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Ukraine: Killing In Poland Points Up Old Enmity

  • Lily Hyde

The recent shooting of a Ukrainian citizen by Polish police has caused much soul-searching on both sides of the border over relations between the two countries. But as RFE/RL's Lily Hyde discovered in Lviv, in the border region of western Ukraine, the incident was only the latest reflection of long-standing enmity between Ukrainians and Poles.

Lviv, 26 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The killing four weeks ago of a Ukrainian citizen in Poland has caused much outrage -- but not much surprise -- in Ukraine.

Serhy Kudrya was driving across Poland to Ukraine with his pregnant wife on 25 January when he was stopped by Polish police for speeding, and shot. According to the police, Kudrya refused to identify himself and tried to flee the scene But Kudrya's wife says he complied with police demands and was nonetheless shot at point-blank range.

For many Ukrainians, especially in west Ukraine, the incident has only reinforced historical enmities. The area -- known as Galicia under the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- has been fought over for centuries by the two countries. Their troubled history of war and cultural repression is never far from the surface in Lviv, west Ukraine's unofficial capital.

Andry Stetsky works for the non-governmental Citizens' Foundation for Law and Democracy, which demonstrated in front of the Polish consulate in Lviv to demand a thorough investigation into Kudrya's death. Stetsky says Kudrya's death tapped Ukrainian resentment of its more successful post-communist neighbor.

"Many Ukrainians are jealous of Poland, which has managed to get through the economic crisis and now enjoys a standard of living higher than Ukraine. And such incidents do sharpen attitudes and feelings, so that at such moments [Ukrainians] remember our historical problems in [bilateral] relations."

Since Ukraine attained independence in 1991, many of the estimated 500,000 to two million Ukrainians who seek to work abroad each year find jobs in Poland. And Poland remains a top destination for Ukrainian small traders traveling across the border to buy goods. Poland has postponed implementing the European Union requirement that it impose visas on Ukrainian citizens because it is afraid to destroy this trade, on which much of eastern Poland relies.

But Poles do not always look kindly on Ukrainian workers and traders. Most Ukrainians working in Poland do menial jobs, and many are there illegally, which does not help foster respect for them. In the past two years, 270 Ukrainians have died in Poland, most because of their involvement in criminal groups.

Stetsky says both Polish and Ukrainian authorities should regulate the massive labor migration and protect Ukrainians from exploitation and violence. But the Polish consul in Lviv, Krzysztof Sawicki, says Poles doing business in Ukraine have an equally hard time. Sawicki acknowledges there is little economic cooperation between the two countries today, with Polish investment in Ukraine to date amounting to only $56 million.

Sawicki, too, refers to history when explaining why. He says Poles have a built-in fear of their eastern neighbors, which present-day Ukraine does little to allay.

"People ask why our economic relations with Ukraine are so weak. But picture to yourself a small, average businessman from Poland who goes to Ukraine. And on the road to Lviv or Kyiv he is stopped many times by the militia, and they all want something. They hold on to him and take his identification papers. The result of this police behavior is that many Poles have developed a pathological fear [of Ukraine]."

Both the Ukrainian and Polish governments have sought to improve relations. One of the places Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and his Polish counterpart Aleksander Kwasniewski have met to affirm bilateral ties is the Lychakiv cemetery in Lviv. Both Ukrainians and Poles consider the cemetery, shared democratically by their dead, a symbol of the centuries-old love-hate relationship between the two countries.

Many of west Ukraine's ethnic and historical tensions have been, and are still, played out among Lychakiv's gravestones. Particularly controversial are the graves of Poles killed in the 1918 to 1919 war that Warsaw fought to include present-day west Ukraine in Poland. Ukrainians believed the area should be part of an independent Ukraine.

Nowadays, Poland does not have any territorial claims on west Ukraine. But the subject is still highly sensitive, as recent Polish reconstruction of Polish tombs in the Lychakiv cemetery shows. Mikhailo Nahai, a Ukrainian guide to the cemetery, explains.

"When the Poles started to rebuild the cemetery, a new epitaph appeared: to the unknown soldiers who laid down their lives defending Lviv and the [that is, Polish] southeast territories. Later, our authorities and people objected to this inscription, because we consider ourselves the defenders of Lviv. So a second epitaph was devised: to the unknown soldiers who died for the independence of Poland. This of course [still] didn't suit us Ukrainians."

After a third inscription also failed to please both sides, the tomb remains without any inscription. One can only hope that the investigation into Kudrya's death -- which is being overseen by the Polish prime minister as well as by Ukrainian authorities -- will not result in a similar deadlock.

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