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 WaÅ?Ä?sa -- 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 JarosÅ?aw Kaczynski. If you recognize his name or his face, that is because JarosÅ?aw 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 KatyÅ? 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.