From Poland With Love - August
Topic of the Month
Humanitarian Crisis at the Border
A group of migrants has been stuck on the borders between Poland and Belarus. It has been almost four weeks (at the moment of writing this text) since the group of ca. 30 people was locked between Polish and Belarusian military personnel in the village of Usnarz Górny.
Originally, there were some 50 people, but according to the Polish authorities, Belarusian border guards have since taken women with small children and some of the men back to Belarus.
The group has been living on the area of ca. 30 square meters, with no roof, no toilet, with some food delivered by Belarus and water from a stream. Four women have found shelter in a small tent, threw by a Civic Coalition MP, who unexpectedly sprinted through the lined-up border guards carrying also a bag with medicines.
NGOs helping the migrants say that they requested in English "international protection" in Poland. This was also confirmed by the representatives of the Ombudsman who were close to the border. So far, the Polish border police ignored their request. The government claims that the group is not on the Polish soil and Poland has no responsibility for them. According to activists and the opposition, the border police is a breach of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as violating both EU and Polish law.
Thousands of migrants have crossed the border from Belarus into the EU states – Poland, Latvia, Lithuania - in recent months. Warsaw, Riga and Vilnius and the EU claim Belarus has deliberately coordinated the influx in retaliation over EU sanctions. Polish government has called it a "hybrid attack". Michał Dworczyk, head of the PM’s office said: "It's about creating chaos". "What we are seeing here is a very cruel provocation by the Belarusian authorities. They allow people to get as far as the EU's eastern border, then try to push these people out of the country and into the EU," Dworczyk concluded.
Activists, journalists and MPs are not allowed to approach the group. The police use loud speakers to prevent any form of verbal communication between the group and Polish people who came to Usnarz Górny to help. Only a few times volunteers of the Ocalenie foundation succeeded to provide some alimentary and hygienic products to the group. According to Ocalenie, one member of the group, a 53-year-old women, is ill and urgently needs medical assistance. Doctors were not allowed to see the group. A couple of times, an ambulance had been called but it was stopped by the police.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ordered Poland to help the refugees and migrants gathered on their borders by providing them with “food, water, clothing, adequate medical care and, if possible, a temporary shelter”. It was not, according to ECHR, required that either country “let the applicants enter their territories”. Even though Polish soldiers are literally meters away from the group, the Polish government offered humanitarian assistance via Belarus. They sent a truck with help but it got stuck on the border. “I truly sympathize with the migrants who have been in an extremely difficult situation but it should be clearly stated that they are a political instrument”, the Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said.
The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) called on the Polish authorities to let the group cross the border as it had reportedly declared a desire to apply for asylum.
The army deployed hundreds of soldiers to reinforce border guards and started building a 2,5-metre-high fence along parts of the border.
According to the data by the Polish authorities, between August 1 and 18, some 2,100 migrants tried to enter Poland via Belarus, out of whom 1,342 were “prevented from entering”. About 700 are now in closed refugee centers. The government published an “implementing act”, which is not a proper law but an act amending the previous Covid-related law that says it can return to the border any migrant caught near the border inside Poland.
Push-backs have been reported. The police transported migrants found in the Polish border zone back to Belarus. Push-backs are contrary to refugee rights established under international law, however, the EU is not reacting, as it has been silent for last 6 years facing similar practices, e.g. in Greece.
What is more, the president introduces a state of emergency on the border with Belarus. It is the first state of emergency in Poland since the fall of communism in 1989. Under the state of emergency, the authorities are empowered to limit certain freedoms, such as the right to gather and protest. They can also restrict communications, including the press and social media. However, the Constitution requires that all actions are proportional to the degree of threat. This emergency border zone covers 115 municipalities in Podlasie and 68 in Lublin voivodships. According to the PM these new measures will “better ensure the border’s tightness and prevent provocations”. It will last 30 days but can be prolonged for another 60 days (with the Sejm’s consent).
The atmosphere of fear has been created by the government. On September 1st, speaking at the WW2 memorial, the President Andrzej Duda said that Poland could not be invaded again, as it was on 1 September 1939 by Nazi Germany. He pointed out at Belarus and the “hybrid war” for that it uses Afghan people. A majority of Poles say they oppose admitting migrants and refugees, and almost half support plans to build a barrier on the border.
The Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki asked the President Andrzej Duda to dismiss his Deputy and Minister of Economic Development, Labour and Technology Jarosław Gowin (Agreement party). The government’s spokesman stated that the reason for this decision was that Gowin was working at an insufficient pace on the projects included in the “Polish Deal” and was taking “unreliable action” regarding the tax reform planned by the government. This meant the end of the ruling coalition in Poland. The Agreement party left the United Right. After months of public quarrels between Gowin and PiS the anti-TVN law was the decisive argument.
Agreement’s MPs left the PiS’s parliamentary club and created their own group. At least some of them. Others were convinced by the PiS Chairman Jarosław Kaczyński to stay. They were offered lucrative positions in public administration. "We stay faithful to the values shared by the United Right, we feel we stay honest towards our voters, to those who trusted us, bearing in mind that there have been situations since the start of this term in which PiS tried to push solutions detrimental to Poland and Poles", Gowin said. "As of today, Agreement goes its own way. There's fewer of us, but we know what unites us and it makes us stronger. We want a proud Poland, a wealthy Poland, Poland respecting internal pluralism of our society, Poland reckoned-with and respected around the world", he added.
PiS will now have a few scenarios on the table. First, it will try to buy some independent MPs and those from small right-wing splinter-off groups. A more formalized cooperation with far-right Confederation is not excluded but it will give a bad signal to the PiS’s electorate about a very visible turn of PiS to far right, which may result in losing of some of the more moderate electorate. Finally, PiS MPs are also talking about minority government and early elections. Important votes in the Sejm in September will be a first indicator of the direction the not-so-United Right will take.
And Gowin? Some commentators stress that the most natural option for him will be to start cooperation with Polish People´s Party (PSL) and join a broader Christian-democratic block that PSL leader Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz has been building for months.
TVN from the Netherlands
The Discovery-owned Polish national commercial broadcaster TVN has obtained a Dutch license for its news channel TVN24, independent and the most popular station of that kind in Poland. Discovery will be required to pay a registration fee of PLN 113 (ca. EUR 25) for its inclusion in their line-up.
Poland’s national broadcasting supervision body (KRRiT) refused to give TVN24 a license in Poland as the Sejm gave its initial approval to a bill which would force Discovery to sell its controlling share in its Polish network (read more in the previous issue of the Newsletter). The bill was criticized by the European institutions and many street and online protests were organized to support the freedom of media, and TVN24 itself.
Andrzej Duda announced that he would defend freedom of speech and the principles of property rights, comments that were widely interpreted as him suggesting he plans to veto the legislation. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “We welcome President Duda’s statement this weekend in support of freedom of expression, the sanctity of contracts, and the shared values that underpin our relationship. We strongly encourage him to act on these values in regard to pending legislation that, if passed in the current form, could severely affect media freedom and the foreign investment climate”.
The Future of Poland Campus in Olsztyn was organized between August 27th and September 2nd by the Wspólna Polska Movement founded by Mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski. It was attended by over one thousand people up to 35 years of age and over 200 panelists. It was a space of dialogue and encounter for active young people who want to help shape the future of their local communities, Poland and Europe. Workshops varied from safe, mainstream topics like foreign policy to transhumanism and menstruation poverty.
Among the speakers there were Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, Mayor of Vilnius, Remigijus Šimašius, Mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony, EU Commissioner, Frans Timmermans, former Commissioner, Cecilia Malstrom, author Anne Appelbaum, former Ombudsman, Adam Bodnar, Warsaw Uprising survivors, top members of Polish academia and journalists.
The event was opened with a debate between Rafał Trzaskowski and Donald Tusk. Many young people gathered in the Campus Arena and asked questions about marriage equality, situation of people with disabilities as well as situation of refugees or the status of regional languages. “Most of these questions absolutely surprised us”, commented Trzaskowski after the debate. “Many topics, many important and often very difficult questions. Thanks for each one. I also thank Donald Tusk for answering them together for over two hours. It was a full-blooded, honest debate about the future. And that’s just the beginning”, Trzaskowski wrote on Twitter.
The idea of organizing the Campus was announced some months ago as a new initiative of Trzaskowski and one of the pillars of his new movement. But Trzaskowski’s position in the opposition was questioned last month when Donald Tusk came back to Polish politics and became acting president of the Civic Platform. After this change, many commentators believed that the Campus would be a meaningless youth camp as the Warsaw mayor lost his interest in the project, or alternatively, it would become a PO youth meeting under new patronage of Tusk. But the Campus became a huge success. The level of energy and engagement of participants has exceeded even the most optimistic of expectations. It was also a personal success of Trzaskowski, who was an active host and unquestionable star in the eyes of the participants.
The event could be a starting point of a youth organization that will become a reservoir of new leaders for democratic parties. On the other side, the Campus bonded progressive politicians from different parties allied in the Civic Coalition that can result in closer cooperation between them in the near future and more common projects focused on younger liberal voters.
The Statistic Poland (GUS) reported that in August 2021, the annual inflation rate in Poland hit 5,4% in August. The increase in prices of goods and services has accelerated to a level that has not been seen in Poland for over twenty years.
Poland does not currently meet the Maastricht criteria to join the Eurozone.
Poland's benchmark interest rate has been at a record low of 0,1% since May 2020 and it does not look like they will change anytime soon. “High inflation in Poland is caused by factors that are unrelated to monetary policy and it is not the time to raise rates”, central banker Grażyna Ancyparowicz said
Marek Belka MEP, the former governor of the National Bank said: “Wages growing faster than prices herald even faster inflation in the near future. The government appears to be pleased with the launch of a wage-price spiral. This leads to a catastrophe”.
Poland has become the second-largest producer of beer – after Germany - in the EU after production rose to 3,9 billion liters in 2020; it is 12% of the EU’s beer production. Poland overtook Spain with its 3,8 billion liters. The value of Polish beer exports topped 204 million euros, with The Netherlands as the biggest export destination. There are 310 breweries in Poland and the industry supports almost ten thousand jobs.
Following market trends, many companies expand their non- or low-alcoholic brands which now includes several flavored alternatives to traditional tastes.
Bartłomiej Morzycki, Director of the Union of Brewing Industry Employers Browary Polskie, said that taking the leading position was a long process. “Poland has gone through a beer revolution, transforming from a vodka country to a beer country”, he commented in an interview for Emerging Europe.
Poles are not only one of the biggest European beer producers but also beer consumers. In 2019, Poles drank almost 38 million hectoliters of beer.
Banks in Poland granted almost EUR 1,8 billion of mortgages in July. This is the highest monthly figure ever, as interest rates hover at all-time lows and inflation continues to accelerate. In 2021 as a whole, mortgage sales are supposed to increase by 30% year-on-year to a record EUR 18 billion.
According to economists, the growing demand for mortgages is a result of a very liberal bank credit policy, all-time-low borrowing costs and very high inflation rates.
Andrzej Duda signed a bill that would set limits on the ability to recover property seized by Nazi German occupiers and retained by post-war communist rulers.
In 2015, the Polish Constitutional Court ruled that there should be specific deadlines after which administrative decisions over property titles could no longer be challenged. The bill sets a 30-year limit for restitution claims. Duda said that he hoped the law would end an “era of legal chaos” and “reprivatization mafias.”
Poland has never created a fund to give compensation to people whose property was seized.
The new piece of legislation was madly criticized in Israel. The Prime Minister Naftali Bennett slammed the law as “shameful” and said it showed “disgraceful contempt for the Holocaust’s memory”. Foreign minister Yair Lapid slammed the decision: “Poland today approved, not for the first time, an immoral, anti-Semitic law”. “This evening I instructed the charge d’affaires at our embassy in Warsaw to return immediately to Israel for consultations, for an indefinite period of time,” he added.
The government says the law will restore legal certainty to the property market and block false claims. The decision is supported by many urban, also left-leaning activists, as it will give a chance to regulate legal situation of thousands of pre-WWII building and improve living conditions of tenants who until now have been living in extremely low quality apartments, sometimes even without toilets. The opposition abstained in the voting.
No Rule of Law No Money
The EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders has warned that the “decisive action” may be taken against Poland given the government’s failure to address the problems regarding the rule of law. “The rule-of-law situation in Poland and Hungary is not improving”, Reynders told the European Parliament’s Committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs.
The Commission remains locked in negotiations over the approval of Polish Covid-19 recovery plans over concerns regarding the rule of law. We are talking about EUR 23 billion in grants and EUR 34 billion in loans. "We know that this is about the requirements of the regulation, and about the country-specific recommendations, and also the discussion, as the Polish authorities know very well, includes also the issue of the primacy of EU law and the possible consequences of this issue on the Polish recovery and resilience plan", he commented.
Vaccines for Vietnam
Poland decided to donate 501.600 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine for Vietnam.
The vaccines for Vietnam come from a surplus of government resources and will be distributed by the Vietnamese Ministry of Health according to local needs. Vietnam has faced a dramatic shortage in vaccines, with just 1,4% of the population fully vaccinated so far. The donation will also support vaccinations of foreigners, carried out by Vietnamese medical services. Over eight tones of medical and personal protective equipment will be sent in the coming weeks.
Poles staying in Vietnam are able to register for vaccination by filling out the forms on the website of the Polish embassy in Hanoi. Polish citizens living in Vietnam have been appealing for weeks to the Polish government to send them vaccines as they were not able to get any jabs in their country of residence.
As Poland’s vaccination programme has slowed down significantly in recent weeks, the government has sought to sell its excess supplies abroad, so far sending non-profit shipments to Australia, Spain, Portugal, Norway and Ukraine.
Vietnamese migrants and their descendants constitute Poland’s largest non-European ethnic group, as well as one of largest Vietnamese diasporas in Europe.
Jewish groups have issued an open letter voicing criticism of an exhibition opened in Warsaw that includes works by the Swedish artist Dan Park. The exhibition “Political Art” at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art is described by organizers as a celebration of free speech and a platform for artists who fall victim to "cancel culture". "Artists who contradict these tendencies and advocate unrestrained expression and anti-mainstream ideas often pay the highest price for testing the limits of tolerance and confronting political dogmas", the museum announced.
Dan Park has supported far-right groups, expressed sympathy for Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, called the Holocaust a “Jewish lie”... In 1996 Park wore a bomber jacket featuring a swastika, bearing the words “Heil Hitler” and “SS” and the skull-and-crossbones Totenkopf symbol. In 2009 he faced trial for placing swastikas and boxes labeled “Zyklon B” outside a Jewish community centre. He has been convicted for hate speech against minorities.
Park claims that he is not racist, and that his work is intended as a protest against political correctness and other limitations on free speech.
The exhibition will also consist of pieces by Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist who in 2007 with drew controversial images of the Prophet Mohammad, and Kristian von Hornsleth, who paid 340 impoverished villagers in Uganda to legally change their names to "Hornsleth".
19 Jewish organizations signed a letter against the exhibition. “Inviting people with such a worldview to the exhibition in Poland arouses our surprise and sadness”, the letter reads. “We support liberty and freedom of expression in art, but we believe that the limit is…supporting people who spread hatred, intolerance and hostility”, it concludes.
The museum's director Piotr Bernatowicz, appointed by the PiS government in 2019, insists that “we are not presenting works which promote neo-Nazi ideology…[or] hatred towards minorities”. “Such an interpretation of [the artists’] works and artistic activities may result from ideological prejudices and ignorance of the language of contemporary art”, he adds.
During the Olympics in Tokyo the Polish team won 14 medals: 4 gold, 5 silver and 5 bronze. Most were won by Poland's athletes: 4 gold, 2 silver and 3 bronze. In the Olympics medal table, Poland ended the games in 17th place.
Anita Włodarczyk became the first female athlete to win the same Olympic track and field event three times in a row. The 35-year-old Pole, who won golds at the 2012 and 2016 Games in London and Rio, dominated the field with a best throw of 78,48 metres. “I was dreaming of becoming the queen of the hammer throw”, she commented.
Polls & Trends
IBRiS for Rzeczpospolita, 28.08.2021
Civic Coalition 25,7%
Poland 2050 10,1%
United Surveys for Wprost, 27.08.2021
Would you give a shelter to a refugee in your own house?
Definitely yes 3,9%
Rather yes 23,6%
Rather not 15,2%
Definitely not 46%
Hard to say 11,2%