Poland’s deputy PM: War gives Poland, Ukraine chance to bury troubled past

Poland's Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Culture Piotr Glinski, 13 October 2021. [EPA-EFE/Jonas Ekströmer]

Poland has shown immense support for Ukraine since the Russian invasion started. What is less known is that the two countries share a history of oppression and bloodshed, but according to Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Gliński, the war has given them a chance to achieve full reconciliation.

“Yes, our common history has difficult moments, topics that need to be closed – and we will definitely come back to them in our relations with a free and independent Ukraine – after the war,” Gliński, who is also the minister of culture, told EURACTIV.

Long-standing resentments between Warsaw and Kyiv erupted in ethnic bloodshed during World War II, when the nationalist Ukrainian Insurgent Army killed tens of thousands of Poles in the Nazi-occupied Polish regions of Volhynia and Eastern Galicia.

However, Poland has an even more troubled history with Moscow, as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany carved up the country in 1939 and committed numerous atrocities – until the Soviet troops pushed out the Germans at the later stage of World War II.

“For us in Poland, it is difficult to resist the impression that the Russians in Ukraine behave exactly the same as the Red Army in Poland in 1944-45, although apparently, this army liberated us then…,” Gliński said.

Asked if the relations between Poland and Ukraine have shifted with the current crisis, Gliński said: “Yes, it must be said clearly – the tragedy of the war in Ukraine gave Poles and Ukrainians a chance for full reconciliation.”

“We have been working for years to make the relations between our states and nations better and better, more and more historical disputes and disputes find their solution”.

“Matters of history must give way to the present and the future – our common one, because Ukraine today defends the whole of Europe, defends the civilized world,” he added.

Meanwhile, Polish and Ukrainian authorities have for years accused Russia of trying to provoke hostility between their two countries.

Poland has accepted large numbers of Ukrainian refugees, prompting fears that this could become another wedge issue Russia could exploit.

“The Russian efforts to sow divisions between the Poles and Ukrainians, particularly by means of exploiting historical issues, are as old as time,” said Stanisław Żaryn, a spokesman for Poland’s security services.

“Russia has redoubled them since the war began,” he said. “And they are more dangerous now because the war is going on, and it can affect more people than before.”

Refugee efforts

Gliński, who is responsible for overseeing Poland’s efforts to take in Ukrainian refugees, said he expected that “in the near future we may still have to deal with the influx of refugees, although at a lower intensity than in the first days after the Russian invasion“.

So far around 2,7 million people fleeing the war have crossed into Poland, according to the latest numbers by the Polish Border Guard released on Thursday (14 April).

“We provide financial support, and we are constantly in touch with local authorities and local governments to support them in this activity and to relieve those localities which, due to their location, have received the largest groups of refugees,” Gliński said.

EURACTIV has visited the Polish cities of Przemyśl, near the Ukrainian border, and the border crossing in Medyka, as well as the region’s capital Rzeszów multiple times over the past weeks and witnessed the country’s efforts.

A law recently passed by the Polish parliament allows millions of Ukrainians fleeing the war access to the labour market, health and social benefits, with Polish authorities setting up registration centres so refugees can apply for a PESEL, a Polish national identity number.

“Most of them stay – because they want to be close to home, they plan to go back as soon as possible. They also feel great kindness and support from Poles and Polish society,“ Gliński said, adding the country’s effort was “close to the phenomenon of Poland’s ‘Solidarity’ movement” of the1980s.

“It is not without significance in this situation that over a million Ukrainians lived in Poland before the war – they worked here, functioned in communities, and today they help us take care of their compatriots, help them find their place in Polish reality, and do a great job to help them with integration,” Gliński said.

Among other efforts, around 180,000 Ukrainian children were enabled to follow normal education in Polish schools, with more and more of them employing people to assist teachers in the Ukrainian language.

“Perhaps some of these people will want to build their future in Poland. The Polish labour market, the Polish economy, is able to accept some of them and offer them a job,“ Gliński said, adding that some already have found employment in the service, healthcare, education and cultural sector or have started their own business.

Asked whether he expects a decline in help for Ukrainian refugees, Gliński said the Polish government is “aware that helping Ukrainians is not a sprint, it is a marathon, and even an exhausting ultra-run”.

He warned that the “great spurt of solidarity” could wear out over time, and a remedy for the fatigue of volunteers and community workers could be contracts for the provision of their services and the professionalisation of some of their current activities.

“We must be prepared for a wave of growth and decline in social involvement,” he added.

EU support

Local and regional stakeholders in frontline EU countries receiving Ukrainian refugees have been warning that the bloc’s current approach of loosening rules that govern structural fund spending in order to finance the influx of those fleeing the war will be insufficient in the long run.

Asked if there will be a need for fresh EU funding, Gliński said the current “facts speak for themselves”.

“I would like to emphasise that Poland accepted and supports 2.7 million war refugees from Ukraine on its own, with its own domestic resources and the money of its citizens – we have not yet received a single euro for this purpose from the EU,” he said.

EU countries bordering Ukraine and those that have received refugees in numbers more than 1% of their national population – Austria, Bulgaria, Czechia, and Estonia – will now get 45% of their EU recovery funds, with invoices to be sent to Brussels later.

However, the European Commission has for months refused to unlock €36 billion in recovery funds for Poland over long-standing rule of law concerns, including over the country’s judiciary and discriminating against the LGBTQ+ community.

Countering Russian narratives

At a meeting of EU culture ministers in Luxembourg earlier in April, Poland and the Baltic states raised the topic of blocking Russian TV channels and internet portals across the bloc.

“For a long time, we have been asking the European Commission and all other countries to introduce a full blockade just to limit the impact of Russian propaganda, but it is not fully understood in Europe,” Gliński said.

According to him, it was primarily Germany arguing against, invoking freedom of speech.

“This shows how difficult it is to conduct a common policy in Europe and how even on seemingly obvious issues, opinions can be divided,” he said

“In this way, we will not be able to face Russia effectively,” he added.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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