FILE - In this Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, file photo, Demonstrators burn flares and wave Polish flags during the annual march to commemorate Poland's National Independence Day in Warsaw, Poland. Thousands of nationalists marched in Warsaw on Poland's Independence Day holiday, taking part in an event that was organized by far-right groups. (Photo: AP)
The mayor of Warsaw banned a march that radical Polish nationalists planned on the centennial of Polish independence, saying Wednesday she made the decision due to security concerns and to curb “aggressive nationalism.”
Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz said she wanted to put a stop to the extremist displays that have appeared at far-right marches that have drawn tens of thousands to the streets of the capital on Poland’s Nov. 11 Independence Day holiday.
At last year’s march, some people carried racist and anti-Islamic banners calling for a “White Europe” and displayed white supremacist symbols like the Celtic Cross.
The event drew international criticism. Lawmakers in the European Parliament called the participants “fascists” — a label that infuriated the conservative, populist Polish government, whose leaders said most people marched with the national flag and without the racist banners. They mostly praised the march as an expression of patriotism, with one minister calling it a “beautiful sight.”
This year, Poland is celebrating the centenary of its independence, gained in 1918 at the end of World War I.
“This is not how the celebrations should look on the 100th anniversary of regaining our independence,” Gronkiewicz-Waltz told a news conference. “Warsaw has suffered enough because of aggressive nationalism.”
Gronkiewicz-Waltz, with the opposition centrist Civic Platform party, noted that the chief organizer of the Warsaw march is a leader of the National Radical Camp. The group traces its roots to an anti-Semitic movement of the 1930s. She said she has asked the government to outlaw it but has been ignored.
A similar ban was announced Tuesday by the mayor of the western Polish city of Wroclaw, who cited the risk that participants might incite racial and ethnic hatred.
The bans followed signals that extremists from elsewhere in Europe planned to travel to Poland for Sunday’s march in Warsaw. Mass walk-outs by Polish police officers in recent days also raised concerns that clashes between participants and counter-protesters could get out of hand without enough officers to intervene.
Authorities in the two Polish cities are being praised by some for trying to push back against extremism but are being accused by others of suppressing free speech. Some commentators argued the bans could backfire by energizing nationalists even more.
Organizers denounced the bans, calling them illegal and vowing to appeal them. Some said they would march anyway. In Wroclaw, an organizer, former priest Jacek Miedlar, wrote on Twitter that “no leftie or Jew will forbid us from this!”
Still, many other Poles resent how the nationalists in recent years have managed to draw so much attention on Independence Day, overshadowing other celebrations.
In a sign of the seriousness of the developments, President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki were meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss the implications of the Warsaw mayor’s ban.
Morawiecki said earlier that government representatives would not take part in the march because “provocateurs” could show up. The government had held meetings with nationalists in hopes of making the march a state event. But talks collapsed because nationalists refused a government demand to have no banners, just the national flag, Morawiecki said.
Meanwhile, a controversial statue of the late President Lech Kaczynski was installed in a central Warsaw square ahead of its weekend unveiling as part of the centennial celebrations.
Kaczynski, who was killed in a 2010 plane crash in Russia, was the identical twin of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of the right-wing Law and Justice party that is currently in power.
While Poles universally mourned the deaths of the president and the 95 other people who perished with him, including his wife, they remain divided on how to judge his presidency and whether he deserves such hero status now.
More than 140 memorials to him already exist across the nation of 37 million people.
Authorities in Warsaw’s local government opposed the statue and its central location. Pro-government provincial authorities were in favor. It’s a clash playing out in the courts even as the 7-meter (23-foot) statue went up.
The end of World War I is also being marked on Sunday in Paris, where dozens of world leaders will gather, including host French President Emmanuel Macron and counterparts Donald Trump of the United States, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.