Thursday, 21 November 2013

Poland Doesn't Give a Damn

An interesting, amusing, although ultimately depressing article by Bartłomiej Kozek, about how the climate summit in Warsaw has been relegated to the sidelines by the Polish media, has been published by the Green European Journal.

Until COP 19 started everything looked quite promising. Intense preparations for heated debates, new and interesting publications on politics of climate change, even some social mobilisation could be felt in the air. Quite surprisingly for myself even the Lutheran church, to which I went, greeted interational delegates from the Climate Summit with a sermon on God's creation, presented by a protestant bishop from Norway. A chance to (finally!) discuss and question the stance of the Polish centre-right government on climate and energy issues on a broader scale seemed possible. Well, think again.
          Read more here......

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

One Movement, Two Tactics

Let’s imagine that things had been the other way round. Suppose the May Day march in Warsaw had been dominated by extremists and organised masked hooligans, carrying banners and shouting slogans glorifying Stalinism. They had previously clashed with counterdemonstrators from the right and fought with the police. This year there was no counterdemonstration and the police allowed the demonstrators to organise to their own security. This resulted in the demonstrators burning down a prominent religious symbol, attacking a building belonging to supporters of the conservative right and then surrounding and attempting to set fire to the US embassy. Elsewhere in Poland, members of the same group ended their march at a grave of victims of Stalinist repression and raise dtheir fists. In response the Prime Minister shrugged his shoulders and sighed that this had now become a tradition. The mainstream media invited the organisers of the march to discuss their opinions and air their views. Left-wing publicists downplayed the events and pointed out how the right-wing also has it own extremists. 

Such a series of events is of course unimaginable. It is inconceivable that the left in Poland would behave in such a way and even more so that the establishment would react in such a lenient and accommodating manner. The fact that the extreme right is able to march year after year carrying fascist symbols, shouting racist and homophobic slogans and leaving a trail of physical destruction behind it is therefore the result of the political dominance of the right in political and public life. If the left had acted in a similar manner we can be sure that the full force of the state would have been used against it. However, when aggression and symbols of totalitarianism are raised from the right, the response is muted and the state impotent. 

The problem of the far-right is of course not a problem confined to Poland. We are now seven years into a global economic crisis, with no end in sight. Living standards are falling, millions are being pushed to the margins of the labour market and social frustration is growing. Even in those countries where the left is strong, the simple solutions offered by the nationalist right have an increasing appeal to many. When the left is weak or incompetent, then the populist allure of the far-right grows. 

After November 11 two different responses have come out of the left. On Lewica24 an open letter to President Bronisław Komorowski has been printed, pointing out how the actions on Independence Day were against the country’s constitution and that the reaction of the state to them has been totally insufficient. It argued that the leading authorities of the state should be helping to set the tone of public debate against the far-right; that organisations of a fascist character should be banned and that the state should help to guarantee the safety of its citizens against the violence of these organisations. In response an alternative letter has been published by Nowe Peryferie, which whilst deploring the events on November 11, argues that they should not be used as an excuse to restrict civil rights. It states that the far-right cannot be defeated administratively and that a danger exists that new laws introduced could in the future be used against any organisation that is opposed to the system. It ends with the appeal for the left not to put forward demands that could really lead the country towards fascism.

These letters have been written in an atmosphere of general disgust with the events at this year’s Independence March. I believe that both have been written with the desire to halt the growth of fascism, which is a principle that should unite all progressives. The issues raised in both of them are matters of tactics that are occupying anti-fascist movements around the world. It is worth considering a couple of examples of these. In recent years an alliance of far-right activists and football hooligans in England has been organised around the English Defence League (EDL). The main activity of this group is to congregate in different cities around the country and intimidate Muslim communities. The anti-fascist movement has responded by organising counter demonstrations and at times has called for a banning of some EDL marches as they threaten public order, such as when the EDL called a demonstration in East London. Another example is Greece, where a catastrophic economic collapse has resulted in the openly fascist Golden Dawn becoming the country’s third largest political party. The organisation has a strong paramilitary grouping and alleged connections within the police and army. Golden Dawn has carried out a series of attacks on immigrants and members of the left and in September was implicated in the murder of the anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas. The murder of Fyssas led to a furious social reaction, the arrest of many of its leading members and moves for the organisation to be banned. 

The tactics of opposing fascism in one country can of course not be translated directly to another. The situation in Greece is particularly dramatic and far worse than anything existent in Poland. However, what it does show is that the anti-fascist movement should consider a range of tactics and not become fixated on any one as being a matter of principle. 

The tactic of attempting to block the Independence Day march in recent years was not successful. The anti-fascist movement was too weak to stop the march and was blamed for much of the violence. However, the claims that it was the provocations of the left and police that caused the violence have been shown to be false by this year’s events. It therefore seems perfectly reasonable that the left should now argue for the state to uphold the constitution and prevent fascists and hooligans from running riot. The present right wing status quo, that passively accepts the violent actions of the far-right, should be exposed. 

The dramatic events at this year’s Independence March actually show the weakness of the far-right, as it is unable to make any serious political breakthrough and is reliant upon groups of hooligans to fill their demonstrations. The anti-fascist movement has to use this opportunity to further isolate it and utilise the disgust felt by the vast majority of society at Independence Day being used as a platform for intolerance and violence. Exactly how this should be done is a matter for discussion between those who share similar principles and aims. It is a discussion that should begin immediately.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Piotr Ikonowicz Out of Prison

After 16 days in prison, during which he was on hunger strike, Piotr Ikonowicz has been let free.

Far Right Show Their True Colours

If the organisations of the left do not try and disrupt the Independence Day celebrations, it will certainly be peaceful
These were the words of the President of the committee organising Warsaw's Independence March, before it took place this year on 11 November. Unlike during previous years, the anti-fascist movement did not organise a counter-demonstration or blockade, choosing instead to hold their own demonstration on 9 November. The police also kept their distance and allowed the organisers to run their own security.

As usual this year's march brought together various organisations of the far-right including the All-Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska), the National-Radical Camp (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny) and the National Rebirth of Poland (Narodowe Odrodzenie Polski). Alongside them marched groups of football hooligans, wearing balaclavas to cover their faces (many donned with the celtic cross). Perhaps inevitably, this toxic mix resulted in far-right hooligans running riot in Warsaw, leaving a trail of destruction and violence. This included:

- The burning down of the rainbow arch in the centre in Warsaw. This had been commissioned by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in 2011 to commemorate the Polish Presidency of the EU. It has since been taken by some to be a symbol of the LGBT movement and has been burned down five times. 

- A group of protestor broke off from the march and violently attacked a collective squat (Syrena) in the city centre. They were armed with stones, sticks, fireworks and wire cutters. They attempted to break into the grounds of the squat and set part of it alight. The squatters had to defend the building themselves from the roof, with the police failing to intervene and protect them for over twenty minutes. Inside the squat were a number of children aged between 3 and 14 years old

- The demonstration was allowed to stop outside the Russian embassy and surround it from three sides. Fireworks were thrown into the embassy grounds and a security booth set alight. The Russian ambassador has described the situation as being completely unacceptable and noted how the blocking of an embassy is against the Vienna Convention. 

- Eventually the police announced that the march should be disbanded. The police had to use rubber bullets, pepper spray and truncheons in order to break up the demonstration. Around 7 police officers were hurt and 67 demonstrators arrested.

These actions have now crossed the limits of what can be considered acceptable . They come on the back of a large rise in the attacks by the far-right (for an overview of this see here). If these actions are allowed to continue it is only a matter of time before someone is seriously injured or killed.

Whilst the organisers of this demonstration have since declared it a success, they should be held responsible for these actions of violence and cover the cost (around 120,000 złoty) of the damage caused during the demonstration. Anyone who participates or supports the Independence March  (whether they directly participated in the violence or not) bears some responsibility for these events.

Serious questions also have to be asked about how the government and the police allowed these actions to occur. This is not the first time that violence has erupted on these marches, with PM Donald Tusk almost casually observing that it has 'become a tradition'. Some, including the Green Party, have rightly called for the dismissal of the Chief of Police in Warsaw and the Minister of Internal Affairs, who after taking office claimed he would fight against the extreme right.

On Friday evening at 17.00 a demonstration outside the gates of Warsaw University has been organised against the terror of the Independence Day March and for safe and free streets. Facebook page here

Monday, 4 November 2013

Lobbying Against Emission Cuts

Polska wersja tutaj na Lewica24... 

From November 11 probably the most important international conference of the year will start in Warsaw. Delegates from 192 countries will gather in Poland’s capital city in an attempt to set a timetable towards agreeing a global, binding agreement on emissions reduction. Scientific evidence now irrefutably shows the connection between carbon emissions and climate change; and the international community has to act now or it really will be too late. 

Yet in Poland you would hardly know that this conference is taking place. There has been next to no coverage about it in the media and the government almost seems to want to keep quiet that it will be hosting the event. The reason for this embarassment is of course its continual opposition to raising emission targets inside the EU and the decision of the government to develop its coal industry at the expense of investment in renewable energies. 

Poland currently only emits around 1% of all global greenhouse gasses, having an emissions per capita level that is similar to the EU average. However, its economy is one of the least carbon efficient in the EU, primarily due to its energy sector being heavily dependent upon coal. Almost 85% of all its electricity is produced from coal; with two thirds of the installed coal capacity being more than 30  years old. 

The Polish PM Donald Tusk has recently announced that coal would remain the basis of the Polish energy sector, with his government (sometimes alongside the British Conservatives) blocking attempts in the EU to increase targets for reducing carbon emissions. This potentially has extremely negative consequences, as the EU has been attempting to increase its emissions cut to 30% by 2020,  in return for other countries pledging themselves to similar goals.  

The arguments of Polish politicians for opposing such agreements range from the dishonest to the ridiculous. On the one hand, politicians such as Tusk have argued that Poland is unable to meet the targets set by the EU and that as an economy heavily dependent upon coal it would be irresponsible to agree to the EU plans. He has an easy ride on this matter, as his opposite number (Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the Law and Justice Party – PiS) continues to argue that carbon dioxide has no impact on the climate and that the decision to hold such a conference in Warsaw on Poland’s Independence Day is a provocation. Leaving aside the arguments of these ‘flat-earthers’, is the Polish government right that it should not be expected to move away from its coal based economy? 

The Polish economy’s dependency upon coal is a legacy of Communism and the failures of the system that replaced it. The huge industrialisation, including the development of coal, after the Second World War was carried out with scant regard for the environment and without knowledge of its effect on climate change. The transition to a capitalist economy from 1989, instigated an initial economic decline and a process of deindustrialisation that had a positive unintended consequence of significantly reducing carbon emissions. However, in recent years economic growth has once again been combined with an increase  in carbon emissions. 

Now an argument could be made that the hardship caused by the closure of many of Poland’s industries, that has made it dependent upon imports from the richer economies to its west, means that it should now protect its coal industry against the environmental plans of the EU. Such an argument does indeed carry some weight. It would be irresponsible and impossible to quickly close Poland's coal industry; and the EU should be supporting the countries in Central Eastern Europe to modernise their energy sectors. However, the actions of the Polish government take away its moral high ground on this issue; and reveal how it is more concerned with its narrow interests and connections to big business than it is about improving the Polish economy, let alone the environment. 

Although the Polish government has committed itself to increasing the share of renewable energies,  as a total of energy production, to 15% by 2020, it has stated that this will then only rise by a further 1% by 2030. It still envisages that at this time nearly ¾ of its total energy will come from Co2 intensive energy sources, primarily coal. Rather than prioritising the development of alternative energy sources, the government is building a new coal fuelled heat and power plant in the north of Poland. This is a region that as yet has no coal industry and the construction of this plant (that will have yearly Co2 emissions equal to Latvia and Malta) is diverting resources away from the development of renewable energy. Scandalously, the Polish government is receiving a loan from the European Investment Bank to build it - so much for EU emissions targets!

The government is developing the coal industry in Poland hand in hand with big business. One of the major investors in the project to build this power plant is Elektrownia Pólnoc Ltd, which is an affiliate of Kulczy Investment (owned by Poland’s ‘richest man’: Jan Kulczyk). Kulczyk is a leading figure behind the lobby group Central European Energy Partners (CEEP), that promotes the coal industry and campaigns for climate targets not to be tightened in the EU. 

It has been well documented how much of the infrastructure developed during Communism was inefficient, wasteful and now outdated. However in many cases, since the collapse of Communism, this infrastructure has been closed or allowed to deteriorate, rather than being replaced, improved and modernised.  The energy sector is a case in point, with Polish capitalism failing to advance beyond what had been created over half a century earlier and create a viable and sustainable modern energy sector. The Polish government is currently using public and EU money to grow a coal industry, whilst doing  practically nothing to build new renewable sources of energy. By doing so it is helping to block progress in the EU and internationally on tackling climate change, whilst entrenching the country’s underdevelopment in one of its economy’s most important sectors.