- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
On Monday, NATO’s Multinational Corps Northeast began exercises in Szczecin, Poland. The purpose of this practice, according to commander Maj. Zbigniew Garbacz, is to “allow the NATO Corps to achieve high combat readiness, which means shortening its reaction time.” Though he did not say to what the corps would be reacting, given that these are NATO exercises, the implication is clear: Russia.
Indeed, as the New York Times wrote Saturday, Poland’s highly conservative, nationalist ruling Law and Justice party might have well been excited about the U.S. election of Donald Trump had it not been for the American president-elect’s consistent praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin and occasional criticism of NATO. Some small comfort was taken in video that surfaced of Trump promising to help Poles get wreckage back from Russia of the Smolensk plane crash — in which the former president, and brother of the Law and Justice party leader, died. Nevertheless, unlike in other European countries, in Poland, where some still remember the Soviet era, to be a people’s party is not to be pro-Putin.
But neither is it to be pro-liberalism. In the wake of Trump’s election, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said, “Democracy won despite the liberal propaganda.” This idea — that it is elections, not elections and liberal civic institutions, that constitute democracy — is, in fact, a very Putin-esque idea.
And it is the idea toward which Poland is rapidly moving. Last Wednesday, the Polish parliament approved the creation of a defense force that in theory will keep Poland safe from Russia — but that, in practice, could be a militarized extension of the ruling party. The units will have military responsibilities, yes, but so, too, are they to be tasked with “anti-crisis measures, anti-subversion, anti-terrorism and anti-disinformation in defense of civil security and the cultural heritage of the Polish nation.”
What’s more, shortly after coming to power, the Law and Justice party moved to appoint justices to Poland’s highest court — and remove those who were put in place by its political predecessor. The government was then given official warning by the European Union, which said the ruling party was putting its own country’s rule of law at risk. Now, however, it looks as though Warsaw will not need to heed that warning. As the Financial Times explained last Thursday, the European Commission needs member states’ support to make any good on its threats — and Hungary is expected to block any action as regards this case. And so European officials expect that, on December 19, when the court chairman’s term expires, the Law and Justice Party will have control of the constitutional tribunal.
And what will the court look like when it does? When the Law and Justice party rules not just the government, but also the courts?
“The closest thing it [the current government] resembles is the structure of the Communist Party,” said Marcin Buzanski, director of the Peace and Stabilization Strategies Programme in Warsaw. “This is the part of reality that we’re facing.”
The NATO exercises, then, may be performed to resist return of Soviet style governance from outside. But they cannot protect the Polish people from the resurgence within.
Photo credit: WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/Getty Images