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Clashes in Poland as farmers' protests get more political

Jacek Lepiarz in Warsaw
March 7, 2024

Joining forces with Solidarnosc, Polish farmers' recent protests in Warsaw take on a political edge against the Tusk government. Is Russia also involved in the developments? And is the EU willing to compromise?

A large crowd of people wearing hi-vis vests and carrying banners and Polish flags stands on a multi-lane road. Something is burning in the foreground; the air is filled with smoke, Warsaw, Poland, March 6, 2024
Smoke bombs were set off and tires set alight at the protests in WarsawImage: Michal Dyjuk/AP/picture alliance

Just a week after they converged on Warsaw for a massive demonstration, tens of thousands of farmers and their supporters were back in Warsaw again on Wednesday, bringing the Polish capital to a standstill for several hours.

This time, they were joined by the NSZZ Solidarnosc union, which is closely linked to the national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which was voted out of office last October.

This added a new, political edge to the protests and was a clear dig at the new center-left government of Donald Tusk, which has been in power for less than three months.

A woman in an orange hi-vis vest and carrying a Polish flag stands in front of a row of police officers in riot gear. A man carrying a red-and-white horn is trying to pull her away by the arm, Warsaw, Poland, March 6, 2024
The police say that several people were injured and about a dozen detained in clashes on WednesdayImage: Aleksandra Szmigiel/REUTERS

The farmers were joined in their protest outside the parliament by livestock breeders, mink breeders, hunters, foresters, beekeepers, transport company employees and miners. They called for the closure of the border with Ukraine and the abolition of the EU Green Deal, the package of reforms intended to help the bloc become climate neutral by 2050.

Solidarnosc union sides with the farmers

"We are on the farmers' side. We must throw the Green Deal in the trash," NSZZ Solidarnosc leader Piotr Duda told demonstrators on Wednesday.  He dismissed Brussels' environment package as "extreme left-wing ideas."

According to the organizers, 150,000 people took part in the protests. Warsaw city officials put the figure at about 30,000.

After the official end of the demonstration, many protesters stayed outside parliament, where violent clashes occurred. Some threw paving stones and fireworks at members of the security forces; the police used tear gas.

According to police, several officers were injured and about a dozen demonstrators detained.

A coffin, burning tires and a straw tank

The atmosphere was charged right from the word go. Outside the seat of government, demonstrators set fire to a coffin bearing a sign that read "farmer, lived 20 years, killed by the Green Deal."

Flames engulf a black coffin with a white lace trim and a sign that reads "farmer, lived 20 years, killed by the Green Deal." In the background is a crowd of demonstrators carrying Polish flags, Warsaw, Poland, March 6, 2024
Protesters set fire to a black coffin bearing a sign that reads 'farmer, lived 20 years, killed by the Green Deal'Image: Michal Dyjuk/AP/picture alliance

Tires were set on fire, fireworks set off and a tank made of straw was rolled into position. Thick clouds of smoke hung over the area around parliament.

The protests were not restricted to the capital: The A2 freeway between Poznan and Lodz and the S7 expressway between Gdansk und Elblag were also blocked.

Poland's Agriculture Minister Czeslaw Siekierski accused the opposition of fueling the protests to divert attention away from its own role in the situation. "Discussions with the farmers were going well until the politicians got involved. The opposition has politicized the problem," he told parliament.

'Parade of frauds'

Speaking on Tuesday, Prime Minister Donald Tusk called the PiS politicians' participation in the demonstration a "parade of frauds." He pointed out that he had warned of the negative impact of opening the border to duty-free grain imports from Ukraine as far back as the summer of 2022. At the time, he was accused by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, then head of the ruling PiS party, of being a Russian agent.

PiS originally lauded the Green Deal, which was spearheaded by its EU commissioner, Janusz Wojciechowski, as "its" project. "And now PiS politicians are marching in the front row alongside the protesters," said Tusk.

Donald Tusk gesticulates as he stands in front of two microphones. Behind him are Polish flags, Warsaw, Poland, February 29, 2024
Poland's PM Donald Tusk is planning more talks with protesters this SaturdayImage: Kuba Atys/Agencja Wyborcza.pl via REUTERS

Nevertheless, Tusk knows well that he cannot ignore the protests even though they have been co-opted by the opposition. Quite apart from PiS's provocations, there are very real reasons for the farmers' unrest.

This is why he met with representatives of the protesters last Friday — albeit without tangible results. A new round of talks is due to take place on Saturday.

What will the government do next?

At Tusk's suggestion, the possibility of an act of parliament will be discussed on Thursday. In it, the Polish government will appeal to the EU to completely ban grain imports from Russia and Belarus. Latvia has already introduced such a ban.

The act of parliament would also see Poland demand the reintroduction of tariffs on food from Ukraine, as was the case before the war, and amendments to the Green Deal. In addition, the EU would be asked to buy up an estimated 9 million tons of grain from previous harvests that is still in Polish silos and send it to Africa and Asia as humanitarian aid.

Is an EU U-turn on the Green Deal likely?

It looks as if Brussels is willing to make quick concessions to the Polish PM. EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski told broadcaster RMF FM that the EU will next week make proposals that take Polish demands into account.

A man carrying a Polish flag and a red-and-white horn throws a flare on a street corner; behind him is a crowd of people, most of whom are wearing hi-vis vests, Warsaw, Poland, March 6, 2024
The protesters' anger boiled over on the streets of Warsaw on WednesdayImage: Aleksandra Szmigiel/REUTERS

When it comes to the dispute with Ukraine, however, the Polish government is skating on thin ice. Recent figures show that Poland earns more than Ukraine from trading with its eastern neighbor and would be shooting itself in the foot to close the borders between the two countries. In 2023, the country's trade surplus with Ukraine amounted to about € 7 billion ($7.5 billion).

What is Russia's role?

For Ukraine, the discussion about the farmers' protests goes beyond the question of grain; it's about solidarity, too. "We understand the domestic situation in Poland, but in Ukraine, the blood of farmers is being spilled. They are losing their lives, their machinery and their land. They are suffering no less than their neighbors," Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal is quoted as saying by the daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.

The conflict with Kyiv plays right into the hands of the nationalist, right-wing Confederation party, which makes no bones about its pro-Russian stance and has long been calling for a halt to aid for Ukraine. Its politicians are heavily involved in the farmers' protests.

"This conflict is in Putin's interest," wrote Ernest Skalski in Gazeta Wyborcza. The protests' organizers have distanced themselves from pro-Russian slogans that have sometimes appeared at demonstrations and blockades. And yet, writes Skalski, "pro-Russian incidents are grist to the mill of Russian propaganda. It cannot be excluded that they were prompted by the Kremlin. Russia needs open animosity towards Ukraine and the EU."

This article was originally published in German.

A gray-haired man (Jacek Lepiarz) stands in front of bookcases full of books
Jacek Lepiarz Journalist for DW's Polish Service who specializes in German-Polish subjects