Donald Tusk met Viktor Yanukovych during the Eastern Partnership Summit. Photo: Grzegorz Roginski

Okategoriserade Polish-Ukrainian relations. outside the arenas

Poland has long been working to bring Ukraine closer to the EU, and vice versa. While others have become short of breath, Poland has continued to pass the ball over the border. The goal statistics have not always lived up to expectations, but the game has continued, and the long-term goal remains the same.

Published on on May 31, 2012

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Will Euro 2012 be successful in terms of Poland’s persistent efforts to steer Ukraine toward Europe? Or will co-hosting the European  Football Championship turn out to be an “own goal” from a political standpoint? Will the Europeanization process in Ukraine be dealt yet another blow? The Department of Eastern and Central European Studies and the Department of European Studies at Lund University arranged a seminar on Polish-Ukrainian relations after the collapse of communism, and their historical background, in order to better understand what is going on outside the arenas as Poland and Ukraine host the European Championship.

Poland has long been working to bring Ukraine closer to the EU, and vice versa. While others have become short of breath, Poland has continued to pass the ball over the border. The goal statistics have not always lived up to expectations, but the game has continued, and the long-term goal remains the same.

 “The Europeanization process is a framework for Poland’s policy in Ukraine. Since 1989, no important voices have questioned this. The idea is that a Ukraine that is closer to Europe and farther from Russia benefits Poland from a security policy standpoint,” says Jacek Nowak, who is an assistant professor at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland.

“It is remarkable how much goodwill and friendship, if not the Polish people, so the Polish elite, shows Ukraine.  Of course it is not in sake of Ukraine, but in sake of Poland,” says Volodymyr Kulyk, a professor at the National Academy of Sciences, Kiev, Ukraine.

A few cracks have appeared in the friendly facade of the co-hosting arrangement for Euro 2012, and the political distance between Europe and Ukraine has grown rather than shrunk. Over the spring, the European Football Championship has been politicized by top European leaders. In an attempt to aid the cause of imprisoned and ill former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a number of European leaders, including politicians in the EU Commission, have threatened to boycott the matches in Ukraine. The issue of how Tymoshenko is being treated is at stake.

Tymoshenko was convicted of abuses of power during her time as the Ukrainian prime minister. She claims that this was payback for the Orange Revolution by her principal opponent, President Viktor Yanukovych. For his part, Yanukovych claims that Tymoshenko’s conviction was a part of Ukraine’s campaign to tackle corruption, and that more charges are on the way.

The European threat to boycott Euro 2012 could be counterproductive. Polish politicians warn that a boycott could give additional ammunition to those who want Ukraine to seek a closer partnership with Russia rather than the EU. This is hardly what Poland had in mind in hosting a trans-border European Football Championship.

The positive and friendly attitude toward Ukraine at the official level is not consistent with the perception of Ukrainians among the Polish populace. The Germans used to be the nationality least liked by the Poles, reports Jacek Nowak, but the Ukrainians have assumed that role over the last ten or so years, according to polls conducted by the Polish Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS).

“It’s astonishing that Ukrainians are viewed more negatively than Germans,” says Nowak.

In 2011, roughly one-third of Poles surveyed indicated that they felt dislike toward Ukrainians. Nowak reasons that these negative attitudes may have to do not only with historical events but also with the fact that the political leadership’s long-term goal of bringing Ukraine closer to Europe is too abstract. The average Pole sees no results or advantages around this project, and may have grown weary of it. Nor is Ukraine viewed as a serious trading partner. Germany, on the other hand, has turned out to be Poland’s most important market.

“Not even the European Championship is viewed as a joint success by the public. From a Polish perspective, the countries are each planning for the championship separately,” says Nowak.

Political developments in Ukraine, with pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych winning the 2010 presidential election, have made it look even more as though Ukraine is turning toward Russia. According to Nowak, many Poles now question whether Ukraine is even interested in the EU.

“Ukrainians are seen as quasi-Russians. I often encounter this attitude in my social anthropology research. People call them Russians even in areas of Poland that have a Ukrainian minority.”

The Ukrainians’ image of the Poles has moved in the opposite direction, becoming more and more positive. At the seminar, Kulyk presented a survey in which Ukrainians were asked what things they associate with the word “Poland”.  The vast majority of those surveyed in 2010 came up with things such as neighboring country, places they had visited, a friendly country that both likes and helps Ukraine, and a role model. A mere 4 percent mentioned historical events such as the Cossack era, Polish rule, the Second World War, etc.

 “It is amazing how friendly Poland is perceived to be now,” says Kulyk.

He sees one explanation for this in all the visits made to Poland each year. Despite a visa requirement, some 5.1 million Ukrainians traveled across the border in 2011. That is almost as many as traveled to Russia, where no visa is required.

A generous visa policy makes it possible for Ukrainians to study, travel, and stay on as guest workers in Poland.

 “Despite some negative experiences, for instance among guest workers, Poland offers a positive contrast. Ukrainians have a very bleak view of their own government, while 68% said that the Polish government is concerned about the well-being of its citizens.” 

The numerous guest workers have resulted in the emergence of an old stereotype about Ukrainians in Poland, which portrays the Ukrainian as a simpleton.

Nowak believes that changing the negative image of Ukrainians at the grassroots level in Poland will require a new take on history. Old stereotypes of the Ukrainian as a simple and barbaric peasant are based on Polish memories from the Second World War, including the nationalistic Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the alliance between Ukrainians and fascists, and the mass murder of some 100,000 Poles at the end of the war in what is now Ukraine.

“Agreeing upon a common historical policy will help to break with negative stereotypes, strengthening the political relations between the two countries and making them more credible. At present the good relations are based more on political correctness and a rational security policy,” says Nowak.

Kulyk thinks he sees that Polish intellectuals are now starting to lose patience with the failure of Ukraine’s intellectual elite to come to terms with the past.

“It would be a shame if relations were to get worse. I am also finding that there is a genuine interest in partaking of Ukrainian culture, and not simply spreading their own. There is a reciprocity that is missing in the cultural relations with Russia.”

There were reprisals by the Poles during the Second World War, and at least 10,000 Ukrainian civilians were killed. Some 200,000 members of the Ukrainian minority were forcibly relocated to formerly German areas of Poland in order to remove the underpinnings of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army’s guerilla activities.

“The Ukrainian minority today demand apologies and remembrance for how they were treated. But this is not accepted by the Polish society. Poles are far from feeling guilty, deeply convinced that it was necessary as protection from the Ukrainian Insurgent Army,” says Nowak.

According to Kulyk, there are major differences between the way the history is dealt with at the government level and at the local level. He notes, for example, a case where a monument was to be set up in the vicinity of Lviv in Ukraine, where the mass murder of Poles had occurred. The story played out as a process of reconciliation at the government level, but the local authorities were opposed.

“Why should we let a former occupier come back? Isn’t it enough that they ruled us for hundreds of years?” argued Lviv’s leaders, according to Kulyk.

A relatively new fly in the ointment is that, even as preparations are being made for the European Football Championship there, Lviv has dedicated an award in memory of Stepan Bandera. Bandera was one of the leaders of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists that fought for independence from both Poland and the Soviet Union, including in cooperation with the fascists. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army was formed as the movement’s military arm at the end of the Second World War and played a major role in the ethnic cleansing of the Poles. Bandera’s role in history is controversial in Ukraine as well.

Nowak believes that a clear expression of Ukrainian desire to draw closer to Europe is yet another basic prerequisite for deeper and better relations. But the issue of whether to draw closer to Europe or Russia is a sensitive one in Ukraine. This was particularly evident in the battles that broke out in the Ukrainian parliament in late May over a proposed law that would give Russian equal status with Ukrainian in certain regions that have Russian-speaking majorities.

It remains to be seen whether the threat of a boycott over Yulia Tymoshenko’s treatment will sway Europeanization policy in Ukraine. Warnings about Ukraine are also being raised at the grassroots level, although the concerns have to do with the risk of racial violence and the rights of LGBT people. The first Pride parade in Kiev was to have been held on May 20th, but it had to be canceled just 30 minutes before it began because the police were unable to protect the participants from rightwing extremists. Two LGBT activists were assaulted. A proposed law that would ban the dissemination of information that “promote[s] homosexuality” is also up before the Ukrainian parliament. The bill was proposed by the government’s own Freedom of Expression Committee. If top European politicians’ commitment to their colleague Yulia Tymoshenko was enough for them to start mixing sports and politics, then there is every reason for them to expand their threatened boycott to stop the proposed law. The Ukraine legislature is expected to vote in favor of the new laws just a few weeks before the start of the European Football Championship.

  • Peter Johnsson

    Its true that “only” one third of the poles declares sympathy for ukrainians and nearly as big part indicate a negative attitude. The most liked nations are the czechs and the slovaks. It should however be noted that the increase of positive attitude towards the ukrainians are today three times higher than in the beginning of the 90:s and the negative feelings have been decreased by half. Towards no other nation the change in a positive direction is so visible  as towards the ukrainian nations. 
    Peter Johnsson