The new government in Warsaw is transforming Poland into a nationalist, anti-Western and arch-Catholic country. Now, though, a protest movement is forming, made up of leftist activists, journalists and even a former prime minister.
On a cold, damp Saturday afternoon in January, Christmas decorations were still hanging above Nowy Swiat, a main boulevard in Warsaw. The street was empty, but a large crowd had gathered on Warsaw Uprising Square, where the state-owned television station has its headquarters. Several thousand demonstrators were waving the red-and-white Polish flag and chanting their slogan: “Freedom of the Word.” They feared that since the Law and Justice Party (PiS) has come to power and enacted a new law enabling the government to replace managers of public media organizations, freedom of expression is being cut back.
Kamil Dabrowa, one of the demonstrators, certainly felt that way. A day earlier, he had still been head of First Polish Radio. Then he was fired. Joanna Erbel, a sociologist with dyed red hair, was also demonstrating. Erbel, who received an award for her involvement in a neighborhood initiative, said: “Democracy is at stake in Poland.”
Mateusz Kijowski was attending a simultaneous demonstration in Lodz. With two earrings in his left ear, a full beard and long gray hair tied together with a rubber band, Kijowski is the leader of a new, non-parliamentary opposition movement, which he founded late last year: the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, or KOD. “The freedom of the press is in jeopardy,” he said, “and with it, democracy as a whole.” Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, the former conservative premier, stayed at home that day, but he usually attends the anti-government demonstrations too.
In total, about 20,000 people simultaneously protested in Warsaw, Lodz, Berlin, London and Prague that Saturday, marking the third major protest campaign since the national conservatives came into power. The protesters included gay and lesbian activists, environmentalists and veterans of the anti-communist movement that existed before the fall of the Berlin Wall, as well as Catholic conservatives and ordinary citizens. They are united by the same fear: that the national conservatives will transform the country to suit their agenda and will curtail freedom in the process.
Immediately after its election victory in late October, the government began its “national revolution,” using Hungary as a role model. Its goal is to orient the government, the media, the judiciary, education, government-owned businesses and even theaters and museums toward a single center of power. And this power center is essentially one person: PiS leader and founder Jaroslaw Kaczynski, officially represented by President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Beata Szydlo.
But Poland is not Hungary, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski now faces opposition from a protest movement which seems to be gathering more and more supporters by the week. Unlike the Hungarians, Poles are accustomed to success. Their economy has been growing steadily for the last 25 years, creating a self-confident, affluent, pro-European middle class which is now taking to the streets to defend its freedom against Kaczynski.
‘Poles of the Worst Sort’
Officials close to Kaczynski say that he fears protests in his own country even more than objections from the European Union and the European Commission’s probe into whether Poland’s policy changes stand in violation of EU law. Brussels will take a long time to complete its investigation, and most Poles consider it highly unlikely the EU will actually impose sanctions. But large demonstrations are a problem for Kaczynski, who claims that he is fulfilling a national mission and that he represents the interests of all Poles. This is why Kaczynski is currently as disdainful of the EU as he is of the opposition, whose members he berates as “national traitors” and “Poles of the worst sort.”
He is mainly referring to people like KOD founder Mateusz Kijowski. It was a girlfriend who encouraged him to do something after Kaczynski deprived the country’s court of its powers in December and Kijowski answered the call by establishing Facebook group under the name of his committee. “It was a Thursday. We had 100 followers by that evening, 300 the next day and 32,000 by the following Monday.” Today the KOD has more than 133,000 supporters, of which 20,000 are active, Kijowski estimates.
He hasn’t slept much since then. His house in a Warsaw suburb, with its overgrown garden, has become the center of the movement and activists are perched on the sofas with their laptops, answering emails from around the country. Some have been sleeping at Kijowski’s chaotic house for several days now. Kijowski, wearing red jeans and a KOD button on his wrinkled jacket, meets with journalists in the kitchen. It could use a good cleaning, but no one has time for that now.
Kijowski, born in 1968, was involved in the opposition movement against Poland’s former communist government. After the fall of communism, he studied computer science and became a consultant to companies and state-owned insurance groups. “After 1989, people of my generation were only interested in themselves for a long time. We were successful and we became affluent. We believed that democracy was guaranteed, but now it’s becoming clear that it isn’t.”
It’s not entirely accidental that the abbreviation KOD resembles that of a legendary dissident organization from the 1970s. KOR, the “Workers’ Defense Committee,” was established to protect workers who had been arrested. “We wanted to initiate a thought process at the time. What should Poland look like in the future?” asks Kijowski. “We don’t see ourselves as an anti-PiS organization.”
Rejecting the West
But unlike KOR, KOD is mainly a movement of older people. At 31, Joanna Erbel is one of the group’s youngest activists. She lives in Mokotów, a former working class neighborhood that is attracting many young Poles, partly as a result of Erbel’s efforts. She has been involved in the local self-administration for years and campaigns on behalf of streetcars and bike lanes. She fights to preserve old buildings and traditional milk bars, which serve inexpensive borscht and pierogi.
She has just baked a spice cake, or an anti-PiS cake, as she calls it — vegan and dairy-free. The cake is a direct response to a recent comment by the foreign minister, who said that vegetarians and bicyclists are not real Poles. The national conservatives also believe that promiscuity and the “mixing of cultures and races” are ruining Poland.
“A decent Pole eats cutlets and pickled pork, drives a car and marries young. That’s what the PiS wants the whole country to be like,” says Erbel. “The health-conscious, globalized middle class on bikes — that’s the bogeyman.” In other words, people like Erbel, who emcees a male strip cabaret in her free time and is engaged to a Protestant pastor, who also has a male partner and helps organize annual gay pride parades.
The conservatives reject anything that smells like the West, says Erbel. “In doing so, they are capitalizing on the dissatisfaction of all those who feel that they have not benefited sufficiently from the post-Communist era.” Those include not just blue-collar workers and the elderly, but young people too. In fact, the PiS owes its election victory to younger voters. The party’s social promises hit home both in eastern Poland and among many Poles born after 1989.
In the post-communist era, Kijowski and Erbel’s generation benefited from the replacement of the old elites that ran government agencies and companies. But it is difficult for younger people to move up the social ladder today. Many positions are filled and will remain so for a long time, forcing young people to take poorly paid and short-term jobs. Campaigning for bike lanes, as Joanna Erbel has done, is pure decadence for those who cannot even dream of affording a car.
‘Confess? To What?’
Journalist Kamil Dabrowa is familiar with the feeling of uncertainty that comes with losing your job. This isn’t the first time he has been fired by Kaczynski. He lost his job 10 years ago, after the PiS won the parliamentary election. At the time, the new director of the radio network called him to tell him that he had been fired. Within an hour, his business mobile phone and the gas charge card for his official car had been frozen.
The second time around, three representatives of the new radio council, which is loaded with PiS appointees, came to his office and asked: “Do you confess?”
“Confess? To what?” Dabrowa replied.
“Well,” the PiS people said, “to, uh, having played the national hymn?”
In protest against the encroachments on the constitutional court and the media, Dabrowa had indeed broadcast either the national anthem or Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” at the top of every hour. “It’s ironic that the national conservatives fired me for playing the anthem,” he says, hardly able to conceal his glee over this absurdity. Now he has a lot of time to play with his daughter and walk his dog in the neighborhood, where Kaczynski also happens to live.
“The PiS doesn’t want pluralism in culture and the media,” says Dabrowa. “It wants a uniform narrative.” That narrative reads: The Poles are a proud, Catholic people, who were given a raw deal, especially by the Germans and the Russians; but the country has pulled itself together and taken a stand against its former occupiers. History as a heroic epic, the nation united against domestic and foreign enemies, Catholic, free of Western quirks like gay marriage and exaggerated hospitality for Syrian war refugees — this is what Kaczynski wants for Poland.
Dabrowa fears that Kaczynski’s next project will be to spin the causes of the Smolensk plane crash. Two investigation committees concluded that the aircraft carrying then President Lech Kaczynski, Jaroslaw’s brother, crashed in 2010 because of mistakes made by the Russian control tower and the Polish crew. But for the national conservatives, Lech Kaczynski was the victim of a treacherous Russian assassination. This is an interpretation that the public radio network consistently opposed when it was headed by Dabrowa. The journalist believes that Kaczynski sees himself surrounded by dark powers hostile to the Poles, which is why he uses similarly inscrutable methods to shape his own policies.
One of those, according to Dabrowa, was the appointment of Kaczynski confidant Mariusz Kamiski as intelligence services coordinator. “He will use the services to fight political battles. There will be provocations, and I wouldn’t be surprised if child pornography suddenly turned up on the computers of PiS opponents or rumors emerged about drug abuse.” This is why Dabrowa is pleased that the EU now plans to scrutinize his country to ensure that constitutional standards are upheld.
A Former Leader Changes Sides
The fact that Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz agrees is at least somewhat astonishing. A devout Catholic, math teacher and father of four children, he was also the leader of a PiS administration 10 years ago.
He was only in office for eight months, during which he performed his duties diligintly and inconspicuously — and was rewarded with outstanding approval ratings. Then Marcinkiewicz apparently became too powerful for Kaczynski, and he was transferred to a job with the European Development Bank in London. There, Marcinkiewicz, a buttoned-down conservative until then, underwent a series of transformations, becoming both a critic of Kaczynski and a darling of the tabloid press. He left his wife and children for an attractive woman 22 years younger than him, bought designer suits and grew stylish stubble. The new relationship is over, and Marcinkiewicz now works as a business consultant in Warsaw, where he can sometimes be seen drinking tomato juice in the afternoon at the bar of the Hilton Hotel.
In a 2003 referendum, his country voted in favor of the EU and its principles, he says. “That’s why, of course, Brussels has the right to determine whether we are actually adhering to those principles.” Although PiS has the absolute majority in the parliament, says Marcinkiewicz, low voter turnout means that only about a fifth of Poles actually voted for the party. Polls show that enthusiasm for the EU is still very high. “This means that Jaroslaw Kaczynski has no mandate to turn Poland into an outsider within the EU.”
Marcinkiewicz’s clients, all managers of large corporations and banks, are beginning to hint that they would withdraw from Poland if the government followed Hungary’s lead and imposed special taxes on international companies.
Marcinkiewicz says that he is still a conservative, but that it doesn’t mean he supports the PiS. The new government must protect minorities, whether it likes them or not. Instead, says Marcinkiewicz, Kaczynski is ruthlessly using his majority to gain total control over all aspects of life. “I’ll be at the next demonstration,” says the ex-premier, “because I’m worried about Poland.”
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan