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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » November 28, 2013
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Independence Day
November 28, 2013   
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Several streets demolished, burned cars and vandalized buildings. Twelve policemen injured and 74 people arrested on 33 charges including unlawful assembly, property damage, assault and battery, and drug possession. It sounds like supporters of two rival teams wreaking havoc after a soccer game. Not this time. All this happened during Independence Day celebrations in Warsaw Nov. 11, Poland’s most important national holiday, commemorating the country regaining sovereignty in 1918, after more than a century of foreign control. What should be a happy celebration that brings people together has for several years turned into a bitter spectacle, and turned Warsaw into a battlefield.

Just like a soccer match can serve as a pretext for soccer hooligans beating the living daylights out of others, a demonstration by any radical movement, regardless of its political leanings, can easily lead to riots. This year, City Hall was prudent enough not to allow nationalists and leftists to parade through Warsaw in two opposing marches, so a massive confrontation was avoided. But the nationalists turned out to be perfectly capable of starting a riot on their own, proceeding to attack a squat in central Warsaw and torching a colorful installation called “Rainbow” on a nearby square, regarded as a symbol of sexual minority rights. When the dust had settled after the nationalists’ demonstration, which was billed as an Independence March, several streets looked like a war zone.

Several days before Nov. 11, Interior Minister Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz said the police would have the situation under control this year. He was wrong and keeping hundreds of hooligans at bay once again turned out to be too difficult a task for the police.

This year’s Independence Day also had international implications that were embarrassing to Poland. The protesters attempted to storm the Russian embassy and, despite a police cordon, managed to hurl flares over the embassy’s fence and set ablaze a police booth in front of the embassy’s main gate.

Predictably, Moscow’s response was swift. The Polish ambassador in Moscow was summoned to the Russian foreign ministry, and the Russian ambassador to Poland held a news conference in Warsaw during which he compared Poland to Libya, the only other country to witness an attack on a Russian diplomatic mission in recent years. Security around the Polish embassy in Moscow was strengthened and rightly so, because the next day Russian nationalists tried to throw flares at it. The local police, however, were far better prepared than their Polish counterparts and the incident only lasted a minute or so.

Meanwhile, right-wing journalists in Poland wrote about a “historically justified grudge against Russia” among the Polish public. Several right-wing politicians even criticized President Bronisław Komorowski for apologizing to the Russians and expressing his regret over the incident. According to them, the president “overstepped the rules of diplomacy” and “harmed Poland’s international standing.”

Seeing that common sense was, to put it mildly, in short supply on such a sensitive day, what can we expect from the country’s police and politicians during the rest of the year? The depressing answer is probably not much.
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