European Affairs

Perspectives: The Polish Enigma     Print Email
By Markus Ziener, Berlin Professor of Journalism

markusziener2015Poland—The Next EU crisis? The Good News: This time it's not about money.

There is reason to be cautious when judging current events in Poland. And observers are well advised not to automatically use heavy artillery when criticizing the new right-wing government in Warsaw. Why? Because Poland stands for nothing less than the biggest success story to date in Eastern Europe. Poland, a country once notorious for inflation, strikes and government turmoil, has orchestrated, in the past 26 years, a remarkable political and economic turnaround. Poland was the first Eastern country to rid itself of communism and then consequently followed a clear-cut path of integration into Western structures like NATO and EU. This happened to a large extent during the ten years of the presidency of Alexander Kwasniewski, a former minister in a communist cabinet.  Poland deserves credit and recognition for those achievements.

On the other hand, if you join a club, you have to abide by the rules. If you violate them, you will be held accountable. This is exactly what is happening now. By changing the makeup of the supreme court and limiting the freedom of the public broadcasting system, the new Polish government may have violated European legal standards. It definitely is violating the spirit of the European Union. In the EU, democracy is not supposed to work like a game of roulette, where the winner takes it all. Elected officials are rulers for a limited amount of time. Yes, of course winners do get some say so. But they are not elected to alienate – or as it happens in Poland: to insult and despise - those who did not vote for the victors. In the case of the recent Polish parliamentary elections this is even more true: with a voter turnout of barely 50 percent, the 37 percent showing for the winning PiS party (Law and Justice) can hardly be interpreted as carte blanche for unrestricted action.

Now why is this turn towards authoritarian behavior happening in a country that seemed to be firmly rooted in Western structures? The question applies even more strongly to Poland, a country that had its fill of autocrats in the many years under the Soviet thumb. The answer is at least twofold: First, the West is surprised because it has overlooked some essential inner manifestations of Polish society. Second, Poland could not or did not want to keep up the pace of change set by the EU.

Very much like Ukraine, Poland is split into two parts. There is the more modern West of Poland, including Warsaw and the big cities. And there is the other Poland, the part east of the capital and along the southern rim. There the PiS-Party has its strongest support. Rural Poland is conservative, traditional, not necessarily westward looking. This part of Poland believes in the strength and independence of a Polish nation much more than in a conglomerate of states called the European Union. And most of all: rural Poland is the stronghold of the Catholic Church. A church that, in Poland, never was modern, liberal or even tolerant. The Western world liked to believe that Polish Catholics are more modern since it was a Polish pope who helped bringing down communism. But the truth is: John Paul II was a deeply conservative cleric who looked at Western societies with a great deal of circumspection.

Modern Western values, whether women’s rights, gay rights, same sex marriage, and tolerance towards immigrants (particularly if they are of another faith) are not held in high regard by these traditionalists, to say the least. To the contrary. The fast changing world of the West is not only foreign to many Poles, it is considered decadent. The infiltration of its’ new mores and norms into Polish society through the European Union (and with the help of the allegedly left-leaning Polish media) is viewed as an attack on traditional Polish values. To the minds of many, German chancellor Angela Merkel, although herself a Christian conservative, is leading this moral imperialism with her open-door-policy towards immigrants. This is another reason why the PiS-leadership has become increasingly aggressive against the EU – and in particular against Berlin.

Is this the rational behavior of a country that actually needs Western support in many regards, most importantly in its policy towards Russia? Not exactly. At the NATO summit later this year in Warsaw, the Polish government wants to bolster the firewall against Moscow. How PiS-leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski will achieve this if he first fights his European allies remains mysterious. The same question may be asked when it comes to the huge amount of financial aid Poland has been collecting from the EU for many years now, with far more than 10 Billion Euros each year on a net basis. According to the Polish Treasury, between 2014 and 2020, Warsaw will be the biggest beneficiary of the current EU budget. Ironically the bulk of those funds is earmarked to improve conditions in the poorer regions of the country and to help farmers – precisely those who voted for the deeply eurosceptic PiS.

Now here lies the deeper reason that makes it so difficult to deal with the current Polish government. Jaroslaw Kaczynski is an ideologue who is pursuing his own value driven agenda – no matter the cost. He seemingly wants to go down in history as someone who has made Poland strong again and who withstood the trend of the times, the erosion of values. And this time, unlike Greece, money won't solve the problem. That's why Poland is a real conundrum.

Markus Ziener, Professor of Journalism in Berlin and former Washington and Moscow Correspondent for German Business Daily Handelsblatt.

Perspectives is an occasional forum of The European Institute reflecting member and guest views on topical issues.

  • How Automation Shapes the Labor Market AND Political Preferences

    By Thomas Kurer, University of Zurich and Bruno Palier, Sciences Po, Paris

    We do not believe that Brexit, Trump, or the alarming success of radical right parties in almost all European countries should be interpreted as mere “electoral accidents.” Instead, we suggest that the current destructuring of political systems is connected to the profound transformation of labor markets in times of automation. Our core argument is that the specific effects of current technological innovations are key to understanding their political implications.

    Read more ...

UMD Jean Monnet Research Project

The University of Maryland has received a Jean Monnet grant from the EU to conduct a series of policy exchanges between Europe and the US on filling infrastructure needs and the utility of public/private partnerships as the financing mechanism. If interested in participating in or receiving more information about these exchanges, please contact Rye McKenzie (

New from the Bertelsmann Foundation

The Bertelsmann Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit think tank in Washington, DC with a transatlantic perspective on global challenges.

"Edge of a Precipice" by Nathan Crist

"Newpolitik" by Emily Hruban


Summer Course