Poland and Ukraine: miles to go

By Jan Cienski

The fastest way to appreciate just how far Poland has advanced in the last two decades is to make a quick trip to neighbouring Ukraine. The visual evidence is overwhelming.

But while Poland is comparatively wealthier than Ukraine, the economic situation of both countries will likely come as something of a surprise to western European football fans when they visit Poland and Ukraine for the European football championship, which is being hosted by the two countries next year.

The true taste of whether a non-EU and an EU member can co-host an international tournament will come on the Polish-Ukrainian border as tens of thousands of fans try to drive from one venue to another.

After waiting for more than two hours to cross into Ukraine at the Hrebenne-Rava Ruska crossing, the first impression one gets of Ukraine is based on the truly enormous potholes on the main road from the border to Lviv, the capital of western Ukraine and one of four Ukrainian cities where matches will be held during next year’s European football championship. Cars and trucks crawl along, circling axle-breaking holes.

Although Poland still lags western Europe when it comes to highways, most roads have been modernised and resurfaced – creating a strikingly smoother driving experience. That is in large measure a result of the billions of euros flowing into Poland as part of the EU’s structural funds programme.

The roads in Ukraine look a lot the ones in Poland two decades ago. Back then the roads were a potholed mess, but traffic, like in today’s Ukraine, was sparser than in Poland today, where roads are clogged by increasingly obtainable cars and the transport trucks that tie Polish factories to the rest of the EU.

In Lviv, many of the city’s streets are a barely-drivable cobblestone that looks to have last been fixed before the war, while ambitious urban transit plans for the tournament look far from ready.

East of Lviv, the sight of a horse-drawn cart draws barely a glance, and fields are dotted with farmers walking behind horse-drawn ploughs– views that used to be ubiquitous in Poland but are now a rarity – even in the country’s poorest areas.

While more than a million Poles have decamped to western Europe after their country joined the EU in 2004, millions more have found decent jobs in Poland and are increasingly able to enjoy a middle class existence. In Ukraine, millions have left to work in Russia, while thousands more are in Spain, Italy and Poland, often working illegally as the local job market is dire.

“There is absolutely nothing for anyone here, why would they stay?” says Jozef Czyzewski, an 84-year-old peasant farmer in Pieniaki, avillage of 300 about 100km east of Lviv where only a handful of peopleown cars.

When UEFA, the European football association, granted the two countries the right to host the championships, the hope was that both would fulfil ambitious plans to build thousands of kilometres of highways, new hotels, improve rail connections, and, crucially, each build four world class stadiums in which to stage the matches.

That last requirement is being met. But infrastructure is evidently another matter.

Officials in both countries say that the roads will be smoother next year, and that there will be a separate driving lane for fans, but a cursory inspection of the facilities at the Hrebenne-Rava Ruska crossing shows that fans are likely to endure Dantesque scenes.

“I’m sure the Germans have never seen anything like this,” says a stout Polish woman as she fought for a place in line before a tiny window at the Ukrainian passport control.

Here’s to hoping things get better, soon.