Oleg Onopko
Europe Insight's expert on Eastern Europe

Feud over massacre

What does the recognition of the Volyn Massacre as a genocide mean for Polish politics and relations with Ukraine

On 22 July the Polish Sejm adopted a resolution in which the mass murder of Poles by Ukrainians in Volyn 1943-1945 was named a genocide. There are three dimensions to this decision.

First, at the level of Polish state policy this is an exceptional symbolic act aimed at unifying and institutionalizing the Polish people’s collective ideas concerning their past.

Up until now the Volyn Massacre has been preserved in the Polish historical memory as an undeniably important and tragic event, but one that is all the same a regional issue primarily affecting the Eastern Borderlands population. The fact that the resolution has been approved in Parliament, all the more so by a virtually unanimous vote, has made the issue a national one.

Secondly, in the context of relations between the Polish government and the opposition, today’s decision was the culmination of many years of speculation with issues of historical memory. The promise to give Volyn victims their due had secured the votes of borderlanders and right-wing radicals for the ruling party in the last parliamentary elections. And, at present, Jarosław Kaczyński needs the support of these demographics in the confrontation with the opposition and the opposition civil organization Committee for the Defense of Democracy. As the vote in the Sejm showed, nothing unifies an electorate better than a shared tragedy, even if it happened 70 years ago.

Thirdly, in the sphere of international relations, this is yet another attempt by Poland to meddle in the “Ukrainian question” of European politics. Back in December 2015, I talked about how the Law and Justice party was earnestly preparing to use politics of history for pressuring the authorities in Kiev.

However, the latter are working hard to keep Warsaw out of the regulation of the conflict in Donbass and refusing to make any compromises on many issues related to the life of the Polish community in Ukraine, as well as turning a blind eye to illegal migration. Additionally, the glorification of radical nationalistic leaders and organisations continues, provoking a harsh negative reaction in Poland.

That said, the official reaction of the Ukrainian parliament, president and Institute of National Remembrance to the Polish Sejm still appears a bit exaggerated considering the extremely delicate wording in the resolution. The Polish parliamentarians place no blame on the Ukrainian nation, only radical nationalism. Obviously, Ukraine is unwilling to make any concessions to Poland. This means that we should expect the Polish authorities continue its activities in the area of symbolic politics as directed against the ideology prevailing in Ukraine.

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