An announcement from the Polish Government on July 31st 2007, halting work on a stretch of by-pass, hardly sent shock-waves round Europe. Work on the road round Augustow – in
Podlaskie, the country’s easternmost province – will in any case continue either side of the Natura-2000-designated area in the Rospuda Valley. The spectacularly clumsy tactics of the same government at a recent EU summit, by contrast, met with consternation in other
But if outsiders had really wanted to understand where such behaviour was coming from, they could have done worse than keep a closer eye than most of them did on the long-running controversy surrounding the Augustow by-pass.
It was legitimate to wonder, after the Brussels Summit, whether the Poles like anybody these days. But the question raised by the Augustow by-pass is both different yet inseparable from this question of whether they like anybody else – namely, how much do they like themselves at the moment? Their government’s oafish hostility toward ‘Europe’ is, allegedly, predicated upon that bitter historical experience which has taught them to look out for national Number One.
But is that really it?
I ask this as an Englishman – that is, as someone whose exposure to oafishness about Europe has been well above the EU national average. And I ask because the Brussels Summit wasn’t the first time in recent months that the tone of public ‘debate’ in Poland – which presumably sounds terribly clever in Warsaw – has just sounded desperately childish from anywhere else.
To describe the last time it happened I have to back-track – by a few months and several thousand years. Not far from the border with Lithuania and Belarus is the Wigry National Park, set up to protect a densely forested landscape. It formed as a retreating ice-sheet broke up and melted at the end of the last ice age. Some of the many lakes there are so deep, cold and still that the same water at the bottom of them has been there for several millennia. The solitude and eeriness of all this and its surrounding forests was famously evoked in the 19th century by Poland’s (Lithuanian-born) national poet, Adam Mickiewicz. In the 20th century this network of lakes, ponds and streams was the setting for some of Poland’s earliest researches in water biology.
I know about all this because earlier this year I was lucky enough to be shown around Wigry by Maciej Kaminski – one of the park’s resident biologists. It isn’t a region, or the kind of job, which brings Kaminski or his colleagues into regular contact with foreign journalists, but this wildest corner of Poland has lately found itself under some very un-poetic national and international scrutiny. Before the last EU Summit, the biggest row between Brussels and any of the new member-states was going on right here.
This whole province abounds in wilderness though the reasons for this are not really as quaint as one might gather from the materials available at the local tourist office. In such a politically threatened environment there was little incentive to develop: this was for centuries a borderland between mutually hostile powers. In the Middle Ages it formed a buffer-zone between the Teutonic Knights and the Baltic peoples they hoped to convert. Later it was Prussia which confronted Czarist Russia here – in the nearby Biebrza National Park the main means of getting around is still a road system laid out in the 19th century by the Russian army. They left behind a fortress too, now a much-studied bat roost. In September 1939 Hitler and Stalin divided Poland between them along a line which ran through here. And this was where the post-war boundaries of Poland met those of the Soviet Union.
This vast European wilderness is still sliced through by the border fence and mine field on either side of it which separate Belarus from its western neighbour. But such territorial defensiveness, however dismal, is clearly a hang-over from the past. The lines along which this region now divides are quite new.
In March 2007 the Polish Government was referred to the European Court of Justice for violation of EU environmental law. At issue, ostensibly, was the by-pass referred to above, scheduled to run through an area of the Rospuda Valley protected by new EU legislation, as part of a new Via Baltica linking the Baltic States with Poland and the rest of Europe. But the row soon took on a symbolic value about the meaning of EU membership which attracted the attention of the entire country.
A new road here is necessary. The ever-swelling stream of articulated lorries thundering through the ‘resort town’ of Augustow has become intolerable for residents. The road could, however, run to the west of the proposed route and miss the protected areas completely – this was what NGOs advised. Local political chicanery played a significant part in the ensuing show-down. The main point about the government’s preferred route was that it would run not straight to Warsaw but swerve aside to take in the provincial capital, Białystok: home to the province’s A-list bureaucrats.