WARSAW, Poland – President Joe Biden’s visit to Poland as his last stop in Europe this week provides an opportunity to underscore US commitment to defending a key NATO member on Ukraine’s doorstep and to thank Poles for their generous reception of refugees fleeing Russian invasion.

But Poland is also a difficult ally, whose populist leaders are accused by some European partners of grossly violating democratic norms, and many liberal Poles will look for a sign that the United States remembers its role in promoting democracy.

The two-day visit, which begins on Friday, will take place after three emergency military summits in Brussels. This brings Biden to a country that has taken the lion’s share of the more than 3.5 million Ukrainians who fled the Lunar War. More than 2.2 million have entered Poland, and many offer to stay there.

Poland is also accepting thousands of additional U.S. troops, in addition to the thousands deployed on a rotational basis since Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Many find their presence encouraging: Russia’s March 13 strikes on the Yavoriv military base in western Ukraine were so close that they frightened Poles in the border regions.

Polish aid to Ukrainians has earned praise near and far. Not only did shelters and schools open their doors to refugees: 90,000 children registered for classes, but many ordinary Poles welcomed Ukrainians into their homes. In some cases they accept friends, in others complete strangers.

Biden will be welcomed by President Andrzej Duda, an ally of a right-wing political party accused of undermining democratic norms and who clearly favored former President Donald Trump.

Many Poles will hope for a sign from Biden that Washington will continue to call for the preservation of democratic values, hoping it will not be forgotten amid the need for NATO unity during the war.

The European Union has accused the Polish government since coming to power in 2015 of undermining the independence of the judiciary, which is seen as an attack on the fundamental democratic values ​​of the 27-member bloc. The EU recently withheld millions of euros from the Warsaw Pandemic Recovery Fund, seeking to use the money as leverage for change.

The EU is particularly opposed to the Supreme Court, which has the power to remove judges whose decisions the authorities do not like.

The Polish government has also come under international criticism for undermining media independence, the rhetoric of Duda and others against LGBT people and the use of Pegasus spyware against government critics.

In 2020, the American group Freedom House stated that Poland is no longer considered a “consolidated democracy” and moved to the rank of “semi-consolidated democracy”.

The Justice Committee, an umbrella group that includes independent judges, prosecutors and civic groups, said in a letter to EU institutions on March 13 that even after the war, Polish authorities “took a number of measures to further overturn the law.”

Spanish lawmaker Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar, who heads the European Parliament’s committee on civil liberties and justice, wrote on Tuesday urging senior EU officials not to allocate funds for reconstruction unless Poland makes progress on the rule of law.

The government strongly denies that his behavior was undemocratic, noting that he continues to win the election, and claiming that he is trying to reform a corrupt, inefficient judiciary.

Late last year, Duda decided to mitigate one of the key U.S. problems by vetoing legislation that threatened to silence independent TVN. TVN is owned by the American company Discovery Inc., and the law forced Discovery to give up its majority stake in the broadcasting company – the largest US investment in Poland.

Biden probably did not forget that Duda and other Polish officials were ardent supporters and ideological brothers of Trump, especially in their opposition to the reception of Middle Eastern refugees and migrants.

Duda was among the few leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, who waited weeks before congratulating Biden after he won the 2020 election, following a wait-and-see approach when Trump refused to concede defeat.

In 2018, asking the United States to establish a permanent military base in Poland, Duda proposed to call it “Fort Trump”.

Although the name proposal, which had caused some mockery in Europe, was quickly scrapped, Poles continued to want a permanent base and a greater U.S. military presence due to Russian aggression. They hope that Biden’s visit to Poland will bring stronger military commitments.

Speaking after a NATO meeting in Brussels on Thursday, Duda said Biden’s upcoming visit underlined the importance of the US-Polish strategic alliance, which followed shortly after visits by other senior officials to the Biden administration.

“These ties do not depend on all political relations. We are democratic countries, the authorities are changing, and strategic interests remain,” Duda said.

He is expected to address the Polish people before Biden returns to Washington on Saturday.

The White House said it would “comment 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 based on democratic principles.”

Copyright © 2022, Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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