Polish opposition worried by new law on Russian influence / What is it really about?

2023-06-04 14:15:00, Kosova & Bota CNA

Polish opposition worried by new law on Russian influence / What is it really

The US and EU have strongly criticized the new legislation, which the Polish opposition says amounts to a public humiliation campaign.

Opposition parties and their supporters, including civil society organizations, marched through the Polish capital to mark the 34th anniversary of the first democratic elections held in Poland in 1989 since the Communist Party abandoned its monopoly on power.

Tusk was accompanied by Lech Wa??sa, a former Polish president and well-known protest leader from Gda?sk who founded the Solidarno?? or Solidarity movement, often singled out for ending communist rule in Poland.

The main demands of the protesters were "free and fair elections" and a "democratic European Poland".

The protests follow a bill passed last week in the Polish parliament and endorsed by President Andrzej Duda that would set up a commission to investigate alleged Russian influence and cooperation with Russian authorities starting in 2007.

PiS, which is the largest party in the Sejm, sponsored the bill and is aligned with Duda.

The commission, in its currently proposed form, would investigate Russian influence on Poland's internal security, including public figures as well as businesses with ties to Moscow that could be harmful to Poland.

According to the text published by the parliament, the law will apply to "persons who in the years 2007-2022 were public officials or members of senior management staff, who, under Russian influence, acted to the detriment of the interests of the Republic of Poland." .

Moreover, the law allegedly "intends to prevent them from acting again under Russian influence to the detriment of the interests of the Republic of Poland."

This proposal has been deeply controversial.

Duplication of powers

The commission has the power to impose various penalties, including a 10-year ban on obtaining a security clearance or holding public office, as well as the revocation of firearms licenses.

Experts say these measures actually fall under the jurisdiction of the courts and other government bodies in the country, not an ad hoc commission created to duplicate or replace the judicial process.

Since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began last year, countries along Ukraine's border have worried about a spread of the Kremlin's covert or malign influence. Moscow's influence operations have long been a source of concern for Poland, even before its first attack in Ukraine in 2014.

Many in Poland see the creation of the commission as an attempt by PiS to increase their standing with the public ahead of the next election.

"While PiS is still leading in the polls, there is a lot of fatigue, especially from their more moderate supporters," explains Christopher Lash, a historian and professor at Lazarski University in Warsaw.

"No one is saying that Russian influence should not be investigated. It is precisely because there are already people there whose job it is to investigate this, people worry that this commission is part of a political game by the ruling party,” he continued.

For him, this is more like a "witch hunt".

Of course, the bill has faced condemnation from the US and the EU, which said the commission could be used to block opposition candidates from taking office.

"The US government is concerned by the Polish government's adoption of new legislation that could be misused to interfere with Poland's free and fair elections," said US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.

He added that such a law "can be used to block the candidacy of opposition politicians without due process".

In response to the outpouring of criticism, Duda has proposed changes to the law that would remove these powers from the commission and limit its ability to pay penalties.

He also made it clear that the commission will not present members of parliament.

Szymon Ho?ownia, head of the opposition Poland 2050 party, scoffed at the president's statement, saying he had essentially dropped his rhetoric from earlier in the week.

"President Duda today used the right of veto over his signature. And the Sejm will now have a choice: it can choose the president's opinion from Monday or from Friday," Ho?oënia said on Twitter.

To gain political power, criticizing Russia is essential

Russia's outright invasion of Ukraine has revived historic grievances across the continent, not least from the countries that have suffered most at Russia's hand.

Poland and Russia have been rivals for territories such as modern-day Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania in the past and have had turbulent political relations.

"As Poland weakened throughout history, Russia gained a lot of territory and took about two-thirds of the old Polish community," explains Lash. "So there is this historical fear that Poland will lose its sovereignty to Russia or be threatened by it."

A fear, it seems, that PiS is happy to exploit.

Even before last year's invasion, the Kremlin spent considerable political capital trying to downplay its historic role in undermining Poland's power.

In 2020, Moscow launched a brilliant propaganda campaign trying to portray the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to partition Poland – which led to Soviet troops entering the country 15 days after the Germans – as a necessary evil.

On the other hand, Poland has supported Ukraine and criticized Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that allowed Russia to send natural gas directly to Germany, bypassing its Eastern European neighbors.

"Criticizing Russia is not controversial", confirms Lash. "All shades of the Polish political sphere are anti-Russian, except for very small political actors.

“It seems like the commission's goal is to polarize the debate and label people as pro-Russian or Kremlin-aligned.

And from the point of view of most experts, at the top of the list of expected targets of the commission is former Polish Prime Minister Tusk.

A meeting of fierce rivals

The leader of the opposition Civic Platform (PO) party, Tusk was prime minister for two terms, from 2007 to 2014, when he left for Brussels to become president of the European Council and then head of the European People's Party. (EPP). which is also the largest bloc in the European Parliament.

Some argue that it was Tusk's move to Brussels that paved the way for PiS to be elected to power in 2015. His experience in the EU hierarchy has been heavily criticized by PiS leader Jaros?aë Kaczy?ski, who often portrays the EU as an enemy. of a sovereign Poland and whose party has constantly been on a collision course with the EPP.

Poland has openly coordinated its foreign policy goals with the US, and when Tusk was prime minister, President Barack Obama's administration was trying to navigate a middle course with Russia.

On the other hand, PiS claims that it has always warned about Russia's expansionist project. Now that most Western powers have turned against Moscow, this supposed legacy is what they want to cash in on.

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