Ukraine’s new president may improve Polish-Ukrainian relations: expert

Poland has held high hopes that whoever becomes Ukraine’s new president, he or she will be more inclined to reach a consensus on many matters, one of which has been historical politics.

“Warsaw was looking forward to a new Ukrainian president,” wrote the head of the New Europe Analytic Centre in Kiev Alona Hetmańczuk, adding that “high hopes were initially put in Yulia Tymoshenko who was leading the polls… then in Zelenskiy, something that fell in line with this year’s very popular ‘anyone but [incumbent] Petro [Poroshenko]’ trend.”

“The new president of Ukraine may improve relations with Poland, however, so far there’s no evidence that this would be a priority of Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s foreign policy,” stressed Ms Hetmańczuk.

Nevertheless, the expert from Kiev is of the opinion that the departing president Petro Poroshenko “categorically did not comply with” Warsaw’s expectations.

“At some point, he was simply considered incapable of reaching an agreement… It was all about the most toxic topic within the bilateral dialogue, namely the question of history. One could hardly talk about chemistry between Poroshenko and [Poland’s President Andrzej] Duda whatsoever,” wrote Ms Hetmańczuk.

According to the expert, Ukraine “prides itself as the only state in the world that barred Poland from undertaking excavation works on its territory,” adding that it backfires on other fields of cooperation and results in, among others, Poland’s PM Mateusz Morawiecki not paying visits to Ukraine.

“In order to reset Polish-Ukrainian relations, president [elect] Zelenskiy won't be able to avoid settling [the issue of excavations]. It is understandable that something more is needed for a full restart. The historical policy is just the most visible symptom of the crisis in [Polish-Ukrainian] bilateral relations. In general, it is not about a crisis around history but about a crisis of mutual respect,” wrote Ms Hetmańczuk.

Ms Hetmańczuk believes that the lack of reciprocal respect is embodied by an event when “an ideologue of the ruling party [in Poland] told the Ukrainian president [Petro Poroshenko] that Ukraine shall not enter Europe arm in arm with Banderism”. The cited statement was uttered by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s MEP Zbigniew Kuźmiuk in March 2018.

“Banderism” was named after its originator Stepan Bandera who was the leader of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists-Revolutionists/Banderists (OUN-R/B), responsible for the Volhynia Massacre that saw 40,000-60,000 Poles and hundreds of Ukrainians brutally exterminated in 1943. The Polish parliament considers this crime a genocide.

Ms Hetmańczuk deems that Warsaw has more reasons to complain about its relations with Kiev, one of which is the fact that Ukraine does not prioritise Poland to the same extent that Poland does with Ukraine. Secondly, Poland’s political importance to Ukraine dropped with the former becoming just a country between Kiev and Berlin.“

The expert concludes that although change during Zelenskiy’s upcoming tenure should not be taken for granted, the president-elect and Poland’s president Andrzej Duda have made friendly gestures with the latter being the first foreign leader to congratulate the former on his victory.