Poland’s Democracy Under Threat Amid Fears of Russia, Homegrown Extremism

January 12, 2016, 5:54 PM UTC
Graffiti in Warsaw depicting Vladimir Putin
Graffiti in Warsaw, Poland depicting Vladimir Putin
Photo by Amy Kaslow

The pivotal ally on NATO’s eastern flank is at risk. Terrified by Russia’s extra-territorial push into Ukraine, Crimea, and the Baltic Sea, Poland now faces its own homegrown threat.

In just three months, the newly elected Law and Justice Party government has challenged and unilaterally changed Poland’s constitution, and ordered a nighttime raid on a NATO facility. It has slapped state controls on media, spurred walkouts, and quickly installed its own party loyalists to top posts. The radical turn has drawn tens of thousands of Poles to the streets in protest, and put American and European allies on alert. The 28-member European Commission meets Wednesday to conduct what it calls an internal debate on Poland’s Rule of Law.

Seizing on rising public discontent over economic and security concerns, the Law and Justice Party’s October landslide victory pushed out the European-oriented, center-right Civic Platform, after an eight-year run managing Poland’s fast-paced transformation into Europe’s sixth largest economy. The new ruling party gathered steam in recent years among groups whose only common denominator is frustration. This is especially the case among Polish youth, who make up a third of the population and are seething over poor living standards despite the GDP gains of the past decade. Many of the groups engage in hate speech, calls for violence, and espouse the virtues of Polish purity (xenophobia burns hot in the country, the most homogeneous on the European continent).

Some express shock at the new government’s brazen moves; others have long been wary of actions portending anti-democratic rule.

Like most Eastern European nations, Poland is a study in contrasts. Along Warsaw’s Vistula Riverbanks, heavy, oversized, Soviet-style architecture abut contemporary steel and glass. In Warsaw and other large cities, poor pensioners pushing carts and peddling trinkets share sidewalks with smartly dressed nouveau riche shopping for luxury brands, throwing into stark relief one of the deepest socio-economic divides on the continent.


Poland’s national consciousness is also bifurcated: an aging population that survived World War II repression and destruction followed by communism’s shortages, intrusions, and punishment gave birth to a generation that has only known Poland as an unequal member of the European Community, saddled with poor job prospects and stunted incomes. Poles under 25 make up a third of the nation’s nearly 39 million population; more than a quarter are jobless and a third of those under 18 receive some form of government aid.

Poverty is most acute in Poland’s smaller towns and villages, especially in the northeast and the northwest. Worried about border safety, floods of immigrants, and the wherewithal to defend their country, upward of 100,000 Polish youth have joined paramilitary organizations. Extreme right nationalists who are preoccupied with perceived threats from Muslims, Jews, and international treaties are all part of the mix, targeting the young and hopeless to join their ranks. And the recently elected government’s actions give credence to worries that extremist groups will gain momentum.

Young Poles “don’t remember the times of the Cold War … when the U.S. was the only force that could counter the Soviet Union,” laments Pawel Spiewak, a prominent Polish intellectual and Warsaw University sociologist. “It means that they are much more critical toward American policy than we were.”

Poland has enjoyed wide-ranging Western support since shedding its communist ties in 1989. Poles winced, then welcomed the “shock therapy” reforms necessary to move from the Moscow-imposed COMECON – the broken down command and control economy of the Soviet communist bloc—to an independent, industrialized economy with sustainable growth. With billions of dollars in commitments from the U.S. and Europe, Poland’s new democracy was also flooded with technical assistance to develop a legal framework, open its markets to investment and trade, and build its financial sector and infrastructure.

Poland’s accession into the European Union in 2004 led to even more aid and far greater access to markets. Neighboring industrial giant Germany morphed from Poland’s longtime aggressor to its No. 1 investor and trading partner. Germany became an economic lifeline to Poland, employing skilled, lower-cost Polish talent and pouring billions of dollars into Polish plants and equipment. The past 20 years of robust German investment powered Poland’s meteoric rise into an export economy (think German cars—Mercedes, BMW, and VW—chemicals, and technology) and became the consumers’ choice (German retailers and wholesalers like Rossmann and OBI DIY are among the top employers in Poland and leading purveyors of affordable goods).

European commercial interests have created a new Polish monied class with all of the trappings of success. On its tenth anniversary as an EU member a year ago, Poland’s prime minister became president of the European Union and celebrated his appointment as proof that Poland and EU’s major powers have more in common than not.

But Poles working for depressed wages with no benefits are acutely aware that they compare unfavorably to their EU neighbors. Most Poles had soaring expectations when they voted to join the EU a decade ago. Today, their contempt also cuts a broad swath: business people blame bureaucratic red tape for dampening growth while large numbers of youth emigrate for access to better healthcare, higher quality education, and more work opportunities. A Millward Brown research poll conducted in March 2015 revealed that a staggering 41% of Poles planned to emigrate (Warsaw’s Central Statistical Office estimates that two million-plus have left since EU accession).

The World Bank, the OECD, the European Union, and other global research and funding organizations warn about the deeply divided Polish economy, as stubborn poverty rates and public resentment increase.

Nationalist developments portend turbulence for the young democracy. While those looking west see their nation rooted in the EU and NATO, others are looking inward, rejecting open borders and disdainful of NATO, and have as much contempt for the U.S. as they do for Russia. And then there are the Polish fascist groups, small though vocal, that support Russia.

The instability in Ukraine presents the clearest danger. The National Bank of Poland put together a billion-dollar swap deal with the National Bank of Ukraine to help stabilize Ukraine’s financial system as it moves through economic reforms. NBP President Marek Belka described the move as a way to stave off the neighbor’s “financial turbulence” as well as to protect Poland from potential fallout, especially from job-seeking Ukrainians pushing into Poland. In the Gallup poll released last week, an overwhelming majority of Ukrainian respondents identified themselves as “struggling” or “suffering.”

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Citing his own Warsaw University studies and national surveys, Spiewak said that Polish people are particularly anxious about their nation’s military preparedness and the prospect of a human wave coming from Ukraine. “How do we prepare for the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who will come to Poland? It will be a very big humanitarian problem.”

Warsaw has pleaded and prodded Washington to beef up its military presence on Polish soil. This fall, the four star General Dennis Via, who leads the U.S. Army’s Army Materiel Command, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Air Force General Philip Breedlove, and the commander of U.S. Army Europe Lt. General Ben Hodges visited Poland and the Baltic region to determine the needs of the region, which exceed current U.S. defense budgets and limits on the number of American soldiers deployed to Europe.

Polish security watchers contend that NATO’s mission in Poland has become compromised in recent months, given America’s aversion to costly challenges against aggressors in far-flung places and the increasingly slim U.S. forces on the ground.

This August, NATO conducted the largest airborne military exercises since the end of the Cold War. It was a demonstration, of sorts, to show the Treaty organization’s 11-member ability to respond to Russian threats. For Poles, though, it’s simply not enough. They want a reversal to what has been a steadily shrinking U.S. military presence on the continent (troops, materiel, helicopters, tanks). But U.S. budget restraints and American fatigue with overseas operations limit Washington from doing much more than training Poles and other NATO allies.

“The No. 1 issue in American-Polish relations is security defense on our east border,” says Ryszard Schnepf, Poland’s Ambassador to Washington. “Poland has not been in such a threat … since the Cold War.” Despite the clear NATO treaty assurance to member states for mutual assistance in case of jeopardy, “we feel we are not a first-grade member.” Quite simply, he says, NATO’s design has not adjusted to today’s reality: “all of the bases, positioning, material production are distant from our area.”

Poland’s newly elected government has certainly drawn attention from its defense partners with its bizarre middle-of-the-night raid on the counter-intelligence center, a NATO affiliate, temporarily housed in Warsaw while its permanent home is constructed in Krakow. It dismissed the director appointed by the previous government and installed its own.

While Polish opposition blanched at the move and blamed the Law and Justice Party for undermining Polish credibility, the new government was on to its next mission: “reforming” the Constitutional Tribunal. As Poland’s top court, the Tribunal adjudicates on legislation, international agreements, maintains checks and balances, and makes sure that political parties act constitutionally. But last month, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda performed a late-night swearing-in ceremony of new party loyalists, in a move EU officials have condemned as tantamount to an assault on democracy. Opposition leaders, international human rights groups, and others caution the newly stacked Tribunal is no longer an independent interpreter of the rule of law.

Rafal Pankowski, a young professor of social and political studies at Collegium Civitas, focuses on reactionary groups with strong historical roots. Registering only a small fraction of minorities, Poland’s census data shows nearly 98% of the country is ethnically Polish and Catholic. Like other leading Polish intellectuals, Pankowski contends that militant hate groups have been unbridled during the country’s past 25 years as a democracy.

Polish pensioner in WarsawPhoto by Amy Kaslow
Photo by Amy Kaslow

A “symbol of hostility to otherness, difference, modernity … anti-Semitism is very much present. Much more graphic and in your face with Internet and social media in particular,” Pankowski says. “One click and you have a global audience. More radical expressions are preferred. Of course, Poland has the European-type legislation against hate speech, but is the government effective in enforcing it? Not really.” There are “so many examples of government not standing up – there is a systemic failure.”

In November, protestors held an effigy burning of a Hasidic Jew holding an EU flag. Police stood by and did not intervene. Pankowski and other human rights watchers say Polish hate crimes against minorities exploded in 2015, registering more than at any time in the past 20 years.

Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, argues that the “strengthening of rightwing forces” is in part a result of the weakening of Polish trust in the EU. “There’s a big threat to the east, and a question about who’s there in the west, where the friends and neighbors are weaker than you thought, so you go back to the fundamentals.” The fundamentals mean orthodoxy, asserts Daalder, who is now the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

On Wednesday, the European Commission will meet to weigh Poland’s escalating domestic assaults on its democratic institutions. So far, Washington has been silent on Warsaw’s recent political developments, despite the major political, military, and industrial stakes on both sides of the Atlantic.

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