Poland – Ukraine: Will Territorial Demands Follow Restitution Claims?

Poland – Ukraine: Will Territorial Demands Follow Restitution Claims?

Poland will hold parliamentary election in October. No matter who comes to power, the issue of Eastern Kresy will probably continue to be in focus. The interest will be fueled by ongoing Ukrainian crisis. Kresy Wschodnie or Kresy («Eastern Borderlands», or «Borderlands») is a term that refers to the eastern lands that formerly belonged to Poland. These territories today lie in western Ukraine, western Belarus, as well as eastern Lithuania. 

In the interbellum, the term Kresy roughly equated with the lands beyond the Curson line, suggested in December 1919 by the British Foreign Office as the eastern border for Poland. After the 1919-1921 war between Poland and the Soviet Russia Kresy became Polish. In September 1939, these territories were incorporated into the Soviet Union. Even though Kresy, or the Eastern Borderlands, are no longer Polish territories, the area is still inhabited by a significant Polish minority, and the memory of a Polish Kresy is still cultivated. 

The attachment to the «myth of Kresy», the vision of the region as a peaceful, idyllic, rural land, has been an issue in Polish public discourse. «Restitution Kresy», a recently established organization, was created in April to deal with the return of Polish property in the Western Ukraine. Mateusz Piskorski, the leader of Zmiana political party, told Tass that the organization brings together heirs of former owners of property nationalized in 1939-40. With a corresponding database at their disposal they are organizing a group of lawyers to prepare legal actions. The organization wants to return the property to heirs in case they produce evidence to go upon and prove themselves rightful owners. 

The Ukrainian government chose a risky policy aimed at European integration. This is a slippery slope. The property claims are the fallout of the Association Agreement signed by Kiev with the EU. The Association Agreement provides for restitution of property to its rightful owners. Having joined the association, Ukraine was required to comply. The Baltic states went through this process. Over 110 thousand people lost apartments as a result of lawsuits. The people living in Ukrainian Lviv, the historic capital of Galicia with the population of 750 thousand people, may suffer most.

Konrad Rękas, the head of «Restitution Kressy», says at least 150 thousand people in Poland have a chance to prove that they are heirs or successors to owned property in Kresy region. According to him, Ukraine should pay $5 billion dollars. Preparing for restitution Poles flooded Lviv to have a look at the property. The issue hit internet social networks. For instance, one of the bloggers (goldnike-777.blogspot.com) wrote that groups of Polish tourists routinely walk the streets of Lviv. They speak loudly as if they were the hosts and point fingers at houses while discussing who the property should belong to.

The post-Communist Europe knows well what restitution is like. After the collapse of socialism almost all the countries of Eastern Europe adopted laws on denationalization and restitution. «Legal heirs» appeared in Hungary, Bulgaria and Poland. Lviv had been called Lemberg (German) till 1918. The USSR resettled more than 800,000 Poles living in the Ukraine in modern Poland. One can imagine what restitution may lead to. In theory Hungarians and Romanians may join Poles putting forward restitution claims. It may go much farther than $5 billion. 

According to vesti.lv/, CBOS - Public Opinion Research Center, Warsaw, Poland and SOCIS - Ukraine Gallup International, Kiev (Ukraine) have recently come up with a survey on how Poland and Ukraine see each other. It showed that 50% of Poles negatively view Ukraine while 38% of respondents are absolutely indifferent. Only 23% of them said they were ready to recognize the existing border between Ukraine and Poland. Evidently it is alarming. Does it mean that that the public opinion in Poland supports the idea of going beyond the restitution to put forward claims to the lands that many Poles believe to be their eastern borderlands?

Not a single Polish political party puts forward revanchist claims to eastern Kresy. The issue of changing borders is taboo for any serious politician. But people may hold different views. Pact Ribbentrop - Beck is an extremely popular alternative history novel written by a Polish writer and historian Piotr Zychowitz. The book, whose full title is Pact Ribbentrop - Beck, or How Poles could have defeated the Soviet Union alongside the Third Reich (Pakt Ribbentrop - Beck czyli jak Polacy mogli u boku III Rzeszy pokonać Związek Radziecki), was published in 2012 by Dom Wydawniczy Rebis from Poznan. The author argues that the government of the Second Polish Republic should have accepted Adolf Hitler’s offer of a joint Polish - German attack on the Soviet Union. As a result, Poland would have annexed Ukraine and Belarus. «Beck» refers to Josef Beck, Poland's foreign minister in the 1930s.

A couple of years ago columnist Mariusz Max Kolonko wrote that the fall of Berlin wall had become a thing of the past and now Poland could count on the elimination of eastern border to return the land that belonged to it historically. The journalist strongly opposed the call of then Bronisław Komorowski to support the Ukrainian democracy. He saw no sense in offering a helping hand. According to Kolonko, a strong Ukraine will never return the territories.

It could be ignored, but the issue of «eastern Polish borderlands» (Polish Ukraine) is not only a public discourse.

Polish schools and vocational colleges run a special course on «eastern borderlands». The students are invited to discuss the topics like «The days of territories’ culture», «Guests from Ukraine», «Let’s save Polish graves in Ukraine», «Meeting those who love the territories» etc.

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