Poland blocks far-right march, will instead hold inclusive event

‘Warsaw has suffered enough because of aggressive nationalism,’ city’s mayor says, notes main organizer of event is the head of a group with anti-Semitic roots

In this photo from November 11, 2017, demonstrators burn flares and wave Polish flags during the annual march to commemorate Poland's National Independence Day in Warsaw, Poland. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
In this photo from November 11, 2017, demonstrators burn flares and wave Polish flags during the annual march to commemorate Poland's National Independence Day in Warsaw, Poland. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The mayor of Warsaw on Wednesday banned radical Polish nationalists from marching on the 100th anniversary of Poland’s independence due to security concerns. The move prompted Polish leaders to quickly draw up plans for an inclusive march Sunday that could be embraced by all citizens.

It was a significant about-face for the populist government, which has been trying not to alienate far-right voters but then faced the strong possibility that the main news from Poland on its centennial would have been about extremists or even violence. It seemed the Warsaw mayor, normally a political rival from the opposition centrist Civic Platform, offered them a way out of their predicament.

Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz said she wanted to put a stop to the extremist displays that have appeared yearly on Poland’s November 11 Independence Day holiday at far-right marches that have drawn tens of thousands to the capital.

At last year’s march, some marchers carried racist and anti-Islamic banners calling for a “White Europe” and displayed white supremacist symbols like the Celtic Cross. There were also cases of violence against counter-protesters.

The event drew heavy media coverage and international criticism.

Demonstrators burn flares and wave Polish flags during the annual march to commemorate Poland’s National Independence Day in Warsaw on November 11, 2017. (Janek Skarzynski/AFP)

Lawmakers in the European Parliament called the participants “fascists” — a label that infuriated the conservative Polish government, whose leaders said most people marched with the national flag and without the racist banners. They mostly praised the march as an expression of patriotism, with one minister calling it a “beautiful sight.”

This year, Poland is celebrating the centenary of its independence, gained in 1918 at the end of World War I.

File: Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz speaks at an extraordinary session of the Warsaw city council in Warsaw, Poland, on September 1, 2016 (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

“This is not how the celebrations should look on the 100th anniversary of regaining our independence,” Gronkiewicz-Waltz told a news conference. “Warsaw has suffered enough because of aggressive nationalism.”

Gronkiewicz-Waltz noted that the chief organizer of the Warsaw far-right march is a leader of the National Radical Camp, which traces its roots to an anti-Semitic movement of the 1930s. She said she has asked the government to outlaw it but has been ignored.

“The capital city saved the honor of the country,” the liberal daily Gazeta Wyborcza wrote.

Many other Poles have resented how the nationalists in recent years have managed to draw so much attention on Independence Day, overshadowing other celebrations.

President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki met after the mayor’s announcement and announced that a march organized by the government would take place in Warsaw on Sunday instead. Presidential spokesman Blazej Spychalski invited all Poles to march with national flags to show that “we are one white-and-red team,” a reference to the flag’s colors.

The government had held failed talks earlier with the far-right nationalists, hoping to make their march a state event, but far-right organizers refused the government demand that marchers could carry flags only, no banners, Morawiecki said.

Polish President Andrzej Duda, left, nominates Mateusz Morawiecki to be prime minister at the presidential palace in Warsaw, December 11, 2017. (Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images via JTA)

A similar ban on a far-right Independence Day march was announced Tuesday by the mayor of the western Polish city of Wroclaw, who cited the risk that participants might incite racial and ethnic hatred.

The bans followed signals that extremists from elsewhere in Europe planned to travel to Warsaw on Sunday.

Mass walk-outs by Polish police officers in recent days also raised concerns that clashes between participants and counter-protesters could get out of hand if there were not enough officers to intervene.

Meanwhile, a controversial statue of the late president Lech Kaczynski was installed in a central Warsaw square ahead of its weekend unveiling as part of the centennial celebrations.

A worker cleans a statue depicting late Polish president Lech Kaczynski after it was installed at a central square in Warsaw, Poland, on November 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Kaczynski, who was killed in a 2010 plane crash in Russia, was the identical twin of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of the right-wing Law and Justice party currently in power.

While Poles have universally mourned the deaths of the president and the 95 other people who perished with him they remain divided on how to judge his presidency and whether he deserves such hero status.

More than 140 memorials to him already exist across the nation of 37 million people.

Authorities in Warsaw’s local government opposed the statue and its central location. Pro-government provincial authorities were in favor. The clash is playing out in Poland’s court system even as the 7-meter (23-foot) statue went up.

The end of World War I is also being marked on Sunday in Paris, where dozens of world leaders will gather, including host French President Emmanuel Macron and counterparts Donald Trump of the United States, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In Britain, Armistice Day will be commemorated Sunday with a solemn ceremony at the Cenotaph in London that will be attended by Queen Elizabeth II. Special tributes to fallen and injured servicemen will also include a Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey in London.

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