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Poland

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Crooked Timber

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made,” wrote Immanuel Kant in 1784. It is still true.

On Sunday the 24th ‘Conference of the Parties’ – the 180 countries that signed the climate change treaty in Paris in 2015 – opened in the Polish city of Katowice. The Polish government chose the venue, and it presumably selected Katowice because it is home to Europe’s biggest coal company. It was a thinly disguised show of defiance.

It’s not just Donald Trump who loves coal. It’s by far the worst of the fossil fuels in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but Poland gets 75% of its electricity by burning coal and it has no intention of changing its ways. In fact, shortly before COP24 opened in Katowice, the Polish government announced that it is planning to invest in a large new coal-mine in the region of Silesia.

1,500 km to the west on the same day, in Paris, municipal workers were picking up the debris after the third and most violent weekend of protests against President Emmanuel Macron. The demos are not as big as those of the great revolt of 1968, but they are certainly the biggest for decades even in this cradle of revolutions.

And what were the protesters (known as the ‘gilets jaunes’ after the fluorescent yellow vests that French drivers must keep in their vehicles) protesting about? In Paris and in other cities, they were building barricades, torching cars, and setting banks and houses on fire because Macron’s government has raised the tax on diesel fuel by 6.5 cents per litre.

This was on top of an increase of 7.9 cents per litre earlier this year, and most French vehicles run on diesel, but the public’s reaction does look a bit excessive. The fact that Macron justified it as a ‘green’ tax intended to reduce fuel use only seemed to make the protesters angrier, and at least until the extreme violence of last Saturday the majority of French people supported them.

Poles clinging to coal despite the fact that the fog of coal smoke that envelops Polish cities in winter kills thousands every year, and ordinary people in France rioting for the right to go on burning cheap diesel in their cars despite a comparable death toll from atmospheric pollution there, suggest that the quest to cut greenhouse gas emissions before global warming goes runaway faces even greater resistance than the experts feared.

Bear in mind that Poland and France are relatively well-educated countries that belong to the European Union, the region that has led the world in terms of its commitment to emission cuts. Neither country has the kind of climate-change denial industry, lavishly funded by fossil-fuel producers, that muddies the waters and spreads doubt about the scientific evidence in the United States. Neither the Poles nor the French are in denial. And yet….

Now, it’s true that Poles have a large collective chip on their shoulder for historical reasons (their entire country was erased from the map for more than a century), so they often respond badly to being lectured by well-meaning foreigners. It’s also true that President Macron is arrogant and has a tin ear for public opinion. But neither nationalist resentment nor clumsy political leadership are in short supply worldwide.

Bear in mind also that the emission cuts promised in the 2015 agreement will not actually come into effect until 2020: we have a mountain to climb and we are not even in the foothills yet. Much bigger sacrifices than a few cents extra on the price of diesel or an end to burning coal will be required before we reach the end of this process, if we ever do.

The question therefore arises: can we really expect that the relatively large (although still inadequate) cuts in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases promised in Paris at the 2015 summit will ever gain the public support necessary to make them happen? If not, then our current global civilisation is doomed.

For the EU, the biggest distraction from the task at hand is the very high rate of unemployment in many Western European countries: officially just under 10% in France and Italy and 15% in Spain, but the true figures are at least a couple of points higher in every case. In fairness to the French protestors, many of them have lost sight of the bigger issue because they just can’t make ends meet.

This unemployment is ‘structural’, and it will not go away. Its primary cause is automation, a process that will only spread and deepen with the passage of time. We are entering this critical period for dealing with climate change – the next five years are make-or-break – just as the world’s economy is undergoing a hugely disruptive transformation that will leave many people permanently jobless.

If you were designing a species capable of making this difficult transition, you would certainly prefer to start with one that was wiser, more cooperative, and less excitable than ourselves, the near relatives of chimpanzees. Something a little less crooked, at least. But this is the timber we have to work with. Good luck.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“For…jobless”)

Poland: A Pause on the March to Autocracy

Zofia Romaszewska, now in her 80s, was jailed during the years of martial law in Poland in the early 1980s. She is a national hero for her human rights activities in the 1980s and is now one of President Andrzej Duda’s advisers. Last week she persuaded him to veto the government’s new laws on the courts.

She told him: “Mr President, I lived in a state (under Communist rule) where the prosecutor general had an unbelievably powerful position and could practically do anything. I would not like to go back to such a state.” And President Duda actually listened to her.

This came as a complete surprise, because Duda was a member of the ruling Law and Justice Party and is widely seen as a puppet of its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. On Monday, however, he rejected new laws giving the justice minister the power to fire judges he doesn’t like – including, potentially, the entire Supreme Court – and choose the new judges who take their places.

“As president I don’t feel this law would strengthen a sense of justice,” Duda said in a statement – or rather, an under-statement – on national television. His action has greatly encouraged the hundreds of thousands of people who have been demonstrating in cities all over Poland against the new laws, but there are still many who doubt his sincerity.

Poland is sharply divided between the populists, socially conservative, deeply Catholic, and ultra-nationalist, who form the present government, and the opposition whom they label “the system” or “the elite”. This system allegedly includes both the liberals who led Solidarity’s resistance to Communist rule, and the crypto-Communists who supposedly still exist and are now in league with the liberals.

The whole thing is a paranoid fantasy, but it has a firm hold on many people’s minds in a national culture that wallows in victimhood and self-pity. The Law and Justice government, elected in late 2015 with an absolute majority in parliament, denounces the opposition parties as corrupt traitors under foreign influence, and they in turn mistrust everything the
government says and does – including President Duda’s change of heart.

He’s just playing for time, they think. He’ll get the demonstrators to go home and then he’ll sign some slightly altered version of the laws stripping the judges of their independence. And maybe they are right. Nobody will know for sure until they see the government’s response to his veto.

This is not just about Poland. It is about whether the EU will tolerate an undemocratic government in its midst, and the evidence isn’t in yet.

As soon as it won office twenty months ago, the Law and Justice Party turned the state-owned broadcaster, previously politically neutral, into the propaganda arm of the ruling party. It also destroyed the independence of the civil service, replacing the professionals with its own party loyalists. But when it turned on the courts it started for face real push-back from the EU.

The EU is probably the only reason that the former Communist-ruled states of Eastern Europe almost all became democracies. They desperately wanted to be members of the EU as a safeguard against renewed Russian interference in their affairs – and the EU insists that all its members be democratic.

Not only that, but it carefully defines how democratic states should behave, and a basic principle is the separation of powers: the courts must not be under government control. When the Law and Justice Party introduced laws started taking away the judges’ independence, it ran head-on into the EU’s rules for membership.

Senior EU officials were openly talking about stripping Poland of its voting rights in the Council of Ministers (the closest thing to an EU government) until Duda said he would veto the new laws. If it turns out that he is only playing for time and will soon sign quite similar laws, the confrontation will resume – and the EU might even resort to financial measures against Poland.

Poland is by far the biggest beneficiary of transfers from the EU budget to poorer member countries: in the budgetary period 2014-2020, it is scheduled to get $96 billion. Some or all of that money might stop coming if Poland were no longer a member in good standing.

The Polish government cannot plausibly threaten to quit the European Union: 75 percent of Poles see EU membership as a vital counter-balance to the looming presence of Russia to their east. The EU holds all the best cards in this game, if it chooses to play them.
But will it?

That is not clear. The EU is not famous for its willingness to take bold action, and it would have to overcome the opposition of Hungary, another ex-Communist EU member that also has an authoritarian government (though a less extreme one). But the EU’s own cohesion would suffer if it did not defend its fundamental values, so if Duda is only fooling there may be a real showdown in a month or two.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“As soon…EU”; and “Poland…standing”)

Poland: Backsliding Furiously

Lech Walesa, a national hero 26 years ago for his role in ending Communist rule in Poland as the leader of Solidarity, has little political power in the country today, but he still has his voice. Last week he raised it, to condemn the new Polish government that emerged from last October’s election.

“This government acts against Poland, against our achievements, freedom, democracy, not to mention the fact that it makes us look ridiculous to the rest of the world,” Walesa said. “I’m ashamed to travel abroad.”

Walesa said this on privately-owned Radio Zet, because Polish public service television and radio will no longer invite him to speak on any of their channels. The new government sees him as an enemy, and it now controls public broadcasting completely: all four channels of TVP and the 200 stations of Polskie Radio.

It took them over in an operation that the European Parliament’s president, Martin Schultz, described as having the “characteristics of a coup.” First the new Law and Justice Party (PiS) government packed the constitutional tribunal that might have stopped the media takeover, swearing in five new PiS appointees in the middle of the night. And then it used its parliamentary majority to bring the public service media under party control.

The new Polish Culture Minister, Piotr Glinski, explained that it was necessary to “re-Polonise” Polish society – i.e. cleanse it of all the decadent Western European liberal notions and values that had infected it under the rule of the outgoing Civic Platform government – and that the public broadcasters would therefore be re-designated as “national cultural institutes.”

The head of PiS’s parliamentary caucus, Ryszard Terlecki, was even franker: “Over the past few weeks . . . we have had to deal with the extremely unreliable work of the public media,” he said, referring to the media coverage of popular protests against the PiS’s attack on the constitutional tribunal. “If the media criticises our changes . . . we have to stop it.”

The PiS is the creation of Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his late twin brother Lech, who died in a plane crash at Smolensk in Russia in 2010. The brothers have always had a close political relationship with the Catholic Church in Poland, and the PiS largely owes its recent electoral victory to the support of Poland’s very conservative Catholic bishops.

But it wasn’t all that sweeping a victory, really. The PiS got just over half the seats in the Sejm (parliament), which technically allows it to do almost anything it wants now that the constitutional tribunal has been crippled. But it won those seats on only 37 percent of the popular vote – and now that it has begun to put its agenda into action, recent opinion polls are giving it only 24 percent support.

That doesn’t bother Jaroslaw Kaczynski in the slightest. He has the same knack as Donald Trump for saying nasty, untrue things and making them sound bold and incisive (to his target audience, at least) rather than just stupid and slimy.

For example, he recently warned Poles that Syrian refugees would bring diseases and parasites into the country. He continues to speculate publicly that the crash that killed his twin brother was a plot (presumably a Russian plot), despite the fact that two official Polish investigations have concluded that the cause of the crash was pilot error.

Even the poor, left-behind Poles who are Kaczynski’s target voters are sometimes alarmed by his anger and his extremism, so he wisely decided to let another, virtually unknown party member, Andrzej Duda, run for the presidency last year.

Duda won, so Kaczynski repeated the strategy in October, promoting another relatively obscure and unthreatening party member, Beata Szydlo, as prime minister after the PiS’s victory in the parliamentary election. But most people suspect that he will quickly tire of working from the shadows and take her place as prime minister himself.

What has brought this deeply unattractive politician to power in Poland? It’s largely the same factors that have made Donald Trump a political phenomenon in the United States: an economy that is doing quite well overall – Poland’s economy grew by a third under Civic Platform in the past six years – but that has left a large chunk of the population behind.

It’s even the same chunk of the population that backs Trump in the US: older, more religious, less well educated, living in smaller cities and rural areas. Kaczynski’s victory therefore depends on a very narrow and fragile base, and he may well become more and more radical in his struggle to hold it together.

It is therefore going to be quite exciting in Poland for a while, and probably quite embarrassing for people like Lech Walesa. But it isn’t an anti-democratic revolution with real staying power.

Poles overwhelmingly want to remain part of NATO and the European Union, if only (in some cases) because they still fear Russia so much. You cannot go far down the road Kaczynski wants to travel without coming into serious conflict with the EU’s laws protecting civil and human rights – and when Poles have to choose between the EU and Kaczynski, they will not back Kaczynski.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“The new…stop it”)

A Few Differences Between 1939 and Now

The Ukrainian army is in retreat on every front. Since Russian regular army units came to the aid of the hard-pressed pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine’s two easternmost provinces a week ago, the tide of battle has turned decisively.

The two big rebel-held cities, Donetsk and Luhansk, are no longer besieged by Ukrainian forces. Luhansk airport fell to a Russian tank attack on Monday, Donetsk airport will also be captured soon, and the port city of Mariupol, back under government control since May, may be in Russian hands by the weekend.

Meanwhile, those of us further from the scene are being bombarded with dodgy historical analogies. This week is the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, so it’s a good time to see if these analogies really stand up to scrutiny.

The first analogy is that Russia’s long-ruling president, Vladimir Putin, is another Adolf Hitler, committed to expanding Russia’s borders back out to the old Soviet frontiers, or maybe even further. Stop him now or it will be harder and more expensive to stop him later on – and anybody who disagrees is an “appeaser”.

It’s true that Putin has long referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. He recently called for immediate talks on the “statehood” of the southeastern Ukrainian provinces that have fallen partly into the hands of the pro-Russians rebels. This would mean the further dismantling of Ukraine, after the Russian annexation of Crimea last March.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which used to be part of the old Russian and Soviet empires, are terrified by the implications of Putin’s recent actions for their own independence (they also have Russian-speaking minorities). Even Kazakhstan, far to the east, is getting worried, as Putin says that it is “part of the larger Russian world…I am confident that’s the way things are going to be.”

There are echoes in Putin’s project of Hitler’s first priority after he took power in Germany in 1933, which was to recover all the German-speaking eastern territories that had been stripped away from the fatherland after the First World War. But Hitler’s second, bigger project was the destruction of the “Jewish-Bolshevik” Soviet Union, which would have required a very big war (though he never intended to fight a “world war”).

Putin has no second project. He cannot embark on a Hitler-stye campaign of conquest, given Russia’s relatively modest economic and human resources. In any case the other former Soviet possessions in the west, the Baltic states, are already NATO members with solid defence guarantees.

Until the Ukrainian crisis blew up, Putin hadn’t even done much to regain the old Soviet frontiers during fifteen years in power. He’s still not talking about taking back the rest of Ukraine, so there’s no need to nip his plan for world conquest in the bud. He doesn’t have one.

This leads to the second big difference between 1939 and now. Back then Britain and France issued an unconditional guarantee that they would go to war if Hitler attacked Poland. Even though they actually had no military ability to help Poland, they felt they had to draw a line in the sand. Whereas NATO has not offered to defend Ukraine militarily no matter what Russia does: it is basically a local issue.

Those are the realities. Ukraine enjoys great sympathy in the West, but nobody will risk a nuclear war by committing NATO forces to save Donetsk and Luhansk. So if Kiev cannot stop the Russian/rebel offensive in the east, and there’s no foreign help coming, what should it do?

The first thing is to freeze the front lines by accepting a ceasefire – which seems still to be on offer. With every passing day Ukraine is losing more territory, and it won’t get it back for decades (if ever).

Russia will settle for a freeze, because Putin’s real goal, if he can no longer directly control the government in Kiev, is to paralyse the country by putting a cuckoo in the nest: creating a permanently dissenting, pro-Russian entity as part of the Ukrainian state. The way Ukraine can avoid that fate is by hardening the borders around the rebel-held territories as much and as fast as possible.

Let the rebels run  the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk (Kiev has no choice in that), but DON’T integrate them into some rejigged federal state where they would hold a veto. And DON’T recognise their legitimacy if they declare independence or join Russia either. Treat them as another Crimea, in other words.

Leave the Russians the task of pouring huge, ongoing subsidies into what is really an immense open-air industrial museum, and concentrate instead on making an economic and political success of the rest of Ukraine – which would still have 90 percent of the population.

And wait. Wait for corruption to dwindle and prosperity to grow in Ukraine, as it probably will when the country gets closer to the European Union. Wait for Putin to grow old and/or for Russia to get distracted by events elsewhere. And don’t get any more people killed when further fighting will just lose you more territory.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 5 and 6.  (“The two…weekend”; and “It’s true…be”)