December 7, 2023


The effort to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine is creating some bizarre alliances.

Eastern European climate activists from the Greta Thunberg-inspired Fridays for Future movement — including three fleeing war in Ukraine — met Polish right and center-right members of the European Parliament this week in Brussels to push for a full embargo on Russian energy.

“War is happening right in Europe, and Europe is financing it,” said Arina Bilai, who arrived in Warsaw from Kyiv a week ago. “I’m 16 years old. I’m in high school. But still, I’m here in Brussels having to tell parliamentarians in the EU to not fuel the war.”

The reception she’s getting is very different than when she was making similar demands based on climate science and not geopolitics.

“It was so strange,” Bilai said. “Years” of pushing conservative politicians toward decarbonization led to nothing, but now she had secured five meetings in one day.

Their schedule included a Wednesday meeting with Anna Zalewska, with Poland’s governing nationalist Law and Justice party and publicly hostile to their movement. The group also met three Polish center-right opposition lawmakers aligned with the European People’s Party, plus other MEPs from Germany, Sweden, Hungary and France.

Warsaw has been among the most vocal EU capitals pushing for a Europe-wide ban on imports of Russian coal, oil and gas. Despite that pressure, there’s little chance that EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday will agree to such a step.

Polish activist Dominika Lasota described the meeting with Zalewska as “bizarre.” Lasota had faced charges — since dropped — over her participation in a protest in 2020.

She said Zalewska was forceful in backing an embargo on all Russian fossil fuels.

Zalewska didn’t respond to a request to comment.

“As a movement, we’ve had contacts with other conservative politicians in the past,” Lasota said, adding that “right now” new doors are opening, “especially with people like Anna Zalewska [who is] very much anti any kind of climate agenda.”

Although there’s common ground on Russia, little else unites the two sides.

Climate campaigners plan to hold a global strike on Friday that aims at climate change as well as ending a system they say is built to benefit “colonizers and capitalists.” Conservative MEPs “do not really fully understand” that campaign, she said.

Russia’s war is “another effect of the destructive system that we are living in that’s based on fossil fuels,” Lasota said.

Meanwhile, for Zalewska, energy independence from Russia isn’t the same as rapid decarbonization; Poland gets about 70 percent of its electricity by burning coal. In the European Parliament on Thursday she called for the EU to rethink its attitude to coal and the functioning of the Emissions Trading System.

“There is a chance for a return to coal,” Zalewska told Poland’s wPolityce portal. “I think that we have to ruthlessly take advantage of that opportunity.”

That stance dismays campaigners.

“If she thinks that she can meet with us, pat us on the back, publicly say that she met with us and be satisfied, then she’s wrong,” said Lasota. “Because if there will be climate hypocrisy … then we will be calling it out.”

The activists aren’t stopping with Polish right-wingers.

Arshak Makichyan, who fled to Germany to escape the free speech crackdown in Russia, plans to meet with German conservatives “if they want to.”

“We need to talk with everyone, which before the war was unimaginable,” he said. “These times are strange, and it’s strange what is happening but we need to unite to put an end to it.”

Zosia Wanat contributed reporting.

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