A chance for Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation?

Posted on 22. August 2016

by Michał Gulczyński & Ivan Kendzor

michal-gulczynskiivan-kendzorAlthough Poland is seen as the major ally of Ukraine in the European Union and the most engaged country in its democratisation process, relations between the two countries are not flawless. The massacres of Polish and Ukrainian civilians in Volyn in 1943 by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army left an unresolved black mark on the friendship between the two nations to this day.

The Polish parliament condemns genocide

In the past weeks, Polish-Ukrainian conflicts of the past have come back, like they do every year on the occasion of the anniversary of the Volyn massacres on 11 July 1943. This time, though, the standard discussions about the interpretations of history have been overshadowed by an unprecedented act of Ukraine-phobia. Just a few weeks before the commemoration, Polish nationalists verbally and physically attacked a yearly procession of local Ukrainians, on the Day of Ukrainian National Memory. The Polish government did not condemn those acts, which demonstrates its attitude.

Two drafts of a resolution on the already mentioned anniversary have been discussed in the Polish parliament. The one proposed by the Civic Platform (PO) called to support farther scientific investigations, commemorate all the victims on both sides of the conflict and the Ukrainian parliament to adopt a similar resolution. The other one, proposed by Law and Justice (PiS), condemned the massacres in a very direct way, calling them, for the first time, an act of genocide, and established the National Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Genocide of Ukrainian Nationalists on the Residents of the Second Republic of Poland. After a heated discussion only ten deputies abstained in order to show their discontent with the resolution of PiS. Ukrainian President Poroshenko and many other Ukrainian politicians immediately expressed their disappointment on social media.

It is important to mention that the vast majority of the Ukrainian population knows very little about this conflict. In school books in Ukraine one can only find one or two mentions of the Volyn tragedy. As just one of many other bloody events that happened in Ukraine during WWII, the Volyn tragedy is often forgotten. The topic however is being raised time by time by politicians, who use it for speculations.

Hope for reconciliation

Over the past 15 years, there have been many signs for reconciliation from both sides. One of the most significant events was the joint statement of the Presidents of Ukraine and Poland – Leonid Kuchma and Aleksander Kwaśniewski on 13 July 2003 during the unveiling of the monument in the village of Pavlivka, in Ukraine. However, this declaration was not followed by real actions, allowing other conflicts to surface later.

There have also been more recent efforts to appease the conflict. Current Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has taken an important step in the right direction, being the first Ukrainian president to pay tribute to the victims under their monument in Warsaw. On 2 June 2016, Ukrainian politicians, among them former presidents Leonid Kravchuk and Victor Yushchenko, and church leaders published an open letter, calling on the parliaments of both countries to adopt a common resolution. There were two answers from the Polish side: a very similar letter signed by former Polish presidents and prime ministers, and a letter fromPiS deputies, criticizing the Ukrainians for treating the faults of both sides of the conflict equally.

Although the topic has not been widely covered by the Polish mainstream media (e.g. the gesture of Poroshenko was overshadowed by the NATO summit and the resolution by the new law on the Constitutional Tribunal), the exchange of letters has produced some response. Regardless of the controversies about the interpretation of history, the readiness of significant parts of both the Polish and Ukrainian people to leave historical quarrels behind is clear and, thanks to the initiative of the Ukrainian leaders, has been revealed during the past weeks. At least two grass roots initiatives can be mentioned as proof of this willingness: a video with Ukrainians “forgiving and asking for forgiveness,” watched by almost 40,000 people, and an anonymous appeal to reconciliation on Facebook.

On the Polish side, the solidarity with the Euromaidan protesters cannot be overlooked.

Nowadays, the attitude of the Ukrainians towards the Poles is more positive than ever; 30.1% of them think of Poland as one of the three most amiable countries. This result is striking, especially when we compare it to the second best in the ranking: USA, with only 17.7%. The Poles are also much more interested in the current developments in Ukraine, which, together with a more pro-Western mood in Ukraine, is a good reason to hope for reconciliation.

Possible obstacles

Unfortunately, this good rapprochement between both societies coincides with the most nationally-oriented Polish parliament in the recent history of the country. The tolerance of nationalist, racist and xenophobic disturbances by the right-wing parties is a worrying trend, and has resulted in increasing number of acts of violence against foreigners. Moreover, the current government also has a strong tendency to review the Polish historiography. The draft of the resolution can be seen as an example of the conviction that history should be written by politicians.

However, the Ukrainian government could also show more sensitivity towards the Polish side. The Ukrainians’ right to praise the people who fought for independence against the Poles should not be denied. But it is hard to reject the argument that people responsible for extremely brutal crimes against Polish civilians should not get monuments or have streets named after them. No matter how big their merits in the fight for the independent Ukrainian state would be, criminals should not be glorified. On the other hand, the actions of separate detachments of a partisan army should not be perceived as those of the whole army and be the burden of all the soldiers who fought there (as the Ukrainian historians argue).

However, besides Poland and Ukraine, there is another actor in the conflict. It is clear that Russia has an obvious interest in pitting both nations against each other. This conflict would be especially valuable if the opinions expressed by Polish politicians could serve as a confirmation of the Russian anti-Maidan propaganda that characterises the Ukrainian protesters, as well as the government, as nationalists and fascists. The solidarity in the face of Russia is one of the strongest arguments for the de-politicisation of the massacres in Volyn.

What is needed for reconciliation?

The fate of Polish-Ukrainian relations obviously depends on both sides. Polish and Ukrainian politicians have to constrain their tendency to interpret history in resolutions and instead rely on facts and evidences in their discussions. They also have to condemn any kind of aggression motivated by xenophobia. Ukrainian politicians should show more openness to the objections from the Polish side. In this very particular and important moment, as Ukraine is trying to get rid of the Soviet burden, symbols and heroes should be chosen more carefully.

On both sides, more maturity is needed. The black pages in their own national histories should be accepted and condemned and both parties need to realise that relations can only normalise when they stop arguing about the past and can start to work together for a better future. Both countries should concentrate their efforts on promoting youth, academic and cultural exchanges. A hopeful example of this is the recent common establishment of the Polish-Ukrainian Council of Youth Exchange by the two governments, which will provide funding for such projects.

And just last week, a common declaration of the presidents of Poland and Ukraine was announced, which will emphasise the Polish contribution to Ukrainian independence. It should be signed on 24 August 2016 in Kiev. Will it be a new start on the way to reconciliation?