The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Polish government expels a critic — and sets an ominous precedent for the European Union

Protesters deploy a giant European flag in Warsaw on June 26. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)

Maxim Eristavi is a nonresident research fellow with the Atlantic Council and co-founder of Hromadske International, an independent news outlet, based in Kiev, Ukraine.

The right-wing Polish government is continuously breaking new ground in its attacks on democracy and the rule of law. But now it has set a truly astonishing precedent. Warsaw has just used its European Union powers to deport a government critic and banned her from entering any country within the European free movement zone. The implications are ominous – and not only for Poland.

Lyudmyla Kozlovska, a young Ukrainian human rights defender, is a fervent promoter of democratic Poland. Since she left her home country for Poland a decade ago, she has put considerable effort into promoting the model of Polish democracy to emerging countries through the Open Dialog Foundation, her Warsaw-based think tank. She has worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Polish politicians and officials for the cause.

This week, the Polish government deported Kozlovska. The authorities have not provided any explanation, but the likely reason is clear enough. She and her Polish husband, Bartosz Kramek, had criticized the government for what they see as its efforts to undermine the country’s democracy.

“It’s evil irony I ended up in the same situation that I helped many people to avoid,” Kozlovska told me. Now back in Ukraine, she is completely cut off from her life on the other side of the border, including her family and husband. But it didn’t come as a complete surprise. Kozlovska says she has lived through more than a year of government harassment after her husband posted a statement on Facebook criticizing the democratic rollback in Poland and calling for peaceful civil disobedience. The post went viral.

It probably didn’t help that she joined mass anti-government protests. “I just couldn’t stay away – so many Poles defended Ukrainian democracy during both the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Maidan Revolution of 2014. I felt obligated to return the favor,” she said. Many pro-government politicians and officials publicly threatened her with deportation after that.

On Monday, Kozlovska traveled to Brussels after a brief trip to Ukraine. To her shock, she was turned away at the border. Polish officials had placed an alert in the Schengen Information System (SIS), a shared E.U. database flagging “unwelcome” foreigners during border control. Kozlovska and Kramek say they have reason to believe that the Internal Security Agency regards them as a threat to public safety. The Office for Foreigners, the Polish government agency responsible for foreigners who reside in the country, declined to comment on this specific case. But it did tell me such bans are possible out of “defense, state security, security and public order protection or the interests of the Republic of Poland.” Polish officials had already confirmed that they made the alert.

Because this is 2018, the government’s animus against her and her husband has predictably spawned a vicious online harassment campaign. Her attackers have labeled her as an agent of George Soros, a conspiracy-fueled insult with anti-Semitic connotations that has been widely disseminated by the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin and now adopted by the global far-right. (Kozlovska told me she has met Soros exactly once.) Meanwhile, others vilify her as a Putin agent – which is no less absurd, given that Kozlovska has been a consistent and outspoken opponent of Moscow’s annexation of her former home region of Crimea.

Still, the Kozlovska case is bigger than Poland. It potentially concerns every foreigner living in the E.U. If you cross the growing number of illiberal governments in the union, you can be deported on the spot. Kozlovska’s story suggests that the whole justice system of the European Union is compromised now.

I spoke with two lawyers working on E.U. migration cases, and they both confirmed that Kozlovska’s case is no exception. Any foreigner can be deported from the European Union the same way. The SIS alert system just wasn’t designed to deal with internal abuse by an E.U.-member country.

Some other E.U. countries saw it coming. Just weeks ago, the Court of Justice of the European Union issued a landmark decision on E.U. extradition requests. An Irish court inquired if it can deny an extradition to Poland out of concerns for integrity of the Polish justice system (a concern shared by the European Commission). The court left the decision with the individual state but agreed that such concerns about judicial independence could be considered. This comes as E.U. officials contemplate tough action against the Polish government’s continuing assault on the rule of law.

As someone who also shares life between the European Union and Ukraine, I’m writing this with building anxiety. Many people like me or Kozlovska were forced to find new homes or split them between countries to protect ourselves from the risks that come with our work. Being a journalist, a civic activist or an opponent of Russian interests in Eastern Europe can leave you crippled or killed. So as I type these final sentences, I can’t help but wonder: What are the chances that this article will upset an official in an illiberal government in the European Union, making me the next one to be banned from the place I regarded as my safe haven?