Pandora’s box opened in Poland with an investigation into ‘Russian influence’

Neighbouring Poland has just passed a highly controversial law allowing investigations into “Russian influence” on Polish politics over the past 15 years. The Polish opposition has been sounding the alarm that the law may further negatively affect democracy in Poland. In vain.

The idea behind the law, which passed and signed by the Polish president in a flash, is to investigate the actions of elected politicians or public officials, i.e., their past decisions that may have been taken “under Russian influence” (and therefore contrary to Polish interests) between 2007 and 2022. The law thus concerns both the governments of the opposition Civic Platform and the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) and was adopted a few months before the country’s parliamentary elections.

The law is to create a nine-member State Commission to investigate the individual cases, while the Polish authorities and services are to provide it with all the assistance in this work. Specifically, the law sets out the tasks and powers of the commission, the investigation procedure, and corrective measures against politicians “under Russian influence” and is also intended to inform the public about Russian influence in Poland between 2007 and 2022.

According to Polish President Andrzej Duda (PiS), people have the “right to know” and “form their own opinion” about “how those who were elected in the elections understood the interests of the Republic of Poland and whether they actually acted in those interests.” But if the people are to form their own opinion, it is not clear why such a commission should be set up? For something like this a quality investigative journalistic work and quality intelligence work would be sufficient.

According to opposition politicians, the law is in fact a hammer against the political opposition. If the commission finds “Russian influence” in a public official, (s)he will be banned from public office for ten years. (S)he can defend (her)himself in court, but the court will hardly resolve the political and reputational damage. Even the U.S. Embassy in Poland has admitted, in the words of Ambassador Mark Brzezinski, about the law, that it “would appear to allow for the preempting of voters’ ability to vote for the candidates of their choice outside of a clearly defined process in independent courts.” Other critics add that the law is very vaguely defined (allowing for different interpretations) and could be unconstitutional.

This is not the first time the ruling Law and Justice Party has taken such repressive steps affecting the democratic field. Similar lustration mechanisms are among its favourite political tools for maintaining power. It was a distinct anti-communism in the past, but now it is joined by a vaguely defined “Russian influence”.

It is unclear how the commission will specifically work and interpret the terms “interest” or specifically prove “Russian influence” on the decisions of politicians over the past 15 years. Nor is it clear whether and how it will assess the historical context and its changes.

Finally, why investigate only “Russian influence” when decisions against Poland’s interests could have been made under a range of “influences”? Logically, this leads to the suspicion that the starting point for the investigation will rather be current political needs in the context of political struggle and power struggle.

What is happening in Poland, however, fits into a more general trend of dangerous abuse of Russia’s foreign actions and the war in Ukraine to strengthen authoritarianism at home (of course, under the pretext of “national security”, “national interest”, and “defence of democracy” against Putin and Russia). The trend goes beyond Poland.

This brings in many important questions: is it possible to defend democracy by repressive means, by systematically restricting democratic competition, diversity of opinion and freedom of speech? How can we distinguish the “influence of a foreign power” from mere personal conviction or simply political naivete/stupidity? Who should define the boundaries?

How far can we go? Do the growing primitivism of argumentation (which has, in fact, elevated argumentative fouls of the coarsest grain to “debate”), the language of violence and exclusion, belong to democracy? It is not for nothing that critics of the law in Poland speak of the ruling party unleashing a civil war.

In the Czech Republic, many people are already watching their language because they realise the danger of being fired from their jobs again. Several people have already lost their jobs for their views. Self-censorship is at its peak and we have already seen attempts at real, legally binding censorship.

Peace initiatives face accusations of ‘treason’ and working for the ‘enemy’ or ‘disinformation’. Intimidation (because what else is this?) is in full swing. In all cases, the political language is aggressive, vague, and hollow. There is no need for evidence for accusations of such a strong calibre, and accountability for one’s own words in a tabloidised media world has long been of no interest to anyone.

Unfortunately, these “democrats” in Poland or the Czech Republic have not learned democratic politics even after thirty years, and the democratic ethos is completely alien to them.

They demonstrate that they are tired of political competition and that it would be best to abolish political (or left-wing) opposition in favour of “national security” and “defending democracy”.

In recent years, and especially in recent months, they have been showing more and more blatantly that they are not interested in democracy (let alone liberal democracy) but rather in the domination of one opinion, one ideology and, by extension, one clique of people and the companies and private interests linked to them. But defending democracy is quite different from having democracy.

In Poland, they have just opened Pandora’s box. Today Poland, tomorrow the Czech Republic and Slovakia. And yesterday – Russia. The paradox of today is to ‘defend democracy’ against Putin by entirely Putinist means.

Note: On 2 June, President Andrzej Duda brought to the parliament a proposal of amendment to the law. Although he had been so sure and certain about the law just a couple of days earlier, he now suggested that the commission should not include certain measures. Specifically, he wants to cross out the punitive measures that would disallow the person from occupying state posts, replacing this by statement that the commission would just issue negative statements about the person’s trustworthiness. A possibility to appeal the commission’s decision to the court would also appear, should the amendment be accepted. Most probably, the harsh opposition of the American diplomacy to the law was not without an influence on Andrzej Duda’s decision.

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