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Zelenskyy’s Warsaw visit overshadowed by political blowup

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WARSAW — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s state visit Wednesday to Warsaw blew up into a political crisis when Poland’s agriculture minister quit on the same day over his inability to cut the amount of Ukrainian agricultural products flooding into the country.

That’s a key political issue for Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, which has to keep farmers onside ahead of this fall’s parliamentary election; farmers are increasingly outraged over falling produce prices caused by soaring Ukrainian imports.

Zelenskyy was greeted with the full pomp due a visiting head of state, complete with military bands and marching soldiers. At the presidential palace in Warsaw, Polish President Andrzej Duda decorated Zelenskyy with the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s oldest and most prestigious order, for being an “exemplary leader of the state and nation.”

It’s a sign of the weight of the relationship between the two countries. Poland and Ukraine have centuries of tangled ties, often cooperating and sometimes warring against each other, but Russia’s full-scale invasion a year ago has made them very close allies. In an address last year, Zelenskyy even called Poland a “sister” nation.

Being Kyiv’s most devoted backer in the EU has paid political dividends for Warsaw, helping overcome some of the nationalist government’s ostracism over its backsliding on the bloc’s democratic and rule-of-law principles. But there’s also a political cost, as Wednesday’s resignation of Agriculture Minister Henryk Kowalczyk shows.

Kowalczyk said he decided to quit because the European Commission would not agree to reimpose tariffs and duties on Ukrainian grain imports, a move his ministry has been calling for since December, despite initial opposition from the country’s leadership.

“Since it is very clear that the farmers’ basic demand will not be met by the European Commission, I have made a decision and resigned as minister of agriculture and rural development,” Kowalczyk said in a statement.

That casts a shadow over Zelenskyy’s presence in the Polish capital.

Planning for the future

He met with Duda to discuss the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine, supplying more weapons to Kyiv and Ukraine’s tighter integration with the EU — as well as the problem of soaring farm product imports — said Polish government spokesperson Piotr Müller.

“We want to conduct these talks in the spirit of thinking about the future,” presidential foreign policy adviser Marcin Przydacz said. Zelenskyy choosing Warsaw, “shows what role we play in international politics today,” the adviser added.

Zelenskyy has been in Poland before, usually in transit to other destinations or in rapid unofficial visits; this is his first “official” trip, according to the Polish presidential office.

The Ukrainian president traveled to the U.S. last December, before heading to London, Paris and Brussels in a tour of allied European capitals in February. He then briefly stopped in Rzeszów, Poland, on his way back from Brussels, where he met with Duda.

Poland has been one of Ukraine’s closest and most important allies in the fight against Russia’s invasion, pledging key military aid to Kyiv and sending some of its Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets, the first of which arrived Tuesday in Ukraine.

“We handed over four MiG-29s in the past few months and are in the process of handing over another four. Six more are being readied,” Duda told a press conference after he and Zelenskyy held talks.

Zelenskyy also reiterated his plea for more military aid.

“The more ammunition we get, the faster we will be able to deal with the situation in Bakhmut and in the entire country,” he said, referring to the protracted battle for the eastern Ukrainian city that has been one of the focal points of the war.

Przydacz, the presidential adviser, told radio broadcaster RFM FM on Tuesday that Zelenskyy’s visit “should be taken as a sign of trust and of thanking Poland and Poles” for their support.

Zelenskyy thanked Poland for military backing and also “ordinary Poles for your reception and help for ordinary Ukrainians.” 

Poland has become home to about 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees — the largest number in Europe.

At Zelenskyy’s request, the two presidents held a joint speech at Warsaw’s Royal Castle.

Duda cautioned Europe against becoming tired and dispirited about the war, now in its 14th month. 

“There is a temptation, fueled by Russian propaganda and disinformation, for a ceasefire as soon as possible at all costs, and, consequently, to make peace with Russia … which in fact will mean that Russia will take Ukrainian land which it now occupies,” Duda said. “There must be no agreement for that. The politics of appeasing Putin — carried out for years by many European leaders — has borne poisonous fruit.”

Zelenskyy stressed the importance of Kyiv’s alliance with Warsaw.

“Russia won’t win with Europe when Poles and Ukrainians stand united. We are going to enjoy peace together in everything, in the EU and NATO,” Zelenskyy said.

Grain grumbles

But Zelenskyy’s visit comes at a delicate moment for domestic politics.

Poland’s countryside has been hit with waves of farmers’ protests in recent weeks. The demonstrations, in response to the government’s failure to mitigate the impacts of unprecedented inflows of Ukrainian agrifood produce into the country, threaten to shake the bedrock of the government’s traditional rural support.

Last week, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki sent a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, asking her to implement measures that would limit the amount of Ukrainian agricultural imports entering the EU. The letter was signed by heads of governments from four other EU countries bordering Ukraine.

Announcing the joint letter, Morawiecki tweeted: “Let’s support Ukraine, but let’s do so wisely and, above all, let’s put the interest of the country and Polish farmers first!”

Kowalczyk quitting isn’t ending the strife over Ukrainian agricultural exports.

“What does resignation help us?” Stanisław Barna, one of the leaders of the farm protests, told reporters. “We demand help here and now. We will not retreat even if the minister changes.”

This story has been updated.