Poland’s Culture Wars

Central Europe’s battles over rights are dangerous, and Europe can’t risk handing Russia a victory.

A police officer faces a woman in mask as she argues against a pro-life counter protest in front of Krakow's Archbishop's Palace in Krakow on Oct 25.
A police officer faces a woman in mask as she argues against a pro-life counter protest in front of Krakow's Archbishop's Palace in Krakow on Oct 25. Omar Marques/Getty Images

This month, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled that abortion in cases involving severe fetal impairment was unconstitutional, ending one of the few exceptions to the country’s extremely restrictive legislation around abortion. The decision prompted not only mass protests and road blockades, but also international pushback from human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as from prominent European politicians. Dacian Cioloş, the head of Renew Europe, a liberal group in the European parliament, called on the Polish government to repeal the ban: “Only women should decide what they can or can’t do with their bodies.”

This is not the first time that extremely socially conservative policies in Central European countries have attracted international criticism. In her 2018 report on the state of rule of law in Hungary, Judith Sargentini, a Dutch Green politician and member of the European parliament, criticized Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government for leaving sexual orientation and gender identity out of the country’s constitutional ban on discrimination. In July this year, members of the European Parliament expressed concerns about Poland’s “de facto criminalization of sexual education, as well as hate speech, public discrimination, violence against women, domestic violence, and intolerant behavior against minorities and other vulnerable groups, including LGBTQ people, and the drastic limitation, coming close to de facto banning of abortion and limiting access to emergency contraceptive pills.” In September, Human Rights Watch called on the EU to defend the autonomy of Hungary’s University of Theatre and Film Arts after the government placed it under control of a private foundation controlled by Orbán’s loyalists, leading to student protests and resignations by academics. And in early November, the Council of Europe is organizing a fact-finding mission (via Zoom) in Poland to investigate discrimination against LGBTQ people.

The international concerns are not unfounded. For instance, dozens of local authorities in Poland under the control of the ruling right-wing populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) have declared themselves “LGBT ideology-free zones,” banning pride marches and other events. In May, Hungary banned legal gender changes, stipulating that only “sex at birth” can be enter into the civil registry. And just last month, the Hungarian government also lashed out against publishers of a children’s book featuring gay characters, calling it “homosexual propaganda.” Both the Hungarian and Polish governments routinely threaten freedom of expression through broad legislation, such as Poland’s insult laws and Hungary’s recent decree on coronavirus “misinformation,” allowing the state to impose years-long prison sentences on alleged offenders.

Each new outrage sparks new criticism from abroad, which, in turn, contributes to a siege mentality in Budapest and Warsaw—and among the governments’ supporters—leading to a further hardening of their stances. Indeed, Central Europe’s culture wars, which involve clashes between irreconcilable values each held by sizeable groups, can be deescalated only by Central Europeans themselves, through their own democratic institutions. Instead of helping, international efforts to weigh in on internal conflicts often backfire.

Of course, outside actors—especially the European Union, which has a direct stake in its members’ political health—are right to push back when democratic institutions themselves are in jeopardy, as is arguably the case in both Hungary and Poland. When it arrived in power in 2015, PiS made sweeping and unlawful changes to the composition of the country’s constitutional tribunal, its supreme court. The court’s “acting” president, Julia Przylebska, for example, was appointed directly by President Andrzej Duda, ignoring the tribunal’s rules which required her to be elected by the judges themselves. In Hungary, meanwhile, many of the most senior judges were unlawfully forced out by Fidesz, Orban’s party, when a 2012 law lowered the mandatory retirement age of justices and prosecutors.

The European Commission and Parliament initiated the so-called Article 7 procedure, known as the “nuclear option,” against both Poland and Hungary in response to their rule-of-law violations. Yet for this formal process to lead to sanctions, a unanimous agreement of member countries including Poland (in the case of the proceedings against Hungary) and Hungary (in the case of the procedure against Poland) would be required. And that seems far off. The Commission also sought to tie the disbursement of Europe post-pandemic economic rescue package conditional on basic rule of law requirements. But that effort, too, seems unlikely to succeed.

One part of the problem is that, in political practice, critics of the governments in Warsaw and Budapest frequently conflate liberal democracy and rule of law with progressive social and cultural norms. That plays right into the hands of Central European nationalist leaders—those who, as Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Mueller puts it, seek “to wage an EU-wide culture war” precisely to “distract domestic and international attention from the kleptocratic autocracies they have created.” In other words, those leaders can channel anger among conservative citizens about EU criticisms of social policies toward discrediting the entire European project and the countries’ Western alliances.

Such conflicts can grow into wedge issues that Moscow uses to weaken the EU and Western alliances. Russia’s constitution was recently amended to ban same-sex marriage. Its notorious “gay propaganda” laws, with the explicit support of the Orthodox Church, are used to openly persecute members of the LGBTQ community—not to speak of the horrors committed against gay men in particular in Chechnya, which are left unaddressed by the Russian government. Putin’s regime has a long history of persecuting free speech when it conflicts with the state’s preferred narratives, and continues to implement new repressive laws. The more heavy-handed the international efforts to push back against socially conservative policies in Poland and Hungary, the greater the appeal of the Russian strongman across conservative Central Europe as an imagined bulwark of Europe’s Christian values against real and imagined excesses of Western liberalism and progressivism.

What makes the current moment in Central Europe so dangerous is that, just like in the United States, both sides of the cultural divide believe, for different reasons, that they are losing—and that the war that they are waging is an existential one. Obviously, the populists in power control the government and use it fully to pursue their agendas. At the same time, their hold of cultural and intellectual institutions is weak, and their longer-term prospects are bleaker still. Central European countries, after all, are not immune to the broader cultural and demographic trends unfolding in the West. In Poland, church attendance is declining and the country is polarized between liberal, cosmopolitan, and affluent cities and the socially conservative, economically stagnant, and increasingly depopulated countryside.

The odds are that, at least in Poland, the PiS-controlled Constitutional Tribunal has badly overreached. Although Poles, 90 percent of whom identify as Catholic, have grown more conservative on the issue of abortion, a majority still rejects an outright ban. Since the recent ruling, the public protests have grown in intensity, trailing in size only behind those organized by the Solidarity movement in the 1980s.

It is true as Western European nations have become significantly in favor of protecting LGBTQ rights, no such shift has materialized in Central and Eastern Europe. Yet while less than half (47 percent) of all Poles say society should “accept homosexuality,” in younger generations that number swells to 60 percent for those under the age of 30 and to 59 percent for those aged 30-49. It is also worth noting that the change in the West occurred gradually from the bottom up, rather than through elite efforts, campaigning, or activism. As late as the mid-2000s, even U.S. President Barack Obama was reluctant to embrace same-sex marriage; he did so only as public opinion on the issue shifted. Catholic Ireland made its peace with same-sex marriage in the same way—and more recently also with legal, though still strictly regulated, access to abortion.

Central European nations might undergo a similar shift later, or perhaps they will not. What is important is that such a shift be homegrown. In 2006, the Czech Republic introduced, with relatively little controversy, civil partnerships for same-sex couples. Yet, in August 2011, when U.S. ambassador to Prague Norman Eisen joined diplomats from a dozen other countries in voicing support for Prague’s first gay pride march, he unwittingly prompted a massive political backlash that became the defining moment of his ambassadorship. As Karel Schwarzenberg, the foreign minister, put it, “expressions of support to rights that nobody in the Czech Republic is denied are counterproductive and redundant.”

The sense that the Czechs were being nagged by their most important ally gave new prominence to hitherto marginal far-right protest movements, such as the initiative D.O.S.T. (“Enough”), which railed against the Lisbon Treaty, multiculturalism, and “homosexualism”—a term coined by the former Czech President Vaclav Klaus. Today’s Czech Republic has a wide array of anti-immigrant and euroskeptic political groups and disinformation outlets, some with ties to Russia. Worse yet, as the Hungarian and Polish governments up the ante in their ideological war with Brussels over “LGBT ideology:” They have started to equate homosexuality with pedophilia. LGBTQ Poles and Hungarians have become frequent targets of hate crimes.

This is not to say, of course, that all outside interventions are equally undesirable. The Pope’s authority among social conservatives, for example, can go a long way toward lowering the temperature of the culture wars. For far too long, local leaders of the Catholic Church in the region have assisted aspiring local strongmen in their cultural battles. Last year, the archbishop of Krakow likened “LGBT ideology” to a “rainbow plague.” Ahead of the presidential election in Slovakia last year, a bishop called voting for the liberal candidate, Zuzana Caputova—who would later be elected—a “grave sin.” In such an environment, Pope Francis’ recent expression of support for same-sex civil unions and his long-standing criticisms of those for whom “the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend,” as he referred to the anti-abortion movement in his 2018 exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, are both important and helpful.

Central Europe’s culture wars, which have gone on and off for over two decades now, put the democracies of the region to a test. The nature of that test is not, however, how fast those societies can converge on the West’s more progressive equilibrium, but rather in whether they are able to mediate conflicts between seemingly irreconcilable values without a permanent cultural civil war or the rise of autocracy. For that reason, European institutions, and indeed all Westerners who care about the future of Central Europe, have every reason to be vocal about the state of democracy and rule of law in the region. Yet, they should also think twice about the unintended consequences of inserting themselves into conflicts such as the one currently unfolding over access to abortion in Poland.

Dalibor Rohac is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Twitter: @DaliborRohac

Lance Kokonos is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC (AEI).

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