RZESZOW, Poland — President Joe Biden’s visit to Poland on Friday gave him a chance to underscore the U.S. commitment to protect a key NATO member on Ukraine’s doorstep and to thank Poles for their generous welcome to refugees fleeing Russia's invasion.
But Poland is also a complicated ally whose populist leaders are accused by some European partners of riding roughshod over democratic norms, and liberal Poles will be seeking a sign that the U.S. remembers its role in promoting democracy.
Biden's two-day visit follows a trio of emergency summits in Brussels and brought him to the country that has accepted the lion’s share of the more than 3.5 million people who have fled Ukraine. More than 2.2 million refugees have entered Poland since the start of the month-old war, and many propose to stay there.
Polish assistance to Ukrainians has won praise near and far. Not only have shelters and schools opened their doors to refugees, with 90,000 children registering to attend classes, but many regular Poles have welcomed Ukrainians into their homes. In some cases, they're taking in friends and in others, complete strangers.
President Andrzej Duda, who is allied with a right-wing political party accused of eroding democratic norms, and who clearly preferred former U.S. President Donald Trump to Biden, was set to welcome his American counterpart upon Air Force One's arrival in Rzeszow, a city some 70 kilometers (45 miles) from the border with Ukraine.
But Duda arrived late due to a technical problem with his own plane, which had to make an emergency landing in Warsaw. The delay forced Biden to change his schedule and to meet before a briefing on the humanitarian crisis facing Ukrainians with American soldiers who are serving alongside Polish troops on NATO's eastern flank.
He lavished praise on the members of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and told them they were in the midst of a fight between democracy and autocracy.
The soldiers Biden met are among thousands of additional U.S. troops deployed due to Russia’s war in Ukraine and come in addition to thousands deployed on a rotating basis since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014. Many Poles find their presence reassuring: Russia’s March 13 strikes on the Yavoriv military base in western Ukraine were so close that they were felt or seen in border communities.
At the same time, many Poles will be hoping for a sign from Biden that Washington will continue to urge the Polish government's adherence to democratic values, hoping that won’t be forgotten amid the need for wartime NATO unity.
During his election campaign, Biden mentioned Poland along with Belarus and Hungary in warning about “the rise of totalitarian regimes in the world.” The comment caused offense to leaders in Poland, which has become a refuge for dissidents from authoritarian Belarus.
The European Union has accused Poland of eroding judicial independence since the Law and Justice party started governing in 2015. The EU sees political interference in the judiciary as an attack on the 27-member bloc’s fundamental democratic values, and particularly objects to a Supreme Court body with powers to suspend judges whose rulings displease government authorities.
Recently, the EU withheld millions of euros from a pandemic recovery fund from Warsaw, seeking to use the money as leverage for change.
Poland’s government has also incurred international criticism for eroding media independence, for anti-LGBT rhetoric by Duda and others, and over the use of Pegasus spyware against government critics.
The Justice Defense Committee, an umbrella group in Poland that includes independent judges, prosecutors and civil groups, alleged in a March 13 letter to EU institutions that since the war in Ukraine began, Polish authorities have “taken a number of measures to further destroy the rule of law.”
The government denies its behavior has been undemocratic, noting that it keeps winning elections and arguing that it is trying to reform a corrupt, inefficient court system.
Duda late last year moved to ease one key U.S. concern, vetoing legislation that threatened to silence an independent broadcaster, TVN. The legislation would have forced Discovery Inc., a American company that owns TVN, to give up its majority stake in the broadcaster — the largest ever U.S. investment in Poland.
Biden, however, will likely not have forgotten that Duda and other Polish officials were ardent supporters and ideological brethren of Trump, particularly in their opposition to accepting Middle Eastern refugees and migrants.
Duda was among a handful of leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, who waited weeks before congratulating Biden after he won the 2020 election, taking a wait-and-see approach as Trump refused to accept his defeat.
In 2018, while asking the U.S. to establish a permanent military base in Poland, Duda proposed calling it "Fort Trump.”
The proposal sparked some mockery in Europe and was quickly dropped. Poles continue to want a permanent base and a greater U.S. military presence as safeguards against Russian aggression. They hope Biden's visit to Poland will bring stronger military commitments.
Before Biden returns to Washington on Saturday, he is expected to address the Polish people.
The White House said he would “deliver remarks on the united efforts of the free world to support the people of Ukraine, hold Russia accountable for its brutal war, and defend a future that is rooted in democratic principles.”
Superville reported from Washington. Associated Press video journalist Srdjan Nedeljkovic in Przemysl, Poland, contributed to this report.