A terrible thing took place in Volyn 70 years ago. Ukrainians diplomatically call it the “Volyn events” or “tragedy”. The Poles are more outspoken and use the words “massacre” and “ludobójstwo” (the Polish equivalent of genocide; some in Poland have recently started saying it was a “terrible crime” rather than “genocide”. – Ed.). Polish historians, the political elite and society more or less agree that the OUN and the UPA were responsible for this crime committed against the Poles. One can argue whether the leadership of the Ukrainian guerilla movement made the decision to destroy the Poles in the early days or simply wanted to make them leave, but events somehow unfolded “on their own”.
The Polish People’s Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe – Ed.), which is part of the ruling coalition in Poland, has prepared a draft resolution to condemn the genocide committed by Ukrainian nationalists and recognize OUN, UPA, SS Galician Division and the Ukrainian police in German service as criminal organizations.
This proposal needs to be considered on three levels – moral, political and pragmatic. Morally, evil must, no doubt, be condemned. Whether it is up to parliamentarians to judge, and exactly what evil must be condemned and what needs to be silently ignored, is a different matter. In Poland, there are tens of thousands of mostly illegal abortions every year, but for some reason, the Sejm does not pass special laws to address this issue.
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The political dimension of the draft law is also familiar. The Polish People’s Party, which has been exploiting the Volyn topic for several years now as it courts the electorate in the eastern (largely poor agrarian. – Ed.) regions of Poland, wants to take advantage of the 70th anniversary of the tragedy to boost its political standing. Another contributing factor could be its recent tensions with the Civic Platform, the major and largest coalition partner.
Pragmatically, the question is whether the Poles, Poland and Ukraine will benefit from the passage of this draft law. The Poles and the Ukrainians interpret history differently, and this is not only about differing views on the same historical events, which is normal. For Ukrainians, especially in eastern Ukraine, the history of Polish-Ukrainian relations is like the “Punic Wars”, to use an apt description offered by my colleague, a scientist. And therein lies quite an important difference between Ukraine and Russia. The Poles can, with a certain degree of symmetry, argue about Stalinist crimes with Russians and the Russian authorities. Poles are convinced that Stalin was a criminal, while Vladimir Putin maintains that he was a statesman. With Ukrainians, the situation is somewhat different, because– forgive my bluntness – they cannot agree on this among themselves.
What does Viktor Yanukovych want? First and foremost, just like any politician, he is after power and the prosperity that comes with it. But to succeed, he still needs the support of the electorate. Voters are currently interested in seeing Ukraine’s cooperation with the European Union, albeit without particular enthusiasm. For this reason, Yanukovych is not officially rejecting European integration and is counting on Poland to help him in the process. He is probably willing to pay a high price for the further promotion of Ukraine’s interests in Brussels and photos in which he will appear next to Bronislaw Komorowski, thus proving he is not isolated in the EU. If history is the price he has to pay to the Poles, then why not?
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I would not want to be misunderstood. I do not condemn the fact that Poland is cooperating with the Yanukovych-ruled Ukraine. I believe this cooperation serves the interests of both Poland and, to a certain extent, Ukraine. We have to engage Ukraine. I would not want the EU to apply the Belarusian scenario in Ukraine. What I am trying to point out is that history could become the victim, sacrificed in the interests of Polish and Ukrainian authorities this year. Just like it was under Leonid Kuchma in 2003.
This kind of approach pursued by the Polish side does not seem to be well thought out. In the name of moral values, historical truth and appeasing the victims’ families, we are demanding that Ukrainians and the Ukrainian authorities condemn the UPA. As I stated above, Yanukovych may comply willingly. However, this will be a tragedy for many Ukrainians and for Ukrainian national identity, which is still weak and in some regions in statu nascendi. Ukrainians have a choice between national and (post-) Soviet identity. An important element of the former is the history of the insurgent struggle during the Second World War. True, the UPA was nationalistic. Yes, it killed Poles. But it also fought against the Soviets. It waged a hopeless and absurd struggle under circumstances that the Polish anti-communist underground could not even imagine. Nationalism is one of the teething problems of European nations, at least in our part of the continent. Poles have already gone through this stage – look at Roman Dmowski, for example. Why are Ukrainians being denied this? Perhaps, we are listening to our heart, while our mind tells us something different. If Ukraine is to turn into an important Central European state, rather than a post-Soviet post-colony like Belarus, it must have its own history – a national history, not one dictated by Moscow. And the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, UPA, is one of its elements. Those in Poland who believe that they can strike a deal with the Donetsk clan over the graves of the Banderites, in spite of their apparent success, are acting against the long-term interests of both states.
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Andrzej Szeptycki, Institute of International Relations, University of Warsaw