For some people in Eastern Europe, the old American Dream now is a Polish Dream. Undoubtedly, Poland has gone a long way from 1989. Its economy increased by a factor of six since it freed itself from the Soviet domination and it was the only major country in Europe to avoid a recession in 2008-09. Poland is the envy of its Eastern neighbours, Ukraine and Belarus, countries with strong historical ties to Poland. In the Golden Age of the Polish Commonwealth, in the XVI century, Poland was a multiethnic, multiconfessional empire, stretching from the Baltic to the Black sea, the Intermarium or Międzymorze project that Marshall Pilsudski tried to revive when the resurgent country of Poland emerged from the ashes of World War I.
After English, Polish is the most studied language in Belarus and Ukraine (Russian has more the status of a second native language and people do not need to study it), and young people there seem to recall with nostalgic affection the historical ties between their countries and Poland, an idealized time they never experienced. On the other hand the government of Poland, facing a demographic crisis is actively encouraging people with Polish ancestors in the lands that belonged to Poland until 1939 (a large chunk of modern day Belarus and Western Ukraine) to rediscover their Polish identity and promotes the socalled called Karta Polaka, the Pole’s Card, effectively a permanent residence permit. Speaking of the Polish demographic crisis, yes, Poland has historically been a nation of emigrants, many probably could not think better than leaving a sinking ship (as it looked in the last years of Communism and in the first few transition years) as soon as they had the opportunity, but one would be tempted to think nonetheless: if Poland is such a miracolous economic success story, why did millions of people leave their country as soon as the borders were open? One possible explation might be that while the GDP of Poland did increase six times since 1989, the average salary increased only four times: so where did all the profits go? This is probably the dark side of foreign investment, we have to assume.
For many in Belarus and Ukraine, where the average monthly wages are respectively € 400 and € 150, the perspective of a job in Poland, where salaries are on the national average a little short of a € 700 a month, is a very attractive one. Even in Belarus, which is often portrayed by clueless Eastern Europe newspaper correspodents (who think they know something because they read what other Eastern Europe correspondents write while they basically only read each other) as a vassal state of Russia and where the people speak Russian in everyday life rather than cultivating the local language, there is a palpable hostility towards Russia and the historical role of Russia, while Poland is regarded as a friendly, modern, economically successful neighbour, which belongs to the EU and hence, by definition, to the civilized world. Everywhere in Ukraine you would see ads for work in Poland, and there are a lot of people ready to take to the opportunity, even if only for a seasonal job. The last time I was in Poland I ended up talking to some history school teacher from Poltava who had found some temporary work in a Wroclaw factory assembling monitors for the Korean electronics giant LG. There are reportedly between 200,000 and 250,000 Ukrainians living in Poland. Women found work as cleaners and nannies, men in the contruction sector. Not exactly gratifying work, but the pay tradeoff must, in the calculation of these people, fully compensate for the unpleasantness of the work. On a brighter note however, Ukrainians represent the largest group of foreign students coming to Poland, around 20,000 in 2014. This summer, the University of Poznan Adam Mickiewicz in cooperating with the university of Frankfurt on the Oder Viadrina for a Ukrainian Summer School project, with language courses and seminars on Ukrainian culture.
It is often repeated than Poland and Ukraine started from the same point in 1989 and 1991, their economies being roughly of the same size, but while Poland went the European way, and hence found (relative) economic prosperity, Ukraine was forced to stay remain under the Russian yoke and hence stayed poor. This argument sounds unconvincing however. Actually Ukraine, arguably “under the Russian yoke” was the third largest recipient of foreign aid after Israel and Egypt. Where did all this money go? Did it all flow through some backward channels to Moscow? Ukraine was fully independent since 1991 and while its economic ties to Russia where naturally strong, it is absurd to say that it was a colony of Moscow. In fact Ukraine was so much under the Moscow yoke that it was not even a full member of the CIS, the Community of Independent States that was created when the Soviet Union dissolved.
Everybody knows that Ukraine and Poland hosted the European Football Championship together in 2012. And while many in Europe were calling for a boycott of the Ukraine part of the event because of the imprisonment of Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko by the President Yanukovich, the Polish President Komorowski was the only European leader who went to the see the final match in Kiev. Poland naturally sees these lands as its sphere of influence. “There will be no independent Poland without independent Ukraine”, said Ignacy Daszyński, one of fathers of the rebirth of Poland in 1918. These days Polish NGOs work in Ukraine, officially working at the creation and the flourishing of civil society in Ukraine. The Polish government directly and openly supports, in that brutal dictatorship that Belarus is, an opposition TV channel, Belsat TV, whose job is basically to do antigovernment (Belarusian government, of course) propaganda 24/7 but at the same time does not have to operate underground and is freely accessible to all (Lukashenko called it “stupid, uncongenial project”, but the channel has not been shut down).
Close to end of the Maidan protests in Febraury 2014, when the peaceful demostrations had already taken a decidedly tragic turn, the Polish Foreign Minister, Radislaw Sikorski came to negotiate, together with his French and German counterparts, a peaceful agreement between the then President Yanukovitch and the Maidan opposition leaders. The agreement failed, and the official sympathies of Poland quickly went to the newly formed Ukrainian government. The Polish Embassy in Kiev, together with none less than the US State Department, NATO, the Chantam House, the German Marshall Fund and the National Endowment for Democracy, is a partner in the foundation Open Ukraine (what an original name), founded by Arseniy Yatseniuk together with Polish entrepreneur and billionaire Zbigniew Drzymała.
It may be true, like the Economist wrote, that Poland is going to a second Jagollonian age, the happiest period of its existence. Even the World Bank wrote about a Polish Golden age. However the notion that Poland is a successful story, a place where somebody can find his aspirations realized and his happiness, still seems to leave many young Poles utterly puzzled and is actually the object of ridicule. The last time I said to a young Polish woman that I liked Poland, she giggled “Are you crazy?“. Some may see in Poland, because of its cultural proximity, a refuge from the everything that’s wrong with their worlds, the backwardness and corruption symbolized by that big bad neighbour that Russia is. The Poles however will just continue to look for their fortunes far away from their homeland, like they have done for generations. For some people in Ukraine or Belarus, there might really be something like a Polish Dream. But for the Poles, the idea of a Polish Dream remains just another very typical selfdeprecating Polish joke.