The politics behind Poland’s border crisis

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WARSAW — Never let a good crisis go to waste.

There’s no doubt Poland faces a legitimate emergency. Thousands of migrants aiming to come across the border with Belarus have set up camp in the damp birch forests that mark the frontier between the two countries. A reported nine people have died so far trying to make their way into the country, and Polish border guards say there have been more than 30,000 illegal attempts to cross the border since August.

Poland has boosted its security forces along the border, and in one recent video, dozens of Polish officers can be seen forming a shield barrier to prevent migrants who’ve torn down a barbed-wire fence from rushing into the country. It’s a result of the policies of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, who is trying to weaponize thousands of desperate people hungering to get into the EU as a way of punishing the bloc for the sanctions imposed on him and his allies for the brutal crackdown against pro-democracy protests that followed last year’s contested presidential election results.

But that doesn’t mean the crisis isn’t coming at an opportune time for Poland’s ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party.

PiS has been sagging in opinion polls after its toughening of abortion laws was blamed for the death of a young woman who died from septic shock after doctors delayed aborting her fetus. Thousands of people marched in cities across the country protesting the ruling party, and the policies that stem from its close alliance with the Roman Catholic Church.

A new survey found PiS at 32.5 percent support — still the most popular party in the country, but behind the combined weight of the two leading centrist opposition parties.

But the border emergency is serving to divert attention away from the abortion issue, while strengthening the party’s appeal with its core voters, who are leery of any increase in immigration. It also gives the government a handy cudgel with which to bash the opposition.

Warsaw’s efforts to defend its border have also received the strong backing of countries and institutions normally in conflict with the Polish government over perceptions the country is backsliding on democracy and rule of law — ranging from the Netherlands to Germany and the European Commission. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen talked to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Monday to express her solidarity.

Poland’s state-controlled media — which has essentially become a mouthpiece of PiS — took the lead in hammering the opposition. State TV’s news channel, TVP Info, broadcast material on Sunday night titled: “The opposition is supporting migrants and Lukashenko.”

On Monday, it added: “This hybrid war against Poland is being backed by some politicians from the Polish opposition and their media supporters.”

PiS politicians and their allies also launched attacks against their political rivals.

“ON YOUR KNEES!!!” tweeted Krystyna Pawłowicz, a justice with the Constitutional Tribunal, one of the country’s top courts, demanding the opposition apologize for its past skepticism of government policies. “APOLOGIZE TO POLES for a UNIFIED ATTACK together with [Russia’s President Vladimir] Putin and Lukashenko on the EASTERN BORDERS OF THE POLISH REPUBLIC … on your knees TRAITORS.”

Although Pawłowicz is among the government’s more colorful and voluble supporters, she’s part of a broader front that’s seizing on the border situation to lambaste the opposition.

A tricky position

The problem for opposition parties is that they haven’t figured out a way of addressing the situation on the border. Some left-wing politicians have been calling for migrants to be admitted into Poland and granted asylum status, while others have been more cautious but still leery of supporting PiS’s tough border policy.

Several opposition MPs, moved by the humanitarian plight of people trapped in the border zone and deprived of shelter, food and warmth in increasingly cold conditions, have called for a more generous policy. Some even went to the closed border area — a 3-kilometer-wide zone running along the Polish-Belarusian frontier — to try to help migrants.

Donald Tusk, leader of the opposition Civic Platform party, has been more careful in his approach. He’s blasted the government for the way it’s conducted its border policies, but has insisted it’s correct in trying to halt the entry of thousands of undocumented migrants.

“Poland’s borders must be sealed and well protected,” he said in August when the crisis began. But in the same month, Tusk also said: “These are poor people who are looking for their place on Earth,” which has been made into an online video currently being promoted on state media.

On Monday, Tusk directly addressed Morawiecki, admonishing him by saying: “Migrants aren’t political gold.”

Deputy Interior Minister Paweł Szefernaker had a one-word response to Tusk: “Scoundrel.”

“We have to thank the opposition for the mass storming of the border by immigrants, after they demanded the reception of migrants and spat on the Border Guards as well as the Polish Army,” tweeted Adam Andruszkiewicz, a PiS MP.

That leaves the opposition in a very difficult position. Either it has to drop its criticism of the ruling party and back the government’s praise of the military and its efforts to protect the border, or it risks being accused of treason and of losing traction with voters worried about uncontrolled inflows of migrants.

The government isn’t letting up.

Parliament is due to hold a special session on Tuesday to discuss the crisis.

“Tomorrow we’ll see how the ladies and gentlemen from the total opposition behave,” Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak said Monday evening, adding: “They’ll be assessed by the voters.”



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