CROSS-BORDER FRIENDSHIP Polish bikers arrive bearing gifts to for a newply restored church and convent in the Ukrainian city of Zółkiew.
Polish-Ukrainian relations offer instructive insights for other bordering nations with difficult histories
When the Soviet Bloc collapsed in 1989, the iron curtain fractured into many smaller, more permeable borders. During the 1990s, Irish economic success attracted attention from the queue of applicants for EU membership as they rebuilt their shattered economies. They had much greater understanding of Ireland’s successful development strategies than I had ever found in Belfast!
However, North-South Irish research had taught me that the concept of a ‘border’ is complex and multidimensional. Some borders were dramatic frontiers, separating the forces of darkness and light, like the terrifying watch towers that I observed in the 1970s on the border between Austria and Hungary, or the crude, inhuman Berlin Wall. But as time passed and the EU enlarged, national borders gradually ceased to be harassing and disruptive barriers.
In the 1990s I worked on the former GDR (or East Germany), after reunification. Similarities with Northern Ireland were striking. Both regions had remnants of decaying heavy industries, left over from a previous era; both had large public sectors, substituting for weak private sectors; both were utterly dependent on external financial subvention.
Later, on my first visit to Wrocław in 2002, my Polish colleague took me on a tour of his beautiful city. In one sector, which appeared more ‘drab’ than the historical centre, he told me that when the Soviet army surrounded and laid siege to Wrocław in late 1944, the Germans demolished buildings and built an air strip to fly in supplies.
My reaction was one of anger that yet another Polish city should be mutilated by occupying German forces.
Then I realised that until 1945, Wrocław was a German city (Breslau), and only became Polish when their border was pushed 200 kilometres west as part of the postwar settlement.
The land that Poland gained in the west in 1945 was offset by losses in the east. Pre-war eastern Poland – centered on the city of Lvov – became western Ukraine. Many ethnic Poles were expelled to the new western regions, which had previously been German territory.
Complexities and legacies
One might expect that Polish-Ukrainian relations would be tetchy and fractious. Yet during the civic convulsions that broke out after pro-Russian hardliners tried to ‘fix’ the Presidential election of November 22, 2004 (leading to the so-called Orange Revolution), the Polish President, Alexander Kwasniewski, played a constructive role. He worked hard to alert the EU to the need for a satisfactory resolution to the flawed election and negotiated alongside the EU to ensure a peaceful outcome of the crisis.
In September 2006, I visited the western part of the Ukraine and saw some of the complexities and legacies of Polish-Ukrainian history.
Before reaching the Ukrainian border from Poland, we passed through Bełżec, site of a notorious Nazi death camp where half a million of the Jewish community were murdered. Many of the Ukrainian towns that we subsequently visited had also suffered from murderous activities of the SS Einsatzcommando squads, as they systematically exterminated Jewish communities who had played a vibrant part in the history of this region since the Middle Ages.
Passing through Żółkiew, we witnessed a charming example of spontaneous Polish-Ukrainian friendship. An awesome Polish Harley-Davidson motorcycle club arrived, noisy and clad in black leather. But they had come bearing gifts for the clergy of the newly restored Catholic church and convent. An excited nun can just be seen to the right of the photo, dashing off to announce the good news!
When Poland was restored to nationhood by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, a complex war broke out between Ukrainian nationalists, Poles, the Red Army and White Russian forces. An armistice resulted in the division of Ukraine between Poland and the Soviet Union. Young Polish soldiers who died fighting for independence were buried in the Lvov cemetery, now part of Ukraine.
In December 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Poland was the first country to recognise the independence of Ukraine and a joint declaration of reconciliation was signed in 1997. Today the Polish war graves in Lvov have been renovated, and are a tangible, focal point of reconciliation.
Struggles with the Ottoman Empire also left their mark on the Ukraine. Most intriguing was a minaret attached to a Catholic church, which had been seized by the Turks and used as a mosque, and then reverted to its original use. The minaret was left in place, but is now used as a bell tower, topped by a Christian statue.
As we re-crossed the border back into Poland, final images and sounds of the Ukraine were of the Basilian monks of the monastery at Krechow. The churches and monasteries – of various faiths, including the few remaining synagogues – were being reconstructed. As in Poland, they became a unifying badge of nationality.
The Polish approach is to reconcile with their Ukrainian neighbours, best realised through the Ukraine eventually joining the EU. Residual tensions remain between the Polish and Ukrainian people and cultures, but little of the uncooperative bitterness so characteristic of Irish North-South relations, which continues to divide the communities in the North so deeply.
Interestingly, the Department of Foreign Affairs has just announced the opening of the Embassy of Ireland in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.
John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.