Poland is in a deep crisis. What crisis, one might ask, looking at the amazing statistics? Not only is Poland one of the very few EU member states that has weathered the European economic crisis, but its economy has also continuously grown at an exceptional rate for the last 20 years. While in 2008–2015 Poland’s cumulate GDP growth was an amazing 28%, the EU growth at that time was just 2.5%.
POLAND’S GDP GROWTH
Statistics do not explain everything but do help to explain events that are likely to have far-reaching consequences, and not just for Poland.
Since 1989, all consecutive governments of the liberal centre, of the right and of the post-Communist left have assured continuity of a strategic choice – we go West – we join NATO for security and the EU for development, leaving the Soviet shit-hole behind; we anchor ourselves in a proven Western-type liberal democracy. We did not seek any “third way”.
The economic transformation was brutal. A particularly high price was paid by those who were instrumental in the “Solidarność” (Solidarity) revolution – the workers in the big socialist industries that went under and were privatised. The whole society paid a high price for the adaptation to a market economy.
Administration without leadership
Donald Tusk and his Civic Platform party (PO) recognized this, and from 2007 led the country under the slogan: We do not need further reforms. They were the only party in the entire post-Communist period who were given a mandate to form a government for the second time (in 2011).
There were, of course, some reforms, but they were timid, to say the least. Tusk was administering the country but did not lead it. With few exceptions: in 2012 PO raised the pension age to 67 for all, from 60 for women and 65 for men, a move that was met with widespread opposition.
Tusk believed that healthy economic growth, the massive inflow of EU funds used most effectively to build and rebuild the infrastructure, the modernisation of the country, open Schengen borders, friendly relationships with our neighbours and a newly-won respect for our achievements as well as Poland’s high standing and political influence for all to see, would speak for themselves.
Well, yes, but only up to a point. It is true that Poland has undergone unprecedented change, visible not only in the largest cities, but also in small townships and villages. But unemployment has stubbornly remained above 10% and is particularly high among young people, even though more than 1.5 million Poles have emigrated, seeking work abroad. Labour productivity has grown, but this was not followed by appropriate wage increases. Employers have resorted to short-term contracts on a massive scale, refusing to offer full-time employment. Many have started to feel the glass ceiling of social advancement. Growing uncertainty has deepened a growing demographic crisis – Polish women give birth in Poland at a lower rate than they do in the UK or in Sweden…
Another contradiction: in many sociological surveys, most Poles have been stating that their and their families personal situation is good, but at the same time… that the country is going down the drain.
Since 2007, Jarosław Kaczynski has led PiS (the Law and Justice Party) on the war path, refusing to accept PO’s democratic mandate. The propaganda onslaught was as vitriolic as it was effective: there was nothing Tusk’s government could do right – the economic development or the diplomatic successes were illusory; Poland was in effect a semi-colonial state controlled by the Germans and… the Russians. The Smolensk 2010 plane crash, in which Jarosław’s twin brother, President Lech Kaczyński, the president’s wife and 94 members of the Polish civilian and military elite perished, was portrayed as an assassination plot in which Tusk and Putin played a role.
Facts and logic were unimportant. And it worked, thanks as well to the open support of the Polish Catholic Church, who saw in PiS the defender of traditional Polish values threatened by a permissive and decadent secular West.
Tusk was simply not able, and openly refused, to provide political leadership, to present a clear vision of further development, clearly believing that politics is all about rational choices. And then he left for Brussels, leaving his party in tatters.
One should see in this context a victory not just for Jarosław’s Kaczynski’s PiS, but also for some smaller and even more radical protest movements. More than 50% of those who voted (some 50% of the electorate), opted for change. During the election campaign, knowing well that they are unacceptable to more moderate voters, Kaczynski himself and several other well known radical candidates absented themselves and promoted fresh, reasonable faces and slogans. In view of PiS’s present truly revolutionary policies, Kaczynski has successfully misled the electorate.
PO made mistakes and was cut to size; the left did not even make it into the Parliament. This gave PiS a majority, and for the first time since 1989 a single party could form a government.
Kaczynski has openly declared that he wishes to follow the example of Victor Orbán’s Hungary and his model of “illiberal democracy” with the primacy of the political will over law. A statement during a Polish parliamentary debate – that “the good of the people comes before the law” – was met with a standing ovation from the parliament’s majority. Several bishops have declared that “natural law” and morality come before the Constitution.
EU – Poland’s enemy?
The new government, within just a few weeks and without any broader debate, successfully attacked the very basis of liberal democratic order and its institutional checks and balances. Fearing that the Constitutional Tribunal might declare some new legislation unconstitutional, PiS introduced a law that renders the Tribunal powerless. It has allowed for political appointees to head the civil service at all levels and has made the public media directly dependent on the government. The independent prosecutors will be subjugated once again to the Minister of Justice. The whole system of justice is to be overhauled. There is much more of this to come. And it will come quickly.
Kaczynski does not hold any governmental position and is merely an MP. But as the leader of PiS, he enjoys the undivided loyalty of his followers and of the new Polish president, Andrzej Duda, who obediently follows the PiS party line. Kaczynski’s objective is to control all levers of power: the parliament, the government, the judiciary, the public media and through pressure, even private business. Like during the bad old Communist days, all those who criticise the changes have been called traitors of Poland who serve foreign interests, often employing clearly anti-German undertones.
One of the greatest achievements of the post-1989 years has been the unprecedented rapprochement and partnership with Germany. At every level – political, economic and people-to-people. Some differences remain (e.g., Nordstream), but Germany was a strong supporter of Poland’s membership in NATO and in the EU and now have been assisting the strengthening of the regional security. Polish-German trade is bigger than Germany’s trade with Russia, and Poland does not have oil or gas to sell. Hundreds of thousands of people on both sides of the border are directly dependent on this economic cooperation. That does not prevent the Law and Justice Party from mobilising support by way of resorting to the old anti-German clichés and sentiments of historical victimhood still reverberating in Polish society.
The Law and Justice party is not overtly anti-European, as more than 75% of Poles support membership in the EU. But recent European crises and challenges from the East and the South (such as refugees), combined with the lack of leadership, have weakened the EU as the most decisive point of reference in Polish politics. And now PiS leaders have openly started to treat the EU and the European Commission as an enemy that intends to prevent PiS from executing far-reaching changes.
On June 1st, the European Commission started formal proceedings concerning the rule of law in Poland and stated: “Recent events in Poland concerning in particular the Constitutional Court have led the European Commission to open a dialogue with the Polish Government in order to ensure the full respect of the rule of law. The Commission considers it necessary that Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal is able to fully ensure an effective constitutional review of legislative acts.”
Looking for alternatives, PiS strategists are raising the unrealistic prospect of “Intermarium”, a new alliance of states from the Baltic to the Black Sea (or even to the Adriatic Sea). Such a coalition of the weak will not materialize, if only for the differences of attitudes towards Putin’s revanchist Russia. Even the Baltic states, directly threatened by Russia, realize that such a coalition will be as much anti-Russian as anti-German. There are also no takers among the Visehrad Group states: Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia.
The real risk is that Poland, whose security and further economic development depend so much on European cooperation, will be politically isolated. It is the last thing Poland needs, as an effective limitation of Russia’s freedom of action in our common neighbourhood is directly dependent on European and transatlantic unity.
The liberal and leftist opposition have regrouped around the objective of the defence of the Constitution. Tens of thousands of people have marched in protest in many cities under the banner of The Committee of the Defence of Democracy – KOD. Opposition will only grow, as many middle-of-the road voters who had opted for change during the elections have already begun to show signs of hostility towards PiS because of their attack on the Constitution. There is fear that the demonstrations might result in violence on the streets.
Poland is a deeply divided country now. What we have been witnessing is not just about politics – it is a deep cultural war between two tribes who have little in common: the traditionalists and the modernizers – like in Turkey, Hungary or Russia. It is therefore difficult to imagine some sort of compromise. Jarosław Kaczyński and his most ardent followers know this and will do everything possible to secure their rule in the future. If they win, not only will Poland will pay the price, but also the European Union.
Read a comprehensive report on the far-reaching changes in Poland’s foreign policy, particularly the European Policy, that was introduced by the Law and Justice Party (PiS) government since the election in October 2015.
Eugeniusz Smolar is a foreign policy analyst, Senior Fellow and former Chairman of the Centre for International Relations, Warsaw.
Political prisoner 1968–1969, jailed for organising protests against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact armies. Political émigré: in Sweden (1970–1975) he studied Sociology and Political Sciences at Uppsala University. Since 1975 a journalist and later director of the Polish Section of the BBC World Service in London. Assisted democracy movements and later “Solidarność” in Poland, Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia and Helsinki human rights groups in the USSR.
Following his return to Poland in the 90s, he was responsible for programming at the Polish Radio (1998–2005). He has been involved in regional integration and in the Polish-German, Polish-Russian and Polish-Ukrainian dialogue