Poland’s new laws dampen the mood for European Capital of Culture

By Jane Whyatt
Hosting Europe’s Culture Capital for 2016 is an unexpected honour for Wroclaw. It is a provincial city with a troubled history of pogroms and ethnic cleansing that used to be the German town of Breslau.

And Wroclaw’s special year of European multi-cultural events already has its own troubles. Civil unrest prompted by the new PiS (Law and Justice Party) government’s actions has brought thousands of people out in street protests. Organised by the new Committee for Democracy they have demonstrated every two weeks since the reforms started. It is the cultural changes that have had the biggest impact, according to the local correspondent of liberal newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza Matheusz Kokoszkiewicz.

He told ECPMF about one example to illustrate the changes: "There is a private journalism college (WSKSIM – College of Social and Media Culture, based in Torun). It is connected to a controversial far-right priest, Rev. Tadeusz Rydycz of the French Catholic Order of Redemptorists (Article about Rydycz anti Semitism). PiS told the Minister of Culture to pay 20 million zlotys (4.5 million Euro) for his college, and cut 20 million zlotys from his budget for theatres and the cultural institutions. This upset more people than the changes to the constitutional court!

Even some government officials ... they sat quietly when the constitutional court was changed. They sat quietly when the media law was undermined. But on this issue the Minister of Culture said "No, I won’t give my twenty millions from my theatres, they need it." Still the cuts were made.

Four and a half million euros – not a huge sum compared, for example, to Warsaw University’s budget of billions. But Kokoszkiewicz says to compare Warsaw to WSKSIM "That’s like comparing the University of Oxford to the Aberdeen School of Cookery."

Journalists graduating from the Torun college usually go on to work at TV TWRAM, the Catholic TV station, or its sister station Radio Marjya. But now Kokoszkiewicz says they are moving into TVP, the public broadcasting station where dozens of journalists have been sacked and replaced with pro-government broadcasters. The TV network and its sister Radio Poland are now under the direct control of the Treasury Minister, under a new amendment to the media law.

This is one of the reforms that has prompted the European Commission to start a Rule of Law procedure with the PiS government (read more), amid international concern for freedom of the media and the safeguarding of democratic institutions.

Ironically, the criticism from Brussels coincided with Poland’s turn to host the European Capital of Culture.

"Nobody thought we would win" says Michal Syska of Wroclaw’s Lassalle think tank. "The bid to become Capital of Culture promised innovative culture for all the people, at the grass roots. But when we won, the mayor sacked the people who wrote that winning bid. Now they have booked big names like Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour."

Ennio Morricone is another old favourite on the bill for the year-long cultural festival, together with the Basque sculptor/ironmonger Eduardo Chillida and photographs of Marilyn Monroe.

Since the PiS was elected, European influences have been under a cloud. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski has said they intend to reverse the policies of the previous liberal government of PO (Civic Platform). He has criticised its multi-cultural attitudes

towards a mixture of cultures and races, a world of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy sources and combat all forms of religion. This has nothing in common with traditional Polish values. (more)

Polish values are emphasised on the new-look TVP and Radio Poland, the public service broadcasters, where hundreds of journalists have quit or been sacked in a move to ensure that the output supports PiS and its conservative, nationalist, Catholic perspective.  At the level of government spending, a 100 percent increase in the “Patriotism for Tomorrow” programme, advance spending on the 2018 centenary of Polish independence and a new national museum clearly show the priorities of PiS Culture Minister Jaroslaw Sellin.

And despite being the biggest net recipient of EU funds out of all the member states, Poland is in conflict with the EU Commission over refugees, changes to its constitution and its media law reform. In this climate, the Culture Capital faces a big challenge to convince visitors that it is truly open and welcoming to foreign visitors.

Mateusz Kokoszkiewicz believes Polish people were shocked by the new law reforms. Street protests against PiS policies continue, organised by supporters of the new KOD Committee for the Defence of Democracy. “We love KOD” was the slogan for the Valentine’s Day carnival-type gathering. Up to five thousand demonstrators regularly take to the streets of Wroclaw and other cities every other weekend. But according to the think tank expert Michal Syska, they lack real support amongst ordinary Poles.

“It’s very hard to defend liberal democracy without social justice” says Michal Syska, citing the low wages, high percentage of ‘junk jobs’, weak trade unions and lack of social security in Poland. “Right wing populists are channelling this social anger against homosexuals, refugees and so on.
They want to blame someone.”

“The Polish government will not defend European integration but stands with Orban, Cameron and anti-Europeans,” he says, referring to the Hungarian president and British Prime Minister.  

He is talking to ECPMF’s Jane Whyatt at the headquarters of the 2016 European Capital of Culture, a modern café and arts centre called BarBar. There, multi-lingual staff and volunteers are preparing for a programme of events that include Bibliopolis – celebrating books, with popular crime fiction author Jo Nesbø – collecting recipes for the Wroclaw 2016 Cookbook and promoting the mascot, a giant pink hedgehog. Outside, Wroclaw’s famous bronze sculptures of gnomes glisten in the rain.

For more innovative artistic and cultural events, Syska recommends that visitors get away from the official programme. In the backstreet galleries and small venues, Wroclaw’s avant-garde theatre groups are still playing, despite the budget cuts and political turmoil.

See full details at and hear the interview with Michal Syska and Mateusz Kokoskiewicz

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