin (Photo: PAP/Paweł Supernak)

Polish President Andrzej Duda and First Lady Agatą Kornhauser-Dudą in Berlin (Photo: PAP/Paweł Supernak)

However, PiS, on the contrary, plays on the hurt feelings of those Poles who do not like the merger of the Polish voice with the voice of Brussels and Berlin, who see a natural role for Warsaw as a powerful regional leader.

Hence the statements of Duda on Baltic-Black Sea alliances and the ambitions of Poland with regard to participation in the Normandy format.

And by the way, finally – really important for Warsaw is the ‘trick’ of disposability.

This is the question that even Ukrainian diplomats recognize as ‘really difficult’ in the bilateral dialogue.

In fact, this is the first time that Poland has not participated in the resolution of a major crisis concerning Ukraine. At least, not formally.

Although this bid of Warsaw’s doesn’t always seem reasonable.

At least, I haven’t managed to glean from Poles the exact added value of Warsaw’s participation in the negotiation format on resolving the conflict in the Donbas.

* * * * *

Finally, there is another factor that deters many Polish politicians. This is the diversity and systemic quality of Ukraine’s internal problems.

Poroshenko and Duda meet at the UN in New York in September 2015

Poroshenko and Duda meet in September 2015 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York for a low-profile chat

The surge of interest in Ukraine after the Revolution of Dignity and constant presence in the information field haven’t only opened the eyes of Poles to Ukrainians’ alarming struggle against Russian aggression.

It has, at the same time, [drawn attention] to the scale of Ukraine’s shortcomings, in particular, to how deeply and widely entrenched our corruption is.

There is frank disappointment in the fact that years go by, revolutions happen, and Ukraine never comes to anything good.

The fact that Ukraine is not Poland has already become clear, and not just to the experts.

Как мы теряем проукраинскую Польшу

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