Battle over mink fur almost brings down the Polish government

By Marc Santora

When the European Union condemned Poland’s government for demonizing gays and lesbians, the country’s governing coalition defiantly stood together. When state media was accused of spreading hate speech that fueled violence, the governing parties brushed off concerns. And when protests erupted against efforts to control the judicial system, they pressed ahead regardless.

Then came the minks.

Proposed legislation that would ban the farming of minks, semiaquatic mammals prized for their fur, and put in place a range of protections for other animals, opened deep divisions in the coalition that almost brought down the government.

It took the intervention of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of the dominant Law and Justice Party, to quell the uprising for now by taking on a formal role that allowed him to act as a buffer between opposing factions.

The bill, which gained momentum after a documentary aired on Polish television showing minks living in deplorable conditions on one farm, has widespread public support and the leaders of the country’s foremost opposition party support the legislation.

But the conservative governing coalition is divided over the issue, waging increasingly furious internal battles at a time when the nation is consumed with the coronavirus. All that has raised questions about the long-term viability of the government.

In the face of those concerns, Kaczynski, the most powerful politician in Poland and the architect of the government’s agenda, stepped in Tuesday to be sworn in as deputy prime minister after five years of ruling from behind the scenes.

Apart from separating feuding coalition partners, one of his main tasks will be trying to grow public support for the Law and Justice Party, whose candidate for president, Andrzej Duda, only managed a narrow election victory in July.

It will be a difficult challenge since Kaczynski has been the driving force behind efforts by his party to marginalize the LGBT community, a campaign that has turned off many young voters. And his government has spent years at war with the European Union, despite broad support in Poland for membership in the bloc, especially among the generation born after the end of communist rule in 1989.

The government also has a dismal record on environmental issues — from logging in the country’s ancient forests to failing to curb a reliance on coal.

But in championing animal rights, Kaczynski sees an opportunity.

“This is a pivotal moment for the party,” said Wojciech Przybylski, the editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight, a policy journal focused on Central Europe. Kaczynski, he said, knows he needs to expand his political base to include younger, more moderate voters by sending “a message of concern about nature and animals.”

While Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party has long been the dominant force in the United Right coalition, it depends on the support of two junior conservative partners to stay in power: the Agreement and United Poland parties.

United Poland is led by the country’s powerful justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, who has made no secret of his desire to become the leader of the country’s conservative movement. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki sees himself as the heir apparent. Kaczynski’s emergence as deputy prime minister was partly aimed at keeping the two men apart.

Morawiecki quickly aligned himself with Kaczynski on the animal issue, posting his own video on TikTok supporting a ban on fur. Ziobro opposes the legislation and, until Kaczynski’s intervention, his party was threatening to withdraw from the coalition over it, a move that would have erased the government’s parliamentary majority.

Ziobro’s opposition to the ban on mink farming reflects the industry’s deep roots in Poland. The country is home to the largest mink farms left in Europe and the third largest in the world. The bill, which is still being debated, calls for the fur farms to be closed in a year.

Kaczynski has often used more extreme factions to push certain messages, and build his party’s power base. The far right was critical in directing public outrage at migrants, helping the Law and Justice Party rise to power in 2015. More recently, as the party cast “LGBT ideology” as a threat to the nation, ultraconservatives have been driving the messaging.

Now Kaczynski risks losing some of that support.

Rev. Tadeusz Rydzyk, a conservative cleric who has strong connections to Law and Order and controls a vast media empire, used his Radio Maryja station to attack the legislation.

“They feel pity now over these little furs,” Rydzyk said recently, adding that the government should be focused on things like further limiting abortion rights. “Let’s not animalize man and humanize animals.”

The bill is also opposed by the meat industry, which says its export business to markets with halal and kosher requirements would be badly hit.

But it is the minks that have drawn the most attention. And it has turned Szczepan Wojcik, who along with his four brothers controls the vast majority of the mink farms in the country, into a national figure.

“I’m the most attacked person in Poland,” he said in an interview at one of his farms some 60 miles outside of Warsaw.

He sees the attacks as part of a broader cultural war in Poland.

“The people who started the debate in Poland about animal rights, banning the use of animals by man, for example, for furs, are exactly the same people who promote LGBT, same-sex marriage, abortion, euthanasia and so on,” he said.

While he has supported Law and Justice in the past, he said his thinking was now more in line with the more conservative groups led by Ziobro and Rydzyk.

Recent polls indicate overwhelming support for the ban, however.

Much of that is a result of the documentary co-produced by the animal rights organization Open Cages, showing gruesome footage of minks attacking each other, gnawing off limbs of other caged animals and even feasting on their remains.

“Poles don’t want fur farms,” said Bogna Witkowska, one of the group’s leaders.

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