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In Poland, ordinary Russians start paying the price of Putin’s war

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Gdansk, Poland – Some Russian and Belarusian nationals living in Poland are facing increasing cases of verbal abuse, threats, and calls to go back to their country as anti-Russian sentiment grows in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Over fifty cases of discrimination were reported to the Center for Monitoring Racist and Xenophobic Behavior in Warsaw, its head Konrad Dulkowski told Kafkadesk. This marks a drastic increase compared to the pre-war period, and is likely to be much higher in reality considering all the unreported cases.

Paradoxically, many Russians and Belarusians now facing unfair treatment in their adoptive country first came to Poland to escape and distance themselves from the regime they’re now being equated with.

“We don’t serve Russians”

One such example is a woman stopped on a road and harassed due to her Belarusian license plate. “The driver started calling her names and telling her to go to Belarus. The shocking part is that he didn’t even look at the Free Belarus symbol she had on the windshield,” Dulkowski said.

In Gdansk, a Belarusian couple faced abuse on their way back from a charity to support Ukrainian people. In Kraków, a Russian man who had fled the country after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, was asked to leave his grocery shopping store and to never come back. Another store in the city put up, on its front door, a poster with a crystal-clear message: “We don’t serve Russians”.

Afraid that Belarus could take part in the war, 29-year-old Ruslan came to Poland in March. Passing the city of Szczecin, he went to a local Żabka store to buy dinner.

“I asked the salesperson to heat it, and when he heard my bad Polish, we started speaking Ukrainian. I know the language because I have relatives in Poltava [a city in Ukraine]. Then he asked where I am from, and I told him I was from Minsk” Ruslan said. Immediately after, the salesperson started insulting the customer, and told him he had three seconds to get out of the store.

As the war in Ukraine enters its third month, emotions start spiraling out of control, hate speech spreads in the streets and online, targeting many who only have distant connections with Russia.

Tamara Rochmińska, who has been running the Russian restaurant Skamiejka in Warsaw for over a decade, has recently been flooded with a wave of obscene phone calls. “If someone has any doubts about our position, it means that they have absolutely no idea who we are and what we represent,” it said on Facebook, adding that such calls were especially hard for Ukrainian employees of the venue.

The restaurant has received the public support of Witold Szabłowski, a Polish journalist and author of culinary books. “The world is a little more complicated and Skamiejka is really the wrong address for attacks. Tamara is a person who shows how Polish-Russian-Ukrainian relations could look like,” he wrote. “This is the type of Russian that needs to be respected and supported”.

Who’s to blame?

Historically tense relations between Poland and Russia have reached an all-time low following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Poland has led efforts to help Ukrainians fleeing the war, welcoming 3 million people since the start of the war, and has positioned itself as one of the most vocal critics of Russia, calling for tougher sanctions, accusing Moscow of “genocide” and spearheading efforts to isolate the Kremlin.

The rhetoric used by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, however, fails to clearly differentiate between Russian troops and ordinary citizens, arguably contributing to the rising anti-Russian sentiment.

More than one third of Poles said they have a negative attitude towards Russian people in Poland, according to an Ipsos poll for OKO.press, a community estimated at about 14,000 today based on data from the Office of Foreigners.

Weighing in on the divisive debate that has been raging since the first day of the invasion, Polish historian Łukasz Adamski argued in an interview with 300gospodarka that the responsibility for the war in Ukraine lies not only on Russian President Vladimir Putin, but also on regular Russians, who have supported the government and its policies – whether actively or passively.

But if this argument stands for reason in any democratic country, the situation is not as clear-cut in Putin’s autocratic Russia.

While there are important segments of the Russian population who, clouded by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, do abide by Putin’s narrative and support the invasion of Ukraine, getting a clear picture of the state of public opinion is an uphill battle – even more so since a law passed in March imposes a 15-year jail term for anyone spreading “fake news” about the Russian military.

Fighting discrimination on a case-by-case basis

Since the start of the war, about 200,000 Russians may have fled abroad for various reasons, from safety to fear of economic collapse or political repression.

Finding a place to stay, or even opening a local bank account in Poland has become a challenge as some major institutions, including PKO Bank Polski and BNP Paribas, are limiting services for Russian and Belarusian nationals. BNP Paribas initially said that the bank was not signing contracts with Russian and Belarussian citizens due to European sanctions, but later clarified that opening an account was possible for holders of a Polish residency card.

 “When a regular Belarusian citizen, who escaped the Lukashenko regime and whom we just recently welcomed with open arms is not allowed to open a bank account, this is malpractice,” Dulkowski from the Center for Monitoring Racist and Xenophobic Behavior said.

According to him, some people have already lost their jobs due to their country of origin. “They are told it’s because they are Belarusians. These cases, unfortunately, are hard to verify because the official reasons given are different,” Dulkowski added. As many foreigners often work on temporary contracts, employers have a right to not extend them.

Finding accommodation can also become a major hurdle, as several Belarusian families have appealed for help after landlords forced them out or asked for extra deposit. The Warsaw-based center acts on a case-by-case basis to prevent discrimination, but it’s unclear how many remain silent or decide to leave the country.

Alla from Belarus worked at the Wedel confectionery factory for half a year. She found the job through an employment agency and applied for residence permit to stay in Poland. However, when the war in Ukraine started, she was told that Wedel no longer wished to cooperate with citizens of Belarus and Russia, according to a report by the International Center for civil initiatives Our House.

Despite rising anti-Russian feelings in Poland and across Europe, some are aware that the situation is not black-and-white, and that turning against one’s neighbour simply because of his or her nationality is not the solution.

“I think people who put statements like ‘We don’t serve Russians’ are very misguided. They completely miss the point, because it should not be anti-people, it should be against people in charge in Russia,” Leszek Barcikowski, a graphic designer from Gdansk, told Kafkadesk.

For now, these instances of anti-Russian sentiment may still be relatively marginal, and are far from having reached the level of systemic discrimination. But with the war lingering on, especially in Ukraine’s east, such cases may only become more and more frequent, eventually feeding into Putin’s narrative of oppressed Russian communities in Central and Eastern Europe.

By Anna Rzhevkina

A former Reuters reporter, Anna is a freelance journalist based in Gdańsk, Poland, who covers topics ranging from business and economics to human rights. She is a regular contributor to other media outlets, including Notes from Poland and the Warsaw Business Journal.