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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » April 16, 2008
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Lining Up to Prove Polish Descent
April 16, 2008 By W.¯.    
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A law on a document called the Polish Card (Karta Polaka) that entitles people of Polish descent living in the former Soviet Union to a number of rights and advantages came into force March 29.

Lines of applicants aiming to prove their ties to Poland immediately began to form in front of Polish consulates in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and Lithuania.

The Polish Card makes life easier for people of Polish descent living in countries of the former Soviet Union that do not allow dual citizenship. The card enables the holder to be reimbursed for the cost of a Schengen visa, offers access to Polish schools and universities, makes it easier to obtain state scholarships, get a job and conduct business operations in Poland. Those applying for a Polish Card have to prove their ties to Poland, including at least a reading/listening knowledge of Polish; that one parent or grandparent or two great-grandparents were ethnic Poles; or a certificate from an expatriate Polish organization that the applicant has been active in promoting Polish culture and language.

While the card confirms Polish descent, it does not entitle its holder to settle in Poland. Neither does it guarantee a Schengen visa. Card holders may run businesses in Poland along the same rules as Polish citizens. They may also get a job without having to obtain a separate permit. They have the right to medical care in emergencies or for any serious health issues, which includes accidents, poisoning or childbirth. The card also entitles its holder to apply for exemption from the fee for a long-stay multiple-entry visa. However, such a person does not have the right to travel without a passport and Schengen visas in European Union countries.

The Polish Card will be issued by consuls and will be valid for 10 years; it may be extended upon the holder's request. Estimates say that in the first year the number of applicants for the Polish Card could reach several thousand, and ultimately over a million. In connection with the new law, the Polish government has appointed a five-person Council for Poles in the East. Citizens of the Commonwealth of Independent States who are refused a Polish Card will be able to file an appeal with this body.

Polish diplomatic posts in former Soviet states have notified the foreign ministry in Warsaw they are ready to accept and review applications for Polish Cards. The applications will be checked by consuls, who will also deal with the procedure of checking applicants' Polish descent and conduct interviews. The interviews will be held at Polish diplomatic posts abroad, while the documents will be checked in Poland.

The foreign ministry has prepared a confidential test to help ascertain whether someone declaring they have ties to Poland really does have them. Media reports say there are about 150 questions. Sealed envelopes containing the tests have already been sent to Polish consulates. Unconfirmed reports say the questions are about traditions, customs, literature and geography. For example, the consul might ask where the Wawel Dragon "lives" (in Cracow), how elegant Polish men greet women (kiss them on the hand), and what Poles eat on "Fat Thursday" (donuts). The consuls will also check an applicant's spoken Polish, giving them a simple text to read and asking a few commonplace questions about their family, the weather and the time.

At the request of Polish communities abroad, the Polish Card may have the holder's name written in two versions: as written in the holder's ID, and with its Polish spelling. Initially the personal data on the Polish Card was to have been written only in the form on the person's ID. This caused protests mainly among Poles in Lithuania, where the officially required Lithuanianized forms of names in documents have long been a cause of conflict. "A distorted form of a Polish name on the Polish Card runs contrary to our battle for the Polish spelling of Polish names, which we have been fighting for decades," said Micha³ Mackiewicz, president of the Association of Poles in Lithuania.

Just days after the new law came into force, the first international tensions appeared in connection with the Polish Card. The Belarusian foreign ministry criticized Polish consulates as they started accepting applications. The Belarusian government demanded that Poland suspend issuing the document until "the dispute is resolved by international lawyers." According to the Belarusian authorities, the Polish Card could lead to ethnic tension. They have said they are waiting for an analysis by international experts and until this is complete, the issuing of the Polish Card should be suspended.

The Polish consulate in Grodno in western Belarus has received several hundred applications already. In the first week after the law came into force, long lines formed in front of the building. The media in Grodno say the number of applicants for the Polish Card could grow to several thousand.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian media say Lviv residents are visiting local archives in large numbers trying to prove their Polish origins. They are seeking such information mainly in church registers-the service costs just 38 hryvnias, or zl.20 (around 6 euros).

The number of ethnic Poles living in Russia is estimated at 300,000. Official data from Belarus say there are about 250,000 people there who claim Polish descent. The number is roughly the same in Lithuania, and 140,000 in Ukraine. According to a 1999 census in Kazakhstan, just over 47,000 people there said they were of Polish descent.
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