FEATURE | May 2016
The Eyes of the World on Poland
This July Warsaw hosts Poland’s first NATO summit
Young Catholics joining Pope Francis at World Youth Day
Increases security against potential terrorist threats
by Robert Strybel
WARSAW–For a few days in July stories with a Warsaw or Kraków dateline will make headlines around the globe. On July 8-9, Warsaw will be the site of the first ever NATO summit hosted by Poland. Towards the end of the month, Kraków will be the focus of World Youth Days (July 26-31) attended by Pope Francis. In view of stepped up terrorist activity across Europe, both those events will involve a massive security operation.
The NATO gathering will be attended by the heads of state and government of its 28 member nations including President Barack Obama, and Poland hopes it will significantly bolster the alliance’s eastern flank. At a North Atlantic Council (NAC) meeting in Brussels, defence ministers agreed to establish NATO’s “forward presence” in the new member states. Ideally, Warsaw would like to have permanent NATO bases on Polish soil as a deterrent to Russia’s neo-imperialist advances. The Poles have advocated tough sanctions against its giant neighbor as well as beefed-up security measures following the Kremlin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and stoking of separatist strife in eastern Ukraine.
But Germany, a key player in the alliance, has extensive economic ties with Russia and is reluctant to unduly antagonize Moscow by supporting permanent NATO bases in the USSR’s former captive nations. Moreover, NATO is now faced with other problems such as the growing ISIS threat and the migration crisis. Unless Poland does a superb job of lobbying in July, it may have to settle for a rotating NATO presence: permanent infrastructure in Poland and other ex-Soviet-bloc states but manned by NATO troops contingents rotated every six months. According to Warsaw, that impairs the combat readiness of such troops.
World Youth Days, an event pioneered by St John Paul II, will be a gathering of an entirely different nature. It is expected to attract up to 2.5 million young pilgrims from around the globe. Highpoints will include liturgies celebrated by the Holy Father in Kraków, Częstochowa and Wieliczka. Youthful participants will also do a lot of sightseeing and souvenir-shopping in Kraków and take part in prayer vigils, discussion groups, and religious sing-alongs around traditonal bonfires. Pope Francis is also scheduled to pay a visit to Nazi Germany’s horrific Auschwitz death camp.
Thousands of Polish families have volunteered to provide free room and board in their homes to foreign pilgrims, many of them students on a shoestring. A “buy a ticket for a brother” fund-raising drive has been launched to provide train fare to Kraków for the even poorer young people from former Soviet republics.
The NATO summit and World Youth Days are totally different gatherings, but both could tempt potential terrorists who know high-profile events guarantee maximum publicity for their atrocities. Some 2,500 NATO delegates and throngs of journalists will meet at Warsaw’s ultra-modern National Stadium built for the 2012 European Soccer Championships, Accessible on all sides, that facility will be relatively easy to protect, but transporting the VIPs to and from the site will be a major security challenge.
The Catholic youth meet-up may prove more difficult, since it will involves huge crowds in the streets and the Supreme Pontiff of a Church despised by Muslim fanatics. Secret-service agents will circulate among the crowds of worshipers and the proceedings will be closely monitored from rooftops and balconies as SWAT teams tucked away in neighboring streets will be ready to spring into action at the first sign of trouble. If terrorist threat level were to unexpectedly increase, the Youth Days could get called off altogether, according to National Security Bureau chief Paweł Soloch.
Poland hopes to enact a tough new anti-terrorist law in time for the July events and during that period border checks will be reintroduced to screen out potential troublemakers. Whether such measures suffice to prevent any unforeseen developments is difficult to predict, but one thing is certain. Polish officials will breathe a big sigh of relief once both events end without incident and their participants have safely returned home.
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