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Poland’s phoney war on ‘Russian saboteurs’ The government commission is a McCarthyite ploy

Donald Tusk is target number one. (WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Donald Tusk is target number one. (WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images)


June 8, 2023   4 mins

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party has undergone something of a rebrand. Its leaders, who were once widely derided as populist traditionalists with a taste for authoritarianism, have successfully rebranded themselves on the world stage as resolute trailblazers in the fight against the Kremlin. The brave frontline state has become a model for all of Europe to emulate.

But a leopard never changes its spots. In an attempt to capitalise on all this good will, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda signed a bill into law last week that will establish a commission to root out Kremlin influence in Polish politics. This may sound admirable, except for the fact that there is very little Kremlin meddling to eliminate. Unlike in countries such as Moldova, Hungary or Georgia, Poland’s political landscape is almost entirely united in its opposition to Russia. Far from cracking down on Russian saboteurs, the law is little more than a power play meant to sideline Duda’s political rivals.

Unfortunately for Duda’s party, the world has seen through its ruse. So have the Polish people. Nearly 61% of Poles reportedly disapprove of the commission, according to a recent survey, and on Sunday, an estimated half a million Poles marched through Warsaw in one of the nation’s largest demonstrations since the fall of communism.

They are right to be worried. The ruling party and its allies have made no secret of the fact that they intend to use the commission to target their political opponents. One MP from the Law and Justice’s coalition has admitted that he hoped the commission’s work would put Donald Tusk, the leader of the Polish political opposition, in front of the State Tribunal. Tusk has been targeted by the Law and Justice Party for years for signing a gas deal with Russia in 2010 during his tenure as prime minister.

We’ve seen this type of political persecution before: during the Cold War, US Senator Joseph McCarthy, along with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), ruined the careers of hundreds of Americans whom they smeared as communist sympathisers without having to levy a single criminal charge against them.

Today, Poland’s commission, as originally proposed, will not even feign transparency. It will be able to carry out its deliberations in secrecy and request access to classified materials from an enormous swathe of the Polish government. The members of the commission will be appointed by the Sejm, the Polish parliament in which the Law and Justice Party‚Äôs coalition holds power, and they will be immune from future culpability for their activities as part of the commission. It will also deploy a rather vague definition of what constitutes Russian influence, which could open the door for individuals to be found guilty by association. Perhaps most importantly, its rulings and proceedings will take place without any real judicial oversight, and its final report will likely be handed down in September of this year ‚ÄĒ less than two months before Poland‚Äôs parliamentary elections.

Last Friday, in response to condemnations from the US, the European Union, the Polish opposition and various legal experts, Duda backtracked slightly. He proposed amendments that would, among other things, ban parliamentarians from serving directly on the commission and, crucially, would withdraw a provision allowing the commission to ban alleged offenders from public office for up to 10 years. Yet even without this power, the commission will still wield significant influence over Polish politics and will almost certainly colour the autumn elections.

This commission is only the latest iteration of the Law and Justice Party‚Äôs long-running tendency to see foreign plots at every turn. Late last month, the party‚Äôs leader and the de facto most powerful man in Poland, JarosŇāaw KaczyŇĄski, warned that an opposition victory in the autumn elections would mean the ‚Äúend of Poland‚ÄĚ, and that foreign interlopers were trying to undermine Poland‚Äôs success. Not long after, he called a critical journalist a ‚Äúrepresentative of the Kremlin‚ÄĚ for asking whether he continued to trust his defence minister in the wake of a national security crisis. The incident was particularly concerning given that, a few days later, the Deputy Minister of Defence Wojciech Skurkiewicz himself stated that certain journalists should stand before the commission as well. Given that the party has already cleansed state-funded news outlets of dissenting points of view and populated them with loyal media executives since their rise to power in 2015, such rhetoric is not surprising.

KaczyŇĄski‚Äôs tactics are hardly new either. This is a man who has justified his party‚Äôs overhaul of Poland‚Äôs judicial system by alleging the widespread, lingering influence of former communists, implicitly with Russian sympathies ‚ÄĒ an idea that has animated his political activities since the early Nineties. But KaczyŇĄski‚Äôs most infamous conspiracy theory concerns the horrific plane crash near Smolensk, Russia, in 2010 that killed his twin brother, who was Poland‚Äôs president at the time. The tragedy was ultimately attributed to pilot error and unusually foggy weather, and despite suspicions, investigation after investigation failed to find any signs of foul play. Nevertheless, this did not stop KaczyŇĄski and the Law and Justice Party from asserting that the crash was an assassination ordered by Vladimir Putin, and went as far as to state that Tusk, who was prime minister at the time, had orchestrated its cover-up ‚ÄĒ a claim the party continues to make to this day.

With a history like this, it is hard to expect the Law and Justice Party’s commission to operate without bias when it comes to tackling Russian influence. Of course, Poland is not entirely free of Kremlin influence. Russian cyberattacks have plagued the country since last year, and alleged Kremlin agents have been arrested by Polish security services on various occasions. While the vast majority of Poles oppose Russia, there are several fringe far-Right parties who are sympathetic. But by targeting the Law and Justice Party’s mainstream opponents, the commission will be looking in all the wrong places.

Duda‚Äôs amendments last week were simply not enough. Only by abandoning the commission altogether will the Law and Justice Party step back from the brink of neo-McCarthyite autocracy, allowing it to focus on Poland‚Äôs true enemies abroad. Yet having built their brand on exactly these sort of witch hunts for years, reflexes like these may not be easy to discard ‚ÄĒ after all, old habits are always hard to break.


Michal Kranz is a freelance journalist reporting on politics and society in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the United States.

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Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
1 year ago

As President of the European Council, Tusk proved he was no friend of Britain. Couldn’t care less if he gets strung up now by the Law and Justice government.

Nick Faulks
Nick Faulks
1 year ago

Yes, anything that brings Donald Tusk to book works for me.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

The Great Brexit Flounce, i.e., “anybody who disagrees with Brexit is no friend of Britain’s”

Last edited 1 year ago by Frank McCusker
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

The author is right we’ve seen this type of political persecution before: the use of power by the left in this country to seize control of our institutions and to isolate and neuter political opponents

Nick Faulks
Nick Faulks
1 year ago

Yes, anything that brings Donald Tusk to book works for me.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

The Great Brexit Flounce, i.e., “anybody who disagrees with Brexit is no friend of Britain’s”

Last edited 1 year ago by Frank McCusker
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

The author is right we’ve seen this type of political persecution before: the use of power by the left in this country to seize control of our institutions and to isolate and neuter political opponents

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
1 year ago

As President of the European Council, Tusk proved he was no friend of Britain. Couldn’t care less if he gets strung up now by the Law and Justice government.

stephen archer
stephen archer
1 year ago

I have no doubt that Russia is meddling in Polish politics, since it’s happening in all other European countries and the US, often under the radar. There’s nothing wrong in principle with this commission, although there are at least three other overriding issues which Poland needs to focus on.
1 State control of the media, where amongst other things Tusk seems always to be projected in a negative light, at least onTV.
2 State influence in the judicial system, appointment of supreme court judges.
3 Having a party leader, Kaczynski, who dictates policy and influences public opinion whilst not holding an elected government position, also manipulating his puppets Duda and Morawiecki. This is a man obsessed with the Smolensk air crash and an adult politician who didn’t own a bank account but let his mother handle his finances.
It seems to be a choice between two poor alternatives, Tusk or Kaczynski-dominated PiS. My Polish wife has always been anti-Kaczynski but now she’s also anti-Tusk. As long as PiS is in power the three issues above will continue to prevail.

Last edited 1 year ago by stephen archer
Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago
Reply to  stephen archer

State influence on judicial appointments is not unusual in USA and other EU countries.
How, for example, are USA supreme Court justicies choosen?
Clear out of former judges who gained their positions under communism was long overdue.
Communism only collapsed just over 30 years ago, so many current senior judges were appointed before.
Apart from communist secret service, judges were most loyal servants of communist party.
It is a shame it took that long but one of the reason was former PM Tusk.
No idea how good your Polish is but state media under Tusk were not exactly independent.
Many top media journalist in privately owned stations are children of communist party officials and senior communist security service officers.
It would take too long to explain but official narrative of Solidarity led transformation from communism to democracy is far from the truth.
It was more an agreement between parts of pro independence movement (Walesa faction which included people like Tusk) and communist officials that for giving up political power they would gain control of many areas of business.
Kaczynski brothers were opposed to it, hence current animosity between Tusk and PiS goes back many years.
Idea that Tusk was always opposing Russia is nonsense.
Both him and his foreign minister Radek Sikorski were fully on board with Merkel policy of appeasing Russia.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew F
Lidia F
Lidia F
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew F

Excellent comments.
The narrative disseminated outside of Poland seems to be dictated by the Polish opposition. It gets repeated by journalists with no in-depth knowledge of the intricacies of the present day situation or of history.

stephen archer
stephen archer
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew F

Thanks for your reply. I’m aware on point 2 that the cradle of democracy is no better than Poland on appointing judges. My Polish is very poor but almost every evening while in Poland, as I am just now, there’s archive video of Tusk from many years ago, last night showing Tusk shaking hands with Putin, in a past EU capacity, totally unrelated to any topical issue on the news. Like I said I have no opinion on Tusk vs. PiS as such. Regarding Lidia’s comment, it’s the narrative inside Poland I was commenting on. It’s definitely influenced my wife’s view on Tusk, and with my background in the UK and W Europe it’s the first time I’ve experienced government controlled media on this level. The BBC is another kettle of fish.

Lidia F
Lidia F
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew F

Excellent comments.
The narrative disseminated outside of Poland seems to be dictated by the Polish opposition. It gets repeated by journalists with no in-depth knowledge of the intricacies of the present day situation or of history.

stephen archer
stephen archer
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew F

Thanks for your reply. I’m aware on point 2 that the cradle of democracy is no better than Poland on appointing judges. My Polish is very poor but almost every evening while in Poland, as I am just now, there’s archive video of Tusk from many years ago, last night showing Tusk shaking hands with Putin, in a past EU capacity, totally unrelated to any topical issue on the news. Like I said I have no opinion on Tusk vs. PiS as such. Regarding Lidia’s comment, it’s the narrative inside Poland I was commenting on. It’s definitely influenced my wife’s view on Tusk, and with my background in the UK and W Europe it’s the first time I’ve experienced government controlled media on this level. The BBC is another kettle of fish.

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago
Reply to  stephen archer

State influence on judicial appointments is not unusual in USA and other EU countries.
How, for example, are USA supreme Court justicies choosen?
Clear out of former judges who gained their positions under communism was long overdue.
Communism only collapsed just over 30 years ago, so many current senior judges were appointed before.
Apart from communist secret service, judges were most loyal servants of communist party.
It is a shame it took that long but one of the reason was former PM Tusk.
No idea how good your Polish is but state media under Tusk were not exactly independent.
Many top media journalist in privately owned stations are children of communist party officials and senior communist security service officers.
It would take too long to explain but official narrative of Solidarity led transformation from communism to democracy is far from the truth.
It was more an agreement between parts of pro independence movement (Walesa faction which included people like Tusk) and communist officials that for giving up political power they would gain control of many areas of business.
Kaczynski brothers were opposed to it, hence current animosity between Tusk and PiS goes back many years.
Idea that Tusk was always opposing Russia is nonsense.
Both him and his foreign minister Radek Sikorski were fully on board with Merkel policy of appeasing Russia.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew F
stephen archer
stephen archer
1 year ago

I have no doubt that Russia is meddling in Polish politics, since it’s happening in all other European countries and the US, often under the radar. There’s nothing wrong in principle with this commission, although there are at least three other overriding issues which Poland needs to focus on.
1 State control of the media, where amongst other things Tusk seems always to be projected in a negative light, at least onTV.
2 State influence in the judicial system, appointment of supreme court judges.
3 Having a party leader, Kaczynski, who dictates policy and influences public opinion whilst not holding an elected government position, also manipulating his puppets Duda and Morawiecki. This is a man obsessed with the Smolensk air crash and an adult politician who didn’t own a bank account but let his mother handle his finances.
It seems to be a choice between two poor alternatives, Tusk or Kaczynski-dominated PiS. My Polish wife has always been anti-Kaczynski but now she’s also anti-Tusk. As long as PiS is in power the three issues above will continue to prevail.

Last edited 1 year ago by stephen archer
Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago

This article like all previous efforts of the author is nothing more than pro PO propaganda.
Tusk is nothing more then EU stooge task with changing Poland’s policies to follow all usual woke idiocies like net zero, transgender and other so called “European values”.
His supposed opposition to Russia is a sick joke.
It was him and his foreign minister Radek Sikorski who instigated pro Russian policies against strong opposition from former Polish president Lech Kaczynski (died in Smolensk).
It was he who allowed Russia to take control of investigation of the crash in Smolensk and did nothing to stop destruction of the evidence.
Just compare what happened after Lockerbie disaster with films of Russian destruction of the Polish presidential plane.
With not a single protest from Tusk government.

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 year ago

This article like all previous efforts of the author is nothing more than pro PO propaganda.
Tusk is nothing more then EU stooge task with changing Poland’s policies to follow all usual woke idiocies like net zero, transgender and other so called “European values”.
His supposed opposition to Russia is a sick joke.
It was him and his foreign minister Radek Sikorski who instigated pro Russian policies against strong opposition from former Polish president Lech Kaczynski (died in Smolensk).
It was he who allowed Russia to take control of investigation of the crash in Smolensk and did nothing to stop destruction of the evidence.
Just compare what happened after Lockerbie disaster with films of Russian destruction of the Polish presidential plane.
With not a single protest from Tusk government.

Lidia F
Lidia F
1 year ago

‚Äúneo-McCarthyite autocracy‚ÄĚ is an alarmist hyperbole which could equally be applied to the actions of the Tusk government, which controlled the media and under which journalists supporting the opposition were losing their jobs .

Lidia F
Lidia F
1 year ago

‚Äúneo-McCarthyite autocracy‚ÄĚ is an alarmist hyperbole which could equally be applied to the actions of the Tusk government, which controlled the media and under which journalists supporting the opposition were losing their jobs .

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
1 year ago

It is reported in Rzeczpospolita this morning that KO (Tusk’s coalition) has overtaken PiS (Kaczynski) in the latest polling. This may, just, be the turning point.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
1 year ago

It is reported in Rzeczpospolita this morning that KO (Tusk’s coalition) has overtaken PiS (Kaczynski) in the latest polling. This may, just, be the turning point.