CGI Asks: Is Poland ‘Putinising’ European Politics?

January 15, 2016

In each installment of “CGI Asks,” a selection of experts respond to a question about Russia and the broader region.

This week, we ask experts to comment on the recent actions of Poland’s new government–which the German president of the European Parliament sharply described as a ‘Putinisation’ of European politics–and predict the likely EU response.

Janusz Bugajski, Senior Fellow, Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA)


Bugajski Vladimir Putin has established an authoritarian system in Russia in which elections are forged and any genuine opposition to the Kremlin is banished or repressed. The Law and Justice (PiS) government in Poland was freely elected in October 2015 and operates within a democratic system with a vibrant opposition. However, democracies periodically confront challenges from the “tyranny of the majority.” The threat appears when a party gains a parliamentary majority in one election and seeks to permanently enshrine its agenda using legislation and personnel appointments – in Poland’s case, a neo-conservative social agenda and a protectionist economic program.

In democracies, majority parties can rapidly become minority ones as voters switch allegiances. Moves to make PiS policies permanent will increasingly be challenged by a more coherent opposition and a vibrant civil society that has already staged mass protests against the government. Support for PiS is shrinking while backing for the liberal and centrist opposition is steadily rising. A heavy-handed response against Warsaw by EU bodies would be counter-productive, as it will simply boost Euroskeptic sentiments. Poland is strong enough to withstand the “majoritarian impulse.” The onus is on liberal, centrist, and free-market parties in Poland to convince voters that they offer a more secure and prosperous future.

Janusz Bugajski’s forthcoming book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is entitled Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks.

Hannah Thoburn, Research Fellow, Hudson Institute


ThoburnI am not in the camp that believes that the end of Polish democracy is nigh, but it does seem that there is a rapid and worrisome trend towards the imposition of what Hungarian President Viktor Orban has termed “illiberal democracy.” The previous Polish government certainly made its fair share of mistakes, but the rapidity and attitude with which Poland’s new government has acted has made many worry that this is only the beginning of a concerted effort by the Law and Justice Party to permanently ensconce itself – and its vision of Poland – in power.

For its part, the EU clearly feels strong pressure to do something. But what they will do, if anything, is unclear. In 1999, when the neo-Nazi Jorg Haider’s party was included in Austria’s governing coalition, the EU tried sanctioning the country. The sanctions proved fruitless and were lifted within months; though Haider eventually left the coalition, his party remained. When Hungary undertook measures very similar to the ones that Poland is now pursuing, the EU protested and suggested changes to the unsavory laws that had been passed. But the EU lacked both the willpower and the mechanisms – beyond the extreme step of revoking Hungary’s European Council voting rights – to do much about it. The case of Hungary prompted changes to the EU rules in 2014 that were meant to safeguard the rule of law in member nations. Today’s EU has a ‘rule of law framework’ in which it can work with nations seen to be infringing upon the fundamental values of the EU.

Of course, the European Union must be careful in the steps that it takes. Poland has been one of the EU’s great success stories, but there are many in Poland who feel that the EU had too much sway over the decisions that were made by the previous government. In Poland, as in many other European countries, there continues a kind of backlash over the feeling that too much national sovereignty has been ceded to the EU. So any punishment of Poland by the EU Commission may be seen as additional EU meddling and result in stronger support for the actions of the Polish government’s actions. Yet, the EU authorities must make it clear to all current and future members that such behavior is not acceptable. This trend must not be allowed to become a pattern.

Balazs Jarabik, Nonresident Scholar, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


JarabikMerely two months after Poland’s elections win by the Law and Justice party (PiS) of Jaroslaw Kaczinsky with the largest margin in Polish history, the European Union initiated its first ever rule of law review regarding Poland’s new media law and changes to the law on the constitutional court. The decision was made after a quite an unprecedented spat. A German member of the European Commission, Günther Oettinger, called for putting Poland’s government under supervision for its attempts to place public broadcasting services under state supervision, which the Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro compared to Nazi occupation.

Emotions are running high as the EU faces increasing pressure. Perceptions of the migrant crisis have shifted after the mass sexual harassment incident in Cologne, while many in Poland voted for PiS for this reason. There is also a “belief” among European elites and the mainstream media that the EU was not tough enough with Hungary, and this “mistake” should not be repeated. Although the actions of PiS could indeed be challenged, most of the “hysteria” is coming from the former ruling Civic Platform (PO) coalition, which is having a hard time accepting the idea that its era is likely over.

But the EU won’t be able to punish Poland. PiS may be in danger of alienating the overwhelmingly pro-European Poles. Indeed, fresh polls are already putting a brand new liberal party called Modern ahead of PiS. This mitigates the possibility that overheated European reactions could essentially cement a PiS rule – just as it happened in Hungary – by dividing Polish society between the patriots and the rest. The key against this consolidation – as the case of Hungary actually suggests – is the domestic opposition and not the EU response.

Brussels should indeed tread carefully. Poland is the poster-child of successful transformation and has a highly integrated economy, with 2/3 of its trade with the EU. But Polish attitudes toward the EU have cooled due to persistent economic inequality. Although 40% of total investment in Central and Eastern Europe was captured by Poland, more than half of Poland’s largest businesses are “foreign” – that is, bought cheaply – while mainly the “dull utilities” are left in Polish hands. Many offshore owners are running cash cows and investor transfers abroad exceed 5% of GDP, while little support goes to high-value Research and Development. Poles have EU-level expenditures but 1/3 of the average EU income. If the tax burden is increased on local entrepreneurs, the “accession fatigue” may spread. Therefore, any exaggerated European criticism could only alienate the Poles further.

Gavin Rae, Associate Professor, Kozminski University (Warsaw)


Tgavin-raehe election of the conservative nationalist government of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland has opened up a new situation in the country. The previous course of economic development brought many successes but also left the country with wide social inequalities, large pockets of poverty and crumbling public services. A resentment within society to the former ruling Citizens’ Platform (PO) grew and in the absence of a strong alternative left, PiS were able to capitalize on this by offering a series of ‘pro-social’ policies such as providing new child benefits to those families with more than one child.

The strategy of PiS is to create a more national form of capitalism in Poland. The Minister of the Economy has said that the government will prioritize helping Polish companies, and the government has announced that it will fund some of its social policies through taxing banks and supermarkets. At the same time, the party has begun implementing a number of reforms (e.g in the Constitutional Tribunal and the media) that potentially move the country in a more authoritarian direction. These have met the resistance of the European Union, with the European Commission beginning a preliminary assessment of these laws, which could result in Poland losing voting rights in the EU and having sanctions imposed upon it.

I do not believe, however, that the EU will go as far as to suspend voting rights or impose sanctions on Poland. They will be aware that a too heavy criticism of Poland, particularly when it is seen to come from Germany, can have the opposite effect and actually strengthen nationalist sentiments in the country. Ultimately, the fate of the PiS government will hang on its ability to satisfy the demands of its electorate and successfully implement its alternative economic and social agenda. Many obstacles lie in its way, with EU funds running out in the next couple of years and the European economy facing further uncertainties. Paradoxically, however, if dissatisfaction with the government’s economic performance increases, then the likelihood that it will resort to more nationalism and authoritarianism will grow.

Gavin Rae is author of the book Poland’s Return to Capitalism and runs the blog Beyond The Transition.

Andreas Umland, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation (Kyiv)


UmlandIn as far as “Putinization” refers to the centralization of power, limitation of media freedom, and a disbalance in the system of checks and balance, the term can be used. It has rhetorical value in as far as it brandishes the authoritarian tendencies in the EU’s east as an anachronistic and regional defect in political culture. In political debate, such labeling is common and sometimes useful in order to highlight differences.

Yet, the term “Putinization” is misleading in two dimensions:

First, the currently rising limitations to democracy in Poland and Hungary are, and presumably will be, far less pronounced and deep than Putin’s autocratic transformation of the Russian political system. Thus, applying the term to EU countries over-dramatizes tendencies within the EU, and belittles the para-totalitarian tendencies in Russia. In that way, it is not helpful.

Second, the deeper sources of the “Putinist” tendencies in Russia, on the one hand, and Poland, Hungary, Slovakia etc., on the other, are different. Whereas in Russia the main motive is kleptocratic, the Polish and Hungarian motives are more ideocratic. Putin & Co. are cynical pragmatists interested in power and money. They use radical political ideas and conservative values a lot in public, but do not or only lightly believe in them. Orban and his associates on the contrary, are far more serious about particular world views and political “ideals,” as they see them. They, to be sure, also want power and money, but are – as their biographies in the Soviet-bloc dissident movements illustrates – also driven by transcendental inclinations, i.e. about their visions of an ideal society – something largely absent in Putin’s inner ruling circle. In that way, “Putinization” is misleading for the tendencies in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and others.

The Center on Global Interests provides an open platform for discussion. The views represented here are the authors’ own.