Prisoners of the past

Prisoners of the past

02/2017  | Reading time: 10 minutes

Over the past few months the previously particularly good Polish-Ukrainian relations have become more and more strained. In the centre of the tense diplomatic relations and verbal bouts between Kyiv and Warsaw lies the different perception of the joint historical past, most notably the radical difference in the perception of the Ukrainian People’s Revolutionary Army’s (UPA – Ukrajinszka Povsztanszka Armija) role.

Poland firmly supported the pro-European Ukrainian political forces favouring Euro-Atlantic integration, both during the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the 2013-2014 Maidan Square protests, simultaneously stepping up continuously in the defence of Ukrainian state integrity throughout the course of events that led to the Russian occupation of the Crimean Peninsula and the war in Eastern Ukraine. However, since last summer, the dispute between the two countries about their historic past that has already led to tensions before has flared up with renewed vigour. The aggravation of the dispute could in the worst case even lead to a crisis that would severely hinder the strategic cooperation between Kyiv and Warsaw.

The dispute particularly revolves around the actions committed by the Ukrainian People’s Revolutionary Army under – among others – Stepan Bandera’s command during the years of the Second World War. The UPA has a particularly good reputation in Western Ukraine and is, in the eyes of many, an organisation whose soldiers fought the Poles and Soviets alike in order to achieve the creation of an independent Ukrainian state. By contrast, in Poland the UPA is synonymous with the brutal mass murder of Polish civilians in Volhynia – committed with German approval between 1943 and 1945.

March in honour of UPA and Bandera in Kyiv
Source: AFP/EAST NEWS Genya Savilov

On 22 July 2016, the Polish Sejm passed a resolution remembering the Polish victims of the murders committed by UPA and other Ukrainian nationalist organisations, while also declaring 11 July a National Remembrance Day in tribute to those killed. The decision sparked outrage in Kyiv; leading politicians including president Petro Poroshenko expressed their incomprehension and sadness in connection to the decision. Certain Ukrainian politicians even went as far as to compare the adoption of the resolution to the backstabbing of the Ukrainian nation. This reaction was met with incomprehension in Warsaw, where Polish officials accused the political leadership of Ukraine of failing to face the past. Also as a response, acts of vandalism against memorial sites and physical attacks against members of the other nation have flared-up in both countries since the start of the debate.

The causes for the unusually heated debate lie in the fundamentally different perception of historical events and in the current political situation in Poland and Ukraine. The new political elite of Ukraine, which since 2014 constantly had to function in a state of crisis, deliberately made use of the already deeply rooted cult of UPA and Bandera in Western Ukraine pitting it against the strong pro-Soviet and pro-Russian sentimentalism in Eastern Ukraine. This was illustrated well by the erections of sculptures honouring the UPA’s main figures all over Western Ukraine, the passing of new set of laws “protecting” UPA’s historical memory and the renaming of Kyiv’s Moscow Avenue to Bandera Avenue. In recent years, Warsaw has repeatedly protested against the government level recognition and popularization of the UPA. Between 2007 and 2015 the Polish government led by the Civic Platform (PO) repeatedly refrained from the acceptance of a resolution condemning the mass killings in Volhynia, as they feared that this might have a negative effect on bilateral relations. However, after the elections in 2015, the Justice and Law Party (PiS) gained a majority in the Polish houses of parliament and as previously promised, they set out to achieve the acceptance of the resolution in question.

The aggravation of Polish-Ukrainian relations is not in the general interest of either side. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians found new jobs and livelihoods in Poland, in addition Warsaw is strongly argues in favour of maintaining the sanctions against Russia and to strengthen NATO's eastern flank. Furthermore, Poland also provides economic and non-lethal military support to Ukraine. Also, the existence of a pro-Western Ukraine which supports European integration is in Poland's strategic interest.

Petro Poroshenko Ukrainian and Andrzej Duda Polish presidents meet in Warsaw, 2 December 2016
Source: PAP/Jerzy Turczyk

During their meeting at the beginning of December 2016, both Petro Poroshenko Ukrainian and Andrzej Duda Polish presidents expressed their conviction that the disputed historical questions should not affect the preservation and development of Polish-Ukrainian strategic partnership. Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski formulated similar thoughts during his speech before members of the Polish Sejm, outlining the priorities of Polish foreign policy. According to him: “(…) Poland pursues its policy of supporting pro-European aspirations of Ukraine. We are of the view that full implementation of the Minsk agreements is key to a peaceful solution of the conflict. (…) We support the Ukrainian authorities’ actions in the fields of decentralization, local government reform and the fight against corruption. The year 2016 was good for mutually beneficial Polish-Ukrainian defence cooperation. (…) All this shows that the Polish-Ukrainian strategic partnership is increasingly filled with substance and will help build our neighbour’s resistance to destabilisation. We are sending a clear signal to Ukraine that what is happening to their country today gives us not only cause for concern, but also triggers our concrete reaction.

However, it became also clear from the Polish Foreign Minister's words that the current Polish government considers the review of the Ukrainian position essential in order to continue the present form of cooperation between the two countries: “While we support Ukraine in its reform efforts and pro-European policy, we do not lose sight of historical issues. We believe that a true strategic partnership should be accompanied by truth. At the same time, we do not want our bilateral relations to be held hostage by the past.” President Andrzej Duda formulated even clearer during his interview for Polish State Television, when he described what he personally expects from his Ukrainian partners stating that: “Poland firmly demands historical truth”, while asking the political leadership in Kyiv to “stop glorifying people who were murderers”, as “such issues have a significant impact on Polish-Ukrainian relations”.

The disagreement between Poland and Ukraine, above all, strengthens the position of Russia in the region. Therefore, most probably, both countries will seek to settle the feud. However, it remains to be seen whether against the will of their hard-core nationalist supporters, the current governments in Warsaw and Kyiv will be able to come up with a long-term compromise.

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