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Ukraine and Poland. What next?

The Shegyni-Medyka checkpoint at Ukraine’s border with Poland. Photo: AFP
Ukraine and Poland. What next?
Article by: Petro Kraliuk
Translated by: Anna Mostovych

Vasyl Stus in his “Camp Notebook,” written in 1982, noted: “I am enthralled by Polish victories of the spirit and I regret that I am not a Pole.” At that time a huge mass of Poles, united by the Solidarity trade union, was engaged in an unequal struggle with a totalitarian regime.

Poland markedly outpaced Ukraine then. It became one of the first “cells” of the socialist camp to overthrow a totalitarian regime. It joined NATO, it became a member of the EU. With the help of the West, it was able to transform its economy, becoming a relatively prosperous country.

Will Poland bring about the collapse of the European Union?

And suddenly, in recent years, Poland has turned into a “headache” for the EU. Right wing parties have come to power, who have rejected liberal values and who are adopting populist measures. Democracy is being curtailed in the country. On December 20, 2017, the European Commission initiated a disciplinary proceeding against Poland for the controversial judicial reform that is being implemented in the country. Poland may be deprived of the right to vote in this community. Indeed, the Polish leadership has caused a crisis that could lead to the collapse or reorganization of the EU.

An unfortunate parallel comes to mind. Just as Poland once contributed to the collapse of the Socialist camp and the Soviet Union, it could now lead to the collapse of the European Union. Incidentally,  in Poland today comparisons are frequently made between the USSR and the EU. At the same time, Polish leadership does not refuse considerable subsidies from the European Union.

Unfortunately, similar tendencies are characteristic not only of Poland but also of several recent EU members, especially Hungary and the Czech Republic. This is a phenomenon that has not yet been fully understood by political science. Russia has played a certain role, exerting influence in these countries through its intelligence services and propaganda. However, this factor should not be exaggerated. It rather plays the role of a catalyst for processes that are conditioned by other factors — social, demographic, cultural, and so on. In this context, one must also understand the political processes in these countries. One example is the recent adoption in Poland of amendments to the law on the Institute of National Remembrance, which was much discussed in Ukraine. These amendments provide for punishment for denying the “crimes of Ukrainian nationalists.” They are interpreted very broadly in Poland, making it possible to include many manifestations of the national liberation struggle of Ukrainians under their wording.

Finally, the amendments to the law on the Institute of National Remembrance have generated negative reactions in other countries, especially since they reveal an attempt to ignore instances of the persecution of Jews by Poles.

Why has another problematic initiative appeared in Poland?

In general, it would have been surprising not to expect that the amendments adopted by the Sejm and the Senate would not be signed by the president. He has not been restrained by the negative reactions from Israel and the United States, much less by those of Ukraine. The official statement by Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada on these amendments has not and probably will not generate an adequate response from the Polish side.

There  is still some hope in the Constitutional Court, where President Andrzej Duda promised to submit legislative changes. But it is important to keep in mind that, after the recent judicial reforms in Poland, this institution  is heavily influenced by the current government. At most, the Constitutional Court may become sort of a lightning rod that proposes certain amendments. Perhaps this is what will happen because there seems to have been no other reason for the president to send this law to the Court.

All this resembles  a political game. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and its leader Jarosław Kaczyński remain “clean” since they did “what they could.” “Their” Sejm, Senate and president supported the legislative initiative, which pleases the nationalistically minded Poles — the party’s electorate. The Constitutional Court is a so-called “independent body,” which can afford to take certain “liberties.”

Naturally, the adopted amendments to the law on the Institute of National Remembrance are first of all a tactical move to mobilize the conservative and nationalistic electorate around the PiS party and its allies. True, this is being done to the accompaniment of demagogic statements about the search for “historical truth.” Such actions are effective and support for the PiS party is growing.

These amendments also have the goal of discouraging manifestations of national consciousness by Ukrainians who are living, working and studying in Poland. And there are more than 1 million of them!

In the end, these amendments are another attempt by the current Polish authorities to gauge the reaction of their partners to the curtailment of freedom of speech in the country.

Should Ukrainians be concerned about yet another act by Polish authorities regarding the search for “historical truth”? It must be understood that this is political manipulation that has been taking place and will continue.

Ukrainians should bid farewell to their “Polish illusions.” For some time now Poland has no longer been “Ukraine’s lawyer” in Europe. It will soon need a lawyer of its own. And it is not worth hoping that this country will help Ukraine integrate into the European space. For that we need to seek other partners that are playing a leading role in the  European Union. They are primarily Germany and France. Of course, we should not forget the eastern EU countries that support us –for example, Lithuania.

Ukraine should build a purely pragmatic relationship with Poland without any symbolic “brotherhood” and “strategic partnership.” The Ukrainian government, aside from making loud statements about the actions of Polish right-wing politicians (although such statements also are needed) should seriously address the issue of the troubled border trade with Poland and the question of Polish recruitment of Ukrainian workers and students from Ukraine, as well as the protection of Ukrainian citizens who are temporarily or permanently residing in Poland. And it should not forget the Polish citizens of Ukrainian descent.

And, finally, it needs to remind both the Polish government and the EU countries that it is Ukraine that is defending European values in a war with Russia. Perhaps there will be liberals in Poland and in Europe who will recognize this reality and will say they regret they are not Ukrainians.

Historian Petro Kraliuk is vice-rector at the National University of Ostroh Academy

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
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