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What Poland Says About Losing Democracy

Find out how this Eastern European poster child for democracy backslid into autocracy, and what lessons it holds for the rest of the West.
The Main Market Square of Krakow, with a few crowds of people in the background Play Podcast
Severinus Dewantara

Yale historian Tim Snyder says "if it can happen in Poland, it can happen anywhere."

Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson and today we're talking about Poland in the context of the broader crisis of Democracy that we face in the world today. I'm joined by Tim Snyder who is a Professor of History at Yale University, also a Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, and the author of two recent books: The Road to Unfreedom, Russia, Europe, America and On Tyranny. Tim, it's great to have you on.

Tim Snyder: Great to be talking, Brian.

Brian Hanson: Tim, to start framing this conversation, I really want to go back to when you and I shared an apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts back in the heady days of the 1990s where after the cold war liberal democracy seemed to be on a roll throughout the world. And there were even arguments about the end of history that were very popular at the time. Now, you fast forward to today, and global trends look dramatically different, the retrenchment of democracy, rise of authoritarianism. Indeed, one of the most striking measures of this is the nonprofit, Freedom House, in their annual survey, has documented that for the last 12 years in a row there's been a net decline in political rights and civil liberties in countries around the world. Some folks even talk about this being the worst setback for democracy since the 1930s.

I want to focus our discussion today really on Poland, which is an incredibly important country in this narrative. I think in many ways people know not enough about this case. As many people recall, Poland was seen as a poster child for post-communist democratization, and yet recently they have elected a conservative, populist government that has done things like centralized power in the executive, politicized the judiciary, attacked the media, demonized minority populations, all the while rebuffing both domestic protests and international criticism.

For me, Poland is particularly poignant because in the 1980s as a senate foreign affairs advisor, I was in Poland during the round table talks that brought the end of communism and I remember the aspirations so clearly of that time. Tim, could you just start out by laying out what's happened in Poland since 2015 when the ruling Law and Justice party came to power? What are the most important ways in which they've attacked liberal democracy in the country?

Tim Snyder: Okay, Brian. I will take that on but I can't resist by starting from us and starting from the premise of your question which is that there has been a general turn. It's true there's been a general turn and I completely agree that Poland is a central example but I think for us to be able to see that and react to it, we have to recognize that it's not something which is at all external to us. That we too have been taking part in it and indeed, the very ideas to which you refer, now, of course, with distance and irony the idea that history comes to an end, that liberalism and democracy were inevitable. Those ideas are clearly part of the problem. We declared that history come to an end, that there are no alternatives, and that the present was just kind of the future life. We knew what was coming. There couldn't be anything but liberals in a Democracy.

That made it very hard for us to recognize that democracy is something we have to make. We got very complacent about the American model, both its stability and its ability to project things outward. We simply didn't notice the contradictions inside of our own system and we didn't notice the alternatives when they began to appear. Which brings me to Poland. What's a little bit unusual about Poland is that it's hard to track some of the basic causes that we see elsewhere. There isn't the problem that one has in Russia and also the U.S. of big income inequality. The change in media doesn't seem to be playing such a dramatic role. Rather, we have some causes that are basically domestic.

I think one of them though is related to the general trend and that is the sense that in 1989 everything was supposed to change but not everything did change. In 1989 Poland you say was a poster child. In some sense, it was an extreme example of the general idea that if you change the economics you will also change the politics and the culture. We all thought—or many of us thought—that so long as you got the economics right the politics would come on course. I think what got lost in there was the idea of individual responsibility or the notion that a culture or civil society had to be created or re-created over and over and over again. I think part of the exhaustion with democracy in Poland has to do with that. The economic changes went fairly well but the politics were supposed to just automatically follow along and it hasn't.

A thing which is very specific to Poland, although one sees similar developments here and in other countries, is a radical polarization of two camps. Where people are more likely to think of people in the other camp as the enemy, that is the opposition. Where young people don't date across political lines or marry. I guess we see that in the U.S. as well now. And the sense that politics has to be a kind of all-or-nothing. What's changed since 2015 is that a political party has actually tried to implement that. Led by Mr. Kaczynski, the party which is known as PiS, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice), has actually tried to create a situation where they're not going to have to leave power. Where controlling the media and controlling the judiciary they won't actually face real political competition anymore. That's something which is new and that's the basic plan I think from which we should start.

Brian Hanson: Tim, you point out, that this isn't an economically-driven story and you point to this culture of democracy. One of the things that the EU did very intentionally, the European Union did very intentionally after the fall of communism, was to try to construct democratic institutions in the countries, throughout the former communist countries. Why was that not successful?

Tim Snyder: Well, I think the irony is that it was but there was no second step. You'll remember, we were both watching this and paying attention to it at the time. The EU was actually pretty good at reacting to backsliding or failure to meet commitments while countries were still candidates. The irony is that once you join the European Union that kind of leverage disappears completely. If you're trying to get into the European Union, if your population wants it, if you need the big market and so on, then you're going to listen. But once you're in and you're like Poland or Hungary and you don't think there's any way of getting you out, then that incentive goes away. I think the second thing that happens—which is a historical point—is that there has been a generational change.

In Europe, in Poland as in the U.S., the people who are most complacent about or sometimes even opposed to democracy are actually the younger generation rather than the older generation. I think that has to do with the sense that things can't really change. They imagine that they're going to have all the good things of Europe or all the good things of democracy even if Europe or if democracy go away. And Europe doesn't really have an answer to that. The story of Europe was: we are an answer to the second world war or later on, we're an answer to the communist experience. But Europe doesn't really have a story about the future now. So part of the problem is losing its young generation which ironically, I would even say tragically, takes for granted a lot of things that couldn't go away very quickly.

Brian Hanson: One of the things that's interesting about that is to flip back to the economic side. Poland, unlike some of its neighboring countries, actually has had an economic success story and in many ways many of those promises, at least on the material front, have been more available in Poland than in other places. So why has that not been enough to bring that younger generation along?

Tim Snyder: I think it's that a fundamental lesson is that economics doesn't actually determine politics, at least not in the straightforward way that we would like. I mean, jumping back to '89; for me one of the great ironies of '89 is that Marxism died in Eastern Europe but it came to life suddenly in the West. We all started to think that so long as we get the economics right the politics will follow. I'm sure in some general way it's better to have prosperity than not to have prosperity, but people being prosperous doesn't necessarily bring about democracy. I think that what people need to do is connect democracy to positive changes in the foreseeable future—which isn't exactly the same thing as GDP per capita.

Also, people need to have the sense that democracy somehow belongs to them, that they are the ones who are actually making it. That they're not separated from distant authorities and so on and so forth. None of that can really be reduced to big macroeconomic indicators. In Poland, part of what's happened is that some people who were crucial have not done so well. The working class that Poland inherited in the '90s did extremely badly. And then some people who have done reasonably well don't believe that they owe it to Europe or that they owe it to Democracy. You have a bunch of things that are going on at the same time. What I would stress is that, and this is I think a lesson that goes beyond Poland. If you're in favor of democracy, it's not going to be enough just to keep GDP going. That's a bit of a non-sequitur.

Brian Hanson: So take us inside Poland and walk us through how the politics did develop. For so many people who weren't paying attention, 2015 kind of comes out of the blue and seems like a big discontinuity. But clearly you're talking about a politics that was developed over time. What were the key developments and how did that work out?

Tim Snyder: Well, there are some things that are pretty easy to understand and there are some things that are pretty mysterious. One thing is that you have, as in the U.S., you have an exchange between two major forces. In Poland, you have basically a center-right party and a right party. Again, a bit like the U.S., the center-right party is called Platforma Obylawatelska, a specific platform. The right-wing party is called Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice). They have been going back and forth in power, both in terms of governments and in terms of the presidency, for the better part of the 21st Century. One thing which happened is that Platforma, the center-right party, the guys who are not in power now, were in power for a very long time. In some sense they had it coming. People were bored. There were minor examples of corruption. It's just hard to be in power forever.

The other thing that had happened was that the other party after it had been briefly in power, in 2005, 2007, had decided that if they ever got into power again they were going to change the state rapidly so that they wouldn't lose power. and that's where we are now. That's one of the things that we didn't see coming, was this determination to change the rules so that you could stay in power longer. The mysterious thing, which is a bit hard to call from the outside, is something that happened in 2010 when a good deal of the Polish political class tragically died in an air accident in an attempt to commemorate a wartime tragedy, the massacre of Polish officers and others in Katyn and four other places in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Secret Police murdered about 22,000 Polish officers and others in April of 1940 and in April of 2010 there was an attempt to commemorate this in Russia where some of the murders took place and there were two competing polish delegations. One of the delegations, for reasons which have to do essentially with human error, avoidable human error, was killed on the way to commemorate this other tragedy. That kind of made Polish politics crazy. Because among other things one of the people who died in that accident was the president of the country who was the twin brother of the person who runs the party which is in power now. And that has lent the whole thing its highly personal character where everyone knows that the fact that his twin brother who was the only person he was closest to in the world died, must mean something but it's very hard to talk about it.

It's also meant that after that air accident one of these parties, the party of Law and Justice, the party that is in power now, turned that accident into a kind of martyrdom, into a kind of conspiracy, where it must have been the other party in cooperation with Russia who deliberately murdered us. That kind of story does a huge amount of damage to a political culture. When you throw that kind of a lie into the middle of politics, it forced people to choose sides and it means that you're less likely to see the other side as the opposition and more and more as an enemy. And I'm afraid that's been part of what's happened. That Polish politics, thanks to this accident or rather how it was treated afterward, has become much more of a story of us and them than it used to be.

Brian Hanson: Another factor that's frequently cited in driving European politics is the refugee crisis of 2015, 2016. Now notably, that's right when there is this power change in Poland. Is that significant to the Polish story?

Tim Snyder: It's very significant in a certain way. I find it hard, you know, whether we're talking about the U.S. or whether we're talking about Europe, to find the right language for this. Because the term refugee crisis tends to suggest the presence of actual refugees which turns out not to be indispensable or even really that important. I mean, starting from home, if you look at places that in the U.S. have been allergic to refugees from Syria, they are often places which don't actually have any. The same is true in Poland. I mean, I have a friend of a friend who was trying to help a Syrian refugee family in Warsaw until she realized that she couldn't because there were zero Syrian refugees in the Polish capital. There were only a handful in the country as a whole.

Interestingly, the same is true in the Czech Republic of Slovakia and Hungary. Places where the issue had a huge amount of resonance, didn't have any actual refugees. So it's tricky to talk about this because what has happened in places like Poland is that the specter of a Muslim invasion has become very resonant. It's not the actual Muslims or the actual Syrians, it's the specter of it and then the notion, which has gone much further in Hungary than in Poland I should say, that it's international forces. It's the European Union who insists that we take all these people and therefore we shouldn't like them. That's the way this issue actually breaks down.

I think that the tricky part with the EU was that Chancellor Merkel, for reasons that I think are generally admirable, wanted to react in a way that was symbolically visible and pragmatic. But she was dealing with other political systems where these issues were going to be processed, even with goodwill, in a different way. And so the refugee crisis then became something which separated some Poles and other central Europeans from Germany at a particularly sensitive time.

And this is important, you see, because the way that Law and Justice consolidates support and portrays itself as a victim is by treating the European Union as basically oppressive and identifying the European Union with Germany. So Brussels and Berlin, if you read the far right-wing or the populist right press, Brussels and Berlin are the enemies that turn up over and over again in the headlines.

Brian Hanson: In talking about external powers, in many of the narratives about changes in Eastern and Central Europe, Russia plays an important role. To what extent has Russia played a role in Poland where, of course, there is an extremely problematic history for the Poles as well?

Tim Snyder: That's a very subtle and important question because of course if you're Russia, you care about Poland. You want to break Poland off from the European Union. You want to break Poland off from NATO. But precisely because of the history of communism and the history of the partitions before that, it remains a sensitive issue and even as the right-wing around the world has largely become friendly to Russia and a phenomenon we see in America, but a phenomenon we actually see elsewhere. That is not so true in Poland. So in Poland, the Russians have to play a little bit more carefully. They do a fair amount of stuff on the internet like they do elsewhere. They had very strangely close connections to the first Minister of Defense in the current government, Antoni Macierewicz.

For reasons that one can't quite pin down, purged basically all of the officers in the Polish Army, the higher officers who had been trained in the United States, which seems like a very weird thing to do, and made the armed forces much weaker than they had been before. He is now gone but that was a very weird incident and he had some indirect connections to Russia and to Russian money which were quite suspicious. But in general, the Russians have to tread carefully in Poland. That said, one does feel a change. Again, if you read the right-wing press what you find is there are kind of ritual indications of how we don't like Russia but it's becoming harder and harder to say why we don't like Russia because it seems like the Polish government is making Poland more like Russia every day. The real enemy, the day-to-day enemy is Brussels and Berlin. So I think the Russians are slowly winning in Poland. It's an odd thing to watch.

Brian Hanson: Tim, we've talked about this primarily as an internal set of political dynamics inside of Poland and I frame this up in terms of broader trends of the retreat of democracy in the world. What does Poland tell us about that broader trend?

Tim Snyder: Well, you've already mentioned I think something which is very important namely if it can happen here it can happen anywhere. Americans have an exceptional story about how we've had democracy for a long time, the founding fathers, and so on. And yet we see at home that a lot can change very quickly. Poland is an example of a different category. Poland had the opposition movement to communism. Poland was the first to form a non-communist government in '89. Poland was the first to go through radical economic reform in January of 1990. Poland was the first to build a new big middle class. Poland was the only big country in Eastern Europe to basically go from being poor to being rich.

Poland is the most important country which joins both the European Union and NATO in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. And so Poland, as you said earlier, if things can go wrong there, that's a sign that things can go wrong anywhere. Another general issue is what you do with countries that are already inside the EU. How do you keep the EU being an attractive destination once you've already arrived at that destination and here Poland and Hungary are the important examples but also in a different way, Great Britain.

Poland is an example of how the European Union could become a status quo which people take for granted and that's a very difficult and dangerous situation to be in. The third general trend that one sees in Poland very strongly is polarization where even though we're all in this big globalized world what we find ourselves doing is treating the people who are very close to us as the enemy and forgetting about how if you treat people as enemies at home you can't have democracy. Forgetting about how if you treat people at home as enemies, that allows your real enemies to creep through the back door. That is a general phenomenon. The transformation of domestic politics to an obsessive "us and them." Where nobody believes anybody anymore, where the route of gentle, civil, factual discourse closes. Poland is a very good example of that and a lesson also for that issue.

Brian Hanson: As we close, I want to ask you what should people pay attention to as they watch events unfold in Poland? So often we get captured by the headline of the day or the big spectacle in front of us. What would you encourage our listeners to keep in mind and to look for as they're watching events unfold?

Tim Snyder: Well, it's a theme which is very general and it's the rule of law. I mean in order for democracy to work there has to be a predictable mechanism by which one group gives way to another group. You can't have a system where if one group wins they can rig the system so that in fact they never lose. Also in order to have either a market economy or a functioning welfare state or both, you have to have the rule of law. You just can't have judges who get thrown in and out at the whims of the people who happen to have the power. That's the thing to watch in Poland. It's the thing to watch now. There's been a whole raft of legislation and also just weird arbitrary moves by the president of Poland in the last few weeks that have the aim of drastically changing the judicial system, moving people out, moving new people in. Discrediting and then transforming their equivalent of the supreme court. That's the thing to watch right now.

But the larger implication, which is familiar to us, is the logic of checks and balances. If the government that comes in can make the other two branches of government weak, supine, dependent, then you're no longer going to have a democratic system as we understand it because the democratic system depends upon the judiciary, the legislature, and the executive being able to check one another. It is the common wisdom of people who want to change these systems that you have to knock off the other branches. And so one way to understand what is happening now is that, is the rule of law, the judiciary system. That's where the European Union has its eye. You know for the first time the European Union has invoked Article 258 as a response to Polish legislation with respect to the judiciary. So we now have a test. Can the European Union actually help to preserve the rule of law inside one of its members? That's the story that's unfolding basically right now.

Brian Hanson: And Article 258 is what?

Tim Snyder: The commission of the European Union has the ability, according to the treaty on European Union, in order to criticize or to sanction in the sense of criticizing a member state that seems to be breaking a fundamental principle of the European Union such as the rule of law. This has never happened before. So in some sense we're in unknown territory. We don't know what that is going to happen next but Poland has been singled out by the European Commission and it's been essentially forced to come and explain what it's doing. The way that Poland has reacted to that, the Polish government, has basically been to accelerate all the things that it was doing before. So matters are coming to a head.

Brian Hanson: Thanks, Tim, so much for helping us understand what's going on and giving a bigger context to have insight into what's unfolding both in Poland and throughout the world. I really appreciate you being on.

Tim Snyder: Really glad I could do it and it's been really good to talk to you. Thank you.

Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. As a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to the people who expressed them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. And if you like the show, please let us know by tapping the subscribe button on your podcast app. You can find us under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts and if you think you know someone who would enjoy this episode, please tap the share button and send it to them as well.

If you have any questions about anything you've heard today or if you want to know about upcoming episodes in advance and submit questions for upcoming guests, please join our Facebook group, Deep Dish on Global Affairs. This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio. Our audio engineer is Andy Czarnecki. I'm Brian Hanson who will be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.

About the Experts
Timothy Snyder
Richard C. Levin Professor of History, Yale University
Brian Hanson
Former Vice President, Studies
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Brian Hanson served as the vice president of studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He managed the Council's research operations and hosted the Council's weekly podcast, Deep Dish on Global Affairs.
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