By Yaroslav Trofimov
WARSAW -- Four and a half years ago, Maryna Karalop packed up and moved from Ukraine to Poland. Since then, so did some two million other Ukrainians -- the biggest wave of migration into the European Union in recent times.
Poland's government has resisted EU quotas to take in asylum-seekers from Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea whose arrival has reshaped European politics, fueling populist parties across the continent. At the same time, Warsaw rolled out the welcome mat for Ukrainians who sought a better life after the Russian invasion of 2014 precipitated an economic crisis.
"I see my future here. It's quiet, it's comfortable, I like everything," said Ms. Karalop, 40 years old, who with her husband now runs an employment agency in Warsaw that mostly caters to fellow Ukrainians. Her daughter, who is 14, has learned to speak fluent Polish and is enrolled in a local school.
"The biggest reason we're here is the future of our child," Ms. Karalop said. "In Poland, all roads would be opened for her."
Poland issued more first-time residence permits to non-EU citizens than any other EU nation in 2017, with 86% of them going to Ukrainians, in the latest available European migration statistics. Those Ukrainians accounted for 18.7% of all newcomers to the entire EU.
The influx, which continues unabated, is bringing a demographic transformation with long-term implications for Poland. The country of 38 million had virtually no ethnic minorities since World War II, when its huge Jewish community was largely wiped out by the Nazis and its borders were shifted westward, leaving ethnically mixed eastern regions in Soviet Ukraine and Belarus.
The exodus also poses challenges for Ukraine, where mass emigration has become a campaign issue ahead of March 31 presidential elections. Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister challenging President Petro Poroshenko, named this outflow as the second biggest danger facing Ukraine after the Russian military onslaught.
"How much time do we have to close our eyes to the fact that a million Ukrainians leave the country each year? Three, two, five years? How much creative class do we still have left before we allow them all to leave?" she said at a security conference in Munich in February.
Most other candidates agree on the need to bring Ukrainian workers back home -- something that won't happen until the country's economy starts to recover.
Poland faces a shortage of labor -- and the country's conservative government has favored Ukrainians because most are Christian, unlike Muslim immigrants from Syria or Afghanistan.
"In Poland, there is a general consensus that we don't want the kind of postcolonial Western style of immigration," said Radoslaw Sikorski, a former parliament speaker and foreign minister who backs the more liberal opposition. "People think Christians are all right, and non-Christians are not all right, Christians will assimilate and the non-Christians won't. It's that simple."
Poland's booming economy needs these workers because millions of working-age Poles -- like millions of other Eastern Europeans -- have taken advantage of EU freedom-of-movement rules over the past decade to seek better-paying jobs in the U.K., Germany and other Western European nations. The Ukrainians are coming to fill the resulting void, part of tectonic shifts in Europe's demographic makeup.
"In Poland, you don't look for work, work looks for you," said Artem Zozulia, head of the Ukraine Foundation, an organization that helps Ukrainian migrants integrate, in the southwestern city of Wroclaw. "In Ukraine, finding work is a job."
In Wroclaw, a city of 630,000 that Poland gained from Germany after World War II, some 90,000 Ukrainians arrived in recent years, local officials said, taking jobs that range from Uber drivers and construction workers to software developers.
Ukrainians make up one-tenth of employees in the city's 200 information-technology companies, said Ewa Kaucz, president of the Wroclaw Agglomeration Development Agency. "Without the Ukrainians, the situation on the labor market in Wroclaw would be dramatically worse," she said.
Ukrainian officials highlight the contribution that their citizens make to Poland's growth, one of Europe's fastest at 5.1% last year. "It is a large-scale phenomenon because the Polish economy now in many respects doesn't just function, but also develops precisely because of the Ukrainians," said Ukraine's Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin.
While the shared history of Ukraine and Poland had many dark pages, so far the influx has been remarkably uncontroversial in Poland, with only a few fringe groups protesting.
Polish government officials said there hasn't been any significant increase in crime due to Ukrainian immigration, and few incidents of hate crimes. According to an opinion poll released this month, 52% of Poles have favorable feelings toward Ukrainian migrants, 36% are neutral and 12% are hostile.
"I don't have anything against the Ukrainians coming here -- we are doing the same, going to other countries," said Krzysztof Lematowicz, a logistics specialist from the Wroclaw area who was strolling through the city's medieval main square on a break from his current job in the Netherlands. "In the Netherlands, I can see the difference between the Poles and the Dutch. But here, I can't even spot who is a Ukrainian until they start talking."
Many Polish politicians and officials like to highlight common history and the close relationships between the two countries' cultures, languages and cuisines. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth encompassed much of Ukraine and Belarus until the late 18th century, and the interwar Polish Republic included today's western Ukraine.
"There is a tradition in Poland of living together with Ukrainians and Belarusians," said Slawomir Debski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs. "The tradition of a mono-ethnic Poland is relatively new, and it has two main contributors -- Hitler and Stalin. People in Poland understand instinctively that these cultures can live peacefully together without upheavals."
Polish lawmaker Tomasz Rzymkowski agreed: "Our cultural differences are very small, and the roots of our nations are intertwined."
That history also had its share of bloodshed. Uprisings against Polish feudals feature prominently in Ukrainian literature. Ukrainian nationalists assassinated Poland's interior minister in 1934. The worst came during World War II, when anti-Communist Ukrainian nationalists and Polish resistance fighters fought each other, and massacres abounded.
Former Polish lawmaker Krzysztof Bosak, who is now vice president of the National Movement, a far-right anti-immigrant party, says that legacy is one reason why Ukrainian immigration should be curtailed.
"It is a historical fact that we had a big Ukrainian minority, and even a majority in some regions. But there was no common tradition, and the tensions were very big. This is why we have two separate nations," Mr. Bosak said.
Though ties between the two governments are generally good today, the different interpretations of this painful past can still poison the relationship. That is especially so as Kiev and Warsaw are promoting historical narratives that whitewash inconvenient facts -- and as Russia seeks to drive a wedge between its two neighbors.
"The number of people in Poland with positive feelings about Ukraine has fallen in recent years," cautioned historian Piotr Tyma, who heads the Union of Ukrainians in Poland, an association that represents the country's Ukrainian minority. "It can very well turn out that this acceptance of the Ukrainian influx is temporary. If Poland's economic conjuncture changes, the anti-Ukrainian voices will become louder."
Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
March 26, 2019 07:14 ET (11:14 GMT)
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