Poland in the News – May, 2016

Hikers enjoy Poland's Białowieża Forest, which is now in danger of being logged.

Poland in the News
May, 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.

 

Bill Clinton Under Fire for Poland Comment

In a speech at a campaign rally for his wife Hillary, Bill Clinton stated that “Poland and Hungary – two countries that would not be free but for the United States and the long Cold War – have now decided this democracy is too much trouble. They want Putin-like leadership: Just give me an authoritarian dictatorship and keep the foreigners out.” For Poland, which has taken anti-Russian stances on modern times, the reference to Putin’s regime was taken as a huge offence. Clinton was trying to make a point against nationalist positions from Republican candidate Donald Trump.

Majority party leader Jarosław Kaczyński told reporters that “If someone feels that there is no democracy in Poland, they should be medically examined,” a statement which echoes the clash between Law and Justice, and the pro-EU opposition organization, KOD, the Committee for the Defense of Democracy. Polish foreign ministry spokesperson stated that “The opinion… is unfair. We understand, however, that it was voiced in the context of the internal electoral campaign in the US.”

 

Ancient Forest Under Threat

Since coming to majority power last October, the Law and Justice party has courted controversy. This now extends to environmental issues, with an ancient forest in eastern Poland under the threat of damage by logging companies.

The Białowieża Forest is shared by Poland and Belarus. About 35% of its area in Poland is protected as a national park and UNESCO heritage site. The planned logging is said to be limited to areas which are not explicitly protected, and which officials say will not harm the historical ecosystem. Environmentalists argue that the plan will inevitably have repercussions which will reach and harm the protected ancient forest. Even removing dead wood would affect the delicate ecological systems in which decomposition is a crucial step. Forest biology and ecology groups are pushing for extending the national park protection to the entire forest.

The 9000-year-old forest is home to countless species and habitats, including the European bison, the largest mammal in Europe.

Lumber is a large industry in Poland. IKEA uses Polish timber for 25% of its global furniture production.

 

JSP-bannerNegotiations with NATO

Polish president Andzrej Duda has expressed concerns about Russian military aggression and has asked NATO to increase its forces in Poland. Meeting with Canadian president Justin Trudeau in a tour of major NATO member states, President Duda asked for additional Canadian troops. Canada currently has 220 troops in Europe.

The next NATO Summit will be held in Warsaw’s National Stadium on July 8-9 this year.

The United States has sent paratroopers and vehicles to Poland for various NATO exercises. Around 600 paratroopers and 10 vehicles dropped into Torun, Poland as part of a practice session for “Exercise Swift Response,” a test of NATO’s coordinated crisis response system.

 

EU Membership Anniversary

On the first of May, Poland marked the twelfth anniversary of its membership in the European Union. In 2004, Poland and nine other countries, including a large portion of the former Eastern Bloc and the Baltic States, entered the EU in the largest single expansion to date. Former Polish president Bronisław Komorowki spoke highly of Poland’s achievements over the last dozen years, and keeps an optimistic outlook on future developments.

The anniversary also inspired a major opposition protest in Warsaw on May 7, the largest such protest to date in Poland. Warsaw City Hall estimates around 240,000 people were in attendance.  Organized by the KOD (Committee for the Defense of Democracy), in coordination with opposition political parties Civic Platform (PO), who was formerly in the parliamentary majority, the Polish People’s Party, and the Democratic Left Alliance. Notable figures in attendance included PO leader Grzegorz Schetnya, and former Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz. The overarching message of this march was to show support for Poland’s membership in the European Union, especially in the face of the Constitutional Tribunal controversy which has been a concern for the EU.

 

Four May Holidays

In the spring, Poland takes a long break which includes three holidays in a row.

On May 1, Poland observed Worker’s Day, a national public holiday celebrated by a number of countries in Eastern Europe, similar to that of Labor Day in the United States. This year, various marches for the rights of workers were organized by workers’ unions and the Democratic Left Alliance party.

May 2 is Flag Day in Poland. Although not officially a day off, serves to acknowledge the symbolism of the red and white flag, which “belongs to all those who live in Poland and all those who live abroad but feel Polish in their hearts,” said President Andrzej Duda.

On May 3, Poland celebrates Constitution Day, which marks the signing of the first constitution in Europe in 1791, and the second in the world, following the United States. Of the three holidays this is the most patriotic one; Poles are proud of this historically significant advancement in the history of democracy and lawmaking. On this day off, people typically celebrate by spending time with their families.

In light of Poland’s current domestic political polarization, the holiday was not without politicization this year. Jarosław Kaczński, the leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, stated again that his party is working to change the current constitution, enacted in 1997. He claimed that the constitution ought to “be verified every twenty years.” Law and Justice has tried to change how the Constitutional Court interacts with parliament and how justices are appointed, resulting in investigations from the European Union out of concerns for the state of democracy in Poland.

President Duda took the holiday to express a similar statement that the constitution should be reexamined due to its writing during a “time of transition.”

At the end of May, another long weekend is taken to celebrate the Catholic holiday Corpus Christi, or Boże Ciało in Polish. Observed 60 days after Easter, it always falls on a Thursday, and is an official day off. Many people also take the following Friday as a holiday as well to make it a four day weekend. Most people attend a special mass, as well as take part in a procession in the neighborhood around the church. Then after the service, families gather together for a feast, as a symbol of the Last Supper, from which the holiday takes its name, Latin for the “Body of Christ.”

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.