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Poland's New Dissidents

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"I heard you've come to Poland to write about shale gas", my young, blond-haired landlord said right after handing me the keys to his renovated pre-war apartment in downtown Warsaw.

I nodded.

"Shale gas is very important for Poland", he quickly added, as if in a hurry to impress the words. "It's very important for our independence."

Today Poland is independent of course, fiercely so, but nobody quite seems to believe it. The Polish white-and-red flag flies over government buildings in Warsaw, but there is another flag - white-blue-red - that still rises menacingly in the east. It is Russia's and that extra blue stripe signifies only one thing these days: natural gas.

Gazprom pipelines, which supply almost two-thirds of Polish gas, are the final link in the long chain of oppression, many Poles believe. It is the reason why the mood all over Poland was euphoric when the U.S. Energy Information Administration announced that Poland may hold up to 5.3 trillion cubic meters of shale gas, enough to make the country "a second Norway" (in the words of the Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski), energy independent pretty much for perpetuity.

"After years of dependence on our large neighbor, today we can say that my generation will see the day when we will be independent in the area of natural gas and we will be setting terms," the prime minister of Poland, Donald Tusk, told the media in 2011. Even when, later, the Polish Geological Institute, in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey, lowered those mindboggling numbers by as much as 90%, the euphoria did not dissipate. Poland was going to be independent from Russia at all costs, if only for a couple of decades.

To understand the importance of shale gas in Poland is to understand that it is an emotional issue at its core, steeped in ideological rhetoric. Russia (initially the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union) has been Poland's archrival and oppressor for centuries and the resentment runs deep through all layers of Polish society. In the minds of many Polish politicians and the majority of the public, shale gas is not so much an economic windfall, or a new industry promising employment, or an alternative source of fossil fuels, but a mythological weapon against a mythological enemy, a gargantuan pepper spray against the bad Russian bear.

In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising why shale gas enjoys such enormous popularity in Poland, both in government circles and among the people (73% support it), and why exploration licenses have already been given for 90,000 square kilometers, or 29% of the country's territory. It seems that Poland has spearheaded shale gas development in Europe not so much because of dire needs - gas is just 13% of its current energy mix, and nearly 90% of the country's electricity is produced from locally mined coal - but because of particular historical anxieties over national identity and geopolitical security, as well as very close diplomatic ties to the United States - a global advocate of fracking.

But that national - even nationalistic - fervor has started to undermine the very foundations of Polish democracy. Any criticism of shale gas or fracking these days is often a subject to suspicion, even if it comes from official European channels. When, in early September 2012, the European Commission published an extensive report on the environmental risks of shale gas, designating industrial-scale fracking "a high risk" operation in a number of areas, Poland's treasury minister Mikołaj Budzanowski, who supervises the country's state-owned oil and gas enterprises, lambasted it as "misleading the public", while others directly accused the authors of the report, AEA Technology, of close ties to Gazprom. The recent withdrawal of Exxon Mobile from two concessions in Poland, because of poor shale gas showings, has been interpreted by some as another ploy by Russia, aiming to undermine confidence in the Polish shale gas market and scare off future investors.

The full brunt of this ideological warfare, however, has been borne by Polish environmentalists and the few individuals from local communities, who dare to demand a debate on fracking. To oppose shale gas in Poland sometimes amounts to nothing less than to oppose Polish independence and Polish national interests. To be against fracking is to be branded a national traitor, a fundamentalist, an extremist, or, worse, an agent of Gazprom.

"There is a risk [to be accused of supporting Russia] attached to criticizing shale gas", Urszula Stefanowicz, project coordinator of The Climate Coalition, an umbrella group uniting 22 environmental and civic non-government organizations in Poland, recently told me. "It's automatic for the media and some politicians. Shale gas looks really good to them because it can free us from dependence from Russia. If you're doing something to criticize shale gas or to make the exploitation of shale gas more difficult, then you're automatically on the side of Gazprom. Directly or indirectly [you're accused of being a traitor]."

"Essentially", she adds, "it's difficult to tell the politicians, the media, the public, that we are not against the prosperity of society, but we are against the mindless abuse of the environment that will result in lack of prosperity for society in the long term."

The ironic fact that Gazprom, hardly a company with green credentials, has come out against fracking in an obvious strategy to preserve its dominance over conventional gas markets in Eastern Europe has truly hurt authentic environmental groups in Poland and has given powerful ammunition to industry lobbies. Few can doubt that Gazprom, an arm of Russian foreign policy, is behind some kind of public relations campaign to prevent competition of shale gas and sustain its high-priced imports, but in Poland that suspicion has been blown out of proportion and has degenerated into a witch-hunt.

"We must be watching very carefully all false prophets, people who are trying to use arguments related to ecology and environmental protection", Piotr Naimski, an MP from the Law and Justice Party (PiS) and once a dissident himself against the Polish communist government told the Sunday Catholic Weekly in late September. "It is very often a hypocritical argumentation and the source of their actions comes from... Moscow, as well as from Germany or France, where opposition to the new gas mining industry is strong."

Such opinions are so widespread that very few people, most of them from communities where shale gas exploration is taking place in their backyards, find the courage to openly debate the value of the projects - in fact, there is hardly any debate, as many companies move in to drill without notifying local residents in advance and organizing public hearings only after the fact.

"There is no tradition of public debate in Poland. The government has this way of thinking that we can just skip over society," Robert Biedron, an MP from the oppositional party Palikot's Movement and one of the few politicians who questions the viability of shale gas in Poland, told me. Recently, because of his views, Biedron himself became the victim of a smear campaign in the mainstream Polish media, which tried to paint him as a Gazprom lobbyist. "I'm not against shale gas", he told me, "but I have a lot of doubts about the technology of fracking. In Canada there are doubts, in America there are doubts, and I want this to be discussed in Poland as well. I want debate and there's no debate, there wasn't any debate about that."

The situation has deteriorated even further. In October Dziennik Gazeta Prawna [Daily Legal Gazette] broke the story of an anti-fracking group from Pomerania, in northern Poland, whose meetings had been spied on by a company agent. The secret report included details of conversations and personal sketches of the participants, and was later forwarded to several Polish ministries, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which subsequently passed on the information to the Internal Security Agency (ABW) and the police.

Looking back at the history of Poland, with its heroic struggles against Russian occupation over the centuries, with its celebrated Solidarity movement against the Communist regime in the early 1980s, with its current support for political refugees from Belarus, the demonisation of environmental groups and regular Polish citizens, who venture to freely voice their disagreement, seems like a sad reversal of roles. Once upon a time political dissidents were accused of being 'enemies of the people' and today those accusations have resurfaced in another form. At this point, it is not even a matter of whether one supports shale gas development or not - there are arguments on both sides that need to be considered - but about the health of Polish democracy.

Yet, maybe, each period requires its dissidents to define their own idea of independence.

"Now we have a situation just like under communism", Marek Kryda, an environmentalist from Gdansk, told me. "Local mayors are afraid. It's incredible that the same tricks can be used once more. The only way to really do something about it is to speak out, to expose what is happening."

Reporting for this article was funded by The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Calkins Media