As families across America gathered around their kitchen tables to give thanks this past month, a very different national holiday was playing out on the streets of Poland.
On November 11th, tens of thousands of Poles congregated in central Warsaw in commemoration of the country’s independence. But what might have been a unifying Independence Day celebration quickly turned divisive.
That Saturday, an estimated 60,000 Poles overtook their nation’s capital. Armed with torches, smoke bombs, and banners reading “Poland Will be White or Deserted”, these nationalists showcased the rising tide of intolerance that has been sweeping across the country ever since the Law and Justice Party (PiS) took power back in 2015.
In the aftermath of the Independence Day march, it is becoming increasingly clear that domestic and foreign institutions alike have failed to adequately address this torrent of hate emanating from Poland’s far-right. Instead, a nascent coalition of Polish feminists is emerging as the most promising opposition to the PiS party and its sympathizers.
On that same Independence Day, thousands of Polish women convened for a peaceful counter-protest in central Warsaw. Where their nationalistic male opponents held torches and firecrackers, these women waved white roses, chanted anti-fascist slogans, and held signs reading, “Warsaw is Disgraced.”
“We always think that women take the backseat in these types of demonstrations,” Lana Baydas of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) told The Politic. “But here, women took the frontlines.”
Although the organizers of the counterprotest tried to keep the two groups apart, many nationalists made their way into the counter demonstration where they pushed and kicked those peacefully assembled. The authorities also concentrated their efforts on the female counter-protesters. It has been reported that over 50 women, but no nationalists, were arrested. The majority of these women are now facing charges for contravening a lawful assembly.
These arrests are the product of new restrictions on free speech that were implemented by PiS in December of 2016. The Law on Public Assemblies seeks to protect “cyclical assemblies” devoted to patriotic, religious or historic events, like the Independence Day march, against the threat of counter-demonstrations.
The law, which directly violates E.U. human rights agreements, reflects PiS’s tacit support for Poland’s neo-fascist groups, for it is no secret that these groups plan their demonstrations on annual or “cyclical” national holidays.
On August 15th of this year, for example, a far-right protest was organized on Assumption Day, which celebrates the country’s victory over Russian Bolsheviks during the Polish-Soviet War. In response, Polish women organized a sit-in in Warsaw to block the nationalists’ march. Many counter-protesters carried generalized anti-fascist symbols, while others held up photos of Heather Heyer, the young woman killed in the Charlottesville, Virginia rally this summer. As with the Independence Day march, Polish authorities forcibly removed female counter-protestors but left those participating in the “cyclical assembly”, mostly men, alone.
Attention to the Law on Public Assemblies has been largely eclipsed in the media by the debate over the independence of the Polish judiciary. After the PiS party successfully merged the country’s highest prosecuting office with that of the Justice Minister, President Andrzej Duda was emboldened to place the whole of the judiciary under the Minister’s control. Though he claimed the change was necessary in order to “cleanse” the courts of those who have “lost the public trust”, thousands of civilians from cities throughout the country took to the streets to protest the measure. The spectacle quickly made international headlines, forcing Duda to forgo the proposed amendment.
However, for Baydas, who specializes in human rights at CSIS, restrictions on free speech and assembly, rather than judicial independence, are the most accurate indicators that a country is sliding towards authoritarianism.
“This is where it all starts,” Baydas explained. “Egypt is a classic example. You started to see some form of speech restrictions…The next step is the curtailing of freedom of assembly. And the third element is a clampdown on NGOs and restrictions on receiving foreign funds. This is the path Poland is going down.”
PiS’s takeover of public television and radio back in 2016 closely resembles their current campaign to subvert free speech and dissent.
For months now, TVP state television has functioned as a mouthpiece for PiS propaganda. The channel has slandered female opposition, describing “the face of protesters” as “pedophiles and child-support-payees.” TVP’s characterization has been picked up by various PiS party members such as Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the PiS party Chair, who described the white rose as a symbol of “extreme hate.”
In contrast, TVP described the Independence Day demonstration as a “great march of patriots”, one that drew in ordinary citizens who peaceably celebrated their country’s history.
The interior minister of Poland, Mariusz Blaszczak, took the same pro-nationalist view, calling the neo-fascist march a “beautiful sight.”
“We are proud that so many Poles have decided to take part in a celebration connected to the Independence Day holiday,” he said.
In a statement released the Monday after the Saturday march, President Andrzej Duda distanced himself from the protestors.
“There is no room…in our country for xenophobia, for pathological nationalism, for anti-Semitism,” he said.
Despite these words, the President has yet to take concrete steps to discipline or discredit the protesters. His government continues to prosecute only the counter-demonstrators and not far-right activists.
On November 15th, the European Union responded to the Polish government’s intransigence, calling on Polish officials “to take appropriate action on and strongly condemn the xenophobic and fascist march that took place in Warsaw” on Independence Day.
The statement was one of many efforts taken by the EU to combat the PiS in Poland. Most significantly, this July, the European Commission initiated a process outlined under Article 7(1) of the Treaty of the E.U. that would strip Poland of its voting rights. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic process to take away these rights is legally complicated and unlikely to produce immediate results.
Even if Poland does lose its voting ability, it may simply opt to leave the E.U. altogether. A ‘Pol-exit’ would allow the PiS to pursue its far-right agenda without facing the same degree of pushback from the E.U., which as an organization is premised on the values of democratic liberalism. Were Poland to leave the E.U., one can be sure that Russia would welcome the nation with open arms. In the hopes of encouraging other E.U. skeptics to secede, Putin would likely provide the Poles with enough resources and trade opportunities to offset whatever losses were incurred by their Union exit.
If the E.U. fails to provide the solution to the Polish dilemma, the international community might instead expect NATO members to intervene. But, NATO, being a security alliance, has neither an institutional precedent nor a structural mechanism to respond to human rights violations. This means that individual NATO countries would have to act outside of this institutional framework.
It is unlikely that individual NATO members will move to isolate Poland, which hosts major military bases for the U.S. and other NATO allies. Moreover, Poland has strategically positioned itself as a frontliner in defending allies against Russian aggression. Poland’s status as a geopolitical buffer and military outpost helps explain why President Trump largely ignored the nation’s anti-democratic trajectory. Instead, he praised PiS’s populist approach to governance on his visit this past summer.
If the E.U. and NATO ultimately fail to combat the PiS, female counter-protesters in Poland might be the country’s last fighting chance.
Female activism in Poland is not without precedent. Women were instrumental during the Solidarity movement in the 1980s, even though they largely worked behind the scenes in auxiliary roles, allowing men to dominate the frontlines and the front page.
But today, women stand at the helm of the fight to protect Polish democracy.
“Why is this?” Baydas mused. “They have been lobbying and advocating for their rights so they are more organized in terms of calling on each others support.”
In 2016, the PiS-dominated Parliament put forth a bill that would ban abortion throughout the country. That October, a women’s group named the Polish Women’s Strike (PWS) organized a mass strike in which over 100,000 women from 149 different towns and cities stayed home from work to rally on the streets for their reproductive rights. In the wake of the strike, PiS dropped their anti-abortion initiative.
According to PWS’ leader, Marta Lempart, the strike was a watershed moment for female activism in Poland. It marked a historic day when women stepped out into the public square and, for the first time, recognized their collective and unique power to champion change.
“This was the only fight against the [PiS] government that has been won since they took power,” she told The Politic. “This success gave us a sense of power and recognition…The E.U. is an important [source of opposition], but we are the ones with the physical presence, and that’s what makes a difference.”
Describing the October strike, another PWS coordinator, Marta Puczyńska, explained that, “Not only are we threatened right now by the ruling government’s dismantling of the tripartite division of power as citizens, but our rights as women have never before been so threatened – so we have twice the determination of men, because some things don’t affect them directly.”
According to Lempart, “For us [women], the fight is much more personal….We are literally fighting for our lives and bodies, not just our political rights.”
Today, the PWS is working to unite Poland’s once disparate opposition parties. Recognizing the lack of coordination and the prevalence of infighting that has beset the Polish opposition, the PWS convened a coalition meeting earlier this July. The coalition of journalists, politicians, and other activists produced a communiqué, which functioned as a manifesto of sorts for those leading the defense of Polish democracy.
Referring to disagreement over the former Civic Platform government, the comminqué states that: “When our home is on fire, we do not discuss who did and did not do what eight years ago. We do not remember sins, we do not compete for beautiful words and looks, we do not beat our breasts in front of the camera, we do not go on holiday. We save what we can.”
For Lempart, only the upcoming local elections can show whether or not the women-led opposition had made a meaningful impact on Poland’s rightward trajectory.