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Poland/Ukraine: Dispute Over Military Cemetery Divides Poles, Ukrainians

  • Askold Krushelnycky

Relations between Poles and Ukrainians have often been difficult or hostile. But since independence, Ukraine has enjoyed warm support from Poland in the international arena. Now, however, an argument over a military cemetery threatens to strain that friendship.

Prague, 24 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Since Ukraine's independence in 1991, its Western neighbor, Poland, has been a stalwart supporter on the international stage, backing Ukraine's hopes for closer ties with the European Union, financial help from international institutions like the IMF, and cooperation with NATO.

Poland's motivations cannot be said to be completely altruistic. To a large extent, its support of Ukraine is driven by Poland's desire for Russia not to dominate Poland's eastern neighbors.

The history of relations between Ukrainians and Poles has often been a bloody one. The area that is now western Ukraine was in the past often ruled by Poland and marked by Ukrainian uprisings against that rule, most prominently in the 17th and 20th centuries.

Western Ukrainians declared independence after World War I and competed with Poles for the territory -- known in Polish as Galicia and in Ukrainian as Halychyna -- and the historic city of Lviv that dominated the area. Outnumbered Ukrainians lost a 1918-1920 war with the Poles. Western Ukraine remained a part of Poland until 1939 when the Germans and Soviets attacked and dismembered Poland. During the war, Ukrainian and Polish partisans accused each other of carrying out atrocities against each other's communities.

After World War II, Western Ukraine, including Lviv, was incorporated into Soviet Ukraine and there is still bitterness about the expulsion from the area of hundreds of thousands of Poles and the expulsion from Poland of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians.

During the time of their rule, Poles dedicated the Lychanovski cemetery in Lviv to the nearly 3,000 Polish soldiers who died in the 1918-20 conflict. The Poles called it the Orlat, or "Young Eagles," cemetery. During the Soviet era, much of it was destroyed.

After Ukrainian independence, Polish organizations began to restore the cemetery and for years now it has drawn thousands of visitors paying homage to the fallen Polish soldiers.

On 21 May, Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski and his Ukrainian counterpart, Leonid Kuchma, were scheduled to meet at the cemetery to unveil a new plaque that was supposed to carry the inscription "To the Unknown Soldiers who heroically fell for Poland in 1918 through 1920."

But the Lviv City Council objected to the inclusion of the word "heroically," saying a plaque at a nearby cemetery holding the remains of Ukrainian fighters killed in the same conflict does not refer to them as heroes.

Kwasniewski expressed "regret and disappointment" at the Lviv council's opposition and said he would postpone his trip until the matter had been resolved. He also said the decision was a blow to the spirit of Ukrainian-Polish reconciliation but that bilateral relations would not be disrupted.

Although the dispute seems to revolve around a single word, it demonstrates the strong feelings of some in Lviv who still remember with bitterness Polish rule and the conflict between the two peoples. But the Polish ambassador to Ukraine, Marek Zhulkowsky, said the issue would not be allowed to derail relations between the two countries.

"Of course, for President [Kwasniewski], the matter is a sad one. But it does not influence his stance toward Ukraine, his fundamental belief that Ukraine is, and will be, our strategic partner, and that the success of our bilateral relations depends on the success of political and economic reforms in Ukraine," Zhulkowsky said.

A spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, Serhiy Borodenkov, also said he did not believe the issue would cause permanent harm to Ukrainian-Polish relations.

"I would like to emphasize that no situation, no such incidents [as the cemetery dispute] can influence the development of bilateral relations between Ukraine and Poland," Borodenkov said.

But Borodenkov also said the dispute must be resolved at the local Lviv level. He said President Kuchma could order the plaque to be completed according to Polish wishes, but that without local agreement there could be no guarantee that "hooligans," as the spokesman put it, will not try to deface the monument.

A Ukrainian parliamentary deputy from Lviv, Ihor Ostash, said the often unhappy relationship between Ukrainians and Poles in the past continues to cast a shadow over present relations.

"This is indeed a problem of our history. And it's clear that this history is not distant and therefore still close to the hearts of many Ukrainians and Poles, particularly in Lviv," Ostash said.

Ostash put some of the blame on Ukraine's central government, saying that it had not consulted enough with the authorities in Lviv before agreeing to the ceremony at the cemetery with the two presidents in attendance.

"We members of the Ukrainian parliament understand very well that in this situation Lviv's deputies have the last word and one has to respect their competence in this instance and to understand that they have been elected by the voters of Lviv, and therefore, they should have the last say. But I also think this is an example of disagreement between the Kyiv [central] government and that of Lviv, and much of this situation could have been avoided if there had been sufficient forethought," Ostash said.

Taras Vozniak, a political observer and the editor of a Lviv cultural and political magazine, agreed. He said some people in both the Polish and Ukrainian communities, many of them elderly, are unwilling to compromise on their differing perceptions of the past. He cites as one example the presence of some 40 cemeteries for Ukrainian fighters situated in Poland that have yet to be properly honored.

Vozniak said these matters could only be resolved by representatives of those people deeply involved in the issue, and not by the Ukrainian and Polish presidents.

"This issue has historical roots, and the failure to resolve it is because efforts have not been made with the communities themselves, either with the Polish or Ukrainian communities," Vozniak said.

Much of the restoration work at the cemetery has been done by private Polish organizations with backing from Polish businessmen operating in Ukraine. Jaroslaw Nowacky, the vice president of the International Polish Businessmen's Association in Ukraine, said: "I see the problems associated with this cemetery as being composed of three aspects. The first aspect is history, and whatever we do we will not defeat history. As I understand it, Lviv was once Ruthenian, then Polish, then Russian, and now it's Ukrainian. And one should not dismember a historical monument that was constructed by our Polish grandfathers and Ukrainian grandfathers and Russian grandfathers."

The second aspect, he said, was that the Ukrainian and Polish governments had signed an agreement regarding the monument and, in a democratic society, that accord should be respected. But he said the third aspect was probably the most important.

"The third aspect of this issue concerning the Lychanovski cemetery is that of our future. The problem of understanding history for us Poles was also very pertinent in our Western territories, which we gained from the Germans in 1945. We know this problem and if we constantly look back over our shoulders we will not construct anything new. We have to look forward," Nowacky said.

Another Lviv member of parliament, Taras Chornovil, condemned those from the Lviv council who had started the dispute. He said many of those opposing the wording on the plaque may be ultra-Ukrainian nationalists, but he did not discount the possibility that some people, especially those who are pro-Moscow, deliberately want to disrupt Polish-Ukrainian relations. He said Poland has been a good friend to Ukraine since independence.

"The fundamental thing is that in Lviv, under pressure from a small, marginalized group that still lives as if the Ukrainian-Polish war of 1918-(1920) was happening, the city council could not reach a balanced, normal resolution. For the Polish side, there was one principal matter: that the people who lie in this cemetery were heroes, that they died heroically. Why should we contradict this? Why should we oppose the idea that they died a genuinely heroic death? We should understand that you do not battle with the dead. The Ukrainian-Polish war finished a long time ago and the resolution of this problem should be swift. Otherwise we are preparing for [Ukraine] a place not in Western Europe, but in that Eurasian space that many are trying to consign us to," Chornovil said.

Ukrainian President Kuchma has apologized to Kwasniewski and to Poland about the dispute. His spokeswoman, Yelena Hromnitskaya, said Kuchma believes "soldiers' tombs are not the place for politicking but the place for honoring their memory."

The Ukrainian government is holding discussions with the Lviv council to resolve the issue. Lviv deputy Ostash said Ukrainians do realize the importance of good relations with Poland.

"I recognize clearly that politics cannot be conducted thus on the basis of history and graves. And therefore I'm sure that a compromise will be found and this will not seriously impinge upon our present relations, which are really of strategic significance and especially important at this time -- this year, which is the year that will be the most vital for the progress of Ukraine toward [Western] Europe. I particularly have in mind not only the European Union but also NATO, because Poland, which is already a member of NATO, will influence the fate of Ukraine within the framework of this organization at the Prague summit [in November]. We have a wonderful record of cooperation within the Ukrainian-Polish military battalion and I'm sure that history will not cloud our future," Ostash said.

No new date has been set yet for a ceremony at the cemetery.