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The Battle for Democracy Can Be Won in Warsaw

The West has a unique opportunity to pressure the Polish government to restore the rule of law.

By , a professor of international relations at the University of Warsaw.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Polish President Andrzej Duda review a military honor guard during an official welcoming ceremony prior to a meeting in Warsaw, Poland, on March 26.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Polish President Andrzej Duda review a military honor guard during an official welcoming ceremony prior to a meeting in Warsaw, Poland, on March 26.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Polish President Andrzej Duda review a military honor guard during an official welcoming ceremony prior to a meeting in Warsaw, Poland, on March 26. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Poland’s stature in the West has dramatically increased since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. The NATO country, now on the front lines of war, has been instrumental in challenging Russian aggression and has taken in the lion’s share of Ukrainian refugees. Domestically, however, the country continues to experience democratic erosion.

While it may seem that Poland’s newfound centrality in the West’s war response has given it new leverage over the United States and European Union—which have at times sought to constrain Warsaw’s democratic backsliding—the opposite is true. Poland’s ruling party is increasingly isolated internationally, internally divided, and in desperate need of EU COVID-19 pandemic recovery funds. Now is an opportune time for the United States and the EU to intensify their pressure on the Polish government to restore democratic standards.

In his fiery March 26 address at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, the Polish capital, U.S. President Joe Biden emphasized that the unprovoked Russian aggression against Ukraine is part of a global struggle “between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.” This “great battle for freedom,” he said, will define the future of the world.

Poland’s stature in the West has dramatically increased since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. The NATO country, now on the front lines of war, has been instrumental in challenging Russian aggression and has taken in the lion’s share of Ukrainian refugees. Domestically, however, the country continues to experience democratic erosion.

While it may seem that Poland’s newfound centrality in the West’s war response has given it new leverage over the United States and European Union—which have at times sought to constrain Warsaw’s democratic backsliding—the opposite is true. Poland’s ruling party is increasingly isolated internationally, internally divided, and in desperate need of EU COVID-19 pandemic recovery funds. Now is an opportune time for the United States and the EU to intensify their pressure on the Polish government to restore democratic standards.

In his fiery March 26 address at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, the Polish capital, U.S. President Joe Biden emphasized that the unprovoked Russian aggression against Ukraine is part of a global struggle “between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.” This “great battle for freedom,” he said, will define the future of the world.

Biden’s choice of Poland as the location for his speech has profound symbolic meaning. Warsaw does not fit elegantly into the camp of exemplary democracies. Since 2015, Poland has been governed by the populist Law and Justice (PiS) party. The party’s leader and co-founder, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, formally holds the position of deputy prime minister but is on his way to concentrating all state power in his hands. President Andrzej Duda, also of PiS, was first elected in 2015 before being reelected in 2020. Until very recently, Duda has been compliant with Kaczynski’s will, supporting his quest for virtually unchecked rule.

Currently, PiS controls nearly all Polish government institutions except the Senate and a shrinking number of seats in the judicial system. The ruling party has infringed on the rule of law, resulting in Poland’s steady backsliding in the recognized indices of democracy. Sweeping changes to the Polish justice system that eroded judicial independence violated the EU’s fundamental value of rule of law, causing the European Commission to block 57 billion euros (around $60 billion) in post-pandemic recovery funds earmarked for the country.

PiS has also worked to stifle freedom of the press. In March 2021, the state oil company Orlen purchased Poland’s biggest publisher of local news outlets, taking control of over 80 percent of regional daily newspapers in the country. Then, in December 2021, PiS attempted to close the only significant remaining opposition TV station, TVN (owned by the U.S. media conglomerate Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc.), prompting outrage from the U.S. government. The Polish ruling party was willing to sacrifice a $2 billion U.S. business in its country just to silence independent media.

Warsaw does not fit elegantly into the camp of exemplary democracies.

Around the same time, PiS hosted a summit of European far-right leaders, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and French presidential runner-up Marine Le Pen, in an attempt to form a new alliance in the European Parliament. Both Orban and Le Pen are known for their ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The moves demonstrated Warsaw’s readiness to sacrifice its alliance with Washington, on which its security heavily depends, in the name of further consolidating the illiberal system. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine significantly complicated these plans. Orban, whose Fidesz party used to be PiS’s main partner within the EU, has disgraced himself with his pro-Russian stance, leaving Poland’s ruling party increasingly isolated. And with French President Emmanuel Macron’s reelection, Kaczynski’s hopes of an ideologically close partner in Le Pen have been dashed.

The present situation has apparently divided PiS’s previously remarkably coherent ruling camp into pragmatic opportunists ready to make concessions to restore partnership with the West and illiberal hard-liners who openly question fundamental Western values while also expecting full security guarantees from NATO. Duda—who is of the former camp—in December vetoed the bill that would have closed TVN, which had been written by his PiS colleagues, after succumbing to immense pressure from Washington. Since then, he has also taken an Atlanticist stance, distinguishing himself from Kaczynski, who belongs to the latter group.

It appears that PiS’s pragmatic opportunists may eventually be willing to restore fully democratic political competition provided they not be excluded from participating in it. Yet the illiberal hard-liners, led by Kaczynski, maintain a reasonable degree of control over the entire Polish political system—although their failed attempt to silence TVN has called into question Kaczynski’s strategy.

With inflation, mounting public debt, and a likely coming recession, both PiS camps badly need the 57 billion euros in EU funds still being withheld prior to the next Polish general elections, expected to be held in 2023. The European Commission has set conditions that include dismantling the Disciplinary Chamber, a PiS-created body in Poland’s Supreme Court that can punish judges seen as engaging in political activity. The EU also demands that Poland abolish or reform its larger disciplinary regime for judges and start a process to reinstall the judges who have been suspended by it. PiS seems to be trying to address this issue by simply renaming the Disciplinary Chamber, leaving all its faulty mechanisms intact.

If Poland receives the EU money, the party would likely immediately distribute the funds among the electorate in attempt to court voters and win a third term. PiS maintains the support of around 35 percent of Polish citizens, and under favorable conditions it can attain around 40 percent of popular support. In the Polish electoral system, these numbers would probably give PiS the mandate to form Poland’s next government, and the party would continue its illiberal streak, making the Polish political system less and less competitive.

The main resistance against PiS comes from fragmented opposition parties, nongovernmental organizations, the few remaining free media sources, and some local governments run either by opposition parties or independents. The local governments have been steadily weakened by fiscal reforms that centralize tax revenues, and it is unlikely that this resistance will survive a third PiS term in government. Furthermore, it is also possible that, whenever the war in Ukraine ends, PiS will rebuild its alliance with Fidesz, ending its ideological isolation in the EU.

All of this means that the United States and the EU currently have an excellent window of opportunity to put stronger pressure on PiS to restore the rule of law and stop undermining the competitiveness of the Polish political process.

The EU should not accept PiS’s mock amendments to the Polish judicial system and should continue to withhold funding from Warsaw until the substance of the system meets EU standards. This means that the political disciplining of judges in Poland must stop. It is not only the Disciplinary Chamber at stake, but also the National Council of the Judiciary—a once-independent body responsible for selecting judges that came under PiS control in 2018. The European Commission has similarly expressed concerns that Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal can no longer be considered an independent and impartial court, and it should take up this matter with PiS as well.

The United States and other significant NATO allies should also condition their public endorsement of PiS officials—which PiS very much desires—on their commitment to democratic standards. At the same time, the United States and other NATO countries should identify and work with the pragmatists within PiS while sidelining the hard-liners. This could prompt the pragmatists to reconcile with the democratic opposition on restoration of the democratic order. While Poland has become a critical ally within NATO, Polish security depends even more on the alliance. This interdependence gives Western powers substantial leverage in Poland.

Unlike leaders such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who use their countries’ favorable geostrategic positions to thwart possible internationally imposed conditions that could restrain their autocratic impulses, the Polish government does not have such an advantage. Poland has no choice but to stay a part of the West. And for the United States and the EU, there is no strategic dilemma that would necessitate a forgiving approach to the Polish government’s anti-democratic policies.

Poland has a tradition of peaceful transition from communism to democracy, which can serve as a model for a future deal between the democratic forces and PiS. The party should be a legitimate player in the country’s domestic political competition, but it must respect the rules of the game. The path to a new social contract in Poland may be shorter than it seems. The great overarching battle for democracy will be composed of many smaller ones. One of them can be won in Warsaw.

Anna Wojciuk is a professor of international relations at the University of Warsaw. Twitter: @awojciuk

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