Geopolitics

Poland: Tragedies Of The Past, Hopes For The Future

Fifteen months after losing its president in a tragic plane crash, Poland takes stock of its past -- recent and not-so-recent -- and looks to a future that is once again charged with a sense of opportunity for a nation still looking to fulfil its potentia

Donald Tusk (???????????? ??? ???????)
Donald Tusk (???????????? ??? ???????)
François Modoux

WARSAW – About 50 children are waiting single file outside the Warsaw Uprising Museum. Since it first opened on July 31, 2004 – the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising – visiting the museum has become a typical patriotic event for people in Poland. More than 2 million have already toured the 3,000-square-meter exhibit.

The interactive museum does a spectacular job of revisiting the 63-day rebellion launched in the summer of 1944 to liberate Warsaw from Nazi Germany. It was a David and Goliath-like struggle, only unlike in the Biblical story, the underdog lost. Abandoned by the Allied Powers and betrayed by Joseph Stalin, the Polish resistance army was brave but powerless in the face of Adolf Hitler's war machine, which annihilated the rebellion. The Nazi cruelty came to a climax when Hitler's troops wiped out Warsaw.

The star attraction of the exhibit is a 3D movie that lasts about 10 minutes and shows shocking images of Warsaw just after the Polish resistance's Oct. 2, 1944 surrender. For those who have just paced up and down the city's beautiful old town, which was rebuilt exactly as it was before WWII, those archive images represent something unreal, something almost unbearable. But they've also helped move a new generation of Polish youth – helping puff up their national pride.

The museum does not, however, just stick to a romantic view of its traumatic past. It certainly glorifies heroic deeds. But the museum also questions the relevance of the uprising. And that is something new in Poland. The question is this: Given that they weren't likely win, was the sacrifice made by Warsaw and its inhabitants worth it in the end?

The museum also makes no qualms about vilifying both the Nazi regime and Stalin. Yet seven years after its opening, bilateral relations between Poland and Germany have never been so good. And despite problems that followed the Smolensk air disaster, relations with Russia are warming as well.

A more recent tragic watershed

The Smolensk crash, which took the life of then Polish President Lech Kaczynski, occurred in April 2010. Because it took place on Russian soil, responsibility for investigating the accident fell to Russia. Some Polish observers feel Russian authorities were too lax in their inquiries, especially when it came to investigating possible errors committed by Russian air traffic controllers.

Poland's also on better footing with its European neighbors to the west, which wasn't always the case. Poland joined the European Union (EU) in 2004. But in 2005, Kaczynski, a prominent member of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), won the presidency. Together with his identical twin brother Jaroslaw, Kaczynski espoused a pre-war chauvinism, anti-German and anti-Russian feelings and nostalgia for bygone days. The good news is that this era is in the past. Today there is a broad consensus that Poland did the right thing by throwing its lot in with the EU. Even the elite, who sometimes advocate nationalism or authoritarianism, have accepted new constraints imposed by the EU.

"The Kaczynski brothers saw everything from a political perspective. The economic reforms Polish society badly needed were always delayed," a Gdansk-based company director explains.

"This constant verbal sparring with Germany and Russia was a nuisance," says one Warsaw-based manufacturer. "In the end, we knew that it was damaging Poland's reputation abroad, especially in Europe. And Poland could not afford to indulge itself in that."

In 2007, the PiS lost control of the government to the Civic Platform party (PO), led by Donald Tusk, who now serves as the prime minister. And in August 2010, when Poland was in national mourning following the death Lech Kaczynski, the pro-European PO managed to win the presidency as well. The current president is Bronislaw Komorowski.

Although Poland is still adjusting to last year's tragic plane crash, political analysts are already beginning to talk about a "new era" of political stability. Jacek Koltan, a political expert working at the European Solidarity Center Foundation in Gdansk says: "We will reach the final stage of the democratic transition. Poland's success story is on its way."

In the heart of Warsaw, a small group of people who still support the Kaczynski brothers are camping in front of the palace where their hero, Lech, lived before his death. Passers-by pay little attention to the streamers and leaflets they are distributing. "There is nothing else we can do," admits Jacek, an unemployed PiS supporter. Jacek is one of those who still believe that the Smolensk air disaster was in fact "a Russian conspiracy."

The inquiry reports clarified the circumstances surrounding the accident: there were several human errors under difficult flight conditions. "The majority of Polish people have accepted that explanation," a government spokesman says.

Poland seems to have turned the page, and is now forging ahead thanks to increasingly positive economic conditions. Out of all the EU countries, Poland fared best during the recent global recession. After a modest economic dip, the Polish economy is once again humming along, and looking forward to an added boost next year, when – together with Ukraine – Poland will host the 2012 European football championship.

Point of pride

For the first time, it has also just assumed the EU's rotating presidency, a position it will hold for the next six months. The EU presidency is clearly a point of pride for many Polish politicians and diplomats, who see it as a crowing achievement.

"I didn't want to listen to those in Brussels who kept repeating that a country only becomes a full member state of the EU when it holds the EU's rotating presidency," says Joanna Skoczek, a charming and energetic woman who helped Polish organize for the presidential post. "But as soon as I started preparing this major event, I understood the meaning of that statement."

Warsaw is prepared to be "realistic" as far as its ambitions for the EU presidency are concerned. During their time in power, the Kaczynski brothers acted -- presumptiously perhaps -- as if Poland was already a big name in the EU. Bronislaw Komorowski and Donald Tusk, in contrast, are famous for being pragmatic. They understand that Poland, which is still an emerging country, belongs to the middleweight category.

Joanna Skoczek sees the next six months as a political test: "For the very first time, we have to defend first and foremost the EU's general interest and to set aside our own interests."

Critics lambaste the government for not having a political agenda. They fear that Poland will let the next six months come and go without really accomplishing anything. Polish leaders, however, say they do have a powerful message to convey. "We want to promote the idea that European countries stand together," explains Artur Harazim, Polish director of the European policy Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Accompanied by his coworker, Dariusz Laska, Harazim welcomes us to a prestigious Warsaw restaurant called Rozana. The reception hall and staircase banisters are covered with pictures of key political figures. There is one of Helmut Kohl, German Chancellor from 1982 to 1998, embracing former Polish President Lech Walesa (1990 to 1995). Another photograph features Walesa with Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of the USSR. They look like mischievous accomplices.

Many photos refer to the Cold War's happy ending. "We know what we owe Europe," says Laska. "But we also know that Europe owes something to the Polish people: peace and security. This is also the opportunity to not spend a lot of our money on defense."

Read the original story in French.

Photo -Πρωθυπουργός της Ελλάδας

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January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli

🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.

🇷🇺  NAVALNY SAGA & PUTIN’S INTENTIONS


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine

🇨🇴  FROM HOSTAGE TO POTENTIAL HEAD OF STATE


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President

♀️ 😔  YOUNG WOMEN FACE THE BRUNT OF THE COVID-19 MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest

💡  BRIGHT IDEA


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.

#️⃣ TRENDING

“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.

😄📚 SMILE OF THE WEEK

Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA


London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Dottoré! is a weekly column on Worldcrunch.com by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days


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