By VANESSA GERA, Associated Press
WARSAW, Poland (AP) — President Joe Biden’s visit to Poland, his final stop in Europe this week, provides an opportunity to underline the United States’ commitment to protecting a key NATO member on the doorstep of the Ukraine, and to thank the Poles for their generous welcome to refugees fleeing Russia. invasion.
But Poland is also a complicated ally whose populist leaders are accused by some European partners of flouting democratic norms, and many liberal Poles will look for a sign that the United States remembers its role in promoting democracy.
The two-day visit beginning Friday follows a trio of emergency wartime summits in Brussels. It brings Biden to a country that has accepted the lion’s share of the more than 3.5 million Ukrainians who have fled the month-long war. More than 2.2 million have entered Poland and many are offering to stay there.
Poland is also home to thousands more US troops, beyond the thousands deployed on a rotational basis since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014. Many find their presence reassuring: the March 13 Russian strikes on the Yavoriv military base in western Ukraine were so close that they shook the Poles. in border regions.
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Polish aid to Ukrainians has been hailed from near and far. Not only have shelters and schools opened their doors to refugees, with 90,000 children registering for classes, but many regular Poles have welcomed Ukrainians into their homes. In some cases, they welcome friends and in others, complete strangers.
President Andrzej Duda, who is allied with a right-wing political party accused of eroding democratic standards, and who clearly favored former US President Donald Trump over Biden, is expected to host his US counterpart in Rzeszow, a city some 70 kilometers (45 miles) from the border with Ukraine
Biden plans to learn about humanitarian efforts there to help Ukrainians and meet with US troops.
Many Poles are hoping for a sign from Biden that Washington will continue to urge respect for democratic values, hoping that will not be forgotten amid NATO’s need for wartime unity.
The European Union has accused the Polish government since coming to power in 2015 of eroding judicial independence, seen as an attack on the 27-member bloc’s core democratic values. Recently, the EU withheld millions of euros from a Warsaw pandemic recovery fund, seeking to use the money as leverage for change.
In particular, the EU opposes a Supreme Court body having the power to suspend judges whose decisions displease the authorities.
The Polish government has also come under international criticism for eroding media independence, anti-LGBT rhetoric by Duda and others, and the use of spyware Pegasus against government critics.
In 2020, the American group Freedom House said that Poland no longer qualified as a “consolidated democracy” and had slipped to a “semi-consolidated democracy”.
The Committee for the Defense of Justice, an umbrella group in Poland that includes independent judges, prosecutors and civil groups, said in a letter to the European institutions on March 13 that even after the start of the war, the Polish authorities have “taken a number of steps to further destroy the rule of law.”
Spanish lawmaker Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar, who heads a European Parliament committee on civil liberties and justice, wrote on Tuesday urging senior EU officials not to release stimulus funds unless Poland makes progress on Right wing state.
The government denies that his behavior was undemocratic, noting that he continues to win elections and arguing that he is trying to reform a corrupt and inefficient judiciary.
Late last year, Duda took steps to allay a key US concern, vetoing legislation that threatened to silence an independent broadcaster, TVN. The TVN network is owned by US-based Discovery Inc. and the legislation would have forced Discovery to give up its majority stake in the broadcaster – the biggest US investment ever in Poland.
Biden will likely not have forgotten that Duda and other Polish officials were ardent supporters and ideological brothers of Trump, particularly in their opposition to accepting refugees and migrants from the Middle East.
Duda was among a handful of leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, who waited weeks to congratulate Biden after his 2020 election victory, taking a wait-and-see approach as Trump refused to accept defeat.
In 2018, while asking the United States to establish a permanent military base in Poland, Duda proposed calling it “Fort Trump”.
Although the name proposal, which drew some ridicule in Europe, was quickly dropped, the Poles continued to want a permanent base and a greater American military presence in preparation for Russian aggression. They hope Biden’s visit to Poland will bring stronger military commitments.
Duda, speaking after a NATO meeting on Thursday in Brussels, said Biden’s upcoming visit underscores the importance of the U.S.-Polish strategic alliance, coming shortly after visits by other top NATO officials. the Biden administration.
“These links are independent of any political relationship. We are democratic countries, authorities change and strategic interests remain,” Duda said.
Before Biden returns to Washington on Saturday, he is expected to address the people of Poland.
The White House said he would “remark the united efforts of the free world to support the people of Ukraine, hold Russia accountable for its brutal war, and defend a future rooted in democratic principles.”
Follow AP’s coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian War at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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