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Kaczyński’s anti-democratic policies in Poland and relations with the US and the EU

Poland’s relationship with the West has deteriorated since the PiS led ‘United Right’ coalition took power in 2015. Changes to the judiciary and media landscape remain at the centre of the tensions.

October 18, 2021 - Eugeniusz Smolar - Articles and Commentary

A crowd of protesters during a demonstration in support of media freedom and the TVN television channel in Kraków, August 2021. Photo Wiola Wiaderek / Shutterstock

The Polish government’s attempt to force the American company Discovery to sell the popular TV station TVN and the TVN24 news channel shocked many in the country and beyond. This move goes against the policy of all of Poland’s governments since 1989 to pursue the closest possible transatlantic relations and the US military presence in Poland and the wider region.

Numerous consultations between senior American diplomats and the Polish government failed to resolve the problem. The State Department and Secretary Antony Blinken himself responded with a warning. Even if the rulers somehow compromise (a word unknown in their vocabulary) and leave TVN alone, the strain and lack of trust between Washington and Warsaw will remain for a long time.

The 2015 and 2019 elections

Jarosław Kaczyński has been focused on building a strong Law and Justice (PiS – Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) party based on the Führerprinzip, rewarding undivided loyalty to him personally.

The source of the PiS-led ‘United Right’ electoral coalition’s success can be found in its populist policies, generous social benefits and aggressive nationalism.

Kaczyński, a strong, decisive man, skillfully managed the emotions, fears and hopes of the people. He promoted an attractive vision of the ‘common man’, who will be noticed, appreciated and financially rewarded at last. As a ‘true Pole’, he or she will be the source and ‘engine’ of a national rebirth of Poland, which has always found itself on the receiving end of policies imposed by foreign powers and by the treacherous, liberal, cosmopolitan elites that care little about others.

PiS embraced a radical Polish brand of conservative nationalism with a strong Catholic foundation. During electoral campaigns, the party has presented itself not only as the country’s true defender against the supposed threat of Muslim refugees, who are viewed as ‘terrorists’ who spread “parasites and diseases”. Indeed, the party also believes that it is protecting Poland from a decadent Europe that will perform ‘social engineering’ and force gay marriage and adoption upon the population. Of course, hostile foreign powers remain a concern for the party as well. Following the formation of the government, PiS embarked on a culture war against many of the supposed threats to ‘traditional Polish values’. These ‘threats’ include multiculturalism, women’s reproductive rights, LGBT rights, and liberalism in general. 

Poland belongs to me…

Unlike Orbán, Kaczyński did not enjoy a large enough majority to amend the constitution. He therefore decided to blatantly violate its text and spirit by implementing various new laws in parliament.

From day one of its rule, PiS has ruled by fear and ‘permanent crisis’. The party has launched a series of attack on laws and institutions and the hitherto prevailing norms of liberal democracy. Independent media and civil society has also suffered. PiS continues to delegitimise the liberal opposition and has practically eliminated its influence on the legislative process in parliament.

The party’s declared strategic objective was to remodel the state and nation by replacing an apparently entrenched and inward-looking meritocratic elite with a new and loyal group from top to bottom. This would ensure PiS’s illiberal predominance in the country. Acts taken towards this aim include:

  1. An all-out attack on the justice system by stacking the judiciary with loyalists and thus ensuring that there are no legal challenges. This and other ‘reforms’ were successfully challenged in the European Court of Justice. This issue remains a source of Poland’s serious conflict regarding the European Commission and the parliament.
  2. Firing or retiring more than 60 generals and over 1000 lower-ranking officers. Many of them had combat experience through working with the American Army in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  3. Replacing many intelligence and counter-intelligence officers who had not shown enough political loyalty. PiS has used the newly-politicised special services to fight the opposition in Poland by granting them far-reaching powers regarding eavesdropping and hacking. This has allowed the government to access the communications of all groups in society.
  4. Sacking, forcing to leave or marginalising hundreds of diplomats with great experience who had been in public service since 1989. Party loyalists, most often unprepared for diplomatic missions, have replaced them.
  5. Rewarding coalition parties with the spoils of widespread top to bottom purges in government and local administration, the civil service and in the state-owned industries. By employing on a massive scale not just party activists but also members of their families and friends, PiS has created an extensive network of patronage which, combined with a get-rich-quick attitude, has led to many instances of blatant nepotism and corruption. These scandals have often been revealed by NGOs, TVN and other independent media outlets. As a result, the culprits have been prosecuted when it has been found to be politically advantageous.
  6. Private business had been affected by the rapid pace of badly prepared legislation and the constant threat of changes in taxation, welfare and labour laws. There have even been several instances of harassment with regards to numerous business leaders, who have consequently left Poland with their money.
  7. Constant pressure on private businesses, with the threat of damaging tax inspections to ensure that they refrain from providing financial support to NGOs that engage in causes deemed hostile by the authorities.
  8. The government channelling money to newly established associations that are ideologically close to the PiS government. As a result, independent NGOs have had to limit their activities to a great degree.
  9. Withholding or severely limiting funding for museums, theatres, film production, cultural festivals and anything associated with artists known for their liberal, non-nationalist views. Any cultural aesthetics that do not conform to official ideas now face great pressure from the government. Cultural institutions and schools are being pressured to act as guardians of official orthodoxy and teach a single, heroic version of Polish history.
  10. The government bringing schools, which were originally managed by local governments, under the direct control of the state’s regional educational inspectorates. The Ministry of Education have changed the curriculum and promoted the teaching of a single, more ‘patriotic’ version of history. There has also been an increase in the amount and role of Catholic religious education. Similar changes are also planned for universities in the name of expanding “freedom of academic debate”.
  11. Pushing for centralisation and starving local governments of funding while burdening them with new, costly responsibilities in the areas of education, health care and road building. This is especially true in places where the opposition holds power.
  12. Removing at least a thousand journalists and managers from state-owned radio and television and immediately embarking on aggressive campaigns against all who oppose PiS’s autocratic rule opposition parties, local councils, NGOs, independent media such as TVN, women’s and LGBT rights activists and the EU.

The propaganda campaign on state radio and television has become a constant, daily feature of public life since 2015. It has continued unabated in its aim to deepen polarisation, mobilise a loyal hard-line electorate and attack any opposition to PiS’s rule. President Andrzej Duda himself called the widely respected human rights ombudsman, Professor Adam Bodnar, “anti-Polish” for stating in an interview with AFP that Poland is heading “in the direction of an undemocratic state”. 

An onslought of attacks on the independent media and ‘Lex TVN’

PiS has embarked on a systematic campaign of harassment against independent media and individual investigative journalists. This has often been done by launching costly and time-consuming lawsuits. For example, the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza daily has dealt with some 70 lawsuits.

In December 2020, under the slogan of ‘re-Polonising’ the media, PiS orchestrate the purchase of the unprofitable local newspaper chain Polska Press from its Swiss-German publisher. This purchase was made by the state-owned energy company Orlen. Polska Press controlled 20 regional newspapers, 120 weekly magazines, and some 450 online portals accessed by around 17 million politically valuable readers. Following numerous purges, the editorial line of these publications was changed to match PiS policies. In a recent report, Reporters without Borders led a chapter devoted to Poland with the title “Re-Polonization means censorship”.

The recent attempt to withhold the extension of TVN24’s licence was accompanied by a law that will force legally American company Discovery to sell all of the profitable TVN television network. Both moves have been made in the hope that the government can control a very popular, independent source of information that has been critical of any government in the country.

This latest move was ill-prepared both with regards to the law and media. This was demonstrated by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who stated on July 8th that “Let’s imagine a situation where some medium in Poland, be it a very large website, or television, or radio, or a large newspaper, is bought by a Russian or Chinese entity, or one coming from Arab countries”.

Kaczyński himself offered an even more extravagant explanation: “There would be a great risk, connected with laundering dirty money, with some drug cartel’s media, coming into Poland”.

The real reasons for this move were revealed by Marek Suski, vice-chairman of the Law and Justice Parliamentary Caucus, at a closed meeting with PiS’s local supporters on July 10th: “If this law succeeds and some part of these shares are perhaps also bought out by Polish businessmen (…) we will have some influence on what happens on this station…”.

The very idea of comparing the allied United States to Russia, China, or the Arab states, not to mention a drug cartel, is astonishing enough and only further reveals the leadership’s anxiety, determination, and disregard for the potential consequences of their actions.

According to Reporters Without Borders’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Poland has fallen to 64th position. This places the country behind such dubious models of democracy as Malawi and Armenia.

Foreign and security policy

The government, like all its predecessors since 1989, considers NATO and bilateral treaties with America to be the basis of the country’s security framework against a revanchist Russia. The country has dutifully fulfilled all of its Alliance commitments, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan as well.

Foreign policy has now been fully subordinated to domestic politics, with the aim of creating a protective umbrella over any radical changes in Poland.

Jarosław Kaczyński knows little about international relations and is driven by strong ideological convictions. Any proclamations about alliances or democracy simply hide the real, relentless power struggle in which Poland – always betrayed by its allies in the past – must primarily look after its own interests. Now, Kaczyński is the one who gets to define Poland’s national interests.

The politician confirmed such an approach in a 2016 interview, in which he stated that he “…would be willing to see some slowdown in economic growth if that was the price of pushing through his vision of Poland”.

The European Union

PiS treats the EU as a necessary evil. It is a source of development funds and institutional structure that currently, and only currently, serves Polish interests. The government believes that this may change in the future, especially when (because of future development) Poland becomes a net contributor to the EU budget. Then, it appears that all bets might be off.

Since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, it has received some 123 billion euros (145 billion US dollars) net in non-returnable subsidies.

The new EU budget stipulates that between 2021 and 2027 Poland will receive a further 139.4 billion euros (139.4 billion US dollars) in subsidies. The country will also receive 34.2 billion euros (40 billion US dollars) in repayable aid.

In addition, Poland will receive 23 billion euros or 27 billion US dollars in non-repayable grants from the Next Generation EU Recovery Fund. This was established to address the impact of the pandemic. The country will also have the opportunity to take advantage of around 34 billion euros (40 billion US dollars) in loans at very favourable interest rates.

Poland’s continued development, including trade and foreign investments, depends on her membership in the European Union, in which Germany, the country’s largest trading partner by far, and France play a particularly important role. The PiS government has strained relations with France and has worked to strengthen Poland’s position in Europe by weakening Germany’s role. In doing so, the country now finds itself alone in Europe.

In France, Italy, Germany and elsewhere, many of Poland’s recent actions have been viewed as potential threat. For example, in July PiS signed a joint declaration with some sixteen radical populist-right wing parties such as Orbán’s Fidesz, Marine le Pen’s National Unity, Salvini’s Italian League, Spain’s Vox party and the far-right and genuinely proto-fascist Brothers of Italy. The group’s aim is to build common representation in the European Parliament and increase its collective influence within the EU.

Poland, which had a seat at the top table as one of the five (following Brexit) largest and most economically successful member states in the EU, has been effectively isolated.

The concept of the Weimar Triangle (Poland with France and Germany) is dead, as President Emmanuel Macron has been refusing to meet in this format at the presidential or prime ministerial level.

The Visegrad Group, which has been used by Central European states to formulate their common interests in the EU, is now practically dormant. The Czechs and Slovaks have publicly distanced themselves from Orban and Kaczyński’s anti-liberal and anti-European (also anti-German) policies. Only a few pragmatic projects are being implemented, while the rest of the organisation has become a ‘talking shop’.

The leaders of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as well as the three Baltic states, have warned the Poles several times not to force them to make a ‘choice’ between Warsaw or Berlin. This is because in the face of a potential crisis of relations, they will likely choose Berlin and the internal cohesiveness of the European Union. At present, the Baltic states in particular are very concerned about the conflict with the US.

The Law and Justice party has been pursuing a policy of self-isolation in Europe that is detrimental to Poland’s strategic interests. Together with Hungary, Poland has proclaimed itself the defender of the interests of the Central and Eastern European region. In the opinion of PiS’s ideologists, the country must strengthen this role or be forced to accept decisions made in Berlin. This has encouraged Warsaw to build alternative structures, such as the ‘Intermarium’ (together with Ukraine). When that failed, the Three Seas Initiative (3SI), which is limited to EU members.

The Three Seas Initiative

PiS treated the 3SI as a geopolitical project from the beginning. However, the other participating countries rejected this concept at the first summit in Croatia in 2016. None of the other states supported Poland’s proposal to institutionalise the group by creating a permanent secretariat.

The 3SI did win American backing at the 2017 Warsaw summit. President Donald Trump announced financial support amounting to one billion US dollars, which lent political and financial credibility to the project. On the other hand, it deepened anxiety in Western Europe that the 3SI could threaten EU unity in light of Trump’s hostile statements and Warsaw’s rather ambiguous policies.

Following pressure from several participating states, talks with the Polish government ensued. After this, an initially reluctant Poland agreed that Germany could participate in the 3SI as an observer.

At the next 3SI summit in Bucharest in 2018, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, pointed out the decisive role of the EU in the financing of the planned projects. This was taken by member states as a kind of warning.

The 3SI is a useful initiative, focusing pragmatically on increasing the competitiveness of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe through the development of infrastructure along a north-south axis. A list of some 80 infrastructural projects has been drawn up but it should be noted that two-thirds of them were already on the EU’s list of so-called “preferential projects”. These will (or could be) co-financed by the European Commission to the tune of tens of billions of euros.

Poland’s Eastern policy

Since 1989, the future of an independent Ukraine and Belarus has been considered crucial for Poland’s security.

The biggest success of Poland’s Eastern policy was the Polish-Swedish Eastern Partnership project, which was officially launched in 2009.

The most important objectives of the Eastern Partnership were to assist with the pro-European transformation of partner countries and to involve the entire European Union in their future. Until Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008, many Western governments were practically indifferent to the fate of the smaller nations ‘in between’. Indeed, they had often practiced unambiguously ‘Russia First’ policies. After the hostilities, however, the Eastern Partnership project changed the attitude of Western Europe’s governments in a predominantly positive direction.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine between 2014 and 2015 led to an emphasis both on pro-European transformation and on strengthening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of partner countries.

The present government has been pursuing a mainly symbolic Eastern policy. PiS has stated that Poland’s security depends on Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty. However, the assistance that the government provides to Kyiv, particularly in military and financial terms, is far smaller than what Poland could potentially offer Ukraine in the current circumstances.

Opposition to the construction of Nord Stream 2 currently unites the governments in Warsaw and Kyiv. Despite this, PiS has often made its relationship with Ukraine conditional on historical grievances going back to the Second World War. This has been done to placate nationalistic elements within Poland for purely domestic reasons.

Poland and the US

For Kaczyński/PiS and Ziobro, the pressure from an integrated, united Europe is both a political and cultural threat.

The alliance with America under president Trump, who publicly proclaimed that the EU was an enemy which should cease to exist, allowed the PiS government to leverage its position in Europe to some extent.

However, President Joe Biden’s victory poses a threat to it. Poland’s isolation has been symbolised in the form of Biden’s refusal to hold a telephone conversation with president Duda or offer him an invitation to the White House. This situation was made worse by the lack of any consultations before reaching an agreement with Germany on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. This is seen by PiS as a deliberate political move and has provoked fury in government offices in Warsaw.

With his attack on TVN, Kaczyński has announced that he is prepared for a possible crisis in relations with the US His radical entourage has convinced him that it is possible to wait out the current administration. They believe that after one term of a weak Biden presidency a Trump-like politician, ideologically more sympathetic to PiS, will likely return to power. Moreover, PiS is also counting on the fact that, following the midterm elections to Congress, president Biden’s ability to act will be significantly restricted if the Democrats lose their majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives in 2023.

By launching the attack on TVN, PiS is not only serving its own domestic interests. It is also testing America’s resolve and how far it can go in exerting pressure to gain acceptance for its regime. Kaczyński and his entourage believe they will be able to force such acceptance in light of American strategic interests in the region and that their risky policy will not do them serious harm. Any possible damage to Poland in this situation unquestionably plays a secondary role.

Poland and Central and Eastern Europe have no alternative to a security alliance with America.

Poland has successfully developed a broad platform for allied cooperation with the country since 1989. This cooperation has been based on Poland understanding of US’ general and sometimes specific expectations and integrating them into their own policies, while of course taking Poland’s strategic interests into account. There has been little conflict between these aims and occasional differences of opinion have been resolved quickly. This has been due to the common values, perspective and understanding of Poland’s strategic interests.

But for Poland, China is far, while Russia is just over the border. The Nord Stream issue has built elements of uncertainty in relations between the two states. This has not been helped by the attempted takeover of TVN, as it is not a commercial problem but an attack on media freedom.

These are not symbolic issues, and need to be resolved quickly, as any close alliance, particularly a security alliance, must be based on trust. The Polish government must withdraw from the monopolization of its power, particularly in relation to its attacks on freedom of speech by attempting to take over the TVN television station and other independent media.

Overall, it is clear that Polish-US relations have to be nurtured by both sides. However, Poland has a particularly crucial stake in these matters.

Otherwise, there is no telling what Kaczyński, who controls almost all the levers of government, will be prepared to do to stay in power. The party’s back is against the wall given the prospect of losing the next election and many of its supporters could face prosecution for corruption.

Therefore, the alleged compromise (a temporary license) does not eliminate the problem of the future of the independent TVN television network, and it does not remove the source of the distrust of Americans, including Republicans, in the government showing such obvious autocratic tendencies.

Eugeniusz Smolar is a foreign and security policy analyst at the Centre for International Relations in Warsaw. Under communism, he was a member of the democratic opposition, political prisoner and émigré. He also worked as a journalist and former Director of the Polish Section of the BBC World Service in London for many years. Following his return to Poland, he became the deputy chairman of the Management Board of Polish Radio. He is also a member of New Eastern Europe’s editorial board.

This article is part of a project titled “Freedom of speech under duress – today’s experiences and their consequences“ co-financed by the Warsaw office of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.


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