Poland: An Authoritarian Turn

Democracy: Already Paseé in Europe?


In 1989 communism fell in Europe and the Soviet bloc split. In the same year Francis Fukuyama announced the end of history upon the almost instantaneous adoption of democracy and capitalism in the freshly postcommunist states. Now all in the West – the postcommunist half of Europe included – had seen the light of how to properly organize matters temporal in human societies. But since the mid-1990s populism has begun trumping democracy in Italy under the succession of the cabinets led by Silvio Berlusconi, at times in alliance with the pro-fascist Alleanza Nazionale party. Finally, in the 2013 general elections, the populist Eurosceptic and anti-establishment and Five Star Movement (M5S) won a quarter of the votes in this country. In the 1999 general elections over a quarter of the Austrians voted for the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which subsequently became a coalition partner in the two Austria governments between 2000 and 2007. In the May 2016 presidential election, the FPÖ candidate lost to the mainstream one by the wafer-thin margin of 0.6 per cent. In France, the radical Front National (FN) successfully fielded a candidate who participated in the runoff of the 2002 presidential election. In 2014 the FN won the elections to the European Parliament and the following year the French regional elections, in each case gaining more than a quarter of all the votes cast. Mainstream parties and politicians began bowing to the growing authoritarian feeling palpable among the electorate. In 2007 Romania joined the European Union, but already the following year a plethora of Italian mayors and politicians vowed to expel from the country over 10,000 Romanian Roma – EU citizens. In 2009-10 the French President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered the first-ever postwar expulsion from a democratic Western state: tens of Roma housing sites were razed and 20,000 Roma – EU citizens, mainly from Romania and Bulgaria, were removed by force to their countries of origin. The European Commission’s harsh criticism of this unprecedented act fell on death ears.


With the turn of the 21st century, mainstream political parties in the new postcommunist EU member states took a good note of this growing populist and authoritarian tendency in Western Europe. In 2000 displeasure with the continuing hold of the former communists-turned-democrats’ hold on power in Romania translated into the great electoral success of the far-right irredentist Greater Romania Party (PRM) that polled almost a quarter of the votes. The PRM became the second largest in the Romanian Parliament. However, in the wake of the generalized disillusionment with corruption in politics, this party’s popularity waned and since 2008 it has not managed to win a single mandate. Uniquely in Central Europe, thus far it has been the end of far-right parties in Romania, though no end of the use of ideological elements from their radical program. On the contrary, this far-right xenophobic radicalism has begun coalescing as a new political norm across the region. Since taking office in 2003 the Czech President Václav Klaus gradually introduced Euroscepticism as an important tenet of Czech politics. His successor Miloš Zeman continues this populist line with the addition of pro-Russian rhetoric. This stance paved the way for the rise of the anti-corruption populist and right-wing ANO 2011 (YES 2011) party as the second political force in the Czech Republic, and allows for the survival of the sole unreformed communist party (Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, KSČM) in a postcommunist EU member state as the country’s third largest political force. The radicalizing trend found its reflection also in neighboring Slovakia that between 1994 and 1998 had already had an early brush with authoritarianism under Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar. Recently, in 2006-10 the far-right nationalist Slovak National Party (SNP) was a coalition partner in the Slovak government. Another party of the same ilk, with clear references to the wartime fascist Slovakia in its program, People’s Party – Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) gained a tenth of all the votes during the general elections of March 2016.

manifestacja KOD
Anti-government demonstration in Poland’s capital of Warsaw, 19 December 2015

The aforementioned radical parties, movements and politicians, both in Western and Central (Eastern) Europe – to a varying degree – espouse, condone, or do not oppose antisemitism, antiromism (antiziganism) and xenophobia, oftentimes combined with markedly anti-European Russophilia. As a direct result of this rise in such discriminatory attitudes, 7,000 or 1 per cent of all France’s Jews left the country for Israel in 2014 alone. On the same platform, with the addition of Islamophobia and anti-Turkish feeling, the Bulgarian far-right nationalist party Ataka (Attack) secured over 8 per cent of the votes in the 2005 general elections, and almost 10 per cent four years later. At present its popularity is waning, because mainstream parties have adopted elements of Ataka’s radical program and rhetoric, including the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov himself. He enjoys the rare distinction of being the only EU member state leader who openly praises an ethnic cleanser, namely, Bulgaria’s last communist leader Todor Zhivkov. In the summer of 1989 Zhivkv ordered the summary expulsion of 0.36 million Turks from his country to Turkey.


In the wake of the 2008 economic crisis that turned out to be catastrophic for Greece, the formerly lunatic fringe pro-fascist Golden Dawn entered the Greek Parliament in 2012 with 7 per cent of votes and maintains this level of support to this day. In 2015 the popular reaction to the mainstream politics brought to power the anti-establishment far-left populist Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), which with over a third of the votes, constitutes the present-day Greek government. The similarly eruptive rise of the populist and radical far-left Podemos (We Can) party in Spain that polled almost a third of votes in 2015 threatens the continuation of the ‘mainstream politics as usual’ in the very near future. A veritable breakthrough of this illiberal tendency in postcommunist Central Europe came in 2014 when the rabidly antiromist far-right and irredentist Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary) obtained over a fifth of the votes in the Hungarian parliamentary elections. In addition, since 2010, the former anticommunist democrat, Viktor Orbán, has been at the helm of the nationalist and strongly Eurosceptic Hungarian ‘Government of National Cooperation.’ With the super majority in the parliament, Orbán’s party Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats – Hungarian Civic Party) unilaterally changed the Hungarian Constitution directing the country toward the Russian-style ‘directed democracy,’ which Orbán likes to refer to as ‘illiberal democracy.’ In 2015, only half in jest, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, greeted the Hungarian Prime Minister with ‘Hello dictator!’



From Islamophobia to the China Model


The toxic mix of illiberal views and attitudes came into sharper relief during the 2014-16 European ‘migrant crisis’ when 2 million refugees from war-torn Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan arrived in Europe. Islamophobia for a long time has been present in Bulgaria or Greece, but in 2006 it became the launch pad for a far-right populist Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands. The PVV rationalized its anti-Muslim program by pointing to Al-Qaida’s 2001 attack on New York and the perceived failure of the integration of Muslim immigrants be it in the Netherlands, Belgium or France. In its early reaction against the inflow of Muslim refugees the PVV became the model for the founding of Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) in 2014 in Germany. This, pan-European in its xenophobic aspirations, party has not gained any parliamentary representation (yet?), but in a quick succession, Pegida’s national branches opened across old and new EU member states. The example galvanized support for the far-right and populist protest movement Alternative for Germany (AfD) which won over 7 per cent of the votes cast in the 2014 European Parliament elections in Germany. Other far-right, xenophobic, nationalist, anti-European, or irredentist radical parties and groups have been quick to hop on the bandwagon of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric. In 2015, with 17 per cent of votes polled in the elections, the Eurosceptic far-right and nationalist Finns Party (PS) joined the coalition government in Finland. At the same time, its counterpart in Denmark, Danish People’s Party (DF), doubled its popularity, gaining over a fifth of all the votes in the same year. Both the PS and the DF are the second largest parties in their respective countries. In Sweden the similar in its ideology and politics Swedish Democrats (SD) party improved its electoral results almost threefold between 2010 and 2014 to just shy of 13 per cent. Likewise, across the Baltic, in Lithuania the far-right nationalist and populist Order and Justice (TT) party gained over 14 per cent of the votes in the elections to the European Parliament in 2014. In the same year, next door in Latvia, the similar in its ideology National Alliance (LNNK) party polled almost 17 per cent of votes, ensuring that it entered the coalition government. In another twist, this coalition of ethnically Latvian parties was formed in order to keep out from power the country’s then most successful party Harmony (SDPS), which polled almost a quarter of the votes in 2014. Ostensibly, in ideology, Harmony subscribes to social democracy, but de facto it is the party of Latvia’s Russian (or more broadly, Russophone) minority who account for a quarter of the population. Many fear that this party might become a vehicle for feared ‘reabsorption’ of Latvia by Russia.


The as yet predominantly mainstream – or centrist – in their politics EU national governments already seem to borrow and espouse elements of such radical (that is, anti-mainstream) parties’ programs having recently ordered the speedy construction of ‘anti-immigrant fences’ along the borders of Austria, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia or Slovenia in order to stem the progress of Middle Eastern refugees across the Balkans toward Western Europe. In March 2016 the Germany-led EU team signed an agreement with the increasingly authoritarian government of Turkey for the country to readmit non-Syrian refugees from the EU in an apparent breach of the United Nation’s 1951 Refugee Convention. This hasty move further taints Brussels’ and Berlin’s democratic and liberal credentials, while reassuring many postcommunist EU member states that they were indeed right not to accept the quite low quotas of refugees as allocated by the European Union. Meanwhile, the somewhat muted anti-immigrant and anti-EU strains of continental politics also appear in Britain, especially with the Brexit referendum looming large on the horizon in June 2016.


What is more, many politicians and entrepreneurs across Europe (Britain included) like to opine that capitalism is more important than democracy to the future of the West. Since the early 2010s a growing number of Western European political scientists and commentators (a few based at Chinese universities), both of right-wing and left-wing views, seriously propose that the ‘China model’ (also known as ‘Beijing consensus’) will dominate the world during the 21st century. This political system is characterized by a marriage of free-market economy (capitalism) with totalitarianism (authoritarianism) in politics and governance. Unsavory associations latched onto the term ‘totalitarianism’ are usefully washed out with the euphemism ‘political meritocracy.’


The Russian President Vladimir Putin, regretful at the breakup of the Soviet Union (SU), openly subscribes to this China model. He proposes that the SU would have not collapsed had its last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, not attempted the simultaneous dual reform of economy and politics, but just a single-track one of economy, like Deng Xiaoping in China. In light of the 2014 and 2015 dramatic fall in oil prices that seriously hurt the Russian economy, Putin threw his political fate behind the program of a partial reconstruction of the SU as a nationalizing empire (or perhaps nation-state?) of all the native Russian-speakers, many living in the neighboring post-Soviet states that border on the Russian Federation, among them, the EU member state of Latvia. Russia’s economic difficulties were successfully compensated by growing patriotic (nationalist) fervor stoked up with the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the continuing war in eastern Ukraine, and the 2015-16 Russian intervention in Syria. This intervention caused more fighting in Syria, which in turn intensified Turkish involvement in the Syrian civil war, mainly meaning attacks on Kurdish forces. As a result, even more Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees now stream toward Europe. Meanwhile, since 2013 the resurgent Russia has probed the resilience of Nato time and again breaching the airspace of this alliance’s member states from Britain and Norway in the north, around the Baltic (that is, in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland) and to Turkey in the south. (In a similar exercise, indirectly aimed at the United States, the Kremlin sends military planes to fly alongside the shores of Japan.) The simultaneous squeezing out of the mainstream parties from politics across the EU endangers the existence of the European Union, and prevents Brussels and Nato from addressing adequately the political and existential threat of Russian intransigence combined with Moscow’s geopolitical resurgence.



Poland: A Successful Transition?


According to Western commentators Poland excelled at the systemic transition from totalitarianism to democracy and from centrally-planned to free-market economy. The success was crowned with the country’s accession to Nato and the EU, and then reconfirmed by the fact Poland was the EU’s sole member state that was able to maintain robust economic growth in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis. On top of that political stability seemed also assured, because for the first time ever since the end of communism, the same party, Civic Platform (PO), managed to govern the country for two successive full terms (2007-15). However, the 2015 presidential and general elections won by the right-wing nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party heralded a dramatic end of the democratic political consensus and stability in postcommunist Poland. Having gained almost 38 per cent of votes, PiS is the first party ever that after the end of communism gained the majority of mandates in the Polish Parliament.


According to the Constitution the Polish President is non-partisan. But the current incumbent, Andrzej Duda, in full public view, takes hardly concealed orders from the reclusive PiS Chairman, Jarosław Kaczyński. Even more so, Kaczyński treats Prime Minister Beata Szydło simply as a branch manager of his PiS party. In reality, in today’s Poland all state power is in the hands of a person who has not any official capacity being ‘a mere’ MP. As such Kaczyński will never be liable to answer for any decisions of ‘his’ president and government. The majority of Poland’s Catholic hierarchs have been happy to lend a legitimizing aura of the Church to this essentially undemocratic arrangement. Kaczyński and his circle vow to emulate Viktor Orbán’s ‘Hungarian model’ of illiberal democracy and frequently meet with him and members of the Hungarian government.


At the long last a ‘real strongman’ has arrived on the Polish political arena. A strongman for whom many prayed and wished, especially those who lost most and gained least in the wake of the democratizing and free market reforms after the end of communism. But this is too easy a conclusion, as I found out in March 2016, when I gave a talk on ‘The Radicalization of Politics in Poland’ for the St Andrews chapter of the Young European Movement. My co-speaker was an Erasmus exchange student from Poland completing his MSc in Biology at the University of St Andrews. He was raised and educated, and came of age in free and democratic Poland. I assumed that his postcommunist generation of young Poles is by default democratic and liberal. However, when he spoke I was astonished to hear that his opinions followed closely not even the general PiS line, but the party’s emotionally-charged propaganda. One of the highlights of his talk was the opinion that Poland is ‘a German colony.’ In order to substantiate this claim, he proposed that many Polish newspapers and information outlets are owned by capital which in its territorial origin is or can be defined as ‘German.’ I suggested that on the basis of his definition of ‘colony,’ Britain can be seen thus as a colony of Australia or Russia. He brushed away my half-jocular remark with silence. But even more surprisingly, with the lone exception of a German student, the audience was reluctant to challenge him on this issue, as if they silently agreed with him, or perhaps, did not care, which is even worse.



‘The Good Change’


Having left Poland over a decade ago, I did not have an opportunity to follow the changing political attitudes among the country’s new cohorts of students. Following the YEM talk, I began discussing this issue of the apparent radicalization of the Polish youth with my colleagues who teach at Polish universities. They all concede that a surprisingly large and growing section of the youth (or 15 to 25 year olds), or maybe even the majority of them, identify with the illiberal and anti-EU attitudes of the Polish ethnic nationalism coupled with nationally-inflected Catholicism, to the exclusion of other religions, ethnicities and languages. They see this nationalism as ‘conservative,’ ‘patriotic,’ and ‘nationally democratic,’ though it is in blatant breach of the Polish Constitution that defines the Polish nation as ‘all citizens of the Republic [of Poland],’ irrespective of any differences in language, religion, ethnicity, gender, wealth and so on.


These young often self-declared ‘national democrats’ (referring to the oldest and most influential Polish nationalist party of Narodowa Demokracja [National Democracy], founded the 1890s) subscribe to PiS’s stark view that ‘the good of the nation is above all’ (dobro narodu stoi ponad wszystkim), hence ‘the nation is above the law’ (nad prawem jest naród), meaning the nation is the law. It is the ‘democratically elected’ ruling party that defines the Polish raison d’État (polska racja stanu), namely, PiS that, in turn, becomes the law itself, the very political manifestation of the Polish nation’s ‘popular will’ (wola narodu) This is pure and undiluted doctrine of decisionism (Dezisionismus in German), as famously defined by the interwar German jurist Carl Schmitt, and subsequently implemented for the sake of ‘effective national governance’ (zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich) in Nazi Germany. Whatever PiS says it does in the name of the Polish nation must be (deemed) legal, even though at times decisions taken by this party might happen to be in breach of the ‘conventional’ law, as steeped in the Polish Constitution. According to PiS, such decisions are ‘required by the good of the nation in these difficult times.’ However, this course of action entails the actual transfer of legislative prerogatives from the Parliament to Chairman Kaczyński, who already has full control of the government.


From the perspective of Charles-Louis Montesquieu’s classic tripartite division of power, in Poland the judiciary still remains outside PiS’s control. The first step in towards its seizure by PiS was the decision to confer on the current Minister of Justice the duties of Public Prosecutor General. But the ideological salvo that galvanized the pro-democratic opposition into action (including numerous demonstrations across the country) was the issue of the Constitutional Tribunal (Trybunał Konstytucyjny), which in many ways is a counterpart of the United States’ Supreme Court. The Polish Constitutional Tribunal guards the Constitution and as yet remains without PiS’s control. A thorn in the side of this party’s quest for the ‘truly national government,’ like that in Hungary. In act one of the political drama, PiS used the technicality of nominating new judges to the Constitutional Tribunal in order to obstruct its day-to-day functioning. In quick succession, the PiS-dominated Parliament passed an act on this Tribunal that de facto deprives it of the role of the guardian of the Constitution. In no time, the Constitutional Tribunal itself and the Polish Supreme Court (Sąd Najwyższy) entered the fray, nullifying these decisions of the PiS-dominated Parliament and this party’s government that impinged on the functionality and independence of the Constitutional Tribunal. The government refused to publish the Constitutional Tribunal’s judgement of March 2016 on this matter in the governmental gazette. Yet, in April the Supreme Court decided that this April judgement of the Constitutional Court is part of the Polish law, despite not having been published by the government.


This political and legal spat reached a tense deadlock. In May 2016, the Minister of Justice-cum-Public Prosecutor General threatened that judges must not observe the Constitutional Tribunal’s April judgement, or will face unspecified ‘legal consequences.’ Adam Strzembosz, the doyen of Polish judges, lawyers and jurists, appealed that for the sake of democracy and justice, Polish judges should not bow to the government’s unconstitutional pressure, that they should remain independent. Otherwise Poland might face a coup d’état carried out by the means of subjecting the judiciary to the ruling party’s control, like this once happened in Austria in the darke year of 1933.


In December 2015 the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission (that is, European Commission for Democracy through Law) and a month later, in January 2016 the EU’s European Commission began probing into the situation. Their findings are unequivocal, PiS’s decisions and actions in relation to the Constitutional Tribunal, as carried out by the Parliament and the government are in breach of the basic principles of democracy as understood and observed in the European Union and by the member states of the Council of Europe. Both Venice Commission and European Commission appealed that the Polish authorities respect the rule of law. The discussion between PiS’s Polish government and the European institutions continues. EU officials and legal experts concede that the political retrogression is so deep that nowadays Poland would not stand a chance of joining the European Union. PiS’s actions stand in conflict with such prerequisites for commencing membership negotiations with the EU as the existence of stable institutions guaranteeing democracy and of the rule of law itself.


In reply, PiS lambasts members and supporters of the pro-democratic opposition in Poland as ‘traitors’ (zdrajcy) and ‘Poles of a worse sort’ (Polacy gorszego sortu) who ‘shamefully grass’ (bezwstydnie donoszą) abroad on their own fatherland to the detriment of the Polish raison d’État. Easily done, because since December 2015, PiS has begun overhauling the state-owned public mass media (media publiczne) into the national mass media (media narodowe). The ‘good change’ (dobra zmiana) has entailed the replacement of independent and democratically-mined journalists in the public radio and television with new ones who would duly tread PiS’s party line, including full loyalty to the nationalist rhetoric. As a result, the public mass media have increasingly become another propaganda outlet of the ruling party.


In the heated context of the presidential campaign in the United States, where the populist and anti-democratic Republican candidate Donald Trump seized the limelight, the former US President Bill Clinton criticized Poland (and Hungary) that after having gained freedom with Washington’s help the current Polish government believes that ‘democracy is too much trouble’ and wants to establish an ‘authoritarian dictatorship.’ This resounding criticism heard across the globe significantly added to the growing international and domestic pressure on PiS. Chairman Kaczyński and his party swiftly responded with the Parliament’s resolution in the form of an act (uchwała) on ‘the defence of the sovereignty of the Republic of Poland.’ This resolution reaffirms that Poland ‘in line with [its] Constitution is a sovereign democratic state [that is fully observing] the rule of law,’ and questions the EU’s involvement in the quarrel over the Constitutional Tribunal which should be resolved exclusively within Poland. In conclusion, the Parliament obliges the government ‘to oppose any action against the sovereignty of the [Polish] state and states that the duty of the government is to defend the [Polish] raison d’État and the [legal] order as defined by the Constitution.’


Newspeak in full swing. Dictatorship is democracy. War is peace.


Admirers see Chairman Kaczyński as a ‘new Piłsudski.’ Józef Piłsudski was the Polish leader and military commander, who decisively contributed to the founding of the Polish nation-state in 1918. Then he remained in the offing, influencing the democratic political order initially as the country’s first and only Naczelnik Państwa (‘Leader/Head of the State,’ akin to the Italian Duce or the German Führer), and then in an increasingly informal fashion. Finally, in 1926 Piłsudski did away with the obstacle of democratic order, and instituted a (‘parliamentarian’) dictatorship in Poland. Chairman Kaczyński, like once the Naczelnik, dominates the Polish politics from behind the scenes. The religious in its intensity fervor of the support for PiS’s ‘new national order’ in Poland is underpinned by the new political religion. It hinges on the tragic death of the Chairman’s twin brother, the Polish President Lech Kaczyński, whose governmental plane crashed in 2010 when attempting to land, despite fog and low visibility, in the west Russian city of Smolensk. The president headed there in order to attend the highly symbolic commemorative celebrations in the nearby Katyń Forest, where in 1940 the Soviet security force (NKVD) had executed 10,000 Polish officers.


Subsequently, after a period of wide-spread national hysteria, Lech Kaczyński and his wife were buried in a crypt at the royal Wawel Castle in Cracow, next to the Polish-Lithuanian kings and queens. Almost immediately PiS accused the then ruling party PO (Civic Platform) and Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin’ of the ‘assassination of the Polish President.’ Politics became intensely personal in Poland: in PiS’s eyes the person most guilty of this perceived ‘crime’ (zbrodnia) is the PO’s then leader, Donald Tusk, who at present serves as President of the (EU’s) European Council. Since the moment of the state funeral, each month PiS has staged celebrations of the anniversary of Lech Kaczyński’s death, or miesięcznice (‘monthly anniversaries’), as this newly coined neologism announces. In no time rationality was exchanged for blind indignation and emotional fervor. ‘All guilty of our President’s death’ will be punished, meaning the PO leadership of ‘national traitors,’ alongside the Russian President. Toxic legitimacy derived from such a high-pitch divisive myth and discourse may condemn Poland to the status of a rogue state, and isolate it on Europe’s political scene. What is more, this essentially xenophobic in its nature political discourse may put the country at loggerheads with all its neighbors.



The Young Patriots


Where does this radical program’s attraction to Poland’s first postcommunist generation lie? Having enjoyed the – so unique in modern Poland’s turbulent history – educational, economic, social and political privileges conferred on them by the postcommunist reforms of the 1990s and the 2004 accession of Poland to the EU, why should the youth reject all these in the name of the ‘Smolensk religion’ (religia smoleńska) of this resurgent Polish integral nationalism? They freely move across Europe, get education, settle and find employment where it suits them on the one hand, while on the other they denounce foreigners, immigrants, and let alone Syrian refugees, of whom Poland ‘should be kept free,’ because the country ought to be ‘for Poles only,’ or Polish-speaking Catholics. In late 2015 Chairman Kaczyński chimed in by claiming that refugees carry with them harmful parasites and protozoa (pasożyty i pierwotniaki). At the same time the effigy of Jew was publically burnt in the center of Wrocław that is the European capital of Culture in 2016. In April 2016, in Białystok, a nationalist youth group celebrated the anniversary of the founding of their organization in the city’s Catholic cathedral. In view of that the authorities of the University of Białystok warned foreign students that they should remain indoors due to the possibility or racially motivated violence. How may this counterintuitive change in the Polish youth’s attitudes be explained?


My colleagues at Polish universities provide only guesses and hunches, no conclusive research is available on the subject. There is no clear-cut answer to the question. I propose that the ‘original sin’ of the current political situation is the resignation of Poland’s political and intellectual elite from watchfulness, when the postcommunist reforms began delivering quite richly at the turn of the 21st century. The 1990s were dominated by the parties, be they officially left- or right-wing, that in their decisions, when in power, firmly stuck to the center of the political spectrum. The lodestar was all Poles’ dream of Poland’s full membership in the EU and Nato. The pro-European democratic consensus was sealed with the promulgation of the postcommunist Constitution in the 1997 referendum and with the 2003 referendum on Poland’s accession to the EU. The latter showed that the overwhelming majority of 77 per cent of voters wanted Poland to join the EU.


A slight change in this concentrated effort for building and safeguarding democracy in Poland took place already four months after Poland had acceded the European Union in May 2004. In September that year, all the parties then represented in the Parliament passed an act that obliged the Polish government to seek war reparations from Germany. These parties that in truth did not support this motion voted in its support so as not to appear ‘unpatriotic,’ which could mean loss of support among nationally-minded voters. Such parties could ‘safely’ flirt with nationally-inflected populism, because they realized that the then technocratic government, not composed of career politicians, would reject this act, since it was in breach of the agreements and treaties Poland had contracted after World War II. However, by acting in such a ‘nationally correct manner,’ later on, made the mainstream democratic parties vulnerable to the accusation that they do not really act in the best ‘national interest’ of Poland, when they chose not to follow closely the line of Polish nationalism.


On the other hand, the aforementioned parliamentary act heralded a definitive change in the contents of postcommunist Poland’s political correctness. Some undemocratic and nationalist views (including the anti-German feeling so strongly cultivated in communist Poland) that previously had been outside the pale of this political correctness, now were tentatively embraced and gradually (re)integrated with the mainstream of Polish politics. A radical change came when PiS won the presidential and general elections for the first time in 2005. This party failed to gain a majority of mandates in the Parliament, but intent on forming a government, PiS contracted a tactical ruling coalition with the populist Samoobrona (Self-Defence of the Republic of Poland) party and the Eurosceptic and nationalist League of Polish Families (LPR) party. In the 2005 elections, the former gained 12 per cent and the latter 8 per cent of the votes. Subsequently, both parties became insignificant after the PO won the general elections in 2007. But meanwhile, nationalist, populist, anti-German and anti-European elements of the two radical parties’ programs had become part and parcel of Poland’s political mainstream. Other parties took over some of these elements hoping to attract Samoobrona’s and the LPR’s electorates.


The PO’s government, ruling between 2007 and 2015, toned down this radical turn but failed short of expunging it. This party’s leaders preferred to keep nationalist and populist arguments in reserve, should they be needed for achieving this or that political end, or to attract vacillating voters from among PiS’s illiberal, religious or traditionalist electorate. It should be well borne in mind that apart from deep personal animosity between both parties’ leaders, both PO and PiS are right-wing organizations. The former may be more centrist, but PiS makes up for that with full support given to a variety of populist (and in essence leftist-style) welfare provisions and pro-natalist measures that may bankrupt the Polish economy if implemented in full. The PO is more fiscally responsible and pro-EU, which are the only main differences between it and PiS.


In September 2011, the then Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk arrived in Lithuania with an (almost) unannounced visit, in reaction to strikes in some Polish-language minority schools. Lithuania’s Polish minority, with about 120 Polish-medium schools from kindergartens to university, was displeased with Vilnus’s decision that Lithuanian history and literature should be taught exclusively in Lithuanian, even in non-Lithuanian-medium minority schools. Poland’s German minority of the roughly same size of about 300,000 people does not have a single German-language school in Poland, but a mere three asymmetrically bilingual schools, where more subjects are taught in Polish than in German. But unlike Tusk (or Kaczyński for that matter), no German Chancellor would ever dream intervening on this matter in such an imperial manner by boarding a plane to Warsaw.



Nationalism über alles?


This reprehensive behavior of the Polish political class, be them PO or PiS members, clearly indicates to the public at large that nationalism counts more than democracy, and to a degree, than European integration, too. They leave the Poles with no illusions: the 1990s postcommunist political correctness of democratic liberalism and Europeanism is definitively over in this country. The interwar Poland was a highly multi-ethnic nation-state that in an increasingly repressive manner and within a single generation aspired to Polonize a third of its inhabitants who ethnically were seen as ‘un-Polish.’ Subsequently, following the short interval of World War II and internationalist Stalinism, after 1956 communist Poland’s ideological yardstick was that of ‘national communism.’ Nowadays it is ‘democratic nationalism.’ In the longue durée perspective, nationalism was and remains the common ideological foundation of the Polish nation-state and its politics from the 20th to 21st century.


The liberal 1990s were just a brief episode, atypical of modern Polish history. Perhaps this message was not lost on the country’s population. When communism fell in 1989, and a new democratic and capitalist Poland began to be built, they lost bearings. But most looked hopefully to the future after the hungry and repressive 1980s of shortages of all essentials, and of a variety of austerity measures, including the ban on free travel abroad. Most wanted to accommodate to the new realities as quickly as possible, after Poland’s democratic leadership rapidly changed the country’s political and economic system from totalitarianism and centrally-planned economy to democracy and capitalism.


At first, with the privilege of hindsight, some were cautious. The period of democracy in interwar Poland, between 1920 and 1926 was short, turbulent and divisive. Likewise, the post-Stalinist thaw of 1956-1959, the détente-related economic liberalization of the mid-1970s, or the political liberalization during the Solidarity period (1980-1981) were equally short-lived. Why should it be different this time? But in the latter half of the 1990s, the undecided and wavering ones started genuinely believing that democracy, liberalism and European integration would indeed constitute postcommunist Poland’s new political norm. The subsequent piecemeal unmaking of this ideological consensus during the 2000s must have come to them as a shock. They were too gullible again. A painful reminder that one should rather stay cautious and perhaps stick to the ‘real’ (read: national) values, because all this talk about democracy is just a mask that sooner or later will be taken off the face of Polish politics. When finally the cards are put on the table, those with a democratic hand may find themselves at a disadvantage, as it clearly happened in 2015, when PiS gained power in Poland.


What has it meant for the intergenerational transfer of political values in postcommunist Poland? This was easy enough to exchange national communism for (democratic) nationalism. Difficult was the intervening decade and a half of the drive for democracy and liberalism. After over three decades of national communism, school teachers and university lecturers easily shed the ideological vestiges of communism, following the fall of communism in 1989. Such a change did not require a significant ideological compromise. What is more, the demanded ideological change was softened by the continuation of numerous welfare measures and systems as developed during the communist times. The political beacon of the postcommunist 1990s in Poland was social democracy. Anticommunists saw it as (nationally-inflected) democracy with adequate (read: Scandinavian-style) social provisions, while as yet unrepentant national communists interpreted the adjective ‘social’ in the term social democracy as the new times’ code word for ‘communism’ or ‘socialism.’


However, the 15 years of the pro-democratic change on the way ‘back to [Western] Europe’ (read: accession to the EU and Nato) entailed that many former anticommunists and national communists began espousing and internalizing the increasingly pro-European (read: less, a-, or non-national) democracy. By the turn of the 21st century, school teachers and university lecturers who either started their careers before or after the end of communism began imparting to the new generation of Polish students democracy as the guiding value of political and social life. However, the process was stopped in its tracks after no longer than a decade, when nationalism started trumping democracy in Poland in the wake of the country’s accession to the EU. It seems that Western critics of accepting so quickly postcommunist countries into the EU’s fold were right.


Nowadays, the pro-democratic tendency in Poland has been significantly reversed. I am afraid that the majority of school teachers and university lecturers, especially outwith large cities, have already changed their tack accordingly. PiS’s ‘good change’ of replacing public servants with their own – ‘nationally trusted’ – nominees only reconfirms the educational cadres’ hunch. This ‘good change’ may soon be extended to schools and universities, whereas in the current economic doldrums jobs in private sector are few and apart. The stick of unemployment, coupled with the possibility of social degradation from white to blue corral jobs, paralyzes the independently-minded, and reconfirms nationalists and former national communists in their belief that (ethnolinguistic) nationalism is the ‘proper Polish answer’ to the challenges of European (dis)integration and globalization. In addition, every Sunday during the holy mass the Catholic Church drums this message into the faithful to the robust revival of the Polish nationalist slogan Bóg, Honor, Ojczyzna (‘God, Honor, Fatherland!;’ not unlike the Third Reich’s counterpart of Für Führer, Volk und Vaterland), at present often chanted during demonstrations in support of PiS.


Convinced democrats either keep quiet, or nationally inflect their values and opinions, or – as long as Poland remains in the EU – they leave for more liberal, open and welcoming member states. After Poland’s accession to the European Union in 2004, probably as many as three million Polish citizens left Poland for Britain, Ireland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, the Netherlands, Belgium, France or Germany. Their number accounts for 8 per cent of Poland’s population. But taking into consideration that the overwhelming majority of these migrants were aged 18 to 35 when they left, this translates into a quarter to a third of this age cohort in Poland. Obviously, among the migrants there are people of all political creeds and ideological persuasions. But given that changing countries requires acquiring a new language and adapting to new culture, those who have succeeded have been the most dynamic and open-minded of their generation. Thus, I assume liberal and democratic values are espoused by a greater percentage of such migrants than among their counterparts back in Poland, or let alone in the country’s population at large.


As a result, the sudden outflow of these post-2004 migrants even further limited the importance and permanence of democratic and liberal values that tentatively took root in Poland during the 1990s. The now middle-aged generation who then espoused liberal democracy and made their careers after the fall of communism should now impart the values to their children. But a large chunk of this generation lives outside Poland and are unable to influence the situation in this country. The role of educators of Poland’s first generation raised and schooled after the end of communism by default fell into the lap of the old generation of former national communists and their erstwhile nationally-minded opponents. They have been helped in this task by the more nationally-oriented, conformist, or least dynamic sections of the current middle-aged cohort who chose to remain in Poland. Unsurprisingly then, this new generation of Poles, untainted by communism, walks blindly toward ‘truly Polish’ national authoritarianism, as urged by their elders and conditioned by the longue durée nationalist tradition of modern Polish statehood.


The Polish youth’s disillusionment with democracy and the EU is deepened also by the fact that despite Poland’s colossal economic success during the last quarter century, the actual net wealth per capita as accumulated by the country’s population is a mere €2,900, whereas the same indicator is 20 times larger for the ‘poor Greeks’ who enjoy the personal wealth of €60,000 per capita.[1] From the young Poles’ perspective the situation appears to be acutely unjust. Hence, instead of wishing to follow their parents’ example of hard graft, often including holding several jobs at the same time, they are ready to blame Brussels for all their and Poland’s problems. As a solution to the conundrum the Polish youth may as well give a try to a new isolationist approach steeped in the Polish integral nationalism, as proposed by PiS. But I am afraid that Kaczyński’s Catholic-cum-nationalist Estado Novo at the margins of Europe and directly in the way of resurgent imperial Russia rather sooner than later may turn out to be even a worse let-down to the (young) Poles than the European Union is.


26 May 2016

[1] Czy oszczędności krajowe będą w stanie finansować długoterminowy wzrost gospodarczy w Polsce? 2015. Warsaw: Deloitte, p 17. www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/pl/Documents/Reports/pl_Oszczednosci_krajowe_a_dlugoterminowy_wzrost_gospodarczy_w_Polsce_2015.pdf. Accessed: May 27, 2016. (I thank Tomasz Zarycki for bringing to my attention this important economic aspect.)