Poland’s New Populism

Warsaw may be turning away from the European Union, but that doesn’t mean that it is turning toward Moscow instead.

Far-right protesters in Poland hold an anti-EU banner during a demonstration in Warsaw on a Jul. 25, 2015. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)
Far-right protesters in Poland hold an anti-EU banner during a demonstration in Warsaw on a Jul. 25, 2015. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)

There’s a pattern around Europe: As politicians become more critical of the European Union, they simultaneously become friendlier toward Russia. That happened with Marine Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and Viktor Orban in Hungary, all of whom had harsher words for the EU than for Kremlin. Given that Poland, under the leadership of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, has also become more nationalist and Euroskeptical, it is worth wondering whether it could be the next domino to fall to the east.

It is true that PiS has been critical of the EU. Andrzej Duda, the PiS-backed Polish president, recently called it an “imaginary community” that brings no benefits to Poland. The party has also frequently clashed with Brussels, most recently over Poland’s controversial judicial reforms and its rejection of the European Commission’s quota system for migrants. At the same time, though, the PiS has not turned to Moscow, neither for moral support nor financial backing.

In fact, relations between the two countries have been marked by four centuries of bitter conflict, with particular low points coming when Germany and the Soviet Union signed the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which divided Poland into German and Soviet spheres, and after the 1940 Katyn massacre, when Soviet forces killed over 20,000 Polish nationals. The more than 40 years that Poland spent under Soviet Communism, of course, didn’t help. Nor has Russia’s increasingly bold interference in countries along Poland’s border.

Historical animosity has helped keep Russia sympathizers out of Poland’s political conversation for decades. “Poland,” according to Olaf Osica, who served as the head of the Centre for Eastern Studies, a Warsaw-based think tank monitoring processes in the post-Soviet zone, “is the only country in the region where pro-Russian voices are deeply marginalized.” In fact, the country’s only openly pro-Kremlin party, called Zmiana (The Change), shut down its operations in 2016 after its head was arrested for allegedly providing intelligence to Russia.

For its part, PiS, which as a right-wing populist party might seem like a natural ally for Russian President Vladimir Putin, has strong reasons for avoiding drawing close to Moscow. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the party’s heavy-handed leader, lost his twin brother, then-President Lech Kaczynski, in a 2010 plane crash over the Russian city of Smolensk that also killed the first lady and 94 others. For years, Kaczynski has suggested that Putin was behind the disaster, which has won him and his party sympathy and support.

In recent years, however, the value of the Smolensk tragedy as a political tool has started to decrease. Regular monthly commemorations of the crash were halted in April. And despite many promises and several loud denouncements of Russia, the final findings of a parliamentary subcommittee created to investigate the crash haven’t been released. Meanwhile, at Kaczynski’s personal request, a much-heralded lawsuit over returning the wreckage was never filed against Russia at the International Court of Justice.

This isn’t necessarily a sign that PiS is trying to build groundwork for a reset with Moscow. For now, it seems more likely that party is simply trying to lay low while pointing to the EU, the opposition, and migrants as enemies of the nation. In August, Piotr Oseka, a historian of propaganda at the Polish Academy of Sciences, watched and analyzed more than 30 editions of “Wiadomosci,” a leading pro-PiS news program. “What struck me,” Oseka said, “was that I saw not even one story about Putin’s Russia, while there were over a dozen about Germany under Angela Merkel: how she supports illegal migration, tolerates Nazis, and introduced permissive reforms undermining the Christian civilization.”

According to Oseka, PiS leaders have some good reasons to stay silent about Russia: PiS voters may secretly admire strong, Putin-like leadership and criticizing Putin’s decisiveness won’t win PiS as much support as it used to. Still Russia, even if it isn’t discussed in public, is present in the air. “To stress that something has connections with Russia is always a stigma,” Oseka added.

Such a balancing act could be hard to sustain, though, especially in light of a scandal that was broken last year through a long-running investigation by the daily newspaper Dziennik Gazeta Prawna. In their reporting, writers revealed that coal-dependent Poland has been buying anthracite coal from the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic, the Russia-backed separatist statelet in Eastern Ukraine. It is private companies, not the government, that are importing the coal. But the fact that the government hasn’t done much for a year to halt the imports shows “inconsistency between what Poland does and what Poland says,” Osica, the post-Soviet expert, told me, reminding me that PiS has long been vocal in criticizing Germany’s continued economic dealings with Russia despite various sanctions.

What’s worse for the party is that Russia could also be involved in a scandal that rocked Poland four years ago and helped PiS come to power. At that time, the leading figures of Civic Platform, which was then the ruling party and is now in the opposition, were secretly recorded commenting on private deals and criticizing Poland’s allies, including the United States. The fatal leak precipitated a government shakeup and hastened a drop in Civic Platform’s popularity. Now, sources cited by Polityka, a liberal weekly, claim that Russian businessmen close to Putin may have been connected to the recordings. Although PiS was the main beneficiary of the wiretapping, it isn’t clear that the party knew about it or cooperated with Russia in any way.

Zdzislaw Krasnodebski, a PiS member and the vice president of the European Parliament, pointed out that for Moscow to want to plant an avowedly anti-Russian party, such as PiS, in Warsaw “doesn’t make sense.” According to him, “relations between Poland and Russia are now, in fact, frozen, unlike in many other EU countries, which greet Putin with open arms.”

The Polish opposition, however, begs to differ. As Donald Tusk, a former prime minister of Poland and the current president of the European Council, once tweeted, even if Polish-Russian diplomatic relations are at a low, PiS politics in fact work in Moscow’s favor. “Conflict with Ukraine, isolation in the EU, undermining the rule of law and judicial independence, attacks on nongovernmental organizations and free media—is this PiS strategy or the Kremlin plan? They’re too similar to sleep well,” he wrote in Polish.

Of course, Poland’s disagreements with the EU favor Russian interests, as do any other disagreements within the EU, but it is likely a step too far to see the PiS party as a Russian pawn. “Russia’s leverage in Poland is still limited,” Ernest Wyciszkiewicz, the head of the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding, a state-funded institution focusing on fostering relations between the neighbors, said in an interview in September. “Every government kept Russians away from our economy.”

Indeed, the scale of Russian investments and activity in Poland is relatively small. Several minor companies there are backed by Russian capital, including Novatek, a Polish natural gas producer, and Polmos, a popular vodka maker, but Russia’s efforts to acquire stakes in high-profile or strategic companies in the energy or banking sectors have been torpedoed. Meanwhile, popular distrust of Russia is still high. According to a 2018 study by the Globsec, a Bratislava, Slovakia-based think tank, only 13 percent of Poles approve of Putin’s policies, which is the lowest number in the region.

“What really matters in politics are actions, not words or small incidents,” Wyciszkiewicz said. “Critical views on Russian disinformation campaign, Nord Stream 2, and annexation of Crimea? Support for sanctions and U.S. permanent military presence? Nothing has changed here.” In other words, he said, the PiS is still countering Russia where it can. It doesn’t dance between Brussels and Moscow, as many other populist or nationalist outfits do. It doesn’t see Russia as a prospective trade partner. And, strategically, the party looks to the United States as its main security guarantor. In September, Duda offered $2 billion to secure a permanent U.S. armored base in Poland, which would be named after U.S. President Donald Trump.

However, what’s different is that the country’s ties with Europe have never in modern history been as strained as they are now. Under PiS, Poland has offended Germany and France, alienated Ukraine, and watched as the United Kingdom, which PiS once recognized as its “most important European partner,” engages in grim negotiations to leave the EU. Poland faces the threat of isolation, and if that doesn’t change, the government will be under some pressure to start exploring friendlier business relationships to its east, as did Hungary’s Orban, who in some ways is seen as a model for Kaczynski.

But that seems a long way off. There is only one way for Poland to get closer to Russia, the PiS member Krasnodebski said with a smile. “It would have to be a different Russia: democratic, deprived of imperial ambitions, and ready to overcome historical burdens.”

Dariusz Kalan is a Central Europe correspondent for international media and an analyst based in Budapest. Twitter: @Dariusz_Kalan

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