The Russian invasion of Ukraine sent shockwaves through Polish society, with many organisations and individuals stepping up to show solidarity with Ukrainians and mobilising to provide support to refugees fleeing the country. But as journalist Agnieszka Lichnerowicz explains, the ramifications of the war for Poland are complex – in a cost of living crisis and with an opportunistic government in charge, policies in favour of a green transition and the rule of law are at risk.
Green European Journal: As a journalist, your interest in covering and understanding global political, social, and economic change has taken you to places such as Ukraine around the Orange revolution, the Middle East during the Arab Spring, as well as Belarus and Myanmar. Where does your current focus lie?
Agnieszka Lichnerowicz: I’m currently looking at climate movements and the changes associated with the ecological transition. I find that this approach comes naturally to me. Having been born in Poland in 1980, most of my adult life was punctuated by the changes that rocked my country – from authoritarianism to democracy and the enormous economic and cultural transition that followed. I grew up inspired by the stories of those who fought for democracy here in Poland; I suppose that’s why I’m also interested in freedom movements in other countries.
In the context of the war in Ukraine and the role of coal in Poland, how is the new EU taxonomy for sustainable activities seen from a Polish perspective? And what are the climate consequences of this?
I’ll start with your last question: a sizeable part of the Polish population has a relatively abstract view of climate change and the debates surrounding it. In spite of our country’s relatively mild climate, we are facing increasing water scarcity, and this is gradually starting to make its way into the public debate. The fact that heatwaves are occurring more frequently is also helping to make the climate debate less and less abstract – for some, at least. But there remain two sides to the debate. Of course, people have an awareness of the global processes underway, but the most important factor is their daily lived experience of the consequences of climate change. This explains why, for part of the Polish population, the climate issue just isn’t as well developed as it is in some western European countries.
For various reasons, the previous [Donald Tusk-led 2007-2014] liberal government failed to engage with the climate question. While it didn’t actually oppose European climate policy, it remained very distant from it and constantly tried to minimise Poland’s commitments. For the current government, European green policy is a tool for attacking the European Union. For Poland, the ecological transition represents an enormous challenge. We are heavily dependent on coal, and Polish miners are highly suspicious of any policy that has their industry in its crosshairs. Both of my parents were engineers in a coal power station, so I was able to see what happened during privatisation after 1989 and the social damage it caused. Many miners think that the environmental transition will probably mean the loss of their jobs. Only around 12 per cent of workers in Poland are unionised. Once the mines are closed, this number will probably drop, mining being the last unionised industry. All the others were privatised, which led to the dismantling of the union system. So it’s easy to understand why this industry is so suspicious, especially as the Polish government has no clear strategy at present. Instead, it is manipulating the debate, saying one thing to the EU and another to the miners.
Many of those working in the coal mining sector are of course aware that the mines will have to close eventually. But for as long as they remain open, they have good jobs and guaranteed pensions. We’re faced with a situation reminiscent of the 19th century, when the closure of mines or factories led to the loss of up to a third of a city’s jobs. Post-industrial reskilling in a mid-sized city isn’t simple. You can retrain workers as taxi drivers, for example, but how many taxis can you have in a mid-sized city? What’s more, Poland’s institutions are not as strong as they claim to be. Neoliberalism has dismantled social institutions – with the help of the Polish government, which believes in centralised, one-party state politics. So there is a lot of mistrust.
For Poland, the ecological transition represents an enormous challenge.
The outbreak of war hasn’t improved matters. While there’s no real threat of invasion, some people are frightened. They wonder what they would do if Russian tanks reached Poland. While some have dug out their grandmothers’ stories from the Second World War, others are more anxious about the increasing cost of living, especially energy prices. It’s important to understand that Polish society is relatively poor, and that our welfare state is more limited than that of western Europe.
There’s an enormous risk that green policies will be cast aside in light of these tensions, especially as the EU and the United States are now prioritising security and are no longer putting pressure on the Polish government to commit to the climate transition or the protection of the rule of law. There are concerns among environmental NGOs and activists but also ordinary citizens that the current conflict could seal the fate of the climate transition in Poland. It’s also worth noting that while the “fossil fuels feed the Kremlin” narrative currently carries weight in most of Europe, this isn’t the case in Poland. Warsaw has been aware of the risk of dependency for years and has long made efforts to diversify its supplies, allowing it to source at least some of its gas from countries other than Russia. Furthermore, most Polish experts consider gas to be a transition fuel.
As far as nuclear power is concerned, the debate is the same as in other countries. Some believe that it is naive – even dangerous – to think we can embark on the energy transition without nuclear power, especially in a coal-rich country such as Poland. But of course there are also people campaigning for support for alternative energy sources.
Eastern and western Europe do not share the same history or the same relations with Russia. In your opinion, what has been the impact of Russian aggression in Ukraine on ordinary people and policy-makers in Poland?
Clearly, countries in the region have always been very wary of Russia. Many of us – politicians, experts, journalists – have been accused of Russophobia. But I think that even in Poland, few would have predicted what happened in February. When I was growing up, the prevailing view was that Poland would simply become richer, more stable, and more secure. And this is indeed what happened when we joined NATO and the European Union. But I’m not going to idealise this process. Many people lost out. While Poland as a country became richer and more secure, this was accompanied by soaring inequality.
In 2014 I reported on the Maidan Revolution from Kyiv, and I went to Crimea. Then I covered the war in the Donbas. This was when my view of the world changed completely. I also realised that we’re much more empathetic towards the people closest to us, those who are most like us. I have a lot of friends in Ukraine, and I feel very close to this country. Our cultures are very similar. And now there’s war, we have to fight. But many of my friends in Ukraine aren’t just scared of dying, they’re also unwilling to pick up a rifle and kill other people.
I was brought up not so much as a pacifist as with the idea of the non-violence movement. In Poland, Solidarity was a non-violent movement, and various studies have shown that these are much more effective for achieving change. However, in 2014 people in Ukraine began to emphasise two key points that Poland and other European countries are only now starting to understand. First, the Donbas conflict is a conflict that affects Europe. Like it or not, for the very first time, a war is being fought under the flag of the European Union, for the European Union. And second, something that many of us still haven’t grasped: this conflict cannot be resolved by non-violent means. Russia is very determined, and Ukrainian citizens will have to fight, risk their lives, and die to be free of its grasp. In Poland we now have a better understanding of the situation – perhaps better than in the West.
If we consider Ukraine to be part of Europe, then we need to understand that the history of eastern Europe and its challenges are Europe’s too.
These changes have led to a greater focus on security in public debate. But we have to be careful about where these discussions will lead. To a very conservative way of talking about militarisation, a security state? The alternative is a more democratic, Finnish approach, which emphasises civil defence or even civil resilience, with the onus on democratic rather than military defence. In Poland, we are facing the threat of comprehensive militarisation, led by a government – operating with the support of at least part of the population – that is using security and defence as an excuse to attack democracy.
In my opinion, what has changed is that we [eastern Europeans] are now more self-assured when highlighting the mistakes made by the West. Supporters of the EU and of the European project understand that our experience is also important, and that we need to speak about it with more confidence. If we consider Ukraine to be part of Europe, then we need to understand that the history of eastern Europe and its challenges are Europe’s too. Prior to the conflict there was essentially a one-way dialogue in place, with the West teaching the East how to run a democracy. I hope that we can now move on to a more equitable relationship. The West clearly has more experience of democracy – with building effective institutions, for example – but we have first-hand experience of how easy it is to lose democracy, how quickly societies can slide towards fascist populism when poverty is rife. Our experience with Russia is also invaluable.
On a different note, it’s very important that we acknowledge what the Polish people have done for the refugees fleeing Ukraine. This wasn’t an achievement of the government so much as one led by the people. Six million Ukrainians have already passed through Poland, and around 1.5 million refugees are currently on Polish territory. For a country of our size, that’s a huge number. Ukrainian refugees now make up 10 per cent of Krakow’s population; in Warsaw, the number is perhaps even higher. It’s true that it’s easier for us compared to other countries. The Ukrainian and Polish languages are extremely similar, and it is easier for us to communicate culturally. But it’s still an enormous challenge. We don’t yet know how right-wing parties are going to approach the refugee situation. If problems arise, they may try to use this to their advantage. Look at what’s been happening on the Polish-Belarusian border, where we’ve been confronted with another migrant crisis. This is still ongoing, even though most people have chosen to forget. Lukashenko and Russia manufactured a crisis by forcing tens of thousands of migrants from countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen to head towards Poland, including through beatings and torture. This is a typically Russian strategy, and totally against international law. It is good example of how fears of insecurity are already being used to limit democracy.
And what has been the impact of these various crises on the Polish Greens?
There are only three Green MPs in parliament, so the Greens don’t have a lot of political influence in Poland. They are part of a larger coalition with the Christian democrats but not with the left, which is interesting. It’s important to realise that in Poland, the opposition’s ability to do its job is limited by the high level of government centralisation. Everything lies in the government’s hands; the opposition has very little influence over the political situation. They can’t go on public television and put forward their ideas. Because of this, a proportion of the population is simply not familiar with the opposition. Unfortunately, I’d argue that so far, the opposition in Poland has been unable to create a viable alternative path. I believe that both the Greens and the broader coalition could probably have done a better job. But it’s a very tough job to do.
You’ve said that the war in Ukraine is the first to be fought under the EU flag. In your opinion, have the European institutions responded well to the influx of Ukrainian refugees?
I can’t respond to this with a wholehearted “yes” because the European institutions can’t do much without the Polish government. A political game is being played between the EU and the Polish government, and unfortunately it’s not just over the refugee question. Every issue has been drawn in – including the rule of law in Poland. I think that the EU could certainly do better on this, but responsibility lies primarily in the hands of the Polish government.
In your opinion, what will be the main issues of the 2023 parliamentary elections?
The rising cost of living and the associated energy crisis will definitely be at the top of the agenda. Inflation is currently at 16 per cent in Poland and may soon hit 19 per cent. The present government will pay for this politically, but it will sidestep responsibility by blaming Putin’s war and EU climate policies. Depending on how the war develops, defence and security could be a major campaign issue. I very much hope that parties resist the temptation to weaponise current tensions, and that they steer well clear of the refugee issue.