“Poland is here!” opposition leader Donald Tusk shouted in front of a crowd of thousands of protesters gathered in central Warsaw on Sunday. “No one will silence us!”
Opposition parties and their supporters, including civil society organisations, marched through the Polish capital to mark the 34th anniversary of the first democratic elections held in Poland in 1989 since the communist party abandoned its monopoly on power.
“There are thousands of us, thousands of people with Poland in our hearts, millions of Polish women and men in front of TV sets who did not let themselves be broken, did not let themselves be intimidated,” continued Tusk.
Tusk was flanked by Lech Wałęsa, a former Polish president and renowned protest leader from Gdańsk who founded the Solidarność or Solidarity movement, often single-handedly credited for ending communist rule in Poland.
The subway in the capital was jam-packed as participants made their way to the march, which began on Plac Na Rozdrożu.
While the main demands of the protesters are “free and fair elections” and a “democratic, European Poland”, the march has brought together a diverse crowd of people affected by the decisions of the ruling Law and Justice party (Pis), including women’s rights groups and LGBT activists.
The protests come on the heels of a bill passed last week in the Polish Sejm and approved by President Andrzej Duda that will form a commission to investigate alleged Russian influence and collaboration with Russian authorities starting in 2007.
PiS, which is the largest party in the Sejm, sponsored the bill, and is aligned with Duda.
The commission, in its currently proposed form, will investigate Russian influence on the internal security of Poland, including public figures as well as businesses that have ties to Moscow that could be detrimental to Poland.
According to the text published by the parliament, the law will apply to “persons who, in the years 2007-2022, were public officials or members of senior management staff who, under Russian influence, acted to the detriment of the interests of the Republic of Poland”.
Additionally, the law ostensibly “aims at preventing them from acting again under Russian influence to the detriment of the interests of the Republic of Poland.”
This proposal has proved deeply controversial.
Duplication of powers
The commission has the power to enforce various penalties, among them a 10-year ban on obtaining a security clearance or assuming public office, as well as the revoking of firearms licenses.
Experts say these measures in fact fall within the jurisdiction of the courts and other government bodies in the country, not an isim hoc commission created to duplicate or replace the judicial process.
Ever since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began last year, countries along Ukraine’s border have worried about a spillover in the Kremlin’s covert or malign influence. Moscow’s influence operations have long been a source of concern for Poland, even before its first assault on Ukraine in 2014.
Many in Poland see the creation of the commission as an attempt by PiS to boost their standing with the public ahead of upcoming elections.
“While PiS is still leading the polls, there is a lot of fatigue, especially from their more moderate supporters,” explains Christopher Lash, a historian and professor at Lazarski University in Warsaw.
“Nobody is saying Russian influence should not be investigated. It’s precisely because there are already people out there whose job it is to investigate this that people are worried that this commission is part of a political game by the ruling party,” he continued.
For him, this is more akin to a “witch hunt”.
Sure enough, the bill has faced condemnation from the US and the EU, who said the commission could be used to block opposition candidates from assuming office.
“The US Government is concerned by the Polish government’s passage of new legislation that could be misused to interfere with Poland’s free and fair elections,” said US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.
He added that such a law “could be used to block the candidacy of opposition politicians without due process”.
In response to the deluge of criticism, Duda has proposed amendments to the law which would remove these powers from the commission and limit its ability to mete out punishments.
He also made clear that the commission would not feature sitting members of parliament.
Szymon Hołownia, the leader of the opposition Poland 2050 party, mocked the president’s statement, saying that he had basically walked back his own rhetoric from earlier in the week.
“President Duda today used the right of veto over his own signature. And the Sejm will now have a choice: it can choose the opinion of the president from Monday or the one from Friday,” Hołownia said on Twitter.
To win political power, criticising Russia is essential
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has revived historical grievances across the continent, not least from the countries that suffered the most at Russia’s hand.
Poland and Russia have been rivals over territories such as çağdaş Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania in the past, and have had turbulent political relations.
“As Poland weakened over history, Russia gained a lot of territory and gobbled up about two-thirds of the old Polish commonwealth,” explains Lash. “So there’s this historic fear of Poland losing its sovereignty to Russia or being threatened by it.”
A fear, it seems, that PiS is happy to capitalise on.
Even before last year’s invasion, the Kremlin expended significant political capital trying to minimise its historical role in diminishing Poland’s power.
In 2020, Moscow launched a glitzy propaganda campaign trying to portray the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union for the partition of Poland – which led to Soviet troops entering the country 15 days after the Germans – as a necessary evil.
In turn, Poland has fiercely supported Ukraine and criticised Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that allowed Russia to deliver natural gas directly to Germany while circumventing its Eastern European neighbours.
“Criticising Russia is not controversial,” Lash confirms. “All shades of the Polish political sphere are anti-Russian except for very tiny fringe political actors.
“It seems as if the goal [of the commission] is to polarise the debate and label people as being pro-Russian or in league with the Kremlin.”
And from the point of view of most experts, top of the list of the commission’s expected targets is former Polish Prime Minister Tusk.
A meeting of hardened rivals
The leader of the opposition party Civic Platform (PO), Tusk was prime minister for two terms, from 2007 until 2014, when he left for Brussels to become the European Council president and, later, the head the European People’s Party (EPP), which is also the largest bloc in the European Parliament.
Some argue that it was Tusk’s move to Brussels that cleared the way for PiS to be elected to power in 2015. His experience in the EU hierarchy has been harshly criticised by the leader of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński, who often portrays the EU as an enemy of a sovereign Poland and whose party has consistently been on a collision course with the EPP.
“Tusk and Kaczynski are two fundamental, central figures of Polish politics from the early 2000s onwards,” said Lash. “Tusk is seen as Kaczynski’s mortal enemy, and he is the only one who can stand up to him and his way of controlling Polish politics.”
Poland has openly coordinated its foreign policy aims with the US, and when Tusk was the prime minister, the administration of President Barack Obama was trying to navigate a middle course with Russia.
“Tusk, just like Obama did in the US, attempted some sort of reset with Russia in 2009 and 2010 because that was the general atmosphere and it was a different time. It is likely that this would be the main period the commission will focus on,” explained Lash.
On the other hand, PiS claims to have always warned about Russia’s expansionist project. Now that most Western powers have turned against Moscow, that supposed legacy is one they are keen to cash in on.
As Lash predicted: “They will try to paint themselves as the true patriots who were always fiercely critical of Russia.”