Espreso. Global

Representative of Polish government on Poland's participation in Ukraine's reconstruction

29 January, 2024 Monday

Pawel Kowal, whose appointment as Ukraine's recovery commissioner was announced by the Polish government, spoke about how Poland's participation in the reconstruction will look like, when it will start, and what the joint actions of the two countries will be aimed at

Mariia Hurska, editor-in-chief of and a journalist for Espreso, spoke with Pawel Kowal.

You were with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in Kyiv during his recent visit. What was the most important thing for you?

Donald Tusk's decision to make his first foreign visit to Kyiv is inspiring. His first trip as prime minister was to attend a meeting of the European Council. However, a working trip to Brussels is not the same as a visit to Belgium. So Ukraine was his first trip abroad, his first trip outside the EU. And it was the finalization of what Donald Tusk had previously said in his keynote speech to the Sejm. He said the words "Ukraine", "Ukrainians" 35 times. This is probably a record of all time and it confirms his way of thinking - Ukraine should be supported now.

And our role is to mobilize the West. The role of a Polish politician (and this is how I see my task) is to explain to citizens the following: if you do something for Ukraine today, you do it for yourself. If you don't, if you oversleep, Putin gets additional time to rearm and strike with more force. That is why Tusk's first visit is to Ukraine. 

‍How did it go, what was the atmosphere of the trip?

‍When we were traveling by train to Ukraine, it felt like traveling in the meantime. You don't travel to international meetings by train these days, and it takes so long. Everything works a little differently than during a regular visit, when you get on a plane, run out of the plane, and fulfill the tasks of the program. At the same time, there is time to think and talk to each other. Our participation in the celebration of Ukraine's Unity Day was important, followed by a long tete-a-tete between Prime Minister Tusk and President Zelenskyy. Then joint negotiations between the delegations took place with the participation of the heads of government. Everything is on a dotted line, because our government is just being formed. This is a long process in a modern country. We talked a little about energy, agriculture, transportation, and military issues. And, of course, fundamental political issues. There was also a focus on returning to the resolution of historical issues, so as not to postpone everything to the postwar period.

‍What are your general impressions of Kyiv? What was the atmosphere like before your visit? What did you talk about behind the scenes of official meetings?

A week ago I already knew that we were going to Kyiv. And before I left, I spent time at briefings and meetings with experts to talk about Ukraine. I was trying to find an answer to the question of what would have to happen to make a more positive, dynamic scenario of this war possible. The longer the hostilities last, the worse this scenario is for Ukraine and Central Europe. Therefore, basically, the task of every Western politician is to ensure that this war lasts less - that is, to ensure that Ukraine is able to achieve clear victories. We are looking for answers to the question of what to do to help the Ukrainians reverse this stabilization of the front, which was a challenge in World War I.

‍Let's talk about your new position as the Polish government's commissioner for Ukraine's recovery. Did it exist before? When do you plan to start working?

Similar positions have existed in the Polish government before - before me, Jadwiga Emilewicz and Michał Dworczyk were in charge of these issues. Similar positions of special representatives for Ukraine exist in the United States and Germany. Obviously, there should be someone in Poland who will connect all Ukrainian affairs, because for us it is a purely family history. All the issues we have are related to Ukraine in one way or another. The Prime Minister should have someone with whom he will talk and whom he will ask about energy, culture, exhumations in Volyn, etc. Someone who can resolve issues quickly. The Prime Minister will soon decide on the scope of the responsibilities. We are now making a small inventory of what the previous government did. The previous government had some good ideas, but not all of them were implemented. There is the issue of interconnectors, i.e. energetics and electricity, liquid fuels, and so on. There is the old topic of Sarmatia, i.e. the Odesa-Brody-Gdansk oil pipeline. Each topic needs to be looked at closely: what the situation looks like and what the next step should be. 

‍Will you remain a member of the Sejm and head of the Foreign Affairs Committee? 

There are several formal possibilities. The Prime Minister will announce this in the coming days.

When do you think the process of rebuilding Ukraine should begin - now or after the war?

It is continuous - Ukrainians are constantly rebuilding bombed-out cities and infrastructure. I often visit Ukraine and see that the reconstruction is ongoing; no one will wait for Putin to end the war to rebuild a bridge or a house. In fact, we have three areas of work. The first is this unscheduled reconstruction, when we rebuild what is destroyed at the moment, what was financed by humanitarian aid after February 24. The second is thinking about the future global reconstruction. And third, I would like us to ask ourselves the question: what should reconstruction mean in general? Isn't reconstruction something more than just the physical reconstruction of what was? Ukraine will be joining the EU at the same time, which means that we are talking about energy transformation. Ukraine will have to prepare for the new rules of the European Union. So the third area is modernization and change, i.e. using the reconstruction process to bring Ukraine closer to European standards in various areas, such as energy consumption.

What kind of financial resources can we talk about? Polish or European? Who will primarily allocate the money and for what?

‍It may turn out that there are richer countries than Poland. They can provide more money and ammunition. But Poland is the main transit country with Ukraine. It is the closest neighbor. We were the first to respond to the events of 2022. And it is from this point of view that our participation in the reconstruction process is shaped. We need to think about joint projects in the production of ammunition and mobilize other Western countries. Since Prime Minister Donald Tusk said that a government representative for reconstruction would be created, I have received endless calls on my phone. For the first time in many years, I put my phone on silent because I couldn't answer all the calls from people who wanted to tell me what they had done and what they wanted to do. So our participation in the reconstruction is a fact. We just need to install additional engines.

‍What will be the role of Polish business in rebuilding Ukraine?

First of all, it is a special insurance that works even during the war. It works very well - better than some Western countries can offer. Secondly, we can offer support to Polish, American, German or European businesses. As for Polish businesses specifically, there will be investment funds to start - as a startup. For small companies, there are several options among specialized institutions. For large ones, I think the funds will come from the Bank Gospodarstwa Krajowego (BGK). We are currently at the conceptual stage. If someone wants to participate in the business and raise a little more money, they will also be able to get some money as a contribution to the business.

It is not only about the financial capacity of Polish companies to invest, but also about additional security that will be an umbrella for these investments.

So, first of all, we are talking about construction, infrastructure, and energy. 

Speaking of infrastructure, a proposal has already been made publicly to build a highway in Ukraine so that it will serve for a long time, and then it can be used for commercial purposes and generate income. We need several more flagship large investments, and we need to talk about this now. And we just need to completely unblock the border, so this is, frankly, the main problem. 

The total budget for Ukraine's recovery is €750 billion over 10 years. How realistic is this?

I am skeptical of these calculations. I think they are very conditional. If the war is over, there will be a huge dynamic in the development of the Ukrainian state and demographics. Then we will count differently. 

Now we need to focus on the mechanisms, how it should look like, so that the big reconstruction is followed by modernization and changes

Big money is always a risk of corruption. How can it be minimized in the case of both Ukrainian and Polish companies?

We need common procedures, a discussion on what border checks should look like, etc. Of course, Ukraine's accession to the EU will also be a tool for fighting corruption. Anti-corruption institutions should be part of the system of restoration and modernization of Ukraine. Post-war trauma is a source that, after every war, objectively fuels corruption or some social pathologies. So let's think about rebuilding Ukraine not only in the sense that we will rebuild what was bombed by the Russians, but also that rebuilding will change approaches and will be a driving force for social change.

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