The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With Russia at Poland’s doorstep, Warsaw tries to woo Western critics

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Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Poland’s relations with its close allies, the United States and the European Union, were, at best, strained. Charging Warsaw with democratic backsliding, the European Union slapped punitive fines on the right-wing Polish government. Polish President Andrzej Duda — a staunch ally of Donald Trump — took several weeks to officially congratulate President Biden after the 2020 elections. That came after Biden, on the campaign trail, had lumped Poland in with a rogues gallery of nations he accused of tilting away from democracy.

But Warsaw’s beef with its Western allies seemed to melt away Friday, as Duda and Biden clasped hands at a Polish airport less than 60 miles from the Ukrainian border. Duda gushed over the strength of U.S.-Polish ties, heralding Washington’s role in maintaining “stability and world peace” in the face of “Russian aggression” against “democratic and free nations.”

That moment crystallized what observers see as an attempt by Warsaw to mend fences with Washington and Brussels amid a growing Russian threat, with Warsaw reluctantly moving to address concerns that it is out of step with the rest of democratic Europe.

What’s going on in Warsaw may amount to the start of strategic recalculation, Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland, told Today’s Worldview on Sunday.

“They’re starting to say, ‘If we’re going to fight Putin’s influence in the name of Europe and democracy, then we have to start to embrace Europe and democracy,” Fried said.

The early signs of a possible Polish rethink — including the blocking of controversial education and media laws, and attempts to acquiesce to E.U. demands over the independence of Polish judges — come as Warsaw knows that now is a moment to keep its friends close.

A NATO nation resting only a few dozen miles from the westernmost Russian bombs falling on Ukraine, Poland is on the front lines of the gathering threat from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Poland has borne the brunt of a historic wave of fleeing Ukrainian refugees. As the Kremlin’s propaganda machine ratchets up its rhetoric — it has called Poland a U.S. “vassal” and den of “pathological Russophobia” — Washington has more than doubled the number of U.S. troops there. Staking out the toughest line against Putin within the European Union, Warsaw is calling for a full boycott of Russian oil and gas.

How Putin is weaponizing ‘traditional values’ to defend Russian aggression in Ukraine

Yet, in a struggle between Russian authoritarianism and Western freedom, Poland is an imperfect carrier of the democratic torch. Its struggle to emerge from the yoke of Soviet aggression during the Cold War became a stirring example of courage in the name of freedom. But in more recent years, its right-wing Law and Justice party has moved to weaken the independence of its courts, pressure the media, demonize the opposition and assault gender and LBGT rights.

I visited the country in late 2016, just after Trump’s election, to document what critics of Poland’s government saw as the beginning of a neo-Dark Age ushered in by the country’s right-wing populists.

The then one-year-old government had already taken steps to limit the powers of the constitutional court, chipping away at checks and balances. A draft law was poised to allow government-appointed governors the right to decide on future permits for demonstrations. Cheered on by arch conservatives, its culture wars were in full swing. It defunded public assistance for in vitro fertilization treatments. In a Facebook chat, a top equal rights official mused that Polish hotels should not be forced to provide service to Black or gay customers. After the official stepped down for unrelated reasons, his successor rejected an international convention to combat violence against women because it appeared to argue against traditional gender roles.

The European Union expressed particular outrage over the 2019 creation of a disciplinary chamber at Poland’s supreme court that critics say can be used to control judges. Poland’s refusal to abolish the chamber led to E.U. fines of 1 million euro a day , as well as the withholding of 36 billion euros in pandemic recovery aid.

Biden appeared to acknowledge fissures in Poland’s democracy — as well as those in the United States — during his landmark speech in Warsaw on Saturday.

“It’s not enough to speak with rhetorical flourish, of ennobling words of democracy, of freedom, equality and liberty,” Biden said. “All of us, including here in Poland, must do the hard work of democracy each and every day. My country as well.”

But Warsaw appears to be moving to relieve tensions with its Western critics. In December, after the White House began warning of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, Duda vetoed a controversial media law aimed at silencing criticism from a U.S.-owned news channel, TVN24. In February, Duda offered an olive branch to the European Union, submitting legislation to abolish the offending judicial chamber at the heart of its legal dispute with Brussels.

In presenting the bill, Duda called it “a tool to end the dispute with the European Commission.” He added, “We are in a difficult international situation at the moment. … There will be a lot of criticism, but someone had to take this step.”

This month, Duda additionally vetoed a new education law that could have further frayed E.U. relations. Backers of the law — which would give the right-wing government more control over extracurricular and educational activities at Polish schools — hailed it as a way to prevent the “moral corruption” of children. But critics decried it as a tool to further restrict school teaching of reproductive health, gender equality or LBGT rights in Poland. In recent days, Duda has additionally dished out rare criticism of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban — Warsaw’s illiberal ally within the European Union — for being soft on Russia.

At least some opponents of the Polish government see the moves as disingenuous. “The Polish government is going to use this war in Ukraine as a smokescreen for the final assassination of the rule of law in Poland,” Dariusz Mazur, a spokesman for a group of independent Polish judges, told Politico.

But Fried, who visited Warsaw before Biden’s trip, said others in the Polish opposition have begun to praise Duda’s effort to step back from hard line policies, and have applauded him for trying to establish new lines of communication with his political opponents.

“I see it as a step toward the center and away from the Polish hard right of politics,” Fried told me. Duda “has realized just how serious this is, and that the last thing Poland needs is more division.”