With just days remaining until Donald Trump visits Poland, the political situation here continues to deteriorate, as it has been doing since November 2015.
That was when Poland began abandoning the path of democracy and the rule of law under the newly elected national-conservative Law and Justice party, led by its chairman, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Its first victim was Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, which emerged from a long legal battle a year later with its membership reconstituted, leaving it subservient to the government. Likewise, public radio and television, once far more independent, now broadcast pure propaganda that praises the government while demonizing Poland’s political opposition parties and the European Union as a whole.
A month ago, Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, ignored a verdict of the Supreme Court. Then the government gave itself the power to rescind almost every decision of municipal mayors. On June 10, the police detained Wladyslaw Frasyniuk, a legendary leader of the Solidarity movement that resisted Soviet domination in the 1980s and a true hero of the Polish democratic opposition. He had been forcibly removed from a demonstration against Poland’s effective ruler, the party chairman Mr. Kaczynski. And on June 25 another demonstration against the government was attacked by right-wing extremists. A spokeswoman for Law and Justice was later quoted as saying she could understand the assailants.
Of the many warning signs we’ve seen in Poland, this was particularly ominous. But is it something that disturbs the current White House? In the past, it certainly would have done so. This time we do not know.
American presidents who visited Poland since the fall of Communism in 1989 have been keenly aware of the state of politics here. They routinely praised how Poland, which emerged from the Cold War as a failed state, managed to revive and resume its rightful place among the family of Western nations.
I remember Bill Clinton, in Warsaw in 1997, proclaiming that Poland’s fight against its oppressive Communist regime had changed world history. We took tremendous pride in that. Six years later, on the eve of the expansion of the European Union, George W. Bush visited and praised my compatriots as good citizens of Europe and good friends of the United States. And when it was Barack Obama’s turn, in June 2014, he spoke in Warsaw of his great admiration for the open society Poland had built over the last quarter-century.
President Trump is scheduled to speak in Poland Thursday. In keeping with his predecessors, the White House has announced that he will mark his visit to Warsaw with a major policy speech.
But what he will say remains a matter of much speculation. Will he seek to further divide the European Union and set its individual members against one another? Will he take a stand against Russian imperialism and promise to defend our neighbor, Ukraine, in the hybrid war Russia is waging against it?
We don’t know.
And there is another issue. The sad truth is that Mr. Trump will visit a Poland vastly different from the land where his predecessors spoke.
Mr. Kaczynski, once a member of Solidarity, which ultimately helped to bring the Soviet Union to its knees, is now the real power broker in Poland. He exercises total control over the Polish government, and he has shown no qualms about his steady dismantling of democratic institutions.
Since the takeover of the Constitutional Tribunal, the lower-level courts have become next on his list. He and his cronies want judges to become subordinate to the Ministry of Justice, a step that would allow the government to interfere with their verdicts.
The Polish Parliament has already drafted legislation to let that happen. If it does, the rule of law here will have officially drawn to a close. Chairman Kaczynski will control everything. What is left of the free media will be a thing of the past, as will any effective opposition, and Poland will return to the oppressive political practices of the 1980s.
A similar U-turn is happening in Polish foreign policy. The Polish government has become an outspoken critic of the European Union, continually claiming that the union is unable to face global challenges. Earlier this year, the Polish foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, was gladly photographed with Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s extreme right-wing National Front. Her loss in the French presidential election a few weeks ago was a bitter disappointment for Poland’s ruling elites.
Before that election, President Duda publicly praised the “inevitable change” that populist movements in the West represented and warned politicians not to stand in their way. Opinion-makers here who supported the Polish authorities portrayed populists in Germany and France as potential allies and co-authors of a new political order that would reshape Europe in their own national-conservative image.
Fortunately, the winds now appear to be shifting. No European populist political party has been able to win the most recent national elections. They have lost in Austria, Holland and France, and conservatives using populist slogans barely survived Britain’s recent snap election.
The result: In Europe, Poland’s government now stands alone. Even Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, who has been quelling democracy in his own country, now seeks a truce with the rest of Europe. As the European Union prepares to move forward and to integrate more closely, my country will be left behind.
The question in Poland in the weeks leading up to Mr. Trump’s visit has been whether he will praise or scold a national-conservative government that continues to draw Poland further and further from the path of democracy and respect for human rights.
I don’t know what President Trump will say here. At best, he’s unpredictable. At worst, as his critics allege, he’s unfit to serve as America’s commander in chief. But it seems that traditional American diplomacy has not been entirely abandoned by its large corps of experts and professionals, and it continues to influence White House actions. The United States needs a closely integrated Europe. Yet such unity is clearly in danger if the current Polish government continues to work against it.
It would therefore be wise for Mr. Trump’s advisers to take careful note of the situation here. Despite the warm welcome the president is likely to receive, it is crucial that Mr. Trump focus on the continuing erosion of democracy in Poland and acknowledge that it is not in America’s interest.
A healthy democracy in Poland is a critical need for both of our countries, and he should say that, loudly and clearly.
Bartosz T. Wielinski is the foreign editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, a Polish daily started by the democratic opposition in 1989.