Poland marks independence centenary amid tensions

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The President of the European Council Donald Tusk attends a wreath laying ceremony at the monument of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski on the centennial observances marking 100 years of Polish independence on November 10, 2018 in Warsaw. (Photo by Janek SKARZYNSKI / AFP)

Poles mark a century of independence on Sunday amid tensions in the isolated and deeply polarised country over the prominent role that marginal far-right groups gained in shaping the main state parade.

Chaos engulfed plans for the state military parade in Warsaw days ahead of the centenary, as far-right groups vowed to use the same route and timing for their controversial annual independence day march.

Last year’s edition of that march drew global outrage when some participants displayed racist and anti-immigrant banners and slogans. Its organisers include the National Radical Camp (ONR), a marginal group with roots in an anti-Semitic pre-World War II movement.

In a bid to avoid a similar debacle on the centenary, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government and allied President Andrzej Duda on Wednesday announced the state military parade, insisting that it had legal priority.

But the far-right groups refused to back down after a court overruled a separate ban imposed by the Warsaw mayor citing the risk of violence and hate speech.

The PiS government spent Friday in a tug of war with far-right groups over the scheduling of the two events. The sides confirmed late Friday that they would coincide.

Drawing a “clear red line between patriotic behaviour and nationalistic or chauvinistic (behaviour), or neo-Nazis,” PiS Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has vowed to act “decisively” against publicly displayed fascist symbols or slogans, something that is illegal in Poland.

The US, Canadian and Ukrainian embassies issued warnings about the possibility of violence in connection with the march, while many Poles have expressed dismay.

“When the Polish government has to negotiate with far-right groups on the centenary it shows the weakness of the state,” Wojciech, a 67-year-old Warsaw cabbie who declined to provide his surname, told AFP on Sunday.

“It’s very sad and disappointing,” he said.

– Collision course –
Underscoring Poland’s growing isolation in the European Union since the PiS took office in 2015, no senior delegations from fellow EU states are due to show up for the centenary coinciding with the Armistice that ended World War I.

The government has put Poland on a collision course with the EU by introducing a string of controversial judicial reforms that Brussels has warned pose a threat to judicial independence, the rule of law and ultimately to democracy.

EU President Donald Tusk, a former liberal Polish prime minister, was the bloc’s only senior representative in Warsaw on Sunday and his visit comes amid speculation that he may return to run for president in 2020.

“Forgive us Poland…we love you!” Tusk said urging national unity early Sunday, remarking that Poles “sometimes argue too much” about their country as he laid flowers at the statue of independence leader Marshal Jozef Pilsudski in Warsaw.

Speaking on Saturday, Tusk likened the PiS to “contemporary Bolsheviks” who must be “defeated”.

He also repeated a warning that the PiS could unwittingly unleash a “Polexit” from the EU despite its strong popularity among Poles and the many assurances of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski that his party has no such designs.

Widely regarded as Poland’s de facto powerbroker, Kaczynski has played a key role behind the scenes in shaping domestic and foreign policy. He and Tusk are arch-rivals.

  • ‘Most successful’ –
    Poles will pause nationwide at the stroke of noon on Sunday to sing the national anthem. It will be a rare show of unity in the EU and NATO country of 38 million people that has become increasingly polarised under the PiS.

While robust economic growth along with the government’s generous social welfare measures and conservative stance have garnered it support mainly in rural areas, judicial reforms have sparked outrage among urban centrists and liberals.

But Norman Davies, an Oxford historian and a renowned authority on Poland, insists that despite the recent turmoil “Poles have never had it so good”.

Before November 1918, Poland did not exist at all for 123 years, carved up between the Prussian, Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires.

“From all those countries (that regained independence in 1918), Poland has been the most successful … not only in economic terms but also in terms of political stability, constitutional consensus and geopolitical security” within NATO, Davies said, speaking at a recent security conference in Warsaw.

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