Polish Nationalism Is Rising – But Ukrainians Have Never Felt More Welcome
16 November, 2016

Since Poland’s Law and Justice Party rose to power in November 2015, the conservative government has been accused of undermining the rule of law and democracy. Earlier this year, the European Commission issued an official warning to Warsaw after it weakened the Constitutional Court through controversial legal reforms. The PiS has also been accused of clamping down on media freedom, promoting national ‘sovereignty’ and intervening further in the prosecutor’s office and police. Yet this new wave of nationalism has one distinct feature; it’s driven by the youth. Peter Dickinson, publisher of Business Ukraine magazine and Lviv Today, explains this new phenomenon and how historical factors have shaped today’s Poland and Polish-Ukrainian relations.

Hromadske’s Tom Bell interviewed the publisher of Business Ukraine magazine Peter Dickinson in Kyiv.

So recently in the news, we saw videos of nationalist protests in Poland. But, in your opinion, what sort of nationalist sentiment is there in Poland and what sort of historical factors play into this?

The Polish national identity has always been a strong issue that has been aggravated or strengthened perhaps by the pressures coming from the outside, historically Germany and Russia on both sides. I think what is interesting about the current situation in Poland where we have quite a right-wing government that feeds nationalist sentiment is that the support is coming a lot from the youth whereas, as we saw with the Trump election for example, young voters tended to be much more towards the liberal, globalised position whereas in Poland, it is the youth who are much more supportive of the nationalist stance and the opposition to this government is coming from more middle-aged people or those who perhaps remember the Soviet past and have memories of the early 1990s whereas the young people are not falling in line with this. Churchill said if you’re not a socialist when you’re 20, you’ve got no heart and if you’re not conservative when you’re 40, you have no brain. I think there is an element of truth in that across the board that, as a rule, young people tend to be more in line with what you can broadly call politically correct tenets in terms of liberalism, globalism, and tolerance. In Poland, we are seeing - and it’s been the case for some time - the opposite of that; and so we’ve got a parliament now which has a large amount of support among young people which is quite openly nationalist in its stances.

In the most recent edition of your magazine Business Ukraine, you went into detail about the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. How do the historical features of that play into today’s society?

I think it’s an interesting in general; the fact that it’s so relatively unknown in contemporary circles. It’s common to refer to Ukraine as a post-Soviet society. It’s common to think of Ukraine as a former Russian colonial possession or even, to a certain extent, a part of Russia. There is obviously a lot of truth in that and that is an important part of Ukraine’s inheritance but, for hundreds of years, a large part of today’s Ukraine was within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which was a very broad state with a lot of different ethnic and religious national groups within it, grouped around the Polish crown. But actually, to a significant degree, it was quite a decentralized state. In the 18th century period, actually, at the very end of the Commonwealth period, we had the Polish Constitution which actually predates most of the other constitutions internationally and before that, the Ukrainian Constitution, the Cossack Constitution of 1710 which were both very groundbreaking, democratic documents for their time and period. They have their roots, to an extent, in this period of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. If look at Ukraine as a very diverse country in terms of regional identities, I think that, to an extent, can be traced back to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The religious diversity, the diverse makeup of Ukraine, the Armenian, Jewish, certainly Polish, German, Hungarian, Baltic communities, I think also gained a lot of momentum during that time. Cities like Kyiv, for a long time after the end of the great partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century, which wiped Poland off the map as a sovereign state, Polish was widely spoken in Kyiv like Russian is today. It was a Polish-speaking city for a long time and this is not the idea that people often think of today that Lviv has Polish roots; Kyiv does too.

There are a proportion of people in Poland who may welcome Ukrainians and argue they should settle and work there and another proportion who may say they are related to Bandera and shouldn’t be forgiven for events so many years ago. What do you think of this?

There are these sentiments. It’s fair to say they exist and they are widely represented on both sides of the debate. The experience we had with publishing our Polish special issue was that, yes, we had a lot of comments that were very enthusiastic. We’ve got to bear in mind now that there has been a huge influx of Ukrainians to Poland over the last two years. There are hundreds of thousands. If the trends continue until the end of this year, there will be approximately a million Ukrainians with legal rights to work in Poland. So, if we assume there is also a significant amount of non-legal people, illegal immigrants, tourists or others, the numbers are huge by any standards. These are the sorts of standards which can change a society. If Poland is a country of approximately 38-40 million, if you’re talking about a million people coming in, that’s a shift and has a huge impact. It’s going to have repercussions throughout society. I think at this stage, we can say it’s been very successful. That was one thing which came out from my interaction with the Polish community here (in Kyiv). They are very proud of this and I think they have every right to be proud. It’s a success story that Europe is not talking about and they should be. We’re very much concerned in Europe about Syrian refugees - and not just Syria. We’ve seen the floodgates have opened and people are coming from all over the developing world into Europe from sub-Saharan Africa, from the Middle East, even as far afield as Afghanistan and that is creating huge problems which we talk about a lot. In Poland, they have a huge wave coming from a country at war, Ukraine, and they have coped with it extremely well so I think the Bandera aspect will always be there and that’s perhaps a separate subject but the fact it hasn’t been more prominent is probably where I would put the emphasis.

In July 2016, the Polish government who recognized the Volyn Massacre as genocide. What did you think of that?

I think Ukrainians shouldn’t take it as an affront to them directly necessarily. There are different trajectories here. There are different processes or narratives at work. It’s certainly bad timing from a Ukrainian point of view and from a general united Europe against Russian aggression point of view. Regarding Ukraine’s response, (President Petro) Poroshenko was in Poland for the Warsaw Summit and he went to memorials to the Volyn Massacres and paid his respects in a very respectful manner. I think this was an important gesture. On the other hand, we have seen the Ukrainian parliament responding by saying OK, we’re going to have genocide votes against the Ukrainians who died because it was a two-way thing. There were massacres and counter massacres. The whole thing was incredibly brutal and a messy process. On the one hand, you’ve got the Volyn Massacre recognition as genocide and you’ve got a significant rise of nationalism in Poland that is latching onto this Bandera thing. In Ukraine, you’ve also got the veneration of Bandera which is putting a strain on relations. On the other hand, the Polish and Ukrainian parliaments recently both issued a joint resolution recognizing the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany as the initiators and responsible actors for sparking World War Two which is the other side of the coin. That’s where they can unite and they both have got common ground which is actually again, the other part of this historic revisionism where they can say ‘hold on’, these things bring us together.

And one final question, after the Soviet Union fell, Poland really led the way in economic reforms, even with several years. From the experts and analysts you spoke to for this magazine edition, what sort of strategy would they would give Ukraine to follow such a model?

Well, the overall sentiment I would say was that there was quite a lot of precaution in drawing direct parallels. There was a certain resistance to saying, ‘we did this, you do that’. I think certainly it’s going to hurt and you have to expect that and you need to communicate that to the people which I think is an area where Ukraine could do a lot better, in terms of explaining why certain policies are being put in place when the short term implications are very negative for people where they have to suffer. This year, for example, with the tariffs rising (in Ukraine) would be one obvious example where the policy can be justified but it’s perhaps not being communicated in a very effective manner. That was the case for Poland in the 1990s and it was a huge political issue for them. They had to spend a lot of time getting the message across. But I think probably the overriding message is that Europe has changed a lot. Ukraine is now approaching issues that are in isolation whereas Poland was one of a number of countries which moved down a track towards a clear set goal. They were going into a Europe which was more or less welcoming them. Obviously, there were lots of lectures and lots of terms and conditions but essentially, they were welcoming them, helping them and saying ‘this is the goal’. Ukraine is almost on its own. They (Europe) is saying ‘do it’ but ‘there’s no way we’re ever going to let you in’ and ‘we’re going to bend over backwards to show we’re not going to let you in’ more or less; so ‘do it’ but ‘you’re on your own almost’ and that makes life very difficult for Ukrainians and so I think the emphasis is much more on them to communicate within themselves that this is something that needs to be done for Ukraine.