The war in Ukraine has thrown up many paradoxes. One of the most peculiar is that Vladimir Putin’s invasion made autocratic politicians in neighboring countries look, all of a sudden, like the good guys.
Nowhere was this more the case than in Poland. As the war shifted the global geopolitical focus to Eastern and Central Europe, Warsaw reveled in the attention. Previously reluctant to accept refugees, the country took in millions of Ukrainian women and children, opening its arms in an impressive display of solidarity. As Poland began to play an important role in Ukraine’s defense — giving major aid to Kyiv, including over 2 billion euros’ worth of military equipment — observers in the West seemed to believe that something fundamental had changed in the country.
If only. Poland’s support for Ukraine is no sign that now, after nearly a decade of democratic backsliding, it’s coming around to the importance of democracy. What the government is defending, really, is sovereignty and the right to self-determination — an existential rather than a political commitment. In the rush to acclaim Poland and present a united front, Western politicians have overlooked something at their cost. Far from receding, Polish illiberalism is alive and well.
We know, by now, what that looks like. The government, led by the hard-right Law and Justice party since 2015, has taken over key state institutions such as the public media, curtailed the independence of the judiciary and instituted draconian abortion laws. To neutralize opponents, almost all political tricks are allowed: wiretapping, denigration and even outright lies. With crucial parliamentary elections coming this autumn, the electoral process has been tinkered with to favor the incumbents and a new bill passed that could remove opponents from political life on the pretext of acting under Russian influence. In its bid to secure a third term, the Law and Justice party is leaving nothing to chance.
The party’s success has been built on targeted social transfers, genuflection to the country’s Catholic identity and avowed nationalism. But it also owes a lot to skillfully played campaigns of collective fear and demonization. For much of the party’s eight years in office, migrants, women and sexual minorities have been the chief targets. The government also regularly attacks the opposition, often in luridly conspiratorial terms. Its ministers and supporters suggest, for example, that the leader of the opposition and a former prime minister, Donald Tusk, plotted the plane crash that killed the Polish president in 2010. However outlandish, such conspiracy theories play into — and amplify — a pervasive fear that things are changing rapidly for the worse.
That fear is what undergirds the country’s response to the war. Poland’s modern history — annexed, subordinated and occupied — is one of a recurrent loss of independence. This tragic inheritance, never far away, explains the government’s energetic response to the war in Ukraine: The future must not repeat the past. And it’s not just Poland. A glance at the map is enough to see that the countries most muscular in their defense of Ukraine are those affected by the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, which exposed Finland, the Baltic States and Romania, along with Poland, to the depredations of conquering armies. Theirs is a solidarity based on the trauma of Russian imperialism.
The United States should take note. In February, on the anniversary of the invasion, President Biden spoke in front of the Royal Castle in Warsaw. After praising Poland as one of the United States’ “great allies”, Mr. Biden stressed the importance of defending freedom and democracy. It was a powerful speech. But freedom and democracy do not, in this part of the world, necessarily go hand in hand. Just look at the fact that the Law and Justice party, despite government scandals and sky-high inflation, sits comfortably at around 35 percent in the polls.
The party’s newly burnished international image as steadfast friend to Ukraine only helps to entrench such support. The government can plausibly present itself as the guarantor of security, both at home and abroad, underwritten by Western backing. Along with countries like India, Turkey and Rwanda, Poland may become part of the jigsaw of not-so-liberal friends of the West, helping to consolidate opposition to Russia and China. This process is happening for the convenience of the West — but not in adherence to its values.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The United States, for one, exerts considerable influence in Poland. If Mr. Biden, whose two visits to the country in the past year were major events, spoke out against the government’s domestic behavior, it would send a powerful message to party leaders. What’s more, Washington could make financial assistance — last year, the United States invested $288.6 million in Poland’s military — conditional on compliance with democratic standards and the rule of law. It might not work immediately: The European Union’s withholding of post-pandemic recovery funds to protest the government’s violation of judicial independence hasn’t reversed that slide. But it would show Poland’s illiberals that they can’t just do as they please.
In his 1899 novella “Heart of Darkness”, Joseph Conrad presented the book’s antihero, Kurtz, not as evil incarnate but as a product of the society of his time. “All Europe”, the Polish-born Conrad wrote, “contributed to the making of Kurtz”. The liberal leaders of the West would do well to reflect that they are themselves at risk, in the name of unity, of contributing to the making of a modern villain.
Jaroslaw Kuisz is the editor in chief of the Polish weekly Kultura Liberalna and the author of The New Politics of Poland. Karolina Wigura is a board member of the Kultura Liberalna Foundation in Warsaw and the co-author of A Polish Atheist Versus a Polish Catholic. Both are senior fellows at the Center for Liberal Modernity in Berlin.