Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Poland is Ukraine’s indispensable ally

A comment by Cross-border Talks’ editor in the context of the media hype about Ukraine planning to give a special status to Polish citizens.

On Saturday 21 May 2022 the Polish president Andrzej Duda paid an unexpected visit to Kyiv and spoke to the members of Ukrainian parliament or the Verkhovna Rada. The Polish president was actually the first head of a Western state officially invited to Ukraine to speak to the members of parliament since the Russian invasion. And the moment in which he appeared in Kyiv was quite important.

The war has been raging for three months. The interest of the international public in Ukraine seems to be lessening. So for Ukrainians inviting a Polish president is a way of making international public opinion again interested in Ukraine. They do that to show once again that Ukraine still has powerful friends in the West – not only the United States, but also an important country in the center of Europe.

This is even more important, given the fact that in recent days we heard a lot about German and Italian companies being allowed by their governments to somehow bypass sanctions on importing Russian gas to Europe. They were allowed to open the ruble accounts in GazpromBank. So this may suggest that the European support for Ukraine is not as strong as it was at the beginning of the war, and perhaps there will be a return to business as usual with Russia, despite everything that happened over the past weeks.

This was the context in which the Polish president came to Ukraine and declared that Ukraine will always decide about herself without any intermediaries. He said it was the Ukrainian people that would determine its fate, and that Poland would always be the advocate of Ukraine. Furthermore, Poland will continue to help the refugeе and also advocate the fast accession of Ukraine to the European Union and other European structures.

In response, the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky declared two things. First, that Polish-Ukrainian relations are now entering a whole new phase. All the historical conflicts and disagreements are now being forgotten. From now on, Poland and Ukraine will be partners, friends, brothers… whatever you want. And as an act of gratitude for welcoming Ukrainian refugees in Poland, Ukraine will also introduce a special status for Polish citizens in Ukraine – the special law.

What exactly does this special law mean?

Well, the thing is that we don’t really know what. There was some info in different media outlets that Poles will be treated now like citizens of Ukraine, that they will be allowed to take high posts in administration, that they will even be judges in Ukrainian courts. In fact, nothing of that kind has yet been decided.

The Ukrainian president’s official position is that we do not know yet what exactly will be in this law. It is too early to discuss details, Zelensky’s office says.

If we can somehow guess that, we can compare it to the special law on Ukrainian refugees that was voted on in Polish parliament back at the end of February. Basically, this Polish law allows Ukrainians to start working in Poland immediately just after getting an individual registration number. The law also enables Ukrainians to get medical help on the same level as Polish citizens, to be enabled to get Social Security on the same level as Poles. This makes an important difference for Ukrainian citizens coming to Poland. Vefore the war the Ukrainian citizens who tried to settle down here, who wanted to work in Poland, needed to wait for months and sometimes even for years to get the necessary work permits. And as you can imagine, this would be a great problem for Ukrainian refugees, coming to Poland now and needing to find a source of income immediately.

 So if the special law for Poles is going to be based on the rule of reciprocity, as Zelensky suggested in his speech in the Verkhovna Rada, it probably means that Poles will be also allowed to run the business in Ukraine and to get work permits. They will be able to get medical aid, social Security, basically, the things that were now allowed to Ukrainians coming to Poland.

Does it mean that Zelensky is selling his country to Poland?

This suggestion appeared in Russian – but not only – media after Duda’s visit. Well, definitely not.

Also, while the simplified mode of getting work permits in Poland is a huge change for Ukrainians, there are not as many Poles willing to go working or running a business in Ukraine. So definitely, even if the special status is a big symbolic gesture from the side of the Ukrainian government, it is not that important for Poles as it is for Ukrainian refugees. For them,  the open border with Poland and the possibility to settle down in Poland immediately was a life-saving measure.

It means, first of all, that Ukraine wants to keep these excellent relations it has now in Poland. It desperately needs Polish aid continuing to flow to Ukraine.

Let me just remind you that Poland is among the biggest Ukraine supporters in all possible terms. We are not only talking about refugees. In terms of military supplies. Poland’s help between the beginning of the Russian invasion and 10th May was worth more than one and a half billion euros. It gives Poland a second position just behind the US in terms of military aid. If we look at the statistics on humanitarian aid, medical aid, everything, then Poland ranks fourth behind the US, United Kingdom and the European Union as a whole.

Poland, due to its geographical location, is an absolutely critical partner of Ukraine.

It is through Poland that Ukrainian refugees may reach countries of Western Europe like Germany. Also, keeping good relations with Poland would be critical for Ukraine in the post-war period. No matter how the war ends. Ukraine will need huge cash for reconstruction, for rebuilding the cities that were ruined, for rebuilding the industry that was destroyed. And so far, Poland proved to be this good neighbor of Ukraine. Poland was able to give the biggest assistance and seems to be most interested in offering cheap credits and so on to Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government is now well aware that there will be no fast-track accession to European Union. And we see that the war in the Ukrainian East doesnt seem to hold any promise for either side: the Russian offensive turned out not to be as decisive as Russia hoped, nor has the Ukrainian counteroffensive allowed them to win back a huge swaths of territory. So we may expect further weeks of fierce fighting, which only discourages Western partners of Ukraine from admitting this country into the European Union – not only in short term, but even in a middle-term perspective.

In this context, it is absolutely essential for Ukraine to gain as much as possible in the contacts with Poland in order to get a substitute for European integration. Poland is the country, which right now is the most willing to explore this integration possibility.

Cover photo: Andrzej Duda and Volodymyr Zelensky posing together in Verkhowna Rada, Kyiv, 21 May 2022. Photo by Jakub Szymczak, Kancelaria Prezydenta RP.

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