A monument to peace displayed by Poland outside the European Parliament during that country's presidency of the EU was burnt to the ground last night in Warsaw.
Chalk it up to some very unfortunate timing. Yesterday, as delegates arrived for this year's UN climate summit in Warsaw, they were warned to exercise caution and to stay out of the city centre. Violent demonstrations had broken out throughout the city.
The demonstrations actually had nothing to do with the climate summit. The meeting just happened to be opening on the same day as Polish national day, when far right and far left Polish groups have traditionally clashed in street brawls during demonstrations.
The violence isn't ordinarily noticed by the world's media. But given that international journalists have converged on the city this week for the climate summit, it was embarrassing timing for the Polish government.
It didn't help that the most iconic image from the violence was the sight of a giant rainbow in central Warsaw burnt to the ground last night. Those in Brussels might recognize the rainbow shown burning in this photo. It was displayed in front of the European Parliament by the Polish government during their EU presidency in 2011.
But although rainbows are frequently used as a symbol for that movement, this particular rainbow had nothing to do with gay rights. It was an art installation created by Polish artist Julita Wojcik, made up of 16 thousand flowers. It was meant to symbolize peace.
Right-wing politicians in Poland however have accused the exhibit of being ‘gay propaganda' disguised as ‘peace'. This has in turn prompted the attacks by Polish nationalists. Poland is not exactly known for its support of gay rights. The country has a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Eurobarometer polling has shown that Polish citizens have among the highest rates of hostility to homosexuality in the EU.
A 2008 survey by CBOS found that 66% of Poles believed that gay people should not have the right to organize public demonstrations. According to the same study, 69% of Poles believed that gay people should not have the right to be openly gay, and 37% believed that homosexual acts should be illegal. More recent statistics are hard to come by, but a new survey conducted this year showed attitudes may be changing, with 30% of Poles now in favor of same-sex marriage. But this 30% is almost entirely under 30 years old.
Among the older political class, condemnation of gay people is still common. Former Polish President Lech Kaczynski publicly condemned the “homosexual lifestyle”. National hero Lech Walesa, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and the country's first democratic-era president, said earlier this year that gay people should be barred from sitting on the front benches of the Polish Parliament and should sit in the back "or even behind a wall".
For this reason, few people in Brussels mistook the rainbow erected outside the European Parliament by the Polish presidency in 2011 as a promotion of gay rights – a subject that still remains extremely controversial in Poland.
The fact that anti-gay rhetoric from politicians would so quickly lead to the burning of a monument to peace is a rather sobering turn of events.