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  Will Poland face “putinization”?

Matas Jakaitis
2016 02 12

Last year, on the 25thof October the elections of Poland’s lower house of parliament (the Sejm) were won by a significant majority – 235 seats of a total of 460 – by the Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwoúă or PiS). If we consider the fact that the presidential elections in May were won by Andrzej Duda, who temporarily resigned from party membership, we can state that the highest ranks of power belong to this party.

PiS was led by controversial slogans during the last elections. On the one hand, it backed almost nationalistic and anti-Russian claims, opposed an increased dictate of the EU, sought the ban of abortions and artificial insemination. On the other hand, they used a Socialist rhetoric by promising to reduce the age of retirement, heavily tax the banks, provide free medication for the retirees, and pay young families 500 zůotych per month for every child, if a family has more than one. Perhaps it is this plethora of campaign promises that led PiS to victory. The road to victory was easier since the party’s main rival – the Civic Platform – participated in the elections without their leaders – President of the European Council Donald Tusk and former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Sejm Marshal Radosůaw Sikorski.

A new government – a new media policy

The newly formed majority government with PM Beata Szydůo instantly took upon radical means concerning the fragile areas of societal life and its possible control. A new media law was issued that vests direct power in the government to form the board of the country’s public broadcasters – TVP1 television station and Polskie Radio FM station. The directors of TVP1 resigned the same evening the new law was issued.

According to the spokespeople of PiS, the content of these media outlets is biased, thus the broadcasted program, as well as the managers should be changed. They did not wait long to do so. Jacek Kursky, a PiS-leaning politician and journalist was appointed the new chief of Poland’s national TV broadcaster.

PiS also replaced five judges of the Constitutional Tribunal (the CT), who were appointed during the rule of the Civic Platform government. The Sejm appointed new judges and decided that the CT will be required to have a two-thirds majority on a ruling, whilea simple majority was enough before. Also, now 13 out of 15 judges must be present during a session, whileonly nine were required before.

Such a system bears the CT from blocking governmental decisions without the approval of PiS-appointed judges, and leaves no one to control those decisions. The complaints that the constitutional reform led by PiS breaks the principle of separation of power are far from unreasonable.

Protested by the opposition and the EU

The media policy as well as the “taking over” of the CT sparked a reaction from the opposition. Civic protests bringing together thousands of people took place in Warsaw and other cities. The protesters accused the government of restricting democracy and demanded to revoke the laws that restrict media freedom and the autonomy of the law enforcement. Despite that, the government did not change its opinion.

It is possible that the worst outcome for the new Polish government was the international response to the reforms that came from the executive branch of the EU as well as from journalist organizations. The European Parliament started monitoring Poland in order to establish whether these reforms are not breaking any democracy principles. The Association of European Journalists has stated that the new law “will basically result in a direct governmental control over the public television and radio, and will lead to a systematic bias of the broadcasters in favor of the current government”.

Polish and foreign journalists discuss whether the objective of PiS to consolidate power harms the unity of EU and destroys the EU from within. Members of PiS openly declare that they seek to establish a “Fourth Republic” – a Poland that would maintain independent foreign policy toward the EU and Russia, actively protect national interests, and seek to attract fellow countrymen that left the motherland during the last several decades. Besides, there would be an attempt to “cleanse” governmental structures from “traitors”, as some right-wingers call the officialsthat belong to the Civic Platform party. One of Poland’s most famous dissidents, the editor of the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper Adam Michnik has recently claimed that if losers are purged from all government institutions when the majority changes it is “anti-Communism with an unhuman face” (an allusion to the Prague Spring’s architect Alexander Dubček’s wish to create “Socialism with a human face”).

Helping Putin?

Journalist Ziemowit Szczerek wrote the following for the Wirtualna Polska portal about Poland’s new government: “we are shaking the construction of one organization that grants us safety – the EU, while successfully weakening our positions in the second organization – NATO”. According to the journalist, “PiS’s victory is a testimony to a Poland leaning towards the line drawn by Budapest and Moscow”. He is clearly talking about Viktor Orban’s critique of EU policy in general and the unity of its members, as well as about the views and authoritarian ruling methods of the de facto leader of Hungary, which are adopted by PiS’s leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. According to Szczerek, the values of Kaczynski’s party are closer to those of Kremlin’s leader than those of Western Europe. This party demands submission, does not like to be controlled, whereas European democracy is built on the principle that different branches of government control one another.

Szczerek claims that Kaczynski and his party are of use to Russia. If Putin seeks to weaken NATO and the EU, especially along the dividing line of Central and Eastern Europe, PiS’s policy is the perfect tool. Kaczynski’s party does not seek compromises neither in domestic, nor in foreign policy, openly supports Orban’s critique of the EU, seeks to strengthen bilateral relations with separate EU states, and has quite a hostile stance towards Germany.

Sounds like Putin’s dream, right? Provoking rifts between EU states and nurturing a hostile attitude towards Brussels’ aspirations to unite Europe. According to former Belgian PM and leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group Guy Verhofstadt, “With such political actions Kaczynski helps Putin, because Putin hates European unity and the events in Poland can help him with his plans”.

PiS’s leaders do not agree with such strict opinions of the EU and the Polish opposition. President Andrzej Duda does not agree with the opinions ofEuropean Commission and European Parliament members on the policy of Poland’s new government. On the 18thof January, in Brussels he called for understanding when it comes to the current events in Poland and for calmness when it comes to Poland-EU disputes. Besides, when the question of monitoring Poland was discussed in the EP on the 20thof January, PM Szydlo claimed that the reforms are conducted in order to fulfill the promises given to the voters, and EP should interpret this “agreement with the voters” as an expression of democracy.

The Smolensk dilemma

One of the “agreements with the voters” will be difficult to uphold for PiS and its leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Namely, the promise to found a new parliamentary commission that would investigate every detail of the Tu-154m plane crash that happened in the vicinity of Smolensk airport in 2010. Among the people who died in the crash were Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s president at that time and 80 other officials, who were all headed to the commemoration of the 70thanniversary of the Katyn massacre, where they were supposed to unveil a monument to Polish victims.

Founding a commission is no big deal, but if said commission finds out that Smolensk was actually a planned attack, and if the Sejm ratifies an according document, Poland would face a dilemma. What would Poland expect from her allies in the EU and NATO, if the document stated that Kremlin is to be blamed for the death of the Polish president? Would it mean someone has to punish Kremlin? Only one logical outcome can be expected – an absolute disregard for such “news”.

Would such a reaction from Poland’s partner be well received by Kaczynski and his surroundings? Of course not. However, Vladimir Putin would be pleased, because pro-actively anti-Russian Poland would be considered an international pariah, it would be moved to the background of NATO and EU structures.

This is why Kaczynski will have to seriously think about that “agreement with the voters”. The same should be said about other “agreements” that directly or indirectly harm Poland’s international prestige and might even “putinize” the country.

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