Within the West, the recent rise of right-wing populist parties has heightened concerns about the potential for foreign interference in the democratic process. In a common telling of events, parties like the National Front in France, Alternative for Germany, and the Austrian Freedom Party function as a Russian fifth column, the frontline in a conflict between Eastern destabilization and Western liberal democracy.
In Poland, however, the ruling Law and Justice Party has proven a notable exception. Since coming to power in 2015, Law and Justice has pursued a staunchly Eurosceptic and simultaneously anti-Russian platform, making a conscious effort to build a state resistant to foreign influence. The party’s successes demonstrate that populist parties do not have to be an instrument of foreign intervention, but can instead serve to strengthen state autonomy and ensure greater political transparency.
Russia: Historical Divisions
In recent years, Europe’s right-wing populist movement has become a target for Russian meddling. Seeing an opportunity to cultivate potential ideological allies in the West, Russia has promoted right-wing parties through both financial and media support. The populist National Front in France received an €11 million loan from Russian sources, and in Germany, Russian state television galvanized support for conservative opposition parties through the spread of misinformation about an alleged rape in Berlin.
In Poland, however, the right-wing’s relationship with Russia has been markedly more antagonistic. In spite of meddling attempts, the dominant right-wing Law and Justice party has endeavored to reduce Russian influence and promote state autonomy and independence. Richard Lourie, author and former consultant on Russia to Hillary Clinton in her 2008 campaign, told the HPR that Poland is “a special case” in the world of right-wing movements. Owing to its traditionally-antagonistic relationship with Russia, he said, “Poland is probably inoculated against Russian propaganda to some degree.”
This hostility has resulted in a variety of policies designed to curb Russia’s influence in Poland. Fearing political infiltration, the government has accused Mateusz Piskorski, leader of the pro-Russian far-right Zmiana party, of working for Russian intelligence services. In 2016, he was arrested on espionage charges, and investigations were conducted into other party members. Furthermore, As Russia has promoted anti-Ukrainian groups in Poland and harkened to historical conflicts between Poland and Ukraine, the Law and Justice government has distinguished between historical conflict and shared economic and defense aims, committing itself to energy independence and support for Ukraine, through a €1 billion currency swap and the acceptance of over one million Ukrainian migrants.
Law and Justice has capitalized on Poland’s historical tensions with Russia to effectively implement, as former Prime Minister Leszek Miller once said, a “political doctrine of Russophobia.” Instead of emphasizing shared conservative values and communist nostalgia, as have other Eastern European conservative parties, Law and Justice has highlighted the darker moments in the Russo-Polish relationship. For example, the party recently opened a new investigation into the 2010 Smolensk plane crash that resulted in the death of the then Polish president, casting doubt on the integrity of Russian investigative findings. It has also passed a decommunization law with the intention of removing all former Soviet symbols from the Polish landscape, and sought to purge the military of communist influence. In this way, Law and Justice has utilized a very specific national historical narrative, one that antagonizes and opposes Russia, to reduce Russian influence in the country.
This calculated emphasis on particular historical narratives indicates that the right-wing, though often invested in history, is not exclusively bound to one perspective of events. Polish conservatives have chosen a historical narrative that cuts Russia from the national picture, thereby inoculating the country from Russian cultural and political influence. Instead of pandering to foreign influences, Law and Justice has endeavored to bolster an independent national identity.
Western Europe: A Question of Sovereignty
Russia, however, is not the only outside force with a political presence in Poland. Since the end of the Cold War, Western influence has slowly been on the rise. In 2014, former Polish politician Pawel Piskorski disclosed reports indicating that in the 1990s, during a critical state-building era in Poland’s history, politicians in the German Christian Democratic Union provided financial backing to the Polish Liberal Democratic Congress. More recently, Germany, along with the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, financed left-wing organizations like the Democratic Action Foundation. Western influence also extends to the media: over 138 Polish publications and magazines are foreign-owned. German media group Bauer is the owner of Poland’s largest independent broadcaster, while German Verlagsgruppe Passau GmbH oversees over 20 Polish publications, creating ample opportunity for foreign editors to shape the media environment in the country.
Law and Justice has emphasized a clear national identity to counter this foreign influence. For example, the government is now pushing a media law that limits the amount of foreign capital in Polish media companies, along with the concentration of foreign media sources in Poland. This effort at “re-polonization” extends to the economy, where Law and Justice has emphasized increasing Polish leadership in the market, challenging a foreign-centered model where over half of Polish production and two thirds of Polish exports come from companies grounded in foreign capital. The government has also bought foreign banks, bolstered national investment, and created preferential programs for Polish entrepreneurs.
Moreover, Law and Justice has advocated for Polish sovereignty in a European context, pushing back against the broadening reach of the European Union. The party has consistently advocated limiting the scope of E.U. legislation, opposing policies for Syrian refugee acceptance on the grounds of national sovereignty. Poland also chairs the Visegrad Group, which is increasingly a vehicle for resistance to Western-centric European governance. This commitment to national autonomy even trumps support for Polish E.U. officials; when Donald Tusk, president of the European Union and former Polish prime minister, advocated for migrant acceptance and galvanized foreign criticism of Poland’s domestic policies, Law and Justice withdrew Poland’s vote for him for the presidency of the Council.
A Right Move to the Right?
Of course, a fine line exists between resisting foreign influence and embracing isolation, and the initiatives of the Law and Justice government could leave Poland devoid of international allies in the future. Having spurned both cooperation with Russia, its primary military threat, and France and Germany, its central economic allies, Poland looks mostly to the Central European Visegrad Group for international solidarity, which is itself fractured by different political aims among member-states. In this way, if its aggressive support of nationally-focused policies creates vulnerabilities in its economic and political network, Poland may not be recover on its own.
Furthermore, Law and Justice policy may contribute to the general inefficacy of the European system. Lourie cautioned against Polish separation from the West: “A lurch to the right puts Poland and Hungary at odds with Brussels, and fits in exactly within the general Russian view of destabilization.” Poland, by sacrificing closer European ties, risks creating an opening for distrust and conflict within the European Union.
Nevertheless, the culminating effect of Law and Justice policies has been one of advanced Polish autonomy. By rejecting foreign political interventions, the government has provided Poland with a broader platform to assert its political and economic perspectives free of outside pressures, an exceptional opportunity in an increasingly globalized world. It is now up to Law and Justice to direct and shape the autonomy it has generated in a direction that will benefit and strengthen Poland.
Image Credit: P. Tracz/ Chancellery of the Prime Minister of Poland/Wikimedia Commons