Ti­mothy Gar­ton Ash

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Ti­mothy Gar­ton Ash

Je­sus Rex Polo­niae

Ar­riv­ing in War­saw, I am told that Je­sus Christ was re­cently en­throned as king of Poland. On state tele­vi­sion, the coun­try’s de facto leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, de­clares: “Vox pop­uli, vox dei! ” Pol­ish pop­ulism in a Latin nutshell. The voice of the peo­ple is the voice of God, and he, the leader who in­ter­prets the will of the peo­ple, must there­fore also be do­ing the will of God. The next day, I take a train to the north­east­ern city of Bi­ałys­tok, at the heart of a re­gion that re­turns strong ma­jori­ties for Kaczyński’s na­tion­al­ist pop­ulist Law and Jus­tice party (PiS). As we rat­tle through sun­lit forests, a chatty lady ex­plains that she boarded the train in Kraków very early this morn­ing, hav­ing flown in from Lour­des, where she and her hus­band run a ho­tel. There are so many pil­grims to the site of miraculous heal­ing that Ryanair of­fers two di­rect Kraków– Lour­des flights a week. I tell her I’m go­ing to meet a pri­est, Fa­ther Leon Gry­gor­czyk, in her na­tive Bi­ałys­tok. Oh yes, she says, he led a Ryanair pilgrimage group to Lour­des. Such a nice man, very sym­pa­ty­czny.

Soon I’m ring­ing the vicarage door­bell of this pri­est, who has caught my at­ten­tion be­cause two years ago he cel­e­brated a mass for the Na­tional Rad­i­cal Camp, a far-right, xeno­pho­bic na­tion­al­ist move­ment whose ori­gins go back to 1934. Af­ter some de­lay, the door is opened by a heavy, slow-mov­ing man with blood­shot eyes, his trousers held up by sus­penders over an am­ple belly. My im­pres­sion is that he’s been asleep af­ter a good lunch and has only the vaguest idea who I am.

As we sip tea un­der a por­trait of Pope John Paul II, Fa­ther Gry­gor­czyk laments to me how young Poles are turn­ing away from the church; they are no longer faith­ful, no longer “obe­di­ent.” You see, he says, fix­ing me with a bale­ful gaze, “the West gives them a feel­ing of free­dom.” Mean­while, what he calls “Europe” is lead­ing a bat­tle against re­li­gion, and be­hind that bat­tle “there must be some forces.”

And what forces might those be? Is­lam, cer­tainly.

Any others?

Well, you know, al­ways some­where be­hind things you find the Jews. . . There we go. I wrote it down in my black pocket note­book, and noted the time (“c1435”).

What about Jed­wabne, the vil­lage just an hour’s drive from Bi­ałys­tok where, in dra­matic cir­cum­stances fol­low­ing the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion of pre­vi­ously Soviet-held ter­ri­tory in sum­mer 1941, a part of the Pol­ish pop­u­la­tion drove hundreds of their Jewish neigh­bors into a barn and burned them alive? Ah, says Fa­ther Gry­gor­czyk, it’s still not clear who ex­actly killed the Jews there. For­mer Pol­ish Pres­i­dent Alek­sander Kwaśniewski, who made an of­fi­cial apol­ogy for the Jed­wabne mas­sacre in 2001, comes from a Jewish fam­ily, don’t you know. And Poland’s last pres­i­dent, Bro­nisław Ko­morowski, well, there’s that Jewish wife of his. . . As for the Mus­lim refugees from the Mid­dle East whom the EU wants Poland to take in, that’s ob­vi­ously a Ger­man plot to, as he puts it, “weaken Europe.” But per­haps it is also a Jewish plot? My pen couldn’t keep up with the litany of para­noia.

Such a nice man, very sym­pa­ty­czny.


I stopped here, with this true but par­tial re­port, I would re­in­force two old and now pow­er­fully reemerg­ing neg­a­tive stereo­types of Poland and the Poles. There is what I might call the New York stereo­type, in which the Poles are at heart Catholic, anti-Semitic na­tion­al­ists. And there is the Paris stereo­type, in which Poland, along with the rest of “Eastern Europe”—for­get about any dreams of Cen­tral Europe— was never re­ally part of the Europe of the En­light­en­ment and is now re­vert­ing to au­thor­i­tar­ian, il­lib­eral, halfwayto-Asia form.

Both are car­i­ca­tures that cap­ture only a small part of the re­al­ity. A Catholic na­tion­al­ist anti-Semitic Poland cer­tainly ex­ists, and it was sit­ting right there in front of me at 2:35 PM on Fri­day, April 13, in all its ob­scene big­otry. But these days, with Donald Trump as US pres­i­dent and Na­tional Front leader Ma­rine Le Pen hav­ing gar­nered a third of the votes in a French pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, a lit­tle more tran­scul­tural hu­mil­ity may be in or­der.

In truth, Poland’s na­tion­al­ist pop­ulism is just one vari­ant of a po­lit­i­cal sick­ness that is sweep­ing across the West like the in­fluenza pan­demic of 1918. As with all the other pop­ulisms, there are generic sim­i­lar­i­ties and na­tional pe­cu­liar­i­ties.

Jarosław Kaczyński is the PiS party leader and a mem­ber of par­lia­ment but holds no govern­ment of­fice. He is a soli­tary, un­charis­matic, but very skill­ful po­lit­i­cal en­tre­pre­neur who has been ma­neu­ver­ing to bring a rightwing party to power since the early 1990s. For decades, he worked in tan­dem with his twin brother, Lech, who was elected pres­i­dent in 2005 but died in an air crash near Smolensk in 2010, along with a large del­e­ga­tion, on his way to mark the an­niver­sary of the Soviet mas­sacre of Pol­ish of­fi­cers in Katyn in 1940. His brother’s tragic death gave to his own per­sonal pol­i­tics a deeply emo­tional drive and stirred among PiS sup­port­ers a po­tent brew of na­tion­al­ism, Pol­ish mes­sian­ism, and para­noia.

In 2015 he scored a dou­ble po­lit­i­cal tri­umph, win­ning both an ab­so­lute ma­jor­ity for PiS in par­lia­ment and the coun­try’s pres­i­dency for his mod­ern­look­ing and mod­er­ate-seem­ing place­man, An­drzej Duda. Since then, the coun­try has been liv­ing through what feels like an an­tilib­eral coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion, al­though Kaczyński and his com­rades in­sist it is ac­tu­ally the com­ple­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion be­gun by the Sol­i­dar­ity move­ment in 1980 but—they claim—left un­fin­ished in 1989. There are three things we need to un­der­stand about this de­vel­op­ment. First, there is the com­bi­na­tion of forces, mo­tives, and emo­tions in Pol­ish so­ci­ety that de­liv­ered PiS its dou­ble tri­umph, and that since 2015 has con­tin­ued to give it some­where be­tween 32 and 44 per­cent sup­port in a con­sol­i­dated av­er­age of opin­ion polls. Sec­ond, we must be clear that, like Vik­tor Or­bán in Hun­gary, Kaczyński is try­ing to dis­man­tle the pil­lars of a frag­ile, young, lib­eral and plu­ral­is­tic democ­racy and con­vert it into some­thing be­tween a purely ma­jori­tar­ian democ­racy and a hy­brid, com­pet­i­tive-au­thor­i­tar­ian regime. He is do­ing this in­side the Euro­pean Union and ben­e­fit­ing from large in­flows of EU funds. Third, we need to iden­tify the forces, in­side Poland, in Europe, and in the wider West, that may halt and re­verse this process, so that Poland does not next year mark the thir­ti­eth an­niver­sary of its 1989 break­through to lib­eral democ­racy by ceas­ing to be a lib­eral democ­racy.

It takes many streams to make a flood, but if I had to sum­ma­rize the springs of PiS sup­port in a sin­gle word, that word would be “re­ac­tion.” This is re­ac­tion in a dou­ble sense: a re­ac­tion to thirty years of life-chang­ing tran­si­tion from com­mu­nism, as well as glob­al­iza­tion, lib­er­al­iza­tion, and Euro­peaniza­tion, but also one that draws on pre­ex­ist­ing re­ac­tionary tropes.

Some on to­day’s Pol­ish left like to fold their cri­tique of Poland’s post-1989 tran­si­tion to a mar­ket econ­omy into a fa­mil­iar lament about ne­olib­er­al­ism. But the Pol­ish story is very dif­fer­ent from that of the Trump-sup­port­ing rust belt or the Brexit-sup­port­ing north of Eng­land. Real wages have risen at least 50 per­cent since Poland joined the EU in 2004. In­come in­equal­ity, as crudely mea­sured by the Gini co­ef­fi­cient, has ac­tu­ally fallen since 2004, and is nowhere near the British and Amer­i­can ex­tremes. An­glo-Saxon-type eco­nomic ex­pla­na­tions of pop­ulism don’t get you far on the Vis­tula.

That said, the US and Bri­tain ex­pe­ri­enced noth­ing like the trau­matic trans­for­ma­tion of a cen­trally planned econ­omy into a free-mar­ket one that Poland went through af­ter 1989. Even for those who are now bet­ter off, this meant enor­mous dis­lo­ca­tion, prob­a­bly los­ing your old job, get­ting used to an­other, chang­ing your whole ma­te­rial way of life. Sev­eral au­thors have shown how the new cul­ture of many fac­to­ries and of­fices—now of­ten un­der for­eign own­er­ship, or per­haps that of a for­mer ap­pa­ratchik turned mil­lion­aire—was at best de­mand­ing, at worst op­pres­sive. The lo­cus of un­free­dom moved from the state to the work­place. At the same time, as the po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Ma­ciej Gdula has shown in a fas­ci­nat­ing in­depth study of one small town, some of PiS’s sup­port has come pre­cisely from those who have done well and now have ris­ing ex­pec­ta­tions.1

Un­fair though some of the crit­i­cism of Poland’s “shock ther­apy” eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion may be—“What was the al­ter­na­tive?” re­mains a fair ques­tion—Poland’s lib­eral elites are re­spon­si­ble for al­low­ing “lib­er­al­ism” to be re­duced to purely eco­nomic lib­er­al­ism (which is es­sen­tially what the word is used to mean in con­tem­po­rary Pol­ish). Cru­cially, they ne­glected so­cial pol­icy, es­pe­cially in the years lead­ing up to 2015, when the govern­ment could have af­forded to do more to help those who had done less well out of the tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism.

With char­ac­ter­is­tic pithi­ness, Adam Mich­nik, the edi­tor-in-chief of the left­lib­eral Gazeta Wy­bor­cza, once said, “My heart is on the left, but my wal­let is on the right.” Yet that heart-on-theleft of metropoli­tan lib­eral elites was scarcely vis­i­ble to or­di­nary peo­ple, es­pe­cially in small towns and poorer re­gions. PiS sailed tri­umphantly into this ne­glected space, with a gen­er­ous so­cial pro­gram built around its flag­ship pol­icy of “500+”—that is, 500 złoty ($136) a month for each sec­ond and sub­se­quent child. Rafał Woś, the au­thor of a ful­mi­nat­ing left-wing cri­tique of the Pol­ish trans­for­ma­tion en­ti­tled (with a hat tip to Lenin) “The In­fan­tile Dis­or­der of Lib­er­al­ism,”2 even de­scribes PiS’s poli­cies to me as “pro­gres­sive.”

Be­sides the trauma of tran­si­tion and the space left open for a gen­er­ous so­cial pol­icy, the sources of Kaczyński’s sup­port are above all cul­tural. In a

1Ma­ciej Gdula, Do­bra zmi­ana w mi­astku. Neoau­to­ry­taryzm w pol­skiej poli­tyce z per­spek­tywy małego mi­asta (War­saw: Kry­tyka Poli­ty­czna/In­sty­tut Studiów Zaawan­sowanych/Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2017).

2Dziecięca choroba lib­er­al­izmu (War­saw: Stu­dio Emka, 2014).

rapidly chang­ing, in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic con­sumer so­ci­ety, peo­ple feel a yearn­ing for com­mu­nity—and they find it in a tra­di­tion­ally de­fined na­tional com­mu­nity. They are also re­act­ing against the so­cial lib­er­al­iza­tion that has fol­lowed in­te­gra­tion with Western Europe. While it faces dwin­dling church at­ten­dance, the Pol­ish Catholic Church has de­clared war against what it calls “the ide­ol­ogy of gen­der”—mean­ing gay and trans­sex­ual rights, civil part­ner­ships, and so on. Oh, and by the way, Je­sus Christ re­ally was en­throned as Lord and King, with a prayer that he should “rule in our fa­ther­land,” in a pa­tri­oti­cre­li­gious cer­e­mony at­tended by the pres­i­dent in 2016.

PiS ide­ol­o­gists de­nounce Western Euro­pean mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism in gen­eral and Mus­lim im­mi­gra­tion in par­tic­u­lar. The party mo­bi­lized a wide swath of pub­lic opin­ion against a Ger­man-led EU de­mand that the coun­try take in a few thousand refugees, as part of an at­tempt to re­lieve the pres­sure on coun­tries like Ger­many, Italy, and Greece by re­dis­tribut­ing quo­tas of refugees to other mem­ber states. Mean­while, Poland’s real prob­lem is not im­mi­gra­tion but emi­gra­tion. Its la­bor mar­ket and civil so­ci­ety are sorely miss­ing the more than two mil­lion Poles who now live and work in coun­tries such as Bri­tain, Ire­land, and Ger­many.

In the pathol­ogy of con­tem­po­rary pop­ulisms, the in­equal­ity of at­ten­tion and re­spect is at least as im­por­tant as any eco­nomic in­equal­ity.3 Like peo­ple liv­ing in the US rust belt or the postin­dus­trial towns of north­ern Eng­land, mil­lions of or­di­nary PiS vot­ers liv­ing in the coun­try­side and small towns of eastern and south­east­ern Poland can fairly com­plain that they have been largely and some­times con­temp­tu­ously ig­nored by ur­ban, lib­eral elites and me­dia. In Poland, this in­equal­ity of re­spect has a par­tic­u­lar cul­tural pedi­gree. The son of a lead­ing PiS politi­cian who died in the Smolensk air crash com­plains to me about “the sa­lon.” A term with a long his­tory in Pol­ish cul­ture, “the sa­lon” to­day refers to priv­i­leged, cos­mopoli­tan elites in cities like War­saw and Kraków who look down their noses at coun­try­folk and small­town plod­ders. The his­to­rian Karol Modzelewski de­tects in these con­de­scend­ing at­ti­tudes the her­itage of the Pol­ish gen­try, the szlachta, who formed the core of the coun­try’s modern in­tel­li­gentsia.

In re­sponse, in re­ac­tion, PiS ide­ol­o­gists call for the “re­dis­tri­bu­tion of pres­tige” and the “re­dis­tri­bu­tion of dig­nity.” Like pop­ulists else­where, they speak in the name of a pure, healthy, na­tive peo­ple against cor­rupt, re­mote, lib­eral elites. In fact, they are just re­plac­ing one elite with an­other. Over the years, the Pol­ish right has built an en­tire coun­tere­lite, with its own world of right-wing mag­a­zines, news­pa­pers, pub­li­cists, think tanks, ra­dio sta­tions (no­tably the Catholic re­ac­tionary Ra­dio Maryja), and, im­por­tantly, on­line me­dia—all of them too long un­der­es­ti­mated by my good friends in the sa­lon.

Even the short­est list of in­gre­di­ents of Pol­ish pop­ulism must also in­clude

3See my anal­y­sis of Ger­man pop­ulism in “It’s the Kul­tur, Stupid” in these pages, De­cem­ber 7, 2017. the pol­i­tics of mem­ory, known here as poli­tyka his­to­ryczna, mean­ing both the pol­i­tics of his­tory and his­tor­i­cal pol­icy. The Pol­ish right denounces the ne­go­ti­ated rev­o­lu­tion of 1989 as a cor­rupt “deal” or “stitch-up” be­tween the red and the pink: com­mu­nists giv­ing up po­lit­i­cal power in return for a head start to eco­nomic priv­i­lege, while left­lib­eral (and some­times ex-com­mu­nist) lead­ers of Sol­i­dar­ity made deals with them in back rooms. The interpretation is both con­spir­a­to­rial and deeply un­his­tor­i­cal.

Reach­ing fur­ther back, this ver­sion of his­tory high­lights he­roes of an­tifas­cist and anti-com­mu­nist strug­gles for in­de­pen­dence. One of the rul­ing party’s ide­o­log­i­cal foun­da­tion stones is the War­saw Ris­ing Mu­seum, which cel­e­brates the 1944 up­ris­ing against Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion as the pre­cur­sor of an in­de­pen­dent Poland. Much at­ten­tion is now given to the so-called ac­cursed sol­diers, those who went di­rectly from fight­ing Nazis to fight­ing com­mu­nists, and paid a high price. The In­sti­tute of Na­tional Re­mem­brance re­cently pro­duced a video pre­sent­ing a car­toon ver­sion of Poland’s gen­uinely heroic his­tory of re­sis­tance. It has a voice-over de­liv­ered with such la­bored pathos that one al­most sus­pects par­ody.

The prob­lem with this heroic nar­ra­tive is less what it as­serts than what it ig­nores. In Bi­ałys­tok, I was shown plans for a mu­seum ded­i­cated to Poles de­ported to Siberia and other parts of the Soviet Union, and told that this fate may have been suf­fered by as many as one in ev­ery five pre-war in­hab­i­tants of the city. This com­mem­o­ra­tion is en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate, in­deed long over­due. But what about the more than two out of ev­ery five in­hab­i­tants of pre-war Bi­ałys­tok who were Jewish, most of whom per­ished in the Holo­caust? Where the Ger­man pop­ulists of the Al­ter­na­tive für Deutsch­land de­cry lib­eral demo­cratic Ger­many’s Schuld­kult, its “guilt cult” about Nazi crimes, Poland’s PiS pop­ulists de­cry sym­bolic ac­tions like Pres­i­dent Kwaśniewski’s apol­ogy for the Jed­wabne mas­sacre as a “ped­a­gogy of shame.” And so we come to the amend­ment to the law on na­tional mem­ory in­tro­duced ear­lier this year. Its most con­tro­ver­sial pro­vi­sion crim­i­nal­ized any as­ser­tion that the Pol­ish na­tion or state was re­spon­si­ble or partly re­spon­si­ble for the Holo­caust or other crimes against hu­man­ity. This was ex­plic­itly jus­ti­fied as de­fend­ing the “good name” of Poland in the world, but noth­ing in re­cent years has done more to dam­age that good name. (Fol­low­ing widespread protests, at home and abroad, the amend­ment was sub­se­quently it­self amended, re­mov­ing the of­fend­ing ar­ti­cle.)

When Poland gets crit­i­cized for such mea­sures in the in­ter­na­tional me­dia, some­times with un­dif­fer­en­ti­ated use of those New York or Paris stereo­types, there is a fu­ri­ous de­fen­sive re­ac­tion from many Poles. Be­ing vic­tims of his­tory them­selves—re­mem­ber the nine­teenth-cen­tury ro­man­tic self­im­age of Poland as the “Christ among na­tions”—how could Poles pos­si­bly also have been vic­tim­iz­ers? As Dar­iusz Stola, the di­rec­tor of War­saw’s ex­cel­lent Mu­seum of the His­tory of Pol­ish Jews, puts it to me, there is a kind of red but­ton pressed in Pol­ish minds when Poles feel them­selves ac­cused of be­ing in any way re­spon­si­ble for the Holo­caust.

And so anti-Semitism in parts of Pol­ish so­ci­ety is again stirred up. Decades of pa­tient ef­forts at truth-telling, ed­u­ca­tion, and Pol­ish-Jewish rec­on­cil­i­a­tion are un­der­mined. Neg­a­tive stereo­types from out­side and in­side re­in­force each other. And peo­ple like Fa­ther Gry­gor­czyk are laugh­ing all the way to the al­tar.


War­saw’s cav­ernous rail­way sta­tion, I pick up a sheaf of mag­a­zines, in­clud­ing a right-wing newsweekly called Sieci. In­side I find an ar­ti­cle clear­sight­edly de­scrib­ing how Vik­tor Or­bán con­trols Hun­gary (“cur­rently 100% of lo­cal news­pa­pers are in the hands of Hun­gar­ian cap­i­tal friendly to Fidesz”) and a com­pan­ion piece en­ti­tled “Hun­gar­ian Les­son for Poland,” ex­plain­ing how Poland must fol­low his play­book. Fol­low­ing Or­bán, Kaczyński wants to cre­ate a hard ma­jori­tar­ian or hy­brid, com­pet­i­tive-au­thor­i­tar­ian po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, ex­ploit­ing for this pur­pose the largest fi­nan­cial trans­fers cur­rently made by the EU. Wher­ever I went in Poland, I saw roads, bridges, mar­ket­places, and rail­way lines be­ing mod­ern­ized with EU money, which, stag­ger­ingly, has in re­cent years ac­counted for more than half of all pub­lic in­vest­ment in Poland and Hun­gary. At a joint press con­fer­ence with Kaczyński in 2016, Or­bán quoted a Hun­gar­ian proverb to the ef­fect that if you trust some­body, “you can steal horses to­gether.” Kaczyński replied, “There are a few sta­bles, and one par­tic­u­larly large one called the EU, where we can steal horses with the Hun­gar­i­ans.”

Thus far, War­saw has only got half­way to Bu­dapest, but what has al­ready hap­pened is shock­ing enough. As Poland’s Com­mis­sioner for Hu­man Rights, Adam Bod­nar, has care­fully doc­u­mented, the PiS lead­er­ship, ruth­lessly ex­ploit­ing its ab­so­lute ma­jor­ity in par­lia­ment and helped by a weak, par­ti­san pres­i­dent, has ef­fec­tively emas­cu­lated the coun­try’s Con­sti­tu­tional Tri­bunal, now is close to do­ing the same to the Supreme Court, and has dra­mat­i­cally re­duced the in­de­pen­dence of the ju­di­ciary. In one six-month pe­riod, no fewer than 194 out of 730 court pres­i­dents or deputies were sum­mar­ily re­moved. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion has iden­ti­fied sys­temic threats to the rule of law. Ear­lier this year, an Ir­ish judge re­fused to ex­tra­dite a Pol­ish sus­pect to Poland on pre­cisely those grounds, in a case that sub­se­quently went to the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice. Pub­lic ser­vice tele­vi­sion and ra­dio, which have never been as BBC-style in­de­pen­dent as they should have been, have now been turned into party pro­pa­ganda or­gans. I re­ceive Pol­ish pub­lic ser­vice tele­vi­sion by satel­lite in Oxford, and af­ter PiS came to power I watched how cast and script changed al­most overnight, as if in an opera house: yes­ter­day it was Don Gio­vanni, to­day, Göt­ter­däm­merung.

Poland’s never suf­fi­ciently neu­tral civil ser­vice and se­cu­rity ser­vices have been robbed of any last threads of in­de­pen­dence from the rul­ing party. Lib­eral-minded mag­a­zines, the­aters, and cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions strug­gle as pub­lic sub­si­dies are with­drawn. Even af­ter three decades of free­dom, civil so­ci­ety turns out not to be half as in­de­pen­dent of the state as we had hoped. In pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions such as schools and uni­ver­si­ties, par­tic­u­larly in PiS- dom­i­nated ar­eas, you see the first ici­cles of self-cen­sor­ship. When one gutsy left-wing aca­demic at a pro­vin­cial uni­ver­sity men­tioned this to me, I asked her for an ex­am­ple. I was shocked when she replied, “Well, for in­stance, when I’m with col­leagues in my depart­ment I hes­i­tate to men­tion that I read Gazeta Wy­bor­cza.”

All this in less than three years of Pol­ish Or­bániza­tion. But the sys­tem is not as con­sol­i­dated as in Hun­gary (and even there, it is not se­cure). Kaczyński has de­clared that “we must cer­tainly con­trol the in­for­ma­tion sphere,” but he doesn’t yet. A ma­jor in­de­pen­dent tele­vi­sion chan­nel, TVN, has added view­ers while state tele­vi­sion has lost them. For­tu­nately, TVN is owned by the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel, so will be (or at least, should be) hard to sub­or­di­nate with­out of­fend­ing the United States, an ally vi­tal for Poland’s se­cu­rity. Agora, the mul­ti­me­dia hold­ing com­pany of Gazeta Wy­bor­cza, is hang­ing in there, de­spite the loss of state ad­ver­tis­ing and sub­scrip­tions. Qual­ity in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ism can be found on­line at sites such as oko.press and onet.pl. Op­po­si­tion par­ties still func­tion more or less nor­mally, al­though their lead­er­ship is dis­tinctly unim­pres­sive. Un­like Or­bán’s Fidesz, PiS does not have a two-thirds ma­jor­ity in par­lia­ment, so it can­not sim­ply change the con­sti­tu­tion. Nor has it yet man­aged to fol­low the Hun­gar­ian ex­am­ple by chang­ing the elec­toral law to its own ad­van­tage. One of the most suc­cess­ful Pol­ish re­forms of the post-1989 era was to give sig­nif­i­cant au­ton­omy to lo­cal govern­ment. I met some im­pres­sive may­ors and city coun­cil­lors, sev­eral of whom are now run­ning as in­de­pen­dents.

Or­bán con­trols the me­dia through a care­fully cul­ti­vated net­work of busi­ness as­so­ciates, whom he re­wards with govern­ment con­tracts and EU funds. Al­though Pol­ish busi­ness lead­ers are gen­er­ally cau­tious, Kaczyński does not yet have any­thing like Or­bán’s oli­garchi­cal ca­mar­illa. And then there is the ex­tra­or­di­nary fact that this en­tire an­tilib­eral strat­egy is mas­ter­minded by one soli­tary bach­e­lor in his late six­ties, re­port­edly not in the best of health, who holds no govern­ment po­si­tion and since the deaths of his twin brother and mother seems to have noth­ing left in his life but pol­i­tics and anger.

Al­ready an­a­lysts iden­tify sev­eral fac­tions vy­ing for po­si­tion in a postKaczyński PiS, one around the pres­i­dent, others around the prime min­is­ter, the jus­tice min­is­ter, the cul­ture min­is­ter, and so on. I met younger PiS ac­tivists who have more nu­anced, modern at­ti­tudes on some is­sues, and even ex­pressed im­pa­tience with the old man. A re­cent rev­e­la­tion that min­is­ters have paid them­selves gen­er­ous bonuses feeds a grow­ing pub­lic un­der­stand­ing that this is not ac­tu­ally “the peo­ple” tak­ing over from “elites.”

And then there are the Poles on the streets be­ing, well, Pol­ish—that is to say, in­sub­or­di­nate, con­trary, never wit­tingly si­lenced. On my first evening in War­saw, a friend took me to see a small demon­stra­tion in front of par­lia­ment. At one point, the po­lice tried to stop peo­ple walk­ing along the pave­ment and, with sub­lime mal­adroit­ness, picked on a ca­su­ally dressed man who turned out to be an op­po­si­tion MP. A the­atri­cal scene en­sued, with the MP hold­ing aloft his par­lia­men­tary pass and be­rat­ing the po­lice com­man­der: “I’m an elected rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the peo­ple! This is a democ­racy! You should apol­o­gize!”

Im­pres­sively large “black protests” of women of all ages, so called be­cause they all dressed in black, com­pelled the govern­ment to back down on its planned tight­en­ing of an al­ready re­stric­tive abor­tion law. There are some in­di­ca­tions that the at­tack on the con­sti­tu­tion is it­self en­cour­ag­ing a kind of con­sti­tu­tional pa­tri­o­tism. Demon­stra­tors now of­ten cry “The con­sti­tu­tion! The con­sti­tu­tion!” A few months ago, I even caught a glimpse of a crowd in Kraków chant­ing “Triple sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers! Triple sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers!”

Over the next couple of years there will be four elec­tions in Poland: lo­cal, Euro­pean, par­lia­men­tary, and pres­i­den­tial. By the end of 2020, Poland might be in­creas­ingly il­lib­eral, fol­low­ing Hun­gary, or it might pull back to­ward a more lib­eral, plu­ral­ist democ­racy. Which way the coun­try goes will de­pend mainly on the Poles them­selves. But it will also de­pend on the at­ten­tions of others—in Europe, in the United States, and in the rest of the West. For what makes this Pol­ish strug­gle dif­fer­ent from all that have pre­ceded it over the cen­turies is that the Repub­lic of Poland is now for the first time fully part of the West, be­ing a mem­ber of the EU, NATO, and all the other in­sti­tu­tions of Western lib­eral in­ter­na­tion­al­ism.

The EU ob­vi­ously mat­ters most. Brus­sels has been tougher on Poland than on Hun­gary, partly be­cause Poland is the largest coun­try in EastCen­tral Europe, but also be­cause Or­bán has skill­fully re­tained the good­will of im­por­tant Western Euro­pean lead­ers by be­ing a loyal mem­ber of the Euro­pean Peo­ple’s Party, the ma­jor group­ing of cen­ter-right par­ties. For the first time in its his­tory, the EU has ac­ti­vated—against Poland, but not yet against Hun­gary—Ar­ti­cle 7 of its ba­sic treaty, which, in re­sponse to a sys­tem­atic vi­o­la­tion of the union’s pro­claimed val­ues, en­vis­ages sanc­tions no­tion­ally up to and in­clud­ing sus­pen­sion from its main de­ci­sion-mak­ing body. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is threat­en­ing to take Poland to the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice over the emas­cu­la­tion of the coun­try’s Supreme Court. It has also pro­posed a mech­a­nism by which, in the seven-year Euro­pean bud­get start­ing in 2021, EU fund­ing could ac­tu­ally be stopped if a mem­ber state is found to have “gen­er­al­ized de­fi­cien­cies” in its le­gal sys­tem.

The full Ar­ti­cle 7 sus­pen­sion will never hap­pen, since it re­quires una­nim­ity among the other EU mem­ber states, and Hun­gary will have Poland’s back. Any link­age be­tween Euro­pean val­ues and Euro­pean money, even if ap­proved and de­ployed, will take years to show vis­i­ble ef­fect.

None­the­less, the voice of Europe re­ally counts in a coun­try where sup­port for EU mem­ber­ship holds rock solid at over 80 per­cent in the opin­ion polls. So does the voice of the US, and those of other democ­ra­cies around the world. The mo­ment is crit­i­cal. Poland is not yet lost, but its fu­ture as a lib­eral democ­racy hangs in the bal­ance. —July 18, 2018

The con­struc­tion of the world’s largest statue of Je­sus Christ, Świebodzin, Poland, Novem­ber 2010

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