Poland B vs. Poland A

By Elizabeth Pond

President Andrzej Duda’s veto of two laws this month–they would have subordinated Poland’s independent courts to the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS)–delayed briefly the campaign of the Catholic right-wing PiS to bring all three branches of governance under its own control.  The  president’s rejection of handing the fiercely nationalist party a monopoly on naming Supreme Court justices and all national judges averted immediate disciplinary action by the European Union against the Polish parliament’s breach of rule of law.

However, his signing of a third law granting the PiS parliamentary majority the right to fire and hire all local judges keeps disciplinary action high on the agenda of the wary EU.

Thus, the bitter fight for the soul of Poland that shattered the solidarity of the Solidarity trade union movement two decades ago rages on. So does the EU’s dilemma over chastising members like Poland and Hungary that pocket generous EU financial support but flout the democratic standards they vowed to keep when they joined the Union. Senior EU officials are warning Warsaw that if it crosses the democratic red line by purging judges, it can expect an EU resort to sanctions of reduced EU funding and/or suspension of EU voting rights.

Right-wing populism in Poland runs far deeper than domestic divides in nations like Austria, the Netherlands, and France, which in the past year have managed to keep right-wing populists out of their presidency or governing coalitions. Polarization between prosperous, urban, pro-Europe, and pro-West “Poland A” and poor, rural, anti-Europe and anti-West “Poland B” goes back to the 19th-century extinction of Poland as a state and dispersal of its territory into Prussian, Austrian, and Russian sectors.

Poland A in the west modernized and also developed a cultural affinity with post-Napoleonic France through Frederic Chopin and others. Its identity shone through from 2007 to 2014, when the centrist Civic Platform under Prime Minister Donald Tusk made Poland a poster child for the attraction of EU soft power in Central Europe and jacked Poland’s economy up to the 24th richest in the world.  By contrast, Poland B in the east stagnated in the 19th century. Its identity shone through in 2015 as the PiS won a 38% victory for a majority in both houses of parliament.

Given Poland B’s historical lack of democratic experience, the PiS took over the government with a  majoritarian winner-take-all mentality. It had no concept of a loyal opposition. Those who stood in its way were to be silenced, including even judges in the independent courts set up in the early 1990s as Moscow’s hegemony in Eastern Europe collapsed and the Soviet Union itself imploded. As a New York Times editorial put it, to PiS chairman and Poland’s most powerful politician, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, “the opposite of authoritarian Communist rule is authoritarian right-wing rule, not democracy.” [link  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/opinion/poland-reform-president-duda-courts.html]

The stakes of populism and polarization are therefore higher in Poland than in domestic divides in the rest of Europe and the United States. Hostility between the two Polands could erupt into bloodshed, commented a veteran moderate Polish journalist in Warsaw. He requested anonymity, as the PiS is also vetting the fourth estate to purge the media of those who are not zealous nationalists, and he is already on his editors’ to-fire list.

He justified his concern as legitimate and not exaggerated by describing the Territorial Defense Force that was founded last year as a fifth branch of the Polish armed forces. It is similar to  Ukrainian militias that have helped hold the line against vastly better-armed Russian forces in Moscow’s undeclared war on Ukraine. But Poland’s units of irregular volunteers would not only resist any foreign attack; they would stay in their own regions and, as their champion, PiS deputy leader and Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz announced last year, would also teach “patriotism” and “commitment” to local communities. They are slated to grow to 53,000 by 2019, are well financed and armed, and in the growing atmosphere of paranoia could be used to suppress political dissidents, the reporter contends.

Notably, PiS crowds regularly boo Lech Walesa–the electrician who famously made Solidarity the first independent trade union in the Soviet bloc and triggered imitations throughout Communist East Europe–and label him a Russian agent. The PiS further berates its predecessor Civic Platform government  for having sought reconciliation rather than purging all of Poland’s former Communist officials. And last March the government carried its demonization of former Prime Minister Tusk to the point of being the sole EU member  to vote against his reappointment to a second term as President of the European Council.

For good measure, the PiS has not only reverted to the 1990s’ Polish Catholic suspicion of what it sees as a “Protestant” European Union that is out to destroy traditional Polish values. It has also reversed the Civic Platform’s reconciliation with Poland’s old enemies of Germany and Ukraine by reviving historical antagonism with both countries.

Above all else, the PiS accuses today’s Civic Platform opposition of complicity with the Kremlin in plotting the 2010 crash near Smolensk of a Polish Air Force jet that was carrying Kaczynski’s identical twin brother Lech, the then Polish President. (Most other observers blamed the crash on the insistence of senior Polish officials on board that the plane must land despite thick fog so they could proceed quickly to pay their respects at the Katyn Forest site of the Soviet massacre in 1940 of 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals.) This month PiS Chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski appeared once again on the podium of the Sejm to shout at Polish opposition deputies, “You are the accomplices! You murdered my brother!” [link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ewJlm9pioOM] The journalist explained, “He is obsessed with avenging his twin’s death. He lives alone and has no other, normal life. He lives only to avenge his brother.”

Despite President Duda’s two-thirds veto on ending judicial independence, there now seems to be little in the way of domestic democratic institutions to slow down the steamroller of Kaczynski’s revenge. The only potential brakes are EU censure—and the half-year-old pro-democracy anti- government street protests that continue in 70 Polish cities.


Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and author.

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Tillerson Flips Putin

By Elizabeth Pond

In a three-hour refueling layover in Ukraine on Sunday US Secretary of State Rex  Tillerson scored a little-noticed judo flip on that judo master, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Suddenly the big question is no longer last week’s worry in the West about whether US President Donald Trump might reach a strongman deal wih Putin that would sacrifice Ukrainians to Moscow’s dominance in return for a vague promise of Russian restraint in, say, Syria. Instead, for Putin the big question this week is (once again) his dread that Ukrainians’ enthusiasm for Western democracy and rule of law might infect his own Russian subjects.

As a Newsweek headline put it, “Despite Cosy Trump-Putin Summit, Tillerson Zaps Russia, Backs Ukraine.”

In other words, Putin’s own strength of will and military brashness when he started his undeclared war on Ukraine in 2014 by annexing Crimea has now become a vulnerability in 2017. The West, which has recently been reeling under Putin’s spoiler attacks on Europe’s 70-year-old regime of peace and integration, is starting to rediscover its own resilience. And Putin is rediscovering the fundamental weakness of Russia’s economy and politics that is exposed by the Ukrainian defection from centuries of East Slav fraternity, with Russians the elder and Ukrainians the younger brothers.

Certainly Putin has already noticed that jingoist pride in seizing neighbors’ land is losing some of its mobilizing power inside Russia. Alexei Navalny’s nascent campaign to run against Putin in Russia’s next presidential election is gaining in strength, and while Navalny by no means opposes Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, the growing popularity of an independent challenger to Putin would have been unthinkable during the euphoria of Crimean annexation in 2014.

Putin, an old KGB hand who will never understand the self-organizing power of Ukraine’s vibrant civil society, may believe his own propaganda and attribute this result to manipulation by Ukrainian and Western secret services. He does not grasp that he himself was the one who united Ukrainians in a historically unprecedented anti-Russian identity by warring on them over the past three years, at a cost of more than 10,000 dead and 1.8 million Ukrainian refugees. By now even Russian- speaking Ukrainians in the eastern part of the counry who long mistrusted western Ukrainians, are converging with their compatriots for an overall 57 percent who hold “cold” or “very cold” feelings toward Russia.

Tillerson achieved his over-the-shoulder flip by making four points in Kiev. First, he said flatly that Washington will not lift the financial sanctions it imposed on crucial Western investment in Russia after Moscow annexed Crimea until Russia returns the land it grabbed from Ukraine.

Second, he signaled that the US is finally bringing its muscle to the desultory “Minsk” peace talks on the “separatist” eastern Donbas that is in fact controled by 5000-to-10,000 rotating Russian troops—and that Moscow must take the first step in stopping violations of the Minsk ceasefire agreements of 2014 and 2015 there. In Berlin this new American engagement is welcome after President Barack Obama basically outsourced Ukraine policy over the past three years to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Third, Tillerson brought to Kiev with him Kurt Volker, his freshly minted US Special Envoy for Peace Negotiations in Ukraine, to stay close to the situation on the ground. Volker is a protégé of Sen. John McCain, and, like McCain, publicly endorsed delivering defensive weapons to Kiev in 2014 and campaigned aginst letting Putin “[call] NATO’s bluff.” Given the present public mood of disenagement from world leadership in the US, Volker won’t be calling for NATO action against Russia, but he will surely revive the debate about providing high-tech defensive weapons to Ukraine’s surprisingly robust army.

Fourth, Tillerson is now reviving the alliance between the West’s financiers of the pro-Western regime in Kiev and the embattled young reformers in Ukraine’s parliament, media, and civil society. In the absence of existing democratic institutions, this is the only engine that can make reforms go deep enough to break out of the business-political collusion that has not yet been rooted out in Ukraine. In this copact the reformers provide the local intelligence; the West withholds money if reforms continue to be blocked.. Tillerson publicly warned President Petro Poroshenko and other oligarchs that if they continue to balk on purging the couts of corrupt judges and ensuring rule of law, Western investors will not put their money into Ukraine.

Pointedly, even before he met with Poroshenko, Tillerson met first with young reformers, including Mustafa Nayyem, the Afghani Ukrainian who started the Maidan demonsrations four years ago that toppled the old regime.

Tillerson’s gamble could, of course, be halted by one contrary 3 a.m. tweet from his boss. But until that happens, the Secretary of State is creating a new fait accompli on the ground in Ukraine that is no doubt catching the Kremlin’s attention.


Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and author.