WARSAW — It's incredible how much Warsaw has changed since the fall of Communism. While its inhabitants were always colorful and free-spirited, the city itself was dull and bleak. Nowadays, though, the Polish capital is full of hip restaurants, outdoor cafés, sophisticated shops and brand-new, car-free streets.
"Poland's economy is flourishing," French lawyer Jean Rossi notes, explaining that the pace of the country's growth "remains stronger than in the rest of the European Union" and with unemployment levels at around 5%.
But despite these undeniable achievements, the mood in the Polish capital is dark. Warsaw's residents are very pro-European, profoundly liberal and clearly committed to the opposition parties that were thrashed two years ago by the now governing Law and Justice party, PiS. Since then, the capital's residents have been on red alert, convinced that the country is sinking into authoritarianism.
Lucifer of Polish politics
Roman Kuzniar, a professor at the University of Warsaw, is one of them. We meet in one of the university's sunny squares. "This isn't a political crisis, but rather a political group in power that wants to change the system," he explains. "The Law and Justice party is a party of Bolshevik revolutionaries who want to build an authoritarian system comparable to that in Belarus, and European safeguards are the only thing holding them back."
Kuzniar, an advisor to former president Bronislaw Komorowski (2010-2015), calls PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynsk "the Lucifer of Polish politics" and explains how the "revolutionary wind" translated into radical changes. He worries particularly about the general judicial reform, which has already altered the composition of the Constitutional Court and how its members are named, and now promises changes to the Supreme Court.
The power of elitist clans that have been controlling the courts for years.
"We used to have people who were trusted. Now, the new president of the Constitutional Court is a female judge from some obscure local court. Her presence at this job has rendered this authority meaningless," the professor complains. Kuzniar also talks about how local authorities have seen their powers reduced, how the government has tightened its grip on state-owned TV broadcasters and how it's trying to re-nationalize privately owned media groups as a way to, in his opinion, gain control over the last bastions of the independent press.
Academics aren't alone in their concerns about the government. Recently, massive demonstrations were organized across the country, forcing the Polish president, Andrzej Duda (also from the PiS), to veto a controversial judicial reform.
Taking on the elites
The PiS and its allies, of course, have a different take on the situation. Chris Czabanski, a PiS lawmaker and former activist from the Solidarnosc trade union movement, is "unimpressed" by accusations of authoritarianism and recalls how the previous government illegally named new judges to the Supreme Court to gain influence over the judiciary.
The reforms are needed to shake up "the power of elitist clans that have been controlling the courts for years" and allowing "many cases of corruption," Czabanski claims. "These elites always considered themselves to be above the law. They must be subjected to parliamentary control."
PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński — Photo: Piotr Drabik
But these arguments don't explain why the executive would take on the prerogative of having the Justice Minister name Supreme Court judges. During the campaign, the PiS also talked at lengths about the necessary decommunization of state institutions. The new government is indeed convinced — some would say paranoid — that former pro-Kremlin Communists are infiltrated everywhere in Poland. Even the hero of Solidarnosc, Lech Walesa, found himself accused of being a traitor and a spy for the old Communist regime.
But Chris Czabanski says that his ruling party is there "to serve the interests of the common people" whose values and interests are looked upon "with contempt" by the elites who jumped on the globalization and EU bandwagon. "The Christian conservatives, people from the smaller towns, all of those who have little education, have been abandoned," he says. "The opposition simply told them we would enter a paradise of wellbeing with the EU. We started building big highways, but nobody made any proposals for the communities that were not connected to it … Nobody except for the PiS."
The new Poland woke up to find itself very unequal.
Tomasz Zalewski, a former Washington correspondent for the center-left magazine Polityka, agrees that the opposition abandoned the field of social policy to the PiS, adopting instead a very liberal vision of market economics and social issues — such as LGBT rights — that have shocked traditional Poland. "The opposition also deserted the field of patriotism. Remember that former Prime Minister Donald Tusk once said that someone with a strategic national vision should go see a psychiatrist," Zalewski says.
The problem, according to lawyer Jean Rossi, is that the PiS gives patriotism an often revanchist and conspiracy-theorist tint. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the party leader, continues to harp on, almost religiously, the tragic plane crash that killed his brother, then president Lech Kaczynski, near the city of Smolensk in 2010. "You killed my brother!" he shouted at the opposition inside the Parliament just last month, suggesting that they had conspired with Moscow.
For Professor Karol Modzelewski, an 81-year-old medieval history specialist and one of the most important faces of Solidarnosc, the PiS bears a great responsibility for the gap that's growing between these two Polands. But he also sees the current situation as a consequence of "the liberal shock therapy" imposed on the country after the fall of Communism. "The heroes of Solidarnosc were used as political cover" for the painful reforms, but "the new Poland woke up to find itself very unequal, in a post-Communist country where egalitarianism remains strong," he says.
"There are now two Polands. We don't get the same news. We don't read events in the same say. Nor do we have the same values. It's as if we were losing our common language," the professor explains in terms that are strikingly similar to what is often said about the US under Donald Trump. "We no longer listen to one another, and we no longer talk to each other. Worse, we don't even want to talk to each other."
See more from World Affairs here