From Syria to Ukraine, a pesky and newly reinvigorated Vladimir Putin is testing the west. In this new geopolitical face-off, Poland has assumed key strategic importance and will no doubt play a hugely significant diplomatic and even military role. Already, NATO has taken steps to shore up its eastern European flank by dispatching troops and other logistics personnel to Poland. The alliance has also stockpiled armored vehicles, tanks and other equipment throughout the wider region.
In light of twentieth century history, Poland has more than enough reason to fear the Kremlin and that is putting it mildly. But as the west ratchets up pressure on Russia, few have bothered to scrutinize Poland's troubling internal politics. Take, for example, the rise of recently elected president Andrzej Duda of the conservative "Eurosceptic" Law and Justice Party (PiS). According to polls, PiS is likely to solidify its political grip on Poland come October 25, when the country holds a parliamentary election.
Duda is a foreign policy hawk and rightwing populist. Politico writes that the youngish politician is a "throwback" who has become fixated on "the ethos of an older Poland, where national heroes are extolled, there is nostalgia for a lost way of life on the prewar eastern kresy or borderlands, and the Roman Catholic Church is seen as the guardian of patriotic and religious values." Indeed, like Poland's influential Catholic Church, Duda opposes in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and the politician has come out against same sex marriage as well as legally binding conventions designed to counteract violence against women.
Questionable Historical Revisionism
In line with his own conservative nationalism, Duda has developed a rather peculiar brand of historical revisionism. During a presidential debate, for instance, the politician chose to ally himself with hardcore Polish nationalists who seek to refashion the World War II record. According to historian Jan Gross, Polish villagers burned dozens of Jews alive during the so-called 1941 Jedwabne pogrom. Indeed, Poles reportedly massacred their Jewish neighbors on a number of occasions with "little to no German involvement."
Gross' account has spurred a furious reaction from Polish nationalists, who like to portray their country as a victim of Nazi occupation rather than a perpetrator. Moreover, they argue that Gross failed to provide sufficient evidence to bolster his claims. Siding with the nationalists, Duda has stated that Warsaw shouldn't apologize for alleged atrocities, for such claims represent an "attempt to destroy Poland's good name."
As if such historic revisionism wasn't problematic enough, Duda's PiS party has engaged in objectionable xenophobia. Jarosław Kaczyński, a former prime minister and leader of PiS, has said that Muslim refugees and migrants carry "very dangerous diseases long absent from Europe." The politician added for good measure that Muslims threaten to impose Sharia religious laws on Europe and use churches as "toilets." In another bizarre aside, Kaczyński remarked that migrants have brought diseases such as cholera and dysentery to Europe, in addition to "all sorts of parasites and protozoa, which ... while not dangerous in the organisms of these people, could be dangerous here." The politician's rivals criticized such statements as unacceptable and even reminiscent of Nazi rhetoric which was applied to the Jews.
Kaczyński has expressed concern that Poland, a large country of 40 million people, might be forced to accept 100,000 Muslims. Initially Warsaw resisted a plan to resettle refugees across the EU, and stipulated that it would only take 2,000 Christian migrants. Duda meanwhile argues that Poland is "not a wealthy society," though the country could surely make room for ethnic Polish migrants hailing from the former Soviet Union. Eventually, Poland buckled and agreed to accept a meager 4,500 migrants out of 120,000 being apportioned.
Politico writes that "although Kaczyński's comments are offensive and disturbing to many, there is fertile ground in Poland for antipathy towards accepting migrants, especially Muslims. Poland is one of the most ethnically and religiously homogenous countries in Europe and recent opinion polls have shown that 56 percent of people are opposed to accepting refugees and only 8 percent are in favor." Historian Jan Gross, the same scholar who ruffled feathers for his research into atrocities committed during the Second World War, has declared that "states known collectively as 'Eastern Europe,' including my native Poland, have revealed themselves to be intolerant, illiberal [and] xenophobic."
As geopolitical tensions get ratcheted up between the U.S. and Russia in a manner reminiscent of the old Cold War, the media will no doubt pay a lot of attention to the inscrutable Vladimir Putin and how Washington ought to counteract the Kremlin. What often gets overlooked, however, is that U.S. allies in this emerging struggle are far from perfect, and that is putting it mildly.