Elections open rift with Ukraine's European neighbours

Polish President Andrzej Duda has tried to appease tension after row with Kyiv over grain exports escalated at UN

Harvesters collect wheat in the village of Zghurivka, Ukraine. Grain exports have caused tension to rise between Ukraine and its neighbour Poland. AP
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The coming elections in Poland and Slovakia have triggered a public spat with Ukraine over its grain exports, causing worry among European countries that it may undermine military and political support for Kyiv as the war drags on.

Following complaints, the EU had allowed earlier this a year a ban on some Ukrainian agricultural exports – wheat, maize, sunflower and rapeseed – to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania.

The ban was lifted last week after Brussels found that there were no more market distortions.

Yet Poland, Slovakia and Hungary defied Brussels and continued enforcing a ban, and in some cases extended it to other products, arguing that their farmers and industry could not compete with cheaper Ukrainian products

General elections scheduled for September 30 in Slovakia and October 15 in Poland have put politicians under pressure to please voters, including farmers, unhappy with the impact of the war on the economy.

This has soured relations with Ukraine, despite Poland and Slovakia being among the country's first weapon supplier after Russia's full-scale invasion last year.

Some leaders have expressed fear that the spat may benefit Russia, with Lithuania's president Gitanas Nauseda calling on Friday for dialogue “in a friendly way.”

“Once the elections are over, we will go back to the tasks that are key today,” he said.

Many EU diplomats in Brussels shared Mr Nauseda's viewpoint and said they hope that the damaging tension will fizzle out once elections are over.

“It's a distraction from the more important issue which is to continue supporting Ukraine, first of all providing military support,” one diplomat told The National.

“As long as Ukraine does not liberate its territories from Russia, the rest does not matter.”

In what seemed like an attempt at smoothing things over with Kyiv, Polish President Andrzej Duda signalled on Friday that he did not believe that the tension would have a “significant impact” on relations between the two countries.

A major route for Ukraine's exports, the Black Sea, has been all but closed since Russia pulled out in July of an agreement that allowed ships to transport cargo, including grain, to the rest of the world.

This has increased pressure on neighbouring European markets, although EU officials believe that the issue is mostly solved thanks to so-called “solidarity lanes” which support transit by land and onwards to countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Zelenskyy lashes out

In a speech in front of the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy seemed to sharply criticise the ban on some Ukrainian exports, saying that it was “alarming to see how some in Europe play out solidarity in a political theatre – making a thriller from the grain”.

“They may seem to play their own role but in fact, they are helping set the stage to a Moscow actor,” he added.

Ukraine also filed a complaint at the World Trade Organisation on Thursday against Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.

Warsaw reacted angrily at Mr Zelenskyy's criticism and summoned Ukraine's ambassador to Poland in protest.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that it would no longer transfer weapons to Ukraine and would only carry out deliveries agreed before the spat.

“Raising the sectoral and de facto regional challenge of protecting the EU internal market from a flood of dumped products in a global UN forum in a confrontational tone does not serve to build a broad coalition of support for Ukraine,” a Polish official told The National.

The official said that lifting the ban on Ukrainian grain “is a real threat” to Polish farmers, who may as a result “abandon cereal and rape cultivation, which will threaten Poland's food security in the near future.”

They described Ukraine's complaint at the WTO as “questionable” and warned that it would, in the short-term, deteriorate “relations and the image of Ukraine in the eyes of the societies of neighbouring countries”.

Yet they also stressed that “Poland supports and will continue to support Ukraine.”

The tension between the allies has been noticed in Moscow. “We see that there are frictions between Warsaw and Kyiv. We predict that these frictions will increase,” the Kremlin's representative said on Friday.

Meanwhile, meetings in Brussels between representatives of the countries involved and the European Commission have continued, to try to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Ukraine presented a plan to the Commission which is under study and involves a verification and authorisation mechanism for exports of wheat, maize, sunflower and rapeseed.

“There’s so far a constructive engagement with all parties” said a commission representative on Friday during a brief with journalists.

Slovakia is currently analysing Ukraine's proposal.

Poland's Agriculture Minister Robert Telus is due to hold talks with Ukrainian officials next week and has called on Kyiv to withdraw its WTO complaint, according to the national press agency.

But he has warned that Warsaw will not remove the ban until a “certain solution, and a safe solution, and an effective solution” was found in the interest of Polish farmers.

The National has contacted Ukrainian authorities for comment.

Updated: September 22, 2023, 5:45 PM