U.S. President Joe Biden arrives at Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport

Biden to visit Poland as country struggles to handle millions of Ukrainian refugees

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — President Joe Biden’s visit to Poland as his final stop in Europe this week offers 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 many liberal Poles will be seeking a sign that the U.S. remembers its role in promoting democracy.

WATCH: Poland’s ambassador to the U.S. on war in Ukraine and the refugee crisis.

The two-day visit starting Friday follows a trio of emergency war summits in Brussels. It brings Biden to a country that has accepted the lion’s share of the more than 3.5 million Ukrainians who have fled the month-old war. More than 2.2 million have entered Poland and many propose to stay there.

Poland also hosts thousands of additional U.S. troops, beyond the thousands deployed on a rotational basis since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014. Many find their presence reassuring: Russia’s March 13 strikes on the Yavoriv military base in western Ukraine were so close that they shook Poles in border regions.

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, is set to welcome his American counterpart to Rzeszow, a city some 70 kilometers (45 miles) from the border with Ukraine

Biden plans to be briefed there on the humanitarian efforts to help Ukrainians and to meet with U.S. troops.

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.

Duda, speaking after a NATO meeting on Thursday in Brussels, said Biden’s scheduled stop in Poland underlined the importance of the U.S.-Polish strategic alliance. Top officials in Biden’s administration also have visited the country recently.

“These ties are independent of all political relations. We are democratic countries. The authorities change and strategic interests remain,” Duda said.

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.”
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