Poland in the News – March, 2016

A priests blesses baskets of food as part of traditional Polish Easter celebrations.

Poland in the News
March, 2016

SSI-banner Poland has been a focal point of European and US foreign policy since the fall of the USSR. Billions in foreign aid and investment has poured into the country, creating a dynamic economy, rising middle class, and a young European democracy. Poland has historically been a borderland for conflicts between European powers and Russia, giving it a complex relationship with all its neighbors and unique perspectives on state security.

Poland, however, despite its historic and strategic importance is often overlooked in most media reports and treated as background in many histories and current analysis of the European situation. This resource serves to introduce a wider audience to Poland’s modern economic state, culture, politics, and society.

 

Brussels Attacks Spark a Refugee Policy Shift

Much like what followed the attacks in Paris at the end of last year, the recent tragedy in Belgium has sparked further controversy over the presence of Islam in Europe and the refugee crisis. Those in opposition to accepting refugees have continued to gain reasons for denying migrants, and their voices have become stronger. Prime Minister Beata Szydło has recently declared that “I say it very clearly: I do not see how Poland could take on any immigrants in the present circumstances.

If this stance becomes a reality, it would completely overturn a decision made by the prior parliamentary majority in September. The former government had agreed to take up to 7,000 refugees, but following the elections, the new government, run by the Law and Justice party, has gradually decreased the figure over the past few months. In January, PM Szydło said that Poland will only be able to take in 400 people total in 2016.

The Prime Minister made these comments a day after this month’s tragedy in Brussels occurred. In the attacks, three Poles were among the over 350 people injured as reported by the Polish Foreign Ministry. There were 35 people total killed in the attacks. In the aftermath, Poland has increased security measures at airports and checks at other transport hubs like railway stations. PM Szyło and President Andrzej Duda have both expressed solidarity with Belgium, as well as the rest of Europe.

 

Return of the Abortion Debate

Just prior to International Women’s Day, a march was held in the streets of central Warsaw to call for fewer restrictions on abortion procedures. Since Poland’s transition from communism to a democracy, the country has had some of the strictest restrictions on abortion in Europe largely due to the influence of the Catholic Church. There has been a near-complete ban on the procedure, only allowed in specific situations such as following an act of crime, or if the woman’s health is in jeopardy.

Later in the month, Prime Minister Szydło said that in her personal opinion, there should be a “complete ban” on abortion. She insists that this is only what she believes personally, and that it’s “not necessarily that of all members of conservative ruling party Law and Justice,” the party to which she belongs. Law and Justice is known for its strong Catholic conservatism, and currently holds a parliamentary majority. They gained seats in the most recent elections campaigning for a return to “traditional values.”

The Polish Episcopate, the leader of Roman Catholicism in the country, has begun an appeal to collect signatures for a “citizen’s bill” which would serve as a draft a parliamentary bill that would implement complete prohibition. The “citizen’s bill” needs 100,000 signatures to gain such status. The strict legislation in place today is the result of a “political compromise” which occurred in the 1990s. However, now that the conservative party has an overwhelming majority, the passing of more severe laws will likely meet less obstruction.

 

JSP-bannerPolitical Crisis and Foreign Policy Begin to Mix

After Law and Justice secured a parliamentary majority in October, they quickly made drastic changes to the Constitutional Court, the judicial body which can be equated to that of the US Supreme Court. The previous majority party, the Civic Platform, had appointed five new Constitutional Tribunal judges before their departure. Law and Justice quickly overturned this ruling, claiming the move was “unconstitutional,” and then appointed their own justices. This move has similarly been criticized as unconstitutional, and has helped spark the creation of an opposition group: the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD, in Polish). This organization has been behind the major pro-democracy protests that have taken place across Poland in the last few months. Additionally, the move has been criticized internationally by EU representatives who are concerned about a single party having parliamentary majority, an allied president, and strong influence in the highest courts.

KOD has arranged for massive protests over many weekends since its beginning, which have covered a variety of different controversial decisions made by the new government, such as the replacement of various ministry officials with those sympathetic to Law and Justice ideals, to give an example.

On March 12, an estimated 50,000 people protested in Warsaw, while smaller marches were held in other cities such as Gdańsk and Wrocław.

This protest in particular was in response to the Polish government rejecting a court ruling from publication. The publication would have fundamentally changed how the court actually functions. Law and Justice issued a bill which would require the Constitutional Tribunal to “pass rulings with a two-thirds majority, rather than the previous simple majority,” and would have changed the number of judges required to be in attendance from 9 to 13 of the 15 total. The vice-president of the tribunal said that this law will “dramatically limit the court’s ability to function independently.

The Tribunal did not pass the bill. However, there are rumors that tribunal members consulted with MPs from the opposition party Civic Platform prior to the decision, and thus the controversy has deepened.

The ruling is not legally binding until it is published by the prime minister, and she has refused. In mid-March, a government spokesman confirmed that the ruling regarding the tribunal will not be published, despite concerns from the Venice Commission, a watchdog organization for the Council of Europe.

Former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, current president of the European Council, has advised the Polish government to follow the recommendations of the Venice Commission, especially that of publishing the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal to make it legally binding.

Additionally, the KOD movement has been highly criticized by Jarosław Kaczyński, former prime minister of Poland. Currently he is not officially in a government position, but is the party chairman of Law and Justice with clear influence on and control of the party. He claims that KOD demonstrators have “trampled upon everything that is sacred in Polish culture,” that they are only “trying” to be patriotic, and are “cultivating a pedagogy of shame.”

Later in March, Kaczyński called for a “period of calm” in response to the protests in Poland, “at least until the end of Holy Father’s visit,” since Pope Francis is expected to be in Poland in late July. He cited the need to focus on larger international issues, such as “multiple threats in the West, [and] Russia’s aggressive policy,” and that the internal disputes are happening in an “unnecessarily harsh way.

In mid-March, President Duda met with five US senators in Kraków to discuss issues in international politics. Although not directly stated by spokespersons of the Polish government, it’s assumed by many that the constitutional crisis was also discussed. Outside the restaurant in which the meeting took place, a group of KOD protesters stood outside, shouting “constitution” while President Duda was leaving.

At the end of the month, President Duda also made a visit to the United States. Discussions were primarily focused on an increase in defense measures and NATO presence in Poland in response to the growing concern for Russian aggression. The president is said to have “welcomed the announcement” to increase American troops in Eastern Europe.

However, not even during a trip to the US can the President move away from pressing questions about the constitutional crisis. He was in the US for the Nuclear Security Summit which had representatives from 58 countries in attendance to discuss international security against nuclear terrorism, a summit which was notably missing nuclear strongmen like Russia and Iran. Although in his own speeches, Duda addressed international issues involving Russia and NATO, in the question sessions that followed, he instead was asked about the Constitutional Tribunal, the state of democracy in Poland, and the migrant crisis, especially after PM Szydło’s remarks.

 

Easter in Poland

While Christmas is the most widely celebrated holiday in predominantly Catholic Poland, Easter isn’t far behind. Taking place on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring, according to Roman Catholic calendar, Easter is a holiday full of long-standing cultural and religious traditions.

The weekend prior to Easter Sunday, Palm Sunday is observed by taking dried willow or yew branches into churches. Catholicism has traditionally used palm leaves, but palm trees are obviously not native to the Polish climate.

As in many other countries that celebrate Easter, painting hard-boiled eggs is highly popular in Poland. Painted eggs and Easter baskets are prepared on Saturday. The woven baskets are lined with a white linen and are packed with foods such as eggs, cheeses, sausage, bread, butter, and even cake, and are then brought to the church to be blessed.

On Easter morning, many churches hold an early morning mass with a special ceremonial service. Following this, many families gather together throughout the day to share meals with one another. Many dishes of these meals are centered on eggs as the primary food. This site lists the most common traditional Easter foods, including main courses, a soup, and many classic desserts.

The main Easter food made especially for the holiday is the cakes. Special Easter cakes are usually round yeast cakes covered in decorative icing, fruits, nuts, or seeds.

The Monday after Easter is a national bank holiday, or public holiday, in Poland, so most shops and businesses are closed, allowing for travel to friends and family. Occasionally, some businesses may observe Tuesday as part of the holiday break, as in the case of Collegium Civitas, making for an extended four day holiday weekend.

About the Author

Callie Rades

Callie Rades is a senior at Stetson University majoring in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. She is currently studying abroad for an academic year in Warsaw, Poland in the Security and Society program at Collegium Civitas. In the past Callie has studied in Moscow, Russia and in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and also worked in Bishkek the summer before arriving in Poland. After graduation, she hopes to work abroad somewhere within the region of post-Soviet countries or Eastern Europe.