Weekly Round-Up of Polish News Developments
The ongoing tension between Russia and Ukraine formed a stark backdrop to the address by Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau to the Permanent Council of the OSCE outlining the priorities of the Polish chairmanship of the organisation. His remarks were no less stark in warning of the risk of war in the region being the highest it’s been since the end of the Cold War, and pointedly remarking that Poland, given its own traumatic history ‘very well which proposals serve peace and which threaten it’.
The main news stories over the past week have included:
• Foreign Minister Rau warns ‘that the risk of war in the OSCE area is now greater than ever before in the last 30 years’
• a Senate panel hears claims that an opposition lawmaker was spied upon using Pegasus spyware
• the Sejm adopts the ‘Lex Czarnek’ designed to increase central oversight of schools, and
• Poland is to resume work on a huge hydroelectric power plant 33 years after it was halted.
Ongoing fears about a potential Russian military invention in eastern Ukraine have remained at the top of the diplomatic agenda for Polish leaders over the past week. A Foreign Ministry statement on Monday said that Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau held phone discussions with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken ‘about the security situation in Europe and the tensions over Ukraine’. It said that Rau ‘as the current OSCE Chairman-in-Office, emphasised that he is willing to reinvigorate the debate on European security within the Organization and briefed Secretary Blinken on consultations held by Poland with OSCE states in Vienna’.
The statement added that the two foreign ministers agreed that ‘while remaining open to further talks with Russia, we should be prepared for different scenarios’ and that ‘They also discussed possible response steps should the crisis escalate’. For his part, Blinken tweeted after the talks that ‘I emphasized a shared commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The U.S. values Poland’s leadership on NATO’s Eastern Flank and as OSCE Chair this year’.
Speaking last Thursday in Vienna Rau outlined Poland’s programme for the country’s year in the chair of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). He warned a session of the OSCE’s Permanent Council that ‘It seems that the risk of war in the OSCE area is now greater that ever before in the last 30 years’. Rau said that the overarching aim of the OSCE’s work for the year is ‘to bring peace to the people, living in the area from Vancouver to Vladivostok’. He commented that Poland, in light of its ‘traumatic history’ knows ‘very well which proposals serve peace and which threaten it’.
Morawiecki Reiterates Nord Stream 2 Is ‘Blackmail Tool’
On Wednesday Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki held talks in Warszawa with his Latvian counterpart focused on regional security concerns and European Union affairs. Afterwards Morawiecki said that the two countries are united in their opposition to the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipleline, telling a joint press conference that ‘The voice of Latvia, the voice of Poland, is clear: This gas pipeline shouldn’t be added to the arsenal of blackmail measures available to the Russian president’. He added that ‘We call on our German partners to come to their senses, to realise what gigantic risks lurk if this blackmail tool is handed over to Moscow’.
Senate Probes Pegasus Spyware Claims
In what could have the potential to become a major political controversy, this week a special investigative committee of the opposition-controlled Senate held hearings into the use of Pegasus spyware in Poland. Pegasus is a powerful surveillance tool developed by the Israeli cyberarms firm NSO Group that can be covertly installed on mobile phones and other devices in order to read text messages and harvest a host of information held on electronic devices.
On Monday the committee heard via videolink from two researchers from The Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the University of Toronto. The Citizen Lab studies information controls that impact the openness and security of the internet and that post threats to human rights. The experts told the seven member panel that Platforma Obywatelska Senator Krzysztof Brejza was extensively monitored with spyware and that there was forensic evidence of data being stolen from his phone.
The hearing followed claims last December by The Citizen Lab, which researches digital surveillance, that Brzejza, who managed Platforma Obywatelska’s 2019 general election campaign, lawyer and former Deputy Prime Minister Roman Giertych and prosecutor Ewa Wrzosek had been hacked using Pegasus. The two experts said they had first detected Pegasus activity in Poland in November 2017.
Last week in an interview with the Sieci news magazine Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński, who heads the cabinet committee on security, said in relation to Pegasus that ‘it would be bad if Polish authorities did not possess this type of tool’ in light of ‘technological change, such as the rise of encrypted messaging applications’. However, Kaczyński dismissed suggestions that the state had used Pegasus spyware to target the opposition as ‘utter nonsense’.
Polish Border Guard Team Assisting North Macedonia
In view of its own challenges on the eastern border with Belarus, Poland has more expertise than most, with which to assist other European countries with problems securing their powers. On Monday a Border Guard spokesperson announced that a 16-strong team has been sent to North Macedonia to help stop illegal migration on its border with Greece. They commenced their deployment on Sunday and will remain in the country until February 21st. The spokesperson commented that ‘The Polish contingent … will support Macedonian law enforcement services in protecting their country’s border against illegal migration by preventing illegal border crossings and checking the authenticity of documents’.
Sejm Adopts ‘Lex Czarnek’
Last Thursday on a 227-214 vote the Sejm passed the so-called ‘Lex Czarnek’ – a proposed law initiated by Education Minister Przemysław Czarnek, designed to reform the oversight of schools in Poland. Under the proposed legislation education superintendents in each of the 16 provinces, who are centrally appointed, would be given greater powers over local schools including in the appointment and removal of head teachers, as well as in deciding which outside organisations are permitted to operate in schools. The change would dilute the role of local authorities, which in most large urban areas are opposition-controlled.
Opposition politicians, as well as teachers’ unions, NGOs and local authorities have sharply criticised the measure. They claim it represents a further move towards the centralisation of power in Poland and will be used to advance a culture in schools that’s more in line with the viewpoint of the Prawo i Sprawiedliwość government.
Czarnek told parliament that the change is needed to as he termed it prevent ‘schools from receiving content that morally corrupts children, because the state has a duty to protect children from moral corruption’. The Education Ministry has also said that the proposed law is required due to ‘numerous notifications from superintendents, parents, teachers and teachers’ unions’, with the majority of these relating to ‘unlawful actions, impacting the quality of teaching and the environment for students’ development’.
The bill still needs to face the opposition-controlled Senate, but it’s likely rejection there can be overturned by a further vote in the Sejm. President Andrez Duda would then have to decide whether to sign or veto it. Protests against the proposed law, which was first initiated last summer, have been organised by a coalition of groups known as ‘Wolna Szkoła’ or ‘Free School’ including NGOs, trade unions and local politicians.
Work On Młoty Hydroelectric Plant To Resume
Poland is set to resume work on a huge hydroelectric plant in the south-west of the country 50 years after its construction first begun and 33 years since the project was abandoned. The announcement was made last Friday by Chancellery Minister Michał Dworczyk who said that the first investment project to be undertaken by an expert team on the construction of pumped storage power plants will be the Młoty Power Plant. He said that it would be the largest power plant of its type in Poland with a capacity of 750MW. Dworczyk also claimed that ‘in the event of a failure of another, significant source, it will protect the power system against possible shortages’. Construction of the Młoty plant first commenced in 1972, but was subsequently halted, and eventually abandoned in 1989.
Public Sector Employees To Work From Home
On Wednesday Health Minister Adam Niedzielski announced that the government would make working from home mandatory for public sector employees where the nature of their roles makes this practicable. He called on private sector employers to do the same. The move is in response to what Niedzielski claimed is Poland entering the fifth wave of Covid-19 and what he predicted would be sharp increases in the number of cases over the coming days.
Lewandowski Reaches 300 Bundesliga Goals Milestone
Polish soccer ace Robert Lewandowski has reached the milestone of 300 Bundesliga goals and he did it in style. Last Saturday Lewandowski scored a hat-trick in Bayern Munich’s 4-0 win over FC Cologne. The third goal was Lewandowski’s 300th in the top-flight German league and his 23rd already this season.
Public broadcaster Polish Radio announced its annual sports awards on Tuesday. The athlete of the year was the three-time Olympic gold medallist in the hammer throw Anita Włodarczyk, who won the competition in the 2012, 2016 and of course the postponed 2020 games held last August.
That’s all for this week.
William Murphy writes for Hello Irlandia on political and general news.