Saturday, May 29, 2010

Polish Constitution of 3rd May 1791

Constitution of 3 May, 1791 is considered as first European and second in modern world codified constitution. It was adopted by Sejm (parliament) of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The main idea of the constitution was to reform political system of Commonwealth. Old privileges for nobility, known as Golden Liberty were very good for them, but not for all society. Rules, such as liberum veto (every deputy had the right to undo legislation passed by Sejm) led the country to anarchy and corruption. Commonwealth was under influence of its neighbors, especially Russia. After First Partition of Poland in 1772 many people realized, that lots of things in the country have to be repaired and that old system may lead Poland only into destruction. That’s why, after four years of debates the constitution was adopted by Polish king Stanislaw August Poniatowski and many prejudiced deputes during the gathering of the Great Sejm, on 3 May, 1791 in Warsaw.

The Constitution introduced political equality between townspeople and nobility and placed the peasants under the protection of the government, abolished pernicious parliamentary institutions such as the liberum veto. The Constitution sought to supplant the existing anarchy fostered by some of the country's magnates, with a more democratic constitutional monarchy.

Despite the fact that constitution was in effect for only a year, it was a great achievement of Polish society. Unfortunately, after Russo-Polish War in 1792, when defenders of the Constitution were beaten by Russian army supported by Targowicka confederation, Constitution was annulled. This situation led to Second and Third Partition of Poland (in 1793 and 1795). After that Poland was erased from the map of Europe for next 123 years.

In the words of two of Constitution’s co-authors, Ignacy Potocki and Hugo Kołłątaj, it was "the last will and testament of the expiring Motherland”. 3rd May is now a holiday, celebrated in whole country.The constitution led to the creation of the first constitutional monarchy in the world and thus was recognized by political scientists as a very progressive document for its time—for generations it helped keep alive Polish aspirations for an independent and just society, and continues to inform the efforts of its authors' descendants. In Poland it is viewed as the culmination of all that was good and enlightened in Polish history and culture. The May 3 anniversary of its adoption has been observed as Poland's most important civil holiday since Poland regained independence in 1918.

These charters of government form an important milestone in the history of democracy. Poland and the United States, though distant geographically, showed some notable similarities in their approaches to the design of political systems. By contrast to the great absolute monarchies, both countries were remarkably democratic. The kings of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth were elected, and the Commonwealth's parliament (the Sejm) possessed extensive legislative authority. Under the May 3 Constitution, Poland afforded political privileges to its townspeople and to its nobility (the szlachta), which formed some ten percent of the country's population. This percentage closely approximated the extent of political access in contemporary America, where effective suffrage was limited to male property owners.

The defeat of Poland's liberals was but a temporary setback to the cause of democracy. The destruction of the Polish state only slowed the expansion of democracy, by then already established in North America. Democratic movements soon began undermining the absolute monarchies of Europe. The May 3 Constitution was translated, in abridged form, into French, German and English. French revolutionaries toasted King Stanisław August and the Constitution—not only for their progressive character, but because the War in Defense of the Constitution and the Kościuszko Uprising tied up appreciable Russian and Prussian forces that could not therefore be used against Revolutionary France. Thomas Paine regarded the May 3 Constitution as a great breakthrough. Edmund Burke described it as "the noblest benefit received by any nation at any time... Stanislas II has earned a place among the greatest kings and statesmen in history." In the end, the conservatives managed to delay the ascent of democracy in Europe only for a century; after the First World War, most of the European absolute monarchies were replaced by democratic states, including the reborn, Second Polish Republic.

by Jakub Bieda

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Torrential rain has caused heavy flooding across southern Poland

This week's floods have left few unaffected, as the heavy rainfall has left its mark on many spheres – business, social and political.

Thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes in southern Poland with the water levels of some rivers reaching up to 7.45 meters. Rescue workers have been working around the clock, building temporary levies in an attempt to stop the water from spreading into the cities.

Heavy rains that began in central Europe last weekend are causing flooding in areas of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, with rivers bursting their banks and inundating low-lying homes and roads, and cutting off villages. Rail travel is also paralyzed in places, rendering some areas unreachable.

In Krakow, continuing heavy rain led the Mayor of Krakow, Jacek Majchrowski, to declare a state of emergency at 22:00 Sunday night, after the Vistula rose above emergency levels in the city. Many other towns across the region have followed suit. In Krakow three major bridges have been closed as the Vistula River nearly reached them. Many regional roads in the province have been closed, as well as in the city of Krakow, some of whose main arteries near the river Vistula have flooded. The Krakow-Zakopane train line is also affected by the adverse weather conditions.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau, the former Nazi death camp that draws about a million visitors a year, authorities carried historical documents and some artifacts, including brushes and bowls that belonged to victims, to the upper floors of old barracks that are used to house exhibits. Officials closed the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial site on Tuesday to protect its Holocaust archives.

Flash floods in Poland turned more dramatic Thursday as the swollen Vistula River broke its dykes near Sandomierz, central Poland, spilling into the town of 25,000 residents and stretching as far as seven kilometers from the usual stream channel. Many have been stranded in their homes in villages near Sandomierz, with water five to six meters deep. They are unable to call for help as power outages have made phone communication impossible in some areas. Thursday morning, news channel TVN24 showed live footage of the area, taken from a helicopter, with people on rooftops waving white cloth. The situation worsened in many regions as people refuse to leave their homes for fear their abandoned property would be looted.

Meanwhile, the peak wave on the Vistula is moving north faster than expected and is likely to reach Warsaw late Thursday afternoon. The head of the regional government told a news briefing this morning that river banks in Warsaw could withstand water as deep as eight meters, while the forecast peak level is seen around 7.8 meters, the highest level in the country’s post-war history.

Poland will likely ask the EU for financial help to cope with damage caused by the floods. To be eligible for assistance from the so-called EU Solidarity Fund, the damage must exceed €2 billion.“We fear that the damage may be even bigger,” Prime Minister Donald Tusk told a news briefing overnight before embarking on more tours of the flooded regions.