Two events last week show the direction where Poland is moving. On Dec. 15, during a visit to Kiev, Polish President Andrzej Duda promised financial, political and energy support for Ukraine. A few days later, on Dec. 19, people in Warsaw and other Polish cities protested the government's controversial appointment of five new judges to the Constitutional Court - the second protest over the issue in two weeks. These two events, though seemingly unrelated, suggest the beginning of a new political phase in the country that will be felt across Europe.
After eight years under a business-friendly and pro-EU government, the Poles voted for a nationalist administration in a general election in October. Voters were exhausted with an establishment in power for almost a decade. Some also believed the benefits of EU integration and economic liberalization were not equally distributed among the population.
The newly elected Law and Justice party ran on a promise of lowering the pension age, reducing taxes for small and medium-sized businesses, increasing family benefits, raising taxes on banks and foreign-owned supermarkets, and cutting the country's reliance on foreign capital. The party also has a skeptical view of the European Union and believes Poland should protect its national sovereignty and remain outside of the eurozone.
The new government's early actions confirmed that it would not shy away from controversy. The administration in Warsaw appointed contentious figures to key Cabinet positions, accused the media of manipulating the population, criticized the German government for its position on the refugee crisis and Russia, and started a war of words with the president of the European Parliament. These moves prompted opposition parties, EU officials and international media to accuse the Polish government of authoritarianism, warning that the administration's actions would herald a new era of isolation. However, the reality is more complex.
In the coming months, the Polish state probably will have a larger presence in the economy and will attempt to influence the justice system and the media. Warsaw's attempt to replace Constitutional Court judges appointed by the previous administration with judges supported by Law and Justice is an early sign of the central government's quest for greater influence. From the new government's point of view, if it wants to reverse some key decisions made in the previous decade and expand its political control of the country, it will need support from parliament, the judiciary and the media.
Poland's new political phase is intimately connected with events abroad. Law and Justice has repeatedly been compared to Hungary's ruling Fidesz party because both parties are reacting to what they perceive as increasing Russian aggressiveness and a progressively fragmenting European Union. These parties are skeptical of the benefits of EU integration and believe the post-national European model has failed to deliver the economic and political stability it had promised. Law and Justice and Fidesz assume that as the European core weakens, with no powerful patron to replace it, the concentration of power in the hands of the state is one of the few options they have to improve their positions in an increasingly uncertain geopolitical environment. Moreover, similar to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and her policies probably will clash with the liberal ideals enshrined in the European Union. However, knowing that Poland (like Hungary) can no longer keep Russia at bay by integrating further with the European Union, Law and Justice cares less about the disapproval of the Western elite than about its ability to sustain Polish sovereignty.
However, the Carpathians and several independent states separate Russia from Hungary. Hungary does not feel nearly as threatened by Russia as Poland does, enabling Budapest to flirt with Moscow when needed - an option Warsaw clearly does not have.
Besides the inability to approach Russia, the Law and Justice party's Euroskeptic strategy has two shortcomings. The first is money. The new government in Warsaw may be skeptical of the benefits of EU membership, but Poland is one of the largest recipients of EU aid, in the form of structural funding and agricultural financing. In the coming months, Warsaw will challenge Brussels and protest whatever measures it feels undermine Polish sovereignty while understanding that Brussels has the power to cut funding for Poland. Moreover, the new administration will have to be careful regarding which allies to alienate and when. The government's plans against banks and supermarkets probably will irritate investors and governments in Western Europe and the United States at a time when Poland still needs military and financial support from abroad.
The second is Poland's civil society. Unlike the previous government including Law and Justice, which was part of a fragile multi-party coalition, Szydlo controls a strong majority in parliament. This fact suggests that the government will enjoy political stability, at least during the first months of its term. However, Polish society will become increasingly divided among pro- and anti-government camps, creating fertile ground for protests and demonstrations from both sides. Warsaw will have to find a way to expand its control of the country while keeping social dissent within tolerable margins
Poland's Foreign Strategy
Poland's domestic transformations will affect its international behavior, but the country's foreign policy is not likely to change drastically. Poland cannot afford to be isolated. Located at the heart of the North European Plain and surrounded by powerful countries (Germany to the west and Russia to the east), Poland traditionally has had to seek alliances to secure protection. This strategy rarely worked - Poland was repeatedly invaded and partitioned - but it is a strategy Warsaw simply cannot avoid.
After the end of the Cold War, Poland sought to multiply its alliances. It joined the European Union and NATO, hoping that a political, economic and military alliance with the West would keep it safe. It also formed the Visegrad Group, a political alliance with the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, and sought deeper cooperation with Germany and France through the Weimar Triangle. Simultaneously, Warsaw built a strong bilateral alliance with the United States, hoping that its military support and investment would keep Russia at bay.
The political environment in Europe has changed dramatically since Warsaw made these decisions, but Poland's core imperatives have not. Poland needs its alliances more than ever, especially considering the crisis in Ukraine. The most important of these alliances is the one with the United States, Poland's ultimate protector. But Warsaw also needs to protect its ties with the European Union, if only to prevent the bloc from moving too close to Russia. But the Law and Justice party is asking a valid question: What do those ties mean in the context of increasing European fragmentation and Russian assertiveness?