Democracy in War's Shadow


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April 21, 2022

Democracy in War’s Shadow

How Putin’s assault on Ukraine impacts Poland’s democratic backsliding

  • Democracy
  • democratic backsliding
  • Poland
  • Ukraine
  • war
Photo: Today, I met with Polish President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw. I thanked him and the people of Poland for opening their homes and hearts to their neighbors in need. And we discussed our shared commitment to support the people and government of Ukraine. Office of the President of the United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Source:
Photo: “Today, I met with Polish President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw. I thanked him and the people of Poland for opening their homes and hearts to their neighbors in need. And we discussed our shared commitment to support the people and government of Ukraine.” Office of the President of the United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Source.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has had a dramatic impact on Poland’s international position as well as domestic political developments. Poland’s political class as well as the wider public recognized that this war is not just about the future of Ukraine but a direct threat to Poland’s security. The country’s position as a ‘frontline state’ put it in the center of interests of key democratic political players as evidenced by successive visits of Vice President Kamala Harris, closely followed by President Biden, but also the British PM Boris Johnson and the German President Steinmeier. The inflow of millions of Ukrainian refugees and their warm reception by the Polish society has had a dramatic impact on the country’s international image, earlier tarnished by the PiS government. As one seasoned observer of Polish affairs noted, in the early days of the war, Poland went “from zero to hero”.

Polish society reacted to the crisis with a unity that is exceptional for a society deeply polarized along political, social and cultural lines. As demonstrated by research conducted by the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw, nearly 80% of Poles thought that Russia might pose a direct military threat to Poland. There was an even higher support for decisions by the Polish and other Western governments that were taken in response to Russian aggression. Nearly 90% of Polish respondents supported the imposition of sanctions on Russia, cutting off Russian energy imports and sending arms to Ukraine, while around 80% were in favour of admitting refugees from Ukraine. Even more striking was the fact such high majorities were found within the electorates of all key political parties, both those in government as well as the opposition. 

This sense of national unity was further strengthened by the massive engagement of ordinary people in helping the Ukrainian refugees, including inviting them to stay in their homes and doing volunteer work on the scale unseen in Poland’s recent history. It was this mass mobilization on a grassroots level as well as the decisive actions of local governments that made it possible to avoid a humanitarian disaster. Poland’s right-wing government, with a long track record of staunchly opposing any migrants and refugees, has made a U-turn and ensured a smooth passage through borders, yet was late in providing support for those already in the country. At the same time, Polish government officials were happy to take credit for the hospitality extended to refugees by the society.

These developments provided the government and the ruling parties in Poland with a once in a lifetime opportunity to clean the slate as regards its track record in dismantling democratic checks and balances and stopping Putinesque propaganda against the opposition and vulnerable minorities. President Andrzej Duda, who hitherto had been instrumental in the most egregious acts of violating the letter and the spirit of the Polish constitution, for example during the ruling party’s takeover of the Constitutional Court, sent some positive signals by vetoing two of the most controversial bills on the political agenda. The first of these bills would open the way for a buyout of the only TV company not controlled by the ruling PiS party, while the other would increase ideological control over public schools by, among others, banning civil society organizations from any activities aimed at the educational system. In the wake of these decisions, international partners, who were once critical of both Duda and the PiS government, started to cautiously engage them as partners whose cooperation was instrumental for securing the key objectives of helping Ukraine resist the invasion, building up the Eastern flank of NATO as well as averting a humanitarian crisis at the border. The issue of the state of Poland’s democracy seems to have disappeared from the agenda.

Nonetheless, this honeymoon in Poland’s relations with key democratic partners did not last long. Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki, and other top officials, repeatedly criticized Germany and France as alleged ‘accomplices’ of Russia’s criminal aggression, including strong personal attacks against President Macron that were made in the run up to the French presidential elections. Attacking Macron on the eve of the poll, Morawiecki was implicitly expressing his support for the notoriously pro-Putin Marine Le Pen. It seems that the populist ideological affinity turned out stronger than the urgent need to build an anti-Putin coalition in Europe. Likewise, the attacks against Germany continued as before the war, even after this country’s decision to cancel the notorious Nord Stream 2 project and build up its defensive capacity in line with NATO standards. The anti-German rhetoric has had little to do with the perceived German hesitance to send heavy military equipment to Ukraine or support the embargo on Russian gas and oil. It seems to be primarily motivated by the need to frame the domestic opposition as pro-German and – by implication – pro-Russian and build up domestic support for the ruling party. 

The major change in PiS’ relations with its European authoritarian-populist friend concerns Victor Orban and the Hungarian Fides party. Unlike other leaders in Central Europe, Orban repeatedly refused to condemn Putin’s aggression, while he criticized EU and US sanctions on Russia and attacked the Ukrainian president Zelensky. Facing national elections, Orban promised the Hungarian people that he will protect them from getting involved in the conflict as well as from the economic fallout of the sanctions. This strategy secured Orban another landslide victory against the united democratic opposition (helped by the rigged electoral system). However, it led to Orban’s political isolation in Central Europe, including their long term friend, Poland’s PiS government

If this split were to continue, the potential implications are significant. Thus far, the Polish and Hungarian governments had a ‘mutual indemnity’ pact, vowing to veto sanctions that the EU could impose as a result of the so-called Article 7 procedure. Such proceedings were launched against both Poland and Hungary several years ago and could lead to a suspension of their voting rights in the European Council (the most important decision-making body in the EU). If the Polish and Hungarian government remain at odds, it is conceivable that Poland abstains on a crucial vote on sanctioning Hungary, with the added benefit that afterwards, Orban would be unable to subvert more decisive EU policy on Russia (such as embargo).

In order to make such a scenario plausible, there would have to be a ‘ceasefire’ between the European Commission and the PiS government in Warsaw. One indication of this would be the fact that a day after the Hungarian poll results were announced, President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen announced the launch of another punitive procedure against Orban government, the so-called ‘rule of law mechanism,’ which would eventually stop EU funds from subsidizing Orban’s authoritarian rule. No such decision was announced in the case of Poland, although the EC is still refusing to release the funds, waiting for Poland to fix the problem. Polish pro-government politicians and PiS-controlled media in turn repeatedly demanded that the EU ‘stops sanctioning Poland’ in the face of the Russian threat. 

This last narrative about Poland being ‘unfairly’ punished by EU institutions—which, it is argued, failed to properly sanction Russia—seems to have gained some traction in Ukraine and Central Europe, misrepresents the complexity of the Warsaw-Brussels relations. Firstly, it neglects the fact that the EU sanctions against Russia are significant and cannot be in any way compared to the fines imposed on Poland for its continued refusal to implement the rulings of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). The PiS government’s actions are in fact a litmus test of its intentions concerning the future of democracy in Poland. Shortly after the onset of the war, President Duda swore in another batch of judges, who were earlier appointed by the politically-controlled National Judiciary Council, once again defying the rulings of the CJEU. Another body fully controlled by PiS, the Constitutional Tribunal, has ruled that the European Convention on Human Rights is in breach of the Polish Constitution in so far as the Convention allows the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to rule on the composition of the Polish courts. This move coincided with Russia’s preemptive announcement that it will leave the Council of Europe, thus also renouncing the rulings of the ECHR. Poland’s opposition pointed out the similarity, criticizing PiS for the ‘Putinization of Poland’ while the party claims to be a leading critic of Putin.

The angry rhetoric on both sides of the political divide indicates that, in spite of the war across the border and the public’s largely uniform perception of the threat it poses to Poland, there was no respite in the political battle over the state of the rule of law and democracy under PiS rule. President Duda and other leading pro-PiS politicians half-heartedly appealed for national unity while they made clear that they expect the opposition to stop criticizing the government and support all its actions in the name of ‘national interest’. In turn, opposition politicians pointed to President Biden’s words in Warsaw, where he said that the rule of law and freedom of the press are essential for a free society. They demanded that the PiS government should seek to ‘end the war’ with Brussels over the rule of law by dismantling new institutions it created to politically control the judiciary and thus open the way to releasing EU funds. 

The ruling party reacted by intensifying attacks on both the opposition and civil society activists. The prosecutors brought criminal charges against a women’s rights activist for abetting abortion, the first such trial since the tightening of anti-abortion laws in November 2021. In a parallel development, a group of activists were arrested and face possible prison sentences for assisting Middle Eastern refugees trying to cross the Polish-Belarussian borders, where the practice of illegal pushbacks continued in contrast to the official openness towards the people escaping the war in Ukraine. Finally, a controversial bill was introduced to parliament with the intention of forcing civil society organizations receiving foreign funding to disclose in ‘real time’ their foreign donors. A group of most prominent Polish organizations protested against the bill, pointing out its similarities with Russian ‘foreign agents’ laws. 

PiS leader and deputy Prime Minister Kaczyński reacted to the opposition’s accusations that he and his party are following Putin’s path in dismantling Poland’s democracy by bringing out the big guns, namely the accusations that the death of his twin brother, President Lecha Kaczyński in an air crash in Russia on April 10 2010 was a result of ‘foul play’ by Putin, with some unspecified collusion from the then Polish government. This so-called ‘Smolensk conspiracy theory’ was instrumental in rebuilding Kaczynski’s political fortunes prior to his electoral victory in 2015, but was later gradually abandoned when the special committee which he appointed to prove that the plane was brought down by external forces failed to produce any evidence, despite lavish funding and access to all government sources. Now Kaczynski felt that Putin’s war on Ukraine and the war crimes committed by Russian troops makes the accusation credible despite the lack of evidence. In a press interview, Kaczynski openly admitted that he expects the renewed investigation would put Donald Tusk in prison, the then prime minister and now leader of the opposition and outspoken critic of Kaczynski and his party.

Such heavy-handed tactics can be interpreted as a sign of weakness and desperation on the side of Polish populists who hoped to ‘rally the flag’ following the Russian attack on Ukraine. The polls indicate at best a moderate rise of support for the ruling PiS party (some showed a rise of support for the opposition). Failing to unify a substantive part of the society behind the government, Kaczynski decided to once again go back to his usual tactics of ‘asymmetric polarization’. Civil society, which stands in solidarity with Ukraine and condemns Russian aggression, remains vigilant as regards their own government’s intentions. It is time for Poland’s international partners and experts to recognize that meeting Poland’s security needs should not be tantamount to neglecting Warsaw’s own democratic backsliding.

Jacek Kucharczyk is the president of The Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw, Poland.


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