Poland’s ruling party aims ‘to delegitimize liberal democracy’



A pan-European rights body said on Monday it would review a newly amended Polish surveillance law, in a fresh challenge to the conservative government that reflects international concerns over Warsaw’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law, Reuters reports:

Last Friday the Council of Europe’s advisory panel, known as the Venice Commission, issued an opinion accusing Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party of effectively crippling the country’s constitutional court, a verdict that could put Warsaw on a collision course with the European Union.

Under the leadership of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has set about dismantling many of the country’s democratic institutions, seizing control of the state media, judicial system and constitutional court, writes Jan Gross, a professor of history at Princeton University. Amid this authoritarian onslaught, the office of president Andrzej Duda has threatened to strip me of the order of merit that I was awarded by the Polish state in 1996 for my scholarly work on the history of Poland during the second world war. This would not matter much if it were not indicative of a wider attempt by Law and Justice to rewrite Polish history, he writes for The Financial Times:

In 2000 I published a book entitled Neighbors, in which I described how, in July 1941, under the eyes of the German occupiers, Polish Catholics killed 1,600 of their Jewish neighbours in the town of Jedwabne. A two-year investigation by Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance followed. This eventually confirmed the culpability of the local population and also revealed that mass killings of Jews by their Polish neighbours had taken place in several other villages in the area. 

Over the weekend, Polish citizens demonstrated against the country’s democratic regression and against allegations that former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa was a Communist spy.

The larger point, though, is that people on the streets of large Polish cities are defending something greater than Mr. Walesa — the legacy of 1989 itself. They suspect the government is using the attack on Mr. Walesa as an instrument to delegitimize liberal democracy, argues Ivan Krastev, the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.

And they seem to be right. Antoni Macierewicz, the current Polish defense minister, claimed bluntly that Mr. Walesa’s police file proved that “post-Communist Poland was a product of the secret police and not of democratically elected institutions,” he writes for The New York Times:

The irony of the current wave of revisionism is that 1989 is rejected for the same reasons that it has long been acclaimed, namely its absence of radicalism. The fact that it chose to integrate the old elites instead of persecuting them has turned out to be, at once, the revolution’s lasting achievement and its ultimate Achilles’ heel.

The populist insurgency feverishly advancing in Poland, Hungary and other parts of Eastern Europe is a rebellion against moderates and moderation. The events of 1989 are condemned as little more than an ingenious plot to transform the elites’ political power into economic power (like the Who song, it’s “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”)

In this narrative, 1989 marks the liberation not of the people, but of the Communist elites, notes Krastev, a council member of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum:

They were liberated from fear (of party purges and anti-Communist uprisings), guilt, ideology, the chains of community and even national loyalty — before they had the privilege to travel; now they have the right to be part of the West. Before they ran the country, but now they own it. The shadow power of the old elites has become the ultimate explanation for everything that went wrong after 1989 — rising inequality, betrayed expectations.

Mr Kaczynski and his late identical twin brother, Lech, who died in an air crash in April 2010, had been activists in Solidarity in the 1980s, Gross adds:

For decades, the brothers railed at an alleged conspiracy between other dissidents and the governing Polish United Workers party — that is how they saw the “roundtable” agreement in 1989 which led eventually to the end of the communist regime. This, Mr Kaczynski believes, prevented him and his brother from exercising earlier the influence they thought was their due. In his imagination at least, Mr Kaczynski has been under assault from all quarters, including from Mr Walesa, who in 1991 fired him from his job as presidential chief of staff. He is now taking his revenge.

Although it has smeared the reputations of key figures in Poland’s post-1989 transformation, while at the same time dismantling the democratic order, Law and Justice complains that it is misunderstood. European politicians who voice their misgivings about events in Poland are simply “misinformed”.

There is at least one glimmer of hope amid the gloom. Whatever Law and Justice might say about the nefarious scheming of foreign powers, Polish society got into this mess on its own. And, with the support of the EU, it can get itself out again.


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