- By Hanna KozlowskaHanna Kozlowska is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously worked as a fixer, researcher and freelance contributor for the New York Times in Poland, and as the associate editor for Poland Today, an English-language magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Huffington Post and several Polish publications. She graduated from Swarthmore College where she was coeditor in chief of The Daily Gazette.
On Nov. 11 1918, the end of World War I, Poland regained its place on the map of Europe, after having been wiped off for 123 years. Now, on Poland’s Independence Day, the capital’s sky gives off a red glow and its streets are enveloped in smoke. That’s not because there’s been an elaborate fireworks show. It’s from the bright flares held by violent nationalist protesters. This November, young men in balaclavas set fire to two significant elements of the Warsaw landscape: a huge rainbow in the city center, seen by many as a symbol of tolerance and openness — or gay rights — and the guard post at the Russian embassy, reflecting age-old tensions between the two countries.
In recent years, the country’s capital has regularly spun into complete mayhem on Independence Day. On a supposedly joyous national holiday, in a stable country that has been called Europe’s "green island" during the financial crisis, having never descended into red while the rest of Europe was hurting, cars are trashed, Molotov cocktails fly in the air and parents warn their children to stay at home. This year, on the 95th anniversary of Polish statehood, the violence was particularly pronounced.
The fourth annual "Independence March," organized by right wing circles attracted tens of thousands of marchers. Most of them were peaceful; many were families with children. But members of far-right extremist groups disrupted the event, clashing violently with the police and vandalizing the city.
Pavements were destroyed, cars demolished, trees rooted. The police used pepper gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters, though their strategy was largely to avoid confrontation. 72 people were detained, 19 injured according to the TVN 24 news channel. The march was called off by city authorities before its scheduled conclusion. The nationalist groups came en masse to Warsaw in scores of buses that lined the city center streets. The extremists attacked two Warsaw squats and burned down a controversial rainbow sculpture, which Polish right-wingers have deemed an offensive gay rights symbol. "They are radiating with the desire to beat up the entire world. They can’t do it to the entire world, so they beat up those whom they see as foreign," sociologist Jacek Czapinski told news service Gazeta.pl.
The rainbow structure in the city center is perhaps the most pertinent symbol of the divisions in Polish society, of a gradual and painful transformation. The sculpture, intended as a unifying force by the artist, has been the most divisive element of the city landscape. Though celebrated by many, it was burned down for the fifth time on Nov. 11 by nationalist protesters, this time to the ground.
In a viral You Tube video, a balaclava-wearing nationalist tries to light a cigarette from the burning fabric flowers. "The faggot rainbow is burning" commented Member of Parliament Bartosz Kownacki on his Facebook page.
Another visceral target for Polish nationalists was the Russian embassy. Protesters threw flares and firecrackers at the monumental building located by a prestigious Warsaw boulevard, setting the embassy’s sentry box on fire. The attack sparked outrage in Russia, and prompted quick apologies from the Polish government. "In recent years there was only one attack on a Russian diplomatic post, and that was in Libya," said the Russian ambassador to Poland. Russian authorities firmly demanded an apology and compensation. Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who came out decisively against the incident called the acts of aggression "unacceptable."
Anti-Russian sentiment has deep-seated roots in Poland, going back centuries — well beyond the Soviet dominance of the Cold War. Russia is blamed for many Polish woes, with conspiracy theorists even accusing the Russian government of orchestrating the plane crash that killed Polish president Lech Kaczynski and 95 other members of the political establishment.
While the nationalist hooligans make up a fringe group, their actions reflect a larger shift in Polish society. With the once vigorous economic growth falling from 4.5 percent in 2011 to 1.8 in 2012, the unemployment rate high at 13%, Poles are increasingly dissatisfied with their government, the European Union and their lives. Polls indicate that the main conservative party, Law and Justice which has been out of power since 2007, is now gaining support over the centrist, pro-European Civic Platform, idle and incompetent in the eyes of many.
The economic differences between the urban, cosmopolitan class that is reaping the benefits from the country’s transformation and those who were left behind in the process, combined with the tension between progressive Western ideas of civil society and traditional, Catholic Polish values creates fertile ground for the growing resentment.
To add more color to the rainbow metaphor, Warsaw residents started pushing back against the haters the day after the fire, putting fresh flowers in the scorched structure making for a sad, but hopeful image.