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Who wins and who loses with the new Polish law on national memory

Who wins and who loses with the new Polish law on national memory
Article by: Andriy Pylypenko
Translated by: Anna Mostovych

On January 31, the Polish Senate (upper chamber of the Polish parliament) considered a new version of the law on Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance (IPN). The law will come into force if it is signed by President Andrzej Duda. ( Established in 1998, The Institute of National Remembrance is a government-affiliated research institution with prosecutorial powers that also has the functions of a state archive, an academic institute, and an education center– Ed.)

How did this law come about?

In the 2015 elections to the Polish Parliament, the right-wing populist parties received substantial representation in the Sejm (lower house of the Polish parliament).  With the help of extremely aggressive rhetoric and slogans about curtailing European integration, parties such as Kukiz’15 broke into Polish political life, gaining the support of almost 9% of the voters. One of the key topics of the campaign then was the demand that the murder of Polish civilians in Volyn, often labeled  “Volyn slaughter,” be recognized as genocide.

Actually it was the Kukiz’ 15 party that introduced the draft law “On the Institute of National Remembrance ” into the Sejm in early 2016. Its adoption on January 31, by the Polish Senate has provoked fierce debates in Ukraine and elsewhere. According to this law, the so-called crimes of “Ukrainian nationalists” should be prosecuted to the same extent as the crimes of the communist or Nazi regimes.

Then, in the summer of 2016, the Polish parliament voted for the notorious resolution that claimed that the events in Volyn were a genocide of the Polish people. But the draft law on the Institute of National Remembrance of Poland itself, introduced by Kukiz’ 15, was postponed. At that time, the law appeared too radical for the ruling Law and Justice party.

Why this law became a sensation

On January 26, 2018, the Polish Sejm adopted a new version of the law on the Institute of National Remembrance, which significantly expanded the authority of this institution to investigate “crimes committed against the Polish nation and its good name.” The changed law had to do not only with Ukraine or Ukrainians but with all war crimes and human rights violations  in periods such as WWII, for example. In particular, it could pertain to the Holocaust.

International reaction was swift.  The US State Department urged Poland to reconsider the draft law. “The history of the Holocaust is painful and complex,” it stated. “We understand that phrases such as ‘Polish death camps’ are inaccurate, misleading and hurtful. We are concerned, however, that if enacted this draft legislation could undermine free speech and academic discourse.”

The reaction of Israel’s government, which excoriated the bill, was even tougher. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted quite harshly, as did Israeli Ambassador to Poland Anna Azaria, who pointed out that the law would even allow punishment of Holocaust survivors for their testimony. “It’s impossible to change history and to deny the Holocaust,” Netanyahu stated. Also, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the new law “will not help reveal historical truth and may harm the freedom to conduct research.”

On January 28, the Israeli Foreign Ministry summoned Poland’s deputy ambassador to Tel Aviv to explain the amendments to the draft law. On Monday, January 29, a meeting took place between Krzystof Scherski, chief the cabinet of the Polish president, and Israeli Ambassador Anna Azaria to discuss the situation regarding the law. After this meeting, it was announced that a working group would be set up in Poland for a history dialogue with Israel.

However, in the evening of January 31, the Polish Senate, considered and approved a new version of the law, not waiting for results of the Polish-Israeli expert groups.

The end result was the announcement that the Knesset would consider the revised law that equates statements alleging Polish involvement in the crimes of the Third Reich to denials of the Holocaust.

Provisions of the law

The provisions of the revised law, which have been quoted by Ukrainian media, paint a disturbing picture.

For example, any allegation that Poles or the Polish state bear any responsibility or co-responsibility for the crimes of WWII committed by the Third Reich would be punishable by a fine or imprisonment of up to three years. Additionally, there are provisions for punishing the use of the phrase “Polish death camps.”

Punishment awaits even those who are not in Poland. Additions to the law state that, in addition to Nazi and communist crimes committed during 1917-1990 period,  the Institute of National Remembrance could also prosecute “crimes of Ukrainian nationalists and military formations that cooperated with the Third Reich.”

According to the bill’s authors, Ukraine is engaging in “historical politics” by seeking sources of its identity in “criminal formations and a criminal ideology of integral Ukrainian nationalism,” which is “taking over all spheres of social and public  life.” Furthermore, they claim Ukraine is trying to impose on Poland its view of events that occurred 75 years ago.

The law will be enacted after it is signed by Polish President Andrzej Duda. He has already promised to analyze the law thoroughly. Duda’s press secretary Krzysztof Lapinski stated that “there is no need to be guided by emotions in this situation. The Polish side should simultaneously fight for the truth. For many years we have heard too many lies about the so-called Polish death camps. We cannot allow such things to happen and this is why this law is needed. It does not apply to academic research nor, God forbid, to falsifying the truth about the Holocaust.”

Reactions in Ukraine

Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs  stated almost immediately that Poland was trying to portray Ukrainians as “criminal nationalists.”  The ministry expressed “deep concern about the adoption of the bill” which represents Poland’s neighbor exclusively as “criminal nationalists” and “Nazi collaborators.” Ukrainian diplomats expressed regret that “the Ukrainian theme is again being used in the domestic politics of Poland and that tragic chapters of the common historical past continue to be politicized.” The head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance Volodymyr Viatrovych was more emphatic, stating that Polish politicians have frozen the dialogue between historians in Warsaw and Kyiv and the law itself is an intensification in Poland of a political edict over history.

President Petro Poroshenko also expressed doubts that such a law added anything constructive to Polish-Ukrainian relations and urged Poland to pursue objectivity and dialogue regarding the law.

In summary

While the rightist -populist Kukiz’ 15 party was the driver of the legislative changes, the law would not have been supported in the Sejm without the position and votes of the Law and Justice party. The Law and Justice party, despite official statements, has picked up and continued the anti-Ukrainian rhetoric (or simply took advantage of the more radical party to introduce the topic to the public agenda).

We should not forget that local elections will be held in Poland this year and in 2019 there will be new elections to the Sejm. One can assume that the ruling Law and Justice party is already preparing to warm up” its “nuclear” electorate while at the same time attempting to attract the electorate of the more right-wing parties.

Ukraine has repeatedly proposed holding professional discussions between historians, culturologists, civic leaders, and to find a format for a dialogue between civil society organizations in Ukraine and Poland –without politicians and the obvious desire to manipulate public opinion.

In a few weeks representatives of the Ukrainian government are due to arrive in Warsaw. The announced visit includes not only the Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin but also Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Pavlo Rozenko and Poland’s Minister of Culture and National Heritage Piotr Gliński. One can only hope that Ukrainian-Polish relations will not move decisively into the “Ice Age” before then, even if Andrzej Duda goes ahead and signs the Law on the Institute of National Remembrance.

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
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