But on Friday, President Biden arrived in Poland and called Andrzej Duda, the country’s president, a “brother” – praising him for “upholding” his obligations as a leader in responding to the humanitarian crisis resulting from the coronavirus crisis. invasion of Ukraine by Russia. .
Biden’s two-day visit to Poland — which included stops in Rzeszów, in the southeast of the country, and Warsaw — underscores the rapidly evolving nature of the U.S.-Polish relationship, which has blossomed into a partnership narrow in the face of the Russian invasion. from neighboring Ukraine.
Arriving at the Polish presidential palace for a meeting with Duda on Saturday afternoon, Biden embraced the Polish leader and the pair beamed at the cameras as they shook hands and Biden placed his other hand on Duda’s shoulder. Duda.
At the start of an expanded bilateral meeting, Duda said U.S.-Poland relations were “blooming” and the bond was “tremendously strengthened” by Biden’s visit.
In his remarks, Biden underscored the United States’ enduring commitment to defending NATO member states, seeking to reassure the Polish people, who Duda said feel a “great sense of threat” due to the Russian aggression.
“We consider Article 5 a sacred covenant,” Biden said, referring to the alliance’s collective defense pact. “Not a disposable, sacred commitment that concerns every member of NATO.”
Biden’s visit comes at a remarkable time for Poland. In the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the country made international headlines for its hardline stance on refugees, its anti-LGBT policies, and for its strained relations with the United States and the Europe.
Biden apparently referenced some of the leaders’ ideological differences on Saturday.
“The most important thing that binds us is our values: freedom, freedom of the press… that the government is transparent, making sure that people have the right to vote,” he said. declared.
But in recent weeks, Poland’s leaders have moved from attacking some of the fundamental institutions of liberal democracy to promoting their role as defenders of European unity and values.
“Your presence here, Mr. President, first of all, sends a very big sign of unity,” Duda said Friday before he and Biden received a briefing in Rzeszow, Poland, on humanitarian efforts. “It’s a huge sign of Euro-Atlantic support and unity – unity with my country, with Poland. It shows a great friendship between Poland and the United States, and a very deep alliance.
The fortified bond between Poland and the United States, however, could be temporary. The two countries have already briefly clashed over the issue of MiG fighter jets, and cracks are appearing over the number of refugees Poland has already taken in. Experts say they hope Biden doesn’t ignore human rights concerns with Poland just because of the Ukraine crisis.
But for now, Warsaw is at the very center of the transatlantic response. It is a NATO frontline state that hosts a growing number of troops and weapons, as well as a hub for supplies to Ukraine and the site of a historic humanitarian emergency. Poland is currently hosting 2.2 million of the 3.7 million Ukrainians who fled the war, according to United Nations estimates.
“We don’t call them ‘refugees’,” Duda said on Friday. “It is our guests, our brothers, our neighbors from Ukraine who are in a very difficult situation today.”
On Saturday, Biden visited the refugees at the PGE Narodowy stadium in Warsaw, meeting with the city’s mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski.
But tensions over the refugees have begun to surface publicly.
Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw, warned in an interview with The Post that the services of the city risked being overwhelmed..
“In 2015, we had 300,000 to 400,000 people entering Europe every month. We just brought 300,000 people to Warsaw in three weeks,” he said. “We want to take everyone who needs help, but how many children can we take to school? How can we do everything so that the health system does not break down in our city? »
And even though Poland bears the heaviest migration burden resulting from the war, its leaders seem reluctant to adopt a Europe-wide quota system for refugee resettlement because it could be applied to future emergencies, preferring a ad hoc approach, according to EU diplomats familiar with the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues.
Poland’s Interior Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on its stance on a refugee quota.
Poland is also turning back migrants from the Middle East at its border with Belarus, as part of a geopolitical standoff with that country.
Some see Russia’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine as an “I told you so” moment for Poland, which, like the Baltics and other Eastern and Central European countries, long distrust of Russia.
“There is a realization in the West that successive Polish and Central European governments have been warning Putin for 20 years,” said Radosław Sikorski, a Polish member of the European Parliament and former foreign minister. “There is a willingness now to listen to what we are saying – and this moment must be seized.”
Poland’s political transformation comes after years of acrimony between the ruling Law and Justice, or PiS, party and Washington and Brussels. Although Poland’s populist leaders have had close ties to Trump’s Washington, Biden has been cooler.
As a candidate, he condemned the creation of so-called “LGBT-free zones” in Poland, Tweeter that they have “no place in the European Union or anywhere in the world”. In 2020, he cited Poland alongside Hungary and Belarus as countries where democracy was under threat.
The ruling party also angered Washington last year with media bills that appeared to target Poland’s biggest broadcaster, TVN, which is owned by US-based Discovery. Duda ultimately vetoed the legislation, allowing Discovery to retain its majority share.
Ties with the EU have been even more difficult. For years, Poland has been embroiled in a bitter dispute with the bloc over democratic backsliding, particularly regarding the rule of law.
Since coming to power in 2015, the Law and Justice party has asserted extensive executive authority over the judiciary, redoing the process of appointing, promoting and disciplining judges. In 2017, a Council of Europe commission warned that the reorganization of the judicial system bore a “striking resemblance to the institutions that existed in the Soviet Union and its satellites”.
He also sought to make the state media an organ of the party, prompting a rebuke from Reporters Without Borders, which said the country’s state media “have turned into mouthpieces for government propaganda”.
Polish leaders are now pressuring Brussels to release billions of dollars in pandemic recovery funds withheld due to questions about the politicization of Poland’s justice system, arguing the money is needed to deal with the refugee crisis .
Rights groups and others are wondering how pandemic recovery money – which is earmarked for specific purposes over longer periods of time – would help refugees now, especially that much of the cost has so far been borne by ordinary Polish citizens, not the government.
Camino Mortera-Martinez, head of the Brussels office of the Center for European Reform, feared that the Ukraine crisis was effectively giving Poland a “free pass out of prison”.
She believes the European Commission will release the money “not because Poland needs it, but because it doesn’t want to risk the unity of the bloc right now.”
Yet Biden’s hastily planned stop here comes at a crucial time for Poland, and his presence is both substantively and symbolically significant.
Biden’s visit “gives hope and security to Poles, and probably relief to many Ukrainians as well,” said Ryszard Schnepf, Poland’s former ambassador to the United States.
Russia’s war demands, Schnepf added, caused the government in Warsaw to bind itself more closely to its Western partners – a show of unity at odds with the growing tensions sparked by Poland’s attacks on Russia. Rule of law, media independence and LGBT rights.
Schnepf said that by backing Poland at this time, Biden is “not forgetting the past,” but simply bolstering a crucial ally in the current crisis with Ukraine.
“It is important to welcome the leader of Poland’s most important ally, as far as security is concerned,” Schnepf said. “It shows us that this is a very personal involvement of President Biden.”
Rauhala reported from Brussels and Stanley-Becker reported from Berlin. Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.