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Polish nationalists banned from marching on independence centennial day

Polish nationalists banned from marching on independence centennial day
In November 2017, demonstrators burn flares and wave Polish flags during the annual march to commemorate Poland's National Independence Day in Warsaw. Thousands of nationalists took part in an event that was organized by far-right groups last year. (Czarek Sokolowski / Associated Press)

Due to security concerns, the mayor of Warsaw on Wednesday banned radical Polish nationalists from marching on the 100th anniversary of Poland's independence. The move prompted Polish leaders to quickly draw up plans for an inclusive march Sunday that could be embraced by all citizens.

It was a significant about-face for the populist government, which has been trying not to alienate far-right voters but then faced the strong possibility that the main news from Poland on its centennial would have been about extremists or even violence. It seemed the Warsaw mayor, normally a political rival from the opposition centrist Civic Platform, offered them a way out of their predicament.

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Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz said she wanted to put a stop to the extremist displays that have appeared yearly on Poland's Nov. 11 Independence Day at far-right marches that have drawn tens of thousands to the capital.

At last year's march, some participants carried racist and anti-Islamic banners calling for a "White Europe" and displayed white supremacist symbols like the Celtic Cross. There were also cases of violence against counter-protesters.

The event drew heavy media coverage and international criticism.

Lawmakers in the European Parliament called the participants "fascists" — a label that infuriated the conservative 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 said during a news conference. "Warsaw has suffered enough because of aggressive nationalism."

Gronkiewicz-Waltz noted that the chief organizer of the Warsaw far-right march is a leader of the National Radical Camp, which 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.

"The capital city saved the honor of the country," the liberal daily Gazeta Wyborcza wrote.

Many other Poles have resented how the nationalists in recent years have managed to draw so much attention to Independence Day, overshadowing other celebrations.

President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki met after the mayor's announcement and said that a march organized by the government would take place in Warsaw on Sunday instead. Presidential spokesman Blazej Spychalski invited all Poles to march with national flags to show that "we are one white-and-red team," a reference to the flag's colors.

The government had held failed talks earlier with the far-right nationalists, hoping to make their march a state event, but far-right organizers refused the government demand that marchers carry only flags, no banners, Morawiecki said.

A similar ban on a far-right Independence Day march 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 Warsaw on Sunday.

Mass walkouts by Polish police officers in recent days also raised concerns that clashes between participants and counter-protesters could get out of hand if there were not enough officers to intervene.

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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 currently in power.

While Poles have universally mourned the deaths of the president and the 95 other people who perished with him they remain divided on how to judge his presidency and whether he deserves such hero status.

More than 140 memorials to him already exist across the nation of 38 million people.

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