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From Poland With Love - April

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Topic of the Month

Ombudsman Removed by a Communist Prosecutor

Poland’s Constitutional Court, packed by PiS, has ruled a specific article of the Act on the Ombudsman to be unconstitutional. In effect, Adam Bodnar, will be removed from office in three months.

PiS MPs have requested that the Constitutional Tribunal led by Julia Przyłębska declares provisions allowing the Ombudsman to perform his duties after his term is officially over until the new one is appointed unconstitutional. And exactly such verdict was issued by a five-member panel composed exclusively of judges elected by PiS.

The draft ruling was prepared by Stanisław Piotrowicz, a former communist prosecutor and former PiS MP (lost reelection in 2019) and one of the judges in the panel was Justyn Piskorski, who was illegally installed by the government for an already occupied seat in 2017 (President Duda refused to take oaths from judges legally elected by the previous parliament and instead helped PiS to install their nominees). Piotrowicz wrote: “The Act on the Ombudsman is inconsistent with the Constitution, which defines the Ombudsman’s term of office as five years. A term of office is a strictly defined period of time that cannot be exceeded. The Ombudsman’s term of office cannot be longer”. The challenged article guarantees the continuity of the office and similar provisions exist in other top institutions.

Bodnar’s term ended seven months ago but the parliament did not manage to elect his successor. First, Sejm, the lower chamber, rejected Zuzanna Rudzińska-Bluszcz who had the support of the democratic opposition and hundreds of NGOs. Later the lower chamber elected deputy minister of foreign affairs and PiS MP Piotr Warzyk but he was rejected in the Senat dominated by the opposition. As a consequence, Sejm elected another PiS MP Bartłomiej Wróblewski, who was behind the motion to the Constitutional Court to further restrict the Polish abortion law. This time it is less sure that the Senate will reject this PiS nominee as at least one opposition senator, conservative Jan Filip Libicki from PSL, is considering his support for Wróblewski.

But Jarosław Kaczyński is preparing a plan B. The Constitutional Court has just given PiS a green light to amend the Act on the Ombudsman. Lawyers speculate that the government might now appoint its own “acting Ombudsman”. The law can be amended to allow such temporary Ombudsman to be chosen without the consent of the Senate, e.g. appointed by the president. And once it happens it will be petrified, and there will be no need to return to the normal way and find a compromise with the opposition.

The ruling against Bodnar came on the same day that an advocate general of the European Court of the Justice issued an opinion finding that the new chamber, Disciplinary Chamber, of Poland’s Supreme Court may violate EU law. Advocate general Evgeni Tanchev wrote that “a court chamber does not constitute an independent and impartial tribunal, within the meaning of EU law” if the way it was created and how its members were chosen gives “rise to legitimate doubts”.

Politics

Chilling Effect and New Euro-Skepticism

The Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Chamber rejected a prosecutor’s request to arrest judge Igor Tuleya. The Disciplinary Chamber is a politicized judicial body not considered a court by the European Court of Justice and Tuleya is one of the best-known Polish judges, a symbol of the fight for the independence of the judiciary.

Tuleya was stripped of his immunity by the Disciplinary Chamber last year and faces criminal charges brought by prosecutors fully controlled by Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro. Tuleya has been charged with a criminal breach of secrecy for allowing journalists into his courtroom during a hearing on whether the PiS government had violated rules during the 2016 parliamentary vote. The charges carry a maximum sentence of three years. They are told by many legal experts and representatives of the democratic opposition to be purely political and are supposed to create a chilling effect on other independent judges. Michał Wawrynkiewicz, attorney at law from the Free Courts Initiative, commented: “The situation is terrifying. That is why you can see so many lawyers in front of the court. We are all threatened”.

Surprisingly for many, including for Tuleya and his defenders, the Disciplinary Chamber rejected a request to bring him before prosecutors to face charges because of "matters related to human freedom". Some commentators believe the Chamber did so to legitimize itself and be treated in the future as a regular and legitimate part of the judicial system in Poland. Tuleya himself did not hear the verdict as he refused to appear in front of the illegal body whose judges – according to the EUCJ ruling - should be suspended.

Poland’s Ombudsman Adam Bodnar who joined Tuleya in waiting for the verdict outside the Supreme Court House bitterly said: “I ask, where are European institutions?”. Igor Tuleya in a very similar tone told broadcaster TVN that “EU institutions have abdicated in Polish matters” and “would have the blood of Polish judges on their hands”. These words may become symbols of new Polish Euro-skepticism, a big wave of disappointment with ineffectiveness of the EU institutions vis-à-vis autocratic governments within the block.

 

Resignations in the Auschwitz Museum Council

In April, Culture Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Gliński appointed former PM and current MEP Beata Szydło to a four-year term on the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Council. The Council is a nine-member body made up of Poles who meet once a year to advise the museum’s director.

Three members of the council have resigned after this decision was announced.  The first one to resign was philosopher Stanislaw Krajewski,  a co-creator of a post-World War II history section at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw and a co-founder of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews. He said he took the step to protest what he called the politicization of a group so far made up of experts. “It’s hard to say what would happen, but it would change the nature of the body very considerably”, Krajewski said. “I don’t want to be on the same council with a major politician of the ruling party today”. He was followed by historians Marek Lasota, surprisingly also a PiS member, and Krystyna Oleksy, a former deputy director of the Auschwitz Museum.

Also, some relatives of former Auschwitz prisoners from Poland are protesting the appointment. They argue that the Szydło has tolerated “openly fascist” groups and supported attempts to stifle research into the Holocaust. A letter signed by children and grandchildren of former Polish prisoners, as well as one Auschwitz survivor, was addressed to PM Mateusz Morawiecki. It reads: “We remember statements that excluded refugees, the undermining of achievements of Holocaust researchers, the toleration of openly fascist organizations, and finally denying European Union alliances. […] We do not agree to this.”

Minister Gliński reacted after the first three resignations by denouncing them. He added it was an honor for the museum to have Szydło on the council (sic!) and said the resignations threatened to “politicize the discussion around the most important museum of martyrdom in Poland, a place of world heritage”.

It is worth stressing that the State Museum Council is separate from the International Auschwitz Council, which includes Holocaust survivors and international experts. The latter one was established in 1990 under a ruling by the minister of culture and art. The minister nominated world-renowned authorities on the concentration camps and the Holocaust as members of the Council. The chairman was Professor Władysław Bartoszewski, former Auschwitz prisoner, co-founder of the clandestine Żegota organization set up to aid the Jews in Poland during the Second World War, historian, writer, and, at the time, Polish ambassador in Vienna.

In January 2000, the then Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek announced the establishment of a new Auschwitz Council, which assumed the responsibilities of the existing body. Under the new arrangement, the Council advises the President of the Council of Ministers with regard to the preservation and functioning not only of the Auschwitz site, but of other Holocaust Memorials as well. It consists of 25 members, former prisoners of the camp, Holocaust experts, as well as clergy members. They are appointed for a six-year term. The last one ended in 2018 and new ones have not been appointed by the PM Morawiecki.

In April, the Director of the Auschwitz Museum Piotr Cywiński called upon Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to appoint new members of the International Auschwitz Council. He also cautioned that if the PM doesn't appoint the International Auschwitz Council panel, the biggest international Holocaust remembrance organizations could appoint a similar council on their own.

 

How Many Are We?

On 1st April, the National Population and Housing Census 2021 started. Taking part in the census is mandatory, but it's easy and does not require leaving home. The online forms are available in four languages: Polish, English, Russian and Ukrainian.

People unable to do it online due to age or health condition can schedule a phone call from a census taker. The Statistical Office Chairman Dominik Rozkrut said that due to the pandemic, census takers would not attempt to contact anyone directly. Phone calls are expected to be launched in May, but any person willing to take part earlier can do it online.

The 2021 census is being performed not without controversies. Some of them concern ethnic minorities. For instance, representatives of the Kashubian minority reported that they could have not used diacritic signs typical for their language (officially recognized as regional language in Poland) to spell their names correctly. The issue has been solved. What has not been solved is the fact that it is not possible to declare directly Silesian nationality (10 years ago declared by 847.000 people). The only way to do so is to choose “other nationality” and to type “Silesian”, which will prevent many people from declaring it. To many observers, this only confirms PiS’s reluctance towards Silesians, described some time ago by Jarosław Kaczyński as ”disguised option for Germany”.

Poland’s Ombudsman Adam Bodnar also pointed to problems for transgender and non-binary people who have not yet finalized the process of legally changing their officially recognized gender. When filling in the form, users must enter their PESEL (ID number), which includes their officially recognized gender. However, if the user then tries to enter a different gender identity in the relevant section of the census, the system informs them of an error until they choose the one matching their official identity. “This state of affairs not only violates the dignity of transgender people, but also results in false data being provided”, Bodnar believes. “Gender identity is an integral part of the dignity and humanity of every human being and cannot be grounds for discrimination”, he concludes.

What is more, people in same-sex relationships who have married abroad could have difficulty in knowing how to accurately answer questions about their marital status. “There is a risk of criminal liability for providing false data”, the Ombudsman argued. “In the case of people who are transgender, nonbinary or have had a same-sex marriage abroad, serious doubts arise as to whether they have the capacity to fulfill this obligation”.

Some activists and politicians use the census to run social campaigns and promote their views. The most visible one concerns religion. In the previous census, completed a decade ago, 96% of respondents claimed they were Roman Catholic, which has been used for many occasions by PiS to justify their ultra-conservative policies. Activists are convinced that the census was wrong and claim that people ticked the box automatically or because many young Poles have their census filled in by their parents. Now they appeal to pick the answer carefully. “I Want to Count” is an online campaign that seeks to encourage people to choose alternative answers such as “Christian” or “atheist”. It has been endorsed, i.a., by the National Women’s Strike and many other left wing and progressive NGOs.

Another significant group advocates to promote “European nationality”. Just like with the Silesian one it is possible to type it in after choosing the option “other”. Campaigners stress that it is possible to pick two nationalities and in Poland, one of the most Euro-enthusiastic countries there is, many people feel both Polish and European. Among other organizations, liberal party Nowoczesna encourages its followers on social media to show in the census that they are truly European.

Covid-19

Church against Vaccines

Poland's Catholic church voiced “strong moral objection” to the AstraZeneca and Johnson&Johnson vaccines. It said that it was because their technology is linked to lines of cells derived from aborted fetuses. “Catholics should refuse vaccination with these substances because foetal cells are used in their production”, said Józef Wróbel, the Chairman of the bioethics team of experts at the Polish Bishops' Conference. The team said it approved using of vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna that use mRNA. The statement came months after the Vatican declared as “morally acceptable” the use of vaccines based on research that used cells derived from aborted fetuses.

This opinion came as a shock for many Poles as Poland was on the pick of the third wave of the pandemic, the deadliest one, and still too many Poles do not want to vaccinate to prevent further waves. Even Michal Dworczyk, the government official in charge of the national inoculation program, stressed that, despite their reservations, the bishops approved the use of AstraZeneca and Johnson&Johnson products where there is no other option. He rejected the suggestion that the bishops’ move was a disappointment.

The opposition says that telling people that vaccines are made of foetuses is absurd and that it expects the church to stand on the side of life and to tell people to get vaccinated.

For progressive weekly Polityka the only one acting immorally in this situation is the bishop himself: “Vaccines that have been produced or tested using cell lines in no way promote abortion. Cell lines are distant descendants of cells originally taken from abortion material. End of story. What is certain is that their use is saving lives today. It is immoral to point out which vaccines are better and which are worse. We should leave that to the European Medicines Agency. By being vaccinated with one of the approved Covid vaccines, we express our concern for others. And it is also an expression of concern for unborn children, as Covid can also be dangerous for pregnant women”.

 

Deadly Record

Poland recorded the highest number of Covid-related deaths in Europe last week, according to WHO data. Poland’s surplus death rate during the Covid-19 pandemic in relation to the 2016-2019 period was the highest in the EU as it amounted to 23,5%, according to Eurostat figures.

According to Deputy Health Minister Waldemar Kraska, the main factors in the high mortality rate were patients seeking help too late and the prevalence of the British mutation in the country. “Nearly all doctors working with Covid-19 patients point out people report their condition far too late”, he argued. On the other side, epidemiologists have pointed to a major medical personnel shortage as one of the culprits. Across Poland, doctors have complained about long lines of ambulances at hospitals or rescheduled non-Covid-related surgeries for life-threatening illnesses. According to Eurostat, Poland had only 2,4 doctors and 5,1 nurses per 1.000 citizens in 2017, among the lowest in the EU, even before the pandemic.

Poland recorded 68.133 Covid-19 deaths since the epidemic began, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In April, Poland reported record daily coronavirus deaths, 954 cases, and in one week it recorded the highest number of COVID-related deaths in Europe.

Europe

ECtHR Not for PiS Allies

The Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has recommended the rejection of all Polish candidates for judges at the European Court of Human Rights. According to the Committee the procedure for selecting candidates in Poland does not meet the standards required by the Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. The Committee also recommended restarting the entire election procedure.

The list of Polish candidates included Aleksander Stępkowski, Supreme Court spokesman and founder of the ultraconservative organisation Ordo Iuris, Elżbieta Karska, a professor at catholic Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw and the wife of PiS MEP Karol Karski, and Agnieszka Szklanna, Council of Europe expert.

Aleksander Stępkowski claimed the list has been "rejected due to alleged procedural flaws which were committed during its preparation." He added that none of the candidates took part in a hearing "so it cannot be said that they were assessed".              

Environment

Unprecedented Lawsuit against Open-Pit Mine

The Polish government has extended the life of a controversial open-pit coal mine Turów until 2044, despite it already being in breach of at least two EU laws. The European Court of Justice is set to rule, early in May, on whether to halt the lignite mine as an interim measure, following an unprecedented lawsuit filed by the Czech Republic in February.

The power station is located at the border between Poland, Czech Republic and Germany, and provides around 5% of Poland's power. PGE, the company that runs the mine, claims that the closure of the Turów mine could lead to "a sharp economic collapse" of the region and also shake "the stability of Poland's power system". PGE, which plans a new 496 MW unit at the Turów power station, said it has begun work to reduce dust and noise.

Czech government is demanding an immediate closure of Turów. It accuses Poland of violating EU law with an earlier extension of mining until 2026, granted without an environmental impact assessment nor public consultation. What is more, both Czech and German municipalities, including Zittau, have filed official complaints against the mine to the European Commission, accusing it of damaging water supplies for local communities. Some MEPs are demanding an infringement procedure against Poland. The German Green MEP Anna Cavazzini has called on the government in Berlin to support the Czech lawsuit on the basis that the impact on the lives of communities in Saxony is “catastrophic”. A study commissioned by the German branch of Greenpeace said continued operation of the mine could lead to groundwater depletion, air and water pollution and subsidence.

Economy

Record Low Unemployment and High Inflation

The Polish voivodhsip (region) of Wielkopolska (Greater Poland) recorded the lowest unemployment rate in the EU in 2020, as well as one of the lowest among the world’s rich economies.

The latest data from Eurostat show that in Wielkopolska the unemployment rate among those aged 15-74 last year was just 1,8%. By contrast, the highest rate, of 24,5%, was found in Spain’s Cueta.

At the start of April, Eurostat also reported that Poland as a whole had the lowest unemployment figure among EU member states. However, experts believe the optimistic national figures may be concealing growing “hidden unemployment”.

Poland has the highest inflation rate in the European Union: 3,4%.  The biggest increases were related to garbage disposal, bank and postage fees.

Elevated inflation has persisted in Poland since mid-2019. Poland entered the Covid-19 recession with inflation at 4.7% in February last year. More structurally, high inflation is also a consequence of consumer-driven growth, with a steadily declining share of private investment in GDP.

Experts at the National Bank of Poland (NBP) have argued the flare-up is driven by factors outside their control and that monetary-policy tightening could derail the post-pandemic recovery. The governor of the NBP Adam Glapiński has repeatedly said inflation will gradually slow toward the 2,5% mid-point of the tolerance range, allowing benchmark borrowing costs to stay at 0,1% until early 2022.

 

Huge Fine for Mislabeling

Jeronimo Martins Poland, the Portuguese owner of Biedronka, the most popular discount chain in Poland, have been fined with PLN 60 million (ca. EUR 13 million) by the Office of Competition and Consumer Protection (UOKiK) for mislabeling in-store fruit and vegetable products.

According to President of UOKiK, Tomasz Chróstny, proceedings against Jeronimo Martins started in May 2020. Labeling irregularities occurred in almost 28% of Biedronka super markets inspected by the Trade Inspectorate. Among the items wrongly identified as Polish were garlic from Spain, or onions and cabbage from France. “Consumers who wanted to buy Polish potatoes, tomatoes or apples were often misled”, Chróstny commented. “These violations were systemic and long-lasting”, he concluded.

IPSOS survey from 2016 found that 73% of Poles try to support the Polish economy with their consumer choices and that country of origin is the most important factor when choosing food.

Society

One Less

Kraśnik is a town in Eastern Poland that became famous two years ago after the ridiculous debate on LGBT+ rights. Some of the city councilors showed not only their homophobic faces but also presented themselves as followers of conspiracy theories, enemies of 5G and WiFi… As a consequence of that debate, Kraśnik decided to become one of the “LGBT-free zones” (read more in the February issue) and a symbol of Dark Ages in the Polish internet, inspiring thousands of viral memes.

When it looked like Kraśnik’s terrible image will stick to the town forever, its councilors surprised Poland once again. This time more positively. Recently they have voted to withdraw the resolution declaring opposition to “LGBT ideology”.

Mayor Wojciech Wilk, affiliated with the opposition Civic Platform, had warned the council that not withdrawing from the controversial declaration would put the town at risk of losing millions of Euros in grants from Norway. “If we repeal this resolution, we have a better chance of obtaining external funds in the future”, admitted the mayor, adding that almost EUR 8 million is at stake.

This time 19 council members were against the declaration, 6 in favor and 4 abstained. One of those from PiS who didn’t change her mind commented: “Will Christ still find faith on Earth when he returns? It might well turn out that we are fighting against the Lord himself”.

"The rights of minorities are guaranteed by the Polish Constitution and there should be no doubt that the Kraśnik local government respects the law in Poland", the mayor said with satisfaction after the vote. "I am glad that the councilors have decided to repeal the resolution", he added, "it was a difficult time for our local government and our city".

 

Lagun

A strange creature in a tree terrified a number of people in Kraków. Animal Welfare Society had received a phone call from one of the neighbor explaining how a weird animal had taken up residence in a lilac tree. The women explained that it looked like a "lagun" (a word that does not exist in Polish but it’s close to “laguna”, Polish for lagoon). What she had in mind was “legwan”, Polish for iguana. "People aren't opening their windows because they're afraid it will go into their house", the woman reportedly said.

Animal Welfare Society came and found out it was not an animal but… a croissant, probably thrown out of a window to feed birds.

“Lagun” became viral. Media all over the world reported the story. American horror writer Stephen King picked it up and tweeted about the croissant that “came to our planet with a lust for Earth women”. And local businesses started using “lagun” to promote both Kraków and croissants.

Culture

One Billion Tacos

Rapper Taco Hemingway, or Filip Szczęśniak, has become the first Polish artist to reach a billion streams on Spotify.

Two of his tracks have been already played over 30 million times each. Taco's most popular song with 33.437.040 streams is "Tamagotchi" recorded in collaboration with rapper Quebonafide. 1.173.275 people listened to Taco Hemingway's songs within the last month.

Taco is 30. In 2015 he started gaining recognition in Poland after the release of an album in Polish called “Warsaw Triangle”. Last year - worsening political and social situation - he recorded a politically engaged double album. “Polish Tango”, first song released from the album only two days before the presidential elections has very clear references to PiS in the video clip, including the eight starts symbol (meaning “f*ck PiS”). It got over five million views on YouTube in its first weekend.

Drake is the worldwide leader of the most listened to artists on Spotify with over 37 billion streams.

Watch “Polskie Tango”

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Sports

UEFA VP Boniek

Zbigniew Boniek was named the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) vice president. Boniek, the current president of the Polish Football Association (PZPN), has been a member of the governing body of the European federation since 2017.

Zbigniew Boniek started his career at Zawisza Bydgoszcz before winning two Polish titles at Widzew Łódź, scoring 50 league goals in 172 games. The forward joined Juventus ahead of the 1982 FIFA World Cup, and won a league title, the 1983/84 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup and the 1984/85 European Champion Clubs' Cup with the Turin side before ending his playing career at AS Roma in 1988. He made his national team debut in the 1978, 1982 and 1986 World Cup finals. He scored 24 goals in 80 games for his country.

Zbigniew Boniek is the second Pole in the history of the Executive Committee, after Leszek Rylski (1956-64 and 1966-68).

Party Support

IBRiS for Onet, 24-25.04.2021

 

PiS                               33,1%

Poland 2050                17,1%

Civic Coalition              16,1%

Left                               10%

Confederation                7,7%

PSL                                4,4%

 

Choose Your Vaccine

SW Research for Rp.pl, 12.04.2021

Which vaccine would you choose if you had a choice?

 

Pfizer                            34,5%

Johnson&Johnson       15%

Moderna                        8,2%

AstraZeneca                  4,9%

None                            19,8%

I don’t know                  17,6%