Poles proceed with caution
- PolesProceed With Caution
By Sławomir Majman
1 December 2004
"I am a Kievan," is what most Polish politicians would like to shout
today, paraphrasing John F. Kennedy.
The Polish Sejm was decked out in orange, the color of Viktor
Yushchenko. Polish Euro-deputies rooted for the demonstrating
oppositionists in Kiev's Independence Square. Almost all the Polish
media have accepted as the gospel truth the Ukrainian opposition's
claim that the elections were fraudulent. There has never been such
a deep and emotional involvement of political Poland in the internal
affairs of another country. In terms of supporting Yushchenko, the
Poles sprinted ahead of the rest of Europe, and this is fervent and
unconditional support. For Warsaw politicians and media, Yushchenko
means democracy, the road to freedom, the consolidation of
independence. His opponent Yanukovych means Sovietization,
corruption and submission to Russia. A black-white picture, without
nuances or doubts.
The campaign of civil disobedience being conducted by Yushchenko's
supporters has to arouse friendly feelings in Poland, if only
because it brings up associations with Lech Wałęsa's Solidarity from
a quarter of a century ago. The similarity, even if exalted and
appealing to the imagination, is only a seeming one. A long-time
bank dignitary is not a charismatic electrician elevated
spontaneously by the workers, and the independent though poorly
governed Ukraine is not the totalitarian Poland of the past. The
rebellion of Kiev and western Ukrainian cities, the rebellion of the
cheated arouses sympathy, but - truth be told - it's not even
certain who really won the elections in Ukraine.
If any country in Europe should proceed with caution and show
maximum responsibility with regard to what's going on in Ukraine,
that country is Poland.
■ The Poles should proceed with caution because they are Poles,
because the history of Polish-Ukrainian relations is what it is.
This is how that history looks from the Ukrainian side: "On a too
narrow strip of land between two seas is the home of the Ukrainians
and their permanent foes for a thousand years - the Poles, or
Lachs," wrote Panteleimon Kulish, one of the rousers of the
Ukrainian national spirit, a century ago. "And hatred, fed by
centuries of disappointment, has led them together to a contemptuous
madness. They are like two lions, Ukrainians and Poles - they claw
at each other's chests, right down to the place where their hearts
This naturalistic description found confirmation in recent times as
well. When Poland regained its independence in 1918, bloody Polish-
Ukrainian fighting immediately broke out. The young Ukrainians and
Poles killed in the fighting for Lviv found a permanent place in
both national Pantheons.
Once the war was over, there came what the Ukrainians - the ones
from the country's western part - consider to have been their worst
experience with the Poles. Four million Ukrainians found themselves
within Poland's borders - powerful explosives laid under the wall of
the Polish Republic. On one hand, the Ukrainians quickly discovered
a new link in the national movement - a terrorist conspiracy against
the Polish state. The intensity of Ukrainian terror in the 1920s
and `30s can only be compared with the peak of IRA activity. On the
other hand, the Polish authorities, unable to cope with the
Ukrainian separatists, chose the worst way outapplying collective
responsibility. The most painful thorns to this day are the
repressions towards helpless people: pacification of villages,
humiliation of human dignity, repressions of legal Ukrainian
schools, banks, cultural and sports organizations, cruelty of the
Polish policemen. This persecution hardened the Ukrainianshardened
them in their hatred towards the Poles.
The war defeat of 1939, on the other hand, brought what was the
Poles' worst experience with the Ukrainians. It gave the Ukrainians
a sense of indescribable satisfaction to see the Polish tragedy.
Things started with the spontaneous murders of Polish soldiers, the
annihilation of the Polish intellectual elite in Lviv, and led to
the formation of Ukrainian units in SS uniforms. The collective
massacre of Poles inhabiting Ukrainian lands began in 1942. The
Ukrainians grabbed axes, pitchforks and ropes. The victims of these
ethnic purges were more than 100,000 Polish civilians.
Such a past is not easy to overcome. With such baggage, the words
the Ukrainians hear from the Poles today could mean something
different than the words of, for example, the Americans. The pain is
too fresh to be erased by the brief period of Polish-Ukrainian
reconciliation, which was actually a process coming from the top,
from presidents Kwaśniewski and Kuchma.
■ The Poles should proceed with caution because the fiasco of
Poland's efforts is too recent for Poles to become a bridge linking
Ukraine with the West.
Poland was the first country in the world to recognize Ukraine's
independence in 1991. From the start of President Kwaśniewski's term
in office, Warsaw encouraged Kiev with all its strength to get
closer to NATO and the European Union. For years, the Polish
president played the role of the main Western probation officer and
attorney of Leonid Kuchma.
Quite recently, and not without reason, there was talk of the Warsaw-
Kiev axis, of Ukraine as Poland's closest ally in the East. When
Poles and Ukrainians saw their presidents in a bear hug in Lviv, a
city that divided the two nations in the past, it was widely
commented that reconciliation had become a fact. Soon it was to turn
out that it was easier to achieve reconciliation in the sphere of
symbols than to change Ukraine's strategy from a pro-Russian to a
pro-Western one. What was meant to be the greatest international
success of Kwaśniewski's termpulling Kiev towards the Westbecame
the greatest illusion of the time. Even worse, one couldn't avoid
the impression that the old fox Kuchma had used Kwaśniewski as a fig
The failure of Poland's Ukrainian policy was not just due to the
fact that Poland ran out of ways and means. First and foremost, it
was the West - and especially Brussels - which treated Kiev so
condescendingly that there was no way of outweighing the traditional
pull towards Russia.
Such a recent fiasco of Poland's deep involvement in the Ukrainian
cause should be a lesson in caution. It's not a good idea to make
yourself a laughing stock twice: first because you had
enthusiastically bet on the ruling camp, and the second timewith
equal enthusaism support the opposition.
■ Poles should proceed with special cuation, because Ukraine is
The crack is not just political, but mainly - regional.
Yushchenko has the firm support of the whole of western Ukraine -
where national feelings are well-developed, but also where
nationalism is strong. Supporting Yushchenko, the Poles are
supporting a camp that, yes, is more pro-Western and pro-reform, but
with a strong nationalist leaning. On the wave of freedom euphoria
in Warsaw, people have forgotten the shocking nationalist views
uttered by Yushchenko's right handmillionaire Yulia Tymoshenko, nor
did they notice that among the sea of orange ribbons, you could see
the threatening tridentsa symbol of Ukrainian terrorists. Lviv,
Tarnopol, Ivano-Frankovsk are fortresses of the opposition, but they
are bastions of nationalism at the same time, and in Ukraine
nationalism is always anti-Polish.
Maybe Yushchenko has his own recipe for toning down the nationalism,
but in Eastern Europe the nationalisms of the first half of the
previous century, which were in hibernation under communism, have an
amazingly sinister power and long life.
Ukraine is cracked, and the worst scenario for Poland, though an
unlikely one, is Ukraine splitting into the eastern part, culturally
and politically assimilated with its Russian neighbor, and the
western part with its strong national profile, bordering on Poland.
■ The Poles should proceed with caution if they don't want further
deterioration of relations with Russia.
To say that Warsaw-Moscow relations aren't too good is like saying
New York City is biggish. Polish trade is losing out on this
political climate. The things Moscow can tolerate from Schröder and
Bush with respect to Ukraine, it will not forgive Polish politicians
for in a long time.
The Russian elites have never accepted the degradation suffered by
Russia after the Soviet Union fell apart. To Moscow, Ukraine is a
natural area of direct interest.
Yes, Putin's Russia is interfering in the situation in Ukraine, but
from Moscow's perspective it's the Americans and Europe that are
brutally interfering in Russia's most important neighbor, at its
nearest strategic border.
Russia is treating the extremely euphoric involvement of Polish
politicians in supporting Yushchenko's camp with a dangerous mixture
of contempt and animosity.
Does this mean that for fear of ruining reelations with Putin, the
Poles should keep quiet, just like Europe kept quiet for a long
time? No, that would be immoral. Poland's place is among the other
European countries, and neutral arbtitrage, including Poland's,
seems essential. The kind of arbitrage that Kwaśniewski's mission to
Kiev represents. Otherwise no one will be able to govern in such a
The developments in Ukraine are a threat for Poland. But, they could
also become an opportunity to start untangling the knot of Polish-