The Putins of the EU
After the fall of communism, Poland and Hungary declared that they were Eastern European countries no more. Instead, they were part of Central Europe – Europa Srodkowa, the Poles called it – or even of western Europe, on par with Austria. Today, however, they are embracing Putin-style authoritarianism, to the point that the European Union may impose sanctions against them. Such reprimands are fully deserved.
Poland, now ostensibly led by President Andrzej Duda, is really controlled by former Prime Minister JarosΠaw Kaczynski, Chairman of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. Kaczynski is the twin brother of the late President Lech Kaczynski, who died in a plane crash near Smolensk, Russia, in 2010, on his way to commemorate the victims of the Katyn massacre by the Soviets in 1940. Though the crash was deemed accidental, PiS calls it the result of a Kremlin conspiracy – a paranoid charge that is all the more bizarre given Kaczynski’s apparent determination to emulate Putin’s behaviour.
Both Kaczynski and Putin are certainly contemptuous of the rule of law. In Russia, the manipulation of trials of the regime’s perceived enemies is among the Kremlin’s favourite tactics. These supposed enemies have included former Yukos Oil Company Chairman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who doubted Putin’s fitness to be president; the anti-corruption lawyer Alexei Navalny, who was investigating Putin’s wealth; and the punk rock group Pussy Riot, who mocked the Russian Orthodox Church, a core constituency for Putin. Just last week, in a notorious show trial, the Ukrainian helicopter pilot Nadiya Savchenko was handed a 22-year prison sentence on falsified evidence that she was involved in the killing of two Russian journalists during the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Poland’s government, for its part, has cancelled the appointment of three new Constitutional Court justices installed by the previous government, led by the Civic Platform. Moreover, it has neutered the Court by barring the justices from questioning the constitutionality of legislation or probing executive decisions without parliamentary approval. And exploiting a quirk of Poland’s legal system, the authorities are refusing to publish some Constitutional Court decisions, a move that essentially nullifies the Court’s powers, because unpublished decisions do not officially have the status of law.
The Polish government is also taking cues from the Kremlin in its response to the civic protest movement that has emerged in response to such actions. Not only has Poland’s government denounced the movement as anti-patriotic and guided by foreign interests; a leader of that movement, the computer specialist Mateusz Kijowski, has come under personal fire from Kaczynski.
The media is another area where Kaczynski is building a Kremlin on the Vistula. In Russia in the 2000s, Putin’s government stripped independent networks such as NTV and ORT (later Channel One) from their media-mogul owners Vladimir Gusinsky and the late Boris Berezovsky, both of whom Putin viewed as enemies. Poland’s