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Democratic Backsliding in Former Communist Countries: Poland

Populist, right-wing politicians in Eastern Europe are implementing a series of reforms that have led to a departure from democratic norms in their respective countries. After decades of undergoing democratization processes that created opportunities for cooperation and new alliances, a number of former Eastern Bloc communist countries are experiencing a steep decline in their democracy scores. Through the introduction of the “Partnership for Peace” in 1994, NATO established multilateral relations between member states and former communist countries, which supported the latter in implementing democratic reforms and created a pathway to NATO membership. While integration into the EU was also the goal of many transitory democracies, in recent years some of its member-states have been undermining EU values, challenging EU norms, and threatening the overall stability of the continent.

Law and Justice Reforms

Poland took steps over the last two decades to ensure democratic progress, even achieving the status of a “semi-consolidated democracy” as evaluated by Freedom House. However, a lot threatened to reverse that with the rise to power of the Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość or “PiS”) in 2015. Its leader at the time, Jarosław Kaczyński, aimed to implement a set of reforms in different branches of the government, quite notably in the justice system, that have raised concerns both domestically and at the EU level. While the party claims that these reforms are an effort to dismantle “corruption and communist era mentalities,” the European Commission has noted that they “infringe EU law” by taking away the power that traditionally belongs to the judiciary and giving it to the executive and legislative branches, thus undermining judicial independence. These extensive reforms affected different parts of the judiciary, including the Supreme Court, ordinary courts, and the National Council of the Judiciary (Krajowa Rada Sądownictwa or “KRS”).

These judicial reforms, aimed at lowering the retirement age for judges, received strong criticism from those who described it as an action to remove, “left-leaning judges and replace them with a more conservative group that would be less critical of the government.” The reform of the Supreme Court not only lowered the retirement age from 70 to 65, but also granted the Polish president the right to extend a judge’s term by five years. The KRS also faced an important change in regards to the choice of its judges. While judges in this council were originally appointed by other judges, the government altered the law, granting this right to parliament, which would make for political appointments. In response, the EU started an infringement procedure – mainly focused on Poland’s noncompliance to the obligations stipulated in the Treaty on the European Union, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union – as this is “incompatible with the primacy of the EU law,” violates judicial independence, and imposes political control. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that the Polish government “must immediately suspend the legal changes,” leading President Andrzej Duda to sign a law reinstating the affected judges.

Media Control

While the government window-dresses its reforms as anti-communist in their intent, they entail much more. The consolidation of control over media outlets and the “re-Polonization” of the privately-owned media, which can otherwise be interpreted as censorship, led to Poland experiencing a decrease of 40 spots on the World Press Freedom Index, to now ranking 64th. During the 2020 presidential election, control over the media was convenient to the PiS, as it spread propaganda in support of President Duda and against his opponents. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that this impacted the voters’ ability to make an informed decision. To gain control over the private media, the government imposed a tax on advertising income and used the police for arbitrary detainments and arrests of journalists. The increased taxes, accompanied by a number of lawsuits against independent media outlets, aimed at forcing them to follow government directives or risk bankruptcy. The situation deteriorated when PKN Orlen, a state-controlled energy giant, purchased 20 of the 24 regional newspapers published by Polska Press, which has access to over 17 million readers, raising serious concerns regarding core democratic and EU values such as freedom of the media.

Human Rights: Abortion and LGBTQ+

This “antidemocratic turn” in Poland has also involved rhetoric and laws against abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. The near ban on abortion in Poland has denied thousands of women a choice over their bodies, while human rights advocates are being subject to “threats and repression.” Abortion without Borders and the Abortion Abroad NGOs have come to the help of women experiencing unintended pregnancies by raising funds and fighting to provide them with access to abortion either at home or abroad. Discriminatory policies against the LGBTQ+ community constitute another breach of Poland’s commitment to EU values. The creation of “LGBT-free zones” and the implementation of the “Family Charter,” which makes same-sex marriage illegal, have led to a lawsuit against the Polish government filed at the European Commission. The Polish Ombudsman has condemned this situation and succeeded in four legal challenges of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. However, these decisions have been appealed. With a predominantly Roman Catholic population – accounting for nine out of ten Poles – much of which is supportive of the government’s approach in this area, members of the LGBTQ+ community are experiencing attacks and discrimination.

Democratic Backsliding: Poland and Beyond

While the PiS argues that these reforms are aimed at eliminating corruption and communist legacies, think tanks such as the European Stability Initiative have pointed out the resemblance to a Soviet-style system, given that the judicial power has been partially transferred to the executive branch, the media is increasingly under government control, and definitions of human rights are being challenged. In addition to its benefits, EU membership contains a number of obligations that align with democratic principles. The gap between the EU and some of its member states’ actions poses a serious threat to democratic values and cohesion within Europe. Democratic backsliding in Poland and other former communist countries is a concerning issue in Europe. The threats posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the social and economic challenges that countries in the former Eastern Bloc face, and the implementation of radical reforms in those states pose a threat to peace and order in Europe as a whole.

Photo: Protests against Polish judiciary reforms in front of Regional Court in Katowice, Poland (20 July 2017), by Marek Ślusarczyk via Wikimedia. Licensed under CC BY 3.0.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

Tea Vasha
Tea Vasha is a Junior Research Fellow at the NATO Association of Canada. Graduating with a double major in International Relations and Criminology and a minor in Political Science from the University of Toronto, she will return in September to pursue the Master of Public Policy at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Her research interests include international affairs, migration, and global security. Tea has also been a part of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (CCR2P) in the R2P & Canadian foreign policy division and the G7 Research Group