Thursday, 20 September 2018

Polluting the Atmosphere in Poland

Earlier in the summer this year, it was revealed that 12,000 tonnes of plastic waste are exported from Britain to Poland each year. Millions of Polish złoty are paid to ship this toxic rubbish, which instead of being recycled is often burned. Fires smoulder on rubbish dumps on the outskirts of Polish cities, further poisoning an atmosphere that is already the most polluted in the European Union. The new ‘trash mafia’ is happy as it counts its mounting profits; and Britain can turn a blind eye to a problem that is no longer theirs. 
The Polish Prime Minister has threatened to ban this trade. The burning of other people’s rubbish is not a great look for a government that prides itself on its patriotic defence of the country’s sovereignty. At the same time, however, a new toxic waste is being exported from Britain to Poland: the self-styled leaders of the far-right. 
First of all it was the turn of Tommy Robinson (not his real name) who recently spent months in prison for contempt of court. He has serially been arrested for such offenses as brawling, assault, having a false passport and mortgage fraud. He is a former member of the fascist British National Party and has a history of violent, extremist activity. Robinson visited Poland last year to attend the annual Independence March, an event organised by far-right organisations  on which banners were carried with slogans supporting things such as a ‘white’ Poland and Europe and against refugees and Muslims. Robinson came to praise Poland. To laud them for defending Europe’s supposed white Christian culture and rejecting the road of multiculturalism. 
And now it’s been the turn of Britain’s other far-right star: Katie Hopkins. The journalist who is currently facing bankruptcy due to libel charges and was deemed too right-wing even for the Daily Mail. The person who says that gunships should be deployed to stop migrants arriving in Europe and that she would make a bonfire out of migrant boats. This week Hopkins was hosted by Poland’s own anti-immigrant showman (PiS MP Dominik Tarczyński) and presented to the Polish public during an interview on state TV. And of course, Hopkins was there again to praise Poland for being white and Christian and basically not having many Muslims. It was a sickening site to see Hopkins receive such a warm welcome by the Polish right, in the country where the Nazis committed some of the greatest crimes in modern history. This is someone who describes people as vermin and cockroaches and demonises humans to such an extent she can compare them to a virus. This is a person who said a ‘final solution’ was needed to deal with terrorism – a phrase used by the Nazis for their plan to exterminate the Jewish people.
These troublemakers know very little about Polish history nor the current reality of the country they have visited. Poland is a nation that has benefited from open borders, as millions have moved to work throughout the European Union and beyond. Poland currently has one of the largest inward waves of migration in Europe, issuing 585,969 first temporary residence permits for non-EU citizens in 2016 (the majority from Ukraine, but also increasingly large numbers from countries such as India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.) This is a higher number of migrants than came to Germany, the country that Hopkins and her friends like to criticise for their open migration policy. Poland is gradually changing and becoming more diverse, which is a sign of Poland’s economic growth and development. 

Robinson and Hopkins now pretend to be Poland’s friends and admirers of the people and its culture. This of course is one big charade used to gain favour with a nation they hope will listen to their hate speech. Tommy Robinson has previously stated that he would like to stop all Polishmigrants coming to Britain. Katie Hopkins meanwhile has attacked the Labour Party for ‘inviting the whole of Eastern Europe to enjoy our welfare system’. Both Robinson and Hopkins are supporters of a hard Brexit from the European Union, which would negatively affect the lives of the Polish community in Britain. They have helped to fuel an atmosphere of racial hatred in the country, which has included a rise in attacks on Polish immigrants. 
It’s not just Britain’s trash that is currently polluting the atmosphere in Poland. It’s time the Polish government and people stopped accepting it.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Polish Law on Historical Memory Widens Divisions at Home and Abroad

The Amended Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, passed by the Polish parliament on 26 January, has caused a huge political domestic and international storm (the full English language text of the Act can be found here). As well as widening historical and political divisions in Poland it has opened up a conflict not only with Israel and Ukraine, but also with the country's major ally the USA. The Act has now been signed by the President, although he has sent it to the constitutional court for review  (for the legal controversies surrounding the Act see here.) 

This article shall consider the contents of the Act;  the reactions to it; and what wider repercussions it may have.

(Co) Responsibility and Death Camps

There are two main controversial parts of this Act, which we shall consider in turn. The first involves accusations of the (co)responsibility of Poles for Nazi crimes in the Second World War. This part (Article 55a. 1) reads:

“Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich, as specified in Article 6 of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal enclosed to the International agreement for the prosecution and punishment of the major war criminals of the European Axis, signed in London on 8 August 1945 (Polish Journal of Laws of 1947, item 367), or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes – shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to 3 years. The sentence shall be made public.
The first thing to note here is what has been omitted from this bill. It does not include the phrase ‘Polish Death Camps’, although it has been widely reported in the international media that this is in the Act and has regularly been used as a justification for it in Poland. This phrase has been used in the past by some international politicians (most notably Barak Obama) and in the international media. This was generally used to denote the geographical location of the camps, although this was rightly strongly condemned by all Polish governments, which tended to reduce its use. The phrase was never used inside Poland and as this law can only be applied in Poland, it would have been of no practical use anyhow. The absurdity of the present situation is that the phrase has spread around the world over the past week, with tweets including it reaching tens of millions of people; with some of those hostile to the Act using it as a way to criticise the Polish government.

The wording of the present bill is actually far more ambiguous and dangerous than this, with the  term ‘co-responsibility/responsibility’ open to misinterpretation and abuse. The holocaust was an act planned and carried out by the German Nazis in Poland which was under their occupation. The Nazis regarded Poles, as being part of an inferior Slavic race and if they had won the war they would have undoubtedly have attempted to completely destroy Poland and the Polish people. Poland (both Catholics, Jews and others) suffered the largest loss as a percentage of its population of any country during World War Two. Most of its infrastructure, industries, and cities (over 85% of Warsaw’s buildings) were destroyed by the Nazis. The Nazis built most of its concentration camps in occupied Poland and carried out the systematic killing of three million Jews (over 90% of the pre-war Polish-Jewish population). A further estimated 2 million non-Jewish Poles perished during the Second World War. From the beginning of the occupation of Poland, the Polish population was subject to terror, mass executions and indiscriminate retributions against whole communities in which there was resistance. The occupation of Poland was harsher than in any Western European country. There was no collaborationist government created in Poland and Poles organised the largest resistance movement to Nazi occupation in Europe. Occupied Poland was the only territory under Nazi occupation, where any kind of help for Jews was punishable by death not just for the helper but also for their entire family. Despite this, Polish citizens have the world's highest count of individuals who have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations as non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from extermination during the Holocaust. It is estimated that around 50,000 Poles were executed directly for helping Jews. 

It is perhaps impossible to imagine what it was like to have lived under this occupation and to try to think how one would have acted in such a situation. The destruction, fear and barbarism inflicted by the Nazis on Poland was simply on a scale which is not possible to comprehend. The Poles were victims of this occupation. There is no ‘but’ which can follow that sentence, no qualification that can be added which can in anyway demean it. The occupation took place in a society that was divided before the war, in which growing right-wing nationalism (that had spread throughout the continent) was often combined with antisemitism against the large Jewish population. During the war these divisions were exploited by the Nazis and there were cases when some Poles instigated the killing of Jews. No country is made up of just good or bad people and no history is ever black and white.

The new law not only clouds history but uses the tragedy of the Nazi occupation for current political gain. The Polish government and right-wing media are ratcheting up the atmosphere in Poland by spreading the belief that there is an international campaign to blame Poland for the holocaust and to claim that the concentration camps were ‘Polish’. The bill potentially moves the painful discussions between communities and amongst historians to the courts and spreads uncertainty and fear about what can be said. Some leading politicians connected to the government (such as the Education Minister Anna Zalewska) have cast doubt on the judgement previously passed by the Institute of National Remembrance that the massacre of Jews in the village of Jedwabne was carried out by Poles. Imagine for a moment that this ruling was reversed by the government, would it then be illegal to state that Poles were responsible for this tragedy?

Inciting Reaction

The political purpose of this bill seems to be one of inflaming the emotions and hostilities within a section of the Polish population. After running a negative propaganda campaign against refugees and Muslims, the right-wing government and media are now opening up the Pandora box of antisemitism. 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of one of the darkest passages in the history of the Polish People’s Republic, when thousands of Jews were expelled from the country Within contemporary Poland (where there is now a very small Jewish population) antisemitism remains high, although it had been steadily declining. From the early 1990s to 2005 those expressing a dislike for Jews stood at around half of the population. However, this had declined to just 27% by 2010 (when for the first time more Poles had a positive than negative attitude towards Jews); before then rising to 32% in 2015. This Act has provoked an explosion of antisemitism on social media led by a vocal racist minority in the country. Prominent right-wing publicists have joked that perhaps we should also use the phrase ‘Jewish Concentration Camps’. At a demonstration organised by the far-right National Movement outside the President’s Palace (campaigning for him to sign the Act), a banner was unfurled with the slogan urging President Duda to “tear off his yarmulke”.  

The government has also responded with its own campaign based around the slogan ‘German Death Camps’. The government claims that the fact that the concentration camps were German and that the holocaust carried out by Germans should always be underlined. Recently, there have even been calls for the names of concentration camps such as Majdanek or Auschwitz to be changed to include the word German. This is based on the falsehood that people from abroad do not understand who the Nazis were and where they came from. By consistently emphasising the obvious fact that they were German, downplays the fact that they were fascist camps. It is overlooked that fascism was not confined to Germany or unique to it;  that some collaborated with it; and that it remains a threat today. This revision of history has been accompanied by members of the government and right-wing media claiming that Hitler was actually ‘left-wing’. A prominent right-wing historian, Piotr Zychowicz, who has popularised this absurdity, even published a book claiming that the best solution for Poland in 1939 would have been to have allied with the Third Reich and helped to defeat the Soviet Union.

The Reaction from Israel

The right-wing nationalist reaction in Poland has been replicated by some similar responses by sections of the Israeli right. The Jewish community, domestically and internationally, had criticised the bill before it was passed in parliament; and after its passing, the condemnation of the bill was immediate and strong, expressing the real fear that open discussion about the holocaust in Poland will be censored. However, the reactions of some Israeli politicians have themselves been inflammatory and offensive. For example, the opposition party leader, Yair Lapid, tweeted that the Holocaust : ‘was conceived in Germany but hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered without ever meeting a German soldier. There were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that.” Also the Education Minister, Naftali Bennett’s, proposed visit to Poland was cancelled due to him claiming that  “many Polish people, all over the country, chased, informed or actively took part in the murder of over 200,000 Jews during, and after, the Holocaust’  and that he would come to Poland to tell the truth. Bennet is a member of the extreme right-wing Home Party who believes that there is no room for Palestine in the ‘God-given’ Land of Israel.

This Act has inflamed emotions, pushed the discussion about the terrible shared history of Nazi occupation to the extremes and given impetus to the most right-wing nationalist voices in Israel as well as in Poland. This push to the extremes has been criticised by Warsaw’s Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich. He has condemned the bill and noted that there is real concern within Poland’s Jewish population about what is happening in the country. Simultaneously, he has stated that: “Some of the things I’ve heard said out of Israel in the last week are also horrifying. These claims against Poland which simply are not true and clearly not helpful. And more than not helpful -- just wrong,” 

Ukrainian Collaboration

The second controversial element of this bill refers to the actions of Ukrainian nationalists during the war. This part reads:

“Article 2a. Within the meaning of the Act, crimes committed by Ukrainian nationalists and members of Ukrainian units collaborating with the Third Reich constitute acts committed by Ukrainian nationalists between 1925 and 1950 which involved the use of violence, terror or other human rights violations against individuals or population groups. Participating in the extermination of the Jewish population and genocide of citizens of the Second Polish Republic in Volhynia and Eastern Malopolska [Lesser Poland] also constitute a crime committed by Ukrainian nationalists and members of Ukrainian units collaborating with the Third Reich.”

History is never discussed in a vacuum but is shaped by contemporary political events. Relations between Ukraine and Poland have been in flux in recent years. Poland was a strong supporter of the Maidan protests in Ukraine, the overthrow of the Yanukovych government and they backed the Ukrainian government in the military conflict in eastern Ukraine. Prominent politicians from Poland, including the now ruling party PiS (amongst them Jarosław Kaczyński), took part in the Maidan protests in Kiev. The raising of the historical nationalist flags of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and the growth of right-wing nationalism and paramilitary units was largely ignored by Poland and the West. In April 2015, the Ukrainian parliament even passed a law recognising UPA as a ‘fighter of freedom and independence’ on the same day that the then Polish President Bronisław Komorowski had addressed the Ukrainian parliament. Such hypocrisy and irresponsibility is not confined to Poland, with western politicians and commentators of all political stripes (not least those who profess to be the most liberal) condemning any criticism of the far-right in Ukraine as being exaggerated and simply Russian propaganda.

Ukraine has been undergoing its own process of historical revisionism and censorship. As well as praising the Ukrainian nationalists (many of whom participated in the murder of Jews and Poles and fought alongside the Nazis) the Ukrainian government has begun to censor those who present another version of history. Antony Beevor's bestselling history book Stalingrad has been banned by the Ukrainian government, for a passage telling how 90 Jewish children had been shot by Ukrainian militia “to save the feelings of the Sonderkommando”, the work units made up of the Nazis’ death camp prisoners. 

The Ukrainian government has condemned the Polish law on ‘Ukrainian’ war crimes saying that it curtails freedom of expression and is a step towards party censorship.  Whilst they are undoubtedly correct in this respect, they fail completely to recognise how they are making the same mistakes. Nationalism is rising in both Poland and Ukraine and both populations have historical grievances against the other. Furthermore, there has been a huge migration of Ukrainians to Poland over the past couple of years, with around two million Ukrainians now legally working in the country. These migrants have largely successfully integrated into Polish society, although attacks on Ukrainians in Poland have been growing. However, the  growth of nationalism in both countries and the opening of historical disputes between them potentially threatens these largely peaceful relations.

International Repercussions

One of the most curious aspects of these events is the changing international relations between the USA and three of its closest international allies: Poland, Israel and Ukraine.

Just a few months back Donald Trump visited Warsaw and heaped praise on Poland and its government. His right-wing nationalist rhetoric chimed with those of the Polish government, stating that the main threats to the world are Russia and Islamic terrorism; and historically that Nazism and Communism were ‘twin evils’. Trump was the first President in decades not to visit the monument of the 1943 Ghetto Uprising by Jews, when visiting Warsaw. Furthermore, he had consulted with the far-right historian Marek Jan Chodakiewicz on his speech in Warsaw. As noted by Rafał Pankowski, from the Never Again anti-racist network, Chodakiewicz is known as a denier of Polish responsibility for acts of antisemitism, including the infamous Jedwabne pogrom of 1941,” (..)“He has repeatedly claimed Jews themselves were chiefly responsible for the hostility of their Polish neighbours. Accusations of Jewish involvement with Communism have been present in many of Chodakiewicz’s writings.” 

On the day that the Act was passed in the Polish parliament, the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was visiting Warsaw as part of an international tour. He did not make any statement about the Act at the time and it was only after Israel complained about the Act that the US government also responded with a similar condemnation. It can only be assumed that the Polish and US governments were taken by surprise by the reaction of Israel. Recently Poland has strengthened its relations with Israel and the USA, as those with the European Union and Germany have soured. Poland was only one of a few countries that did not vote against the US bill at the United Nations to recognise Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel; and it recently signed a memorandum of intent to buy both the Patriot missile system from the USA along with interceptor missiles from Israel’s David Sling missile defense system. Moreover, as noted above, Poland and Ukraine had become strong allies, united in their attitudes towards such things as international economic sanctions against Russia and increasing the military presence of Nato in the region.

The Polish Act on Historical Memory has revealed Poland's growing tensions with Israel and Ukraine. This is partly an effect of the weakening of America’s international power. America continues to be world’s largest military power and the greatest exporter of arms in the world. It is strategically allied to Ukraine and Poland as part of its long stated aim of extending its military to Russia’s borders; and Israel is its main ally in the Middle East and reliant upon American arms and military support. This reality is not going to change soon and therefore it is to be expected that eventually some form of compromise may be found that can at least temporarily calm down the tensions between these three nations. However,  any global hegemon has to have a mixture of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ powers. America no longer has much to offer these countries beyond selling its weapons and providing its ill-fated security. Its declining economic weight in the world means that the USA is no longer able to pay for complicity and export its vision of the ‘American Dream’ as it once had. During the Trump era, its flawed image as a defender of human rights (even at home)  is exposed as a fraud. By backing the nationalist  and conservative administrations within its own allied states, the USA is helping to build nationalist hostilities between these counties. The reopening of  historical disputes, reaching back to World War Two, reflects how many of the stabilities and securities of the post-war world continue to disintegrate.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

'Independence March' - The Unholy Alliance of the Polish Right

The annual Independence march (Marsz Niepodległości) took place in Warsaw on 11 November. Over 60,000 people attended, some of them masked and setting off red smoke bombs. Banners were carried with slogans supporting things such as a ‘white’ Poland and Europe and against refugees and Muslims. Some demonstrators wore the Celtic cross or the pre-war fascist symbol (the falanga). Representatives of other far-right parties in Europe attended the march, with the former leader of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, boasting that he ‘had an amazing time with polish patriots marching against Islam’.

The sight of such a march in the middle of Europe has reverberated around the world. Many media outlets claimed that  tens of thousands of fascists and white supremacists had marched through Warsaw. On the other hand, many attending the march have claimed that they are just patriots wanting to commemorate the date when Poland regained independence 99 years ago. They argue that the racist banners or symbols were held by a small minority of the demonstrators and that the media has deliberately misrepresented the demonstration in order to discredit Poland and its government. Whilst these claims of innocence and persecution are untrue (although the false reports that a banner calling for a ‘holocaust against Muslims’ are counterproductive) it is important to understand the true character of the Independence march and what lessons anti-fascists can learn from it.

The Independence march had originally been organised by three of Poland’s main far-right groups: All-Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska), the National-Radical Camp (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny) and the National Rebirth of Poland (Narodowe Odrodzenie Polski). During its early years demonstrators would congregate in front of the statue of Poland’s pre-war historic figure Roman Dmowski, many demonstrators dressed in paramilitary uniforms and it was not uncommon to see participants giving the ‘hitler salute’. Anti-fascist demonstrators organised counter-demonstrations and were often successful in blocking the march from going along its designated route.

However, from 2011 a new coalition was formed to organise the demonstration. The fascist roots of the march were disguised, the uniforms put away and the fascist salutes discouraged. An alliance was formed between the far-right, groups of football hooligans and importantly the growing catholic conservative right. The demonstrations grew in size, boosted by the growth of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) as the main opposition party. Although the demonstrations often ended with hooliganism and vandalism, the far-right had managed to hegemonise the right and bring different sections of the conservative and patriotic right under its banner. From 2014 the attempt by anti-fascists to block the march was abandoned – simply because it was too weak to do so and the far-right had managed to convince many that this was no longer a fascist march. This new alliance has been further strengthened since PiS formed a government in 2015.

Since coming into office PiS has systematically promoted an ideology that includes Islamophobia and anti-refugee sentiments, whilst being silent and uncritical of the activities of the far-right. This has helped build a hostile atmosphere towards immigrants and refugees amongst a section of society, based around the idea that Poland is one of the last bastions defending a Christian and white Europe. PiS treats the far-right as do the conservative government in Hungary or Trump in the USA. This means that they are the de-facto radical wing of the government. Just as Trump refuses to condemn the far-right demonstration in Charlottesville, so the Polish government actually praises the Independence march in Warsaw in which many of its supporters took part. 

Such developments should act as a stark warning to the anti-fascist movement and left in the rest of Europe. Countries such as Poland or Hungary are not exceptional cases, nor are they societies that are somehow predisposed towards racism or fascism. They are countries that have undergone far deeper and more stringent processes of neo-liberal economic reform and social dislocation over the past couple of decades. Furthermore their mainstream left-wing parties essentially collapsed over 15 years ago – a process that has recently been replicated to some degree in many western European countries. Combined with the disillusionment with the left existent in most ‘post-Communist’ countries, the grounds for the rise of fascist ideology is ripe. The equating of fascism and communism that was propagated even by liberals and parts of the left throughout the transition is now being used by the right as a new means for discrediting the left and promoting the traditions of fascism. It is not true that 60,000 fascists and white supremacists marched through Warsaw last Saturday – as many international journalists claimed. The largest far-right party in Poland is estimated to number no more than 5,000 members. However, bolstered by the acceptance and support of the government, the far-right have managed to build support for their racist and hateful ideology far beyond their own actual base. It is this alliance that has to be broken in countries like Poland, Hungary and the USA and prevented from forming in other states.

On the same day as the Independence march, a few thousand anti-fascists organised an alternative demonstration in Warsaw. This brought together anti-fascists, the left, LGBT organisations, trade unionists and individuals who are simply disgusted at the sight of fascists walking through a city that had been razed to the ground by the Nazis. Next year is the 100 anniversary of the date when Poland regained independence. The far-right will see this as an opportunity to organise an even larger Independence day march. The challenge for those opposed to racism and fascism is to find a way of uniting and organising a progressive alternative to this and showing that fascism and racism are unacceptable in Poland and that they once again become discredited and marginalised. 

Friday, 23 December 2016

As PiS Tightens its Grip on Power, The Left Faces a Number of Choices

As 2016 draws to a close the political crisis in Poland has taken a new turn for the worse. In line with international trends, Polish society is now divided into two competing and conflicting groups. The functioning of the democratic system has ground to a halt as an open conflict between the government and the opposition has spread from the parliament and onto the streets. The parliamentary chamber is currently being occupied by opposition MPs, with the area of the parliament under the control and surveillance of a large number of police. The government has said that during this period of protest, members of the armed forces may patrol the streets of the capital alongside the police. The trade union confederation, Solidarność (once the mass movement of the opposition during Communism), has said that if this situation continues it will consider sending its members onto the streets against the opposition to bring order. The leader of PiS (and de facto head of state) Jarosław Kaczyński, has said that the MPs inside parliament are breaking the law, whilst the opposition parties are claiming that the government is acting against the constitution and moving the country in a more authoritarian direction. The situation is serious and unpredictable and events can change very quickly both inside and outside of parliament. At the time of writing the opposition MPs have declared that they will continue their occupation throughout the Christmas period

This latest crisis started on Friday 16 December, during a debate on the budget in parliament. An opposition MP began his speech by holding up a sign in protest at a bill that proposes to restrict the access of the media in parliament. The Speaker of the House then refused this MP the right to speak in the debate, which in turn resulted in MPs from the opposition parties (Citizens’ Platform (PO) and Modern) occupying the podium in the parliament. The government then took the decision to adjourn to a side room to vote on the budget bill through a show of hands. The opposition accused the government of breaking the constitution, as there was no way of being sure who attended this debate or what the vote actually was. With the opposition MPs still occupying the parliamentary chamber, protestors began to gather outside the parliamentary building. Eventually these protesters were cleared forcibly by the police. Demonstrations continued in Warsaw throughout the weekend (both outside the Presidential Palace and parliamentary building), with the police erecting a metal cordon in front of the parliament and moving protestors in the middle of the night away from the entrance to the parliament.

The government has since climbed down from its proposals to restrict media access to parliament. However, opposition parties are arguing that the vote on the budget should be re-held as the previous one was unconstitutional. At present a stand-off continues, but the government has not wasted time to cement its position during this period of crisis. It has finalised the taking over of the Constitutional Court, thus removing one of the potential obstacles to the government. This means that PiS now has total political power (the government, Presidency and Constitutional Tribunal), the first time that any political party has achieved such a position in over a quarter of a century. Over the past year, it has brought the state media further under its control and introduced a law that places some restrictions on the right to demonstrate and assemble. The democratic accountability of the government is further complicated, due to the fact that Kaczyński holds no formal governmental position (apart from being an MP), although he is the decisive voice of the Polish government and state.

The demonstrations on the streets of Warsaw during the past few days have been angry and determined, but their size has been relatively small (numbering a few thousands of people – contrary to some exaggerated claims in the international media). These were much smaller than the demonstrations organised by the opposition movement, (Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD)) a year ago, and the women’s protests organised in the autumn against the proposed anti-abortion bill, which spread around the country beyond the major cities. Furthermore, the political leadership of the opposition movement now seems to have moved away from KOD and its self-appointed leader Mateusz Kijowski, with the leaders of PO and Modern heading the demonstrations and providing them with their political direction. This plays into the hands of the government, with Kaczyński attempting to consolidate the opposition by offering the ‘compromise’ of creating the position of an ‘official opposition’ that would hold a special role within the state. Although opposition parties have not as yet taken up this offer, the leaders of the opposition movement have been calling in recent days for a unified movement against the government. Whilst the temptation of unity is luring, under its current leadership the opposition would be further reduced to a minority of society and become incapable of mounting a serious challenge to the government.

The leaders of the opposition movement are largely made up of people who had been connected to the previous government and/or former centre-right governments in Poland. Many had belonged to the Solidarność movement during Communism, and then became part of the new liberal establishment that governed Poland. These people have come to regard themselves as the natural holders of power, the enlightened men and women who had helped to transform Poland into a modern European economy and democracy, integrated into the institutions of the West. Their outlook was restricted to their own social milieu, which increasingly viewed Poland from a position of privilege. They did not see the long-lasting effects of the communities destroyed by the shock-therapy reforms; they were not reliant on the crumbling health system; nor did they understand the resentment of those living at the bottom of a social system with the highest income disparities in the EU. They were not part of families that were torn apart by the need to find work in other countries nor the more than 1/5 of the employed that are working on zero hour contracts.

The arrogance of their time in power came to the fore towards the end of the PO government. Secretly recorded in the VIP room of a high class restaurant, Ministers and bankers made deals and revealed in lewd language that what they said in public had nothing to do with their actual opinions ( During the Presidential campaign, the incumbent Bronisław Komorowski could barely drag himself from his residence to talk to the voters, thus handing the political initiative to his competitor Andrzej Duda who then claimed an unlikely victory after having previously trailed far behind in the polls. The poster-boy of liberalism and leader of Modern, Ryszard Petru, had spent decades working for financial institutions and advising on the introduction of a compulsory private pension scheme that nearly bankrupted the state and has left millions facing a retirement in poverty.

And now PiS has filled this void, by introducing the first significant downward redistribution of wealth in over a quarter of a century. The government’s decision to provide 500 złoty (113 euro) a month for every second and above child has effectively wiped out a large part of child poverty in one stroke. Poverty in Poland most harshly affects children, with over 30% of those living in absolute poverty being under 18 years of age and families with more than two children being particularly at risk.  One can argue about the merits of this social transfer (it excludes those with only one child, the funds would be better spent investing in public services, etc.) but the present government has done more to alleviate poverty than any of the liberal or left governments that have been in power over the past couple of decades. And it doesn’t stop there. The government has also raised the minimum wage and reduced the pension age, thus claiming to live up to its promise of representing the people and not the corrupt elite.

Is it little wonder then that a mass nationwide movement for democracy throughout the country has not developed? Can we really expect people to risk these social transfers in order to defend a Constitutional Tribunal or allow journalists to interview politicians in parliament? Do these failed representatives of liberal economics really believe that they can raise the symbols of Solidarność after they had previously left behind the very people who had built this movement in the first place?

In recent months the liberal centre has become increasingly radicalised, as it sees its former privileged position slipping away. It has urged its supporters onto the streets and taken on the government head on, in an attempt to remove it from power. Such a strategy is unlikely to be successful. Firstly, as outlined above, the opposition has not been able to win the support of the majority of the population, with PiS still retaining its standing in the polls as the country’s most popular party. The government is finding it easy to use its public media to paint the opposition as frustrated members of the old elite who cannot accept the democratic will of the population. Also, if these street protests and actions were to lead to confrontation with the authorities, then they would almost certainly end in defeat. Not only does the government control the police and the army, but in the past year territorial guards have been setup that may be used in the future during a period of unrest Furthermore, the far-right have become increasingly active and organised and are often connected to groups of football hooligans. Add to this the threat made by the leader of the Solidarność trade union, and the opposition should understand what a weak position it is in. Any talk of organising a Maidan in Poland should be rejected as being completely irresponsible and something that would end in further defeat and possible repression.

The left therefore has a particularly important role to play, as the divide between the liberal and conservative right grows. Some parts of the left have effectively boycotted the opposition demonstrations and organised their own activities, whilst others have critically participated in them. The left has been divided and unable to offer a coherent strategy on the how to oppose the PiS government. However, there are signs of the left beginning to work together, with a coalition of left organisations and parties recently organising a successful demonstration outside the Presidential Palace, urging him not to sign a bill on the education reform.  The proposed education reform could be hugely disruptive to children’s education, threaten the jobs of teachers and move the curriculum in a more conservative direction. The teachers trade union (ZNP) has also organised a number of demonstrations against this education reform and has declared that it will call a nationwide strike in the new year.

To cite Gramsci, the opposition has to move from a war of manoeuvre to one of position. This means setting out to win the support of different social layers and creating a majority position against the conservative-nationalist government. Firstly, the left has to oppose all attempts by the government to erode democratic and civil rights. This may mean sometimes demonstrating alongside the liberal opposition, but it should do so as a united left with its own slogans, banners, etc. Secondly, the left has to offer a political alternative to PiS that promises to maintain and improve the social transfers offered by government, whilst simultaneously proposing a programme of increased public economic and social investment to raise economic growth and employment and offer real solutions to the crisis in public services such as health, education and pensions. The PiS government is pursuing a policy of national capitalism, as it seeks to strengthen domestic capital. It’s social transfers provide it with a temporary base of support, however with the European economies slowing and investment declining it is going to be hard to maintain sufficient economic growth to secure increased public spending. At some point, it will renegade on its social promises and seek to raise the rate of exploitation to benefit domestic companies. It is then that the true nature of the PiS government will become clear and when the left needs to be ready to win the support of those dissatisfied with the economic policies of the government. The government has already began to show how it is essentially a pro-business party, by rejecting a progressive reform of the Polish taxation system. Finally, the left has to lead those that are opposed to the conservative and nationalist policies of the government. The liberal opposition has proven itself completely inadequate in this area, as shown for example when KOD demonstrated under the symbols of the pre-war far-right leader Roman Dmowski on National Independence Day and openly criticised the anti-fascist movement. Moreover, many in PO and Modern hold conservative policies on many matters (such as reproductive and sexual rights), which provides space for the left to fill. The abortion protests earlier this year indicate the breadth of opposition to many of the most extreme policies of the conservative camp and at how these most harshly affect some of the most disadvantaged sections of society. Opposition to the education reform is potentially another issue that may unite diverse social groups under the leadership of a trade union and the left.

 In order for the left to take advantage of such situations then it has to forge a political direction and organisational framework that can bring together its disparate elements. It is around three years until the next elections, so any talk of electoral pacts or coalitions can be put on hold for a while. The dangerous shift to the right in Poland and the drift towards authoritarianism and nationalism should be incentive enough for the left to unite in action against the present government.  

Monday, 20 June 2016

Economic Convergence Not Migration is the Major Issue Facing the EU

The EU referendum campaign in Britain has been focused almost entirely upon the question of immigration. The specific focus of the Leave campaign has been about the supposed need to restrict immigration, arguing that if Britain left the EU it could control the amount of immigrants arriving from other EU countries. This of course diverts attention away from the failures of the Conservative Party government and the policies of austerity, onto blaming immigrants. It fails to account for the huge positive economic effect of immigration in Britain and it also does not consider what is driving migration and at how these trends may change.

The major source of EU migration over the past decade has been from the Central and Eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 (I exclude Croatia here due to the short time it has been a member of the EU). The biggest of these countries is Poland (with a population of around 38 million), with Poles making up the largest number of EU migrants. 

In 2014 it was estimated that around 685,000 Poles lived in the UK, up from 150,00 in 2004. This is a very active section of the population, with almost 90% either in permanent work or education and one that pays much more in taxes than it takes out in benefits. Although the Polish community is now a well established part of British society, the number of immigrants arriving has significantly slowed, growing by just 60,000 between 2010 and 2014. In contrast more than 140,000 Poles have moved to Germany for work during the same period. 

The reasons for the large outflow of Polish workers over the past decade are clear. The CEE countries underwent a huge economic decline after the end of Communism, although this decline was much shallower than in many of the countries of the ex-USSR. These countries' economies were deindustrialised, creating huge pools of poverty, large social inequalities and deep structural unemployment. In Poland prior to joining the EU its economy was in stagnation and unemployment had reached almost 20%. 

This neo-liberal transition to capitalism brought huge benefits to the stronger economies in the west. Western companies began to buy up and monopolise large sections of the CEE economy. They had a new and expanded market for their products in the east and access to a fresh supply of highly skilled and cheap labour. This movement of capital is less evident than the movement of people to many people in countries like Britain, despite the fact that they have hugely benefited from it. 

The CEE countries had already been incorporated into the international division of labour as semi peripheral economies prior to EU entry. It was therefore inevitable that there would be a period of mass migration westwards. During the initial stage following EU entry only Ireland, Sweden and the UK opened up their labour markets to the new countries from CEE (there was a 7 year period before all countries were compelled to do so). It is to the great merit of the then Labour Party government that it immediately opened up its labour market to CEE workers. However, this was done in an extremely disingenuous manner. The official estimates of the government  prior to EU enlargement were that just 13,000 Poles would come to Britain. By not openly recognising the reality of the situation, the government not only failed to prepare the British population for this social and demographic change, but more importantly did not carry out the  necessary investment (in public services and housing) that was needed to facilitate the flow of people. Rather than fully using this as an opportunity to develop the country,  migrants were seen to be undercutting the wages of British workers; whilst public services, housing, transport, etc countinued to deteriorate. In the wake of the economic recession and years of austerity,  UKiP and the Conservative Party have found a receptive audience for their xenophobic and reactionary ideas. 

The scaremongering tactics of the Leave campaign is based upon the idea that Britain will continue to be 'flooded' by hoards of migrants from CEE. However, as shown above, the flow of immigrants from countries like Poland has significantly slowed, a trend which is likely to continue. Although the countries of CEE are still poorer than those in the west, since joining the EU these countries have drawn closer to the living standards in Western Europe. The graph below shows GDP per capita in the CEE countries (100 = the average of the whole EU). As we can see, in almost all of the CEE countries (excluding Slovenia) GDP per capita has grown closer to the EU average over the past decade or so. This has been particularly marked in countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. In some CEE states (particularly the Baltic countries) this  stalled following the outbreak of the economic crisis in 2008, but the trend towards convergence has once again continued. 

The reasons for this convergence are two-fold. Firstly, has been the inflow of EU funds to these poorer countries, which for the first time since the transition from Communism represented some sort of redistribution of capital eastwards. During the transition private capital tended to be tied to privatisations and/or the buying up and monopolisation of large parts of these countries' economies. Although the EU funds are insufficient in size and not concentrated on developing these countries' productive sectors, they have at least developed parts of their infrastructure and helped to boost economic growth. This allowed many of these countries to avoid the economic catastrophe suffered by  many countries in Southern Europe following the financial crisis. Secondly, the ability to move and work in other EU countries eased unemployment and allowed people to work and earn abroad. Many of these workers have returned to their home countries with savings and new skills. 

The CEE countries are still blighted with huge social and economic problems and are considerably poorer than the countries to their west. They face their own rise in nationalism and political authoritarianism, which will  be boosted by Britain leaving the EU.  Whatever happens on June 23 Britain will still belong to Europe and be tied to the European economy. If divisions between the richer and poorer countries start to diverge again then new waves of migration will open up (whether these be legal or illegal). The issue is not whether people are free to move within Europe or not. This is a right that benefits everyone in the EU, not least the more than 2 million Brits that live in other EU countries. Rather, the real problems are the large economic inequalities between EU countries and regions and whether Europe can further integrate and converge. 

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

First they Came for the Communists.....

The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has unleashed a campaign of anti-Communism in a country

where there are hardly any Communists. They have begun a process of decommunisation, where there is no communism. The aim of the government is to ideologically push the country further to the right and open the way for greater attacks on the wider left.

A regional court has sentenced 4 activists from the Communist Party of Poland for allegedly supporting a 'totalitarian' regime and propagating communist ideology in their newspaper and website. They have been sentenced to 9 months of limited freedom, with obligatory community work and a fine. 

They have been accused of breaching an article in the penal court that states: 'Whoever publicly promotes a fascist or other totalitarian system or state or incites hatred based on national, ethnic, race or religious differences or for reason of lack of any religious denomination shall be subject to a fine, the penalty of restriction of liberty or the penalty of deprivation of liberty for up to 2 years'. Previous attempts to add a ban on Communist symbols were rejected by the Constitutional Court in 2011 after protests in Poland and abroad that this would violate human rights.

The case against activists frm the KPP had previously been brought to court in 2013, by the PiS MP Bartosz Kownacki. Howeverf the Prosecutor's Office refused to initiate the proceedings. This changed after the election of PiS and on 31 December 2015 the Regional Prosecutor's Office in Katowice issued a case in the Regional Court in Dábrowa Górnicza. The act stated that the activists were publicly promoting a totalitarian system by publishing articles ' directly related with the communist system and Marxism-Leninism, which in the context of historical experience is contradictory with democratic values'

This potentially means that anyone now using the work of Marx (or other Marxist writers and ideas) could be prosecuted under the law. This is a direct attack on democracy and human rights and could be used to repress other left-wing activists, academics and groups. 

Simultaneously, the PiS government has recently passed in parliament a “decommunisation” bill, whose stated aim is to remove any remaining Communist symbols from public spaces. However, there are no Communist monuments in Poland anymore, nor streets or squares named after figures such as Marx or Lenin. The bill rather aims to remove from the public sphere any reference to the Polish People's Republic (PRL) and to the country's socialist and anti-fascist history. 

The Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) has published a list of street names that should be removed. These include the names of the 19th Century socialists Ludwik Waryński and Stefan Okrzeja who died fighting the Tsarist regime. They are also threatening to change the name of the street in Warsaw named after the Dąbrowski Battalion, which comprised of Polish volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. In the city of Gdańsk some right-wing politicians want to rename such a street after Margaret Thatcher. Such name changes are widely opposed by the residents of these streets, although their opinions are not being taken into account. 

A further element of this 'anti-communist' drive, is to remove monuments commemorating the role that the Red Army played in defeating Fascism (600,000 Red Army soldiers died on Polish soil). In the city of Rzeszów (which was liberated by the Red Army) a decision has already been made to remove such a monument. However, opinion polls show that around 80-90% of the city's residents do not want the monument removed. 

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Egyptian Man in Critical State, After Latest Racist Attack in Poland

A 40 year old Egyptian man is in a critical state in hospital after undergoing an attack by a group of nationalists in Gdańsk.

The attack took place on Sunday afternoon as the man returned home from a party of Egyptians. The attackers beat him until he lost his consciousness. As yet none of the attackers have been caught.

This recent attack is an example of a wave of racist attacks that have taken place in recent months, as an atmosphere of nationalism and hostility to immigrants has risen.

These include:

- In September a group of 13 year olds in Świnoujście beat their colleague because he was black. They admitted that they had been inspired by the slogans of an anti-immigrant demonstration that had been held in the city a few days earlier. 

- A few weeks later in Poznań a Syrian was brutally attacked by a young nationalist, ending up in hospital with serious injuries. In the same city a Chilean dancer was recently attacked being told to 'f**k of out of the country'. 

- In Szczeciń a well-known musician from the group Raggafay was attacked being told 'he was not Polish

- In Kraków a bouncer attacked a British Sikh man, as he did not like his turban.

- In Warsaw a few weeks ago a group attacked a Pakistani man in a park, resulting in him going to hospital with serious injuries. 

- Recently in the city of Rzeszów a Portuguese exchange student was beaten by a professional soldier. 

(Information in this article taken from the website )