Poland in the News – April, 2016

Poland saw a series of large protests after stricter abortion laws were passed.

Poland in the News
April, 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.


Abortion Protests

Last month, the abortion debate returned to public discourse after PM Szydło’s “personal opinion” that there should be a complete ban on abortion came to light. Less than a week later, the lower house of parliament registered the “Stop Abortion” Legislative Initiative Committee, a group which plans to collect a petition of 100,000 signatures in order to submit legislation to parliament.

The prime minister expressed her position in response to an open letter written to the parliament by the head of the Polish Catholic Episcopate, encouraging lawmakers to vote for the ban. The position is also supported by Law and Justice party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, in addition to a number of parliament members in Law and Justice, who currently have a legislative majority. One member argued in favor of the bill by saying “what difference is there if a child is conceived through rape?” He rationalized that historically, children that result from that crime have grown up to contribute to society and “build Poland.”

Since 1993, Poland has had the strictest laws on abortion in Europe. Abortions can only be performed if the pregnancy is caused by a criminal act, if the mother’s health is in danger, or if the fetus is severely defective. If the bill passes into law, then the procedure will be banned in full with no exception. However, data from the Ministry of Health reported that less than 1000 procedures were registered in the year 2014, and were most commonly due to fetal damage.

On April 3rd and 9th, mass protests took place in multiple cities across the country. Thousands of Poles demonstrated in the streets against the proposed legislation. Many older women pointed out that the procedure used to be widely available before the Catholic Church pushed for the restrictions set in place in 1993. Solidarity groups have been organized internationally as well, hoping to show that the world is watching the Polish government, and that women in Poland are not alone.

In response, a pro-life demonstration took place in Warsaw later in April. Hundreds of activists marched in support of the bill for a complete ban. The support is rooted in religious reasons, defending “life as a fundamental value”, and promoting full protection of the unborn.


Anniversary of Smolensk Crash

On April 10, Poland and its leaders observed the anniversary of the Smolensk plane crash of 2010. The tragedy took the lives of 97 people, largely in Polish leadership, including President Lech Kaczyński (twin brother to current Law and Justice party leader, Jarosław) and his wife, the head of the National Security Bureau, the president of Poland’s national bank, and the deputy speaker of parliament, among many others. The plane was flying to Katyn, Russia, to join Russian officials in commemorating the WWII massacre of over 20,000 Poles in the Katyn Woods. Official reports say that the plane was not cleared to land and still continued to descend, eventually hitting trees. However, conspiracy theories are numerous. Since the incident, the case has been under near constant investigation, and remains an open sore in bilateral relations between Russia and Poland.

On the anniversary, Prime Minister Szydło and Jarosław Kaczyński took part in memorial ceremonies in Warsaw, in addition to a commemorative Sunday mass. President Andrzej Duda visited the crypt of President Kaczyński and his wife in Kraków.

The President also took this time to call for further investigation into the tragedy. Since it occurred, Poland has had friction with Russia over the crash. Russian authorities currently possess all evidence and materials from the wreckage and refuse to release it to Poland, claiming they’re working to discover the cause. There are claims, rumors, and conspiracies that the cause could have been an act of terrorism, a midair attack, or even the fault of a saboteur pilot, but nothing has been confirmed.


Warsaw Observes Ghetto Uprising Anniversary

April 19 marked the anniversary of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which is not to be confused with the Warsaw Uprising which occurred a little over a year later.

The Ghetto Uprising was a resistance movement against the Nazi German occupiers and lasted for over a month. The insurgency took the lives of around 13,000 Jews, and those that remained were captured and sent to death camps. This ultimately ended in the final liquidation and closure of the Warsaw Ghetto in May 1943. The Warsaw Ghetto had been the largest ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Since 2013, The Museum of the History of Polish Jews has commemorated the anniversary with the Daffodils campaign. Volunteers walk the streets of Warsaw and give out over 50,000 paper daffodil pins, and often tell stories or messages from the history of the Uprising. The daffodil became a symbol of the Ghetto Uprising largely due to Marek Edelman, a commander in the Jewish Combat Organization. Every year on the anniversary, he would bring flowers, especially daffodils, to the Monument of Ghetto Heroes, among other sites, until his death in 2009. As a symbol of remembrance, daffodils also resemble the yellow stars that ghetto residents were required to wear, with their bright yellow color and pointed petals. The flowers also serve as a call for peace and tolerance in the future.


JSP-bannerMedia Freedom Issues

Reporters Without Borders has issued its annual report on media freedom rankings around the world, showing a concerning decline for Poland. From 2015 to 2016, it dropped 29 ranks, from 18 in the World Press Freedom Index down to 47. This change was primarily caused by Law and Justice majority party and a bill they passed in 2015 which allowed the heads of state media to be appointed or terminated by the government, which took effect in January of 2016. In response to this and the constitutional court crisis, the European Parliament opened an investigation into the state of democracy in Poland.

Furthermore, the problematic bill set ideological guidelines for the public outlets, including clauses requiring that the media should support the “public mission,” which typically reflects Law and Justice’s conservatism. Early drafts of the bill even went as far to say the public media should “cultivate national traditions” and “respect Christian values.”

The new law has since cultivated a large opposition including journalist groups, non-governmental organizations, and other political parties, all concerned with the state of media freedom, as well as the unhindered legislative process which passed the bill in the first place. The law is also a driving concern of the KOD protest group, the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, and has directly instigated a number of their protests.


Constitutional Court Investigation

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party has changed the number of judges in the Constitutional Tribunal, in addition to altering the way in which the Tribunal receives legal cases. Polish courts recognize the concepts of “publication” and “recognition.” If the Constitutional Tribunal’s verdict on a bill is not published or recognized by the parliament, then it effectively goes into “legal limbo” writes Reuters.

Prior to this, the European Union began an investigative process to determine whether rule of law is compromised in Poland, the first ever case of this particular EU process. If the constitutional crisis remains and the lawmaking system is found to be compromised, at worst, the EU could potentially revoke Poland’s voting rights in the EU. However, the chances of this worst case scenario coming to reality are very slim; the EU decision to revoke voting rights must be unanimous. At the moment, the EU will pursue the initial steps of this overall process, where the European Commission must first “clarify whether there is a systemic threat to the democratic values and rule of law in Poland, and second will “recommend that the Member State solves the problems identified within a fixed time limit.”

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.