Poland on the Brink

The upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw is an ideal entry point for the United States to actively engage Poland on PiS’s undemocratic reforms. 

March 30, 2016

By Nina Jankowicz 

In the pre-dawn hours of December 18, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-affiliated Counter Intelligence Center of Excellence in Warsaw was under attack.  Despite ongoing threats from Poland’s eastern neighbor, the perpetrator was not Russian. In fact, it was not even foreign. Representatives from Poland’s own Defense Ministry conducted the midnight raid to oust appointees of the previous government and install supporters of the newly elected Law and Justice party, known in Polish as Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS.

PiS won Poland’s October parliamentary elections with an absolute majority, unprecedented in the country’s post-Communist history. The party, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, ran on a platform of economic reform. Kaczyński made clear in his victory speech that change was coming to Poland, but that his opponents had nothing to fear. “There will be no vengeance. No personal conflicts, no getting even, no kicking of those who fell,” he told the crowd. The democratic process in Poland seemed to be alive and well.

Five months later, Poland-watchers in the European Union and the United States are criticizing PiS for pushing through a series of reforms bringing the country closer to autocracy. Many experts are invoking images of the early days of Hungary’s Orban administration, which has been widely criticized over its record of human rights abuse, jingoism, and illiberalization. But as in the case of Hungary, there is little the West can do to halt Poland’s march towards an illiberal democracy.

Among the reforms prompting criticism of the PiS government is an amendment that changes how Poland’s highest court, the Constitutional Tribunal, functions. During the previous PiS government, from 2005-2007, the parliament met significant resistance from the Tribunal when passing reforms. When asked to explain his rationale for the changes, Kaczyński labeled the court “the bastion of everything in Poland that is bad.” The amendment requires a two-thirds majority for the Tribunal to make a ruling and requires the Tribunal to hear cases in the order in which they were assigned, meaning that challenges to new laws pushed through the PiS-controlled parliament can only be heard after the court’s backlog is eliminated.PiS further refused to confirm five judges appointed by the outgoing Civic Platform government, asserting that the lame duck government had rushed the appointment process in order to block the PiS government’s reforms.

PiS also asserted control over the national media early in its tenure, passing a new law that gives the government direct control over the heads of public broadcasters, which had previously been independently controlled. In its first weeks in office, PiS protested what it believed was biased coverage perpetrated by Civic Platform sympathizers. Treasury Minister Dawid Jakciewicz, whose ministry gained hiring and firing authority under the law, said: “This good change guarantees a return to balance in the media.”

In late January, the PiS parliament approved fast-track legislation to “expand access to telecommunication and other digital data and allow for greater surveillance by police and other agencies.” Amnesty International labeled the law a “major blow to human rights” and asserted that “the provisions of the new law run counter to Poland’s international and regional human rights obligations.”

Under the banners of the “Committee for the Defense of Democracy,” Polish citizens flooded the streets of major cities in the aftermath of each of these developments. The European Commission launched an unprecedented “dialogue” with Poland over the rule-of-law situation in the country. Though it is unlikely to result in action, this public reprimand caused great consternation within the PiS ranks. PiS appealed to the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission for their advice on the reforms. When Hungary sought the Commission’s advice in 2012 after “tightening its grip on media and the courts,” the Commission gave Hungary advice on how to improve some laws, though the Orban administration’s governance changed little. 

During a mid-February visit to Washington, Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszcykowski published an editorial decrying the criticism the PiS government faced in the months since it took office, explaining his government’s policies, and making a pitch for increased U.S. and NATO support. Waszcykowski wrote that PiS “made the [Constitutional Tribunal] more pluralistic and democratic” by annulling Civic Platform appointments, and that “the goal [of the PiS media takeover] is to restore a sense of mission within public media while securing independence, objectivity and pluralism.” These democratic reforms, he argued, should not stand in the way of further cooperation between the United States and Poland.

Indeed, the U.S.-Polish relationship is at a critical juncture; Poland is one of only five NATO members to meet the Alliance’s two percent defense spending threshold during an era of an increasingly belligerent Russia. The country will host this year’s NATO Summit in Warsaw, and the U.S. Department of Defense recently announced significant increases to its troop presence and equipment stationed in Poland and quadruple the defense budget for the wider Central and Eastern Europe region. Poland is also arguably among the most important “new” EU members; it remains one of the EU’s most stable and productive economies while Europe is struggling to regain its economic footing.

Poland: a stable and productive economy

GDP % Growth: Poland vs. EU Source: World Bank


These important connections likely contributed to keeping U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry from publicly discussing developments in Poland prior to his February meeting with Waszczykowski. Kerry announced that the agenda included a discussion of “some of the internal challenges that Poland is facing. Particularly, I look forward to – we are very welcoming of Poland’s decision to seek a Venice Commission opinion with respect to the tribunal law.”

In March, the Commission concluded that PiS reforms “endanger[ed] not only the rule of law but also the functioning of the democratic system.” The same week, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal struck down the legislation weakening the authority of the Tribunal. The PiS government rejected the decisions, blaming the Commission’s concerns on the previous government and stating that the Tribunal ruling was “not based on legal regulations.”

With these developments in mind, the United States and the NATO allies at large should not shy away from publicly making clear to Poland that the country’s reforms are not acceptable in a community of democracies. NATO is “founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” A democratic Poland is tantamount if NATO is to effectively meet the mounting challenges it faces on its Eastern and Southern flanks.

However, U.S. and NATO engagement with Poland should be on issues of strategic importance and tied to discrete deliverables. The upcoming NATO Summit in Warsaw presents an ideal entry point for these discussions. Poland has pressured the U.S. to increase its troop presence and defense spending in the Central and Eastern Europe region since it joined NATO. It understandably increased this pressure significantly after the conflict in Ukraine began. The Pentagon’s February announcement of a quadrupled CEE defense budget carried unfortunate optics of tacit approval of ongoing PiS reforms. While the United States should not revise its spending plan for the region, defense and diplomatic officials should make clear that a sustained increased presence in the region is contingent on Poland continuing to “promote democratic values.” The continued partisan reforms – including the infamous pre-dawn raid of a NATO-affiliated training center – are not developments that allow officials to make a strong case for assisting like-minded partners.

It would be tempting for the United States and the West to look the other way at developments in Poland, particularly given that today’s exigent threat to Europe is undoubtedly Russia. But the rise of an autocracy in Poland would threaten the European Union’s and NATO’s integrity as these alliances face more shared threats and crises since the fall of the Soviet Union. The United States and its partners should not reduce PiS’s worrisome, undemocratic reforms to “internal challenges” in public discourse, but should seek to actively engage the Poles on this issue.


Nina Jankowicz
 is a democracy and governance specialist focusing on Europe and Eurasia. She received her MA in 2013 from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service’s Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies, where she concentrated her research and coursework on the Eastern Partnership and Polish-Russian relations. She also holds BA from Bryn Mawr College, where she graduated magna cum laude in 2011 and double majored in Russian and Political Science. Nina is a member of CGI’s 2015-2016 Rising Experts Program. Follow her on Twitter @wiczipedia

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the position of the affiliated organizations.

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