Trouble on Europe's Eastern Front

Trouble on Europe's Eastern Front
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The European Union has more than enough to worry about -- terrorism, Brexit, the migrant crisis -- without its Eastern powerhouse taking an unwanted turn. But since the Law and Justice party, known by its Polish acronym, PiS, took power last October, Poland has moved sharply away from the steady path it was on, much to Europe's dismay. The government's latest headline-grabbing move has been to accuse Lech Wałęsa -- Nobel Prize winner and hero of the Solidarity movement - of spying for the very Communist government he helped bring down. Poland's president, Andrzej Duda -- a former PiS member who ran as an Independent -- is in Washington this week, but no meeting with U.S. president Barack Obama has been scheduled. Many believe this to be due to the recent turn in Polish policy.

Not your standard Left-Right split

But where exactly is PiS taking Poland? The Western media has branded the party as ultra-conservative, far right, and much worse, but PiS's politics don't land neatly along any point on the usual left-right spectrum. In post-Communist Poland, nearly every party is some shade of right on economic policy, social issues, or both. A better way to make sense of PiS's politics is to look at where it stands on three key points of Polish politics: its relationship to the Catholic church; its strategy for dealing with the geopolitics of being stuck between Russia and Europe; and the place of PiS politicians in a web of personal intrigues, affairs, and conspiracies that has plagued Poland since the fall of the Berlin wall.

Looking at it from these angles, PiS appears as fiercely traditionalist, unapologetically Euro-Realist, and loyally centered around Jarosław Kaczynski. If you recognize his name or his face, that is because Jarosław is the identical twin brother of Poland's deceased former President, Lech Kaczynski. In 2010, Lech and other top officials of the Polish government died in a plane crash over Russia. They were on their way to a ceremony commemorating the mass execution of Polish officers by the Soviet secret police at Katyń in 1940, and the subsequent cover-up. Many still believe the crash was no accident.

On religion, PiS's Catholicism is less about its links to the organized church, and more a matter of pushing policies that favor traditional values. In a stroke of generous welfare policy, PiS promised every Polish family an entitlement of 500 zloty ($125) per month for each baby born after their first until it reaches the age of 18 -- never mind that such a policy would bankrupt the country. PiS politicians have also historically opposed LGBT rights: As Mayor of Warsaw, Lech Kaczynski banned gay rights marches in the capital.

The party finds strong support for such policies among the electorate that brought it to power: middle-aged and older Poles who feel left behind in the new system. They've been dubbed "mohair berets" after the hats lower-middle class and middle-aged women often wear to church. They present a stark contrast to the generation of young Poles who travel freely around the European Union, work and study abroad, and eagerly embrace the lifestyles of their peers in Western Europe. PiS voters have lived most of their lives in an isolated, Soviet-controlled country where censorship and repression were rampant. Norms such as multiculturalism or LGBT rights that the rest of Europe has had decades to develop, debate, and embrace remain very new and controversial for large parts of Poland. But in addition to being viewed as new or foreign, these norms are also difficult for an older generation to accept because they are hard to reconcile with two cherished institutions that got them through the Communist era and helped bring it down: church and family.

Much of PiS's electorate sees the individualism, secularism, and liberalism of the West not as social ideals that come with freedom and democracy, but as just another threat. In a much-derided interview with Germany's Bild, Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski cast Western social norms as a new incarnation of the menace from which Poland thought it had freed itself:

"The previous government implemented a left-wing concept, as if the world had to move using a Marxist model in only one direction: towards a mixture of cultures and races, a world of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy sources and combat all forms of religion. This has nothing in common with traditional Polish values.

"This is against what most Poles have at heart: tradition, historical consciousness, love of the country, faith in God and a normal family life run by a man and a woman."


The traditional character of PiS's policies and the party's bristling at homosexuality have sometimes earned PiS the label of "Putinist." However, when it comes to foreign policy, PiS could not be farther from the Russian behemoth.

Poland is on permanent alert against threats from the East. Surrounded by seas and friendly neighbors, much of the European Union can easily forget that Poland shares a 1,200-kilometer border with three problematic non-EU states: Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia itself through Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic sea. When the Cold War was freshly over, concerns about Russia seemed unrealistic, nationalistic, or mere expressions of historical paranoia. But since Russia annexed Crimea, Poland has felt its fears about territorial integrity to be fully justified.

Not only is the Russian threat tangible, but Warsaw also believes it has good reason to doubt Europe's will to protect Poland. The European Union came weakly to Ukraine's aid, and it reminds Poland of a fundamental historical grievance that continues to permeate its collective consciousness: that of being ‘sold' to the Soviet Union by the Allies at Yalta after World War II. Poland still views this event as an unforgivable betrayal by the West, and it remains a source of distrust. For many Poles, it's easy to imagine that with Putin's rise, their country could again be sacrificed for the peace, energy, or economic interests of the rest of Europe.

Russia isn't just an issue for PiS. Every political party in Poland wrestles with these historical and geopolitical realities. The previous government's strategy was to wholeheartedly embrace the European Union, and the Citizen Platform party's Donald Tusk, a former prime minister, is currently the president of the European Council. But for PiS, the right strategy is to hedge Poland's bets. The new government is an eager and active member of NATO, it seeks close ties with the United States, and it tries to play nice with the European Union while making its voice heard.

Polish Secretary of State Krzysztof Szczerski came to the United Kingdom last month on what might have been PiS's attempt at a charm offensive. During a stop at Chatham House, a British foreign affairs think tank, he proclaimed that PiS "are Euro-enthusiastic." And indeed, PiS does see Poland playing an important role in Europe: that of controlling -- or guarding -- its Eastern border. Those 1,200 kilometers are patrolled by Polish troops, not the EU, Szczerski was eager to point out. And although Poland is part of the Visegrad group of Central European countries that opposed letting in Syrian migrants, Poland did allow thousands of Ukrainian migrants during the Crimean crisis.

This sort of criticism of EU proposals makes PiS what Szczerski calls euro-realist, but not euroskeptic, which to him means wanting to leave the European Union. "The real anti-Europeans are in France," he explains. "You don't really have this kind of anti-European party in Poland." He is right. Unlike parties in France, Germany, and especially Britain, no party in Poland supports leaving the European Union. Instead, Poland's EU critics tend to embrace economic cooperation even while they oppose expanding Brussels' political power over individual countries. Szczerski believes "Poland would like Poles to govern themselves in the European Union," and opposes any move toward a federal European government. To the annoyance of countries such as France who do want a political union, this means Poland is embracing a British vision of Europe.

Gambling sovereignty and economy

The problem is that instead of exercising the sovereignty Poland does have in a legal and democratic manner, PiS has made one brazen move after another that seems almost calibrated to dare the European Union to get involved.

A month after winning its majority government, PiS passed legislation that curtailed the ability of its highest court to block unconstitutional laws. It also kicked out judges they deemed unfavorable to PiS by annulling their appointments, and installed PiS supporters in their place. In December, PiS passed another controversial law that resulted in the firing of the heads of Poland's state television and radio corporations, replaced by PiS supporters. Another law -- criticized by Amnesty International -- gives the government sweeping surveillance powers over its citizens. In response to these sudden changes, the European Commission launched the first inquiry of its kind into the rule of law among one of its members. If PiS wants Europe to stay out of its politics, it has a funny way of showing it.

But perhaps even more concerning is the spread of PiS's power over the economy. Just as it stacked the highest court with favorable judges, PiS is making sure the heads of major corporations are friends of the party. In a coup in the dead of night, the board of Poland's biggest oil firm, PKN Orlen, fired its CEO and put a friend of Mr. Kaczynski in his place: Wojciech Jasiński, a lawyer with no experience in the energy sector who has never managed a large company.

These actions have begun to take their toll. Since PiS came to power, most major economic indicators for Poland have gone in the wrong direction. Stock prices have fallen, and the złoty is at a four-year low against the euro. For the first time ever, Standard & Poor's downgraded Poland's credit rating and laid the blame on PiS:

"The downgrade reflects our view that Poland's system of institutional checks and balances has been eroded significantly as the independence and effectiveness of key institutions, such as the constitutional court and public broadcasting, is being weakened by various legislative measures initiated since the October 2015 election," Standard & Poor's wrote in their report on the downgrade.

Now the government is embroiled in an effort to prove that Jarosław Kaczynski's long-time rival, Lech Wałęsa, collaborated with the Communist government.

Just last month, documents released by the National Remembrance Institute appear to prove Wałęsa was a paid informant of the Communist government under the codename "Bolek." If true, it plays into the hands of PiS by helping them cast the deceased Lech Kaczynski as the true Polish hero -- a martyr of Russia's continued aggression. Wałęsa claims the documents are a forgery and has maintained his innocence. The documents were also dated prior to Wałęsa's founding of the Solidarity movement, so his collaboration would have yielded little sensitive information. Wałęsa has fought off such accusations before, and the details of the documents suggest they shouldn't be viewed as particularly damning, even if they are genuine. The documents are part of Wałęsa's secret police file, which remained hidden at the home of the Communist leader Czesław Kiszczak. Upon his death last year, Kiszczak's wife tried selling the file to the National Remembrance Institute, along with a note from her husband asking that its contents not be revealed until well after Wałęsa's death. But it was seized by PiS government authorities and made public last month.

Poland never purged Communists from its post-Cold War apparatus, so accusations of collaborating with the Cold War government often do have merit. After Wałęsa's brief Solidarity presidency, the next government had deep roots among the elites of the Communist era. But PiS has taken the search for truth to the extreme and readily tarnishes opponents with a Communist brush. Lucky for Wałęsa, many Poles are willing to forgive any links he might have had to the Communist political police because of the good he ultimately did: "I prefer a tarnished Wałęsa to an untarnished Kaczynski," one former Solidarity member says. But like many of PiS's actions, it creates a scandal that severely damages Poland's image abroad, where the Nobel prize winner is a favored Polish figure. Even if PiS makes the "mohair berets" happy, Poland can't afford to further alienate foreign support if it is to successfully manage the burdens of history, geography, and progress.

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