From allies to rivals: Grain crisis tests support of eastern EU members for Ukraine

Populist and far-right parties are capitalizing on the discontent and fatigue of their citizens in the middle of electoral periods in Slovakia and Poland

A protest against the Czech Government called by a movement that rejects aid to Ukraine, Saturday September 16.MARTIN DIVISEK (EFE)
Gloria Rodríguez-Pina

As Russian troops attempted to surround Kyiv in March 2022, the prime ministers of Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic boarded a train bound for the Ukrainian capital to show their unconditional support for the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, risking their own safety in doing so. The three countries, all EU member states, have been staunch allies of the Ukraine since the Russian invasion was launched and have poured military and humanitarian aid into the country. However, after more than a year and a half of war, the crisis over the import of Ukrainian agricultural products has revealed signs of fatigue in the previously unwavering support for Kyiv. Populist and far-right parties have capitalized on the discontent of sections of society in electoral periods in Slovakia and Poland. The latter, in an unexpected escalation, has announced the cessation of arms shipments to Ukraine.

There has been a shift of mood among citizens, as Valeriya Korablyova, director of a Ukraine-focused research center at Charles University in Prague, explains by videoconference. “People with a lower level of education and income are more vulnerable to the difficulties caused by Russia,” says the Ukrainian sociologist, who cites high energy prices and inflation as chief concerns. Although not in the majority, voices questioning aid to Ukraine are becoming more audible in these countries.

The first signs of discontent emerged months ago. Poland began charging Ukrainian refugees for accommodation in public shelters in March, as more and more Poles felt that Ukrainians received more state aid than they did. The Czech Republic implemented the same measure on July 1. This week, a spokesman for the ultraconservative government of Poland, Piotr Müller, left the renewal of the temporary protection program for the more than 1.3 million Ukrainian refugees in the country when it expires in the coming months up in the air. Prague has, however, announced that it will renew its program until 2025 while Slovakia plans to extend housing aid.

Poland, for historical reasons, is in no doubt that Russia is the common enemy: a Ukrainian defeat would pave the way for Moscow’s imperialist urges to arrive at its own borders. According to a study by the Slovakian think tank Globsec on the attitudes of Eastern European countries towards Moscow, 84% of Poles see Russia as aggressive towards its neighbors, compared to 39% of Slovaks and 48% of Czechs.

Among the Polish political class there has been consensus on continued support for Ukraine. “This monotonous discourse has allowed a small party [the far-right Confederation] to play with the empty space that remained with the idea of reducing aid to Ukraine,” Korablyova points out. The Confederation has risen in the polls and may hold the key to forming a government after the October 15 parliamentary elections. “They have managed to alter the discourse of the big parties, who have shaped it in a way that is acceptable, so as not to lose support,” Korablyova adds to illustrate a phenomenon that has also been seen in other countries and in areas such as immigration.

At the other extreme in terms of relations with Moscow is Slovakia. Part of the population feels a long-standing affinity with Russia and the Soviet era, in their case, is viewed as having gone hand-in-hand with the country’s industrial development. Grigorij Meseznikov, president of the Institute of Public Affairs in Bratislava, acknowledges that while there are those who do hold bad memories of the USSR, Slovakia is much more favorable to Russia than its neighbors. “People with strong political leadership spread this toxic narrative and one of them is going to win the election,” says Meseznikov, who was born in Russia, referring to former populist prime minister Robert Fico, who is leading the polls for the September 30 ballot.

People in Kyiv walk past an exhibition of Russian propaganda posters from liberated Kherson, November 22, 2022.
People in Kyiv walk past an exhibition of Russian propaganda posters from liberated Kherson, November 22, 2022. GLEB GARANICH (REUTERS)

Russian propaganda

Slovakia, which has been mired in political instability for months, is a breeding ground for Kremlin propaganda, which has succeeded in embedding ideas such as that Ukraine is full of Nazis killing pro-Russians in the Donbas region. However, the government — which collapsed in May following several corruption scandals — supported Ukraine militarily from the beginning and faced demonstrations by disgruntled citizens over helicopter deliveries to Kyiv while Slovakians suffered from the rising cost of living.

Korablyova, who moved to the Czech Republic after the illegal annexation of Crimea and the start of the Donbas conflict in 2014, explains that the country is also vulnerable to Russian propaganda. Vít Dostál, director of the Association for Public Affairs in Prague, points out that many Facebook pages that spread anti-vaccine messages during the pandemic have morphed into profiles against aid to Ukraine, to which they attribute day-to-day hardships such as energy costs.

Behind many pro-Russian profiles on social networks there is a populist movement that has called several demonstrations over the last year and a half. The most recent one was held last Saturday, with fewer participants than previous rallies, but Dostál warns nonetheless: “The feeling of abandonment of the people protesting is real. It needs to be listened to because the populists are already using it.” According to a recent report, the number of incidents targeting Ukrainians has increased in the Czech Republic.

Pro-Russian propaganda is an old acquaintance in Hungary where the media close to Viktor Orbán’s ultra-conservative government, which maintains its status quo with the Kremlin, is responsible for disseminating it during prime time. These messages appear to be getting through to the population, even to those who do not support Fidesz, Orbán’s party. Few were surprised by Hungary’s reaction to the grain crisis as was the case with the exchange of vetoes, denunciations, threats, and challenges between Poland and Ukraine, as Warsaw has been Kyiv’s staunchest ally since the beginning of the war and exercises de facto leadership in the region.

On September 15, the EU announced that it would not extend the agreement banning the import of Ukrainian agricultural products into Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, in exchange for allowing their transit through these territories. Warsaw and Budapest, and later Bratislava, announced a unilateral veto, bypassing EU trade laws. On Thursday, Ukraine and Slovakia reached an agreement that Poland is also seeking to implement. Romania had already signed a pact with Kyiv to resolve their differences.

Escalating tension

Tension has been rising, especially with Poland, since Kyiv filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization on Monday. The government in Warsaw has now extended the conflict beyond the commercial to the military sphere, with the announcement of the end of arms transfers, and humanitarian issues by calling into question aid to Ukrainian refugees. Dostál notes, however, that arms shipments from Poland and Kyiv’s allies in the east of Europe have already dropped off because their Soviet-era arsenals have been emptied. “Now it is the turn of others, such as Germany and France,” the analyst says.

Andrzej Szeptycki, an expert on Ukraine at the University of Warsaw, stresses that relations between the two neighbors have not always been easy and points out they “deteriorated rapidly” after Polish support for the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan and despite Russian actions in Crimea and Donbas. For Szeptycki, who is running for the centrist party Poland 2050, the key to this crisis lies in uncertainty about the elections, in which the dominant party in government, Law and Justice (PiS), is the frontrunner in the polls but likely to fall short of a majority to govern. “The government’s foreign policy is based on conflict.”

That an influx of Ukrainian agricultural products was detrimental to farmers in other countries of the region by pushing down prices is a reality that no one doubts. Szeptycki points out, however, that the Polish government could have prevented the problem earlier. When farmers’ protests — one of its key voting grounds — became unstoppable, it resorted to a unilateral veto on Ukraine. Zelenskiy’s response to Poland’s recent policy decisions at the UN General Assembly, where he questioned the solidarity of some European countries, infuriated Warsaw.

Wojciech Kononczuk, director of the OSW Center for Eastern Studies, a public body funded by the Polish Parliament, believes that “there are too many emotions on both sides.” “In Polish society there is disappointment,” he says, adding that Zelenskiy’s words have been viewed as an “insult,” underlining the efforts made by the countries the Ukrainian president alluded to support Kyiv and welcome refugees. On the other hand, Korablyova notes that the Ukrainian media has given more coverage to Poland’s actions over the rest of its neighbors. “Because in a way, it is like a betrayal that our closest ally is stabbing us in the back,” she says. “This situation is fueling anxiety that we are being left on our own and that the allies are not reliable; Ukrainian society is very traumatized and very sensitive.”

How the development of these tensions and what effect they may have on the progress of the war remains unclear. Korablyova hopes that everything will remain “a rhetorical battle rather than a political change,” but believes that the outcome of the elections will be key. “Slovakia is the most urgent challenge, because it can do a lot of damage,” she warns against the possibility of Fico joining forces with Orbán within the EU. Szeptycki believes that in Poland everything depends on whether a stable government emerges from the polls: “Whether it’s PiS or the opposition, it will be able to clean up the mess; but if the Confederation enters into any kind of coalition, the Ukraine issue will still be on the table.” Kononczuk, more optimistically, believes that the conflict could be resolved in a matter of days if the example of the Ukrainian-Romanian agreement is followed. “Poland and Ukraine understand that we need each other, because we have a shared security interest and a common enemy,” he stresses.

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