Newsletter
From Poland With Love - October

Topic of the Month

Frozen to death

Crisis on the Polish border with Belarus has escalated. The Border Group NGO estimates there are hundreds of migrants on the Polish side and thousands on the Belarus one. Many of them have reached Belarus by tours announced from travel agencies in Minsk, and the Lukashenko’s regime profits from it. “We’re seeing people who have almost frozen to death, as well as people going without water or food for days – even pregnant women”, one of the volunteers reported. People suffer inside the forest without any water, food and shelter, they are hiding from border patrol agents on both sides. Belarusian police and services are brutal in pushing people on the other side of the border and KGB officers are helping to destroy the fence built on the Polish side.

Two Polish soldiers have suffered injuries when about 60 people tried to push their way across the border. They were trying to break a razor wire fence with branches. After the incident, Polish government summoned Belarus' charge d'affaires after he accused the border force in Belarus of firing towards Polish soldiers. Minsk rejected the claims.

President Alexander Lukashenko has also warned that there would be a “brutal reaction” from Belarus to the deployment of Polish tanks near the two countries’ border. Polish ministry of defense announced that 10th Armored Cavalry Brigade was being moved from western Poland to the region of Biała Podlaska near the border with Belarus for a training exercise, and that a further 2.500 troops would be stationed there, bringing the total to 10,000. “This is just another excuse to bring troops closer to the Belarusian borders”, said Lukashenko. “We will react brutally, regardless of any criticism from them.”

NATO secretary general was in close contact with the governments of its member states and offered to help in maintaining security in the Eastern Flank. He also called on Belarus to observe international law.

Additionally, the Sejm has voted to build a controversial wall. The 5,5m construction, equipped with motion sensors and a monitoring system, will cover about half the length of 400km border with Belarus and will cost EUR 353 million. Polish parliament has also passed a law legalizing pushbacks of migrants, a tactic illegal under international law. It has been condemned, among others, by Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.

At least eight migrants have died along the border, according to the United Nations. 32 have been left in limbo there since mid-August in dire conditions and are unable to access asylum and any form of assistance on either side.

Many doctors, lawyers, and volunteers have been working together to help migrants. They not only give them food and offer medical help but also help them fill out forms and teach these words: "I want asylum in Poland”. A large group of Polish mothers, including two former first ladies, Jolanta Kwaśniewska and Anna Komorowska,  protested near the border against keeping the families with small children in the forest. They called for intervention of the Children Ombudsman.

Warsaw and Brussels are in talks over the possibility of allowing European Commission officials access to border areas, now off limits due to a state of emergency. Home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said that European presence in the closed-off area was necessary owing to the border also being the outer frontier of the EU, adding that this would ensure "transparency and cooperation."

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is appealing for urgent action to save lives and prevent further suffering at the border areas between Belarus and the European Union (Latvia, Lithuania, Poland) after the latest tragic death of an asylum-seeker. “When fundamental human rights are not protected, lives are at stake. It is unacceptable that people have died and the lives of others are precariously hanging in the balance. They are held hostage by a political stalemate which needs to be solved now”, said Pascale Moreau, UNHCR’s Regional Director for Europe. “We urge Belarus and Poland, as signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, to abide by their international legal obligations and provide access to asylum for those seeking it at their borders. Pushbacks, that deny access to territory and asylum, violate human rights in breach of international law”, added Moreau.

Society

One year with the abortion ban

It has been a year since the abortion ban decision by the Poland’s Constitutional Court (read more in the November 2021 issue of the Newsletter). On October 22, 2020, the politicized court led by Jarosław Kaczyński’s friend Julia Przyłębska ruled that abortion on grounds of “severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the fetus’ life” was unconstitutional.

The ruling came as Covid-19 pandemic restrictions made travel for health care prohibitively difficult and costly. The number of legally conducted terminations has fallen by an estimated 65% (according to the data of the National Health Fund).

Abortion Without Borders (AWB) reported that 17.000 women in Poland contacted it in the six months after the ruling for help accessing abortion, and that it continues to receive about 800 calls a month. Over 1.000 of those have received second-trimester abortions in foreign clinics. Recently, government of Belgium has donated an initial EUR 10.000 to AWB for the purpose of helping women in Poland. Federa, a Polish reproductive health and rights organization, reported conducting ca. 8.100 consultations in the 11 months after the ruling, 3 times as many as during the same period in previous years.

In July, the European Court of Human Rights announced that it would address complaints from Polish women who may be victims of violations of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms due to the Constitutional Tribunal’s abortion ruling.

“The dignity, freedom and health of pregnant people are compromised because their own government is denying them access to essential reproductive health care”, a statement of 14 human rights NGOs said before the shameful anniversary.

Female bishops

The Evangelical-Augsburg Church, the first and currently largest protestant church in Poland, made a decision during its Synod to allow women to be ordained as priests and bishops. There were 45 votes in favor of the Synodal Women's Commission proposal, 13 against and 1 abstention.

In 1999, women were allowed to be ordained as deacons, meaning they could conduct baptisms, marriages and funerals. However, they were still unable to lead congregations as pastors. A prerequisite for being ordained is to have a master's degree in evangelical theology from the Christian Academy of Theology in Warsaw, the only university in Poland offering the course. At present, five women are enrolled and several dozen have already graduated.

Politics

Pride parades ban

The Life and Family Foundation, which lobbied successfully for a recent restriction on abortion rights, gathered 140.000 signatures for its new, homophobic bill. And in October an emotional debate was held in the Sejm on proposed legislation called “Stop LGBT,” which would ban Pride parades (known in Poland as “Equality marches”) and other public gatherings deemed to “promote” same-sex relationships.

Krzysztof Kasprzak, spokesperson of the homophobic initiative, opened his speech in front of MPs by describing the LGBT rights movement as a new form of totalitarianism, comparing it to Nazi ideology. He also accused LGBT people of seeking “to overthrow the natural order and introduce terror”. He was supported by lawmakers from the ruling party. One of the PiS backbenchers held up photos allegedly showing scenes from pride parades that he described as shocking (in fact, he was using a photoshopped meme where guns of vigilantes were replaced by dildos).

All democratic opposition parties, from left to right, put up a strong fight against the bill, calling it inhumane. A group of protesters gathered outside parliament at the time of the decision.

“Pride is an important moment for LGBTI people and their allies to celebrate their love”, Nils Muižnieks, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Europe, said in a statement.  “It is also a protest against exactly the kind of discrimination that the Polish authorities are gradually writing into the law. This proposal, which is part of a wider crackdown on LGBTI rights, has no place in any parliament. We call on Polish MPs to reject this hateful proposal which is discriminatory to its core”, he added.

With support of the ruling PiS party, far right Confederation and right-populist Kukiz’15, the bill draft was addressed to the commission and for the second reading. Most probably, PiS’s Speaker of the House will keep it now uproceeded (will put it into a freezer, if we use the Polish nomenclature). The government will put it back on the agenda whenever it’s needed for them, most probably during next serious political crisis.

Complicated jigsaw

After weeks of expectations Morawiecki’s government was reshuffled after Jarosław Gowin’s Agreement party left the government.

Henryk Kowalczyk, a former environment minister, was sworn in as new agriculture minister to replace Grzegorz Puda. Young Puda was very unpopular among farmers because of his support for pro-animal rights bills and ineffective strategy against the ASF epidemic. Kowalczyk was also appointed a deputy prime minister. This proves that the PiS is going to concentrate more on the countryside, and especially farmers.

Kamil Bortniczuk became the new sports and tourism minister. This (rather unnecessary) ministry was created especially for him as a reward for breaking up the Gowin’s Agreement and creating the Republican Party that entered in a coalition with PiS.

Anna Moskwa took over from Michał Kurtyka as climate and environmental minister. Piotr Nowak, a former deputy finance minister, was appointed as minister for development and technology. The latter ministry was an object of desire of Marcin Ociepa, current deputy defense minister, who also created a small splinter party, OdNowa (Renewal), and signed a coalition agreement with PiS. But a conflict between the Republican and OdNowa prevented Ociepa’s promotion. The ruling majority has recently became more fragmented and divided than ever (PiS, Solidarity Poland, Republicans, OdNowa, Kukiz’15).

European Affairs

EUR 1M per day

Poland was ordered to pay EUR 1 million for every day it fails to comply with a ruling from the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The move was necessary "to avoid serious and irreparable harm to the legal order of the European Union and, consequently, to the rights which individuals derive from EU law and the values on which that Union is founded, in particular, that of the rule of law", the ECJ's vice-president stated. Already in July, the ECJ ordered that the Polish government should suspend the activity of its Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Chamber, with the team of judges in Poland seen as lacking independence. The chamber can punish magistrates according to the content of their resolutions. The PiS government has since ignored the order.

Although the PiS goverment no longer recognizes the ECJ's absolute authority after the last month’s ruling of Polish politicized Constitutional Court (read more in the previous issue), the Commission will ensure compliance with the new ruling by the sanctions. They will be deducted from the EU funds that Poland periodically receives.

The October ruling was proceeded by war of words in which Warsaw told Brussels to back off on its judicial system. Meanwhile, some European block’s leaders insisted that Brussels should not release EUR 36 billion from the pandemic recovery fund if Poland wants to keep this fundamental issue unresolved.

What is more, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, told to the European leaders during a plenary session in Strasbourg that the controversial Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court will be abolished, but he gave no more details. He added that threats of financial penalties proposed in the conditionality mechanism amounted to "blackmail". "Poland will not be intimidated", he concluded.

In response, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen stressed that Warsaw has to comply with the ECJ verdict that ordered dismantling of the chamber and re-institute all the judges who have been unlawfully removed from their offices. She stressed that the Polish Constitutional Tribunal's ruling "calls into question the foundations of the European Union". Commission’s president added that the EU executive might use either an infringement procedure, or an EU probe into the ruling, or the new tool of conditionality which could lead to the suspension of EU funds, or the Article 7 sanctions procedure.

The PiS government firstly didn’t know how to react on the ECJ decision, and then it went to counter-attack. Piotr Muller, spokesman for the government, tweeted that the “path of punishments and blackmail towards our country is not the right one”. Sebastian Kaleta, deputy justice minister, also criticized the ECJ’s decision on Twitter: “The CJEU completely disregards and ignores the Polish constitution and the judgments of the Constitutional Tribunal”. The official party line of the PiS is now: The European Commission and the ECJ are overstepping their mandates by trying to stop its judicial reforms.

Poland has seen the largest decline in rule of law over the last year among all countries in the European Union, according to World Justice Project (WJP). Poland now ranks 26th of 31 countries in the EU, European Free Trade Association and North America region that are included in the index. It is 36th of 139 countries and jurisdictions worldwide. Its rule-of-law score has fallen from 0,71 in 2015, the first year that the index was compiled, to 0,64 now (in a scale from 0 to 1).

The Commission is still withholding Poland's EUR 36-billion Covid-19 recovery fund.

Economy

Growing prices

The Statistics Poland (GUS) reported  that prices of consumer goods and services increased by 6,8% year on year in October 2021.

At the beginning of October, the National Bank of Poland (NBP) unexpectedly raised interest rates, as Poland was already well above its inflation target of 2,5%. NBP raised the reference rate by 40 basis points from 0,1% to 0,5%. It was the first interest hike in nine years.

According to a report published by Grand Thornton, 27% of medium-sized and large companies in Poland intend to increase the prices of their products over the coming 12 months with only 5% planning price-cuts, according to a new report. The firm reported that, to date, their research had correlated well with actual price increases and, if the correlation held, it might mean inflation as high as 9% over the coming year.

Leader of the Civic Platform Donald Tusk commented: "In fact, we are dealing with a rather dramatic prospect for the Polish economy, for Polish family budgets”. "Today, inflation is the highest in the 21st century. We have returned to the level of inflation before our membership in the EU", he added. According to the former president of the European Council "Poland cannot afford [Adam] Glapiński's second term [current governor of the national bank], and there is no other president of a national bank who would be wrong in everything. No inflation target of the NBP has been fulfilled".

Tusk claims that if Poland temporarily cat VAT from 23% to zero, it would mean an annual saving of PLN 325 (ca. EUR 70) on electricity costs for every family and nearly PLN 1.000 (ca. EUR 215) savings for those who heat their homes with gas. The same could be done with fuel prices and the government could cut the price from "these PLN 6 (EUR 1,30) today... to less than PLN 5 (EUR 1,08)".

Polish authorities have been playing down the risk of inflation given that wages are also rising amid fast economic growth. But it is more and more common to hear Polish people complaining about the rising prices of food, utilities and fuel.

Retail prices for fuel have hit their highest level for years in Poland. High fuel prices have been a very hot political topic in Poland for a long time. During the previous increase in prices in 2011, PiS, which was in opposition at the time, blamed the Tusk administration for the ruinously high costs, which it argued were being driven by taxes. In 2019, however, PiS government introduced a new fuel surcharge of PLN 80 net per 1.000 litres.

Culture

Piano star

Canadian musician Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu won the top prize at the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. After winning, Liu said: “Being able to play Chopin in Warsaw is one of the best things you can imagine, of course, so I’m truly honored for this award, of course, and for this jury’s trust and for all the warmth I have received in recent days”.

The decision came after multiple hours of deliberations by a 17-person international jury. This year the competition is commented to be of an extremely high level, and the jury was open for individualism and strong characters. The winner receives EUR 40.000 prize and a gold medal.

Bruce Liu is a graduate of the Montreal Conservatoire and is currently a student of Dang Thai Son who won the Chopin Competition (1980).

Deutsche Grammophon will release an album of his live recordings, made during the various stages of the competition. The first single from Bruce Liu’s new album, Chopin’s Étude in C sharp minor Op. 10 No. 4, is out now. Deutsche Grammophon has collaborated with the Chopin Institute on major events in the past, notably ‘Chopin Year’ in 2010 and the acclaimed ‘Chopin and his Europe’ festivals in Warsaw.

The competition, named after the famed Polish composer, started in 1927. It is held every five years. Its 18th edition was scheduled to take place in 2020 but was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Previous winners of the prestigious Chopin Competition include superstar pianists Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman and Seong-Jin Cho. The competition is very popular and widely commented by mainstream media. Its winners become celebrities in Poland.

Małgorzata Mirga-Tas to Represent Poland at Venice Biennale

Małgorzata Mirga-Tas has been selected to represent Poland at the 59th Venice Biennale.

Mirga-Tas is a Polish-Romani visual artist, sculptor, painter, educator and activist. She lives and works in Czarna Góra, a Romani village at the foot of the Tatra Mountains. Her drawings and paintings are created with the use of mixed materials, among others, pastels, various types of paints, newspapers clippings, sequins, cardboard, fabrics. She draws inspirations from Romani culture what can be found in colors of her art pieces, as well as ornaments and decorations. Her latest works explore Roma people and their everyday lives in Roma settlements and communities.

In 2011 she erected Monument to the Memory of the Holocaust of the Romani in a forest in the south of Poland. It was wooden sculpture commemorating the 29 Roma murdered there by Nazis in 1942.

Mirga-Tas engages in several numerous social and artistic projects aimed against racism, exclusion and discrimination, e.g. she leads integration art workshops for Roma and non-Roma children.

In 2020, she won the “Polityka Passport” award, one of the most important prizes for young artist in Poland.

In selecting Mirga-Tas from among a field of 33 candidates, the jury in a statement cited her proposed installation’s “unusually attractive visual form (opening the pavilion to a wider audience) combined with an original and deliberate ideological concept ‘proposing a new narrative about the constant migration of images and mutual influences between Roma, Polish and European cultures’. ” Her “Re-enchanting the World” will occupy the Polish Pavilion during the event’s run, from April 23 to November 27, 2022.

Poland and Germany

Joint patrols

German police is reporting a constant increase in unauthorized entries of people from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Yemen, and other countries who cross into Germany via Poland from Belarus. On some days, officers have picked up several hundred people a day. Only in October, almost 5.000 people were stopped while crossing the border. Many migrants have been admitted to first reception centers in the past weeks and months, while others have been taken into custody.

Germany has deployed an extra 800 police officers on the Polish border to control the flow of migrants. "I am convinced, in the spirit of the European idea, that we must know who is coming to us. It is legitimate that we protect the external border in such a way that undetected border crossings are prevented", Minister of Interior Horst Seehoffer said. He also proposed to his counterpart in Warsaw Mariusz Kamiński to increase joint patrols along the border in the face of growing numbers of migrants. "Given the Polish border guard's heavy burden on the Belarus border, I offer to boost the number of German officers to serve primarily on Polish territory, naturally under the command of Polish border guards", he wrote.

Far-right groups in Germany such as the "Third Way" and "Free Saxons" have been recruiting people for their anti-migrant patrols to protect the borders. The German domestic intelligence agency has put out a warning to extremists, clearly stating that such patrols are unlawful and federal police said vigilante patrols are hampering officers from doing their work. German services have stopped people armed with pepper spray, batons and other weapons who were patrolling along the Polish border.

War Losses Institute

Arkadiusz Mularczyk, MP (PiS) said that Poland would create a “War Losses Institute” to carry out further work on the impact of Nazi and subsequent Soviet occupation after the war. Mularczyk leads a special parliamentary group that has calculated the damages to Poland, though the assessment isn’t available to the public, at USD 850 billion.

This has been announced exactly during the negotiations of the new ruling coalition in Berlin, when the stands of the new German administration on Poland, especially in light of the rule-of-law dispute, are not known.

Party support

IBRiS for Rzeczpospolita, 23.10.2021

 

PiS                                          36%

Civic Coalition                    25%

Poland 2050                        14%

Left                                        9%

Confederation                  5%

PSL                                         4,6%

 

EU referendum

SW Research for the Rzeczpospolita

Would like a referendum to be held on the country’s membership of the European Union?

Yes       42,6%

No        36,9%

I don’t know    20,5%

 

How would you vote if such an EU accession referendum was held now?

Yes                   64,4%

No                    14,8%

Wouldn’t vote 14,1%

Don’t know      6,7%

 

Dr. Milosz Hodun is Expert at the Nowoczesna party & board member of Projekt: Polska Association.