Poland: Towards the dark side of the force
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Poland’s once shining reputation as a beacon of democracy in post-Communist Eastern Europe is in jeopardy as a rightwing government pushes an agenda at odds with EU values.
They are Poles apart – in every sense of the term.
When the president of the EU Council and former Polish prime minister from 2007 to 2014, Donald Tusk, met in Brussels this week with Poland’s conservative president, Andrzej Duda, he used a Star Wars analogy to make a salient political point.
“I want to tell you in this context that there is always time to move to the light side of the force,” Tusk teased his compatriot.
He reminded Duda that moving “to the light side” had been the pattern of Polish democracy in recent decades.
It’s a pattern that many in Europe (as well as in Poland itself) fear may soon be broken if the conservative nationalists now in power continue to ride roughshod over the rule of law.
Tusk and Duda are both Polish. But that’s where any similarities end.
Tusk is a former leader of the centrist Civic Platform that was abruptly turned out of office last October by a resurgent Law and Justice party whose last stint in power dates to nearly a decade ago.
Power behind the throne
Duda, by contrast, is the figurehead of a government whose core voters hail from rural areas in eastern Poland. Allegiance to the Catholic Church runs high, and leeriness about Europe’s motives – alongside suspicions about immigrants - runs even higher.
The real power behind the throne, the éminence grise of Polish politics, is Jaroslav Kaczynski, whose twin brother, Lech, was killed along with dozens of members of Poland’s top leadership when his plane crashed in Smolensk, Russia in 2010.
Critics of Poland’s new direction say the Law and Justice Party appears to be veering off in the same anti-democratic direction as Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party in Hungary.
Governments in both countries have been accused of overstretching in their bids to consolidate power.
In Poland’s case, Law and Justice has packed the constitutional court with its appointees and pushed a law that would bring public broadcasters -- media outlets financed by the state – under direct government control.
The European Commission, citing a “systemic threat” to the rule of law, has launched an investigation. This, in turn, has drawn fire from Poland’s leaders.
Duda, denouncing “media creations”, has called for a calm discussion, while his prime minister, Beata Szydlo, told the European parliament on January 19 that Poland remains fully committed to European values.
Paragon of democracy
Both leaders invoked “national sovereignty”, chiding Europe with a reminder that their government, whether they like it or not, had been democratically elected.
Despite their appeals, Europe is rightfully concerned that more than a quarter of a century after the union-led Solidarity movement sparked a wave of democratic change across eastern and central Europe, Poland is in danger of backsliding.
Not too long ago, Poland was regarded as a paragon of democracy within an often fractious EU.
The success of its economy, the sixth largest in Europe, allowed it to emerge virtually unscathed from the 2008 financial crisis, as other EU nations were left reeling.
Poland’s current policies are at loggerheads with its Solidarity-era ideals.
The country’s first post-Communist leader, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Catholic intellectual, called for the past “to be marked with a thick line” when he made his first speech before parliament in September 1989.
A legacy unraveling?
Mazowiecki - who had been interned by Communist authorities following the declaration of martial law in 1981 – weaned Poland of its dependence on then-Soviet Russia, and fostered a strong relationship with Germany.
That legacy – built upon by his immediate successors – could unravel.
Law and Justice appears to be marking Poland’s post-Communist past with its own thick line, pursuing policies that risk alienating allies in Western Europe and antagonising Vladimir Putin’s Russia – possibly provoking a Russian retaliation.
Few would argue that Poland does not come by its hostility towards Russia honestly, given its first-hand historical experience of having an expansionist giant as its neighbour.
Poland’s calls for NATO to deploy troops and equipment on its territory, as a bulwark against Russian aggression, must be understood in this context.
But wariness about an unpredictable neighbour, some fear, is verging on an anti-Russia hysteria that could have broader implications for Europe’s security.
About-face on migrants
At a time when Britain’s future membership in the EU remains uncertain, Poland had been seen as a possible “replacement” power, working alongside core members such as Germany to spearhead the drive towards closer integration.
But now all bets are off.
When Europe approved an EU-wide plan last year to relocate migrants flowing across its borders, Poland went along with the plan, at Germany’s behest.
Its acquiescence staved off the possibility that a group of anti-immigrant Eastern European countries would be able to thwart the plan with a “blocking minority”.
Law and Justice, however, has done an about-face on migrants. Jaroslav Kaczynski warned of immigrants bringing diseases to Poland during last year’s presidential election campaign.
In the wake of the November 13 terror attacks in Paris, a top party official shelved Poland’s participation in the migrant-quota scheme, declaring that “we don’t see the possibility of relocating migrants.”
The illiberal current sweeping Poland has polarised society, worrying
many Poles who see themselves as secular, liberal-minded and pro-European.
Their biggest concern, shared by many in Europe, is that Poland could succumb to the same kind of identity politics that has fostered the rise of xenophobic, stridently patriotic movements across Europe.
If there’s any consolation here, it’s that Poland’s civil society is alive and well and has proven tremendously resilient in the past.
There’s a great disturbance in the force in one of Europe’s most vital members. Poles will have to draw on that resilience now if they are to move, as Donald Tusk desires, back to the light side.