A creeping post-communist coup in Poland?

Independent media repressed, bloggers sentenced to prison, recalcitrant journalists fired, political opposition discriminated against, and a wave of suspicious suicides.


By Pawel Piotr Styrna l December 7, 2012

A post-communist crackdown on freedom in Poland—the linchpin of “New Europe”—would further imperil the already fragile liberty in Central and Eastern Europe/Intermarium.

The ruling post-communist/liberal establishment is rolling back freedom and civil rights in Poland. In October 2012, the UK-registered independent NGO, Fair Trials International (FTI), published a report with a disturbing conclusion: “EU countries are responsible for a growing number of violations of the European Convention on Human Rights: liberty and fair trial rights are those most commonly breached.” Post-communist Poland was the number one offender in all of the European Union in terms of human rights violations.While the report focused on issues of legal due process, its findings certainly undermine the foundations of the “success propaganda” consistently spun by post-communist and liberal governments and media outlets ever since the fall—or rather the “transformation”—of communism-proper more than twenty years ago.

For over two decades Poles were told that all is well; at the snap of the fingers of the communists and their left-liberal allies in “Solidarity,” Poland suddenly became free, independent, and democratic. Post-communist pathologies and foreign, specifically Russian, influence operations were the delusional products of the paranoid and hate-filled minds of right-wing “whackos” (oszołomy) and nationalists.

Post-communism defined

While optimists argued that the numerous pathologies inherited from Marxism-Leninism would eventually be consigned to the trash heap of history, post-communism continues to be a very resilient creature. In his latest monograph, Intermarium: The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas, historian Marek Jan Chodakiewicz defines the problem thus: “Post-Communism is Communism transformed. Post-Communism shrewdly eschews any ideological labels, preferring moral relativism and nihilism instead. However, it retains the Marxist-Leninist dialectical modus operandi with its immorality to allow for utmost political flexibility. And it conserves the old institutions and personnel under a different guise. All this allows post-Communism to maintain its grip on power.”

Moreover, one need not necessarily have a pedigree as a former Communist Party member to be classified as a post-communist. After all, quite a few former dissidents and “Solidarity” people—particularly leftists and liberals—have thrown in their lot with ex-apparatchiks and secret policemen to defend the post-communist status quo.

Since 1989, this post-communist/liberal alliance has controlled much of the mainstream media in Poland, but has been denied an outright monopoly due to the existence of vociferous, right-of-center independent media venues, which seem to persist in spite of efforts to marginalize or liquidate them. They have challenged the “propaganda of success,” thus earning the ire of the irritated post-communist/liberal establishment.

The Civic Platform: guarding the status quo 

The FTI report mentioned above happens to cover the years 2007-2012 and is indicative of a larger trend. During the past five years Poland has been governed by Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his Civic Platform (PO) and Polish Peasant Party (PSL) parliamentary coalition. Established in 2001 as an ostensibly classical liberal party—with the participation or backing of individuals in the past tied to communist clandestine services—the Civic Platform eventually evolved into a post-communist status quo party of power, albeit with some token conservatives (often driven by personal feuds with their former fellow conservative anti-communists in Law and Justice and other parties). Ironically, many of PO’s leaders and deputies were once associated with the “Solidarity” movement during the 1980s.

The governing party’s march through the institutions

Since the death of President Lech Kaczyński, who was tied to the Law and Justice Party opposition, in the tragic and suspicious Smolensk Plane Crash in Russia in April 2010, the ruling Civic Platform-dominated coalition secured the presidency and set out to further consolidate its hold on power. Its control of all three branches of government neutralized the checks-and-balances system.

The governing coalition further benefited from Smolensk because the death of many important officials allowed it to fill posts in other key institutions as well. A case in point is the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), a government-affiliated historical research institute dealing primarily with Nazi and Communist crimes against Polish citizens. The IPN is of strategic significance since it is in charge of communist-era archival documents on the communist terror apparatus/secret police and its collaborators. It also has the power to prosecute politicians who lie about their involvement with the bezpieka.

The death of the IPN’s anti-communist director, Janusz Kurtyka, at Smolensk allowed the PO-PSL coalition to appoint an interim director associated with the government. Although the parliament eventually confirmed a more independent director last year, the IPN now faces another problem: it must move out of its current headquarters in Warsaw. The current government would certainly like to keep a tight lid on the institution through intimidation, although some post-communists and liberals have openly called for an outright liquidation of the IPN.

Assault on independent media networks

The current government and its influential establishment supporters have also sought to reinforce their already dominant grip on the country’s media. The goal is to purge those who challenge the post-1989 post-communist/liberal consensus.

Not surprisingly, the internet—the imperfect but prime source of information outside of the faux-pluralism of the mass media—became a target of this authoritarian tendency. In a famous case, the dormitory room of university student/blogger, Robert Frycz, was invaded by an ABW (Internal Security Agency) team at 5 o’clock in the morning. Frycz had been running a satirical website, www.antykomor.pl, which mocked President Bronisław Komorowski. In September 2012, the blogger was sentenced to fifteen months in prison and forty hours of community service per month for “insulting” the head of state.

In this context, it should be pointed out that Komorowski’s predecessor, Lech Kaczyński, had been consistently mocked and demonized by post-communist and liberal politicians and media outlets during his term as president. When Kaczyński almost perished in what was perhaps an assassination attempt in Georgia, Komorowski made fun of the incident. Yet, no one was ever penalized for this.

Meanwhile, the government has waged a campaign against the independent, staunchly conservative, Catholic, and nationalist media empire of the Redemptorist monk, Father Tadeusz Rydzyk. In addition, the clergyman happened to found a school of journalism and has been involved in developing alternative sources of energy for Poland. Efforts to marginalize and silence his Radio Maryja and TV Trwam (TV “I persevere”) are often motivated by accusations that the network perpetuates anti-Semitism and bigotry, in spite of the fact that the liberal sociologist, Ireneusz Krzemiński, demonstrated that such shrill claims are far-fetched at best. Radio Maryja and TV Trwam’s attacks on the post-communist status quo and support for the Law and Justice Party are the most significant driving force behind government attempts to crack down on TV Trwam. These, not surprisingly, have led to massive demonstrations in its defense.

Purges in the press

The ruling establishment’s power grab has also impacted less “controversial” venues: the influential and respected daily, Rzeczpospolita (The Republic), and the weekly news magazine, Uważam Rze, which was launched by some of the newspaper’s journalists. For a few years, Rzeczpospolita towed a right-of-center line under the conservative editor-in-chief, Paweł Lisicki. In 2011, the paper’s publisher was purchased by businessman Grzegorz Hajdarowicz, which led to the sacking of Lisicki. In late November 2012, Lisicki was also removed as the chief editor of the weekly Uważam Rze. In an interview, he argued that his dismissal might be a vendetta by Leszek Czarnecki, who had loaned Hajdarowicz the money to purchase Presspublica (which publishes both periodicals), since Rzeczpospolita had exposed Czarnecki as a registered asset of the communist secret police during Lisicki’s tenure as editor.

Meanwhile, the Rzeczpospolita daily was also recently purged, following an investigative article by Cezary Gmyz, who showed that traces of TNT and/or other explosives had been detected by the Poles on the wreckage of the Polish Tupolev that crashed in Smolensk, Russia in April 2010. The current government has been consistently attempting to suppress the inconvenient crash as a political issue and to dodge any responsibility for the tragedy. The purged journalists see political pressure from government circles as the reason for their dismissal.

Intimidation of the political opposition

One of Poland’s main champions of a more assertive investigation into Smolensk, parliamentarian Antoni Macierewicz, has also fallen victim of the establishment’s predilection for purging dissenting voices. On November 23, the long-time anti-communist dissident and former Interior Minister and head of Poland’s military counterintelligence was stripped of his parliamentary immunity through the votes of deputies from various post-communist parties, including the governing one. This means that Macierewicz can now by prosecuted by the instigator of the entire proceeding – Marek Dochnal, a businessman considered Poland’s chief lobbyist, who sued him for “libel.” Macierewicz had stated that Dochnal was not an independent businessman, but one connected to the communist clandestine services, and refuses to recant.

But the governing coalition is not satisfied merely with depriving opposition legislators of their immunity at the behest of shady lobbyists. The governing party tried to disenfranchise the leader of the opposition, Jarosław Kaczyński, by attempting to have him declared mentally-ill, a disconcerting reminder of Soviet methods of combating dissidents. When this attempt failed, PO and its post-communist allies in parliament have voted to wield the Tribunal of State against Jarosław Kaczyński and his justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, for alleged violations of the constitution. While in office, Ziobro—with Kaczyński’s backing—sought to combat the corruption inevitably accompanying the post-communist good-old-boy network. If convicted, the opposition leaders might be banned from participating in politics or even face jail time.

But intimidating the opposition in parliament is apparently not enough. Michał Boni—the current Minister of Administration and Digitalization, and a one-time registered collaborator of the communist secret police—announced that a “governmental council against hate speech, xenophobia, and discrimination in political life will be established before the [Christmas] holidays.” This would hand the government and the post-communist establishment a handy tool to criminalize, censor, and suppress its critics, in the name of tolerance, of course.

Poland’s “Reichstag fire”?

The foiled terror plot by Brunon Kwiecień, an analytical chemist and radical nationalist, to drive a truck laden with four tons of explosives into the Polish parliament building, has been seized upon by the government to justify its consolidation of power, not unlike the case of the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany. Critics of the current cabinet, however, point out that the attempt may have been a provocation by the Internal Security Agency (ABW), whose agents had been monitoring Kwiecień. Further, they argue that the timing was quite suspicious. The discovery came in the wake of Polish independence day marches on November 11, in which the grass-roots nationalists and conservatives of various stripes mobilized a far more numerous contingent of people than the official, pro-government march led by President Bronisław Komorowski. Furthermore, it came at a time when the parliament was debating funding for the country’s secret services and the ABW could not boast of anything resembling a stellar record.

A wave of suspicious suicides

While it is fortunate that no one died in a terror plot this November, a wave of suspicious suicides has been rolling through Poland during the past three years. The list includes such famous personages as the populist tribune, Andrzej Lepper, and general of the special forces, Sławomir Petelicki. A large proportion of the suicide victims was associated with Smolensk, either as aviation experts or witnesses. While it may be far-fetched to argue that a death squad or hit man has been operating in Poland, political assassinations have taken place in post-communist countries.

It seems that the government has accelerated its power consolidation efforts this fall, perhaps in response to public opinion polls in early October, when the opposition Law and Justice party ousted the Civic Platform from first place with 39 percent of public support vs. the governing party’s 33 percent. If they reflect reality, such polls can be easily interpreted as a response to the government’s lackluster record, in spite of having secured reelection last year. The opposition has been emboldened and the governing coalition unnerved. If the trend continues, the current government might easily lose the next election, thereby imperiling the post-1989 post-communist/liberal consensus. Its defenders have much to lose, which explains what appears as a creeping coup in Poland. Unfortunately, this repression of whatever liberty the Poles were able to resurrect after the implosion of communism-proper occurs as freedom retreats throughout the world. Historically, the fate of liberty in Poland impacts the fate of liberty throughout Central and Eastern Europe.


Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.