Ukraine and Poland share a 332-mile long border that has shifted dozens of times over the centuries, leaving a substantial Polish minority in Ukraine, sometimes coexisting peacefully, other times resulting in border disputes and even outright violence. Given the vast territorial changes following both World Wars, this is hardly a unique situation in the region, yet the historical past continues to impact political narratives and relations between the two nations.
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In early November, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski spoke about historical relationships between Ukraine and Poland, pointing out the vital role Ukraine plays in Polish security. Some might interpret “security” as a euphemism for physically standing between Russia and Poland. Waszczykowski said that the Polish government is considering taking measures against Ukraine, in particular, a travel ban on Ukrainians who hold anti-Polish sentiments and officials who stand between Polish researchers and carrying out their work in Ukraine.
Waszczykowski was referring to the alleged obstruction of Polish researchers investigating mass graves of Polish victims of the Volhynia Massacre (1943-44) this past October in Ukraine, mainly in the regions of Volhynia and Galicia in western Ukraine.
Recently, researchers from the Polish Institute for National Remembrance (IPN) have been trying to conduct exhumation work of graves of Polish victims of the Soviet invasion as well as the Volhynia Massacre. This move to block research on the atrocity that leftover 100,000 Poles dead, could be in response to Poland’s controversial National Day of Remembrance for Victims of Genocide by Ukrainian Nationalists Against Poles During World War II. The day of remembrance was commemorated for the first time this July, drawing criticism from Ukrainian authorities.
The Volhynia Massacre was perpetrated by the fascist aligned Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) against Polish villagers who had long inhabited the ethnically diverse region. The UPA acted with the clear intent of creating an ethnically homogenous Ukraine after the war. Most of the victims of the nationalist army were women and children, as the UPA had already deported most men.
The Volhynia Massacre was not the only atrocity this region faced during the war. Lviv (Lwow in Polish), once home to a large, thriving Eastern European Jewish community, devolved into unbelievable violence as it changed hands during the war. Nazi propaganda directly blamed Jewish inhabitants for Soviet violence against the local population, conveniently erasing the names of Jewish and Polish victims of the communist secret police brutality. Ukrainian nationalists reacted by carrying out a series of pogroms against the Jewish population, killing thousands of days. Non-Jewish Poles, also seen as an enemy by the Ukrainian nationalists, often fell victim to the violence as well.
Poland recognizes the Volhynia Massacre as a genocide, a legal term coined by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin. However, it is not recognized as a genocide by the UN.
National Memory, National Tragedy
In January, the Polish section of a World War II cemetery was vandalized with Nazi spray paint, rousing anger from Polish authorities, who were quick to point out that this was hardly the first instance of fascist, anti-Polish vandalism in Ukraine.
Later this year, Polish authorities finally dismantled a monument to UPA fighters in Poland. Poles have long found the monument in the southeastern Polish village of Hruszowice offensive given the outright violence against Poles perpetrated by the UPA. In response to the dismantling of the memorial, Ukrainian authorities announced that they would halt the construction of any Polish memorials in Ukraine, claiming the removal of the UPA memorial is an act of anti-Ukrainian sentiment.
National memorials across the border are a way of signaling the presence of an ethnic minority while drawing ties between the diaspora and the homeland. In areas where territorial claims are often contentious, the reminder of violent border disputes and ethnic hatred is usually unwelcome, yet home countries continue to memorialize their nation abroad.
Radoslaw Sikorski, formerly Poland’ foreign minister, made some bold allegations against Russian President Vladimir Putin in a 2014 interview with Politico. Sikorski claims that in 2008, while then Polish Prime minister Donald Tusk was visiting Moscow, the Russian leader encouraged Poland to participate in the partition of Ukraine, arguing that Ukraine is an artificial country. According to Sikorski, Putin also claimed that Lwow (Lviv) in Western Ukraine is a Polish city. In the interview, Sikorski even went as far as to say that Moscow wants Poland to commit troops to Ukraine.
Putin’s claims touch on a narrative cultivated by hundreds of years of Russian propaganda. Russian nationalists have argued that Ukraine is a part of Russia, and the Ukrainian language is dialect of Russian, pointing to their shared cultural and religious heritage as proof, specifically the medieval Kievan-Rus dynasty, which encompassed territory in modern-day Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.
The publication of the interview featuring Sikorski’s controversial claims put him in political hot water. Sikorski claims he was “over-interpreted” and did not authorize the discussion, while former Prime Minister Tusk claims the conversation never happened.
Partitioning Ukraine is not without historical precedent, though neither is partitioning Poland. Known by Ukrainians as “The Ruin,” the partition of Ukraine saw itself divided in two between the Russian empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the tail end of the 17th century, which led to a period of civil war and unrest in Ukraine. The partition of Ukraine between Poland and Russia along the Dnieper river, saw population exchange across the river during World War II. Eastern Ukrainians crossed into the Nazi-controlled territory, sure it would be better than life in Soviet-controlled Ukraine, while those suffering under the fascists believed the opposite.
Poland lost lot of land to Ukraine as a result of the post-WWII plan by Stalin to shift Poland westwards (physically)
Not Just Poland
Ukraine has also faced recent tensions with Hungary in regards to a new educational law. A minority of ethnic Hungarians live in Ukraine who is largely Hungarian speaking. The new education law, seemingly targeted at the Russophone minority, would require students in Ukraine to attend Ukrainian language secondary school, regardless of ethnicity or mother tongue. Ukraine has faced threats from the Hungarian government and harsh criticism from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in response.
While eyes are on Brexit, perhaps people should pay more attention to these countries near the Balkan with long-standing border disputes.