Warsaw: Poland, accused by European Union officials of undermining democracy, looked to mount a defence from criticism after white supremacists marched in Warsaw in the latest demonstration of nationalism surging across the continent.
Poland’s annual Independence Day march on Saturday became a demonstration by far-right groups when masked protesters shouted racist slogans and carried banners saying “Pure Blood” and “Europe will be white or uninhabited.” After the rally become global news, the government accused media of focusing on “fringe incidents,” said unspecified “provocateurs” had stoked unrest and praised the police for restraining 45 anti-fascists who sought to disrupt the 60,000-strong march. No arrests were made for racist behaviour.
“It’s clear that these types of marginal voices are caught and sent abroad by the Polish press, and this is an image problem,” deputy Prime Minister Mariusz Morawiecki said on Monday. “Poland is an oasis of security, peace and tolerance.”
The country has been ruled for almost two years by the Law & Justice party, which has urged Poles to embrace their national heritage and vowed a return to the nation’s traditional conservative Catholic roots. Hours before the march, party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski pledged in a speech to keep Poland on a path of “pride, independence and strength.” He called on Poles to lead “sick Europe” to the path of “health, to fundamental values, to true freedom and to the strengthening of our civilisation based on Christianity.”
Following a series of moves to give politicians more control over the courts, the government in Warsaw has triggered the EU’s first-ever probe into whether a member state is upholding the rule of law.
While railing against the bloc’s establishment, Poland is the largest net beneficiary of EU funds. That has fuelled antipathy with the leaders of member states such as France, who are battling against a surge in nationalist political forces across Europe.
Law & Justice officials didn’t attend the rally, but Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak called it “a beautiful sight.” The party has pushed to increase the role of Polish-owned businesses in the economy and criticised some companies for taking profits out of the country of 38 million. At the same time, the government has strictly rejected sheltering any refugees from Africa and the Middle East in Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.
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“Law & Justice has allowed radical nationalists to step out of the shadows as their rhetoric chimes with the party’s nationalist-Catholic views,” said Beata Laciak, a sociologist at the Institute of Public Affairs, a think-tank in Warsaw. “The party has long said that Poland should be for Poles, that companies must be patriotic, and — since the start of the European immigration crisis — that all Muslims are terrorists, so they can’t be on Polish soil.”
Along with the banners and chants, protesters carried pictures of anti-Semite Roman Dmowski, a leading Polish nationalist in the 1920s and 1930s as well as flags of Falanga, a nationalist group from that era that advocated “Catholic totalitarianism” and taking away rights from Jews.
Guy Verhofstadt, an EU lawmaker critical of Poland’s turn toward populism, said that he and his Polish colleagues were “outraged” by the march and asked why officials hadn’t condemned fascist symbols shown there, according to his Twitter account.
“Authorities categorically condemn views based on racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic ideas,” Poland’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Monday. It added that most of the people who marched on Saturday wanted to “peacefully show their patriotism.”
Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki said those carrying “shameful” banners may have been “provocateurs” who wanted to “ruin the fantastic event.”
Norman Davies, a UK-born historian who has written books about Poland’s turbulent past, said that the country’s citizens were more ethnically homogeneous than just about any other European nation, a fact that should shore up their confidence, not undermine it.
“Poland’s national identity is less at risk than in every other EU nation,” he told private broadcaster TVN24 in an interview. “Such risks are completely illogical.”