It’s been a busy news week in Poland in the run-up to Easter with a further tightening of Covid-19 restrictions coming into effect last Saturday amid record numbers of reported new ‘cases’, but which avoided going as far as closing public church services or the wholesale shutting of large swathes of shops as in Ireland. The recent spate of controversies about the past conduct of the head of the state-owned oil giant PKN Orlen, fuelled by a series of articles in Gazeta Wyborcza, shows no sign of easing despite a court victory this week for Daniel Obajtek. In foreign affairs, the Polish government has, not surprisingly, responded vigorously to the arrest of top leaders of the Polish minority in Belarus.
The main news stories over the past week have included:
• The government imposes a further tightening of Covid-19 restrictions including a two week closure for more businesses
• Poland calls for international action against Belarus following the detention of leading figures from the Polish minority there
• Controversy continues to swirl around PKN Orlen President Daniel Obajtek as a Prawo i Sprawiedliwość Sejm member denies any impropriety in a past intervention in his favour, and
• A New Yorker magazine article’s description of Poland’s role during the Nazi German Holocaust of Jews provokes a furious response.
On Friday of last week the number of new reported Covid-19 cases in Poland at 35,143 hit a new daily record for the third consecutive day. Earlier in the week the government had announced that in addition to the extensive national lockdown already in force until April 9th an additional tightening of Covid-19 rules would come into effect last Saturday for two weeks. These include a further reduction in the number of persons allowed in churches and large retail outlets per square meter, the closure of non-essential shops in shopping malls with exceptions and the closure of hairdressers. The Health Minister, Adam Niedzielski, commented that ‘we are in a crisis situation’.
The measures, while in addition to many restrictions already in place, in the end turned out to be at the lower end of what many people had been expecting, given the dire government warnings preceding the announcement. There has been much focus on the fact that churches have remained open and while the authorities have called on the hierarchy to ensure greater compliance with the regulations in terms of the number of attendees that position hasn’t been changed.
Poland is aiming to significantly up the pace of its national vaccination campaign. On Tuesday Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told a press conference that ‘We want to vaccinate all those who want to by the end of August’. There are plans for more vaccination outlets including in pharmacies, temporary hospitals and workplaces with more than 500 people who want to get vaccinated.
On Wednesday officials reported that the total number of people now vaccinated is 6.08m comprising 4.06m people who’ve received one dose and 2.02m who’ve received two doses. The government expects to receive 7 million doses of vaccine in April, as many as its received in all of the first quarter of the year, according to Michał Kuczmierowski, the president of the Government Strategic Reserves Agency. Officials announced on Monday that a new supply of around 507,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had arrived in Poland. The government was also expecting to receive a further 660,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine later in the week.
Today Poland reported 32,874 new Covid-19 cases and 653 deaths – the highest number of deaths so far this year. Wednesday’s figures brought the total number of cases reported in Poland since the outbreak began to 2.32m. The number of deaths attributed to Covid-19 stood at 53,045, the vast majority of whom of course were of people already suffering from serious underlying health conditions.
The crisis in bilateral relations between Poland and her eastern neighbour Belarus, which has seen a spate of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions in recent weeks, has escalated further. The Polish government has responded sharply to last week’s arrest in Belarus of the leader and three other activists of the main Polish cultural organisation in the country, the Union of Poles in Belarus, who’ve been charged with incitement to racial hatred.
President Duda has written to his U.S. counterpart, Joe Biden, calling for an urgent U.N. Security Council debate on the deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus and the oppression of the Polish minority there. The U.S. was the March chair of the U.N. Security Council. On Tuesday the Sejm passed a resolution by acclamation calling on the international community to help stop what it termed the persecution of Polish nationals in Belarus. The resolution caused for the immediate release of those detained and for the international community ‘to respond in solidarity and firmly to the illegal actions of the Belarusian authorities’.
Last Thursday many events took place in Poland to mark what was an unofficial Freedom Day in Belarus. Under the hashtag of LightforBelarus public buildings and cultural institutions including the Royal Castle in Warszawa and Wawel Royal Castle in Kraków were lit-up in the white-red-white colours of the flag of the 1918 Belarusian Democratic Republic. March 25th dubbed Freedom Day in Belarus commemorates the Belarusian declaration of independence on that day in 1918. There was also an online ‘Playing for Belarus’ concert featuring high-profile performers.
Controversy has continued to swirl around the leading business and political figure, Daniel Objatek, the current president of the state-owned oil company PKN Orlen. Objatek, whose viewed as close to ruling party chairman, Jarosław Kaczyński, has been at the receiving end of a slew of negative media expose stories, most notably in Gazeta Wyborcza focusing on his time in other public appointments. This week Objatek secured an initial court victory over Gazeta Wyborcza with a Warszawa District Court ruling dated Monday that they must annotate the internet version of one of their recent articles – this one concerning his alleged purchase of an apartment at a discount – to the effect that ‘it may contain false information and unfounded suggestions’ about an improper relationship between the developer and Obajtek. Following the ruling Objatek tweeted on Tuesday: ‘In the case I brought against Gazeta Wyborcza, the District Court in Warszawa issued a ruling. The court stated that ‘the article may contain false information and unsubstantiated suggestions’ violating my personal rights. No more lies and slander!’
The Prawo i Sprawiedliwość Sejm member, Grzegorz Wojciechowski, had denied he had any improper motivation in intervening with the prosecutor general in a case that ended in the withdrawal of corruption charges against Objatek arising from his time as Mayor of Pcim. Wojciechowski was a senator at the time, and part of a group of senators who lobbied the prosecutor. Wojciechowski told the news website Onet.pl there was nothing improper about his intervention, which wasn’t sought by Obajtek and that he did it because the case against Objatek ‘insulted all sense of justice’.
Above: Journalist Masha Gessen (left) and Entrance to the Nazi German Auschwitz concentration camp (right). (Photo of Gessen “Masha Gessen” by MIT Media Lab is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and photo of Auschwitz “Entrance to Auschtiz with the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei'” by thaths is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)
There has been huge outrage in Poland over the publication in the New Yorker magazine of an article by the journalist Masha Gessen under the heading ‘The historians under attack for exploring Poland’s role in the Holocaust’, which had the even more incendiary sub-heading of ‘Scholars face defamation suits, and potential criminal charges, in the Polish government’s effort to exonerate the nation of any role in the murders of three million Jews during the Nazi occupation’. Even harsh critics of the current government’s stance on historical and cultural issues criticised the article as a slur on the Polish nation, saying that the article implied Polish guilt for the Holocaust.
Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the article as ‘mendacious and manipulative’ and said that the Polish embassy in Washington DC had asked the publication to withdraw the article. Vel Sęk added that ‘The published text is scandalous. It insinuates that Poland is responsible for the deaths of three million Jews during the Second World War’. The Polish Centre for Holocaust Research, often critical of the stance of the current Polish government, said such a claim ‘is not only inconsistent with historical facts, but simply a lie’. In a statement the head of the Auschwitz Museum, Piotr Cywiński, said that ‘It is deeply disturbing to see a New Yorker article by Masha Gessen about the search for historical truth that begins with an outright historical lie’.
On Wednesday it was announced that the European Commission is to bring a case to the Court of Justice of the European Union over the continued operation of the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court ‘in order to protect the independence of Polish judges’. The Commission said it believes that ‘Poland is violating EU law by allowing the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court – whose independence is not guaranteed – to make decisions that directly affect judges and the way they perform their functions’.
Polish government spokesman Piotr Müller responded that ‘The European Commission’s request to the Court of Justice has no legal and factual justification. The regulation of the administration of justice belongs to the exclusively national domain, which comes directly from the Polish Constitution and the EU treaties’. The move will be regarded as a victory for Polish judges opposed to the government’s judicial reforms and for the European Parliament which has been pressurising the Commission to take stronger action against Poland over the so-called ‘rule of law’ agenda.
On Monday the WOŚP founder Jurek Owsiak announced at a press conference that the final amount raised during the 29th Grand Finale came to a record-breaking 210.81m złotych, up 24m złotych on 2020. 133.87m złotych, 64% of the total, came via online payments. Owsiak commented that ‘We, the citizens, have taken matters into our own hands. This has been a big, huge civic effort’.
That’s all for this week.