This weekend, Russia has announced that it will cut all oil and gas supplies to Poland. The Polish government claims this will not harm the economy because it is already importing oil from other countries. If this is the case, why has Poland been importing raw materials from Russia for months, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, allowing Russia to finance the war in Ukraine?
Russia first cut off Poland completely from gas in the second quarter of last year, and then did the same a few days ago with oil.
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Before this happened, Poland was the largest importer of Russian oil in the European Union. Hypocrisy ensued: while the government loudly criticised other EU countries, especially Germany, for importing raw materials from Russia, it quietly did the same.
When Germany stopped all oil supplies from Russia from the 1 January 2023, the government in Warsaw continued to allow the black gold to flow from Moscow.
Why this discrepancy?
Perhaps the issue is about the huge profits which the state-controlled company Orlen has made thanks to cheap oil from Russia. Last year this amounted to 21.5 billion zlotys, or 5.2 billion euros.
This money goes into the state budget and towards the political projects of those in power. Thanks to this cash, Orlen has purchased several regional newspapers. Local media is often a propaganda vehicle for those in power and a vital tool in the upcoming parliamentary elections this year.
For those in power, staying in power is the overriding value. Poland could have diversified its energy resources much faster, and not had to rely so much on its old rival in the east. It is good that Poland is no longer importing Russian oil and gas, but this did not happen because of a decision by Warsaw. Ultimately, this was Moscow’s choice.
“I quit France in 2005: too many trade unions. Too many strikes. Too much complaining. Too much labour protection”
– these words belong to Grégoire Nitot, founder and CEO of Sii, an IT company that operates in Poland.
Nitot wrote them in an email in November to one of his employees, Krystian Kosowski, who wanted to establish a trade union in Sii. For the CEO, Kosowski was “attacking Sii”, and “motivated” his colleagues “to fight against Sii as well”. Eventually, the IT company fired him.
The level of unionisation is low in Poland, barely at 12.9%. But the country has a rich tradition of trade unions. In the 1980s, more than 10 million citizens belonged to the opposition “Solidarność” (Solidarity) movement, which overthrew the communists in 1989. However, the end of communism and the collapse of many state-owned enterprises led to the exclusion of trade unions.
Thus, Poland, where unions are lacking or poorly organised, is again starting from scratch when it comes to defending workers’ rights.
“You have to burn with everything at the moment, except of course tyres, or things like that. Poland has to be warmed up.”
This is what Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party, said last September, after the EU embargo on Russian coal entered into force. Since then, the price of firewood has doubled in the country, where 28.8% of households heat with wood.
A 34-year-old resident of northern Poland took Kaczyński’s words to heart. When a municipal police patrol knocked on his door to penalise him for burning unauthorised materials, the man claimed that Kaczyński had publicly allowed him to do so, and refused to pay a fine of 500 Zloty (about 105 euros).
The case will end up in court, which will probably pass a guilty verdict: The words of the Law and Justice chairman have no legal value.
Looking to rent an apartment in Poland? Be prepared for high costs. Last year, rents rose by nearly 18%. In the five largest cities of Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw, Poznan and Gdansk, the increase was even higher, at 30-40%. A two-bedroom apartment of 45 square metres in a major Polish city costs €800 per month, while the average income over the same period is €1,050.
Prices were already rising rapidly before the war in Ukraine, but when more than a million Ukrainian refugees arrived in Poland, the housing market became even more difficult. Inflation, fuelled by the energy crisis, is making matters worse.
The roots go back to the housing shortage of the communist era, but even after the fall of communism, no government has built enough social housing. The effects are still felt today: according to Eurostat, Poland has the lowest number of rooms per person in the European Union (just 1.1). At the same time, Polish families are the most numerous (2.8 people on average per family).
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There are no signs that the situation will improve. The recent construction boom helped to alleviate the housing market deficit, but it wasn’t enough. Last year, the Central Bank raised interest rates due to inflation, making credit expensive and difficult to access.
This had a massive knock-on effect: mortgage applications fell by 63% in 2022. Investment is also slowing down: developers are building less and less, affected by the skyrocketing interest rates. Only if inflation falls will there be a rate cut, but the market has already changed. Now the Poles are not only stuck in literal tight rooms, but there isn’t really a way out for the housing market in sight.
2.2 million Poles lived and worked abroad for more than three months during the last year. In parallel, the number of Ukrainian workers is rising in Poland, many replacing the missing Polish labour force.
Even before the war, Ukrainians came to Poland in large numbers in search of work. Last year there were 1.5 million. After the Russian invasion this number more than doubled.
Ukrainian workers have become crucial to the Polish economy, which continues to grow, despite skyrocketing inflation.
Ukrainians coming to Poland are first hired for the lowest-paid jobs, like the Poles when they arrived in west European countries.
The knowledge that Qatar most likely won the right to host the World Cup using bribes is widespread in Poland. Yet neither the Polish Football Association, nor anyone from the national team has ever seriously considered boycotting the championship because of this.
An important reason for this silence might be that for years the Polish Football Association (PZPN) tolerated corruption in Polish football. Some of its members were even involved. Investigations are still ongoing. Last week, police detained two high-ranking Polish Football Association board members at Warsaw airport, who were on their way to Qatar for the Poland-Mexico match. The charges: fraud and money laundering.
Polish national coach Czesław Michniewicz is also a controversial figure. The media revealed that in the past he had been in telephone contact more than 700 times with the representative of a Polish football team who was in charge of fixing matches during the first football league in the early 2000s.
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This was a huge scandal in which more than 600 people were charged: among them, footballers and coaches. A network pre-determined match results over the phone, with players dropping bribes to referees and the opposing team in the locker room before the game. Michniewicz was never charged, but he also never explained why he was in such frequent contact with the main suspect.
Then again, the Polish public does not seem to require this of the coach. The calls to boycott the championships are quiet and the viewing figures for the matches on TV are record-breaking. Cezary Kulesza, CEO of the Polish Football Association said: “Teams can always boycott any tournament and simply not go to it, but how many of those will you find? No one will go as far as that.”
It seems that neither ethics or transparency count at the World Cup, only results.
Last summer, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko ordered an elaborate operation that brought thousands of Middle-Eastern illegal immigrants to the Polish border. Could this happen again, but with the action shifting from Belarus to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad?
The Polish government considers this quite likely. According to the Ministry of Defence, there is intelligence information that Russia is preparing a “hybrid attack” on the Kaliningrad border. However, the Ministry did not make the details public. The alleged plan is for Russia to fly planes full of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East to Kaliningrad, and then push them across the border into Poland.
For this reason, the Polish military last Wednesday started to erect a 2.5-metre-high fence with triple razor-wire along the entire 200-kilometer border with Russia – similar to the fence that the Polish government built along 186 kilometers of its border with Belarus last year.
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Whether this deterred further migrants, or Belarus froze their operations, is open to debate. As is the question of whether Russia wants to carry out such an operation in Kaliningrad.
Last year, the construction of the fence further polarized the deeply divided Polish society. While the state media strongly supported the action, opponents of the fence accused the government of a lack of humanity, as more than a dozen people died of exhaustion in the Belarusian forests because the Poles refused to let them in.
Now, part of the opposition and the media are already accusing the government of propaganda. Meanwhile, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) needs to mobilize the electorate ahead of next year’s elections. The higher the turnout, the more certain the party’s victory. And a migrant crisis could help bring out more voters for PiS, who consider themselves supporters of the government.
The latest phase of Moscow’s terror strategy in Ukraine tells us something: that Russia is helpless. But it also tells us that there is no better moment than now to further strengthen Kyiv’s military. The Russians are unable to hold the occupied territories, let alone conquer new ones. The Ukrainians are making progress and gradually liberating the country thanks to weapons supplied from the West.
But the capacity of the countries that have sent most of the weapons so far is slowly running out. This is a dangerous moment for the EU. However, it needs to become even more involved, instead of scaling back the arms deliveries.
In Poland, the conviction that standing alongside Ukraine means defending itself against Russian aggression has followed both those in power and the entire opposition from the very beginning of the conflict.
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So far, Warsaw has donated equipment worth $1.7 billion. The country has given Ukraine so many weapons that it is now struggling with its own stockpiles. That’s why it is rapidly ordering tanks, aircraft and heavy weapons from the United States and South Korea, regardless of the cost.
Poland feels that the rest of Europe is not doing enough. In Warsaw’s view, the recently agreed EU military aid package of €3.1 billion is too little. The equipment already handed over by the Poles accounts for more than half of that amount and will not compensate for the country’s outlay (and there are 26 other EU countries waiting to be reimbursed).
It is time for other European countries to become more involved in the defence of Ukraine. Russia’s withdrawal cannot be achieved other than through military victory. Paradoxically, this is the only way to save thousands more of Vladimir Putin’s victims from death.