Tensions bubbling under in Poland
Tensions are running high here. This is a city that would rather be thought of as the Paris of the East than as a stage for political psychodrama. The elephant in the room: the upcoming match Tuesday with Poland’s one-time occupiers, Russia.
Aside from soccer – Poland is considered underdogs in the game – there are real reasons to worry about this match.
Russian fans are planning a pre-game march, and the police are already bulking up their security presence. The fans have promised not to display “banners banned by UEFA,” but that is a relatively hollow concession. Russian fans assaulted four stewards at Wroclaw after their first game, displayed banners expressing fascist sentiments, and are currently under investigation by UEFA.
It’s hard to see their planned march as anything but inflammatory, especially considering the modern tensions between the two nations. There is a strong feeling here that one of Poland’s great modern tragedies — the 2010 Smolensk air disaster, in which 96 Polish officials, including president Lech Kaczynski, died over western Russia — was no accident.
Yesterday, the Russian team laid a wreath at the site of the Presidential Palace in an admirable attempt to defuse some of these tensions. They were met by a group of Polish protestors. One banner on display made no bones about Poland’s long-standing distrust of their neighbors to the East. It read: “Katyn continues,” a reference to the 1940 murder of the Polish intelligentsia by Russian secret police.
This must be despairing to the men who worked very hard to bring the European Championship here in the first place. Public relations-wise, the last thing Poland wants or needs is ugly activity in the streets – and it must sting that the provocateurs are their arch enemies.
I spoke with Michal Listiewicz, the former chairman of the Polish football federation, who is widely credited as being one of the key men in steering the tournament here. He was nothing but clear-eyed in his assessment of the pluses and minuses, noting that Poland needed to be opened up “both ways.”
"I am very optimistic, because [our] people are learning to cooperate with other people," said Listkiewicz. "For the first time ever we have so many tourists of different religions, different colors of skin and different mentalities.
"We have to live with these people for one month. We open up our country for the world to see and we hope people realize that Poland is a lovely country with lovely people."
Listiewicz said that the opening day was the proudest moment of his life and said, correctly, that Poland is a different place today than it was when it was awarded the Euros under a cloud of doubt. It’s not the new stadiums: it’s the highways, the spruced-up trams, the subways and infrastructure of a nation that is still struggling to catch up with a far-more-monied West. It wasn’t cheap: Poland spent $20 billion on the tournament and the upgrades.
And yet, history dies hard in Europe. Poland has memorials every few hundred yards, reminding their citizens of a Nazi massacre here, a pogrom there and a Soviet terror campaign across the street. They also remind people that Fredric Chopin, Marie Curie and Kasmir S. Pulaski hailed from these streets and that Warsaw is a cultured city of arts, theater and festivals.
Both the mayor and the head of the security forces here have appealed for calm. Trouble can be averted. And the fact remains that the tournament here has been a success so far. Let's hope that remains the case Wednesday morning.