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The Warsaw paradox. How the War in Ukraine changed Poland’s image

People participate in a peaceful demonstration 'Solidarity with Ukraine' at the Main Square in Krakow, southern Poland, 24 April 2022.
©EPA-EFE/Lukasz Gagulski  |   People participate in a peaceful demonstration 'Solidarity with Ukraine' at the Main Square in Krakow, southern Poland, 24 April 2022.

My late grandmother, born in 1907, regularly told me when I was teenager in the 90s that in life one should fear only one thing: the Soviets. "The Germans were incarnate evil, but the Russians were much worse," she told me repeatedly. I entered adulthood with this attitude towards the world. And I believe most of Poles whose parents and grandparents survived the Second World War live with such conviction. There are several other European nations, including Romania, for whom this probably sounds familiar. But I am not sure if in these countries Russia was looked at for all those years with the same fascination and horror as in Poland.

Twisted relations. The Polish-Hungarian alliance and the Putinist model

"I am deeply convinced that a day will come when we have Budapest in Warsaw," said Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the Law and Justice (PiS) party in 2011, which then received the second result in the parliamentary elections (almost 30% of votes). "Sooner or later, we will win, because we are simply right" he added. And four years later Kaczyński did triumph. Since then, Poland has been ruled by the conservative right wing which has done a lot to have Budapest in Warsaw, although many journalists simply called it "Putinization" of Poland. PiS took complete control of public television and radio, subjugated the Constitutional Tribunal and politicized the judiciary, it also brutally suppressed peaceful demonstrations of citizens, fueled hatred of sexual minorities, so for its own political gain it freely used the tools effectively used by authoritarian states like Russia. „There were grotesque similarities: Putin said that Russia had gotten up from its knees, so Kaczyński repeated that Poland had gotten up from its knees” - journalist and historian Adam Michnik recently said in an interview. „Putin’s, Kaczyński’s, and Orbán’s historical politics worked in a way to tell the people that history was different than it was. This means that the past was filled with nobility, that, for example, Russia never did anything wrong to anyone, and that it was always a victim. When it entered somewhere, it was never an act of aggression but liberation, that it was helping the persecuted. The same could be said about Poland and Hungary. This means that those governments would never officially face shameful parts of their histories”. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has finally shown how twisted, intricate and often contradictory in terms of narratives are the internal politics of the Polish right. Confronted with an unequivocal situation - Russia's invasion of an independent state - the politicians of the ruling camp were forced (for a moment?) to straighten the message. And this is how the same Law and Justice leader who wanted Budapest in Warsaw recently said: "I must admit that it is all very sad." This is how Jarosław Kaczyński commented on the attitude of his closest ally in Europe, Viktor Orban, towards the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Apparently, the warm feelings he had for the Prime Minister of Hungary overshadowed the long-declared bond between Orban and Vladimir Putin.

When the first Russian missiles fell on Ukraine on February 24, the Polish government did not hesitate for a moment on which side it was on, despite the fact that just before that the head of this government participated in a meeting of the European far-right leaders and was hopefully thinking about a victory of Marine Le Pen, who sympathizes with Putin, in presidential elections in France.

In Warsaw, apart from the perceptible tension, suddenly one could also hear a sigh of relief: the West will understand what we have known for a long time - Russia cannot be trusted and it is wrong to think that one can build relations with Russia based on mutual respect. This is the geopolitical paradox - overnight, anti-EU PiS politicians became leaders in the fight against Putin.

Political gains. While Poland completely opened its doors for Ukrainians, Middle East refugees are being kept out at the border with Belarus

Poland opened its borders to Ukrainians fleeing the war and received 2.5 million refugees within a few weeks. It was (and still is) possible thanks to the great determination and help of citizens who are giving shelters in their own homes - Poland has not experienced such a mobilisation for a long time and this act of solidarity is certainly a source of pride for many Poles.

Politics followed the open hearts of Polish women and men - the government quickly and efficiently introduced laws to make it easier for Ukrainians to stay and work in Poland, gave them access to health care and education, but also facilitated the transfer of weapons to Ukraine. It’s no secret that Poland is the most important transit route for weapons supplied by Western countries to the armed forces of Ukraine. Since the first days of the war, transport planes with weapons are landing mainly at Polish airports (Romanian and Slovak airports are used as well, but to a lesser extent). It is the easiest and shortest route to Lviv and Kiev from Poland, and the most convenient roads lead from here to the east of Ukraine.

The airports in Rzeszów and Lublin play a huge role: they are located close to the border and they both have runways big enough for large transport aircrafts. Logistics centers dealing with the distribution of weapons as well as food and humanitarian aid have been established around the airports. There, weapons from Western supplies are transferred to trucks. Another very important aspect is the recently renovated military airport near Nowe Miasto on the Pilica river. This is also where the C-130 planes from NATO bases in Europe land, delivering equipment that is transported to the Ukrainian border by road.

Arms shipments reach Ukraine through, among others, special border crossings, which are open exclusively for this purpose. One of them is (or rather was) near Jaworów (but the local Ukrainian military base was attacked by the Russians with cruise missiles). Such unofficial crossings are opened wherever on both sides of the border, roads accessible to trucks run close enough to each other. Laying a several-hundred-meter-long concrete slab connector is a matter of several dozen hours. On the Ukrainian side, the weapons go to other logistic centers located in the western part of the country. Once there they are reloaded once again and sent to the front-lines, usually by Ukrainian vehicles and by local drivers.

Poland has also been tougher than any other EU member state on sanctions in calling for a total embargo on all trade with Russia. It also proposed a NATO peacekeeping force in Ukraine, Ukrainian soldiers are trained in Polish military bases, and the wounded are sent to Polish hospitals. “At the moment, several dozen wounded Ukrainian soldiers are being treated, in various cities. If necessary, we are ready to accept 10,000 soldiers who require medical care”, Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki recently said in Lviv.

It was he, along with Jarosław Kaczyński and the prime ministers of the Czech Republic and Slovenia, who first visited President Zelensky in Kiev. This fact was noticed by the Western media, and although the delegation included anti-EU leaders, it was presented as an example to European leaders. In Lviv, Morawiecki has recently opened a container town for internal refugees, which was established on the initiative of the Polish side. “We cannot leave our neighbors alone. We must keep our fighting spirit also by caring for the weakest”, he said. He also called on Western leaders to "abandon calculations and reach out to their consciences."

Meanwhile, refugees are still dying on the Polish-Belarusian border. Those fleeing the wars in Syria and Yemen, looking for a better life outside of Afghanistan, Kurdistan and the countries of North Africa, are not provided with aid in Poland and are pushed to the Belarusian side. Activists operating in that region cannot understand why Poland opens its borders wide to some suffering, while fencing other with a wall several meters high and 186 kilometers long. But nowadays the media rarely talks about that, as attention is directed towards Ukraine, and that works for the government just fine - the bloody and cruel war turned out to be a great political gain for the ruling camp.

Kaczyński’s belief in moral superiority

Poland has “never had such an excellent brand, all over the world”, its prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, declared few days before US President Joe Biden's visit to Poland in March. „Our country is in the right position in international politics”, he said, no longer behind a “wall of unfair isolation”. After 7 years of bitter conflict with the EU (about which I wrote a number of stories on Veridica) the government in Warsaw now has a chance to score some points in Brussels. In particular, the ruling Law and Justice party, whose popularity is on the rise again after sliding for 18 months, wants the EU to unlock €36 billion in pandemic recovery funds blocked over concerns about whether Warsaw can guarantee it will spend EU money properly because of its politicized judiciary.

A recent poll for Oko.press showed 66% of Poles wanted the government to accept EU rule of law rules and end its dispute with Brussels – including nearly one in three PiS voters. But 56% also said the funds should now be released without conditions, bolstering a potential PiS narrative that Poland should get the money with no strings attached because it has welcomed so many refugees.

So it's clear that while the Polish government is seeking to capitalize on the country’s newfound good-guy status – and may well win some short-term favor – Warsaw’s longer-term conflict with the EU is unlikely to disappear.

Another problem is internal politics, which were largely based on a conflict with the opposition, and the fact that the identity of the ruling party and its voters was built on by invoking the threat posed by "enemies of the nation", that is, all those who "think differently". Today, most Poles (including opposition politicians) think similarly about the war in Ukraine – our neighbor should be supported at all costs in all possible ways. Such consent does not serve the power camp.

Why is that? Political commentators talk about „the blurring of the hording effect around the flag” - since all political forces say and do basically the same about the war in Ukraine, there is no need to support the government politically. Therefore, a return to the political fight in Poland is only a matter of time. Kaczyński is already provocatively suggesting that changes are necessary in the Constitution, and although he does not specify what exactly he is talking about, he fuels the mood in a way he knows well, saying: "If someone blocks it, it means that he will block the expansion of the army" (which means that those opposing the amendments would support Putin).

In addition, the war in Ukraine coincided with the 12th anniversary of the presidential plane crash in Smolensk, which killed, among others, Jarosław's twin brother and Polish head of state - Lech Kaczyński. This allowed many PiS politicians to return to the never-proven theories about the attack - according to them, the cause of the plane crash was not an attempt to land in very bad weather conditions, but an explosion on board of the plane. The return of Jarosław Kaczyński to the "Smolensk catastrophe" may indicate a temptation to present PiS as the first victim of Russian aggression. Why is it so important to him? The Law and Justice party leader is a symbol-tied and emotional politician, so a sense of moral superiority is a reward in itself for him. Let us remember what he said in 2011 - Kaczyński probably will not repeat the words about Budapest in Warsaw, but the announcement of the victory "because we are simply right" certainly took on a new meaning for him.

Tags: Law and Justice Party , Poland , War in Ukraine
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  • PiS took complete control of public television and radio, subjugated the Constitutional Tribunal and politicized the judiciary, it also brutally suppressed peaceful demonstrations of citizens, fueled hatred of sexual minorities, so for its own political gain it freely used the tools effectively used by authoritarian states like Russia.
  • Russia's invasion of Ukraine has finally shown how twisted, intricate and often contradictory in terms of narratives are the internal politics of the Polish right. Confronted with an unequivocal situation - Russia's invasion of an independent state - the politicians of the ruling camp were forced (for a moment?) to straighten the message.
  • Poland opened its borders to Ukrainians fleeing the war and received 2.5 million refugees within a few weeks. It was (and still is) possible thanks to the great determination and help of citizens who are giving shelters in their own homes - Poland has not experienced such a mobilisation for a long time and this act of solidarity is certainly a source of pride for many Poles. Politics followed the open hearts of Polish women and men - the government quickly and efficiently introduced laws to make it easier for Ukrainians to stay and work in Poland, gave them access to health care and education, but also facilitated the transfer of weapons to Ukraine.
  • A recent poll for Oko.press showed 66% of Poles wanted the government to accept EU rule of law rules and end its dispute with Brussels – including nearly one in three PiS voters. But 56% also said the funds should now be released without conditions, bolstering a potential PiS narrative that Poland should get the money with no strings attached because it has welcomed so many refugees. So it's clear that while the Polish government is seeking to capitalize on the country’s newfound good-guy status – and may well win some short-term favor – Warsaw’s longer-term conflict with the EU is unlikely to disappear.
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