NEWSLETTER
From Poland With Love – March

From Poland with love

Topic of the Month

Poland, Ukraine, Russia

This is a monthly digest of the most important facts and events – from the Polish perspective – on the Russia’s invasion on Ukraine:

  • The prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Poland visited Kyiv on March 15 to show solidarity with the invaded nation. Petr Fiala, Janez Jansa and Mateusz Morawiecki, accompanied by Jarosław Kaczyński, met president Volodymyr Zelenskyy and prime minister Denis Shmyhal. Morawiecki said in a tweet ahead of the visit that "Europe must guarantee Ukraine's independence and ensure that it is ready to help in Ukraine's reconstruction". In Kyiv, Kaczyński called for an international peacekeeping mission to be sent to Ukraine and for it to be protected by NATO. The trip met mostly positive responses in Poland and in Europe. German chancellor Olaf Scholtz said that it’s "good to try and help in different ways in this situation". The main criticism came after the trip and concerned the Kaczyński’s proposal, that it was announced without consultations with partners in NATO. The Alliance itself and some of its leaders, including US president Joe Biden, have so far ruled out sending troops to Ukraine in any capacity. Volodymy Zelenskyy commented that he does not understand Kaczyński’s idea and he stopped all further discussion about the peacekeeping mission.
  • US president Joe Biden visited Poland. Biden landed in Rzeszów, south-eastern part of the country. He visited some of US troops (82nd Airborne troops) who have been sent near Poland's border to assist with the humanitarian emergency and to bolster the US military presence on the eastern flank of NATO. Together with Polish president Andrzej Duda, he also met with humanitarian experts. Duda was supposed to greet Biden at the airport but his plane was delayed by a technical problem. The official welcome took place on the second day of the official visit, in the presidential palace in Warsaw. During his speech in the Royal Castle, Biden said that Vladimir Putin "cannot remain in power". He evoked Poland's four decades behind the Iron Curtain stressing that that the world's democracies must urgently confront dictator Putin as a threat to global security. “In this battle, we need to be clear eyed”, the US president said. “This battle will not be won in days or months, either. We need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead”, he added. Biden highlighted the US commitment to Ukraine and NATO, including a pledge to defend “every inch of NATO territory with the full force of our collective power”.
  • Washington has dismissed Warsaw’s plan to hand the US its MiG-29 fighter jets to support Ukraine. Both governments were working in secret to salvage the warplane transfer, but Pentagon seemed surprised by the declaration of the Polish foreign minister Zbigniew Rau who said that Polish government was “ready to deploy – immediately and free of charge – all their MiG-29 jets to the Ramstein airbase and place them at the disposal of the government of the United States of America”. American partners responded that there was too high a risk of provoking Russia by flying jets from NATO territory for too little a reward. “We will continue to consult with Poland and our other NATO allies about this issue and the difficult logistical challenges it presents, but we do not believe Poland’s proposal is a tenable one”, the Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said. Two weeks later – according to the Ukrainian defense ministry - the Pentagon said the United States does not object to the transfer of war planes to Kyiv.
  • Ministry of Defense announced that defense spending should increase from the NATO-recommended 2% GDP to 3% in 2023. Minister Mariusz Błaszczak said this would enable Poland to increase the size of its armed forces, restore the reserve system, and modernize its equipment. The bill would raise the number of soldiers in the Polish army to 300.000 as part of a five-year plan. Poland currently has ca. 143.000 soldiers. The government has said it planned to lessen the impact on the budget by funding the expansion partly through government-secured bonds issued by state development bank BGK, in addition to treasury bonds, the state budget and profits from the National Bank of Poland.
  • Ukrainian delegation at the talks with the Russian in Istanbul said that Kyiv was proposing a new system of security guarantees for Ukraine. According to him, Kyiv sees the UN Security Council countries, as well as Turkey, Germany, Canada, Italy, Poland and Israel as guarantors of security. Jarosław Kaczyński responded that Poland is ready to become a guarantor of Ukraine’s security, if the United States is also among the guarantors.
  • Polish administration announced plans to end the import of Russian coal within two months and of Russian oil by the end of this year. The government approved legislation to introduce a ban which may contravene EU trade rules. Prime minister Morawicki said that his cabinet has been working on an agenda to “de-Russify” the country’s gas supplies. He criticized countries that are “not doing anything” to reduce their reliance on Russia. “There can be no repeat of the stupidity, the bad, criminal policy, that created dependence on Russia and gave euros and dollars for Putin and Russia to build up their military arsenal and attack their neighbors”, he said.
  • Over 2,3 million refugees from Ukraine crossed the border with Poland. Over half a million transited in Warsaw and 300.000 of them stayed in the capital. This means a 17% increase of the city’s population. In Cracow this proportion is even higher. 
  • The United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, will open an office in Kraków in response to the influx of refugees.
  • Polish parliament adopted a special law to bring assistance to Ukrainian citizens who have fled Ukraine after the Russia’s invasion. The Special Act contains provisions setting forth rights, assistance and benefits to be made available to Ukrainian citizens who have sought refuge in Poland. According to the law, Ukrainian citizens entering Poland during the war will be allowed to stay for 18 months, with an option to extend the stay for up to 3 years. They will be entitled to work legally in Poland, and those who cannot find work are eligible to apply for unemployment benefits according to the same rules which apply to Polish citizens. Those Ukrainians who have obtained a Polish social security number (PESEL) may conduct business activity in Poland on the same terms as Polish citizens and are entitled to receive the same health care services. In the area of benefits, people covered by the Act are entitled to, among other: a family allowance, single child benefits, a nursing allowance, a parental allowance, child benefits (so called ‘500+’), food aid, special aid for people with disabilities.
  • Polish government will propose constitutional changes to seize the assets Russian oligarchs have in Poland. Katarzyna Lubnauer from the liberal Nowoczesa party said that no changes in the Constitution are necessary to take action against oligarchs, and other countries have seized oligarch’s assets already.
  • Poland called the European Union to provide new forms of funding for member states to help them host refugees from Ukraine. Polish authorities estimate that support for people who fled Ukraine only in the first month cost EUR 2,2 billion. But officially PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński declares that Poland does not need any foreign aid to deal with the refugee crisis. The European Commission commented  that is can open up to EUR 17 billion for helping member states who host refugees. Municipalities are calling for European and international help as they have to finance most of activities for refugees and the government does not reimburse their extraordinary expenses. NGOs and the opposition appeal to the EU that as many funds for refugees as possible should be distributed by NGOs. 
  • Ca. 90.000 Ukrainian children have already enrolled in Polish schools. Some of them joined special preparatory classes for students who do not speak Polish, others- regular classes with Polish students. Polish Teachers’ Union (ZNP) warns that the education system is “heading for a tsunami”, as Polish schools are not ready to absorb so many new children in such short time. One problem is capacity of the buildings, but the most important one is lack of teachers. According to the ZNP even 50.000 new teachers should be hired (in the most dramatic scenario where 600.000 Ukrainian students would register in Polish schools), and they will need salary raises.
  • Poles are turning their backs on foreign retailers who have stayed in Russia since its invasion of Ukraine. Sales in stores run by such companies in Poland have dropped, according to data presented by various banks. French brands, Leroy Merlin, Decathlon and Auchan, are under the biggest criticism. Consumers organize protests in front of their shops. Polish companies cut relations with them. Polish Radio (state-owned) decided not to air Leroy Merlin’s commercials. Numerous retail chains in Poland have announced that they will no longer be stocking Russian goods. The boycott has not bypassed Polish tables. Many sellers and producers have changed the name of ‘pierogi ruskie’ – one of the most popular dishes in Poland - pierogis, or dumplings, stuffed with potatoes and cottage cheese. They were rebranded into ‘Ukrainina pierogi’, even though the word ‘ruskie’ does not mean Russian but Ruthenian…
  • 20% of small and medium-sized enterprises in Poland have already had to limit their operations as a result of the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia. 56% of them considered negative effects of the war inevitable (BIG InfoMonitor). Especially affected are companies from transportation and logistics sector, in particular from Eastern Poland.
  • Poland has expelled 45 diplomats, accused of being spies. According to Polish security services Russia violated both Polish law and the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Russia’s ambassador to Poland, Sergey Andreev, rejectedthe accusations. 
  • Polish Embassy in Moscow informed that its bank account has been blocked by Russian authorities. Shortly after the start of Russia’s invasion, employees of the Russian embassy in Warsaw tried to withdraw EUR 2 million from a bank. But the bank account had already been blocked.
  • A group of anti-war protesters, who held a banner saying "Away with fascism", splashed red paint at the gates of the Russian Embassy in Warsaw.
  • Poland started a diplomatic campaign aimed at removing Russia from G20 group. Warsaw would like to replace Moscow in the club of the world’s most developed economies. Polish GDP is significantly larger than those of South Africa and Argentina, members of G20.

Politics

Easier Access to Guns?

The Republican Party, member of the PiS-lead united Right coalition, proposed loosening gun ownership regulations and shortening the procedure for applying for a gun permit. “Polish society is ready to train and create various types of organizations, including NGOs, to defend the homeland”, announced Arkadiusz Czartoryski MP, opening the discussion about new regulations.

Poles are more and more interested in guns and self-defense since the Russian invasion in Ukraine began. Shooting ranges across the country have reported a significant increase in the number of people wanting to learn how to use a gun. Gun shops, especially in Eastern Poland, are struggling to keep up with demand from anxious locals

Also the ultra-conservative education minister Przemysław Czarnek announced that schools will provide defense training and shooting exercises for students after the summer break.

Poland is currently the least armed country in Europe and the EU, with only 2,5 firearms per 100 inhabitants. But the number of gun permits issued has been steadily increasing and reached 15.330 in 2020.

Official End of Pandemic

On March 28, Poland lifted most remaining Covid-19 restrictions.

The use of face masks in indoor places will no longer be mandatory, with the exception of healthcare facilities. People who tested positive and those with Covid-19 symptoms will not be obliged to self-isolate, but they will be only advised to do so. Free testing won’t be available any longer for the wider public, but only when prescribed by a doctor.

Poland has also lifted most of its Covid-19 travel restrictions, including the quarantine requirements for travelers arriving from non-EU/Schengen countries. What is more, proof of vaccination and negative test result is no longer required upon border crossing.

According to the National Institute of Public Health Poland’s herd immunity has now reached 90%.

Some experts are surprised that the health ministry decided to scrap all restrictions when many other European countries face the 6th wave. Also, according to the CBOS research institute, 46% of Polish people believe that the pandemic was not over yet and the country should expect to see more waves in the future.

Liberal Leader Re-elected

During the Nowoczesna Congress in Warsaw Adam Szłapka MP was re-elected president of the Polish liberal party. Szłapka received 174 votes of the delegates, his opponent Krzysztof Mieszkowski only 24.

Szłapka, born in 1984, is a second term member of parliament, member of the special services committee and the president of the parliamentary group for the future of the European Union. Before entering the Sejm, he was working at the Chancellery of the president of Poland Bronisław Komorowski, earlier he was a director of the liberal think tank Projekt: Polska.

European Affairs

Another violation of the ECHR

European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has again sided with a Polish judge who says he was unfairly dismissed in the latest ruling against Warsaw over its rule of law crisis.

The Strasbourg court ruled that Poland violated Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This time Poland failed to protect fair trial rights of former Supreme Administrative Court (NSA) judge Jan Grzęda, after removing him from the bench following 2017 changes to the judicial system. “As a result of the successive reforms, the judiciary – an autonomous branch of State power – has been exposed to interference by the executive and legislative powers and thus substantially weakened. The applicant’s case is one exemplification of this general trend”, the court stated. “The Court finds that on account of the lack of judicial review in this case the respondent State impaired the very essence of the applicant’s right of access to a court”, it continued.

The ECtHR has already ruled in five other cases involving judges impacted by the judicial reform and has sided against Poland in all of them. There are another 93 applications pending before the court.

On the other side, Poland’s fully politicized Constitutional Tribunal (TK) ruled once again that parts of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) were incompatible with the Polish Constitution. The TK, lead by Jarosław Kaczyński’s friend Julia Przyłębska, said the the ECHR did not have the competence review the constitutionality and compatibility.

The Rule of Law is Our Treasure

The European Parliament adopted a resolution proposing the swift implementation of the rule-of-law conditionality, which ties the payment of EU funding to member states applying the basic principles of the EU. Following the European Court of Justice (ECJ) verdict on the “rule of law conditionality” mechanism, that rejected actions brought against the rule of law conditionality by Warsaw and Budapest, MEPs demand that the Commission applies it and protects EU values.

“The rule of law is our treasure”, declared Clément Beaune on behalf of the French Presidency of the Council. Budget commissioner Johannes Hahn reminded that the ECJ’s ruling is being analyzed by the Commission, which will finalize its guidelines on how to apply the regulation. He stressed that the mechanism is one of the tools in the European rule of law protection toolbox and that it is essential to pick the right one to address specific problems.

The delegation of the Fidesz party called it “unacceptable” that “the leftist parties will attempt political blackmail in a war situation”. “Rather than supporting Hungary and Poland’s fight to provide for Ukrainian refugees, leftist politicians threaten them with blocking their EU funding for political reasons”, they underlined.

The resolution was adopted with 478 votes in favour, 155 against and 29 abstentions.

Economy

Polish Deal Rewritten

After weeks of critical discussions about the Polish Deal, a new socio-economic programme for 2021-30 that was supposed to pave PiS’s road to electoral victory in 2023, the government decided to introduce big changes. The introduction of a complex new tax system created widespread confusion and dissatisfaction. Many professional groups, including lower earners and public sector employees who receive upfront payments and pensioners realized that their payouts are lower than in 2021 (read more in the January issue of the Newsletter).

To stop the wave of dissatisfaction of the middle class, the government proposed to lower the personal income tax rate from 17 to 12% for non-flat rate tax payers. The tax threshold of PLN 120.000 (ca. EUR 25.300) and the tax-free allowance of PLN 30.000 (EUR 6.300) are to remain unchanged. The very confusing ‘tax relief for the middle class’, introduced in January, will be abolished and 19% flat-rate tax payers will be able to exclude healthcare premiums from their tax base.

The government expects that the proposed changes would become law in 2023; however, they are to take effect retroactively from 1 July.

“Difficult times are coming”, said prime minister Morawiecki when announcing adjustments to the Polish Deal. “That is why we are preparing new elements of the anti-Putin shield, which will protect Poles against the effects of war in Ukraine, such as high prices”, he added.

According to the Finance Ministry, ca. 13 million taxpayers will benefit from the new pack. The reform will cost PLN 15 million.

Double Digits Inflation

Inflation in Poland in March 2022 increased by 10,9% year on year, according to a flash estimate by Statistics Poland (GUS). It is the highest number since 2000. The highest increase has been observed in the prices of fuels for personal transport means, ca. 33%. Prices of electricity, gas and other fuels has gone up by almost 24%.

In such an environment further monetary tightening is expected and the main policy rate may to go up to about 6,5% this year, and the terminal rate to 7,5%. 

International Affairs

Borys Free

The leader of the Union of Poles in Belarus (ZPB), Andżelika Borys, has been released from a Belarusian prison.

Borys was arrested in Grodno, Belarus, over a years ago. The original charge of organizing an “illegal” cultural market was later changed to inciting national and religious hatred and sowing discord on the grounds of national, religious and linguistic affiliation. The prosecutor accused her of promoting nazism, a crime which carries a penalty of up to 12 years in prison.

It was commented that after releasing Borys was feeling quite well and that she is resting now at her mother’s place.

It is not known why Borys was released now, when relations between Warsaw and Minsk are very bad due to the refugee crisis on the common border and Belarusian engagement in the war in Ukraine. 

Another ZPB leader and journalist of Gazeta Wyborcza, Andrzej Poczobut, remains incarcelated. Poczobut was arrested two days after Borys, together with other activists from his ZPB branch. Polish authorities and  international community recognize the criminal case against Poczobut as “politically motivated”. Last year, the Polish parliament passed a resolution by acclamation calling for the release of unlawfully detained leaders of the ZPB.

Poland & Germany

Border Comments

Citizens of Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine participated in the rally that blocked German-Polish border on the A2 highway. It was their protest against the continued trade between European countries with Russia and Belarus

Before they warned the German Chancellor in a letter: “More than 100,000 Russian soldiers kill Ukrainians every day, most Russians support the crime, but Germany continues to trade with Russia, which supports the Russian economy and sponsors the war. For the German money, Russia buys and produces bombs, rockets, and weapons, used to kill peaceful Ukrainian people and children. Stop financially supporting the aggressor!”.

Prime minister Morawiecki said that “Germany is the main roadblock on sanctions”. “Germany, like France, has a strong bias in Moscow’s favour”, added Jarosław Kaczyński. Kaczyński condemned Berlin especially for failing to deliver enough weapons to Ukraine and refusing an embargo at least on the import of fuels from Russia.

On 12 March 2022, activists started a blockade of the Belarusian-Polish border, demanding to stop trade with the aggressor.

Culture

Funeral after Two Years

The ashes of Polish composer and conductor Krzysztof Penderecki were laid to rest during a state funeral after a two-year delay brought on by the pandemic. An urn was placed among some of Poland’s greatest artists and scientists at the National Pantheon at Krakow’s St. Peter and Paul church.

German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier cancelled his attendance at the ceremony after testing positive for Covid-19. But his letter was read out by Germany’s ambassador. Steinmeier wrote that the loss of Penderecki was also painful for Germans, who appreciated his music and his contribution in educating German musicians. “As a person who was free and exceptionally creative... he became an important link between the Polish and the German nation”.

Penderecki, born in 1933, was the avant-garde composer who is most known for his work featured in the Hollywood films “The Exorcist" and "The Shining." Various film directors used Penderecki´s music to capture their mood. His music was used in Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island”,  Peter Weir’s “Fearless”, David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” and “Inland Empire”. One of his most famous pieces is the composition “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” composed in 1960, a wailing, discordant lamentation dedicated to the victims of the World War II's atomic bombing. Another one was his “St. Luke Passion” from the mid-1960s (read more in the March 2020 edition of the Newsletter).

Party support

IBRiS for Rzeczpospolita, 1-2 April 2022

PiS                                        32,9%

Civic Coalition                   25,1%

Poland 2050                      9%

Left                                      7,1%

Confederation                   6,3%

PSL                                       5%

Poles on War in Ukraine

IPSOS for OKO.press, 8-10 March 2022

Are you afraid more than ever about your future and future of your closest ones?

Definitely yes                    36%

Rather yes                          36%

Rather not                         20%

Definitely not                    6%

Hard to say                        1%

Can Russia militarily attack Poland in the near future?

Definitely yes                    18%

Rather yes                          38%

Rather not                         32%

Definitely not                    10%

Hard to say                        5%