The Problem with Poland

Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Poland's main opposition Law and Justice Party (PiS) speaks during the final pre-election convention in Warsaw, October 7, 2011

Kacper Pempel/Reuters

Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), in Warsaw, Poland, October 7, 2011

In 2011, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice Party (known as PiS), announced he wanted to create “Budapest in Warsaw.” Since his party’s resounding election victory in October, the conservative politician has kept his promise. Led by Kaczyński protégé Beata Szydło, the new Law and Justice government has done everything it can to emulate the authoritarian course of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán: already, it has attacked the constitutional court, undermined Poland’s independent civil service, and set out to bring the public media under government control. Unlike in the case of Hungary, the European Union has reacted quickly. Leading EU figures declared that fundamental democratic values were threatened by Warsaw. And on January 13, the European Commission was sufficiently concerned to open a “probe” into the workings of the rule of law in Poland, a step that is unprecedented in EU history.

Central Europe’s authoritarian turn has come as a surprise to many Western observers. Why, they ask, has it happened in countries that after 1989 were at the vanguard of the movement to transform Communist dictatorships into liberal European democracies? Why Poland, which is the only major European economy that came through the Great Recession of 2008 with continuous economic growth and which has been the largest beneficiary of subsidies from the EU? What outsiders have often missed is that the broad consensus in Poland and Hungary about joining the EU obscured deep economic and cultural divisions—and a corresponding winner-take-all mentality among the two countries’ political elites. Few noticed the seeming paradox that the more state socialism receded in time, the more intense the anti-Communist crusades of leaders like Orbán and Kaczyński became.

Both men have impeccable credentials as dissidents: Kaczyński was a member, though not a very prominent one, of Central Europe’s largest anti-Communist movement, the trade union Solidarity. His formative years were the mid-1980s, when Solidarity had to go underground and it seemed that any fellow dissident might be a traitor. Orbán started out as a liberal, who in 1989 was sent to study law at Oxford on a George Soros scholarship (today, he denounces Soros for encouraging the influx of refugees with the aim of destroying traditional nation-states).

Both men have also benefited from the peculiar shape of the post-Communist Party systems in their countries. In Hungary as well as Poland it was the successors of the Communist Party who ended up implementing pro-market reforms. These nominally left-wing parties reinvented themselves as technocrats who could best smooth the path into the European Union. In Hungary in particular, self-proclaimed socialists hoped to modernize the country by choosing the “Third Way” pioneered by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, but in the process came to look like promoters of crony capitalism. So the left gradually lost much of its credibility: anti-Communists suspected that the privatizations were mostly benefitting the nomenklatura; while workers felt abandoned by their supposed representatives.

On top of that, a number of corruption scandals thoroughly discredited both the Hungarian and the Polish left-wing parties; the latter did not win any seats at all in the Sejm, the Polish parliament, last year. And while liberal parties promoting tolerance and minority rights have emerged in both countries over the past twenty-five years, they have tended to come and go, leaving little impact on what remain, socially, deeply conservative societies.

The outcome of these developments is a political situation that has no equivalent in Western Europe: in both Poland and Hungary the largest parties are on the right, and many losers of the transition to capitalism, who would have been a natural constituency for a proper social democratic party, have ended up supporting the more extreme version of the right on offer: the racist Jobbik party in Hungary and PiS in Poland. Both promise more protections from the market and both have strong support in the rural and eastern parts of their respective countries. Still, what has happened in Poland and Hungary is not completely symmetrical. Orbán has emulated the far right; whereas in Poland Kaczyński’s PiS has faced vigorous opposition from the Christian Democratic Civic Platform party (Platforma), which led Poland’s previous government. Platforma has always tried to present itself as a clear, rational alternative to PiS, hoping to reach socially conservative voters, but also promising technocratic government and pro-EU policies: it supports severe restrictions on abortion, but its representatives would never attack the very idea of an “open society” as Orbán does (“there is no homeland any more, only an investment site”), or agree with Kaczyński that the only option other than Catholicism is nihilism. But with the triumph of PiS in Warsaw, both Poland and Hungary now offer a toxic ideological brew that is reminiscent of interwar Europe: anti-communism and anti-capitalism can be combined and justified in the name of a highly intolerant nationalism based on Christian values that conclusively define who is a true Hungarian or true Pole.        


This explains why the European Union is not seen as a neutral arbiter of domestic conflicts. Platforma, in power since 2007, had sought to make Poland a model European pupil, as opposed to what the party derided as a “quarrel[some], messy, Eastern European ‘democracy.’” Its Oxford-educated foreign minister Radosław Sikorski famously claimed in a speech in Berlin in 2011 that he feared German power less than German inaction, effectively begging Merkel to assume full leadership of the EU. Platforma stood by her during the Eurocrisis. Merkel in turn delivered sanctions against Russia after the annexation of Crimea, despite considerable resistance by German business. Poland then promised to take in 7,000 refugees last fall, breaking ranks with Orbán and other Eastern leaders. Kaczyński made the promise of accepting absolutely no refugees central to the PiS campaign, warning that refugees might carry parasites and “diseases that are highly dangerous and have not been seen in Europe for a long time.”

It is hard to avoid the feeling that Central Europe is living 1989 in reverse. In that year, peaceful revolutions in the name of liberal democracy spread from one Communist country to another. Today we witness the emergence of a new Authoritarian International in the region, with Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and possibly Croatia as potential future members alongside Hungary and Poland. It is a comforting illusion that liberal democracies do lots of things wrong, but ultimately always self-correct, while authoritarian regimes cannot admit mistakes and are eventually brought down by the stubborn pursuit of misguided policies. Both Orbán and Kaczyński drew lessons from their first periods in office (1998-2002 and 2005-2007 respectively), during which they deeply alienated parts of society and found independent institutions such as constitutional courts an obstacle to the implementation of their programs. Observers had hoped that, given a second chance at governing, both politicians would prove less polarizing and more statesmanlike. Instead, they learned a very different lesson: proto-authoritarians should not be content with waging culture wars. They must also capture institutions, such as the judiciary and the media. The faster one acts on institutional re-engineering, the better also for wrong-footing criticism from outside the country. The EU puts a premium on following correct—that is to say—lengthy, procedure. It will always try to find consensus or at least compromise. Talking the right talk with Brussels—or performing what Orbán once called “the peacock dance” he had to do in front of Western audiences—provides crucial time to solidify what Orbán now openly advertises as an “illiberal state” at home. These, one imagines, were the “lessons learned” that Orbán imparted to Kaczyński in a private meeting in southern Poland at the beginning of this year.  

Neither Orbán nor Kaczyński have any compunction about outright deception: Orbán never mentioned that he wanted to write a new constitution during the election campaign that returned him to power in 2010. But he then proceeded to promulgate one that only his own party supported. During last fall’s Polish election campaign, PiS talked about “dialogue” and ran on a mainly economic platform of lowering the retirement age and providing more benefits for families. The party put forward as candidate for prime minister Beata Szydło, a much less divisive figure than Kaczyński. In practice, though, both Szydło and the current president, PiS politician Andrzej Duda, follow orders from Kaczyński, who remains just an ordinary Member of Parliament. He is the most powerful man in Poland, yet utterly unaccountable for the actions of “his” government. This situation is oddly reminiscent of Communist times, when often the decisive political figure was the “mere” general secretary of the Communist Party, as opposed to the official head of government.

When the EU started to worry about Polish democracy, Kaczyński followed Orbán’s playbook. Like Orbán, he pretended the conflict was about values, as opposed to basic democratic institutions. He branded internal critics as enemies of the nation—“Poles of the worst sort” who are genetically predisposed to treason. His foreign minister railed against the vision of “a new mixing of cultures and races, a world made up of bicyclists and vegetarians, who … fight all forms of religion.” Nota bene that, according to PiS, this had been the world promoted by its rival, Platforma, on all accounts a center-right party.

Yet there is one important difference between Kaczyński’s strategy and Orbán’s peacock dance around the EU. Until the refugee crisis, Orbán never criticized Germany directly. He knew all too well that Merkel’s Christian Democrats are the main force in the supranational conservative European People’s Party (EPP), which effectively shielded Budapest from EU criticism. PiS, however, is not part of the EPP; it is allied with David Cameron’s Tories and other Euroskeptic parties. Warsaw has tried to portray criticism from Brussels as being dictated by Berlin, cynically exploiting memories of World War II and invoking images of Poland as an eternal martyr. PiS’s justice minister has tried to start a game of tit-for-tat, claiming that in fact the German media are not free, because they were instructed by politicians not to report properly on the violence against women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. So far, Germany is refusing to play the game, leaving all disputes over democracy to the EU. On a recent visit to Warsaw, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier made a point of quoting liberal Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, who said that “not everyone likes broccoli, but it’s not yet the reason to break a friendship.”


The Polish government has meanwhile accused the EU, in investigating Poland for possible violations of EU principles, of disrespecting Polish sovereignty. The real problem, however, is not that Brussels lacks a mandate to protect democracy in EU member states; it’s that it sorely lacks the means. The outcome of the confrontation is likely to be yet another instance in which the EU comes across as imperialist in aspiration and impotent in practice, as has been the case with the Eurocrisis and the unfolding refugee crisis.

Brussels is not well-equipped to confront culture warriors. But it is supposed to protect the values on which the Union rests. It was in the late 1990s, during the long run-up to the enlargement eastwards in 2004, that Austria and Italy pushed for a mechanism to sanction countries in breach of such values. Ironically, the first country that seemed to qualify turned out to be Austria. At the beginning of 2000, the Austrian Christian Democrats formed a coalition with Jörg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party. Since the government had not done anything yet that could be construed as a violation of basic values, the then fourteen other EU members enacted bilateral, largely symbolic sanctions against Vienna, such as refusing to support Austrian candidates for offices in international organizations. Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel shrewdly stoked the impression that overbearing French and, especially, German politicians were ganging up on the alpine republic. Eventually, a committee of wise men hastily appointed by Brussels concluded that there was nothing really wrong in Vienna. The bilateral sanctions were lifted.

Brussels tried to learn from what was widely perceived as a PR disaster. It introduced a warning stage, before an offending Member State’s rights in the EU could be suspended. Yet that preliminary alarm was never triggered when Orbán in 2010 began to build what, with appropriately Orwellian language, he called a “System of National Cooperation.” The problem turned out to be that four-fifths of EU Member States have to agree that there is a “risk” of a breach of fundamental values to move a country to the worrying stage; for actual sanctions, all governments have to be on board. Many national leaders will feel that such naming, shaming, and punishing is just too much for Europe to handle right now: Brussels is already in the business of telling countries in the Eurozone what kind of national budgets they can have, and trying to instruct some about how many Muslims they have to take in. And now Brussels will be seen as lecturing member countries about democracy. Orbán has already gone on record that he will veto sanctions against Warsaw.

But Poland is not yet lost. In Hungary, Orbán’s party had enough seats in parliament to create a constitution to his liking, thereby shielding himself from charges that the new “illiberal state” was illegal. Kaczyński’s PiS, by contrast, does not have a sufficient majority to change Poland’s constitution and has to keep violating the existing one. As a result, Polish opposition supporters are rallying around the pluralist, inclusive constitution that in its widely praised preamble found a place both for Catholicism and humanist, i.e. non-religious, values. Poles are confident, perhaps too confident, that their civil society, with its long tradition of resistance to authoritarianism, is superior to Hungary’s, which the Polish commentator Adam Krzemiński has called “immature” by comparison. Tens of thousands have come out on the streets to protest in recent weeks, often singing the national anthem, and sometimes wearing t-shirts emblazoned “Poles of the worst sort.” They have been coordinated by KOD, the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, an acronym reminiscent of KOR, a legendary dissidents’ organization in the 1970s. Poland has a very lively scene of intellectuals in their twenties and thirties, with successful left-of-center journals and networks—in fact, groups like Kultura Liberalna and Krytyka Polityczna have become well-known in Europe as a whole. The other side, though, has Catholic radio stations and parts of the Church hierarchy coming out openly in support of PiS.

The EU can hope that the situation will eventually correct itself, the way that Italy under Berlusconi did. Or it can play its ultimate trump card: Brussels can start to take another look at the funds that over the years have contributed so much to the Polish economic miracle (they amount to more than the entire Marshall Plan for postwar Europe in today’s dollars). In Hungary, EU subsidies—no less than 6 percent of GDP—are effectively functioning like oil for Arab autocracies: they help keep people content by providing jobs in infrastructure projects in particular; even more important, they can be distributed to cronies to cement power. The EU’s anti-fraud office has just charged Hungary with stealing 8.3 million dollars that had been provided for, as it happens, anti-fraud measures.

One has to see what the PiS government will do with European money, but in any event the case for cutting EU funds does not have to be based on evidence of outright theft. The Union is founded on principles of mutual trust and, as its treaties put it, “the duty of loyal cooperation.” Informal negotiations about the next big budget for the Union have already begun. Why pay people who undermine the Union to keep themselves in power? Why buy broccoli for those who say they don’t like it anyway?

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