Opinion & Analysis

What unites and what divides Poland?

Poland will hold its next parliamentary election on 15 October. Jarosław Kuisz writes that while much divides Polish society, the country remains united in its attitude toward sovereignty.

When writing about Poland, commentators abroad usually focus on what divides the country politically. Liberal democrats fight populists, pro-Europeans fight nationalists and so on. They are quite right to focus on this – such a description aptly captures the current political scene. However, this approach is not fully comprehensive. Thus, here I will focus instead on what is common to the two sides of the conflict, namely a nervous attitude toward sovereignty.

In a survey conducted after Russia invaded Ukraine, 84 per cent of Polish respondents said they were afraid of the war spilling into Poland. “I think about it every day,” one man living on the Polish-Russian border told the press. “They could come any time. Kill us in our beds.”

More than a year has passed. Still, there is no more important word in Poland today than sovereignty. The term, commonly understood as “security”, has become a must-have in the repertoire of politicians. A CBOS public opinion survey conducted in June this year shows that 73 percent of Poles believe the war in Ukraine threatens the security of their country.

In their own way, people are used to the war across the eastern border. On a daily basis, they are preoccupied with the European problem of high inflation, as well as the more local collapse of the health service. However, the threat to the state from Russia’s invasion invariably remains “in the back of their minds”. This topic therefore cannot disappear from the political agenda and looms ever larger in the election campaign.

Why is sovereignty so important in Poland?

The need for industrial sovereignty, sanitary sovereignty, migration sovereignty, among others, is now being discussed all over the world. In central and eastern European states, including Poland, however, there is fear of the loss of sovereignty in the most classic sense.

These are fears of the state being completely wiped off the map or of a puppet state being established. For states such as Poland and Lithuania, these are not theoretical considerations. On the contrary, regaining and losing an independent state are experiences of the last 300 years enshrined in the collective identity. Each time, the collapse of the state has been associated with an outbreak of violence, usually war, the collapse of old forms of public life, emigrations, confiscation of property, imprisonment and terror.

Importantly, these collective fears based on real past experiences are transmitted in the public and private spheres. They provide the framework through which present policies are assessed and the future is projected. The war in Ukraine revives traumatic experiences; however, the truth is that the described, post-traumatic attitude to sovereignty has shaped domestic and foreign policy since independence in 1989.

For example, the two crucial geopolitical decisions states in central and eastern Europe have made – to join NATO and the EU – were motivated not only by a desire to improve material well-being but also and overwhelmingly by a desire to escape from the trap of history. Leaving Moscow’s sphere of influence was perceived in Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn not from the perspective of a few decades, but of centuries.

Paradoxically, this brings us back to current politics. At the moment, we in Poland have two dominant political parties. On the one hand, Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party (comprising anti-liberal national populists) is in power. On the other hand, Civic Platform (pro-European liberal democrats) is in opposition. Alex Szczerbiak provides an excellent, detailed description of the political scene in a recent blog.

The attitude toward sovereignty became an ultimate criterion for judging a political opponent, or even for excluding him or her from politics as a “traitor”. The national populist government warns against losing sovereignty to the East, but also to the West. In its rhetoric, Jarosław Kaczyński’s party is thus able to equate Brussels or Berlin with Moscow – in a way that is astonishing to western commentators, but convincing to its own electorate.

On the other hand, Donald Tusk’s main opposition party sees the threat mainly in the East. It accuses Kaczyński’s party not only of demonising and ignorance of the West but above all of actually kicking Poland out of the West (“Polexit”). Implicitly, this means that Poland – oriented toward maximising sovereignty in the classical sense – will find itself once again in a grey zone between East and West.

In practice, this would mean a return to Russia’s sphere of influence, for the “’third way” between East and West means only the scenarios familiar from Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. This way of expressing post-traumatic sovereignty, as we can see, can take on governmental and oppositional, anti-EU and pro-EU faces.

Is there life beyond polarisation?

Two things can be said in conclusion here. Although “post-traumatic sovereignty” may seem a rather abstract concept, for eastern Europeans it is as real an experience as the current war in Ukraine.

First, it means an even bigger army. Among the first consequences for the future, it is worth noting that expenditure on armaments will increase regardless of whether Kaczyński’s party or Tusk’s party governs. This is because concerns about the security of the state are shared by citizens across party affiliations and “post-traumatic sovereignty” continually conjures up worst-case scenarios.

Currently, the sums projected for military spending are astronomical and expected to reach 4% of GDP. As The Economist wryly commented in a recent article, “no country in Europe, not even the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which all promise to up their military spending to 3% of GDP, has felt more threatened by Mr. Putin.”

Second, it means orientation toward the US. Central and eastern European countries are looking at the possibility of real support in the event of a threat of aggression. They recurrently equate NATO and the US. In this sense, theirs are no different from the policies of Finland and Sweden, which immediately abandoned neutrality after the outbreak of a full-scale war.

However, for countries like Poland, this means at the same time maintaining a certain distance from Germany and France as the joint engine of the European Union. Economic issues within the EU are important, but as can be seen from the first reactions of Poles to the war (such as willingness to make sacrifices), they do not outweigh the basic problem of preserving sovereignty.

For without national sovereignty, there can be no economic success. This is indirectly evidenced not only by the tragic fate of Ukraine but also by the last 30 years of prosperity associated with the abandonment of the model of a centrally controlled economy imposed by Moscow.

About the author

Jarosław Kuisz is a writer and political analyst and the editor-in-chief of Kultura Liberalna. He is a Senior Fellow at the Zentrum Liberale Moderne in Berlin and a Senior Researcher attached to the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent at the CNRS in Paris.

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