Photo Gallery: Poland's 'Cultural Counterrevolution'


Angry Majority Poland after a Year of Populist Rule

The national-conservative Law and Justice party has been in power in Poland for a year. Its anti-EU message has resonated in the country even though leaving the bloc isn't really an option. State control, meanwhile, is expanding.
Von Ralf Hoppe und Jan Puhl

In downtown Warsaw, on that part of Marszalkowska Street that hasn't yet become flashy and expensive, there is a narrow and inconspicuous building. It is the home of Poland's resistance movement. Piotr, an attorney who serves as the treasurer, is sitting at the window inside a small apartment on the third floor, facing his colleague Anna. Both have been here since early in the morning, typing away on their laptops. Thousands of things must be taken care of ahead of an approaching demonstration and they also have to quickly send a delegation to Suwalki, where five activists are facing charges, to talk to the public prosecutor.

"It would be best for Mateusz to do it," says Anna, hoping that he will stop by soon. Mateusz Kijowski is often their first choice for all kinds of gatherings. Piotr puts on a kettle for tea.

The office is the headquarters of KOD, or Komitet Obrony Demokracji, the largest protest movement Poland has seen since the Solidarnosc trade union in the 1980s. Kijowski is the founder, strategist and face of the movement, a lanky, relaxed-looking man. He is the most important adversary of the national conservative government of the Law and Justice (PiS) party and its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Some 8,000 people are part of the KOD, from Gdansk in the north to the Carpathian Mountains in the south, and they include lawyers, teachers and business professionals. "Resistance is a civic duty," says Kijowski, adding that he is wary of his political rival. "Kaczynski is obsessed with power," says Kijowski. "He wants to control people. That's his obsession. So what is at stake here is democracy, our freedom and European values."

Kijowski, 47, is an amiable man. With his gray hair pulled back in a ponytail and two silver rings in his left ear, he could just as well be a performance artist or a music teacher. He was running an IT firm until a year ago, but now work is on hold there so that he can devote all of his energy to politics. He says he is tired.

But this isn't the time to rest, he adds. "Poland was excluded from Europe for so long, and it took us decades to get to where we are today," says Kijowski. "All of that is now on the line because of this one man, Kaczynski."

Fatigued Polish Society

The conservative party leader is considered highly intelligent and well educated, but he is also a polarizing figure. Kaczynski may not have the Las Vegas touch of a man like Donald Trump, nor does he possess the rhetorical skills of Dutch politician Geert Wilders or the common touch of British pub politician Nigel Farage. Nevertheless, very similar sentiments have made Kaczynski's success possible.

Consistent with the right-wing populist worldview, he promises to protect a fatigued Polish society from globalization. He also promises revenge - revenge against the arrogant elites. One year ago, such sentiments led the Law and Justice Party to a triumphant victory when it secured the absolute majority in the Polish parliament. In public opinion surveys, the PiS still maintains a strong advantage over the opposition.

The country's public television and radio network, along with a number of partially state-owned enterprises, were forced to strictly adhere to the party line. Museums, theaters and film producers will now only receive government subsidies if they produce "national content." In a dangerous move, the PiS has also targeted the constitutional court, essentially neutralizing it.

Foreign investors are viewed with suspicion and the government intends to introduce special taxes for foreign-dominated sectors, like banking and supermarkets. When the European Commission introduced proceedings against the government in summer, Warsaw responded angrily by accusing the EU of meddling. The atmosphere between Warsaw, on the one hand, and Brussels, Paris and Berlin, on the other, is icier than it has been in a long time.

Kaczynski is fond of insisting that he is pursuing a "cultural counterrevolution." The EU is undermining precious Polish traditions and the country's culture, he says, and he accuses "liberals" of doing harm to the sacred fatherland. And then there are all those unpleasant types who dominate the street scene in big cities, people who the PiS summarily dismisses as vegetarians, bicycle riders and beneficiaries of globalization, people who want to introduce gay marriage and who would bring scores of Muslim refugees into the country if they had their way.

From Sullen Minority to Angry Majority

Kaczynski has skillfully leveraged such clichés to assemble a heterogeneous movement of outrage. But what really motivates Kaczynski and his PiS supporters? Why is Poland, a country that has benefited from globalization and EU membership to a greater degree than most, listening.

The economy has grown by almost 27 percent in the last nine years, partly as a result of the estimated €60 billion ($64 billion) Poland has received in structural aid from Brussels since it joined the EU in 2004. But many people in the country have not benefited from those blessings, and today almost one in eight Poles of working age still earns only about 1300 zloty a month, or roughly €290. Over the years, a sullen minority has turned into an angry majority.

Yet the success of the PiS is actually a middle-class phenomenon, say election researchers and sociologists. They note that the PiS can count on the votes of the disadvantaged, such as those from impoverished industrial regions. But these people were ultimately not the key to the PiS majority. The middle class helped put Kaczynski in power - people like white-collar workers, store owners and craftsmen, especially those living far from major cities.

To understand the PiS phenomenon, it is worth taking a trip to provincial Poland, to a small city called Nowy Scz, where the PiS achieved its largest urban result in the 2015 election, receiving 60.5 percent of votes cast.

Nowy Sacz, with a population of 82,000, is part of a self-sufficient world, a model for the new Poland of Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The city's median strips are mowed and the facades of prewar buildings in the pedestrian zone are freshly painted.

It isn't difficult for Nowy Sacz to appear well-tended and charming, because it's an affluent city. There are probably more millionaires per capita here than anywhere else in the country. There are many rags-to-riches accounts of millionaires who started out in their garages and now run large companies. One of them is Ryszard Florek, who founded Europe's largest window manufacturer. And there are Marian and Józef Koral, whose company makes ice cream. Unemployment is at 6 percent in Nowy Sacz, economic growth is robust and Patryk Wicher couldn't be happier.

More Polish

Wicher teaches marketing at the university in Nowy Sacz, is a member of the city council and has been a PiS supporter right from the start. As he takes us on a tour of the neo-Baroque city hall, he says that he is very satisfied with the new direction in Warsaw.

Wicher agrees with the PiS that the EU should stay out of Polish politics. He says that Brussels should relinquish rights and that national competencies should be expanded. Poland does not want to become more European -- in fact, he says, Europe should become more Polish.

Kaczynski's administration is also unwilling to honor a commitment by the previous government to accept at least a few thousand refugees. And Wicher agrees with that, too. Migrants should be helped, says Wicher, just not in Poland. "The objective of aid should be to stabilize their countries of origin. Refugees should be housed in transit centers in countries that are linguistically and culturally similar to their own."

He goes on to provide further insight into his worldview, his belief, for instance, that the EU should not stick its nose into everything. Repeating a PiS campaign slogan, he adds that Poles should stop crawling around on their knees in front of others.

Nowy Sacz is a model of the small, manageable world many Poles yearn for: Polish nationalist and safe from the impositions of globalization, but otherwise Western and deeply subsidized by the EU.

PiS promised its voters something of a sociopolitical filter, saying that it wants to preserve Poland as an intact and uncomplicated Eden. At the same time, however, Poles should be able to travel abroad, and the country should, of course, continue to receive subsidies. Kaczynski promised all of that.

Wicher joined the PiS because he admired its founders, twin brothers Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The Kaczynskis were involved in the Solidarnosc movement, but only on the fringes. They were too radical with their repeated and angry demands for a harsh reckoning with the communists.

A Russian Conspiracy

The fight against the old communist insiders remained their primary thrust, but they were motivated by personal affronts as well. From the very beginning, the Kaczynskis portrayed themselves as the downtrodden, and as fighters for the rights of devout, ordinary citizens. They also attacked the intellectuals in big cities, who they accused of sacrificing Poland's values to please the West.

Wicher now takes us into the town hall's plenary chamber, where a bust of Lech Kaczynski stands at the front of the room. Many Poles practically worship Jaroslaw's deceased twin brother as a saint. In 2010, the then president died in a plane crash in Smolensk as he was traveling to a commemorative event near Katyn, where Stalin's secret police shot and killed some 22,000 Poles in 1940.

Two investigative panels concluded that Kaczynski's presidential plane brushed against treetops as it approached Smolensk in foggy weather, causing it to crash and the Russian tower and the Polish crew were blamed for the accident. But many Poles believe it was a Russian conspiracy. After all the wars of the past and the years under the heel of Russian or Soviet imperialism, there is still deep-seated mistrust and hatred of the powerful country.

Smolensk was more than a national trauma. It also cast the PiS in a new, saintly light, given the presumed possibility that one of the party's founders may have been shot down by Poland's arch-enemy Russia. The exhumation of those who died in the Smolensk plane crash began two weeks ago. There is almost no chance that an investigation taking place six years after the accident will bring anything to light, such as traces of explosives. But Kaczynski's team uses such political maneuvers, instinctively staged by the PiS, to prevent people from forgetting.

Wicher suggests we go to the cinema to watch an important, patriotic film: "Smolensk." The evening show is almost sold out.

A Deep Truth

The film is part-documentary, part fictional account. Its underlying message is that the Russians planted a bomb on the plane to kill the president, because he had sharply criticized their imperialist machinations. The liberal government in Poland at the time did nothing.

The film promotes the unifying notion of a Poland that is always the victim, that the country cannot depend on European solidarity, because the hodgepodge of nations is too disunited and weak.

Towards the end, the film becomes ludicrous. The closing scene depicts the ghosts of the murdered soldiers, wearing uniforms and sporting proud mustaches, standing in front of the open graves of Katyn in 1940. Suddenly Lech Kaczynski emerges from the fog. The dead soldiers of the past and the dead president embrace. The film couldn't be more melodramatic.

When the film is over, the audience members stumble into the street. A light rain is falling on glistening cobblestones. Some moviegoers talk about the film in hushed voices, while others are silent, as if they had just experienced a deep truth.

A man many Poles also see as a hero is from Nowy Sacz, although he prefers to keep a low profile. He is one of the most important PiS supporters, and perhaps the most influential economic adviser to PiS President Andrzej Duda. His name is Roman Kluska, a former IT entrepreneur worth hundreds of millions, and an acquaintance of Bill Gates.

In his first life, in the 1990s, Kluska set out to make his fortune. He refuted Poland's eternal inferiority complex and proved that "Polak potrafi," the Pole can do it.

And then, in his second life, after he had sold his empire at a large profit, Kluska set out to save Poland - by recommending that the PiS pursue a different policy, one which would lead Poland away from Europe.

'Wrong and Dangerous'

Kluska receives us in his villa, which he had built on a mountainside at an altitude of about 700 meters (2,297 feet). In his company's heyday, Kluska repeatedly tangled with bureaucrats and government officials and he was even sent to prison. But all the allegations made against him turned out to be fictitious. His story apparently proves what the Kaczynskis have always said - that the old post-communist alliances were still at work. To this day, says Kluska, he hates the bureaucrats, who constantly dream up new rules and laws and are then given the responsibility of enforcing them.

"We have the same system today, except that the rules are coming from Brussels," says Kluska. He leans back and talks about how complicated it has become, for example, when a lamb is born on a farm. According to Kluska, the farmer is required to fill out an unimaginable number of forms, and small businesses are inundated with regulations upon regulations. Leaning forward, he says: "The system has distanced itself from ordinary farmers and ordinary people. This is wrong and dangerous!"

And the subsidies?

"Well, then Poland will simply have to make do without the subsidies. It's better than a society where inequality keeps growing."

Kluska and Wicher are not resolute haters of Europe. They know that Poland needs the economic and, more importantly, military ties. But their words reveal a sense of disillusionment, as well as the political will to oppose what they see as a heavy-handed Brussels. This, in a nutshell, is the Polish reaction to the European crisis.

The series of tremors that have rocked Europe in recent years - the financial crisis, the refugee crisis and Brexit - have left their mark on Poland. Europe looked weak, helpless and divided. And it seemed that globalization was apparently not a friendly fairytale after all, but rather an erratic process, unclear and unpredictable.

"This process of globalization has magnified inequality," says Mateusz Kijowski, the opposition leader. "Even though it is mainly a perceived sense of inequality. The majority of Poles are not worse off than they were before the fall of communism. But they see the glittering downtown areas, the elegant office towers and the shopping malls, and yet they are still living in apartments in prefabricated buildings. They are looking for someone to blame."

Picking Up the Porcelain

In the eyes of many Poles, the blame rests squarely with Brussels technocrats and liberals like Kijowski. His movement can call for demonstrations, but it doesn't stand a chance against the PiS. Kaczynski, after all, relies on emotions, which are stronger than arguments. Take, for example, the mistrust of any form of centralism, a skepticism that was acquired under socialism. Centralism, in this case, is European hegemony.

So what is the remedy? For the PiS, it's very simple. Bring out the old values: family, nation and religion.

Does that mean withdrawing from the EU?

"Absolutely not," says Konrad Szymanski with a smile. "Poland is one of the few countries where that is not even up for debate! The European Union is very useful for all its members, including Poland."

Szymanski, a state secretary in the Polish foreign ministry, plays the role of a minister for Europe. As such, his job is to continually pick up the porcelain that Kaczynski occasionally sweeps off the table.

Unfortunately, says Szymanski, Poland is not treated very well in the European committees. Poland, he explains, is the eternal supplicant. "Western politicians criticize us in a tone of voice they would never use with one another."

Martin Schulz, for instance, the German president of the European Parliament, warned against a "Putin-style controlled democracy" in Poland. "This choice of words poisons the mood, which makes communication more challenging," says Szymanski.

But where exactly is Poland headed? What will the country look like when the next election rolls around?

Poland will probably be a country in which the government is able to rule without checks and balances. The legal system and the security apparatus have already been brought into line, down to the last provincial judge. Poland's eternal complex of feeling short-changed is also likely to shape its relationship with the EU. In other words, Poland will be a difficult partner. Warsaw will not want the euro, and it will treat foreign investors with suspicion.

The Bulwark

It is also very likely that the PiS will retain a tight hold over the country, given the way it buys its supporters. The government already pays families a child subsidy of 500 zloty for their second and subsequent children, and housing construction programs are in the works. Two weeks ago, the PiS majority decided to lower the retirement age from 67 to 65 for men and to 60 for women, even though the government actually lacks the money to pay for the change. It is also very likely that Kaczynski's acolytes will continue to foment nationalism, pitting Warsaw against Brussels, and even more so against Poland's archenemy to the east, Russia.

A group of young men are lying in the grass in a forest southeast of Nowy Sacz. They have taken cover. It's cold outside, but the uniformed men, armed with pistols, Kalashnikovs and knives, have been guarding the banks of the Krynica River against the enemy to the east for hours.

One of the men is Jerzy, 17, a blonde, thin student at High School No. 3. He rubs his shoulders -- today, it is his turn to carry the machine gun. He can't fire the weapon; the barrel has been filled with lead and the trigger is locked with a screw. But that could soon change.

Jerzy is a member of a paramilitary force of about 60,000 Poles who spend their free time training to defend their country. The government wants to integrate these volunteers into the army. Jerzy believes in his mission. "Poland needs us. After all, we don't live embedded in the middle of the continent. We are the bulwark."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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