Deshchytsia: Russia cannot break Ukraine-Poland ties
Ukraine is moving to Poland — quite literally.
And nobody knows this better than Andrii Deshchytsia, Ukraine’s ambassador in Warsaw since October 2014, shortly after his four-month tenure as Ukraine’s foreign minister during the most tumultuous year.
Some 1 million Ukrainians are working legally in Poland, a nation of 38 million people that is only about half of Ukraine’s size geographically.
And many more Ukrainians are likely to visit their western neighbor once the European Union removes the visa requirements on Ukrainians for short stays of 90 days or less. As anyone who sees the large morning crowds outside the Polish Embassy in Kyiv knows, Poland is the place where many Ukrainians want to be.
It’s no surprise.
While Russia wages a crippling three-year war on Ukraine, killing 10,000 people and seizing Crimea and parts of the Donbas, Poland has been one of Ukraine’s best friends in the West. It is also a role model, shedding its communist legacy and joining both the EU and NATO, besides building a prosperous economy that Ukraine can only envy.
“Poland is very much aware of what is going on in Ukraine,” Deshchytisa told the Kyiv Post in an April 25 interview. “Poland is very active in the EU and NATO and advocating strengthening sanctions against Russia. Poland perfectly understands that if Russia decides to go farther, the next target could be Poland.”
While Russia has not lived up to the Minsk peace agreements, which call for the Kremlin to withdraw soldiers and financing from the eastern Donbas and return border control to Ukraine, Deshchytsia said “it’s the only option we have at this moment.”
The current peace talks are taking place in the Normandy 4 format — involving Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France. Some have advocated enlarging the group of nations at the bargaining table to include Poland and the United States.
“Everyone understands we have to give a chance for the political-diplomatic measures to avoid futher casualties and deaths,” Deshchytsia said. “It will take time until Russia realizes that sanctions are working…It could be quite a long process. But it’s better to have this diplomatic-political approach than to have real warfare in eastern Ukraine.”
Russia provokes conflict
Many in both nations suspect Russia of trying to provoke conflict between Ukraine and Poland. Deshchytsia is no exception.
“It looks like someone is trying to provoke Ukraine and Poland to start fighting each other,” Deshchytsia said, and the evidence so far points to Russia as the “most interested” party in stoking Ukrainian-Polish tensions.
There’s been a spate of ugly incidents this year, including the destruction of Ukrainian graves and monuments in Poland and of Polish ones in Ukraine.
The ugliness took a dangerous turn at 12:08 a.m. on March 29, when someone fired an anti-tank grenade launcher that damaged the roof of the Polish consulate in the far northwestern Ukrainian city of Lutsk. All Polish consulates in Ukraine were shut down for several days until Ukraine could ensure better security of diplomatic premises.
Also on March 29, a group of 100 people were paid to block the Lviv-Rava-Ruska highway for several hours. “Fake pro-Polish demonstrations” have also been staged in Lviv by protesters who complained of alleged discrimination by Ukrainian authorities against Poland, the ambassador said.
One suspect identified by the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, is Mykola Dulskyi, wanted in Ukraine for attempted homicide and hiding in Russia, according to the law enforcement agency.
Deshytsia said that news of the vandalism and other incidents most often breaks first on YouTube and media outlets operating in Russiancontrolled areas of Ukraine, rather than through local officials, more evidence of the Kremlin’s involvement.
“Of course, the reaction of Ukrainian and Polish authorities was very fast,” Deshchytsia said of the attacks on the Lutsk consulate and other diplomatic premises. “The Ukrainian president and foreign minister reacted immediately, providing more security officers around Polish and foreign diplomatic missions in Ukraine.”
As a confidence-building step, Deshchytsia said that Ukrainian and Polish law enforcers are conducting joint investigations of the incidents.
Of course, there are historical reasons for anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Poland and anti-Polish sentiment in Ukraine.
The Polish–Ukrainian War of 1918 and 1919 was fought over control of western Ukraine after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with the end of World War I. Ukraine’s hopes for national independence were crushed, with the loss of 25,000 people on both sides in the fighting. Poland annexed the territory but lost it to the Soviet Union at the start of World War II.
During World War II, the Volyn massacres of thousands of Polish civilians, blamed on Ukrainian forces
loyal to Stepan Bandera’s Ukrainian Insurgent Army, deepened the ethnic animosity, which lingers today. Poland calls it genocide. Ukrainians, in turn, accuse Poland of brutal subjugation of them.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, is quoted in a Feb. 7 interview with the Polish weekly Do Rzceczy as telling Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that Ukraine wouldn’t “make it to Europe” if it continues to glorify Bandera, revered by many Ukrainians as a nationalist hero.
But Deshchytsia said that neither side wants to exacerbate historical tensions and that mutual forgiveness and reconciliation efforts are actively under way.
“Both sides did not put it aside. It’s not a priority of the political agenda at this moment,” Deshchytsia said. “It was true a year ago; when the issue of Volyn was high on the political agenda of both countries, especially here in Poland. We have a lot of things to do. We have a lot of common interests.”
Ukrainians ‘melting in’
Deshchytsia said the presence of 1 million Ukrainian workers in Poland is strongly felt — and mostly accepted — in Polish society.
“It’s a new development in Ukrainian-Polish relations. The number of Ukrainians arriving to Poland is growing. You can notice on the streets, in the cafes, in supermarkets that there are Ukrainians working here. You also see that Ukrainians are opening cafes, restaurants. They are investing in the Polish economy.”
But the largest share of Ukrainians working in Poland are working in two sectors — building construction and agricultural — while there are also many hi-tech workers, he said. He estimated additionally that 50,000 Ukrainian students are in Poland.
The Ukrainian expatriates “are very well educated, they are very well-received,” Deshchytsia said. “Generally Poles are satisfied with Ukrainians who are working, living, studying in Poland. They are well-received in the sense that they are easy to communicate with and have similar traditions. Sometimes those from western Ukraine have the same history, the same roots.”
He said Ukrainian expatriates are trying to start businesses, establish cultural institutions and form organizations to advocate their rights.
He said that “most of the Ukrainians are not in competition with the Poles (for jobs). They’re taking the vacant places.” Ukrainians “are melting in” and “do not create problems for Polish people.”
He also said that many Ukrainians prefer Poland because they are able to return home more frequently and more cheaply than other labor migrants in Western Europe.
“One of the biggest problems is the border between Ukraine and Poland. Border crossings create huge queues sometimes — you have to spend 6 or 8 or 10 hours to cross the border,” he said.
While the number of border crossings have tripled in the last three years, the number of road checkpoints remains the same — 8. He said that disucssions are under way to increase that number as well as build better railway lines and establish more direct flight connections between the two nations.
“There is also an understanding that we can use a credit by the Polish governemnt — 100 million euros, given last year, to improve the existing” border crossings, he said.
Deshchytsia said that Polish investors in Ukraine are remaining and “not withdrawing assets.” Investors cite Russia’s war and uncertainty over the security situation in eastern Ukraine as barriers to greatest investment.
“Polish investors are still waiting, he said, but don’t find corruption in Ukraine to be as serious of a problem as it used to be. “They acknowledged there are a lot of signs of good changes in the economy and political system and with fighting corruption.”
He steered clear of any discussion of criticism that democracy is retreating in Poland since the right-wing Law and Justice Party returned to power, saying it’s “up to the Polish people to decide” their political leadership.
One clear sign of the healthy bilateral relationship is the frequency of meetings between political and other leaders in the two nations.
The two presidents, Poland’s Andrzej Duda and Poroshenko, meet at least twice yearly. The foreign ministers hold frequent meetings. Other ministerial-level meetings also take place on a regular basis. Many other public and private sector initiatives are also under way in various areas.
In May, Andriy Parubiy, the speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, will visit Poland.
“Relations between Poland and Ukraine are very dynamic and of strategic importance to both nations,” Deshchytsia said.
Or, as his counterpart Polish Ambassador Jan Pieklo put it in a Feb. 28 interview with Ukraine’s Day newspaper: “Should all Ukrainians leave Poland now, our own and the Ukrainian economy would have big problems…This can’t be changed today. We have a common economic space that proves highly effective.”
The rebuilt Royal Palace (R) and the Market Place in the Old Town section of Warsaw, Poland on Oct. 2, 2015. (AFP)
Andrii Deshchytsia, Ukraine’s ambassador to Poland
Ambassador Poland to Ukraine Jan Pieklo. (UNIAN)