Once a communist dictatorship, Poland is generally considered a successful democracy. But are those freedoms now at risk?

With its new nationalist government caught in a deepening constitutional crisis and xenophobia and racial intolerance on the rise, some fear that the country's widening divisions could prove fatal to its future stability. Even some of its European Union neighbours are now deeply concerned. 

We went to find out why.

Anti-refugee sentiment is growing in Poland, fueled, in part, by racism towards Muslims and Islam. [Al Jazeera]


By Glenn Ellis and Katerina Barushka

Poland has the fastest-growing economy in the EU. Its citizens enjoy living standards far higher than their counterparts in, say, Hungary, Bulgaria or Romania. Yet Poland, Eastern Europe's best example of a communist dictatorship transformed into a Western-style democracy, is now caught up in a worsening political and constitutional crisis.

Shortly after coming to power in October 2015, its new ultra-conservative government, formed by the PiS (the Law and Justice Party), began to introduce legislation that liberal critics protested could curtail human rights and free speech and damage the independence of the judiciary. Within weeks those opponents were out on the streets in large numbers and the political atmosphere, already made poisonous by a rising tide of xenophobia amid Europe's refugee emergency, suddenly became much worse. Poland's European Union partners began to sit up and take notice.

In the summer the opposition party, PiS, put on its banners 'We will not allow the country to be inundated by foreigners,' a kind of Donald Trump argument, and it worked beautifully. Suddenly it became perfectly OK to lie about refugees, to slander them

Konstanty Gebert, Polish journalist

We wanted to find out more, especially about the racial tension which we'd heard was permeating Polish society to an unprecedented degree. We arrived in Warsaw on a freezing February morning to meet Professor Rafal Pankowski, director of the Never Again Association, an independent public body that documents racial hate crime. He told us that recently the organisation had become much busier.

"We used to register five to 10 cases a week but in the last year we've had about five or 10 cases a day, so there's a very sharp rise. Some attacks are against people of different skin colour or different ethnic or religious background.

"This is ironic because the number of people who belong to ethnic minorities in Poland is very small. There are also symbolic attacks against synagogues, mosques and cemeteries. Just yesterday we were told of a desecration of a cemetery which was covered with swastikas."

So what lies behind growing intolerance? Snow was falling as we left for our next appointment to meet Konstanty Gebert, a respected writer and commentator on Polish affairs.

Gebert believes that the EU's proposed quota system for taking in refugees deepened hostility towards foreigners, though the roots of this intolerance date back to the horrors of World War II.

"Poland emerged from the war defeated, half its territory amputated, six million citizens dead, but one of the spinoffs of all that horror was ethnic cleansing, done by others. Poland, which all through its history was a multi-ethnic country, found itself in 1945 almost 100 percent Polish, so there is a silver lining . And this feeling repeats itself throughout the region: It's a good thing to be amongst your own, it's a bad thing to have foreigners, and suddenly Europe wants us not only to tolerate but actually to bring foreigners in."

Gebert pinpointed for us the moment when in his view the situation turned critical. It was during the 2015 election campaign.

"In the summer the opposition party, PiS, put on its banners 'We will not allow the country to be inundated by foreigners,' a kind of Donald Trump argument, and it worked beautifully. Suddenly it became perfectly OK to lie about refugees, to slander them. The leader of the opposition (Jaroslav Kaczynski) explained why he didn't want the refugees: 'Those people bring in diseases, parasites, bacteria that don't affect them but affect us.' "

Intolerance on the rise

But instead of being punished by the electorate, Kaczynski's party, the PiS, won 37 percent of the vote, giving it a narrow majority in both the upper and lower houses. And since then the country's divisions seemed to have widened dramatically.

Despite being neither Prime Minister nor President, as party leader Kaczynski wields almost complete authority over the government and his opponents accuse him of wielding it ruthlessly. In the past four months, they say he has effectively paralysed the constitutional court, put national TV and radio in the hands of party loyalists and introduced a bill giving the intelligence services greater surveillance powers which many fear will be used to monitor troublesome journalists and government critics.

Concern about the government's actions is not merely domestic. Both the US and the EU have publicly expressed their anxiety, especially about "reforms" of Poland's Constitutional Court that would see the PiS party pack the court with its own supporters and circumscribe its power to veto legislation.

Indeed, when we were in Poland, Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights, was there on a fact-finding mission amid growing concern in Brussels that Polish democracy is at risk.

They came up behind me and started beating me, and even some people who were in the toilet were just laughing, and when they saw that I was not able to move [maybe they thought I was dead] they left me.

"Pierre", African refugee in Poland

"I heard a lot of frustration about the pace of change, that laws were adopted in an untransparent way,"  he told us, "and one of my primary messages to the authorities was slow down, consult with your professional associations, consult with your international partners and make sure you don't make some serious mistakes that will cause you a lot of trouble."

We wanted to talk to the PiS and its leader - to get a response to opposition claims and concerns and to find out what drives its combative political philosophy and its apparent sense of being surrounded by enemies seeking to bring the country down. Unfortunately, our numerous requests for an interview went unanswered. But were told that clues to its mindset lie in the national catastrophe of 2010 when a plane carrying the then president Lech Kaczynski, Jaroslav's twin brother, crashed. The Smolensk disaster is Poland's 9/11 moment, etched into the collective psyche; many political and cultural figures were on their way to commemorate the Katyn massacre - a wartime atrocity in which thousands of Polish army officers were shot by Soviet forces - when their plane crashed in thick fog.

EU Council President Donald Tusk was Polish prime minister at the time. Some in the PiS openly accuse Russia's Vladimir Putin of being behind the plane crash and charge Tusk with a cover-up - an allegation which Tusk dismisses as ludicrous. But critics say conspiracy theories are not uncommon in the PiS. For example, Kaczynski also claims that another former president, Lech Walesa, one of Poland's most famous and revered citizens (as leader of the Solidarity trade union in the 1980s he helped sow the seeds that brought communism to an end) was actually an agent for the Soviet powers. 

Walesa vehemently denied the charge when we managed to catch up with him for a quick interview. "They use a Russian, a Soviet ploy. Russia, the Soviet Union does not exist without an enemy. The capitalists, the Americans, Chechnya, all this was and is necessary to rule the country. So the people from the ruling party here are using the same methods, they are looking for an enemy in order to remain in power by using threats, allegations."

The government's response to criticisms from home and abroad is that they should be dismissed as an attempt to destabilise the country. "A weak Poland is comfortable for different powers in Europe and outside Europe," Kaczynski told supporters last month as he picked up an award for Man of the Year from a pro-government magazine.

But for many the consequences of Poland's lurch to the right are much more unpleasant. The more chauvinistic the public discourse becomes, the more latitude the country's increasingly vocal hard right-wing extremists seem to feel for their actions. And this is becoming apparent in the rise of racist assaults. Take "Pierre", an African living somewhere outside the capital, Warsaw, who insisted on anonymity while describing an attack by eight men in a public toilet which left him hospitalised.

"They came up behind me and started beating me, and even some people who were in the toilet were just laughing, and when they saw that I was not able to move maybe they think that I am dead so that they left me."

On another icy morning, instead of tourists in Warsaw's beautiful historic Old Town we found a nationalist demonstration of thousands of hard-right Poles - some carrying anti-Islamic banners and others even giving Hitler salutes. It was a chilling spectacle, particularly in a country which suffered so much at the hands of the Nazis in World War II. The protest had been organised by Robert Winnicki, one of a new batch of ultra right-wing MPs now in parliament, even further to the right than PiS. Nevertheless Winnicki says he has a close working relationship with the government, though he'd like them to go further.

"The demonstration is organised against Islamisation," he told us. "We believe that what is happening in Europe is a deadly threat to our civilisation. This invasion of immigrants poses a threat to Europe, because just like when Rome collapsed in the 5th century as a result of barbarian invasions, in the same way today's Europe can also perish."

It would be completely wrong to suggest that Winnicki speaks for most Poles, or even indeed that Jaroslav Kaczynski does. Quite the opposite is true. According to recent opinion polls, a majority of the country's citizens believe their democracy is in danger and there have been countless demonstrations against the direction Kaczynski is taking Poland. But what's happening in Warsaw isn't a uniquely Polish phenomenon; it's a reflection of something that's happening across much of east and central Europe. While EU leaders dither over the refugee crisis, increasingly authoritarian and populist politicians are filling the power vacuum, making full use of the kind of harsh rhetoric that would never be tolerated in Western Europe.

Editor's note: Last month Poland's Constitutional Court ruled against legislation seeking to amend the way it operates, which, it said, would limit the tribunal's ability to function independently. The government rejected that ruling but says it is now holding talks with opposition parties to resolve the impasse.

Source: Al Jazeera