Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Poland’s PM delivers stark warning ahead of EU elections – BBC News

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Image caption, Donald Tusk is urging people to go out to vote in order to defend themselves

  • Author, Sarah Rainsford
  • Role, Eastern Europe Correspondent
  • Reporting from Warsaw

Go to vote if you don’t want to go to war.

That’s the stark choice that Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk is presenting ahead of the European elections this weekend. His team is highlighting security, or, more precisely, the threat of Russian aggression, as the big theme.

With parties sympathetic to Russia set to make gains elsewhere, including in central Europe, Tusk’s Civic Coalition is stressing that the EU needs to stand firm and united against the danger from Moscow.

He’s urging the Polish people to get out and vote, to protect themselves.

The message taps into real concerns among the country’s electorate, as many Poles are instinctively wary of their giant neighbour for reasons both of history and geography.

For more than 230km (142 miles), northern Poland butts up against Kaliningrad, the heavily militarised Russian exclave. Marked by thick rolls of barbed wire fencing, the border is monitored by vehicles fitted with thermal imaging cameras.

Image source, Matthew Goddard/BBC

Image caption, Poland has a 232km (144 mile) border with Russia

At the main crossing point, the word RUSSIA is clearly spelled out in red letters on the other side. Every busload of passengers is screened meticulously using a sniffer dog before it can pass.

Security was already tightened when President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago. But in the run-up to the Euro vote, Donald Tusk has declared that he’ll do more.

“Shield East” is a 10-billion-zloty (£1.992bn) project to reinforce Poland’s border, with everything from high-tech surveillance to trenches. It’s intended to make sure “the enemy” knows to “stay away” from Poland, the prime minister announced.

It’s to be coordinated with Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, three Baltic states with their own reasons to be wary of Russia.

In smaller Slovakia to the south, and in Hungary, politicians talk of the need for “compromise” with Moscow. That translates as concessions from Kyiv.

They issue statements that are filled with Kremlin talking points.

But Poland has remained firmly convinced of the risk from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, should Ukraine be allowed to lose this war.

For this election, as Donald Tusk’s team has hijacked the security agenda, the main opposition Law and Justice party, PiS, has focused elsewhere.

It’s been busy slamming the EU’s migration deal and slurring the Green Deal against carbon emissions, a policy the party fully backed whilst in power.

But Poland was already investing heavily in defence under a PiS government, because of the Russia threat. And the party hasn’t abandoned the theme completely.

One PiS candidate for this election became a mini internet sensation with a campaign video showing him single-handedly stopping a Russian tank, Tiananmen Square-style.

“We’ve stopped evil many times before and we will stop it again,” Karol Karski intones, a bearded professor in suit and spectacles with one arm outstretched towards a tank smashing through the forest.

Image source, Matthew Goddard/ BBC

Image caption, In one school in Warsaw, children have been learning survival skills

Here in Poland, even the younger generation are being put on guard.

In a school just outside Warsaw, children have been learning survival skills. It’s part of a new programme that’s sending soldiers from the Territorial Defence to teach emergency drills in classrooms across the country.

From evacuation to orienteering, via resuscitation, they’re useful skills. But the teenagers we met were clear why they’re getting the training.

“Because there is a war in Ukraine and we are in danger,” 17-year-old Sebastian told me, in a break between drills.

Not nervous, just matter of fact.

“Russia is near to us and they could attack us, I think,” Igor agreed. “We need to learn how to defend ourselves.”

“One of the factors behind the creation of this project is the situation on our eastern border, and the state’s response to the real threat,” Captain Dominik Pijarski of the 6th Mazovian Brigade confirmed.

Image source, Matthew Goddard/BBC

Image caption, Capt Dominik Pijarski says Poland has learned lessons from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

I asked whether he was concerned about a military threat from Russia.

“Only fools are not afraid,” the soldier replied, before adding: “I believe that the entire nation has learned the appropriate lessons from what is happening … and is preparing to be ready at the highest level, in the face of a real threat.”

But wariness of Russia doesn’t always translate into unconditional support for Ukraine.

A short drive out of Warsaw leads deep into farming country and small villages marked by towering crucifixes and Catholic shrines.

Lately, some of the fruit farmers here have left their fields to protest both on the Ukraine border and in central Warsaw.

They’re upset at the EU Green Deal which will increase their production costs.

But they’re also worried by the competition from Ukrainian farmers: exporting certain goods tariff-free as a form of support to the war-blasted economy.

Image source, Matthew Goddard/BBC

Image caption, Mariusz Konarzewski says Ukraine’s farmers are more productive as they can use chemicals banned in the EU

“The competition from Ukraine leaves us no chance,” says farmer Mariusz Konarzewski, who has been working this land since he was 18 and now fears for his livelihood: long, neat rows of slender apple trees.

Ukraine’s farmers have better soil and higher yields, Mr Konarzewski explains. They can also use chemicals banned in the EU, making them more productive.

“It looks like Ukraine is fighting a war on two fronts: one with Russia and another against Polish farmers,” is how he views the competition. “If this continues, we will just perish.”

I question whether the farmers want to support Ukraine, under Russian attack, and they hasten to agree that Kyiv needs help. One calls Vladimir Putin “a maniac”.

But resentment simmers beneath their words.

“Poles helped Ukrainians in every possible way. Now, instead of walking hand in hand, they’ve waged open war against us,” Mr Konarzewski repeats.

“Militarily, of course, we need to help,” another of the farmers tells me. “But we haven’t done anything wrong, that we should suffer for that.”

The European election isn’t generating huge excitement. Turnout is traditionally far lower than at a national vote and there’s nowhere near the same number of campaign posters around town.

But when Donald Tusk gathers a crowd of supporters in Warsaw on Tuesday for a final rally ahead of the vote, security is sure to be high on his agenda.

The message: that living next door to Russia remains a risk. And that all Europe needs to remain on guard.

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