President Joe Biden visits Poland, a complex ally on Ukraine’s doorstep

WARSAW, Poland – President Joe Biden’s visit to Poland as his final stop in Europe this week provides an opportunity to underscore the US commitment to protecting a key NATO member on Ukraine’s doorstep and thank Poland for its lavish welcome of refugees fleeing the Russian invasion.

But Poland is also a complicated ally, whose populist leaders have been accused by some European partners of being ruthless about democratic norms, and many liberal Poles will seek a sign that the US is remembering its role in promoting democracy.

The two-day visit, which begins on Friday, follows a trio of crisis summits in Brussels. It brings Biden to a country that has taken in the lion’s share of the more than 3.5 million Ukrainians who have fled months of war. More than 2.2 million have entered Poland and many want to stay there.

Poland is also hosting thousands of additional US troops, in addition to the thousands deployed on a rotating basis since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014. Many find their presence reassuring: Russia’s March 13 attacks on the Yavoriv military base in western Ukraine were so close that they shook Poles in border regions.

Polish aid to the Ukrainians was widely praised. Not only shelters and schools have opened their doors to refugees, 90,000 children have signed up for classes, but many regular Poles have welcomed Ukrainians into their homes. In some cases they take in friends, in others complete strangers.

Biden will be received by President Andrzej Duda, who is allied with a right-wing political party accused of undermining democratic norms and who has clearly favored ex-President Donald Trump.

Many Poles will be hoping for a sign from Biden that Washington will continue to push for adherence to democratic values, hoping that the need for NATO unity in the war will not forget this.

The European Union has accused the Polish government of undermining the independence of the judiciary since coming to power in 2015, in what is seen as an attack on the 27-strong bloc’s fundamental democratic values. Recently, the EU withheld millions of euros from a pandemic recovery fund from Warsaw to use the money as leverage for change.

In particular, the EU opposes a Supreme Court body with the power to suspend judges whose judgments displease the authorities.

The Polish government has also faced international criticism for eroding media independence, anti-LGBT rhetoric by Duda and others, and the use of Pegasus spyware against government critics.

In 2020, US-based group Freedom House said Poland no longer qualified as a “consolidated democracy” and had slipped to the rank of “semi-consolidated democracy”.

The Justice Defense Committee, an umbrella organization made up of independent judges, prosecutors and civil groups, said in a letter to EU institutions on 13 Law.”

Spanish lawmaker Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar, who chairs a European Parliament committee on civil liberties and justice, wrote Tuesday, urging top EU officials not to release the salvage funds unless Poland makes progress on the rule of law.

The government strongly denies that its behavior has been undemocratic, notes that it consistently wins elections and argues that it is trying to reform a corrupt, inefficient court system.

Duda moved late last year to address a major US concern by vetoing a law that threatened to silence an independent broadcaster, TVN. The TVN network is owned by US company Discovery Inc. and the legislation would have forced Discovery to give up its majority stake in the channel – the largest ever US investment in Poland.

Biden is unlikely to have forgotten that Duda and other Polish officials were ardent supporters and ideological brothers of Trump, particularly in their opposition to accepting refugees and migrants from the Middle East.

Duda was among a handful of leaders, including Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who waited weeks before congratulating Biden on his 2020 election victory and took a wait-and-see approach when Trump refused to accept his defeat.

In 2018, when Duda called on the US to build a permanent military base in Poland, he suggested calling it “Fort Trump.”

Although the naming proposal, which drew some mockery in Europe, was quickly dropped, Poles continued to desire a permanent base and a larger US military presence in the face of Russian aggression. They hope that Biden’s visit to Poland will bring greater military engagement.

Duda, speaking after a NATO meeting in Brussels on Thursday, said Biden’s forthcoming visit underscores the importance of the US-Polish strategic alliance, which comes shortly after visits by other senior officials in Biden’s administration.

“These connections are independent of all political relationships. We are democratic countries that change authorities and strategic interests remain,” said Duda.

Before Biden returns to Washington on Saturday, he is said to address the Polish people.

The White House said he would “make remarks on the united efforts of the free world to support the people of Ukraine, hold Russia accountable for its brutal war and defend a future grounded in democratic principles.”

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. President Joe Biden visits Poland, a complex ally on Ukraine’s doorstep

Dais Johnston

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