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Poland's new Russian influence law gets flak as an attack on democracy

Jaroslaw Krajewski is a member of Poland's parliament representing the ruling Law and Justice Party. Krajewski defends the government's new law that aims to root out Russian influence in Polish society, saying it's needed now that Russia has invaded Ukraine. Critics have called the new law a blatant attempt for the ruling party to maintain its grip on power.
Rob Schmitz/NPR
Jaroslaw Krajewski is a member of Poland's parliament representing the ruling Law and Justice Party. Krajewski defends the government's new law that aims to root out Russian influence in Polish society, saying it's needed now that Russia has invaded Ukraine. Critics have called the new law a blatant attempt for the ruling party to maintain its grip on power.

WARSAW, Poland — Defenders of Poland's new law against what they deem "Russian influence" in politics say it's a necessary step given the Kremlin's invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

It establishes a commission to investigate anyone suspected of being subject to Russian influence and potentially bar them from running for public office.

"In order to guarantee the security of our country, this law is crucial to understand how Russia has penetrated our political process," says parliamentarian Jaroslaw Krajewski, a member of the country's governing Law and Justice Party.

But the law faces a backlash both nationally and abroad — including from the U.S. government and the European Union — with critics warning Poland's right-wing populist leaders could use it as a tool to remove rival candidates ahead of national elections later this year.

Hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of Warsaw earlier this month — one of the largest rallies since the fall of communism — to celebrate 34 years of democracy and to protest the current government's attempt to curb that democracy with this legislation, which the parliament had just passed.

"We will not let ourselves be intimidated," Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister and current opposition party Civic Platform candidate, shouted above the roar of crowds on June 4. He stood alongside the country's first democratically elected president after communist rule, Lech Walesa.

Warsaw city officials estimated half a million people at the march. But Poland's popular television news channel TVP — now effectively run by the state — labeled the event a "march of hate" and claimed it was a fraction of the size at around 150,000.

Ruling party politician Krajewski insists the new law has nothing to do with removing Tusk and his Civic Platform party from the upcoming national election in October. But when asked who should be investigated for Russian influence, Tusk is the first person Krajewski mentions.

"It's interesting that under Donald Tusk as prime minister, there was a plan to have the Polish secret service train together with Russian special forces," Krajewski says. "And his own minister of foreign affairs wanted Russia to join NATO, which sounds insane today."

Krajewski says the Russian influence law will establish a commission of nine members, five from the ruling party, who will gather information on Russian influence, find out who was subject to it, and then hold public hearings. If they're guilty, the accused would be banned from holding any office that manages public funds, including positions at non-profit organizations, media and government, for up to a decade.

"From the very beginning 'til the very end, it is unconstitutional," says retired Polish Constitutional Tribunal Judge Miroslaw Wyrzykowski about the new law.

Retired Polish judge Miroslaw Wyrzykowski says the new legislation is unconstitutional and reminds him of 1950s America when former Sen. Joseph McCarthy set up congressional hearings to root out communism in the United States.
/ Rob Schmitz/NPR
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Rob Schmitz/NPR
Retired Polish judge Miroslaw Wyrzykowski says the new legislation is unconstitutional and reminds him of 1950s America when former Sen. Joseph McCarthy set up congressional hearings to root out communism in the United States.

Wyrzkowski knows something about Poland's Constitution: He helped write it. "And I proposed Article 1 of the Constitution, which would later become Article 2: 'Poland is a democratic state ruled by law,'" he says.

Wyrzykowski says public hearings to search for Russian influence reminds him of 1950s America, when former Sen. Joseph McCarthy led congressional hearings to root out communists in American society. He says the very idea of a commission where the accused is publicly interrogated by a state-controlled body on vaguely defined grounds also reminds him of something, ironically, that Russia would do.

As one of the authors of Poland's Constitution, Wyrzykowski says he's deeply saddened by what he considers its slow death under the Law and Justice party. "I'm feeling like one of the hundreds of mothers and fathers of this constitutional system in Poland, and I'm feeling that my child is dying."

Parliamentarian Marcin Bosacki of the opposition Civic Platform says the Russian influence law is the creation of a desperate party that has run out of ideas and now wishes to "steal" the upcoming national election. Law and Justice (known by its Polish initials PiS) leads opinion polls but surveys suggest its popularity has declined in recent weeks, and that it would not win a majority needed to govern on its own.

"It's pure politics, and its only aim is to get rid of Donald Tusk," Bosacki says of the legislation and his party's leader. "If it were intended to really discover some secret ties between Polish politics and business and Russian interests, why didn't they do this in the past eight years they were in power?"

The legislation has also drawn complaints from Poland's allies.

"We share the concerns expressed by many observers that this law to create a commission to investigate Russian influence could be used to block the candidacy of opposition politicians without due process," U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said last month.

And last week, the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, initiated legal action accusing Poland of breaching EU rules with legislation that could interfere with the democratic process and violate citizens' rights.

On the streets of Poland's capital, everyone NPR stops to interview is angry about the Russian influence law.

"If the ruling party wants to look for Russian influence in Poland, they'll have to accuse everyone over the age of 40," says office worker Marcel Majchrowski, "because the country was entirely under Russian influence when it was behind the iron curtain up until 1989."

Majchrowski says the law makes no sense. He says far more Poles will likely protest if the hearings go forward.

Poland's government says the first report from the Russian influence commission will be published Sept. 17 — one month before the national election.

Grzegorz Sokol contributed to this report from Warsaw.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.