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’s 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 — less than two months before Poland’s 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’s long-running tendency to see foreign plots at every turn. Late last month, the party’s leader and the de facto most powerful man in Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński, warned that an opposition victory in the autumn elections would mean the “end of Poland”, and that foreign interlopers were trying to undermine Poland’s success. Not long after, he called a critical journalist a “representative of the Kremlin” 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.
Kaczyński’s tactics are hardly new either. This is a man who has justified his party’s overhaul of Poland’s judicial system by alleging the widespread, lingering influence of former communists, implicitly with Russian sympathies — an idea that has animated his political activities since the early Nineties. But Kaczyński’s most infamous conspiracy theory concerns the horrific plane crash near Smolensk, Russia, in 2010 that killed his twin brother, who was Poland’s 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 Kaczyński 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 — 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’s 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’s 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 — after all, old habits are always hard to break.