Poland and European Symbolism

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Poland’s right-wing traditionalist shift means more than just a change of power in the country. The EU is facing serious systemic challenges.
The convincing victory of the conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland (some analysts insist on referring to it as traditionalist) evoked a burst of emotions. It is a source of concern for Berlin. Germans remember that when the party leader Jarosław Kaczyński was prime minister in the middle of the last decade, Warsaw did not conceal its suspicious attitude towards them, willingly recalling the past. Prominent British liberal Timothy Garton Ash noted that Poland’s populist and anti-European (in his interpretation) shift is particularly dangerous today because Poland is “the leading regional power between an overstretched Germany and a rampant Russia.” The most adamant opponents speak about “Orbanisation on the Vistula!” (Orbanisation refers to Viktor Orban’s policy, which put into doubt European dogmas) and even, “Putinism with a Polish face.” Russia is surprisingly indifferent compared to this nervous reaction in the West. Needless to say, Russians have no reasons to rejoice. Kaczyński and his associates do not conceal their attitude towards Russia as an evil empire, whereas the PiS leader seems sure that his brother Lech fell victim to a Russian conspiracy rather than a fatal contingency in 2010. Russians are calm as it is practically impossible to worsen Polish-Russian relations, which were ruined by the Ukrainian crisis. The painstaking improvement achieved in the 2000s and early 2010s became a thing of the past. The fact that conservatives are more emphatic than liberals in demanding a large-scale presence of NATO and the United States on Polish soil does not change the heart of the issue. First, judging from current trends, this presence will be built up anyway. Second, the PiS’s reputation is more likely to deter large NATO countries that make decisions. Be that as it may, but progress in bilateral relations is hardly possible. To what extent will the general European context change after the PiS’s return to power? Poland confirmed the stability of the right-wing trend that has been registered in many EU countries. Poland’s shift is more important than changes in other states because in the last few years Warsaw has become an influential European capital and, all my respect for Hungarians aside, it is not Budapest. This is not only because Poland is a large country by the European yardstick. Poland is the main “success story.” It is the backbone of Eastern Europe and, moreover, of the entire ideological structure of the new (post-Cold War) European integration. Just as before Poland symbolized a victim of great power intrigues and conspiracies and later on – resistance to alien influence. Since 1989 it has become a symbol of Eastern Europe’s revival and return to its cultural and historical roots. For Western Europeans this was moral atonement for former sins before smaller nations that these grandees betrayed more than once. Poland achieved a great deal during the structural transformation of the 1990s and 2000s and for this reason economic upheavals in Europe are affecting it less than many others. The shift of the center of political gravity inside the EU for various reasons turned Poland into a political heavyweight. It is not at the head of the pack (which is the prerogative of only one country – Germany) but Warsaw certainly stands next to Paris and London, and is possibly ahead of Rome and Madrid. Obviously, this hierarchy is a convention and depends on circumstances. Thus, the Ukrainian crisis sharply increased the importance of Poland as a “frontline” state, while the refugee flow switched the attention to the south. Nevertheless, it is clear that Poland is a factor in modern Europe where many respectable and successful countries cannot claim such a role. Poland’s right-wing traditionalist shift against this backdrop means more than just a change of power in the country. The EU is facing serious systemic challenges, primarily the refugee crisis. This fall’s events showed serious differences between the West and East of Europe (as last summer Greece revealed a split between the North and South) on how to build EU policy under new conditions. An avalanche of accusations directed at Central and Eastern European countries for not being sufficiently mature to understand genuine solidarity did not compel them to feel ashamed and rush to accept the assigned refugee quotas. The outgoing Polish government was emphatically against Berlin’s and Brussels’s ideas on this score but did not rebel against them. Most probably the new cabinet will occupy a much clearer position in this regard. In this case it will assume the leadership of a disappointed group of countries and clinch with Germany, which is still talking about the need to be more generous (albeit with less emotion). At any rate, the events in Poland are yet another landmark in the deep European transformation that is unfolding before our eyes. Fyodor Lukyanov is Academic director of the Valdai Discussion Club, Chairman, Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Editor-in-Chief, Russia in Global Affairs journal. This article was originally published in Russian in Rossiyaskaya Gazeta.
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