Jan Cienski in Warsaw -
Enraged Polish farmers have set up a protest in front of the prime minister's office in central Warsaw and used tractors to block roads around the country as they push the government on a raft of claims. However, public support has been slow to come.
The protests bring back memories of a wave of rural strikes in the early 1990s. Shock therapy economic reforms drove many farmers into bankruptcy, sparking often-violent protests around the country. A political party - the populist Self-Defence - was even formed.
However, this time around, protesting farmers are having difficulty galvanising broad public support for their demands, which include help with damage caused to crops by wild boars, changes to milk buying policies and preventing foreigners from buying Polish farmland. That's largely because farmers have done extremely well over the past decade.
A study shows that the monthly income of farmer's households more than doubled since Poland joined the EU in 2004, rising from PLN2,298 (€552 at current exchange rates) in 2004 to PLN5,044. However, the average worker has seen monthly income rise from around the same level to no higher than PLN4,289.
Part of that is due to an enormous inflow of EU funds, which have transformed the Polish countryside over the last decade. Poland is expected to get €23.5bn in 2015-2020 for agriculture from the EU. Polish farmers get an annual payment varying from €184 to €221 per hectare of farmland.
Farmers can also take advantage of a subsidised social security system. The average farmer plays less than a third of what other workers pay in social security taxes, with much of the rest being subsidised by the state. Last year, the government paid PLN17bn into the designated rural pension and medical schemes. On top of that, farmers are sitting on increasingly valuable property; farmland has more than quadrupled in price in the last decade.
The results of all that cash could be seen as farmers drove gleaming tractors costing more than €100,000 to blockade roads. "God have mercy peasants, get a grip," Eugeniusz Klopotek, an MP from the Polish People's Party, which gets most of its support in rural areas, told Poland's RMF radio. "Most Poles don't earn as much as you do."
Slawomir Izdebski, a fiery farmer and politician who was once a senator from Self-Defence (the party imploded in 2007) leads the protests. Although he has galvanised a few thousand farmers at most, the demostrations are a political problem for Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, whose government has already buckled this year in the face of striking coal miners.
Unions sense Kopacz's vulnerability as she races the opposition Law and Justice party for parliamentary elections this autumn. Izdebski has demanded Kopacz take part in talks with farmers, saying "the crown won't fall off her head" if she does.
Marek Sawicki, the agriculture minister who has been a favourite target of Izdebski, says most of the farmers' demands have already been settled, including compensation for hungry boars. Meanwhile, preventing foreigners buying farmland - something that will be allowed by 2017 - or tweaking milk-buying schemes would rub up against EU rules.
With the protests taking an increasingly political tone, Kopacz's position appears to be hardening. "Certainly farmers are not going to choose ministers in my government," she said recently, adding "demands being presented by protestors and those blocking roads are demands that have no link to reality."
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