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The Polish-Ukrainian Battle for the Past Gabriele Woidelko A dispute about the different interpretations of their common past is poisoning relations between Poland and Ukraine in ways that benefit Russia. December 15, 2017 Comments 14 Even before Polish President Andrzej Duda arrived in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on December 13, it was clear that this trip was being made under very difficult circumstances.

Poland and Ukraine are facing the biggest challenge in their bilateral relationship because of the past. Both are returning to World War II events in ways that are poisoning the special rapprochement between the two countries that began soon after 1989 but has been deteriorating since 2015.

The statement concerned a decision taken by the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance in April 2017. This decision forbids the exhumation of Poles who were victims of anti-Polish Ukrainian war crimes that were carried out in the Volyn region in 1943.

These retaliations show how Volyn represents the unfinished rapprochement between Poland and Ukraine. In 1943, tens of thousands of Polish civilians were killed when, under Nazi occupation, the UPA tried to purge all non-Ukrainians, namely Poles, from the future Ukrainian nation-state.

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The Polish-Ukrainian battle for the past has consequences for the region. Russia could benefit from the break in the bilateral rapprochement. Poland had once been a staunch defender of Ukraine moving closer toward the European Union. Weakening Polish support would be a big loss for Kiev at a time when it needs more allies than ever inside the EU.

The historical events in Volyn and Eastern Galicia have always been problematic for Poland and Ukraine. But recently, their different interpretations of historical events have led to a severe deterioration of bilateral relations. Both governments and their respective Institutes for National Remembrance have fostered the renationalization of historical narratives and historiography for different reasons. Alas, renaming streets in honor of Stepan Bandera and making him a national hero is much more than an internal political act of an independent nation-state.

Kiev is playing with fire when it comes to its relationship with Poland, which is led by the national-conservative Law and Justice Party PiS.

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Since regaining power in 2015, PiS has put a lot of effort into streamlining a national historical narrative focusing on Polish victimhood and resistance. In July 2016, the Polish parliament almost unanimously adopted a resolution declaring the extermination of Polish civilians by Ukrainian nationalists in Volyn a genocide. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko expressed his regret about this decision.

The unfinished reconciliation process originates in a long-term suppression of the Volynian conflict in Soviet times.

  • Lviv residents of all ages say they'll vote despite a lack of enthusiasm for any of the candidates and the foregone conclusion that Poroshenko will win;
  • The historical events in Volyn and Eastern Galicia have always been problematic for Poland and Ukraine.

Before 1989, in neither country had the events in Volyn been part of any public discourse or any history textbooks at school. Their commemoration was limited to private memories among families in western Ukraine and among those Poles who had been affected.

In Lviv, Ukraine, the nation's east-west divide is on display

After 1989, based on the so-called Giedroyc doctrinePoland got rid of imperial legacies and put an end to historical disputes with its eastern neighbors. Starting in the 1990s, many political and civil society initiatives tried to bridge the historical gaps between Poland and Ukraine. But the time span since 1989 was too limited and the number of people involved in the process on both sides was too small to heal the wounds of the past.

  1. But recently, their different interpretations of historical events have led to a severe deterioration of bilateral relations.
  2. Lviv residents of all ages say they'll vote despite a lack of enthusiasm for any of the candidates and the foregone conclusion that Poroshenko will win.
  3. But recently, their different interpretations of historical events have led to a severe deterioration of bilateral relations. In 1943, tens of thousands of Polish civilians were killed when, under Nazi occupation, the UPA tried to purge all non-Ukrainians, namely Poles, from the future Ukrainian nation-state.
  4. Both are returning to World War II events in ways that are poisoning the special rapprochement between the two countries that began soon after 1989 but has been deteriorating since 2015. Before 1989, in neither country had the events in Volyn been part of any public discourse or any history textbooks at school.
  5. The statement concerned a decision taken by the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance in April 2017. These retaliations show how Volyn represents the unfinished rapprochement between Poland and Ukraine.

In 2015, against the background of the conflict with Russia, Ukraine started to emphasize its historical fight for independence; at about the same time, PiS began to stress the historical role of Poles as freedom fighters against external oppression. Two different varieties of victimhood confronted each other. Polish victimhood is part of domestic politics aimed at securing the power of the ruling PiS.

The Polish-Ukrainian Battle for the Past

The government presents Poland as a country surrounded by enemies and thus having to be internally strong, well-fortified, and patriotic.

This dispute about different interpretations of the common past has poisoned this neighborhood relationship at time when Ukraine needs the support of Poland more than ever. But Poland is also paying a price for the tough course the government is taking in memory politics. And there is another internal challenge: If they turn their back on Poland, the Polish economy might take a hit. To prevent further bilateral damage, Poland and Ukraine should leave the historical battlefields of 1943 and continue their reconciliation and mutual cooperation.

In doing so, they would also prevent Moscow reaping the benefits from this poisoned neighborhood.