Visiting Polish Legal Scholars Discuss Ukraine

September 23, 2014

The recent crisis in Ukraine and its continuing aftermath have created a global conversation about relations between Russia and other parts of Europe.

The SLU LAW Center for International and Comparative Law helped further that conversation last Wednesday by hosting a panel headlined by visiting Polish legal scholars Michal Balcerzak and Marcin Mikolaj Kaldunski of Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland.

Wednesday's panel was part of a two-day event featuring the visiting Polish law scholars, put on by CICL, the SLU Center for Intercultural Studies and the SLU Center for International Studies. Balcerzak also gave a presentation Tuesday on the European Court of Human Rights and civil rights issues while Kaldunski gave a presentation on state immunity.

SLU LAW Assistant Professor Monica Eppinger, an expert on Ukraine who spent time there as a foreign services officer, kicked off Wednesday's discussion by giving a brief history of Ukraine and how its current state of affairs came about. Eppinger spent the summer doing research in Ukraine in the aftermath of the major protests in February, the violence that broke out and the fleeing of former president Viktor Yanukovych.

“The amazing thing I found when I was doing research this summer was the amount of energy in these protests did not dissipate,” Eppinger said. “People have channeled that energy and said, ‘If we want our government to do something, it’s not enough to be politically active and ask someone sitting in an office to do something for you. If there is something that is getting on your nerves, just go and do what you would want the government to do.’”

Eppinger said a lot of people, outside of their regular jobs, are performing services we in the United States would consider government functions. For example, an investment banker friend of hers organized a hot lunch program at a local elementary school. She even heard of people developing first drafts of audit laws and submitting them to the parliament for consideration.

“What I had been seeing in the media from here was this incredibly intense, tragic picture,” Eppinger said. “When I was there, the mood is actually euphoric, because people are taking control of their destiny at the very basic level.”

Eppinger also addressed the dubious nature of Crimean vote to secede from Ukraine, which was a major topic of discussion for the visiting Polish legal scholars. Kaldunski provided some legal framework by which Russia’s plain clothes invasion of Crimea and the ensuing Crimean independence vote were illegal.

“This so-called secession of Crimea by declaration of independence is illegal under international law,” Kaldunski said. “The Russian Federation committed an act of aggression. An act of aggression, except for genocide, is the most heinous crime in international law. It needs to be condemned by the international community.”

Kaldunski said the case of Crimea’s declaration of independence could be compared to Kosovo’s. Kaldunski said both Crimea and Kosovo were cases of states trying to act unilaterally without a vote by the entire nation.

“This is one thing that international law is striving for – to stop unilateral action by states,” Kaldunski said. “States should act together.”

Balcerzak said Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine are a little scary for people in Poland and other parts of eastern Europe.

“There is no surprise that we are seriously concerned in Poland about what has been going on over the past several months in Ukraine,” Balcerzak said. “Many people in Poland will tell you now, it is the first time in my generation or my parents’ generation that we have felt like war is close.”

Professor Michal Rozbicki, the director of SLU’s Center for Intercultural Studies and a native of Poland, ended the panel by putting into perspective how Poles view the situation in Ukraine versus how Americans see it.

“Americans have not experienced an invasion, burning down the country, mass starvations, terrible dictatorships or things of that nature,” Rozbicki said. “Historical experience does have something to say as far as how you see the world.”


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