A militarized forest to respond to security concerns in the Polish election campaign | International
Approaching Bialowieza is entering the atmosphere that the ultra-conservative Government of Law and Justice (PiS) has imprinted on its electoral campaign. The narrow road that leads to this Polish town of just over 2,600 inhabitants, next to the border with Belarus, is filled with trees as you enter the largest primeval forest in Europe. Also military and border guard vehicles. Police checkpoints stop passing cars and search the trunks. They are deployed to control the flow of migrants trying to reach the EU across the border with Belarus. Since last summer they have also had reinforcements, after mercenaries from the Russian Wagner group moved to that country after their failed rebellion against the Kremlin at the end of June and two Belarusian helicopters entered Polish airspace on August 1.
With the war in Ukraine on the other side of the border, no one is surprised that security and defense have become the focus of the electoral campaign for next Sunday's elections. PiS sells in its campaign slogan “a secure future for Poles” and the opposition promises even more firmness and effectiveness. “We are a country that has a border with Russia [con el enclave de Kaliningrado]Belarus and Ukraine,” explains Slawomir Debski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), a think tank that advises the Government. In his office in Warsaw, the security expert recalls the “hybrid attacks” of the regime of Aleksandr Lukashenko, a great ally of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who since 2021 has organized the irregular entry of migrants into the EU. “For obvious reasons, security is a concern for Polish society,” he continues.
Neighbors and businessmen of Bialowieza, at the epicenter of some of these threats, show no sign of that fear five days before the elections. On the contrary, some feel that they suffer from the alarmist narrative issued by the Government for electoral purposes.
Krzysztof Petruk, the 62-year-old director of the village school, sees no fear among his students or their parents. “I don't think there are more than 1,000 Wagner mercenaries and the thing about the Belarusian helicopters was only one time, it's not known if it was a joke or serious,” he says, downplaying some facts with which the Government justified the sending of thousands of more soldiers. He views the military presence favorably, and remembers that in 2021, when the Government declared a state of emergency due to the arrival of immigrants, “there were more soldiers than inhabitants.” The children have already gotten used to it, he says, although he acknowledges that “many parents don't like to see so many armed soldiers even in the stores.”
Two older ladies who refuse to stop briefly affirm that they feel very calm with the military reinforcement. Just like Emile, a 44-year-old social worker who watched the incursion of the Minsk helicopters in fear. For Alicia, a 61-year-old shop assistant who also does not want to give her last name, “the presence of soldiers never has a positive connotation.” “They make people feel insecure,” she says.
In addition to the military threat from Russia on the other side of the border, Poland's ultra-government has turned immigration into an issue of national security and sovereignty. In the referendum called together with the elections, two of the four questions refer to this issue. One calls for rejecting the EU pact for the solidarity distribution of refugees; and the other wonders if the population is in favor of removing the 190-kilometer fence built on the border with Belarus, as if the opposition had suggested tearing it down. On the contrary, the liberal conservative Civic Platform calls for strengthening controls.
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During the campaign, the Executive has bombarded public opinion with videos and statements in which it relates irregular immigration from Muslim countries to violence. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki further stated that Wagner's mercenaries could enter Poland camouflaged among migrants. The conflict between Israel and Hamas serves to revive this idea even more, with variants: “People are afraid that, along with migrants, Europe will import Islamic extremists or Hamas sympathizers,” says Debski.
Fear of the dead
In Bialowieza, where many residents have encountered these people entering from Belarus, the fear instigated by official messages is not seen. “Many parents have helped them with food, water and clothing,” says the school director. Shopkeeper Alicia remembers that since 2021, the peak of the migration crisis, “there has not been any incident with the population.” “I'm not afraid of migrants; “What is most scary is finding a dead person 30 or 40 meters from your house,” she says, in relation to the dozens of people who have lost their lives in the forest.
Aleksandra Chrzanowska, a 44-year-old activist who has been working on the border since 2021, states emphatically: “I have never met a single person in the forest who scared me.” This cultural mediator from SIP, a legal aid organization for foreigners, and Grupa Granica—made up of NGOs, activists and residents in the border area—says that some neighbors in the area call them to help when they see a group of people in the forest, and others collaborate with the border guard. There are different reactions, she says, but not fear: “They are very tired people, cold, hungry, often hurt.”
The border forest has become a militarized zone. At the beginning of the cobbled track that leads from the town to the fence, a truck with armed soldiers was on duty this Tuesday. Further ahead, a 4x4 from the border guard. An agent, with pink nails and painted eyebrows, warned that it is prohibited to approach more than a few dozen meters from the wall and came to prevent passage before reaching that distance. According to a spokeswoman for the force, this year there have been 22,000 attempts to cross, although they even count those who only approach the fence and those who try again after being turned away quickly, as activists denounce.
Slawomir Dron, owner of the Fanaberia restaurant, 54, laments in his almost empty establishment: “Before, people were attracted by nature, the bison, the forest; Now the message is that there are migrants, Wagner's: 'Danger, danger, danger!' Since this summer, when the Government intensified these messages, business fell and has not risen again. The manager of the Zubrowka hotel, Andrzej Malinowski, 60, also complains that “all the things they say on television discourage families” from visiting the area.
For Marcin Buzanski, security expert and analyst at the Pulaski Foundation, the Executive's reaction at the border is “very exaggerated.” On the one hand, the entry of migrants is portrayed as a major threat, while on the other, Poland rejects the support of Frontex, the European agency that coordinates border management. Although this anti-immigration narrative, the expert believes, has been twisted in a certain way by the Government with the scandal of the sale of work permits to immigrants in exchange for bribes, because it shows the “hypocrisy” of PiS.
Investment in the military
Buzanski does not hesitate, however, to describe a “deterioration of the security situation in times of the Cold War”, although he sees an electoral use of issues related to security, to “attract far-right voters and have their base mobilized.” .
In April 2022, shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Government approved the Homeland Defense Law, which aims to turn the Polish army into the strongest in Europe. Since then, arms purchase contracts have taken place, with the objective of reaching 4% of military spending in relation to GDP.
Piotr Lukasiewicz, a former diplomat and ex-military man with experience in countries like Afghanistan, believes that the Government, with this “intense, rapid and broad plan to modernize the army,” entered the electoral campaign “with a solid program.” But as he says, “they overheated the situation, they exaggerated, and they have had somewhat grotesque results.” The analyst of think tank Polityka Insight reviews some “incidents” that undermine the image that PiS wants to project.
The first is that after ensuring that the country was protected from aerial missiles last October, two people died in November in the Polish village of Przewodów, next to the Ukrainian border, victims of a missile from the Ukrainian defense system. In December, a projectile launched by Russia entered Polish airspace and radars lost its trace. Nobody knew anything until a woman found the remains in a forest in Bydgoszcz, more than 400 kilometers from the border with Belarus, where she entered. Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak blamed the military leadership for not having informed him of it.
The former colonel highlights a last episode that made a former colleague of his officer cry with helplessness. It was on September 17, when the Minister of Defense released classified documents of old military plans in case of a Russian attack and accused the opposition, then in Government, of wanting to cede the eastern half of the country to Moscow. This week, the unrest at the top of the army has crystallized in the resignation of the two highest-ranking generals, five days before the elections. “They have done it on purpose as revenge: it is a protest for using the army as they have done in the last six months,” he believes.
The expert Debski, returning to the deployment in Bialowieza, believes that “the danger is real, due to the geographical situation and the role that Poland has played against Russia in the war in Ukraine.” “Let's imagine what could have happened if they ignored these threats and something bad happened,” he suggests. Alicia, behind the counter of the store where she works, believes that behind the hundreds of soldiers and police officers that swarm through her town there is more pre-election propaganda than danger.
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