Polska pamięta: restitution in Ukraine


maxresdefaultRestitution is one of the most mythologised issues in Ukrainian politics. Politicians and experts contribute hugely to the belief that European integration will inevitably lead to review of property rights and many ordinary citizens will lose their homes or have to pay compensation to foreigners, primarily to Poles.

History of the issue

Rumours started circulating in the early 1990s when Ukraine did its initial steps toward European integration, seen as a bright new way for the people of the former Soviet republic. Restitution itself, detached from the European topic, was regarded as dangerous. It drew lots of criticism from Ukrainian nationalists (like the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists, the People’s Movement of Ukraine, and the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists) in western regions of the country. This is because possible review would mainly concern territories controlled by Poland before September 1939.

In the interview with Europe Insight, Ukrainian historian Ivan Diachenko notices that “the perspective [of restitution] did not make Ukrainian nationalists happy. They would fail lustration and have to leave houses in Lviv, Lutsk, Rivne and other cities and towns in Western Ukraine.” According to his estimates, in 1993 Ukraine’s compensation to Poles and other nationals could reach $2,4bn.

A new wave of debate emerged on the eve of the Vilnius summit in November 2013. It was when European integration became part of the restitution issue. Rumours had it that the Association agreement would force Ukrainians to return property to other nationals. Euromaidan that followed cut off this speculation and made European integration an unquestionable priority.

However, the topic was brought back to light by the Russian media again in summer 2014. “Seemingly, Ukraine is heading toward a new economic trap related to the association with the EU,” wrote Vesti.ru on 8 July 2014 [1]. “For instance, 80,000 Poles are pretending for the lands of Halychyna: court hearings already won, descendants of former owners are waiting for the appropriate legislation.”

The Association agreement did not bear any mention of restitution at all [2]. Moreover, the issue is above the EU competence, as lawyer Robert Horolsky from legal firm OMP noted in the interview with Deutsche Welle [3], and it could not be inserted into the agreement even theoretically.

Despite the arguments to the contrary, the idea was picked up by nationalist and regional publications that caused a stir in Western Ukraine. Europe Insight has learnt from the Lviv City Archive that soon after the signing of the Association agreement “high-profile people transported from the archive all the documents that could be used in restitution.” The Lviv City Archive has collections from the entire Western Ukraine.

What’s now

In 2015, the debate broke out again. The topic was raised by Victor Medvedchuk, former head of the Presidential Administration, a member of the Minsk Contact Group and the leader of the pro-Russian Ukrainian Choice party. On 18 April, he wrote that “an organization that will struggle for the return of Polish property is set up in the Polish city of Lublin.” [4] According to his words, the announcement was made by Mateusz Piskorski, the leader of the Zmiana party. However, he also said that the party was not an influential political player and was known as a pro-Russian organisation with a doubtful reputation, small number of members and a history of just a couple of months [5].

Medvedchuk’s warning was followed by a comment for the radio station Sputnik from Vladimir Olenchenko, senior research fellow at the IMEMO RAS.  He claimed that “restitution is a natural process for those who have initiated Ukraine’s European integration.” [6]

In the meantime, Poland does not make any announcement. Its government has no official position on restitution in Ukraine. Moreover, Europe Insight has been told by representatives of the Polish diaspora in Ukraine that the Polish government will never back such an initiative because it would ruin the Polish-Ukrainian relations.

11281882_1597408013881953_1963912600_nThere are several active organisations (like the Restitution of Kresy) campaigning for the return of property. “However, their actions are aimed solely at raising their own publicity, popularity among residents of Kresy (a territory in Western Ukraine and Belarus that formerly belonged to Poland),” said Olga Czemshit, a Polish activist in the town of Zhytomyr, to Europe Insight. She believes that Poles living in Ukraine will never be able to get any compensation or property without help from the Polish government.

Lawyer Alexey Biletsky says that every debate on restitution is meaningless until Ukraine adopts a relevant law. “But this will not happen because it is not an obligatory condition for European integration and may cause an avalanche of property claims that would result in the collapse of the Ukrainian political system,” he tells Europe Insight.

Maria Pyz, a Polish columnist in Lviv, says she knows how restitution can be handled to the benefit of both sides. “What is necessary is the intensive fight against corruption as well as the rule of law that protects both those who are going to get property back and those who are going to lose it,” she explains. There should be an adequate compensation to the people in Ukraine. “And of course, the Ukrainian government should protect the rights of all people, not just of their nationals,” she concludes.

The Ukrainian government is silent on the topic. According to member of the Ukrainian FTA delegation Taras Kachka, “it is hard to imagine any social group that would raise the topic and introduce its legislation… Unlike in the Baltics, Poland and Hungary, where there was a heated and nationally very important debate about the issue of restitution, we do not have reasons for such discussions here because there is no such issue.” [7]

Poles in Western Ukraine, abandoned by Ukrainian and Polish governments, do not usually dare to go to courts. And it is hardly possible the situation will change in foreseeable future. Stuck between Ukrainian nationalists and the Russian media, the officials will resist such claims.

[1] http://www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=1773118

[2] http://comeuroint.rada.gov.ua/komevroint/doccatalog/document?id=56219

[3] http://www.dw.de/реституция-на-украине-новая-страшилка-российской-пропаганды/a-17786516

[4] http://vybor.ua/article/vneshnjaja_politika/v-polshe-zagovorili-o-restitucii-na-zapadnoy-ukraine.html

[5] http://wiadomosci.onet.pl/kraj/zmiana-partia-mateusza-piskorskiego-czeka-na-rejestracje/850x2s

[6] http://ria.ru/radio_brief/20150420/1059710184.html

[7] http://www.dw.de/реституция-на-украине-новая-страшилка-российской-пропаганды/a-17786516

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