Polish President Andrzej Duda paid a two-day visit to Ukraine this week. While there, he addressed Poles and Ukrainians’ shared historical past. In his opinion, “the planning and creation of a good future for Ukrainian-Polish relations must be based on historical truth, even if this truth is painful.”
Until recently, Warsaw and Kiev have diligently avoided any discussion of historical strife, focusing only on the positive aspects of their shared history. In particular, Polish and Ukrainian historians have held in special esteem the Soviet-Polish War (1919-1921), during the course of which the Second Polish Republic and the Ukrainian People’s Republic fought together against the Bolsheviks if not exactly as equals, then as allies.
Moreover, in Ukraine, especially during Viktor Yushchenko’s term in office (2004-2009), when good relations with Poland were considered one of the pillars of European integration, all problematic issues were thoroughly suppressed in the national historiography. The Polish-Ukrainian War (1918-1919) and the Volyn Slaughter – the mass murder of the Polish inhabitants of Volyn by Ukrainian nationalists – fell under an unspoken taboo. It got to where in Ukraine the massacre was presented as a multilateral conflict in which nearly everyone participated, even Soviet partisans.
Such an attitude towards the common history has provoked regular bursts of indignation out of regular Poles, especially those living in the western part of Ukraine. However, the centre-left Civic Platform (PO) ruling in Poland 2007-2015 virtually absolved itself from doing anything to care for its fellow citizens living abroad, as prescribed by the constitution. Only those few associations of “Ukrainian” Poles which could accept the Ukrainian and Polish authorities’ policy of ignoring the negative in the shared history received any support.
In April 2015, shortly before the presidential elections, the PO made its only attempt to play the “history” card to win voter support. With this goal in mind, then president of Poland Bronisław Komorowski announced that the adoption by the Ukrainian parliament of a law recognizing Ukrainian Insurgent Army soldiers as fighters for Ukrainian independence degraded dialogue between the two countries. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko apparently even agreed to change this law, but these words never translated into deeds.
In contrast to Civic Platform, the centre-right party, Law and Justice (PiS) has consistently opposed glorification of Ukrainian nationalists (through depicting them as heroes) and promoted the objective explanation of relations in the sphere of the common historical past. It is therefore reasonable that, having won the parliamentary and presidential elections, the PiS began putting pressure on the Ukrainian government in this area. The words uttered by the Polish president in Kiev are backed up by specific demands aimed at protecting the property interests of Poles living in Ukraine. Duda set before Poroshenko the question of the transfer to the Polish community of three churches taken from it by Soviet authorities. These are the Church of St. Nicholas in Kiev, the St. Mary Magdalene in Lviv and Bila Tservka.
Returning from Kiev victorious and having forced Poroshenko to restart the special Advisory Committee for Historical Issues, President Duda hopes to buttress his image as a politician who staunchly defends the interests of the Polish nation and state. Ukraine is currently in no position to argue with its chief lobbyist in the European Union.