Poland Today – Interview with Daniel Tilles On Politics and People

by Nathan James Thomas

Daniel Tilles is a British academic who first moved to Poland in 2004. A frequent writer on current events, Daniel manages the highly popular ‘Notes From Poland‘ community, an English language resource for those interested in Polish current events. In a country that is developing rapidly and experiencing significant political tensions, his cogent perspective keeps expats and Poland watchers informed.

During an interview on Skype, Intrepid Times caught up with Daniel who spoke to us from his home in Krakow. Our conversation covers key trends in Polish current events, including controversial issues like the European refugee quota and the actions of Poland’s conservative government. Daniel also shares his insights on Polish history, and his assessment of how things may develop in the near future.

You first moved from the UK to Poland in 2004. What’s your ‘origin story’ – how did you come to be here, and what made you stay?

When I was finishing my undergraduate studies in the UK I was quite keen to do a masters degree abroad somewhere. I felt like experiencing something different, getting out of the UK for a while, so I was looking at different options. My family history is quite a long one: my mother’s side of the family are from Finland, and my Dad’s side of the family have their roots in Krakow, so I was looking for places to study in those two countries. I found a masters course in Krakow that was taught in English at the Jagiellonian University

When I started the course, one of lecturers gave us an introductory talk on Poland and Krakow, and one of the things he warned us was that Krakow is like a trap: once you’re there it’s very difficult to get out again! And certainly I found that – after I finished the master’s degree I stayed in Krakow for a couple more years. I went back to the UK for a few years to do my doctorate but found myself constantly looking for excuses to come back. After I finished my PHD i came back to Krakow and decided to permanently resettle and start my academic career here.

In the 13 or so years since you’ve first moved here, you must have seen a lot of changes in the country?

Poland has changed and it hasn’t changed. Polish culture and the Polish people haven’t changed, but there’s been huge development of the country. When I moved to Poland it was September 2004, so Poland had just joined the European Union a couple of months earlier. Being part of the EU and the freedom of movement and investment and EU funds this brought has helped Poland’s development accelerate enormously. When I think back to those times, the county today is so much more economically developed, people have better jobs, more international firms are based here, Polish firms are doing well.

I first came across your work through your Notes From Poland website and Facebook page, which is a hugely popular resource for expats here, particularly those of us who don’t speak enough Polish to follow the news on local media. What’s the story here?

I can’t take credit at all for founding Notes From Poland – it was my colleague Stanley Bill who is in charge of the Polish studies program at the University of Cambridge. Notes From Poland originally started as his personal blog to reflect on aspects of Polish culture and life that he wanted to write about. A couple of years ago I offered to write a guest post for his site, and then I started contributing more regularly, and I recently took over the Facebook page.

From that point onwards it has started to build and build. As academics, we are not natural bloggers – it’s not natural for us to write things in that informal way without the footnotes, the context, the background that we’d like to include. So the blog itself is only updated every month or two, but the Facebook page is much more active. I’ve been doing this for the last year and half, and as you say it’s become a source of news for foreigners in Poland who don’t speak Polish well enough to have access to Polish news.

One of the gaps that it has filled is that there isn’t really good, reliable information about Poland in English out there. There are a couple of sites based in Poland but either they’re focused on local news, or they’re not very regularly updated. There’s the state run English language media which can be useful in some ways but also come with all the strings attached of being state run and not independent. And of course international media reporting on Poland is sporadic and focuses only on certain issues and I think it’s not very well informed. So I think Notes from Poland is filling a gap here.

For the benefit of our readers who do not live in Poland, what are the key trends in Polish current events that you think people ought to know more about?

Poland is actually a very interesting case at the moment. It surprises me actually that Poland doesn’t receive more attention in the international media, and I think this maybe reflects the lack correspondents who are familiar with and can access information in Poland and in Polish. The trends that we are seeing in Poland have been replicated elsewhere, one parallel is the rise of Donald Trump in America.

So, almost two years ago a conservative, populist government came to power, and they’ve undertaken a quite radical, controversial program of reform, especially when it comes to state institutions. There was a long battle over Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal which is, like the Supreme Court in America, the body responsible for ensuring that laws conform to the constitution.

Without going into too much detail because it’s a highly complex issue, there was a big institutional struggle as the government sought essentially to take it over; to place its own candidates there, rather than to allow the existing majority of judges who had been appointed by the previous government. There’s also been efforts by the government, to an unprecedented extent, to take over state run media, to place their own people in positions of authority within state run media and state run companies.

A lot of these are things that have characterized Polish politics and Polish institutions in the past, but never to the extent that has happened under the current government. State TV and radio has now really become a kind of broadcasting arm of the ruling party, rather than – as it’s supposed to be – a neutral source of information. And of course, state media is never completely neutral, whichever government has been in power has always exerted some kind of influence, but never to the extent that is going on now.

The problem is a lot of these constitutional, legal issues are very difficult for people to follow, which makes it understandable that there’s been less international coverage of these things than there should be. It’s very difficult for people to grasp the importance and the severity of what’s been taking place.

Another major issue that people feel strongly about is the refugee situation. A few Eastern European countries including Poland have flat-out refused to take any refugees. You’ve written about this issue recently. What’s the story here, and what’s your take on the situation?

The Background: Two years ago, at the peak of the refugee crisis, a majority of EU governments voted in favour of a plan to redistribute asylum seekers from Italy and Greece who are on the frontline, on the Mediterranean, and have been overburdened by this huge wave of migrants. The plan was to relieve them by resettling about 160,000 of the refugees in other EU countries and this was approved by a majority of the EU members.

In legal terms, the plan conformed to EU practices – although Hungary is challenging it in the courts at the moment – but politically it was a very controversial move. Normally these kinds of decisions that impinge on national sovereignty need to be decided unanimously with the agreement of every member state. But in a slight panic, desperate to look like they were doing something, the EU authorities decided to push it through with a majority vote.

Central European countries like Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, have long been hostile to the idea of allowing large numbers of not just refugees but specifically Muslim migrants into their countries. The previous Polish government did vote in favour of the plan, although they claim that they did so because it was going to pass anyway; there was already a majority in favour, and they wanted to extract certain concessions in exchange for voting in favour. But then the Polish government changed.

When the current populist government came to power. they did initially say that they would have to honour the plan because this was an international agreement made by the EU, but over time they’ve kind of ratcheted up their rhetoric on not wanting to allow Muslim migrants into the country. And of course, every time an Islamic terrorist attack has happened elsewhere in Europe they’ve pointed to this as further evidence on why they need to protect Poland’s security.

This becomes a broader debate about protecting Polish culture, about whether and how Muslims can integrate and assimilate, about no-go zones and so on. All of these typical talking points that come up in these discussions internationally have been pushed by the Polish government. Their position has evolved and they now say that they’re not going to take any refugees from this quota.

Hungary and Poland are the only countries that have not taken a single refugee from the quota that they were given by the EU. A couple of weeks ago the European Commission decided to begin legal proceedings against Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic for refusing to take their quotas.

My Perspective: What I argued in my recent article is that I very much support the principle: I think Poland has benefited more than any other country from EU membership and should feel solidarity with other EU countries that have really felt the strain of the migration crisis. I also think the Poles as a people who throughout their history have often been made into refugees fleeing war, occupation, persecution in their homeland should feel a sense of empathy and sympathy with refugees today.

But in practical terms, a huge majority of the Polish population does not want to accept refugees, many people in opinion surveys say they’d rather that the EU punish Poland financially than accept any refugees from the quota. All that the EU is doing by pushing this plan is stoking resentment in Poland. The issue of Muslims and Islamophobia is already a difficult one as it is, there’s evidence of a growing number of xenophobic attacks. I don’t want to exaggerate the number, but there is evidence that year on year hate crimes have been increasing.

It risks turning the Poles, who are some of the most pro-EU members of the union, against it. Among young people there’s a trend towards a kind of radical anti-establishment, often far right parties or movements, and for a lot of Poles their formative or early experience of the EU is seeing it trying to force unwanted refugees on the country, so from that perspective I don’t think it does any favors.

The other thing I’ve argued is that in practical terms it doesn’t help anyway because the refugee relocation plan is already failing. Even though most countries have taken some refugees, they’ve only taken a fraction of the quota. Of the original 160,000, only about 20,000 have actually been resettled, and the EU is struggling to find candidates to fill the remaining places, and even when refugees get resettled to Eastern member states they find themselves in countries that are not used to diversity, not used to immigrants, especially from outside Europe of a different religion, culture. Countries that aren’t very wealthy and don’t have many economic opportunities don’t have strong systems of social support.

What’s happened in countries like Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia is that as soon as refugees arrive in those countries they jump on the first bus to Germany and go and work there on the black market. Even though they’re not allowed to and they could lose their refugee status and all the benefits that come with it, they would rather try their luck on the German black market than remain in the East, so if the EU does succeed in forcing refugees on Poland, it’s unlikely they’re going to want to stay here anyway. So I don’t see the benefits of pursuing this plan.

Coming from a multicultural country like New Zealand, it’s remarkable how homogeneous – ethnically and religiously – Poland seems

What’s interesting is that this is something very new. For all of its history up until 1939, Poland was a diverse and multicultural place. If you look at Poland in the 1920s and 1930s, only 70% of the country’s population were ethnically Polish. That meant 30% were Russians, Germans, Jews, Belorussians, Ukrainians. Only 60% of the population were Catholic, so the rest were Orthodox, Lutherans, Jews and so on. And this is really what characterized all of Polish history, it was this kind of melting point of different cultures.

Poland’s borders have shifted constantly back and forth over the years and Poland was always a very diverse place, and of course there were often tension between groups, but there was also a lot of collaboration. One of the reasons why there was such a large Jewish population – Poland had the largest Jewish population in the world before the Second World War – was that Poland was historically a very tolerant place towards Jews.

For example, in the 13th century when Jews were expelled from England, many of them ended up in Poland. Poland had passed laws giving protection and offering tolerance towards Jews. This was a tradition that continued. I don’t want to deny that there was Polish anti-semitism, but Poland was a place where different ethnic and religious cultural groups rubbed up against each other, worked with one another, and got on with each other for a long time.

So the status as Poland as being probably the most ethnically homogenous, religiously homogenous country in the European Union is something very recent. This is a product of the Second World War when nearly all of the Jews were killed by the Germans. The remainder escaped from Poland either during the war or after the war. Borders were shifted and populations were moved so ethnic Germans were taken out of Poland and Ukrainian lands fell under the control of the Soviet Union and were taken away from Poland, so this ethnic homogeneity is something that is certainly very recent.

And it’s this very recent understanding of Poland as a homogenous country that the current right wing movement seems anxious to preserve.

This is something that has become more pronounced in Poland over the time I’ve been living here, which is a stronger sense of not so much national pride – because the Poles have always been proud of their culture and history – but a much more visible manifestations of this in politics. It exists in mainstream politics in the sense that Poland is now ruled by a party that is openly, explicitly committed to protecting Polish culture and identity and protecting it from what it perceives as outside threats, and of course this includes a prominent role for Catholicism. This is not officially the national religion – officially there is separation of church and state, but in practice under the current government those division, those lines, have become a lot more blurred.

Outside mainstream politics, the far right, radical nationalist groups have become more prominent and active in recent years. There’s a big march that takes place on independence day in November every year which is organized by a collection of radical nationalist groups but which is attended by a much broader range of Polish people – over 100,000 I think attend it every year. And on the local level there’s much more activity from these kinds of groups, so this is definitely something that has become more prominent over the last few years in Poland.

If you were to speculate on how things may develop in the near future, would you be optimistic?

That’s quite a broad question. In an economic sense, all the indications are very good. Poland continues to grow, wages are rising, unemployment is falling, the current government has introduced a very popular and so far very successful social program of benefits for families with children. Projects are underway to provide more social housing. The economy overall continues to grow, and individual Poles themselves continue to find themselves in a more comfortable situation.

Politically of course and socially, culturally, things are a bit more difficult. The actions of the current government over the last year and a half have really brought to the surface those deep divisions and tensions within Poland between different sections of society. It would be an oversimplification to claim that there are just two different groups competing with one another, but overall you have this division between more conservative, inward looking, traditional Poles, and on the other hand more outward looking, liberal groups.

There is a geographical aspect to these divisions as well, in general the former group is concentrated more to the East of the country, the latter group in the West. If you look at a map of Poland at any election where they map out which region has voted for which candidates, you can just see a straight line almost down the middle of the country dividing it into a more conservative East and a more liberal West. But of course, that’s a slight simplification, you find conservatives in the West and liberals in the East!

There is a great potential over the next few years for these tensions to continue or even to worsen, and then on top of that of course, Poland is coming under pressure from international institutions, particularly the EU. There are ongoing processes relating not just to refugees but also to environmental issues in Poland. The government has increased logging in Bialowieza Forest which is a Unesco protected ancient primeval forest in the North of the country, and the EU is threatening to take legal action against Poland for allowing logging to take place there. There’s tension over cutting emissions, the EU has committed to reducing emissions significantly, whereas Poland relies to an enormous extent on coal for its power and the current government has promised to continue doing so.

And then the EU has also been investigating Poland over the government’s actions towards to constitutional tribunal, and other institutions which, it is argued, threaten the rule of law and individual rights in Poland. So, internally and from outside there’s still going to be great tension and conflict over the next few years.

Top photo courtesy of Daniel Tilles. Follow him at Notes From Poland – See More Intrepid Times Interviews.


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