The Polish government’s recent attempt to force the New York-based Discovery, Inc., to sell its popular television stations in Poland—TVN and the TVN24 news channel—astonished many in Poland and beyond. Since 1989, Polish governments have put a priority on maintaining close transatlantic relations, and this attempt to hijack a television station to enhance the government’s control over media hit right in the solar plexus of mutual relations between the allies.
The government has attempted to restrict TVN24’s freedom of action before and faced rebuffs from U.S. diplomats for doing so—including from former President Trump’s ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher. Numerous consultations between senior American diplomats and the Polish government have failed to resolve the problem. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken himself has responded with a warning. Even if Poland’s rulers somehow compromise and leave TVN alone, the lack of trust this episode has engendered will remain between Washington and Warsaw for a long time.
At the center of Poland’s autocratic turn—and the strain in the transatlantic relationship caused by it—is Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) and the spiritus movens of the troubling changes in Poland since 2015, when Law and Justice took power alongside two smaller parties.
Since 1989, Kaczyński has focused on building a strong party based on the Führerprinzip, rewarding others for personal loyalty. Characteristic of the quasi-religious worship surrounding him is a quote from Beata Szydło, Poland’s prime minister from 2015 to 2017, about herself and her successor as Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki: “We are Jarosław Kaczynski’s anointed.”
Kaczyński began his career, not unlike Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, as a conservative-liberal, but he now leads a nationalistic, ultra-conservative party. PiS has not hesitated to flirt with and solicit the support of xenophobic, homophobic, neo-fascist, and antisemitic groups—including even organized football hooligans. More recently Kaczyński has cultivated links with the more extreme elements of the anti-vaccination movement, until some of its members attacked vaccination centers as Covid-19 numbers began to rise again.
Kaczyński wasn’t originally known for his religious zeal, and PiS has none of the features of a European Christian-Democratic party, but he has since attached his party’s fortunes to the Catholic Church in return for its support as a vote-getter.
Kaczyński headed a coalition government without much success from 2005to 2007. In an interview in 2007, he concluded that “legal impossibilism” had kept him from implementing his political project for Poland. Thus, the constitution, the Constitutional Tribunal, and the separation of powers should be amended to remove those limitations.
Kaczyński rejected the results of the official commission investigating the 2010 plane crash near Smolensk, in which his twin brother, President Lech Kaczyński, his wife, and ninety-four other people died. He organized monthly memorial ceremonies to maintain the interest of the “patriotic” electorate in his thesis that the disaster was somehow the work of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Poland’s then-Prime Minister Donald Tusk. The fact that there was no evidence of this theory, he proclaimed, just proved how well the conspiracy had been concealed. Polls showed an increase in support for PiS among Poles, who have ample historical reasons for believing their government is always hiding something.
In the 2015 elections, PiS formed an electoral coalition called the “United Right” with two smaller parties and won 37.58 percent of the vote (though turnout was only 51 percent). In the Polish system, this was enough to allow it to achieve a majority in parliament and to form a government. In 2019, however, PiS increased its advantage, winning 43.6 percent of the vote on a much higher turnout of 61.7 percent. Its policies clearly met with greater popular approval. The source of the coalition’s success was a populist, “nativist-cum-welfarist”—or some say a social-nationalist—type of politics, defined by generous social benefits combined with an aggressive nationalism.
Much like Donald Trump, Kaczyński has been able to exploit the tension between the countryside and the thriving urban areas. PiS has exploited a demand for status and a more equal distribution of wealth among its voters—particularly those living in the less-developed regions, villages, and smaller towns—who believe they have been left behind in the economic and social development of the past few decades. To these voters, Kaczyński presented an attractive vision of the common man who would give them their due and lead them to the national rebirth of a Poland that has always found itself on the receiving end of policies imposed by foreign powers and treacherous liberal cosmopolitan elites.
PiS embraced a radical conservative nationalism, strongly rooted in Catholicism. In elections, the party has presented itself as the only defender of Poland’s security and national character against many threats: Muslim refugees, who are potential terrorists and spread “parasites and diseases” (Kaczyński’s words); hostile foreign powers; a decadent Europe bent on forcing the Polish people to accept LGBT and abortion rights; and Poland’s entrenched elites.
Zbigniew Ziobro’s Solidarna Polska (Solidarity Poland) party is the other major partner in the United Right coalition. Ziobro was minister of justice from 2005 to 2007 and is once again in that post now. Solidarna Polska is more conservative and radical than PiS, is hostile toward the European Union, glorifies Polish sovereignty, defends the traditional model of Polish families, speaks out against women’s and LGBT rights, flirts with the extreme nationalist right, and also enjoys the support of the Catholic Church in Poland. Ziobro has publicly criticized the leadership of PiS for its inconsistency in carrying out radical reforms and giving in to the EU’s pressure. The party polls at around 5 to 7 percent on its own. Kaczyński, who hates any challenge to his personal rule, has to tolerate Ziobro’s occasional outbursts, realizing that without him he would lose his majority in parliament or would allow a dangerous competitor on the right to arise.
Immediately following the 2015 election, the PiS, like any populist party, glorified majoritarian rule, declared that it represented the will of the Polish Nation (always written with a capital N), and asserted a mandate for radical change. Unlike Orbán, however, Kaczyński did not enjoy a large enough majority to amend the constitution, so he set out to violate its text and spirit through the implementation of parliamentary laws. Deputies found themselves receiving the proposals of new laws shortly before voting on them, often at night, so they had no time to familiarize themselves with them. Party loyalty was the deciding factor.
Since 2015, PiS has ruled by fear, conflict, and permanent crisis, and has launched a series of attack on the laws, institutions, and norms of liberal democracy, including independent media and civil society. PiS continues to delegitimize the liberal opposition and has drastically limited its influence on the legislative process in parliament.
The flurry of initiatives PiS proposes gives the impression that these moves are spontaneous, but in fact they are carefully planned to give the opposition and independent media no chance to analyze or react to them. But the true goal of this planned chaos is more ambitious than just forestalling resistance from opposition political parties and controlling the news cycle. The atmosphere of political, legal, and informational chaos is intended to ensure PiS freedom of action and to misinform and desensitize public opinion. For several years, this has worked brilliantly.
In order to circumvent the “legal impossibilism” that blocked Kaczyński before, over the past six years PiS and its partners in the “United Right” coalition have introduced Kaczyński’s personal autocratic rule and destroyed the principles undergirding the rule of law. This includes:
An attack on the justice system. PiS has stacked the judiciary with loyalists, starting with the Constitutional Tribunal, the Supreme Court, and the National Council of the Judiciary (which selects nominees for the judges who are ultimately appointed by the president), thus ensuring there will be no legal challenges to the party’s policies. PiS has replaced most of the presidents of regional and local courts across Poland and introduced a system of punishment for judges who disagree with violations of the constitution. These and other “reforms” were successfully challenged in the European Court of Justice and remain a source of serious conflict between Warsaw and the European Commission and Parliament. The party has merged the Ministry of Justice with the function of prosecutor general (previously the prosecutor’s office had been a separate and relatively independent body).
The firing or forced retirement of more than sixty generals and more than one thousand lower-ranking officers. Many of these officers were trained at West Point in the United States or Sandhurst Military Academy in the United Kingdom and had combat experience working with the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The replacement of many intelligence and counterintelligence officers who were deemed insufficiently loyal to the party. The now-politicized domestic intelligence services have been enabled to fight the opposition in Poland itself by means of new, far-reaching powers for eavesdropping and hacking, allowing the government to access the communications of all groups in society.
The firing, forced resignation, or marginalization of hundreds of diplomats in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Party loyalists, many with little diplomatic experience, have replaced them.
Rewarding coalition partners with the spoils of widespread purges in government. The party has dismissed and replaced thousands of employees in national government and in local governments where it is in power. It has abolished or watered down the competitive process for recruitment to the civil service, so that trustworthy cadres and their families can fill positions. It has replaced hundreds of managers in state-owned industries with new nominees, many of whom have no business experience.
As a result of these actions, PiS has created an extensive patronage network, leading to many blatant instances of nepotism and corruption. NGOs as well as TVN and other independent media outlets have revealed many of these abuses, but they have been prosecuted only when the PiS and justice minister Ziobro have found it politically advantageous.
The rapid pace of poorly prepared legislation and the constant threat of changes in taxation, welfare, and labor laws have taken a toll on private business. There have been several instances in which official harassment has prompted business leaders to pull up stakes and leave the country. As many businesses have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, private investment has collapsed.
The constant threat of damaging tax audits ensures that businesses refrain from providing financial support to the opposition parties’ associated bodies or NGOs engaging in causes deemed hostile by the authorities, such as human rights, LGBT rights, defense of the constitution and the rule of law, and even Holocaust education in schools. The government has stopped all public funding for NGOs dedicated to these causes and channeled the money to newly established associations that are ideologically close to the PiS or the Catholic Church. As a result, independent associations have been forced to limit their activities to a great degree.
The party has withheld or severely limited funding for museums, theaters, film production, and cultural festivals that are associated with artists known for their liberal, non-nationalist views, or that do not conform to the cultural aesthetics promoted by the government. The state is pressuring cultural institutions and schools to act as guardians of official orthodoxy and teach a single, heroic version of Polish history.
The government has brought schools, previously managed by local governments, under the direct control of the state’s regional educational inspectorates. It has changed the curricula and promoted the teaching of a single, more “patriotic” version of history, with 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.”
In its drive to centralize, the government has also been financially starving local governments by reducing payments from the central budget while burdening them with new, costly responsibilities in the areas of education, health care, roadbuilding, and so forth. This is especially true in places where the opposition holds power.
The government has removed at least one thousand journalists and managers from the state-owned radio and television services, and embarked on aggressive campaigns of support for the government and against all who oppose PiS’ autocratic rule—opposition parties, local councils, NGOs, independent media such as TVN, women’s and LGBT rights activists, and the European Union, among others.
Nowhere to Hide
Older generations will remember similar hate campaigns from the Communist era. Following de-Stalinization in 1956, the Polish government conducted these propaganda campaigns only during periods of open revolt by workers, students, or intellectuals—in 1956, 1968, 1970, 1976, 1980, and after the imposition of martial law in December 1981. Such campaigns against “enemies of the people” or “American lackeys” usually died down after a few weeks or months; after the 1960s, the Communist authorities, lacking revolutionary zeal, desired stability above all.
Unlike the Communists, however, Kaczyński and Ziobro cannot be accused of lacking revolutionary fervor, so the state radio and television propaganda campaign has been a constant in public life since 2015. Thus earlier this year President Andrzej Duda called Adam Bodnar, Poland’s widely respected top human rights official, “anti-Polish” for stating in an interview with Agence France-Presse that Poland is heading “in the direction of an undemocratic state.”
PiS has embarked on a systematic campaign of harassment against independent media and individual investigative journalists by launching many costly and time-consuming lawsuits—for example, the liberal daily Gazeta Wyborcza has fielded some seventy lawsuits since 2015.
In December 2020, under the slogan of “re-Polonizing” the media, PiS orchestrated the purchase of the unprofitable local newspaper chain Polska Press from its Swiss-German publisher by the state-owned energy company Orlen. Polska Press controlled 20 regional newspapers, 120 weekly magazines, and some 450 online portals, accessed by some 17 million politically valuable readers. Following purges, these publications’ editorial stances came into alignment with PiS policies. The international NGO Reporters Without Borders titled the section of a report devoted to Poland “Repolonising means censoring.” Similary, the government’s attempt to force Disney through a new law to sell its channel and network carries the aim of trying to control a very popular, independent source of information and free debate.
PiS attempted to justify the law by claiming that it was aimed at curbing potential influence from China, Russia, or the Gulf Arab states, but Marek Suski, vice-chairman of the Law and Justice parliamentary caucus, let slip the real reason at a July 10 closed-door meeting with local PiS supporters: “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 Catholic Church
The Church has traditionally played an important role in the lives of Poles, not only as a source of religious inspiration but as a defender of “Polishness” in the most difficult times of foreign invasions and during Poland’s partition between Austria, Prussia, and Russia from 1772 to 1918. After World War II, the Church effectively resisted communist oppression and thus gained respect and support even from liberal and left-wing circles typically skeptical of religious authority. The role of the Polish-born Pope John Paul II was also inspiring, of course. His public support was particularly important for the Solidarity trade union’s struggle under martial law in the 1980s, and it was decisive in convincing often reluctant bishops and priests to persuade the faithful to support Poland’s accession to the European Union in the 2003 referendum.
During the Communist era and in the first two decades after 1989, the Church and Church-affiliated media bolstered pluralistic and liberal trends. Today, these voices have been almost completely marginalized, and the Church in Poland has become decidedly conservative and anti-European, using language reminiscent of the Russian Orthodox Church. The close alliance between the altar and the PiS throne, from which the government benefits politically and the Church financially, has provoked criticism by many Catholic faithful, including PiS voters, who have demanded that the Church stay out of politics and focus on religion. Many now criticize the ostentatious wealth of Catholic bishops and individual priests.Particularly objectionable is the ostentatious mutual support (including massive financial transfers) between the government and the ultra-conservative and xenophobic Radio Maryja and TV Trwam, both controlled by Father Tadeusz Rydzyk.
As in several other countries, the Church is embroiled in several high-profile pedophilia scandals, some of which were revealed by investigative journalists from TVN, among others. The bishops’ failure to report or discipline priests guilty of pedophilia in the past—and their stonewalling, even today, of investigations, including from a special state commission set up in 2020—have led the Vatican to dismiss or force the resignation of several bishops.
Under pressure on multiple fronts, the Church in Poland has been willing to offer PiS its ability to deliver votes in exchange for judicial and financial support.
Foreign and Security Policy
The government, like all its predecessors since 1989, considers NATO, supplemented by bilateral treaties with the United States, the basis of the country’s security framework against a revanchist Russia. It has dutifully fulfilled all the alliance’s commitments, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan as well.
Yet the situation in the Polish army is dire. Many generals appointed to top command positions lack adequate formal training or experience. The politically motivated sacking of experienced officers, including in the intelligence and counterintelligence agencies—combined with the fact that the careers of those who remain depend on political loyalty—has tremendously weakened the army’s morale and operational capabilities.
The Territorial Defense Force, separated from the regular command structure and answering personally to the minister of national defense, was ostensibly created to handle unpredictable situations like a hybrid war or natural disasters, but many have argued these forces could be used against the opposition if PiS were in danger of losing an election.
Despite a huge defense budget (Poland spends more than 2 percent of its GDP on defense), the process of modernizing the army has been delayed, with purchases of modern weaponry being made on a chaotic and ad hoc basis. One example of this is the surprising, politically motivated announcement in May 2021 of the unplanned purchase of 24 Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones.
Another, more recent example is the purchase of 250 American M1A2 Abrams tanks. No budget has been allocated for these purchases, which did not figure into any known modernization plans, including those agreed with NATO or the U.S. Defense Department. The government has therefore stated that it will finance the purchase of the tanks by borrowing from international financial markets. To give a sense of the haphazardness of this move: On July 22, in announcing the decision to purchase the Abrams tanks, defense minister Mariusz Błaszczak stated that the tanks would strengthen Poland’s defensive capabilities, as they would be deployed at “the Smolensk Gate.” Apparently, he didn’t realize he was talking about the territory of Belarus. Lukashenko’s and Putin’s propaganda machinery immediately used his remark as proof of the aggressive intentions of Poland, the United States, and NATO.
Foreign policy, meanwhile, has been fully subordinated to domestic politics, with the aim of creating a protective umbrella over radical changes in Poland.
In 2016, six months after PiS took power, I co-authored an analysis demonstrating the interdependence between domestic and foreign policy in 2016. My fellow authors and I take no pride in the fact that subsequent events have confirmed our observations.
Kaczyński knows little about international relations, having been to the West only a few times in his life. Yet he is driven by a strong ideological conviction that pleasant-sounding proclamations about alliances, democracy, and so forth hide the real, relentless power struggle and game of interests in which Poland—always betrayed by its allies in the past—must look after her own first and foremost. Kaczyński confirmed that this was his approach in a 2016 interview, saying 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
Neither Kaczyński nor his trusted advisers believes in the long-term future of the European Union or the guarantees of allies. Their actions are aimed at expanding Poland’s effective decision-making capacity (sprawczość). The main threat remains Russia, but they see no contradiction in weakening allied unity, mainly within the European Union.
PiS treats the European Union as a necessary evil: a source of development funds and an institutional structure that at the moment serves Poland’s interests. The party assumes this may change in the future, especially when, because of future development and enrichment, Poland becomes a net contributor to the EU budget. At that point, all bets are off.
Since joining the European Union in 2004, Poland has received some €123 billion ($145 billion) net in non-returnable subsidies. The new EU budget stipulates that between 2021 and 2027 Poland will receive a further €139.4 billion ($139.4 billion) in subsidies, and €34.2 billion ($40 billion) in repayable aid. In addition, Poland will receive €23 billion ($27 billion) in non-repayable grants from the Next Generation EU Recovery Fund, which was established to address the impact of the pandemic; it will also have the opportunity to take advantage of around €34 billion ($40 billion) in loans at very favorable interest rates.
Poland’s continued development, including trade and foreign investments, depends on its membership in the European Union, in which Germany (Poland’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.
The PiS’ attacks on the rule of law, its anti-gay propaganda, and its open anti-German stance has dramatically worsened relations with EU institutions and Berlin, as well as with most other governments in Europe. In the time since I co-authored another study on Poland’s EU policy in 2017, relations with the European Union have deteriorated seriously. The number of intergovernmental consultations has drastically decreased, and on occasion prime ministers and sectorial ministers from EU states have found various pretexts to avoid contact with the government in Warsaw during what would otherwise be routine visits or consultations. (For historical reasons, Germany has tried to avoid inflaming relations by shifting responsibility to the European Commission and the European Court of Justice.)
Other European states now see Poland as a country that weakens the EU, violates European values and principles in the field of the rule of law, refuses to show solidarity, and acts selfishly.
A brief litany of the PiS’ self-isolating gestures would include its 2016 official designation of the United Kingdom as Poland’s most important strategic partner in the EU; its opposition to further integrationist tendencies in the EU, believing that they serve the interests of larger states, in particular Germany and France; its identification of Poland and Hungary as being in the vanguard of the changes taking place in Europe and the world; and its signing in July 2021 of a joint declaration with some sixteen radical populist-right-wing parties—including Orbán’s Fidesz, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, Matteo Salvini’s Northern League in Italy, Spain’s Vox, as well as the far-right and genuinely proto-fascist Brothers of Italy—to increase their collective influence within the EU.
In our May 2016 analysis cited above, we noted that:
PiS appears not to appreciate that in a Europe that followed the principles taken from the PiS catalog of values, Polish national sovereignty, if not its egoism, is going to find itself on an immediate collision course with the identical tendencies of other nation-states, including those which are stronger than Poland.
Events since then have confirmed those fears, clear examples of which include Germany’s stance toward the construction of Nord Stream 2 and France’s attitude toward Polish employees working in West European countries for lower, Polish wages (so-called “posted workers”). Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel’s unexpected proposal to start direct talks between the EU and Putin (which Poland, among others, blocked in June) is another case in point. The new, third postwar generation of Germans sees fewer and fewer reasons to tolerate the hostility of the Warsaw government because of its moral responsibility for the catastrophic damage of World War II.
Poland, which had a seat at the big table as one of the five largest and most economically successful member-states in the EU following Brexit, has now been effectively isolated. The Weimar Triangle concept of Poland with France and Germany is dead, as Macron has been refusing to meet in this format at the presidential or prime ministerial level and has made it known to Polish president Andrzej Duda that “Poland has nothing to contribute.”
The Visegrád Four group, which for years has served to formulate common interests in the European Union, is now practically dormant—the Czechs and Slovaks have publicly distanced themselves from Orbán’s and Kaczyński’s anti-liberal and anti-European (also anti-German) policies. Only a few pragmatic projects remain; the rest are just talking shops.
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 and Berlin, because eventually, especially in the face of a crisis, they will choose Berlin and the internal cohesiveness of the European Union. At present, the Baltic states in particular are very concerned about Poland’s conflict with the United States.
In light of the need for the further coordination of various policies—including economic, fiscal, and more recently health policy (Covid-19)—integration, at least in the Eurozone, will proceed. Since joining the EU, Poland has achieved remarkable economic success, radically reducing the gap with Western Europe, but it remains outside the Eurozone. After Brexit, the non-Euro countries constitute just 15 percent of the European Union’s GDP. The Eurozone will therefore probably power ahead with deeper integration—albeit on a selective basis.
The Law and Justice party has been pursuing a policy of self-isolation in Europe that is detrimental to Poland’s strategic interests. Poland and Hungary have jointly proclaimed themselves the defenders of the interests of the Central and East European region. In the opinion of PiS ideologists, Poland must strengthen this role, or it will be forced to accept decisions made in Berlin. This fear has motivated Warsaw’s attempts to build alternative structures such as the Intermarium (with Ukraine) and, when that failed, the Three Seas Initiative (3SI), limited to EU members.
The Three Seas Initiative
PiS treated the 3SI as a geopolitical project from the beginning, but other participating countries rejected this concept at the first summit in Croatia in 2016. Nor did any of them support Poland’s proposal to institutionalize the initiative by creating a permanent secretariat.
3SI did win the support of the United States at the 2017 Warsaw summit; President Trump announced an investment of $1 billion, which lent political and financial credibility to the project. On the other hand, the gesture also deepened anxiety in Western Europe that 3SI was targeting EU unity, given Trump’s hostile statements and the ambiguous policy of the Warsaw government.
Amidst conversations at the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin in 2019, I realized that Berlin’s anxieties along these lines were genuine. Following pressure from several participating states, and despite Warsaw’s initial reluctance, the Poles finally agreed to allow Germany to participate in 3SI as an observer, and, as a quid pro quo, Poland joined the so-called Berlin Initiative, dealing with the modernization and European integration of the Western Balkans.
At the next 3SI summit, in Bucharest in 2018, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas expressed (rather restrained) support for the project. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, pointed out the decisive role of the EU in financing various projects, which was understood as a kind of warning. During the 2019 summit in Slovenia, the decision was made to establish the 3SI Investment Fund as a public-private venture.
The 3SI is a useful initiative, focusing pragmatically on increasing the competitiveness of Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe through the development of infrastructure along the north-south axis—energy, digital, roads, and so forth. A list of some sixty infrastructure projects has been drawn up, but two-thirds of them were already on the EU’s list of so-called “preferential projects,” which 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, Poland has considered the independence of Ukraine and Belarus as crucial for its security. The Polish-Swedish Eastern Partnership project, officially launched in 2009, represents the greatest success to date for Poland’s eastern policy. Berlin lent its support at the time, while France’s and the UK’s attitudes were more restrained, bordering on indifferent.
The Eastern Partnership’s most important objectives were to assist with the pro-European transformation of partner countries and to involve the entire European Union in the future of the “in-between” states: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Until Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008, many Western governments were practically indifferent to the smaller nation’s fate; indeed, they had often practiced unambiguously “Russia First” policies. However, after the hostilities broke out, the Eastern Partnership project changed the attitude of Western Europe’s governments to a predominantly positive one.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war that began in eastern Ukraine in 2014–15 led to an emphasis both on pro-European transformation and on strengthening the partner countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Germany’s support was crucial. Many projects were implemented as a result of proposals jointly prepared by Warsaw and Berlin, which were later accepted by the entire European Union. Today, because of the anti-German rhetoric of the PiS government, such close cooperation is in short supply. By antagonizing Berlin and the EU Commission, Poland’s ability to influence the EU’s Eastern policies has diminished. The acrimony and distrust are suboptimal to put it mildly, witnessing now how Belarus uses migrants to destabilize Poland and other neighboring states—a common and thorny EU problem.
The PiS government has pursued a largely symbolic Eastern policy. Although it proclaims that Poland’s security depends on Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty, the assistance the government provides to that country, particularly in military and financial terms, is far smaller than what it could and should, given the challenges facing both countries.
Opposition to the construction of Nord Stream 2 currently unites the governments in Warsaw and Kyiv, but at the same time PiS has often made its relationship with Ukraine conditional on historical grievances going back to World War II, to placate nationalistic elements within Poland. Privately, PiS officials increasingly say that Poland’s policy should be driven by its own interests, not Ukraine’s. Some radical elements within the PiS camp even suggest there is a need to mend relations with Moscow, because of its positions on Europe, multiculturalism, and LGBT rights, among other issues. No one knows how far Kaczyński would be willing to go to demonstrate Poland’s sovereignty in relations with Western allies, if Putin were to engage PiS and, for example, return the remains of the Smolensk presidential plane as a goodwill gesture. The PiS narrative is anti-Russian, but its policies are Putin-like and anti-European.
Taking Off the Gloves
Since 2016 PiS has begun the process of changing Poland’s political system into a full-fledged autocracy. For Kaczyński/PiS and Ziobro, the pressure from an integrated Europe is a threat, both political and cultural. Justice Minister Ziobro has no compunction about portraying the European Union as essentially hostile; he recently accused it of engaging in “hybrid war” against Poland through its opposition to the Polish government’s judicial policies. By aligning themselves with former President Trump, who publicly called the European Union a “foe,” the PiS government was able to leverage its position in Europe to some extent.
President Biden’s victory poses a further danger to PiS. Biden’s refusal to hold even a telephone conversation with President Duda or offer him an invitation to the White House, and his failure to consult with Poland before reaching an agreement with Germany on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, have provoked fury in government offices in Warsaw.
With his attack on TVN, Kaczyński is essentially announcing that he is prepared for a crisis in relations with the United States. His radical entourage has convinced him that he can wait out the current administration, after which Trump, or another figure ideologically more sympathetic to PiS, will return to power. Moreover, PiS is also counting on the fact that, following possible heavy losses in the 2022 congressional midterms, President Biden’s ability to act will be significantly restrained.
In internal discussions, PiS leaders cite the example of Hungary’s isolation under President Obama: Orbán outlasted Obama, so PiS can outlast Biden, too. But Poland is not Hungary, and the importance of the alliance with the United States is fundamental both for Poland and for NATO’s eastern flank.
Kaczyński has thus commenced a dangerous game. By going after TVN, he is not only attempting to serve his own party’s political interests but is also testing how far Poland can go in pressuring other countries to accept its regime. Kaczyński and his entourage believe that, in light of U.S. strategic interests in the region, they will succeed.
Poland’s crisis in relations with the European Union (and with the vast majority of its member-state governments) has weakened the internal cohesion of the pax occidentalis that President Biden intends to assemble against Russia and China. The PiS government intends to pursue an antagonistic policy within the European Union, alongside one of loyal cooperation within NATO. Most European countries, however, belong to both alliances. Therefore, one cannot discount the possibility that a pacifist Germany or other Europeans—still uncertain of the strength of the alliance with the United States and driven by their intentions to reduce tensions with Moscow—would disregard the strategic interests of an unfriendly partner like Poland.
Nor should we ignore the possible consequences of the recent Biden-Merkel agreement on Nord Stream 2. President Biden himself stated that he saw no other way but to allow the almost-completed pipeline in order to secure Berlin’s (and the EU’s) participation in a common approach to China and Russia.
There has been widespread criticism of the agreement, as one hardly expects Germany to abandon its historically ingrained tendency to avoid conflict and seek compromise with Russia, as well as to risk its exports to China (some €100 billion’s worth of goods annually, accounting for approximately half of all EU exports to China). One could look for some grand geopolitical vision here, but the German debate suggests something more mundane: jobs and social stability for this export-oriented economy, not to mention strong lobbying from its domestic industries. That does not exclude efforts to secure Germany’s future economic position, both in Europe and globally, while of course avoiding taking sides in any major geopolitical conflict.
Even if Poland could feel secure with the alternative sources of natural gas supplies already developed (liquified natural gas (LNG) imports from the United States and elsewhere, and the Baltic pipeline from Norway), the question remains: What will the price of the Nord Stream 2 agreement be for the region, and who will pay it? Ukraine, most probably—but also the region as a whole, as we all will face a Russia granted new pressure points.
It’s not just the PiS government that is concerned about Nord Stream 2. The fact that Biden and Merkel didn’t take into account the positions of Poland, the Baltic states, and above all Ukraine, has sent shockwaves through political and expert circles in Poland. There were even hysterical comparisons to Yalta, calling this yet another example of the big powers disregarding the interests of smaller countries. Everyone understands this agreement isn’t deliberately targeted at Poland or Ukraine, but both countries will certainly feel its consequences. Biden’s intentions in relenting on Nord Stream 2 may be to bolster transatlantic relations in the long run; nevertheless, many are wary of the decision to leave Berlin in charge of managing the fallout from Nord Stream 2. Few expect Germany to live up to its vague obligations to defend Ukraine’s interests, as it has invested a great deal in Nord Stream 2. Not only is Ukraine in a challenging situation, but, as a result, Germany has lost much of its clout, and legitimate questions have been raised about its motives and consequences.
What Has He Done for Them?
What has Kaczyński done for Poland? The answer to this question is nothing, with one exception—a consistent policy of energy independence from Russia. But Kaczyński created all the chaos of the past six years with another goal in mind: strengthening his personal power and that of PiS.
The popularity of PiS, however, has been steadily falling for over a year. The electorate’s natural fatigue with eternal political war and crisis has began to discourage supporters. Polls show that, save for the most loyal supporters (about 25 to 30 percent of the electorate), PiS’ strategy of fear and patriotism is losing its luster. Even promises of further generous social entitlements no longer work, especially as every low-income family has felt the sharp rise in inflation, up at least 6 percent in November. The government’s ineffective management of the Covid-19 pandemic and the multiple corruption scandals related to it have compounded this dissatisfaction.
Kaczyński now ranks at the bottom of the list of politicians voters trust. He has lost his stable majority in parliament and will no longer be able to execute any major structural changes. However, he remains determined to regain support and weaken the opposition. To this end, he will do his utmost to manipulate the state structures and the media, and through them the voters, until the next elections—which could arrive sooner than the scheduled deadline in 2023.
Poland, along with all of Central and Eastern Europe, has no alternative to a security alliance with the United States. But how open is the current government to sitting down and brainstorming a truly positive U.S.-Poland agenda—not anchored in resentment about anything that has already happened, but instead aimed toward re-inspiring, renewing, and reinvigorating the American-Polish-European relationship? This question was put to me recently by an American friend. Given PiS’ highly ideological approach to global and European issues, its lack of competence in international politics, and its single-minded focus on securing its rule, I find answers hard to come by.
In the years since 1989, Poland successfully developed a broad platform for allied cooperation with the United States. The condition for the success of this platform has been that Poland’s political elites understood the general and sometimes specific expectations of the United States and integrated them into their own policies, while of course taking Poland’s strategic interests into account. There was no conflict between these aims, and the two parties resolved their occasional differences precisely because of their common values, perspective, and understanding of Poland’s strategic interests.
But for Poland in 2021, China is far away, while Russia is just over the border. The Nord Stream 2 issue has introduced elements of uncertainty into U.S.-Polish relations; the attempted takeover of TVN has also done so. These are not purely symbolic issues, and they need to be resolved quickly.
The U.S. government has work to do in this respect. But any close alliance, particularly a security alliance, must be based on trust; the Polish government must withdraw from its attempts to monopolize power—particularly its attacks on freedom of speech and independent media. These activities are not only an attack on American interests; they are an assault on democracy.
The anxieties prompted by the attack on TVN have motivated various actors to attempt to resolve the crisis by outlining a positive agenda. Daniel Fried and Jakub Wiśniewski, both very experienced former American and Polish diplomats, made one such attempt. My intention here is not to polemicize about their specific proposals (though there is much to argue with in them) but rather to question their general approach. Their article has all the characteristics of being penned by diplomats conditioned to see the glass half full under all circumstances; it is devoid of strong statements, based on the hope that a subdued, persuasive tone will convince the current authorities in Warsaw to turn back from a path that is a threat to Poland itself, to bilateral relations, and to the cohesion of the transatlantic alliance.
Historical appeals to Kościuszko and Pulaski, Reagan and Clinton, or America’s support for NATO expansion, as Fried and Wiśniewski have made, won’t work. Solutions must come from identifying and analyzing ideological preconceptions, the goals and policy practices established, and the mentality and psychological profiles of the movers and shakers—both Kaczyński and Ziobro.
It is desirable, Fried and Wiśniewski write, for both sides to work together in their strategic thinking “in the name of a rules-and-values-based international system, challenging Putin’s Machtpolitik alternative.” But the current Polish government has a huge problem with the “values-based international system,” and Kaczyński actively relishes playing Machtpolitik within Poland. Assessing the current government’s policies and their consequences is crucial for understanding the present crisis and planning for the future.
The past six years have proved that PiS treats diplomacy as a tool for manipulating and deceiving partners, as Prime Minister Morawiecki successfully did for a few years in relations with the European Union.
Kaczyński is not open to dialogue based on compromise and mutual understanding of interests. He withdraws from the decisions he has taken only when forced to do so. According to a Warsaw saying, Kaczyński only backs down “when the water comes up to his nose”—something that up to now has rarely happened.
PiS has been treating the subdued language of diplomacy as an expression of weakness. American diplomats should keep in mind that neither the president, the prime minister, nor the ministers of foreign affairs or defense, play any major role in the formulation of foreign policy; they represent nothing but PiS’ political interests, as determined by Jarosław Kaczyński.
The PiS approach resembles a well-known Soviet (and Russian) negotiating tactic: Moscow moves the goalposts, and waits for the United States and Europe to come up with some compromise proposal in the name of peace, stability, and predictability, while offering nothing in return. There’s no reason Poland should be allowed to make this approach work.
There’s no replacement for an effective political opposition, of course. It must present credible visions for security, the economy, and social policy that will convince voters to eject PiS in the next election. However, support for the principles of liberal democracy of the European Union and the United States are of particular importance.
Considering America’s difficult relationship with autocratic countries like Saudi Arabia or Turkey, one must be realistic about President Biden’s pledge to always “stand up for the universal rights and fundamental freedoms that all men and women have.” But if the Biden administration ignores violations of those freedoms in a significant U.S. ally, that will surely affect his plans to rebuild a cohesive pax occidentalis with Europe.
In August, Poland’s deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz offered some welcoming words about recently-appointed U.S. ambassador to Poland Mark Brzezinski: “On fundamental issues—regional activity, security, Eastern policy—I think we will have an ally and a friend in the person of Ambassador Brzezinski.” He added significantly: “We should not focus on contentious issues.”
If others—like Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia—perceive the United States as accepting PiS policies, then they may proceed with attacks on liberal democracy, the independence of the judiciary, the rule of law, and media freedom. And let us not forget Le Pen in France, Salvini in Italy, Alternative für Deutschland, and other populists waiting in the wings.
The Biden administration should realize that the PiS government’s policies are harmful in the broader scheme of things. With a policy based on weakening the European Union and its antagonism toward Germany and France, Poland has been effectively augmenting the corrosive processes within the European Union and NATO, thus eroding transatlantic unity. A strong American stance against these policies may exact a toll in short-term consequences, but it would also represent an investment in a strong framework for future relations. Otherwise, there is no telling what Kaczyński and Ziobro, who control almost all the levers of government, would be prepared to do to stay in power if they and their supporters see their fortunes fading in the next election.
Eugeniusz Smolar is a foreign and security policy analyst at the Centre for International Relations in Warsaw. He is a former political prisoner, émigré, and director of the Polish Section of the BBC World Service in London.
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