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January 29, 2016

Poland and the Threat of Illiberalism

By Timothy Meyers

Poland’s far-right Law and Justice Party (PiS) took power two months ago and has enacted a number of laws eroding democratic safeguards. This is startling for a country seen as one of the success stories of democratization in the region. The European Union and the United States are concerned that Poland may be going backwards on the progress its citizens fought to achieve in 1989.

Poland already has fractured relationships with other European states, especially Germany. German criticism of PiS spurred conservative weeklies to superimpose Chancellor Merkel’s face onto images of Hitler. Poland’s PiS head, Jarosław Kaczyński, asserted in 2011, “Merkel belongs to a generation of German politicians who would like to reinstate Germany’s imperial power.” More recently, Poland’s Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz said his country would not “take lessons in freedom and democracy” from Germany.

Some of Poland’s illiberal steps: introducing a new media law giving the Minister of Treasury, rather than the National Broadcasting Council, the power to appoint and dismiss the heads of major state-owned broadcasters, causing fears that perceived opponents of the government could be sacked. The new government has already removed its opponents in the civil service.

Additionally, PiS disputed the nomination of a number of Constitutional Court judges selected by what it calls “unconstitutional actions of the previous government” and has taken steps to replace these judges with its own nominees. Many believe PiS is attempting to construct a Constitutional Court of its own liking since it doesn’t have the supermajority needed to amend the constitution.

The European Union swiftly reprimanded Poland for these moves and has actively sought an explanation from Poland’s president and prime minister, threatening to discuss sanctions if Poland does not comply with E.U. laws. This rapid reaction stands in contrast to the European Union’s lax response to illiberal actions in Hungary, which continue to receive only muted criticism from Brussels.

Human Rights First documented Hungary’s slide toward authoritarianism in a 2014 report and continues to raise concerns about its antisemitic and xenophobic stances; Poland’s new government is pursuing a similar path on an accelerated timetable. Many fear what an illiberal partnership between Hungary and Poland could mean for Europe. Poland is Europe’s sixth largest economy, a strategic NATO ally, and one of the continent’s most stable economies, while Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has become a leading representative of Europe’s anti-refugee bloc. Many critics believe Poland’s leadership is replicating  Hungarian legislation that also sought to silence opposition in the media and judiciary, mostly with success.

However, these two nations, well known for their historical friendship, disagree on certain issues. Most notably: Russia. Since Ukraine’s Maidan protests led to the ouster of the Russian-leaning President Yanukovych in February 2014, European relations with Russia have floundered, with Poland positioning itself as one of Moscow’s most outspoken critics. Hungary meanwhile has improved its relationship with Moscow, ignoring a de facto E.U.-wide ban on bilateral visits with Russian President Putin.  Orbán invited him to Budapest to discuss closer trade and energy ties.

The U.S. government is reportedly opting to express its displeasure with Poland behind closed doors—but a clear, public statement is needed. The United States is one of Poland’s closest allies; criticism from Washington would likely bolster those in Poland who seek to critique PiS’s illiberal actions. It would also encourage deeper engagement from European nations to bring Poland back from the brink. A democratic and transparent Poland is in the best interests of both the United States and the European Union, and while private diplomacy is important, it’s time to turn up the pressure.