Poland’s National Independence Day, celebrated on 11 November, has caused the Ukrainian authorities yet more grief. The date itself commemorates the anniversary of the restoration of Poland’s sovereignty in 1918, marked by the armed conflict that took place between Polish troops and forces on the territory of Galicia in the West Ukrainian People’s Republic (ZUNR). Large-scale fighting continued from November 1918 through to July 1919 and ended with the complete defeat of the ZUNR.
This year, more than 120,000 people took part in celebrations throughout Poland to mark Independence Day. The most well-attended was a march in Warsaw (75,000 people), during which a Ukrainian flag was publicly desecrated: demonstrators ripped it apart and stamped on it before setting it alight, while shouting obscenities aimed at the OUN-UPA and ‘icons’ of Bandera’s Ukrainian nationalists. It should be recalled that it was militants from the OUN and UPA, both Ukrainian nationalist organisations that collaborated with Hitler during the Second World War, who are responsible for the mass murder of Poles in Volhynia in 1943.
Other incidents that took place on 11 November were less widely reported in the media: a Facebook flag was set alight at the National Stadium to cries of “Poland against corporations!” This was the response of Polish patriots to Facebook’s attempts to block the pages of right-wing activists known for their anti-Bandera views on the eve of the march.
In Wrocław, demonstrators set light to a UPA flag to shouts of “Poland against Banderites!”, “Down with the Brussels’ occupation!” and “Give us a way out of the EU!”
Jacek Międlar, a former Catholic priest who is now a social activist, declared from the podium that there was a threat lurking on Poland’s eastern border far greater than Islamic fundamentalists, and that threat was Ukrainian Bandera worshippers.
Anti-Banderite sentiment is gripping increasingly larger segments of the Polish population. For some time now, there has been a popular Facebook page called “Ukrainians are not my brothers” with a tag line aimed at Polish politicians: “Do you want to fight for Ukraine? Then fight without us and not with our money.”
Polish leaders need to take these feelings into account lest they squander the public trust they currently have. That is why members of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, have supported a bill introduced into the Sejm by the opposition party Kukiz’15 that proposes a sentence of up to three years’ imprisonment for anyone denying the criminal nature of the OUN-UPA.
“There are a million Ukrainians in Poland, some say there are two million. The majority of these are infected with the bacillus of Ukrainian nationalism and Banderism. We soon risk facing the mass propaganda of Banderism and the relativisation of history, after which we will find out that we murdered the Poles in Volhynia ourselves,” said Tomasz Rzymkowski, a Kukiz’15 party deputy, commenting on the bill.
Whether Paweł Kukiz’s bill is approved or not depends on the future behaviour of the Law and Justice Party. For the time being, Jarosław Kaczyński’s party is taking a tactical break, while keeping a close eye on the public mood.
But the mood of the people, agitated by the release of the film Volhynia directed by Wojciech Smarzowski, is once again on the boil. There is also a new reason. The authorities of Ukraine’s Ternopol region have refused to give a local academic theatre its 444,000 hryvnia academic theatre subsidy as punishment for the fact that four of its actors were in Smarzowski’s film. The artistic director of the Maria Zankovetska Theatre in Lviv, Fyodor Strigun, supported the actors: “If someone invited me to film in Moscow tomorrow, then I would go! Just to spite everyone!”
In Poland, meanwhile, the economic sanctions against the theatre’s actors have been regarded as an offensive against historical truth and an anti-Polish démarche.
Recently, Kiev has been taking steps in its relations with Warsaw that cannot but elicit a response. For example, monuments to the OUN-UPA are being illegally erected in areas of Poland with a dense Ukrainian population; Andrei Tarasenko, People’s Deputy and Pravy Sektor leader Dmytro Yarosh’s right-hand man, is calling for 18 Polish border districts (powiat) to be given back to Ukraine and for the consul general of Poland in Lviv, Wiesław Mazur, to be reprimanded for calling Bandera a thug; not to mention the Verkhovna Rada’s condemnation of the Polish Sejm’s resolution to recognise the Volhynia massacre as genocide.
Poland is aware of the danger posed by the ideology of Ukrainian nationalism. It has been argued that recent initiatives by the Polish Ministry of Defence to create territorial defence units numbering some 100,000 men to help the army and police protect vulnerable areas on Poland’s eastern border were established to prevent acts of provocation by Ukraine. At the very least, the territorial defence units will be more than capable of catching illegal immigrants crossing the Ukrainian-Polish border.
It is no accident that Warsaw vigorously began putting these units together after Pravy Sektor militants exchanged fire with the Ukrainian police in July 2015 in the Ukrainian city of Mukachevo, just a few dozen kilometres from the Polish border. At that time, the Polish authorities were worried that the fleeing Pravy Sektor militants would head towards the Polish village of Ustrzyki Górne and slip across the poorly protected Ukrainian-Polish border.
With its current regime, Ukraine is increasingly becoming a real headache for Poland.