Oleg Onopko
expert on Eastern Europe at Europe Insight

What historical issues mean for Ukrainian-Polish relations

In the context of Andrzej Duda's visit to Kiev

Andrzej Duda’s statement was predicated on several factors determining not only the present course of his presidency but also the overall policy of the current Polish government formed by the Law and Justice Party (PiS).

The first one is the tactical necessity of deflecting the attention of Polish society away from the internal crisis flaring up in connection with the PiS’s attempt to reformat the Constitutional Tribunal for the purposes of further changes to the constitution and establishing a presidential-parliamentary or even a presidential form of government.

The second is the PiS’s efforts to increase the level of its support among the Eastern Borderlanders (Kresy population) living in Ukrainian territory as well as in Poland (descendants of those resettled from Ukraine by the Soviet authorities). This includes the desire to formally thank this group of Polish citizens for their active support in the parliamentary elections, to show that the PiS is already fulfilling its promises and has begun to defend their historical memory and heritage.

And the third is the “return” of Poland to European politics through repeated attempts to intervene in the “Ukrainian question”. Back in the summer of 2014, the PiS was vocal in its criticism of Donald Tusk’s government for Poland’s loss of the initiative in ending the crisis in Ukraine. Historically, right up to the coup d’état in Ukraine and overthrow of Viktor Yanukovich, Poland was the main ally of Ukraine on the path to European integration, consistently supporting the pro-European coalition of social and political forces that participated in Euromaidan. But then it was relatively quickly and easily pushed aside by Germany and France.

Putting pressure on Ukraine in the area of symbolic politics (switching on issues of the “common historical past” and interfering in the situation surrounding the churches are acts that are, of course, symbolic), Poland is trying to shore up her influence in Ukraine’s domestic political process.

If Poroshenko concedes to Duda and makes more specific steps than restoring the work of the Presidential Consultative Committee (for example amending the law “On the UIA”, which is unlikely), then he will get a local political crisis which will find expression at minimum in the intensification of confrontation with non-parliamentary nationalist forces and at maximum the destabilisation of the parliamentary coalition. And, in what  has already become a good Ukrainian tradition, Polish “popular” diplomats – like former presidents Aleksander Kwaśniewski or even Lech Wałęsa – can be brought in to help with the resolution of the internal situation.

However, Poland is not just pressuring Ukraine, demanding concessions. Instead, a package of proposals beneficial to Ukraine is being offered: expansion of the Minsk format of negotiations on Donbas (bringing in the anti-Russian Britain and USA as well as the pro-Ukrainian Canada); extending sanctions against the RF through 2016; and supporting the idea of a visa free regime for Ukraine. To get all this, Ukraine must make a compromise in the symbolic sphere.

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