Nationalists march in Poland amid border crisis with Belarus

National and World
Members of far-right groups light flares as they try to dominate the annual Independence Day march which because of their participation turned violent in recent years, in Warsaw, Poland, on Thursday, November 11, 2021

AP/Czarek Sokolowski

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Thousands marched in Warsaw on Thursday to mark Poland’s Independence Day, led by far-right groups calling for strong borders, while its troops blocked hundreds of new attempts by migrants to enter the country illegally from neighboring Belarus in a tense political standoff.

Security forces patrolled the capital and other cities for the holiday rallies, which in recent years have seen some violent attacks by nationalist extremists.

This year’s march was overshadowed by events unfolding along Poland’s border with Belarus, where thousands of riot police and troops are turning back migrants, many from the Middle East, who are trying to enter the European Union. Makeshift camps have sprung up in forests on the Belarusian side near a crossing at the Polish town of Kuznica, and with temperatures falling and access to the frontier restricted, there are fears of a humanitarian crisis.

EU officials have accused Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko of using the migrants as pawns in a “hybrid attack” to retaliate for sanctions imposed on his authoritarian regime for a harsh internal crackdown on dissent.

“We Thank the Defenders of Poland’s Borders,” said one banner seen in Warsaw, which is 250 kilometers (155 miles) west of Kuznica. Traditional patriotic music, some of which was banned while Poland was part of the Soviet bloc, also was played.

Warsaw’s liberal mayor and courts had banned the march, but right-wing authorities in the national government overrode the order and gave the gathering the status of a state ceremony.

The government’s support for the far-right leaders of the march underlined how Poland’s right-wing ruling party wants their support. It also is engaged in a political fight with the EU over Polish changes to the country’s judiciary, viewed in Brussels as an erosion of democratic norms, along with rhetoric seen as discriminatory to LGBT groups.

In 2017, the Independence march drew tens of thousands and included white nationalist and anti-Semitic slogans. Yet the following year, which was the centennial of Poland regaining its statehood, the president and prime minister and other leaders marched along the same route as the nationalists.

In seeking to ban the march, Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, an opposition figure, argued that Warsaw, which was razed by Nazi Germany during World War II, is “no place to propagate slogans that have all the hallmarks of fascist slogans.”

State television TVP, a ruling party mouthpiece, called it “a great march of Polish patriots.”

As Thursday’s march began, groups carried Poland’s white-and-red national flags, but some also waved the green flags of the National Radical Camp displaying a stylized hand with a sword, a far-right symbol dating to the 1930s.

Deputy Interior Minister Maciej Wasik tweeted that many of the security forces “will go directly from Warsaw to defend our border with Belarus. When marching, remember this!”

Robert Bakiewicz, the leader of the march, said in a speech that all Poles should stand behind the troops and officials who are protecting the eastern border.

“You know, dear ones, that we meet in an exceptional situation. This march is unique, unlike any other. Today there are not only internal disputes, today there are also external disputes,” he said. “Today there is an attack on the Polish border.”

About 15,000 Polish troops have joined riot police and border guards at the border. The Belarusian Defense Ministry accused Poland of an “unprecedented” military buildup there, saying that migration control did not warrant such a force.

The Defense Ministry said Thursday that the migrants made a number of attempts to cross the border since Wednesday, as they have all week.

Near the village of Bialowieza, where a group of a few hundred migrants threw debris across the razor-wire fence at Polish troops and then tried to destroy it, shots were fired in the air to deter them.

Shots also were fired in the air near the village of Szudzialowo after migrants attacked a soldier, the ministry said. “He was hit with a branch on the chest. He fired two warning shots into the air,” the ministry said. The soldier was unhurt and the attackers fled into Belarus.

Since the start of the year, there have been 33,000 attempts to cross the border illegally, with 17,000 in October alone, the border guard service said.

The border crisis has been brewing since summer, with migrants trying to cross from Belarus to Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Many want to head for Germany, but Finland also is a destination.

The EU is looking at the role some airlines have played in carrying migrants and asylum-seekers to the bloc’s doorstep, and there are reports that it is mulling sanctions against them.

Russia’s national flag carrier, Aeroflot, strongly rejected allegations that it was involved, saying it isn’t conducting any regular or charter flights to Iraq or Syria and didn’t have any flights between Istanbul and Minsk.

The Polish government has pointed the finger at what it believes is a Turkish role — something Ankara denies.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, in a phone call Wednesday with his Polish counterpart, Zbigniew Rau, rejected “baseless allegations” that flag carrier Turkish Airlines was involved, Turkish officials said.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Deputy Migration Minister Karim al-Nuri told the Russian state news agency Sputnik that his country will aid in returning its citizens from Belarus if they wish.

“We will transport those who want to return. We will facilitate this through the Iraqi embassy in Russia, since Iraq does not have an embassy in Belarus,” the official said.

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