Our friendly neighbors? Poles’ view of Ukrainians.

A complicated past and some very painful memories negatively affected Polish-Ukrainian relations. But the recent conflict in Ukraine can push the two nations to improve their relations and mutual perceptions.

Photo: Natalia Sawka | Political Critique


There is no doubt that Ukraine is now facing the most difficult period of its nascent statehood, and Poles are closely following the drama just beyond their border. The Ukrainian conflict is commonly the focus of political debates and media coverage; Poles are talking about it in their everyday conversations and carrying out spontaneous humanitarian aid actions. Although it is too early to determine if this will be a turning point in the complicated relations between the two nations, some interesting indicators can already be seen, and it seems that the mutual relations are warming up. 1

Beyond our border

The Polish position on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine is obvious. Warsaw supports the European aspirations of Kiev and demands that Moscow stop supporting the separatists in the self-declared people’s republics installed in Donetsk and Lugansk. The Polish media followed and covered the Ukrainian conflict extensively as it developed last year and 2015 has not been different so far.

According to regular surveys by the Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS) in 2014, the majority of Poles said they were interested in the events in Ukraine. Whenever the situation in Ukraine became tenser, regardless of the cause, the Polish public’s interest in these events increased too. In March 2014, during the annexation of Crimea by Russia and in September 2014 after the commercial passenger plane was shot down over Donbass, 88% of Poles expressed interest in Ukrainian events; in November 2014, although interest in Ukraine had waned, 78% of Poles were still interested in the events there. 2

This sustained public interest goes hand in hand with a more positive Polish perception of relations with Ukraine. While in June of 2013 only 21% of Poles considered bilateral Polish-Ukrainian relations to be good, a year later the number rose to 37%. At the same time the proportion of people who considered such relations as neither good nor bad decreased by 4 percentage points to 42%. 3 These results seem to show a reversal of the previously negative perception trend, which was also noted in a 2014 study conducted by the Institute of Public Affairs, which compared Poles’ opinions on Polish-Ukrainian relations from 2000 and 2013. In 13 years the percentage of people who saw these relations as bad rose significantly – from 14% to 31%. 4 This disappointment was probably due to Ukraine missing the chance to conduct real changes and reforms in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution and before the Euromaidan.  The non-democratic actions of the government, such as the imprisonment of political opponents, definitely did not serve Ukraine’s image well, and tarnished Poles perceptions of Polish-Ukrainian relations.

Support for brothers in need

Why have Poles become more optimistic in their estimation of the relations with Ukrainians? This change in the trend is most likely related to several factors. It seems the disappointment following the Orange Revolution was replaced by feelings of respect for Ukrainians, who have so resolutely revolted against corrupt authorities that were unable to meet their basic responsibilities towards society. The election of a new Ukrainian president and parliament probably also contributed to it. After the previous administration, the current one is poised and seems to be ready for a thorough modernization of the country and exhibit a willingness to take the necessary steps to become a member of the European Union and possibly NATO. This has evoked more positive emotions and hopes that bilateral relations between Poland and Ukraine, and the EU and Ukraine, would develop well.

The growth of positive perceptions of bilateral relations is also influenced by the fact that a large proportion of Poles sympathize with Ukrainians as the weaker party and the victim in the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict. As shown by CBOS’s May 2014 survey, 73% of Poles believe that ethnic conflicts in eastern Ukraine have been instigated by Russia, and 81% of Poles condemn the annexation of the Crimea, recognizing that Russian President Vladimir Putin had no right to violate international law and the territorial integrity of Ukraine. 5

Picture of the Ukrainian nation

The most recent statistical data on the perception of Ukrainians (as a nation) in Poland was collected by the Institute of Public Affairs (ISP) in 2013, but this was before the outbreak of the Euromaidan demonstrations. Comprehensive analysis included an assessment of perceptions of Ukrainians in Poland and Poles in Ukraine and the functioning of the Ukrainian and Polish states. Respondents were also asked about their opinion on Ukraine’s European aspirations. Obviously, to get a more current picture, the ISP analysis should be supplemented by recent studies that would take into account Polish reactions to events such as the annexation of the Crimea and the Russian-Ukrainian war, but these are not available yet.

We also lack statistical data from 2014, which would show changes in Ukrainians’ attitude toward Polish-Ukrainian relations, or how Ukrainians perceived the Polish engagement in Euromaidan and Polish attempts to help resolve the Ukrainian-Russian conflict.

In its study, ISP analyzed the way Poles assess typical features of the Ukrainian people, having a choice of fifteen opposing characteristics related to both the character and personality, and their functioning in the society. The results showed that in comparing themselves with Ukrainians through the prism of features – like “competence” (e.g. hard work, entrepreneurship, education), “morality” or “warmth” (hospitality, kindness, sincerity) – Poles think that they are more “competent”, but Ukrainians are “warmer”. In short Poles view Ukrainians as “ordinary people” full of openness, hospitality and a positive attitude to life.

Graph 1. Comparison of Ukrainians with Poles (as seen by Poles)*

graph 1 wenerski

*The left margin of the graph is “Ukrainian”, the right one “Polish”. So, for instance, Poles perceive Ukrainians rather than themselves (Poles) as cheerful, while themselves (rather than Ukrainians) as modern.

It seems the recent events have not affected the typical image of Ukrainians in the eyes of Poles (as described above). Perhaps the distinction between “competent” Poles and “warm” Ukrainians has even broadened. Such tendencies were already evident in the 2013 ISP survey and a stereotypical approach is quite common in comparing any two countries with apparent disparities in income levels and quality of life. For example, similar relationships exist in the perception of Poles by Austrians and Germans, except that here it is Poles who are seen as “moral” and “warm”, and not necessarily “competent”.

My colleague, my neighbor, my boss

The 2013 ISP study included questions about Poles’ approval of Ukrainians in eight different social roles, associated with a various degree of psychological closeness, beginning with a question about how the respondent would feel about Ukrainians settling permanently in Poland, and ending with one about how the respondent would feel if a Ukrainian became a family member via marriage.

Graph 2. Percentage of Poles approval of the social roles of Ukrainians in Poland

graph wenerskiWhen comparing survey results from 2000 and 2013 you see how much Pole’s attitudes have changed and that now the vast majority of Poles approve of Ukrainians in various social roles. At the beginning of the 21st century Poles were quite reluctant to accept Ukrainians in all the above-mentioned social roles; for example, only 45% of Poles approved of Ukrainians settling permanently in Poland, while only 22% said they would accept a Ukrainian as a family member. 6

It seems that the positive changes will be permanent. However, trends for acceptance of Ukrainians in different social roles should be monitored on a regular basis, as it is not known how Poles will react to the influx of immigrants from Ukraine. The complexity of the situation can be seen in the hostile voices of Polish students against their Ukrainian colleagues studying in the eastern part of Poland. This past academic year, Polish students claimed that Ukrainians were favored at Polish universities, overcrowd student dormitories and receive financial support, which according to some students, should be offered to Poles. 7

Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation: the task for the future

Inseparable topics approached in any discussion on Polish-Ukrainian relations are issues related to the common and often difficult history, which is rife with mutual claims and accusations. The main bone of contention is the so-called Volhynian slaughter, when in 1943-44 at least 35,000 Poles were murdered by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) as part of an ethnic cleansing.  However, CBOS studies show that the vast majority of Poles believe that a full Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation is possible. Moreover, the proportion of people who feel this way increased from 63% in June 2013 to 67% in July 2014. At the same time there is still a considerable percentage (about one-fifth of the respondents in both 2013 and 2014) of Poles, who believe that reconciliation is not possible. 8 This was also corroborated by the ISP’s 2013 survey; Polish respondents were asked what they associate Ukraine with and 11% referred to the tragic event of Volhynia. 9 The conflict can be seen in the discussions about this topic on various Polish Internet fora, especially the users’ comments. The majority of Polish accusations toward Ukrainians are that they have yet to admit their responsibility for the Volhynian tragedy and have glorified instead of condemned the participants of those events. Although these opinions are expressed by a minority of Poles, their high levels of activity make their views all the more evident.

An explanation of historical events is obviously necessary for the full Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation. However, a period of peace would be the most appropriate time for this, when eastern Ukraine is no longer a battlefield, and when the task of explaining these historical hostilities could be taken up by professionals, instead of lay commentators.

Over the past several months, the solidarity expressed by Poles towards Ukrainians has brought the two countries closer to each other. However the support provided at this time of conflict does not mean a full Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation. Although relations between Poles and Ukrainians over recent years have shown significant improvements, it is clear that the mutual relationship is still evolving as it was stalled in the time of communism, due to the domination of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain. Now, both sides need to be involved in fighting negative stereotypes, which will allow for a resolution of all issues that exist between Poland, Ukraine and their societies. The change has already begun, and we should believe that the current solidarity expressed by Poles towards Ukrainians during the Euromaidan and Ukrainian-Russian conflict will extend to times of peace in Ukraine as well.

Notes:

  1. This article was written at the end of January 2015
  2. CBOS, “Poczucie zagrożenia i zainteresowanie sytuacją na Ukrainie” (A potential threat and interest in the situation in Ukraine), No. 164/2014, Warsaw, December 2014
  3. CBOS, “Stosunki polsko-ukraińskie w opiniach Polaków” (Polish-Ukrainian relations as seen by Poles), No. 95/2014, Warsaw, July 2014
  4. J. Fomina, J. Konieczna-Sałamatin, J. Kucharczyk, Ł. Wenerski, “Polska-Ukraina, Polacy- Ukraińcy, Spojrzenie przez granicę” (Poland-Ukraine, Poles-Ukrainians, A insight across the border), Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw 2014, page 61; the questions asked by ISP and those asked by CBOS cannot be directly compared, as they referred to somewhat different subjects; nevertheless some trends can be clearly seen in the results of both studies.
  5. CBOS, “O sytuacji na Ukrainie przed wyborami prezydenckimi” (Situation in Ukraine before presidential elections), No. 78/2014, Warsaw, May 2014
  6. J. Fomina, J. Konieczna-Sałamatin, J. Kucharczyk, Ł. Wenerski, “Polska-Ukraina, Polacy- Ukraińcy, Spojrzenie przez granicę” (Poland-Ukraine, Poles-Ukrainians, A insight across the border), Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw 2014, page 44.
  7. Aleksandra Puculek, Studenci o kolegach z Ukrainy: Zajmują miejsca Polakom,” Gazeta Wyborcza Lublin, 28 November 2014.
  8. CBOS, “Stosunek Polaków do stron ukraińskiego konfliktu” (Attitude of Poles towards the sides of the Ukrainian conflict), No. 103/2014, Warsaw, July 2014
  9. J. Fomina, J. Konieczna-Sałamatin, J. Kucharczyk, Ł. Wenerski, “Polska-Ukraina, Polacy- Ukraińcy, Spojrzenie przez granicę” (Poland-Ukraine, Poles-Ukrainians, A insight across the border), Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw 2014, page 48-49.
Łukasz Wenerski

Łukasz Wenerski

works as an analyst and project coordinator for the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw, Poland. His areas of expertise include: relations between the EU and the Eastern Partnership countries, especially Ukraine and Russia and Polish Eastern Policy. He represents IPA in the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum and Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum.