The uneasy neighbors

LVIV, Ukraine — Poland and Ukraine are co-hosting the 2012 European soccer championships, and the two countries are close allies — but even 70 years after the start of World War II, their bloody history has an uncomfortable way of resurfacing.

The latest tremor to shake Polish-Ukrainian ties was a seemingly innocuous group of less than two-dozen Ukrainian cyclists who wanted to cross Poland on their way to Munich in Germany. They were denied entry into Poland earlier this month after interventions at very senior levels of government.

The cyclists were supposed to arrive in Munich on Aug. 24, Ukraine’s independence day, to honor Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist leader who had been assassinated by Soviet agents in 1959.

The problem is that while Ukrainian nationalists see Bandera as a hero of their independence movement, Poles see him as a terrorist who was morally responsible for a wave of ethnic slaughter in eastern Poland during the final years of the war that saw Ukrainian nationalists kill as many as 100,000 Poles. “Poles have a diametrically different point of view about Bandera and his actions [than Ukrainians], and the Ukrainians are very aware of that. If they want to praise Bandera that’s their business, but they shouldn’t do it on Polish territory,” said historian Andrzej Chojnowski in an interview with the Rzeczpospolita newspaper. “Ukrainians should avoid provocative moves that could cause problems in our relations. Our countries don’t need that.”

Bandera is also causing tensions within Ukraine, where embattled President Viktor Yushchenko is thinking about naming him a national hero, which may help lift his abysmal popularity ratings with Ukrainian nationalists in western Ukraine, but which would cause him further problems in the Russian-speaking east of the country, where Bandera is also seen as a war criminal.

Bandera was a Ukrainian nationalist active in the inter-war period, when the territory that is today western Ukraine was part of Poland. He created the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and saw Poland as Ukraine’s greatest enemy. He was imprisoned after the 1934 assassination of Poland’s interior minister.

The outbreak of the war, 70 years ago this Sept. 1, changed his fortunes. Germany occupied the west of Poland and the Soviet Union took over the east, incorporating those regions into the USSR. When the German war machine struck at the Soviet Union in 1941, Bandera tried to declare an independent Ukraine, something which the racist Nazis were not prepared to tolerate and for which they imprisoned Bandera in a concentration camp.

Although Bandera was in the Sachsenhausen camp, the organizations he had helped create, including the Ukrainian Partisan Army (UPA), were bent on carrying out his program of cleansing eastern Poland of its Polish population. Before the war the area had a majority Ukrainian population, except for the larger cities like Lviv, and Polish authorities had tried ham-handed ways of stifling Ukrainian nationalism.

After the war, Ukrainian partisans were hunted down by the Soviets for having cooperated with the Germans, and UPA was crushed. However, it still has enormous resonance in western Ukraine — where monuments to the movement are a common sight.

In the end the ethnic balance of the region was shifted permanently after the war, when the Soviets, with the agreement of their British and American allies, moved Poland’s borders hundreds of miles to the west, and deported the vast majority of the ethnically Polish population to post-war Poland. Today, despite that history, ties between Poland and Ukraine are very close. As many as half a million Ukrainians work in Poland, fleeing their own collapsing economy, which is expected to shrink by 14 percent this year.

“There is just no work here, the only chance for me is to get to Poland,” said Ala, a heavy set woman in a flower-print dress waiting for a work visa outside the Polish consulate in Lviv. She had lost her job as a seamstress in a Lviv factory and was hoping to get to Poland to pick apples, for which she would earn $25 for a 14-hour workday.

Poland was a strong supporter of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, which shifted the country further away from Russia’s orbit. Warsaw is also an advocate of Ukraine joining NATO and the European Union, all part of policy of fostering Ukrainian independence as a way of curtailing Russia’s regional ambitions.

The joint hosting of the 2012 soccer championships is also supposed to tighten relations between Poland and Ukraine.

That is why authorities in both Poland and Ukraine treated the bicycle tour of a handful of Bandera enthusiasts so seriously. When the cyclists showed up at the Polish border, they were greeted by demonstrators waving signs commemorating the wartime carnage; their journey across Poland would certainly have been marked by many such incidents.

After the cyclists were turned away, Poland’s deputy interior minister, Tomasz Siemioniak, said that both Ukrainian and Polish ministers “wanted the best possible Polish-Ukrainian relations and to avoid unnecessary tensions.”