That mayor is Rafał Trzaskowski, who has led the Polish capital since 2018, when he took office in a rare landslide victory for Polish liberals who have been in opposition since 2015. Although he lost the presidential election against incumbent Andrzej Duda, he was credited with rallying the Polish opposition and becoming one of its most recognizable and popular faces.
Trzaskowski recently visited the United States to discuss the war effort and Poland’s key role in it. When I sat with him in Henry R. Luce Hall at Yale University, he drew attention to the unprecedented scale of the influx of refugees into Poland and warned the West not to attribute all of Poland’s initial success in this crisis to the central government. Much of the burden is shouldered by local governments like his improvising their way through the challenges. “Remember,” he told me, “populists rarely run cities.”
The truth, Trzaskowski said, is that the West’s anti-Russian efforts rest on a Polish foundation that could crack under pressure.
“In times of crisis, Poland must be the strongest democracy in Europe,” he said. “We will face enormous challenges in the future, especially as the initial eruption of popular solidarity and goodwill fades.”
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the impact of the war in Ukraine on Warsaw?
We accepted 300,000 refugees in Warsaw alone. The population of my city has increased by more than 15% in just one month. To give you an idea of the scale, at the height of the Mediterranean migration crisis in 2015, 200,000 people were arriving every month across Europe, instead of just one city.
We have granted Ukrainians quasi-citizen status, which gives them access to free education, health care and social security. Most of them live with family, friends or even complete strangers who have opened their homes. As a result, there are no large reception centers or people forced to sleep in tents in public spaces. We sent transports of food and medical supplies to Ukrainian cities such as kyiv, Lviv and, at the start of the war, to Kharkiv. Indeed, the first shipment of food to arrive in kyiv came from Warsaw.
We are doing everything we can to help Ukraine. The problem is that most of these efforts are made by civil society, non-governmental organizations, volunteers, charities and, of course, local governments. It relies heavily on improvisation. We need a comprehensive strategy at national and European level.
How do you rate the cooperation between your local administration and the central government in handling the refugee crisis? Most large and medium-sized cities in Poland are run by parties opposed to the current government. What kinds of difficulties has this tension created?
The central government did its part at the border by allowing Ukrainian refugees to cross into Poland without documents or formalities, but it was slow to respond to the crisis in the cities. However, I will refrain from criticizing the government and try to highlight how we are working together to focus our efforts on tackling the current crisis. This cooperation, when it takes place under the political radar, works quite well.
The problem with the central government is that they try to put a lot of responsibility on our shoulders. For example, when they had to assign Polish social security numbers to Ukrainians, they asked us to do so. The same applies to the distribution of financial aid to families caring for refugees, even if they provide the money. For now, we are trying to collaborate as best we can, but our concern is that there is no overall long-term strategy. I suspect that the central government has not asked European or international institutions to implement a comprehensive strategy because they want to take most of the credit for the Polish response to the crisis. I’m afraid this is a repeat of the Covid crisis when in the first wave we focused on cooperation, but as the pandemic evolved and the government suffered from a lack of comprehensive strategy, they tried to put all the blame on us, the local governments.
What are the long-term challenges your city will face in welcoming refugees?
Again, we need a global strategy and what you see now in Poland is mainly based on improvisation. The long-term challenges relate to education, health and social security, as well as everything that accompanies the integration of refugees into our society. At the start of the crisis, I told our government that it had to have an education strategy. I already have 280,000 local children in my schools and now 120,000 more Ukrainian children need education. I cannot accept them all into my schools overnight – we have already enrolled over 20,000 new students. I told the government that most of those 120,000 people in my city should just continue to learn online with their Ukrainian schools, and that’s exactly what the Ukrainian Ministry of Education wants. The government said yes, but it took no action.
We will face enormous challenges in the future, especially as the initial outpouring of popular solidarity and goodwill fades, which is only natural, and as the attention of the Union Europe and the rest of the world is looking elsewhere. Now is the window of opportunity to ask for help. Now is the time to put in place a European relocation strategy. Now is the time to ask for additional financial support from the European Union, which should also go directly to refugees, NGOs and local governments.
Poland has shouldered the burden and risk of becoming a strategic hub for Western aid to Ukraine, despite its vulnerable position bordering a Russian missile base in Kaliningrad to the north and Russia-allied Belarus to the east. . What do you think are the chances of Russia deliberately or accidentally targeting Polish territory? What do you think Poland should do in this situation?
It would be difficult for Russia to do that accidentally, because there are Patriot missile systems all along our border. The Americans are there, and their presence is felt on the ground. If the Russians attack a NATO member, the alliance will respond in force. This is why President Biden’s words about defending every square inch of NATO territory were so important in deterring bad guys and bullies. Putin only understands the language of force.
Until now, the Polish people have mobilized to support Ukrainians who have suffered because of the war. But the influx of refugees and the massive amounts of aid provided to Ukraine, coupled with high pre-war inflation, will sooner or later put a strain on the Polish economy. Is there a danger that economic hardship could erode social support for the anti-Russian effort? Could he increase support for isolationist and xenophobic far-right elements within the ruling coalition – and outside it – who have so far remained marginalized?
This is why we have to share this responsibility and this is precisely why we need a voluntary European relocation scheme, because we cannot shoulder all this burden ourselves. If the quality of services in the city — for which I am held responsible as mayor — declines because of this burden, then the solidarity shown by our people will diminish. That is why we have to share this burden internationally, because that way we have a chance to maintain this solidarity for longer. We might suffer some backlash, but ultimately the support of Polish society for the Ukrainian cause is so strong that I don’t think we’ll see this spiral into mainstream anti-European sentiment. This is because we in Poland really understand that Ukrainians are also fighting for our freedom.
The peak of support the government enjoyed at the start of the war has now largely waned, but most Poles, including half of opposition voters, approve of the government’s response and the politician who received most praised for his wartime performance is incumbent President Andrzej Duda, with Donald Tusk, your party leader, far behind. Has the war given the ruling Law and Justice coalition a boost that will be difficult for your party to overcome?
You forgot some local leaders [laughter].
It’s true, you are well ranked third after the president and the prime minister.
Going back to your question, I think people were expecting a much bigger effect from rallying around the flag. Of course, the politicians who were directly involved in the crisis, the president, the prime minister, but also the mayors including myself, got a boost in the hearings. It is natural, we were in the front line, while most of the other opposition leaders had no obvious and active role to play.
We must show, however, that the opposition and civil society have also had and continue to have a role in this effort. After all, what happened in Poland is not only due to government action but above all to civic mobilization, non-governmental organizations and local administrations. These are the same forces that this government has abused in recent years, trying to suppress them and deprive them of resources. We need to make sure people understand that this incredible outpouring of support is not coming from the government, but from Polish civil society.
Over the past two months, the Polish government has experienced an incredible reversal in its public image and international standing. From an aberrant alliance marred by problems of the rule of law, attacks on the rights of women and homosexuals, attempts to challenge the property rights of foreign investors and a damaging reaction to the 2020 US presidential election, he became a strategic partner of Washington and Brussels famous for his principled and generous response to the war in Ukraine. As one of the leaders of the Polish opposition, do you feel that the government is being sidelined by the West?
My job is to make sure they don’t get a pass, because now, in times of crisis, Poland has to be the strongest democracy in Europe. We cannot afford to be a weak link on the eastern flank of the alliance. While we pay tribute to those who organized the response to the crisis, we cannot forget that this government has for years undermined democracy in Poland. We explain this to everyone. From my own experience, I can say that most American and European politicians understand this.
What should Poland’s allies do to support Polish democracy while maintaining a strong stance against Russia’s aggression against Ukraine?
Keep up the pressure on the Polish central government to roll back some of the measures that were undermining our democracy and directly help NGOs and local governments who are on the front line in the current crisis. Remember that populists rarely run cities. Help us. This is the most effective way to help Ukrainians and those most directly active in their support.