Polish Prime Minister issues stern warning ahead of EU elections

Sarah Rainsford,Eastern European correspondent

EPA/EFE Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk EPA/EFE

Donald Tusk is urging people to vote in self-defense

Go vote if you don’t want to go to war.

That is the clear choice that Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk made ahead of this weekend’s European elections. His team is emphasizing security, or more precisely the threat of Russian invasion, as the big topic.

With parties sympathetic to Russia set to make gains elsewhere, including in Central Europe, Tusk’s Civic Alliance is emphasizing that the EU needs to stand firm and united in the face of the danger from Moscow .

He is calling on Polish people to go out and vote to protect themselves.

The message taps into real concerns among voters in the country, as many Poles are instinctively wary of their giant neighbor for both historical and geographical reasons.

For more than 230km (142 miles), northern Poland faces Kaliningrad, Russia’s heavily militarized enclave. Marked by thick rolls of barbed wire, the border is monitored by vehicles fitted with thermal imaging cameras.

Matthew Goddard/BBC A guard with binoculars on the border with RussiaMatthew Goddard/BBC

Poland has a 232km (144 mile) long border with Russia

At the main intersection, the word RUSSIA is clearly written in red letters on the other side. Each passenger bus is meticulously inspected using sniffer dogs before it can pass.

Security was tightened when President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago. But before the Euro vote, Donald Tusk declared that he would do more.

“Shield East” is a 10bn zloty (£1.992bn) project to fortify Poland’s borders, with everything from high-tech surveillance to trenches. “It aims to ensure that the “enemy” knows how to “stay away” from Poland, the Prime Minister declared.

It will be coordinated with Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, three Baltic states that have their own reasons to be wary of Russia.

In smaller Slovakia to the south and in Hungary, politicians talk about the need to “compromise” with Moscow. That was interpreted as a concession from Kiev.

They issued statements filled with Kremlin talking points.

But Poland still firmly believes in the danger from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, if Ukraine is allowed to lose this war.

For this election, as Donald Tusk’s team has dominated the security agenda, the main opposition Law and Justice party, PiS, has focused elsewhere.

They are busy criticizing the EU migration deal and blocking the Green Deal against carbon emissions, a policy the party fully supported when it was in power.

But Poland has invested heavily in defense under the PiS government because of the threat from Russia. And the party has not completely abandoned the subject.

A PiS candidate for this election has become a minor internet phenomenon with a campaign video showing him single-handedly stopping a Russian tank, Tiananmen Square style.

“We have stopped evil many times and we will stop it again,” said Karol Karski, a bearded professor in a suit and glasses.

Matthew Goddard/BBC First aid class in PolandMatthew Goddard/BBC

At a school in Warsaw, children are learning survival skills

Here in Poland, even the younger generation is taking precautions.

At a school on the outskirts of Warsaw, children are learning survival skills. It’s part of a new program sending soldiers from the Territorial Defense Force to teach emergency drills in classrooms across the country.

From evacuation to orientation, through resuscitation, they are all useful skills. But the teenagers we met clearly understood why they were training.

“Because there’s a war in Ukraine and we’re in danger,” 17-year-old Sebastian told me during a break between practices.

No worries, just practical matters.

“I think Russia is near us and they can attack us,” Igor agreed. “We need to learn how to defend ourselves.”

Captain Dominik Pijarski of the 6th Mazovian Brigade confirmed: “One of the factors behind the creation of this project was the situation on our eastern border and the state’s response to the real threat” .

Matthew Goddard/BBC Captain Dominik PijarskMatthew Goddard/BBC

Captain Dominik Pijarski said Poland has learned lessons from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

I asked if he was concerned about the military threat from Russia.

The soldier replied: “Only fools are not afraid,” before adding: “I believe the whole country has learned the appropriate lessons from what is happening… and is preparing at the highest level when faced with a real threat.” .”

But wariness of Russia does not always translate into unconditional support for Ukraine.

A short drive out of Warsaw leads deep into the countryside and small villages are marked by towering crosses and Catholic shrines.

Recently, some fruit farmers here have left their fields to protest both at the Ukrainian border and in central Warsaw.

They are unhappy with the EU Green Deal which will increase their production costs.

But they are also worried about competition from Ukrainian farmers: exporting some goods duty-free as a form of support for the war-torn economy.

Matthew Goddard/BBC Mariusz KonarzewskiMatthew Goddard/BBC

Mariusz Konarzewski says Ukrainian farmers are more productive because they can use chemicals banned in the EU

“Competition from Ukraine means we no longer have a chance,” said farmer Mariusz Konarzewski, who has worked the land since he was 18 and is now concerned about his livelihood. has worked the land since he was 18 and now fears for his livelihood: the rows of long, slender apple trees.

Ukrainian farmers have better land and higher productivity,” Mr. Konarzewski explained. They can also use chemicals banned in the EU, leading to higher yields.

How he sees the competition: “It seems that Ukraine is fighting on two fronts: one with Russia and one with Polish farmers.” “If this continues, we will perish.”

I asked whether the farmers would want to support Ukraine in the face of Russia’s attack, and they hastily agreed that Kyiv needed help. People call Vladimir Putin “crazy”.

But resentment boiled beneath their words.

Mr. Konarzewski reiterated: “The Poles helped the Ukrainians in every possible way. Now, instead of hand in hand, they are waging open war against us.”

“Of course, militarily, we need help,” another farmer told me. “But we haven’t done anything wrong to suffer because of it.”

The European elections did not generate great excitement. Traditionally, voter turnout is much lower than in the national vote, and the number of campaign posters around town is nowhere near comparable.

But when Donald Tusk gathers a crowd of supporters in Warsaw on Tuesday for the final protest before the vote, security will certainly be at the top of his agenda.

The message: living next to Russia is still risky. And that all of Europe needs to be vigilant.

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