By Stanley Bill
Last Saturday, the annual March of Independence (Marsz Niepodległości) exploded onto the streets of Warsaw in a storm of controversy and scandal. International reporters and commentators described a “white supremacist march” and “60 000 Nazis” marching on the capital. The Polish state media, conservative columnists and the government dismissed the criticism as exaggerated slander, calling the event a “great march of patriots.” A deputy-minister even suggested – without evidence – that racist banners referring to “white Europe” and “pure blood” may have been an intentional provocation to compromise the march. Media reports of another banner calling for an “Islamic Holocaust” turned out to be false (though such a banner had appeared on a bridge in Poznań in 2015). The controversy gathered further steam in a furious confrontation in the European Parliament, after which a Polish conservative MEP described Western criticism of his country as “an anti-Polish orgy.”
If you follow international news about Poland, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the country’s politics consist exclusively of an authoritarian government – intent on silencing critics, bringing state institutions under party control, destroying the environment, denying women their rights, and leading the country into conflict with its European partners – facing off against mass street protests in defence of democracy.
While serious struggles over such issues are taking place, and rightly receive attention, a vital part of the story has got lost in this coverage: despite the occasional photogenic street protest, the government is extremely popular. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s poll numbers are currently at their highest level since it returned to power almost two years ago. At around 40%, its support is equal to the next three parties combined. Continue reading
Białowieża Forest in northeastern Poland is the last of the vast primeval forest that once stretched across the European lowlands. Strictly protected for centuries by royalty as a private hunting ground, it is now a living museum of ancient natural processes replete with species extinct elsewhere. But the serenity of this fairy-tale forest has recently been disrupted by a bitter environmental conflict triggered by a huge spruce bark beetle infestation.
The State Forests Service, backed by the environment minister, argues that the only way to save the forest from oblivion is to cut out the million infected trees – a plan that is now around a third complete. Scientists and environmentalists, on the other hand, have roundly condemned the plan, arguing that it has no chance of halting the bark beetle, and will in itself cause untold damage to critical protected habitats. The issue has also become another front in the multiple conflicts between Poland’s national-conservative government and the EU, with the European Commission suing Poland over the logging at the European Court of Justice (ECJ), and the Polish government refusing to comply with an ECJ order to immediately halt logging.
Who should we believe in this complex and politicised debate? Continue reading
By Stanley Bill
In the Polish parliament’s recent passing of three controversial judicial reform bills, it is easy to point to two interrelated motivations: (1) a naked power grab from the Law and Justice (PiS) party; and (2) an attempt to hobble institutions that have ruled against the party’s legislative proposals in the past and posed a threat to its key members. However, these potential motivations are less important than the background of a consistent ideological program propounded by PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński and his allies since 1989. The current legislative attack on judicial independence – including the anticipated dismissal of the entire Supreme Court – is part of a much broader plan for radical change. Kaczyński’s position has been unwavering: Poland’s state institutions need a revolution.
The dispute within the EU over the relocation of refugees from Greece and Italy to other countries is now reaching a head, pitting eastern member states, who refuse to take in their allocated share, against their western partners. Following recent calls from the likes of Sweden and Finland to punish those who fail to play their part in easing the burden of the migration crisis, the European Commission today began legal proceedings against Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
This is a terrible idea. Continue reading
Donald Trump and Steve Bannon are in the White House. The British parliament has given Theresa May the signal to start Brexit negotiations. Populist forces are surging in France, the Netherlands, and other parts of Europe. Russia is emboldened. The liberal consensus of globalism and international cooperation seems to be faltering, as national movements gain traction. The end of an era could mean a return to a less ceremonious contest between the strong and the weak. This would be bad news for Poland. So why has Warsaw been part of the trend?
Poland’s media and civil society have reacted with concern to Prime Minister Beata Szydło’s announcement that the government wants to bring NGOs under more centralised control, because, in her view, too many of them are still ‘subordinate to the policies of the previous ruling system’.
To this end, her office is in the process of establishing a Department of Civil Society which will be responsible for ‘bringing order to the whole sphere’ of NGOs. It will collect and disburse all money intended for such organisations, and set goals for their work.
Leaving little doubt as to the purpose of this move, Szydło says that, although NGOs should ideally not be under government control, ‘it turns out we have not yet got to the moment at which politicians do not want to control social organisations’. Continue reading