The Powerful Force Driving Poland’s Welcome to Ukrainians: Fear of Putin

When The Interpreter first launched, our editors used to joke that the purpose of this column was to offer “clever answers to dumb questions”.

It never became an official slogan. But I still stick to the basic concept: often the best way to decide what to write about is to look for questions that seem fairly obvious, but whose widely accepted answers don’t tell the whole story.

It might seem a bit silly to ask these questions – after all, there seems to be an obvious answer already! – but it often turns out that if I look a little deeper, something interesting and informative can be found that lies beyond the conventional wisdom.

This is the approach that led to this week’s article, which began with a question from a Times editor: why is Poland willing to be so extraordinarily generous to Ukrainian refugees, who are arriving in large numbers and straining the country’s resources, even though the right-wing Polish government has been extremely hostile to much smaller groups of refugees in the past?

The obvious answer, of course, is that it’s about race and religion. And this answer is not wrong: identity matters here. Refugees who arrived in the past were usually Muslims from the Middle East, and Polish right-wing politicians have spent years stoking hostility against them by claiming that Muslim immigrants would threaten Polish identity and culture. Ukrainians, who tend to be white and Christian, do not fit the profile these politicians have taught the public to fear.

But prejudice and racial identity aren’t the whole story here. And focusing only on them risks obscuring an even more powerful force at play – one that has implications for other refugee crises around the world.

According to experts, the most important factor in Poland’s welcoming attitude towards the refugees is that helping them means helping Ukraine in its fight against Putin. And to many in Poland, that looks like self-defense.

“The decisive factor, I think, is the perception of a common threat that comes from Russia,” said Olena Yermakova, who holds a doctorate. student at the Jagiellonian University in Poland who is a researcher in the Fatigue project on Eastern and Central European politics. “I have Polish friends who say they feel if it wasn’t for NATO, if it wasn’t for us that we had luck with Yeltsin and Walesa in the 1990s, that would have been us. And it might still be us. So the perceived threat is shared, which I think is why people are so attached to it and why there’s so much solidarity going on.

“Everything is defined by familiar stories and settings that people can relate to,” she said. “And the narrative now about Ukrainians is that they are freedom fighters against Russia, which is really a category Poles can relate to.”

A similar pattern is playing out across Europe, said Lamis Abdelaaty, a political scientist at Syracuse University who studies political responses to refugees. “Various European countries have provided military assistance to Ukraine, but they have also stopped sending troops or imposing a no-fly zone,” she said. “Given this set of limitations, hosting refugees from Ukraine allows European countries to really signal which side of the conflict they are on.”

And hosting refugees can actually have an effect on the conflict they are fleeing. “Diaspora members can support the fight at home, by sending money or by sending supplies,” she said. “And welcoming refugees can essentially signal that individuals are voting with their feet. This can discredit the government that is forcing them to flee.

But history shows that this kind of support can be fragile and temporary. If Ukrainians’ period of need exceeds their period of foreign policy relevance, they may find themselves vulnerable.

“If these countries end up hosting a large number of Ukrainian refugees for a long time, we don’t know if their reception could cool down,” Dr Abdelaaty said.

“We certainly saw a similar dynamic in Turkey with Syrian refugees, where Turkey was initially very welcoming to Syrians, then gradually realized they were going to be there for the long haul and tempered its response,” he said. she declared.

A similar pattern has played out in the United States around Cuban refugees, said Stephanie R. Schwartz, a political scientist at the University of Southern California who studies forced migration.

“During the heightened anti-Communist eras of the Cold War, we see that the United States was really welcoming to Cuban refugees because they were people coming from a ‘rival’ government and we wanted to label Castro and his regime horrible,” she said. . “But by the time Clinton is in power, that specter recedes and the Berlin Wall has come down. The United States also changes its mind about Cuba and becomes much less welcoming.

This could become a problem for Ukrainians in the future. But this is already a problem for refugees fleeing from other countries whose persecution seems less politically relevant. They receive a much less welcoming response in Poland and other European countries than Ukrainians – although many may in fact have stronger claims for protection under international refugee law.

The long-term question, then, is which response will become the norm: the welcome and support that have greeted Ukrainians, or the hostility toward refugees from elsewhere.

“The very welcoming response to Ukrainians is wonderful to watch,” Dr Abdelaaty said. “I hope this kind of response will be passed on to other groups of refugees who are fleeing very similar situations and who deserve our compassion and help just as much.”

“Hopefully this moment really gets people thinking critically about why they think some people are worth protecting and others aren’t.”

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