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Polish Citizens, Lawmakers Get Defensive

Participants secure a position during a territorial defense training exercise organized by the paramilitary group SJS Strzelec (Shooters Association) in the forest near Minsk Mazowiecki in eastern Poland last year.
Participants secure a position during a territorial defense training exercise organized by the paramilitary group SJS Strzelec (Shooters Association) in the forest near Minsk Mazowiecki in eastern Poland last year.

Amid fears of war, Polish lawmakers are preparing to leave the halls of power for the fields of battle.

"Times have come that may require a readiness to defend the country," parliament speaker Radek Sikorski said recently in urging lawmakers to set an example for young Poles. And 50 lawmakers answered the call, lining up to take part in training exercises at a military base outside Warsaw on May 12.

It would be easy to dismiss the parliamentary boot camp as a stunt of little practical value, but the lawmakers' decision to practice shooting and other martial arts highlights just how nervous ordinary Poles are over the conflict in neighboring Ukraine and Russia's involvement in it.

Many Poles, it seems, are prepared to defend the country. More and more are signing up to join not only the conventional military but the dozens of paramilitary groups operating in Poland, a think-tank analyst told RFE/RL.

Gustav Gressel of the European Council of Foreign Relations said Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014 served as a wake-up call for politicians and civilians alike.

Lawmaker John Godson was among those who participated in this week's training and tweeted pictures of tank maneuvers and of himself "practicing on the training ground. A little injury."

An enthused Godson told reporters back in Warsaw after the one-day drill that he was ready for more.

"It's a very good way of increasing the morale of our army and of the populace," Godson said.

Decked out in camouflage fatigues, the lawmakers shot weapons at a firing range, threw fake grenades, crawled through an obstacle course, and learned some first aid.

Another lawmaker taking part, Maciej Mroczek, said he doubted there would be war but that it was important to send a message of support to Poland’s military.

"We want to send the message to young people that the armed forces protect us and are useful," Mroczek told the Associated Press.

Poland's military numbers some 100,000 troops with about some 20,000 reservists. It did away with the draft in 2010.

Despite the robust figures, Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak has called on men and women between 18 and 50, and with no military experience, to sign up for test-range exercise.

According to AP, more than 2,000 people have responded so far.

Analyst Gressel told RFE/RL that the Polish military has also reached out to the estimated 120 paramilitary groups, who conduct their own drills, in a bid to harmonize them with army exercises.

“They are training with them, advising them, providing them with some assistance, but they are not part of the Polish Army," Gressel explained. "They are not using any weapons issued only to the Polish Army. The army works with them, hoping some of them may one day join the army."

The Polish Defense Ministry officially recognized the paramilitary groups after inviting some of their representatives to a conference in Warsaw on March 20-21 in Warsaw.

Gressels says the number of Poles involved in paramilitary groups is murky, numbering anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000.

"They’re young, mostly male, and students," Gressels said. "So these are not football hooligans but educated people, but they don't want to make the five-year commitment needed to join the Polish Army."

Weekend warriors are also growing in number in the nearby Baltic nations, where the fear of Russia is palpable as well, if not more so.

In Lithuania, the Union of Riflemen is said to number 8,000 members preparing for possible war with Russia.

The group was created back in 1919 as a civil-defense force but was outlawed in the Soviet era. It was resurrected in 1989 when Lithuania was beginning its battle for independence.

It is now part of the government’s very visible strategy to prepare the small Baltic country of some 3 million for a possible threat from Russia.

A paramilitary boom is also under way in nearby Estonia, where the Estonian Defense League, or Kaitseliit, now has around 14,500 members in its fighting unit. That compares with around 3,800 in the professional army.

An October 2014 report in The Wall Street Journal said recruitment doubled to 600 over the first half of 2014. The Kaitseliit is run by the Defense Department and its members are expected to serve during a national crisis.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

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