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Warsaw-Kiev dialogue: strategic challenges and historical resentments

Perhaps, the most influential politician in Poland today, leader of the ruling party "Law and Justice" (pol. Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) Jaroslaw Kaczynski said: "We cannot accept for years the fact that Ukraine forms the cult of people, who committed genocide against Poles.

I plainly told President Poroshenko that they will not make it to Europe with Bandera. 

It is absolutely clear to me. We have already shown great patience, but everything has its limits". How such position can affect Poland's policy towards Ukraine? Will it affect the Lithuanian-Polish relations? What will happen to the Polish minority in Ukraine? BALTNEWS.lt discusses all these questions with the head of the Central European Institute for Research and Strategic Analysis Pawel Gotowiecki.

How could you characterize today's Polish-Ukrainian relations?

Officially Polish-Ukrainian relations are good, and Warsaw proclaims strategic support for Kiev's European aspirations. Due to the aggressive Russian policy, Poland is deeply interested in the efficiency of the Ukrainian security system. In the doctrine of President Lech Kaczynski, who died in the plane crash near Smolensk, Ukraine was an important link in the system of collective security and the potential partner of Poland.

But, despite the fact that today Poland is governed by Lech Kaczynski's brother, a lot has changed since the days, when both the President of Poland and the President of Ukraine co-defined the principle of Eastern European solidarity at rally in Tbilisi. It was a bitter surprise for many Polish politicians, when they found that romantic vision of pro-Polish, anti-Russian and pro-European Ukraine is not entirely realistic after the fall of Viktor Yanukovych. “Post-revolutionary” Ukraine showed many faces.

I would like to draw attention to one aspect, perhaps less clear for the foreign observers of Polish-Ukrainian relations. In 2016, well-known Polish politician and financier Prof. Leszek Balcerowicz began to work in the Ukrainian government. A few months ago, another Polish politician and former minister Slawomir Nowak accepted the citizenship of Ukraine and agreed to become a local official (see: the case of Saakashvili). Balcerowicz is a symbol of socially difficult economic transformation in Poland in 1990s and one of the staunchest opponents of the current ruling party in Poland. Nowak, a figure of much smaller caliber, leaved Polish political arena in the atmosphere of corruption scandal. In the eyes of the conservative Polish political elite, hiring this type of individuals is not the best demonstration of the condition of the Ukrainian state and political as well as economic transformation in this country. Ukraine – with its oligarchs, private armies, widespread corruption, hired politicians and dependence on the external sponsorship – became a huge disappointment among Polish conservative elites.

But regardless of this, Ukraine is still a great challenge to the Polish eastern policy.

Can different position of Poland and Ukraine on some questions of common history (for example, "Volhynia massacre") and nationalistic forces of both countries complicate bilateral relations dramatically?

Unfortunately, yes. Poland and Ukraine had always differed in assessing historical events, but previously strategic vision of the partnership was able to outweigh past resentments. Since Ukraine is an independent state, part of the Ukrainian elite is trying to look for sources of national identity in the tradition of irredentist struggles of such formations as the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). Currently, this form of self-identification has gained the status of actual historical policy of the Ukrainian authorities. For Poles this situation is unacceptable. Poland cannot agree on the glorification of formation that committed the crime of genocide during World War II and accept introducing of nationalism elements into Ukrainian political mainstream. Even if this nationalism is now directed against Russia and in some way is a form of national pride, its genesis is anti-Polish.

On the other hand, in Poland we can see a recovery trend, which can be described as a vindication in relations with Ukraine. For example, recently produced film "Wolyn" about the "Volhynia massacre" – although in my personal opinion, film is painfully honest, I know that in Ukraine many people and communities found it anti-Ukrainian.

There is no doubt that for Polish conservative party voters from eastern Poland, traditionally showing historical resentment towards Ukrainians, are very important. At the end of January, 2017 Jaroslaw Kaczynski gave an important interview, in which he described the future Polish-Ukrainian relations as a "question mark". Of course, Poland needs to support democratic trends in this country, because geopolitics can push even the most painful history on the sidelines. Anyway, I believe that Ukraine’s erection of Bandera monuments is not the sole image of that country. I know different Ukraine and other Ukrainians – those, who look at Poland and Polish people friendly.

At the same time, one must naturally take into account the possibility that escalation of the Polish-Ukrainian resentments is a part of hybrid war waged today. I am convinced that among today's radical critics of Ukraine in Poland there are not only the "fellow travelers" of Russia, but also Kremlin recruited people. This applies, for example, to some conservative and nationalist groups. In Ukraine, I think, situation is similar, and some activities of the local nationalists are more or less clandestinely sponsored by Moscow.

Is there any concern among Polish politicians and/or experts about the rights of Polish minority in Ukraine?

The rights of the Polish minority in Ukraine are not, in contrast to Lithuania, a political problem. Of course, Polish minority has many objective difficulties, such as lack of funds, but it is difficult to speak about administrative discrimination. Also, the problem of Ukrainian nationalism is rather a problem of historical tradition and sources of Ukrainian identity than a threat to the rights of Polish minority. We can discuss the direction of the current changes in Ukraine, but there is no basis to conclude that they may affect the people of Polish origin. At the level of interpersonal relations Poles and Ukrainians are not in conflict.

Lithuania does not have historical problems with Ukraine. Can approaches of Lithuania and Poland towards Ukraine begin to differ because of historical aspect and can this influence Lithuanian-Polish relations?

I do not think that Polish-Lithuanian relations derive from Polish-Ukrainian dealings. This type of dependence could be relevant at the time, when the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were moving towards a sui generis project of neo-Intermarium. This kind of geopolitical concept could have had a real significance during the presidency of Lech Kaczynski – in my opinion, the most outstanding Polish politician after 1989. Current Polish eastern policy is hidden behind double arm block of the EU and NATO.

Moreover, I believe that while the problems in Polish-Ukrainian relations concern the areas of axiology and historical policy, the problems in Polish-Lithuanian relations are more political. Unresolved issue is a question of the Polish minority in Lithuania, whose rights arising from its status of national minority are limited. It is a well-organized national group, actively participating in the political life of Lithuania and led by an efficient leader. Current Polish government, continuing the line of "Civic Platform" (pol. Platforma Obywatelska) party and especially of the former Minister of Foreign Affairs Radoslaw Sikorski, does not intend to sacrifice Vilnius area Poles on the altar of the Polish-Lithuanian alliance. I do not want to spread doom and gloom, but our countries are condemned to a long period of cool relations.

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