Poland’s conservative government is marking its first year of power with self-praise. The voters are still on its side. The US President-elect Donald Trump, meanwhile, is viewed with both hope and fear in Warsaw.
On Tuesday, the Polish government’s one-year anniversary, Prime Minister Beata Sydlo took the opportunity to look back on the year. The government has done “more this year than our predecessors in eight years,” said the conservative politician confidently. The assertion is just as bold as election campaign claims that in a time span of 25 years, Poland has gone from a “ruined” country to a “success story” that has drawn the world’s admiration. The current government has indeed implemented all possible changes swiftly and the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) is still as popular as it was a year ago. According to a recent survey, 38 percent of Poles would vote for the nationalist-conservative PiS, while the strongest opposition force is the “Modern” party at 17 percent.
The PiS team led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski can look back at series of popular changes, the most important being the first ever introduction of child allowance payments. A reduction of the retirement age is still in planning – the previous liberal government had just raised it. The economic situation makes the benefits possible: Most analysts predict growth of 3 to 4 percent for this year and the next. However, these forecasts have already been significantly revised downwards compared with previous ones.
Media under pressure
Other changes have sparked resistance. The government is trying to appoint its loyal judges to the constitutional court as soon as possible. Staff in public media and government agencies has been reshuffled. Previous governments have done the same, albeit to a lesser degree. The difference is that the ruling PiS is skeptical about the idea of checks and balances.
Even private media enterprises are increasingly feeling the pressure. The liberal paper “Gazeta Wyborcza” has cited a 21 percent loss in ads sales in the first half of 2016, mainly because government organizations no longer place ads. Furthermore, pro-government institutions want to stop the many years of cooperation with German political foundations.
New worries after Trump’s election
The Polish government is not the only one having difficulties assessing the consequences of possibly far-reaching isolationism – a new outlook that has taken hold of the United States since Donald Trump’s presidential election win. Many Polish politicians in the government welcome Trump’s success because they believe that the people in the US have triumphed over the “hated elite.”
Yet Trump’s and Kaczynski’s apparently mutual views have been overshadowed by many statements that the future US leader has made about NATO, Russia and Ukraine. In order to reinforce his focus on domestic issues, Trump has questioned the idea of supporting threatened democracies like Ukraine. Many Poles fear a “new Yalta” – concerned that international superpowers will once again divide Europe as they did during the 1945 conference in Crimea.
Liberal critics of the Polish government now sense a double threat. The political scientist Slawomir Sierakowski fears that “the West is actually, if not de jure, withdrawing from our region,” while the country can expect “20 years with Kaczynski” domestically.
Yet the outcry over Trump in Poland is much more subdued compared to other European countries, like Germany. Adam Bielan, vice-president of Poland’s senate, is hoping to seem more politicians from the Republican establishment, like former House Speaker and likely candidate for a senior Trump administration role Newt Gingrich, who was responsible for Poland’s acceptance into NATO. Bielan, one of Kaczynski’s close confidantes, calls Trump’s doubts about the US’ duty to render assistance to alliance members “dangerous words.” But he added that “if the statements ultimately motivated everyone, including Germany, to spend more on defense, then they would have positive effect in the end.”
Fear of Putin
Poland is in a precarious position in terms of security policy: Great Britain is departing from the EU and relations with Paris have hit an all-time low, especially since Warsaw cancelled an order of 50 Airbus combat helicopters at the last minute. The Airbus issue has also adversely affected German-Polish cooperation.
Only critics ask about the possible negative effects of Trump’s policies in Poland. For example, starting in 2018, the US plans to station defense missiles at the Redzikowo base as part of a strategic shield system. General Stanislaw Koziej, a leading military expert, believes it is possible that the base may be “sacrificed on the altar of understanding with Russia.” For Warsaw, it is actually more important to find out whether four important NATO battalions will be stationed in Poland and the Baltic States as planned in February and March 2017.
PiS politicians like Bielan do not believe in a “new Yalta.” Bielan himself believes that Trump will likely strengthen America’s role globally. “Speaking of great dangers for us would be like adding water to Putin’s mills: It would spread the idea that Eastern Europe is completely alone,” he said.