Poland independence day marred by controversy

Poland independence day marred by controversy

Fears of violence as Polish state intervenes in nationalist march

The March of Independence, organised by nationalist and far-right groups and held annually in the Polish capital on 11 November to commemorate the anniversary of the re-establishment of Polands independence in 1918, has grown dramatically in scale over the past decade, attracting activists from across Europe.

Last years event, which attracted an estimated 60,000 people, received widespread international condemnation for the presence of racist and xenophobic banners and slogans and instances of violence directed at counter-protesters. This years event, which was expected to attract an even bigger turnout, threatened to overshadow official state commemorations.

On Wednesday Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, Warsaws outgoing mayor and a leading figure in the opposition Civic Platform party, announced that the march would be banned, citing concerns over security and expressions of hatred.

Warsaw has already suffered enough due to aggressive nationalism, she said. Polands 100th anniversary of independence shouldnt look like this, hence my decision to forbid it.

The organisers of the march lodged an appeal against the ban and said they intended to march regardless. The March of Independence will take place, as it does every year, said Robert Winnicki, leader of the far-right National Movement. Liberal despotism will not rob Poles of the possibility to celebrate.

Hours after the mayors announcement, Andrzej Duda, Polands rightwing president, said the Polish state would be organising its own march at the same time and along the same route as the banned march, effectively assuming direct control of the event.

The move appeared to be an improvised solution to a longstanding dilemma for Duda, who has often courted Polands nationalist youth and has spent recent months weighing up whether or not to participate in the march.

Duda and the government had been engaged in negotiations with the organisers in the hope that they could be persuaded to march under state auspices in return for agreeing not to allow racist or extremist banners. The talks broke down but Gronkiewicz-Waltzs announcement gave the government a pretext to intervene.

The mayors decision was a blessing for Duda and the government because it allowed the liberal opposition to take the blame from the nationalists for banning their march, whilst avoiding the possibility of a neo-fascist festival being held on the centenary of our independence, said Michał Szułdrzyński, a columnist with Rzeczpospolita, a centre-right broadsheet.

But the decision of the authorities to assume control of the event has sparked widespread concern, which was exacerbated on Thursday night when a Warsaw court overturned the mayors ban, arguing that it contravened the right to assembly. It is unclear whether by taking control of the event in the meantime the state authorities have effectively banned the far-right movements from their own march, and on what legal basis.

The confusion is playing out against the backdrop of security fears, after mass protests by Polish officers and other security officials. Prevented by Polish law from going on strike, police officers held a large demonstration in Warsaw last month and have been taking sick leave en masse, leading to severe shortages across the country.

The government said the defence ministry had assumed responsibility for security at the march and extremist symbols would be banned, raising the prospect of confrontations between radical groups and military personnel on the streets of Warsaw. The US Embassy in Warsaw has issued a security alert advising citizens to avoid the march route.

The downside for the authorities of the state assuming responsibility for what happens on Sunday is that if anything goes wrong, there will be no one else to blame, Szułdrzyński said. Instead of being full of excitement and happiness, we are fearing for the safety of people in our capital.

next Image 1 of 2FILE – In this Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, file photo, Demonstrators burn flares and wave Polish flags during the annual march to commemorate Polands National Independence Day in Warsaw, Poland. Thousands of nationalists marched in Warsaw on Polands Independence Day holiday, taking part in an event that was organized by far-right groups. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

WARSAW, Poland – Poland's Defense Ministry will handle security during an Independence Day march this weekend in Warsaw as police are staging mass walkouts in a pay dispute that has created concerns about keeping people safe.

Over the past decade, radical nationalists have staged marches featuring racist banners and rioting on Nov.11 as Poles celebrate their nation's independence, regained at the end of World War I after more than a century of foreign rule.

With security concerns running high, Warsaw's mayor on Wednesday banned the nationalists' march, and the president's and prime minister's offices quickly announced plans for an inclusive state march in its place.

Michal Dworczyk, chief of the Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki's chancellery, said that the Defense Ministry, in charge of the army, will organize security at events marking the centenary of Polish independence on Sunday.

In recent days many police officers — up to 60 percent of the force in some places — have gone on sick leave to protests their pay, raising concerns about how it will be possible to secure the march in Warsaw along with many other events across the nation on Sunday.

Another divisive issue has been a statue being unveiled Saturday of the late President Lech Kaczynski in a central Warsaw square. At nearly 7 meters (23 feet) it towers over a nearby monument of the national hero Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, the statesman who led Poland in regaining its independence a century ago.

Kaczynski, who was killed in a 2010 plane crash in Russia, was the identical twin of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of the right-wing Law and Justice party currently in power.

While Poles united in mourning the tragedy that took his life and 95 others, including the first lady, they are deeply divided on whether he deserves such heroic status.

In another development, the president signed a law late Wednesday that makes next Monday a day off work for Poles since the holiday falls on a Sunday.

Pro-business lawmakers and many in the business community say the last-minute organization of a day off is causing disruptions and chaos and warn it will affect their bottom line.

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