While the Ukrainian government holds forth on the advantages of European integration, lawsuits are mounting in Poland that demand compensation for the damages incurred by the former owners of real estate in western Ukraine in 1939 when Galicia and Volhynia were incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
An organization known as Restitution Kresy is spearheading this campaign. The Eastern Kresy (or «borderlands») region is the Polish name for the parts of Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus that were once part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Even back in the 1980s and 1990s, an 11-volume catalog was published in Poland, detailing the noble estates in the Eastern Kresy region, and the Kresy Institute was established in Krakow in 2006. According to Konrad Rękas, the director of Restitution Kresy, as of September 2015, 6,500 families have submitted claims to homes and businesses located in Ukraine. And approximately another 12,000 are awaiting verification of documents substantiating their property rights. As many as 150,000 Polish citizens could end up as plaintiffs in this case. The Polish media estimates total damages to Poland from the incorporation of Galicia and Volynia into the Ukrainian SSR to be $5 billion.
The Polish Catholic Church might also come forward as a plaintiff. At last year’s Synod of Bishops of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church (UGCC), the Archbishop of Lviv, a Polish citizen named Mieczysław Mokrzycki, spoke about the need for Ukraine to return church property to Poland. This applies not only to Catholic churches currently owned by the Ukrainian state, but also to many Uniate chapels. During the time of the Second Commonwealth of Poland, the UGCC owned vast swaths of land, which it maintained at the expense of the Polish treasury. Since 2012 Mieczysław Mokrzycki has been offering prayers for the swift return of Lviv’s Church of St. Mary Magdalene to its former Polish owners.
The restitution of property is a standard procedure within the European integration project. And until recently, Polish citizens and organizations with a stake in the matter had hoped that Ukraine would not sidestep this restitution process. But perhaps now they should bid farewell to such hopes.
On Oct. 29, 2015, only four days after the Law and Justice Party won Poland’s parliamentary elections, a letter arrived addressed to the new Polish Prime Minister, Beata Szydło. It was written by a man named Elmar Brok, a mid-level European bureaucrat who heads the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs.
«Dear Ms. Szydlo,
… As the chairman of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs I suggest that you pay primary attention to the problem of multiple restitution lawsuits against Ukraine being prepared in Poland. Although the claims are well-reasoned and absolutely legal I urge you to act with due diligence and postpone the filing of lawsuits to a later date. Current state of affairs in Ukraine has been so complicated by internal conflicts that this kind of threats from an EU member-country may have a detrimental impact on the attitude of ordinary Ukrainians towards the idea of European integration. We cannot afford to take inopportune actions and jeopardize all the efforts aimed at developing democracy in Ukraine».
This was in fact a direct order, issued to the prime minister of Poland and demanding a freeze on all legal proceedings related to the submission of restitution claims. Judging by the lack of response from Polish politicians to Brok’s letter, it looks like that order is being obeyed. It will be interesting to see how this affects the Law and Justice Party’s new program, as heralded by its spokesman, Polish President Andrzej Duda, to revive work with the worldwide Polish diaspora community (known in Polish as «Polonia»). One of Andrzej Duda’s first directives upon assuming his post as head of state was to establish under the office of the president an office to work with Polonia and Poles abroad, and these members of the Polonia community are some of the most active sponsors of restitution claims against Ukraine. The Poles of Galicia and Volynis owned extensive real estate, and their descendants in Poland and other countries have long wanted to see their ancestors’ property returned. But now they need to forget about all that: their demands must not impede «the efforts aimed at developing democracy in Ukraine».
However, it is possible that not all is yet lost for the Poles. After all, Elmar Brok makes it clear that Ukraine’s duty to provide restitution is still binding. It’s just that the Poles must wait until the Ukrainians have developed their democracy.
In an interview with the head of Restitution Kresy, Konrad Rękas expressed the hope that «in light of the current government of Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the European Union, a legal path… has been opened to the residents of Poland… that will make property restitution a possibility». That poor man obviously knows nothing about the Brok’s message. And if he knew, he would realize that this «legal path» for Poles is being opened and closed in Brussels or elsewhere, but not in Warsaw. On the other hand, if Ms Beata Szydło holds a different point of view, then naturally she will publicly reveal the text of her response to Elmar Brok’s letter.