How the Polish government learns from Russia – European Council on Foreign Relations
One evening in October. Twitter fills up with images of a big number of people walking through the streets of the city. They are calling on the government to step down, using strong language to assert their point of view. Later, more alarming videos appear: thugs beat up demonstrators, while the police are absent. Where is it? Minsk again? Looking back on Kiev 2014? Moscow, maybe? No, it was Warsaw, the capital of the fifth largest country in the European Union. And people were furious that the Constitutional Court had decided to introduce an almost total ban on abortion.
Comparisons between the Polish government and its Hungarian counterpart have long since become commonplace. After all, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, enjoys being part of Viktor Orban’s club, where nationalist leaders proudly stand up in Brussels. But there are other obvious comparisons. In the way the PiS interprets democracy, seizes public institutions, opposes and despises its citizens and tries to quell protests, the party is increasingly adopting the tactics of its eastern neighbors: the Pre-2014 Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. A quick review of recent Polish government actions shows how they emulate authoritarian post-Soviet leaders.
In Poland, since the PiS came to power in 2015, it has blatantly taken control of the judiciary. The current protests were sparked by a decision of the Constitutional Court. But, while the decision came from the court, the protesters have no doubts: the orders came from the PiS. The picture bears a striking resemblance to Russia or Belarus, where the courts are not independent. Even if the cynical authorities like to pretend otherwise, few would believe that Vladimir Putin or Alyaksandar Lukashenka have no say in the trials of their political opponents in court.
At the very start of the protests in Poland, women angry at the court ruling protested inside churches against the influence of the Catholic Church on politics, including its open support for the ban on politics. abortion. Kaczynski’s reaction was immediate: in a televised speech, he called on his supporters to go and defend the churches, “whatever the cost”. He also insinuated that these attacks had been prepared for a long time, that the protesters had been trained and that the whole enterprise was aimed at destroying Poland.
Again, there is a sense of déjà vu: In Russia, Belarus, and other post-Soviet states, authorities routinely claim that any anti-government protest should not be taken at face value. They are not spontaneous, they say, but are initiated or sponsored from abroad. As in Poland, the authorities’ objective is to nurture the image of the West as an enemy and to undermine the legitimacy of the demonstrators.
Regarding the separation of Church and State, although the Russian State is formally secular, it maintains very close ties with the Orthodox Church. Over the past decade, he has increasingly taken on the role of defender of conservative values. The famous Pussy Riot trial in 2012 is a good example. While the group’s protest was aimed much more at the president than the church, Putin intervened by presenting his actions as a defense of the church and the religious feelings of his fellow citizens – just as Kaczynski just did.
After Kaczynski’s call, nationalist hooligans supporting the PiS duly showed up at the women’s marches, beating up the protesters. This is shocking, but not entirely surprising, since the PiS has flirted with hooligans as a political base for years. It sounds like Yanukovych’s Ukraine: During the Maidan Revolution in 2014, the Ukrainian government used thugs to beat up protesters. The said titushki would blend in with a peaceful crowd and start fierce fighting. Thugs on the streets of Poland have already been called Polish tituszki. By creating a permissive climate, PiS is responsible for encouraging this violent behavior. The fact that Kaczynski recently became Deputy Prime Minister in charge of security represents the height of cynicism for the opposition.
Mass protests in Russia and Belarus have often met with severe police brutality. The police do not intervene to maintain order or protect the demonstrators, but to sow terror and protect the regime. Fortunately, Poland is still far from such a situation. However, media have now revealed that Kaczynski wanted police to disperse the ongoing protests. This did not happen because the interior minister and the police chief refused, giving hope that there are red lines that the authorities will not cross yet. Polish protesters are now saying what the government is creating is ‘women’s hell’ in Poland. It has therefore not gone unnoticed that the President of the Constitutional Court, Julia Przylebska, lives in Berlin, where she can take advantage of all the freedoms offered by Germany while traveling to Warsaw to make decisions that oppress women. . Again, it reminds me of Russia, where politicians create and maintain a stifling system for millions of people at home but love to send their children to live or study abroad.
To top it off, Polish public television – TVP, which ordinary Poles call “TVPiS” because of its government control – is little more than a propaganda machine, shamelessly stealing ideas from the public. Russia. If in 2014 the Russian channels repeated the mantra of “fascists taking power” in Kiev, TVP now calls the demonstrators “left fascists”, and the next day casually covers stories of “children sold to homosexuals”. Indeed, the Polish government’s anti-gay propaganda bears a striking resemblance to Russia’s anti-gay crusade, although in Russia it is much more advanced, including relevant laws.
This is all very ironic given that the PiS government despises Russia and despises its other eastern neighbors. While previous Polish governments have tried to improve relations with Russia, defend human rights in Belarus, or support democratic change in Ukraine, PiS prefers to engage in grueling conflicts over issues of history; or simply not to engage at all. But he seems to be following with admiration the way the Russian government is handling domestic politics and copying its bad habits.
In response, Polish citizens also learn from their Eastern friends. More recently, Polish and Belarusian women have exchanged strategies for effective protest. There have been victories: the abortion ban has now been delayed as the government has been surprised by the scale of the protests. Polish women have declared that “this is war” and will not give up easily. With the next parliamentary elections scheduled for distant 2023, protest is now the main hope for Polish democracy.
It could get a lot worse. Despite all the parallels with Russia or Belarus, Poland has not seen massive electoral fraud, massive detentions, police brutality, or political opponents thrown in jail. But the path chosen by the Polish government means that none of this can be ruled out. They say you become what you hate; Poland is on the right track.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications represent the opinions of its individual authors only.