Preschools to Reopen; Rau Backs Ukraine; 81st Anniversary of Katyń Forest Massacre
Updated: Apr 15
Poland is to see a very modest easing of some Covid-19 – related restrictions from Monday including the reopening of pre-schools, but the vast majority have been further extended. The Polish government is expressing vocal support for Ukraine in the face of the Russian military build-up on its border. Poland has this week also marked two very significant anniversaries – that of the 1940 Katyń Forest Massacre and of the 2010 Smolensk air crash.
The main news stories over the past week have included:
• Health Minister Adam Niedzielski announces the reopening of pre-schools amid an overall downward trend in Covid-19 cases
• Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau strongly backs Ukraine in the crisis over the massing of Russian troops on its eastern border
• There’s a court setback for PKN Orlen’s acquisition of Polska Press amid concerns about increased government influence over the media, and
• State leaders mark the 81st anniversary of the Katyń Forest massacre of 22,000 Polish officers and others.
On Wednesday Poland’s Health Minister, Adam Niedzielski, announced that nurseries and preschools will reopen for all children from next Monday, but that most of the other additional Covid-19 measures implemented before Easter were being further extended. Up until now nurseries and preschools had only been open for children of government employees such as medical personnel, soldiers, police and members of the fire service. Outdoor sports facilities are also being allowed to reopen from April 19th but with attendance capped at 25 people at any one time. However, the closure of indoor sports facilities, cinemas and many retail outlets has been extended until at least April 25th while the rules restricting shopping malls to only selling items deemed essential, as well as the closure of hotels, have been extended to May 3rd.
The very modest relaxation comes after a period with a generally downward trajectory in Covid-19 cases in Poland. Making Wednesday’s announcement at a virtual press conference, Niedzielski said that the number of new infections appeared to be trailing off. On Wednesday authorities reported 21,283 new cases with 803 deaths at least partially attributed to Covid-19. The deaths figure was, however, the second-highest number to date. The figures brought the total number of cases reported in Poland since the outbreak began to 2.62m with a total of 59,930 deaths.
Poland is continuing to aggressively pursue its vaccination strategy. On Monday authorities reported the arrival of a fresh batch of 870,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and around 88,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. On Wednesday Poland received its first shipment of 120,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. In total the government expects to receive around 1.3 million vaccine doses this week. As of Wednesday official figures show that just over 7.97 million people have been vaccinated to date, with 5.83m having received one dose and 2.14m two doses.
On Wednesday Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced that Poland will vaccinate members of its Olympic and national football teams as a priority. While prioritising athletes has proved controversial in some countries, he told a news conference that ‘to ensure the comfort of our athletes who are to give us joy and hope in Tokyo, we decided to vaccinate the entire Olympic team... and also our national football team, which will represent Poland during the European Championship’. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Culture, National Heritage and Sports, Piotr Gliński, said 1,077 Olympic athletes and trainers and over 60 people associated with the national soccer team would be vaccinated.
Above: Russian T-80 Main Battle Tank (Photo: "File:Hurkacz WMQ18 (32) (29681071278).jpg" by si.robi is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0) and insert Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau (Photo: "Minister Zbigniew Rau" by Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Pol is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)
Poland has expressed strong solidarity with Ukraine in the face of a reported build-up of Russian forces on the country’s eastern border. Last Thursday Poland’s Foreign Minister, Zbigniew Rau, visited the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, on a trip described by Polish officials as ‘extraordinary and urgent’ and ‘associated with a threat to peace on Ukraine’s borders’. He held talks with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba.
The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that they discussed what it termed ‘threats to peace in Europe resulting from the escalation of tensions along the northern and eastern border of Ukraine and in occupied Crimea, and from the construction of Nord Stream 2’. The two foreign ministers also discussed economic and security cooperation between the countries. Speaking during his visit Rau said that ‘Ukraine has the right to defend itself’ adding that ‘Ukraine is not isolated in the defence of its sovereignty, territorial integrity and the inviolability of its borders’. The Ukrainian Foreign Minister wrote on Twitter that ‘Poland is our long-standing and trusted friend’.
On Tuesday Rau and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone about the stand-off between Russia and Ukraine. The Foreign Ministry said that ‘the conversation focused on issues including NATO’s response to Russia’s activities in Ukraine’ and that they ‘agreed on the need for continued support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression’. Also on Tuesday, ahead of an emergency meeting of the collective security organisation’s foreign and defence ministers, NATO’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, called on Russia to withdraw its forces from the border with Ukraine. The Russian military build-up is reported to be the largest since 2014.
Poland’s competition regulator criticised a court ruling on Monday suspending it’s approval of the acquisition of the large newspaper publisher Polska Press by oil giant PKN Orlen. The acquisition had been strongly opposed by opposition politicians who alleged it was part of moves to increase Prawo i Sprawiedliwość influence over the media. Polska Press publishes 20 regional daily newspapers, around 100 weekly newspapers, and several magazines.
The Court of Competition and Consumer Protection in a case brought by the office of the Human Rights Commissioner, headed by government critic Adam Bodnar, said that ignoring it’s objection would mean implementing a decision ‘which should not take place in a democratic state governed by law’ in the face of a formal objection from an official body. The competition authority said it was considering its legal options. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of State Assets Jacek Sasin said that ‘the verdict is astonishing’ adding that ‘the ombudsman did not see anything bad in the fact that these media remained in the hands of a foreign publisher, who was not necessarily interested in reliably informing our citizens about all the aspects of social or political life. The problem is when this media segment is being taken over by a Polish company, which is only partly controlled by the government’. PKN Orlen President Daniel Obajtek, himself engulfed in multiple controversies in recent months, said on Twitter that there were ‘no legal grounds’ for stopping the transaction.
On Monday Sławomir Nowak, the former Transport minister in the previous Platforma Obywatelska - led government, was released from prison where he’s spent the last nine months following his arrest on charges of corruption, money laundering and running an organised crime group. A court reportedly found that his continued detention wasn’t justified as there was no credible reason to believe he would attempt to impede the investigation, and also that there had been shortcomings in the handling of the case by the Prosecutor’s Office and the Central Anticorruption Bureau. Nowak said after his release that ‘A time of truth will come. There will be time to fight back’. The Warszawa District Prosecutors Office criticised the decision to free him saying it could seriously jeopardise the investigation, and that it would appeal.
On Tuesday Poland officially commemorated, albeit in more low-key fashion that normal, the 81st anniversary of the 1940 massacre of around 22,000 Polish nationals mainly army and police officers, in what is known as the Katyń Forest Massacre. It’s regarded as one of the very worst crimes perpetrated on the orders of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. April 13th is an official Day of Remembrance for the events of April – May 1940. Speaking during a short ceremony at a monument in Warszawa’s Old Town, President Andrzej Duda said that ‘Today we honour the memory of Polish officers, policemen, and members of the intelligentsia murdered by the Soviets during World War Two’. He added that ‘I trust that all Poles, including Polish youth, remember those who never renounced their Polishness, their patriotism and dedication to their homeland’.
On Saturday ceremonies were held to mark the 11th anniversary of the 2010 Smolensk air crash in which 96 people died, including then President, Lech Kaczyński.
That’s all for this week.