Tensions rise on Polish independence day

Divisions in country spark fear of violence during centenary events

WARSAW • Poles marked a century of independence yesterday amid tensions in the isolated and deeply polarised country over the prominent role that marginal far-right groups have 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 included the National Radical Camp, 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 last 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 last Friday in a tug of war with far-right groups over the scheduling of the two events. The sides confirmed later 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 expressed dismay.

"When the Polish government has to negotiate with far-right groups on the centenary it shows the weakness of the state," said cab driver Wojciech, who declined to provide his surname. "It's very sad and disappointing," he added.

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

European Council president Donald Tusk, a former liberal Polish prime minister, was the bloc's only senior representative in Warsaw yesterday. His visit comes amid speculation that he may return to run for president in 2020.

Mr Tusk urged national unity, 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.

Last Saturday, Mr 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 popularity among Poles and the assurances of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski that his party has no such designs.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 12, 2018, with the headline 'Tensions rise on Polish independence day'. Print Edition | Subscribe