Poland's liberals push back against the conservative establishment

Poland's liberals push back against the conservative establishment
By Damon Embling
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The city's progressive mayor Pawel Adamowicz was murdered earlier this year

The EU is facing up to rising nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and what is seen as a weakening of rule of law amongst Eastern European members.

But Poland stands defiant. Amid pressure from Brussels, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told the European Parliament: "Please don't lecture us. We know perfectly how to govern our institutions."

In this edition of Insiders: Unreported Europe, we travel to the Polish port city of Gdansk to look at rights. It's a place which has carved itself out as a "liberal enclave," going against the national establishment.

Magdalena Adamowicz stands in front of a memorial plaque to her husband

Gdansk - a rare find

Poland is a conservative country, influenced by the Catholic Church. It's rare then to find a place like Gdansk.

Pawel Adamowicz - the city's mayor for more than 20 years - is credited for much of the city's liberal thinking and outlook.

He took a more liberal approach at City Hall, overseeing policies recognising everyone, migrants and the LGBT community among them.

It won him supporters. But also made him a figure of hate. In January, he was stabbed at a charity event in Gdansk and later died.

Euronews' Damon Embling reports from Gdansk: "I'm spending a week here in the city of Gdansk because I really want to try and scratch beneath the surface of this city - to understand how it's got to where it is today.

"I also want to know a bit more about Pawel Adamowicz. What kind of man really was he and how was he able to achieve so much here? Also, since his killing of course, I want to find out whether his legacy's continuing and whether Gdansk is very much going in the same direction."

'I feel that all his power came to me'

We meet up with Pawel's wife - Magdalena - at the European Solidarity Centre in Gdansk. It's a city landmark, that was overseen by Pawel and commemorates the Solidarity movement, which helped to end communism in Europe.

Magdalena, who has two daughters, says it was her husband's personality that made the difference.

"He was a very open person, his trademark was a smile. He was open to the people and people very often came to him and spoke to him in the street," Magdalena told Insiders.

"He always stopped and had time for the people, always listened to them and was trying to help them as far as he could."

Pawel started out as a conservative, but became more liberal in his later years of office.

“He learned his whole life, he matured and evaluated. He found that many groups in Poland are extremely discriminated and he didn't agree with that," explained Magdalena. "So that was the reason he wanted to support the minority groups and the groups like migrants, like LGBT groups."

Magdalena's standing in next month's EU elections as an independent candidate - prompted, she tells me, by her husband's killing.

“I feel that all his (Pawel's) power came to me. At his funeral, the Father shouted that we have to stop with the hate speech. I thought, he speaks to me, who suffered. I have to fight for that.

"To fight with hatred, fake news, half-truths, because it blows up the European integration, the European Union from inside.”

REUTERS / Agencja Gazeta
Gdansk's Mayor Pawel Adamowicz was stabbed to death in JanuaryREUTERS / Agencja Gazeta

A 'danger' to the community

It is estimated around 40-thousand migrants live in Gdansk. Some have chosen to start their own companies.

Palestinian Mohammed Amer moved to Poland after visiting his cousin. He now runs a food business, employing migrants from several countries including Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

But it is not all been plain sailing. When he applied to a village mayor to buy a house with his Polish girlfriend, he was refused - told in a letter that he posed a danger to the community.

"We were really in shock and surprised," said Amer. "So, we went to the news, to the media and, after that, actually he changed his decision, so we were allowed to buy this house. But it meant it took a longer time, so over one year we were waiting. But when I live in this place, right now in this village, people are very helpful, very nice.”

Migrants helping migrants

Mohammed helps other migrants settle into the city. We joined him at a support centre, to be alongside one man who had just been told he is now illegal.

Yulia Shavlovskaya advises him. A migrant herself, from Belarus, she is now helping others to navigate Poland's immigration rules and regulations.

Reflecting on the case, she tells Insiders: "Unfortunately, this is a typical situation now because the Polish system, the Polish government is not prepared for immigrants here. He was in this procedure for one year and, after that, he received the letter with information that his case was cancelled."

Yulia adds: “Gdansk has really opened and a tolerant place for foreign people. And we have it I think in our blood, because when you live here, you can understand that living in peace is really good. And it’s really better to build than destroy.”

Working against the backdrop of an anti-immigrant government, she admitted it can be quite a difficult challenge.

"But I think people in the different places, in different cities, the mayors of other cities can understand because they live in these societies," she said, explaining why there are local differences.

'Some European countries will become Muslim countries'

Of course, some take a more cautious approach to migration. Grzegorz Pellowski is Catholic, a supporter of the ruling conservative Law and Justice Party and runs a chain of patisseries in and around Gdansk.

He tells Insiders: "I don't like the fact that in Germany or in Sweden, they opened their doors so widely and they started to accept in an uncontrolled way the people who then have an influence on the future of the country.... Because it is officially being said now that some of the European countries will become Muslim countries."

Grzegorz has supported a far-right group called All Polish Youth. It issued fake death certificates for 11 mayors in 2017, including Pawel Adamowicz, citing his 'cause of death' as "liberalism, multiculturalism and stupidity.

"It was meant to be a symbolic message to symbolise the death of his opinions and politics because they didn't like them," Grzegorz told Insiders.

"And, in fact, the message was very strong. And sometimes to reach somebody, you need to use a strong message. But, in fact, it was too strong. They apologised. If it had been up to me, I wouldn't have done it."

Model for equal treatment

Looking at Gdansk's policies, Euronews' Damon Embling reported: “So, this is a really interesting document. It’s referred to here in Gdansk as a model for equal treatment and it was signed up to by the City Hall here. Essentially, it basically covers everything about the community in Gdansk and rights, fundamentally.

"It talks about gender, age, ethnicity, nationality. But perhaps most interestingly in this document, it actually has a section on sexual orientation.”

That's not something in the national constitution.

LGBT-friendly Gdansk

Lawyer Jacek Jasionek moved to Gdansk from a small town when he was a student. Those who knew he was gay back then - in the 1990s - told him life would be easier in a big city.

“I’ve been living in Gdansk for 25 years and I’m enjoying it here," he said. “In fact, this opinion about the city is everywhere, among many gays and lesbians, the LGBT minority everywhere in the country.

"Therefore, many people come to Gdansk to live. But it doesn’t mean that life here is good for every LGBT person and I’m sure there’s lots of improvements to be made.”

Jacek joined Gdansk's first equality march in 2015. He recalls it was a day filled with fear and excitement.

“When I went to the march, I was afraid that suddenly some people who hate us would come, would throw stones," he said. “It was a positive experience and, on the other, a very opening one."

Rights legislation similar to 'Russia'

The LGBT community is frustrated by a lack of national rights legislation. Jacek had hoped EU membership in 2004 would change things in Poland. But feels that nothing has moved on.

"In Poland, there is no bill about partnerships, no bill about marriage equality, it's not a hate crime if somebody hates LGBT, there are no crimes motivated by homophobia in law. Not to mention any laws about children raised in same-sex unions. It's all very far behind, we have a similar level of legislation as Russia," he outlined.

“I dream a lot about marrying my boyfriend, but we want to do it in Poland," Jacek continued.

“Now I think we are at a ridge. Like we are walking on the ridge of a mountain. We either fall to the undemocratic side, where human rights are not respected, where gay people are second class people who don’t deserve full rights. Or society agrees and acknowledges rights of sexual minorities."

Jacek's a volunteer activist with the Tolerado association. He joins a workshop along with other members, to paint banners and posters for the next equality march, happening in May. Dominik, who is bisexual, is among the group.

“I moved to Gdansk last year, I’m originally from Wroclaw. I came here a week before the march, so it was a really cool greeting. And here, I haven’t personally met with any (homophobia)… But, of course, I’ve heard stories," he said.

Ulka Kolodziejczyk, 25, a Tolerado Supporter, added: “My mother has known about my sexual orientation since I was 15 and she tolerated it. Never approved, but tolerated it. About three years ago, she started to go to the church frequently and became very religious. She doesn’t accept me anymore, my grandma doesn't as well.”

Government 'wishes we didn't exist'

Tolerado Vice-President Marta Magott stressed: “People in same-sex relationships are not respected by our state and our government wishes we didn’t exist.

“We have examples of very religious states, very Catholic, those who changed their minds about LGBT rights – like what happened in Ireland or the UK.

“So, it’s doable. The question is whether it can be done in Poland. But if I didn’t think it was possible, I wouldn’t be here.”

Church influence

The church is a big shaper of public opinion in Poland. In March, an evangelical group published pictures of a priest leading the burning of books outside this church - including Harry Potter titles, seen by some as promoting sorcery.

The pictures were later taken down.

Euronews' Damon Embling reported from the church: “We were told that we couldn’t have an interview with the priest. A statement has been put out on social media in the priest’s name. He describes the book burnings in his words as ‘unfortunate’ and he says this wasn’t directly against literature and culture as such. And he says if people felt like it was, he would want to apologise.”

Not all priests take such a controversial approach to teaching the word of God.

"You search for the best means, how to present your faith, and sometimes you simply do some simple mistakes. And that for me, and I’m quite sure that for all churches in Poland, for 100%, that was a mistake," Pawel Kowalski, a Priest at the Holy Cross Church in Gdansk, told Insiders.

The church stands firm in the face of calls for more rights. Thousands have taken to the streets to demand the liberalisation of Poland's abortion laws, some of the most restrictive in Europe.

And, when asked about the prospect of same-sex partnerships, Pawel Kowalski wouldn't comment.

“When it comes to the rights, what people are calling and asking for, we as a church are called to discern," he went on to say. "Because some of the rights that they call for are really a message of God, a message of Holy Spirit that is calling us to stand for. But some, probably not.”

“So, by discern, you mean as a church, you will decide what rights are right, and what aren’t?” asks Euronews' Damon Embling.

“Not to choose. Discern is something completely different. Discern means to listen, but also then to decide and speak with and so on. So, it means to get involved in the society, get involved with people and to have a way to gather towards the right and so on," the priest replies.

Family rights: cash or nursery place?

The push for more rights stretches to family and women too. We meet Renata and her 10-month-old to find out what family life is like in Gdansk, and Poland more generally.

Renata's a teacher, on maternity leave right now with little Lucja. She gets maternity pay and just under 120 euros per month for her daughter under a government scheme called 500 plus.

It has been brought in to boost fertility rates, but has also sparked fears that it will discourage women going back to work.

Renata would like a nursery place for her daughter instead.

“When it comes to the public nursery, she is on the list. She is 800th on the list right now and we can’t afford a private nursery, so it’s impossible now," she explains.

"I would rather be given a place for her in the nursery than money because I can earn money. I can arrange some private classes or I can work more. But as long as I can’t find anybody to take care of her, its just not going to work."

Thousand's gthered for Pawel Adamowicz's funeral

What now for Pawel Adamowicz's legacy?

It's clear mayors have a big role here in Poland in shaping city life, with many of the frustrations about national laws and regulations.

Gdansk's future now in the hands of former deputy to Pawel Adamowicz, lawyer Aleksandra Dulkiewicz. The first woman to take the mayor post.

She was not available to speak to Insiders. But we did meet up with Deputy Mayor Piotr Kowalczuk.

“It’s a huge loss, Pawel Adamowicz. Twenty years of what he did for the people of Gdansk, building the values of Gdansk on freedom, solidarity, openness and equality, all of that to make everybody feel good here," he said.

"We will try to keep it running, all that remains of his legacy, and all those social programmes he created with various people and NGOs. Because it’s not only our challenge, not only his legacy, but it’s about the everyday life of the people of Gdansk.”

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