A Card for the Polish Diaspora

It gives its holders the chance to be in contact with Europe and the West.

Lorenzo Berardi
27 April 2016

At a first glance it may look like a Polish ID card, but in fact it is not. The background colours are different, with pale shades of yellow and blue replacing the standard soft tones of white and red. The coat of arms of the Republic of Poland is on the top left corner of the card, but instead of a field for “parents’ given names” there is one for “nationality”.

They called it “Karta Polaka”, which translates into “Card of the Pole”, “Pole’s Card”, or “Polish Charter”. It is a document given to citizens from 15 different countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union and who can either prove their Polish roots or demonstrate that they promoted Polish language and culture in their home countries.

Karta Polaka (KP) was approved by the Polish parliament with a bill called “Act on the Pole’s Card” on 7th September 2007. It was the brainchild of the Law and Justice (PiS) party – the leader of the current Polish government – when they were in power. Signed by then president Lech Kaczyński on 22nd September 2007, the law came into force on March 29th 2008 under a new government, led by the Civic Platform (PO).

Eight years later, how many foreigners applied for the Karta Polaka remains unknown. In autumn 2015, the Council for Poles in the East (Rada do Spraw Polaków na Wschodzie) – a public authority overseeing decisions concerning Karta Polaka and the Polish diaspora abroad – looked into this data.

However, since  the Council is not required to publish any yearly reports, its findings have not been disclosed. In 2007, the Polish government estimated that between 200,000 and 400,000 people could have been entitled to apply for the KP. What is known is that about 170,000 people are now Karta Polaka holders; among them, 76,000 Belarusians and about 70,000 Ukrainians.

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A card not to be confused with a residence permit

As written on the website of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “The Card of the Pole is a document stating adherence to the Polish nation. The Card holder is entitled to all of the benefits detailed in the bill passed by the Polish parliament.”

Among the benefits given to a Karta Polaka holder: the possibility of  obtaining a long-term visa granting multiple entry into Poland and taking up legal employment without having to obtain a work permit. Moreover, those holding a KP can operate a business in Poland on the same conditions as Polish citizens, benefit from the Polish education system free of charge, and receive public healthcare just as Poles do. Additionally, they are able to visit state-operated museums free of charge and to be among the first to apply for financial support to help Polish citizens abroad.

However, Karta Polaka is not to be confused with a residence permit, nor can it substitute for Polish citizenship, as the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs makes clear on their website.

The easiest way to acquire a KP is to be certified as a person of Polish descent in accordance with the provisions of the Repatriation Act of November 9, 2000. Karta Polaka can also be issued to a person who is, at the time of the application, a citizen of one of the 15 states formerly a member of the USSR, or  a stateless person in one of these countries, and satisfies the following three conditions.

First, the applicants need to demonstrate their connection with the nation of Poland, proving at least a basic knowledge of Polish, which they “view as their mother tongue,” as well as “knowledge and cultivation of Polish traditions and customs.” Then, they have to sign a declaration stating that they  belong to the Polish nation in the presence of the Polish consul in their country of origin.

Last but not least, they need to demonstrate that at least one parent or grandparent, or two great grandparents, are or were of Polish nationality. Alternatively, they need to present “a certificate from an authorised organization of Poles living abroad in the country of residence confirming active involvement in activities promoting the Polish language and culture or benefiting the Polish national minority for a period of at least the preceding 3 years.”

Helping Poles living beyond the Eastern border

When representatives of the Polish diaspora visited the lower house of the Polish parliament (Sejm) on December 28th 2015, Prime minister Beata Szydło told them that “The Polish state will do everything to ensure that the community of Poles is built all over the world.” . On the same occasion, the speaker of the Sejm, Marek Kuchciński, stated that the parliament has already taken actions aimed at supporting Poles beyond the Eastern border: Karta Polaka is certainly one of them.

Paweł Hut, a Professor at Warsaw University’s Institute of Social Policy co-author with Łukasz Żołądek of ‘Repatriacja i polityka repatriacyjna’ (Repatriation and repatriation politics), and an expert on Karta Polaka and the Polish diaspora explained that the card “gives its holders the chance to be in contact with Europe and the West and that it was created because some countries of the former Soviet Bloc started discriminating against certain ethnic groups after ’91.”

He states how, for example: “Lithuania has been fighting the Polish language in public spaces with an institution called ‘State Language Inspectorate’ (Valstybinė kalbos inspekcija) which forbids writing names in native languages fining those who do it. Thus, the Polish government decided that it had the constitutional responsibility to look after the Poles abroad by creating KP.”

Since the approval of the ‘Act on the Pole’s Card’ in 2007, Karta Polaka has been implemented. In fact, the very first version of the card didn’t offer many privileges to its holders. As explained by Hut: “During the preparation of the ‘Act on the Pole’s Card’ the Polish government wanted to make sure that nobody could accuse it of “bribing” citizens of other countries.”

Recent amendments to the KP were inspired by the information provided by Polish communities in the former USSR made in order to improve the functioning of the original law. It is because of this that “due to the changes happening within the post-Soviet countries Karta Polaka holders were allowed to move to Poland,” says Professor Hut.

In 2015 the Polish parliament was about to consider further amendments that would allow KP holders to acquire Polish (and EU) citizenship after living in Poland for only one year. The possibility of giving some KP holders a grant of about €5,400 per family member to cover adaptation costs as well as professional and language training was also under discussion.

Hut confirms that amendments are in the pipeline and “will also focus on some extra expenses from the Polish Treasury to cover adaptation costs.” He explains that this is due to “the difference between the average Polish income and the average income in post-Soviet countries. Once this amendment is approved, the financial support given to some card holders will be much higher than what it is now.”

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Aliaksandr K.: “Karta Polaka holders should be granted citizenship if they want to settle in Poland.” 

Aliaksandr K. is 35 years old and comes from the Belarusian town of Brest, which used to be part of Poland before WWII. He lived in Poland between 2012 and 2014 and returned to Warsaw in February of last year. He is studying for a master’s degree at the Warsaw University of Technology and does not have a permanent job. Aliaksandr held a Karta Polaka for about three years, returning it on August 2015 after he received a permanent residence permit.

“As I wanted to get a good education to find a job in a democratic country, I started to search for opportunities in the EU,” he says. “First I tried to go to Germany, but without success. Then, in September 2012, I came to Poland, where university professors in Warsaw told me that having a Karta Polaka would have let me study for free, so I decided to apply for it,” he recounts.

In order to apply for Karta Polaka, Aliaksandr had to prove that he had Polish roots. Looking into Belarusian archives, he was able to find official papers proving that his maternal great-grandfather and great-grandmother were once Polish citizens. “I am very happy I managed to find those documents, otherwise it would have been much more difficult for me to enter the EU,” he reckons. Aliaksandr was the first of his family to receive a Karta Polaka and was followed by his brother, his sister-in-law, and even by their two years old son who became a card holder in 2015.

Aliaksandr is still proud of his old Karta Polaka. Yet, he would like the card to be improved: “The exam for getting [the] KP should be structured like a test including writing and reading parts alongside its current oral part so that the applicants can show their ability to read and write in Polish,” he says and also thinks that “holders of Karta Polaka should be granted citizenship if they want to settle in Poland.”

Daria I.: “As a KP holder, it is easier for me to get a visa, medical help as well as free education.”

Daria I. is 21 years old and hails from Donetsk in the Ukraine. She has been living in Warsaw for three years and while searching for a steady job she teaches Russian to Poles and Polish to foreigners. Her great-grandmother was Polish and moved to the Ukraine where she got married.

Daria heard about Karta Polaka for the first time when she was still in her home country. As she puts it: “I was interested in Slavic cultures back then and Polish culture was easier to reach than others. The Polish community in my hometown was very active organizing language and culture courses that I began attending, becoming an active member.”  Daria’s friends from the Polish community told her about Karta Polaka and suggested she  apply for it.

However, at that time, Daria didn’t apply for the KP since  her Polish roots were too difficult  to be traced and she moved to Poland without the card. Several years later, she decided to try to acquire the KP as it was a helpful document to have. “It wasn’t very complicated to get the card,” she remembers today. “I gathered some references, the evidence of my activity for the Polish community in the Ukraine, and I mentioned during  the interview that I have Polish roots.”

Despite of her interest in Polish language and culture, Daria has never considered her roots to be very important, but “applied for Karta Polaka mainly because it is helpful in many ways for a foreigner from the East here. As a KP holder, it is easier for me to get a visa, medical help, as well as free education,” she explains, adding that: “The KP is very popular in the Ukraine now with many young people who want to get it to start free studies in Poland.”

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Tania R.: “I was one of the very first people who applied for Karta Polaka holding one in 2008.”

Tania R. is 27 years old and was born in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. She came to Poland in 2012  to pursue masters in photojournalism. Now she works as a TV journalist and a newsreader for the Belarusian TV channel Belsat, which is based in Warsaw.

Tania grew up speaking Russian and Belarusian and was also familiar with Polish since it was sometimes spoken in her family. “My mother and grandmother were members of the union of Polish people in Belarus and since I was 5 I attended summer camps and events organized by the Polish community,” she explains.

When the Karta Polaka was created, she was still studying in Minsk, taking part in activities organized by a students’ club for people of Polish origin. “I was the last person to get the card in my family, but still one of the very first people who applied for the KP, holding one as early as 2008,” she recounts. At that time the procedure to acquire a Karta Polaka was easy: “There were only oral questions on Polish culture, history as well as religion, and that was the most difficult part for me since  I don’t come from a religious family,” Tania says.

Four years later, she moved to Warsaw to pursue her masters and studied with the same rights of Polish citizens. However, the only time when Tania tried to use the Karta Polaka for healthcare, she was  not successful: “I tried in two different hospitals, but in both cases nobody recognised the card. They asked me whether I was a student or a worker and what that document since  they thought it was some sort of ID. The whole experience left me a bit upset,” she admits.

That minor misunderstanding aside, Tania is a supporter of Karta Polaka. As she makes clear: “I like this card for it provides a lot of opportunities to people and certainly proved  to be very important in helping me to achieve everything that I have right now. It made it easier for me to comehere to study, acquire  a visa and then a residence permit in Poland.” Now that she has received a permanent residence permit in Poland, Tania doesn’t need her Karta Polaka anymore. The problem is that the only way to return it is to return it to the Polish Embassy in Minsk where she received it and that is rather inconvenient.

Valentyna N.: “On my birth certificate is clearly stated that the nationality of my mother is Polish.”

Valentyna N. is 25 years old, she works in a media agency in Warsaw as a communication planner, and she was born in the Belarusian town of Baranovichi, in the Brest region. She left Belarus when she was 17, moving to Lithuania to  study and heard about Karta Polaka shortly before leaving Baranovichi. However, she applied for the card only in 2011 when she was already abroad.

“I got my Karta Polaka at the Polish Embassy in Vilnius,” she says. Valentyna did not  have to wait so long: “as the embassy was quite empty when I went there”. Yet, friends of hers who applied for the card told her that things are much different in Belarus: “as many people are interested in getting the KP the procedure takes longer due to the queues and the long time you have to wait.”

Unlike many other applicants, Valentyna didn’t have to search for her Polish origins leafing through old documents in dusty archives. As she explains: “On my birth certificate is clearly stated that the nationality of my mother is Polish even though she holds a Belarusian passport. My mother has the same information on her birth certificate stating that her father is Polish and her mother is Belarusian, but she chose to write her origins as “Polish” onto her Belarusian passport.”

As Polish was rarely spoken in her family, Valentyna didn’t grow up with the language. Neither did she attend any Polish language classes or summer camps organized by the Polish community in her childhood. That’s why when she applied for the Karta Polaka in 2011, Valentyna knew that she had to study some Polish in order to pass the exam and receive the card.

“The interview lasted almost an hour and it was mostly an informal conversation, but I had only prepared a presentation and some key sentences,” she admits. However, everything went well: “The guy who interviewed me understood that I only spoke basic Polish, but told me that he saw my willingness to learn it and that my documents were clear in proving my Polish roots.”

Even though today she barely uses her card since “ it is not as important as my residence permit or my official ID, which I’m asked to show,” Valentyna appreciates how the Karta Polaka “is mostly about the opportunity to live here and it  makes it easier to some extent.” Since bureaucracy in Poland is quite hard for most people to manage, but especially so for non-EU foreigners, KP can help: “For example, when it comes to get a permanent residence permit, KP is important as it simplifies and speeds up the whole procedure,” Valentyna says.

Supporting the Polish diaspora and looking for skilled people eastwards

To a foreign observer, the support given by the current Polish government to  implement the Karta Polaka, which is likely to bring more ‘foreigners’ from beyond the Eastern borders to Poland, can be seen as contradictory. After all, it is the same government that recently rejected 7,000 refugees and economic migrants assigned to Poland by the EU. “It is a misleading comparison,” remarks Professor Hut, stressing how “amendments of the Karta Polaka have been taking place since 2008. As the former government didn’t do much in this respect, it’s only a coincidence that further changes to KP are happening now.”

Vadzim Smok is a Belarusian researcher at the Institute of Political Studies ‘Political Sphere’, which is based in Minsk and Vilnius, as well as a contributor to Belarus Digest. “There are 1.4 million Catholics in Belarus, all of whom can potentially become KP holders if they prove that their parents or grandparents are Polish, learn a little Polish as well as some historical and cultural facts,” he says and adds that: “the issue of Catholic identity is complicated here with many people calling themselves Poles although they do not know the language and do not differ from other Belarusians.”

Smok looks at the Karta Polaka as a “symbolic support of the Polish diaspora supplemented by an important, though not legally defined, policy of attracting labour force, which Poland needs now and will need even more in future.” According to him, with tens of thousands of Poles  migrating to Western Europe in recent years and a negative demographic trend in Poland, the country “needs new human resources to sustain its economic growth with many politicians working on policies to attract more people from the former USSR.”

As seen from Belarus, this prospect is  very attractive to many people. “If our current economic downturn goes on,” Smok says “the number of young Belarusians willing to relocate will be growing and the Karta Polaka is a possibility to find a better place to live. Some people will choose Poland as their final destination, while others look forward to moving to richer European countries,” he explains. And Tania R. reports that: “today walking around Minsk, especially in the metro, you can see a lot of advertisements encouraging people to apply for Karta Polaka and explaining how to do it.”

However, the Belarusian government is not happy with that. “Poland is seen as a hostile state by the Lukashenko regime as it supports Belarusian opposition and civil society and criticizes the authorities’ undemocratic policies,” acknowledges Smok, who also stresses how: “having a group of people who are perceived as loyal to Poland is considered a threat.”

As confirmed by Professor Hut: “putting representatives of ethnic minorities in contact with their ‘historical motherland’ is often considered controversial. However, I believe that the reason for these tensions lies in the inadequate support given by the Belarusian government to communities having high needs and aspirations, particularly when it comes to education. Without these issues, the Karta Polaka wouldn’t have been needed at all.”

The support of the Polish diaspora aside, Poland also seems interested in welcoming students and skilled workers from the neighbouring East. So much so that today people coming from six former USSR countries – Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine – are entitled to be employed in Poland without holding a work permit or a Karta Polaka for up to six months under the Oświadczenia o zamiarze powierzenia pracy cudzoziemcowi.

This temporary work permit doesn’t apply to nine of the post-Soviet countries covered by the Karta Polaka law, but it does include Belarus and the Ukraine which, when combined, make up for 85% of the current card holders. As summarised by Valentyna N: “the Polish government shows a very open policy towards economic migrants, at least towards some of them.”

Lorenzo Berardi is a freelance journalist based in Warsaw. He is a contributor for Lettera43, Rassegna Est, V4 Revue, New Eastern Europe, The Varsovian.