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How Ukraine returns Poland


Poland has value for Ukraine based on a number of its advantages – friendship with Trump and dislike of Russia allow the Poles to become good allies of Ukraine. But there are some negative points.

Vladimir Zelensky got a rather controversial diplomatic dossier from his predecessor.

At first glance, everything is decent – international solidarity has been preserved, sanctions continued, financial support was provided, although it was not always absorbed. But, having carefully studied it, one could easily track not just one, but three types of fatigue from Ukraine: sometimes fatigue from endless, but insufficient reforms, sometimes fatigue from war and confrontation with Russia, sometimes fatigue from Poroshenko. And sometimes all three components at once.

Relations with Poland combine at least two types of fatigue. And the fatigue from the previous President was most clearly expressed. That is why the restart of our partnership with Warsaw today should have perhaps the most visible effect. The Polish direction could be the success story and, in my deep conviction, it is important to be demonstrated by Zelensky, who is accused of diplomatic “treason” on almost all international fronts.

For this story, we need to highlight the Polish direction in the top 3 foreign policy priorities. So, at first glance, Poland can have a no less ambitious look (or, “small” as they say in the government’s offices) against the backdrop of such large-scale areas as the settlement of the conflict in the Donbas or the management of relations with the United States in the context of the impeachment process launched through Ukraine.

However, neither for the USA nor for Germany has Ukraine ever been and is unlikely to be the same priority as for Poland. In addition, in contrast to the settlement in the Donbas and the American direction, where time is needed, a reset with Poland could be done in the short term. In addition, it was Poland that in recent years has become the Europe that one and a half million Ukrainians did not wait here in Ukraine. But they went to Poland and provided 11% of the growth of the Polish economy. And after a sharp fall during the Poroshenko presidency, even reaching a more or less constant position looks like an achievement.

Today Ukraine has a good chance to renew and make sense of several areas of our partnership with Poland: as our most important neighbour; as a member of the EU and NATO, and – a slightly new dimension – as a US ally. Certain results of the renewed partnership could be achieved already in December during the visit of President Duda to Kyiv. We do not know whom Ukraine and Poland can become for each other in the future: security allies, the engine of New Europe, or just good neighbours, but at this stage it is important to stop discussions on the topic “Why Ukraine needs Poland?” (And vice versa) and start JOINTLY raking up the bilateral blockages that have accumulated over recent years. It is important to accompany this process with good news in both countries: politics and opinion leaders shouldn’t be in a hurry to inform the Ukrainian and Polish community about the alarming trends and moments of escalation of politics in detail, but should also describe positive steps.

Poland is a neighbour.

By the end of Poroshenko’s presidency, the crisis of confidence in bilateral relations went beyond historical issues and began the intoxication of the entire relationship agenda. One can discuss whether this conflict was exclusively at the level of nationalists of the two countries – or the authorities of the two countries, but the relationship needed urgent detoxification. And this detoxification was the presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine.

I remember how about a year ago, one of the Polish officials at a dinner organized for a group of Ukrainian experts and politicians in Warsaw, surprisingly openly admitted: what should President Duda with a 45% support rating talk about with President Poroshenko, whose rating is 8 %?

According to this logic, Zelensky with a support rating of about 70% should automatically become a respected interlocutor for Duda – those with whom there is something to talk about and something to negotiate. Moreover, the issues that have undermined the dialogue between the two countries in recent years are issues that can be resolved quite easily, if the understanding of the importance of partnership prevails over dubious electoral calculations.

Indeed, in the Ukrainian-Polish relations, it is actually not a question of reconciliation, but of mutual understanding. We are not at war with each other to put up.

So, over the past few years, we have brought many things to explosive conditions. The Ukrainian side did not understand why the future of relations has to be dictated by the past. Why, instead of creating an exemplary security alliance to contain Russia, Ukrainians and Poles are again and again forced to talk about graves and those who have long been gone. What I have repeatedly asked my Polish partners: why is the dead Bandera worse and more dangerous than the living Putin? Why did everything Ukrainian immediately automatically become “Bandera” for many Poles? Why does Poland not understand: when it comes to the survival of the state, reconciliation with another neighbour – albeit is important – recedes into the background?

The Polish partners, however, could not understand how, in principle, one can simultaneously love and respect Bandera – and love and respect Poland? Equally sincerely. Why are interest in Poland and the priority of this country in Ukraine much lower than the interest and priority of Ukraine in Poland? Why are Ukrainian colleagues willing to pick up the narrative of the Polish opposition, and are the narratives of the Polish party of power essentially underrepresented or simply ignored? Why are all the problematic issues in Ukrainian-Polish relations automatically attributed to “Kremlin agents”? Why did some government offices in Kyiv decide at some point that it would be more appropriate to wait, if not for a change in the Polish position, then for a change in the Polish government? However, time has shown, and the recent parliamentary elections in the neighbouring state have proved that “Law and Justice” is more “serious and long-lasting” than they thought in Ukraine. In fact, given the current political realities in Poland, it is to some extent beneficial for Ukraine to have PiS in very strong positions in its niche: having a significant margin from competitors, it should not play along with the Bandera card in the fight for voters.

There were at least three reasons why Ukraine and Poland began to rapidly lose each other. And not everything related to history. Not even that: almost all of them are not related to history. It is worth recalling that besides the “heroization of Bandera”, it was also disappointment that Kyiv no longer needed Warsaw as an intermediary and “lawyer” to communicate with the rest of the Western world and Poland’s general fatigue from the always unreformed and forever corrupt Ukraine. But it’s the unblocking of one question from the historical “package” that could radically change the tone of the dialogue and unblock other issues as well. It is about cancelling the unwritten moratorium of Ukraine on Poland to conduct search and exhumation works in the Ukrainian territory. From the Polish side, Ukraine, in return, would expect the restoration of the monument to the UPA fighters in the village of Verkhrata on Mount Monastery. It is these steps that should become a declaration of the seriousness of intentions to build relations on a different principle.

Since the election of President Zelensky, everything has been successful in order for such a declaration to be made. President Duda was the first foreign leader to call Zelensky to congratulate him on his victory. The presidents soon met in Brussels. Poland was the first three countries that Zelensky visited (since Brussels was a visit to institutions). Poland became the country for the first foreign visit of Foreign Minister Vadim Prystaiko. The Advisory Committee of the Presidents of the two countries was restarted. And its first meeting has already taken place in Lviv (although, on the initiative of the Polish side, in a somewhat reduced form). According to our information, the meeting of the committee took place in a completely different atmosphere than the one that took place under Poroshenko. This despite the fact that the counterparts from the Polish side have not changed. The same if for some participants of the Ukrainian side (which is important in the context of institutional memory and the continuity of politicians). In December, the President of Poland is expected in Ukraine, whose last visit to Ukraine almost two years ago could have ended right after the delegation landed at the airfield in Kharkiv (due to Poroshenko’s delay).

But the most important step for unblocking was taken by the Ukrainian president during his visit to Warsaw, when he, in fact, announced the lifting of a moratorium on search and exhumation works for the Polish side in Ukraine. According to my observations, the Polish colleagues at that time were very cautious in their assessments: “The political step has been taken, we are waiting for practical steps.”

At the time of writing this material, Poland has already passed the process of obtaining permission for searching works (first they must be, and only then exhumation) in the first two locations selected by the Poles in the four areas for which the Polish side has applied – Kharkiv, Kherson, Lviv, and Volyn. Two locations for which permission has already been obtained, located in Lviv, in places of possible burial of Polish soldiers who died in 1939. They say that when the Polish partners saw the permission to conduct search work in Lviv-Golosko and Lviv-Zboishcha, they literally applauded.

Now the Ukrainian side is expecting a counter gesture that would testify to the seriousness of the Polish side’s intentions: the restoration of the monument destroyed by the vandals at the grave of the UPA soldiers in the village of Verkhrata in Monastery Mountain, in the Subcarpathian Voivodeship. It is worth recalling that in the three years after the Revolution of Dignity in the Subcarpathian and Lublin Voivodeships, 15 cases of vandalism occurred at the burial places of UPA soldiers. All this time in Warsaw they claimed that they were working on the restoration of those monuments that were installed legally. Such a monument is a monument on Mount Monastery near the village of Verkhrat. However, last year the voivode of the Subcarpathian Voivodeship refused to include the monument in the voivodeship register of graves and military graves, referring to the corresponding verdict of the Rzeszow department of the Institute of National Remembrance. At the time of this writing, Warsaw assured that the issue would be resolved in the near future.

Of course, by resolving these two issues, the historical agenda is not exhausted, but if the dialogue will continue in the future in such a tone of mutual respect, not mutual accusations, then the reconciliation process may well gain real shape.

Ukraine’s readiness to remove from the agenda the issue of search and exhumation has unblocked other critical issues for Ukraine in bilateral relations. In particular, the problem of Polish permits for Ukrainian transport companies. After the emotional epic of Poroshenko’s era, when the Ukrainian side, instead of turning to Warsaw, turned to the media and to Brussels (which, predictably, the Poles did not like, because they, like the European Union, consider this a matter of bilateral relations between the countries), at the end October, negotiations were held between the ministers of infrastructure of the two countries, and it was agreed that we will receive five thousand permits additionally for this year, plus another 10,000 for the next quota, which we can also be used this year.

The result is quite good, given the critical attitude of the Poles to what happens in the future with these permissions in Ukraine itself. The point is that permits, which, conditionally, cost 70 UAH, may be resold in Ukraine for $ 700. “We do not want to feed your corrupt officials,” the Polish partners admit in private conversations. And, unfortunately, in this particular case they are right. Accordingly, the new Minister of Infrastructure will have to show in this matter not only diplomatic talent in dialogue with the Poles, but also extraordinary managerial abilities in dialogue with Ukrainian partners and wards …

Obviously, it’s time to move such a block as questions related to the border. With the emphasis of the new Ukrainian authorities on establishing order on the border, in principle, and customs, in particular, it would be logical to finally try to turn the Ukrainian-Polish border into the model border of the European Union. Here are the issues of access to the checkpoints from the Ukrainian side. And the conversion of all intersection points, not just four, into common ones. Really common, not nominally common, as de facto happens today. This is the opening of a new checkpoint. Earlier, the Polish side was categorically against such a step to improve the infrastructure on existing ones, but why not do it in parallel? Moreover, the agreement on the creation of such a new point of automobile communication “Nizhankovichi-Malkhovichi” was concluded in 2012 (!). There is still the question of the possibility of pedestrian crossings at existing checkpoints. Let me remind you: on the Polish-Slovak border there was a similar level of traffic intensity before the two countries joined the Schengen zone, but there were 55 border crossing points there, and not 14, as we have with Poland, and pedestrian crossings were allowed on all points (except railway).

Well, in this context, it’s time to finally close the question of using the loan provided to Ukraine (attention!) by the government of Donald Tusk in 2015. This is about 100 million euros allocated specifically for border infrastructure, in the framework of which tenders have recently been announced.

Poland is a partner in the EU and NATO

Due to complicated neighbourhood affairs, close cooperation with Poland as a member of the EU and NATO has also receded into the background a bit. Of course, there were other well-known factors – the tense dialogue of Poland itself with Brussels and some member countries. Among frank critics of Poland is not only the Vice-President of the European Commission, France Timmermans, but also the President of France, Emmanuel Macron.

Today, Polish partners are sending signals, and again they are ready to help Ukraine in a certain way within their capabilities in the European Union and NATO. If we talk about practical things where we could test how to fill our partnership with Poland as a member of the EU and NATO with new meanings, then this is precisely along the lines of the North Atlantic Alliance. In particular, Polish partners could try to help Ukraine ensure a positive result in Ukraine’s accession to the NATO Enhanced opportunities partners (EOP) program, a request for which we made back in the days of early Poroshenko, but individual member countries (in particular Germany and France) were skeptical of this idea. Although such an invitation is not a step towards membership or even an action plan for membership, those countries of the world that do not intend, in principle, to integrate into NATO are also participants in this program. Meanwhile, such a step would be the right signal for the Ukrainian society, integration into NATO is in process. Which is an example of a certain dynamics.

Another issue in which Polish partners could help with NATO (and not only) is the facilitation of our dialogue in the context of relations with Hungary, which has created serious obstacles to the dynamics of our dialogue with the alliance. It’s not a secret to anyone that the current leadership of Poland and Hungary is putting into practice the old Polish proverb like no other: Polak – Wenger dwa bratanki i do sabli i do sklanki. According to our information, the Czech Prime Minister Babish recently intended to act as such a facilitator, trying to arrange an invitation to Prague for the leaders of the Visegrad Four plus President Zelensky, but President Zeman was against this, and the initiative failed. Who knows, perhaps working on a “success story” with Warsaw, we could also get a “success story” with Budapest as a bonus?

Well, of course, it would be very good if Poland did more actively help Ukraine to participate in regional initiatives, especially the Trimorye Initiative. Ukraine’s participation in regional projects along with EU and NATO member states will allow us to integrate more deeply into the common European space – politically and sectorally.

Poland as an ally of the USA

Poland belongs to the few countries in the world that have developed good relations with Trump’s America. The Poles put a lot of effort into buying the support and loyalty of the American President. But do not forget that the previous Ukrainian President also tried to take this path, initiating contracts for the purchase of either American coal or American wagons. Of course, this was not a Polish scale, where only $ 4.8 billion was spent on the purchase of American Patriot systems. However, obviously, the question is not only this, since similar steps by Kyiv did not help change the attitude towards Ukraine, which, as the general public already knows thanks to the announced impeachment procedure, in Trump comes down to the characteristic of “corrupt, terrible people”. But Poland, under the presidency of Trump, managed not only to ensure the stay of the US military on its territory, but also to get Washington’s green light on the visa-free regime with the United States that the Poles desired. They say that this is largely personal merit of the US ambassador to Poland, which, by the way, like the well-known US ambassador to the EU Sondland, is also a political appointee.

It is already obvious that the attitude of the American President towards Ukraine will not succeed. But it would be at least good if among the international leaders with whom he speaks about Ukraine there were those who would tell not only the negative things that Putin and Orban brought to the ear of the American President. So that there are those who are trusted in Washington and who could voice a slightly different assessment.

In addition, the voice of Ukraine would have sounded much more powerful in Washington if it had sounded in a company with the voices of US allies in the region, in particular, Polish. This concerns certain aspects of deterring Russia – specifically, opposition to the construction of the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline. Unfortunately, we spoke in Washington, Brussels and Berlin more often in disparate voices than in a single voice.

The topic of energy cooperation in the USA-Poland-Ukraine triangle also requires development. A memorandum on the supply of American liquefied gas was signed during Zelensky’s visit – this, of course, is good. But both Americans and Poles are used to speaking the language of contracts rather than memoranda. In addition, it is difficult to talk about the seriousness of such an energy partnership until the Ukrainian authorities can decide for a long time to build Ukraine a gas interconnector from Poland, or use the appropriate capacities through Slovakia, or choose other available routes. By the way, according to our information in New York Donald Trump was actively interested in Zelensky, whether there are corresponding capacities in Ukraine for the purchase of American liquefied gas. The main thing is to make sure that the Ukrainian-Polish-American energy partnership is aimed at deepening relations, no matter what the next American administration will be, and not serve as another political project with dubious intentions.

Alyona Getmanchuk for Dzerkalo Tyzhnia