It is wrong to assume that Europe’s far-right are divided in their attitudes to Putin’s Russia, writes Maciej Kisilowski.
Maciej Kisilowski is Associate Professor of Law and Strategy at Central European University.
As more than a dozen far-right parties joined forces early July to blast EU integration, a conventional wisdom is still that these parties are deeply divided on a host of issues. Key among them is, supposedly, the attitude towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
That conventional wisdom is wrong. Among the signatories of the July statement, all but one party is decidedly pro-Putin, and that one holdout — Poland’s ruling PiS — may be just undergoing a subtle change in its attitudes.
In June, Ryszard Terlecki, one of PiS’s leaders, shocked even the conservative media in Poland by launching a vicious twitter attack against Sviatlana Tsihanouskaya, the leader of Belarusian democratic opposition. Last week, the news broke about talks by Polish billionaire Zygmunt Solorz-Zak with the Hungarian state-owned energy company MVM and its Russian counterparts on a possible construction of a nuclear power plant in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
Reportedly, PiS’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has been fully informed. If completed, that project would essentially copy the controversial Russo-Hungarian Paks II development, with the added twist of outsourcing the plant just across the EU border.
Independent journalists in Poland have long accused some PiS politicians of suspicious ties to Moscow and Russian security agencies of helping to orchestrate mid-2010 political scandals which paved the way to PiS’s 2015 electoral victory. But it is not these alleged shady connections, but the perfectly transparent change in PiS’s political fortunes that may push the party into an uneasy alliance with Vladimir Putin.
Joe Biden’s electoral victory in the United States leaves PiS acutely isolated on the international stage. Just as PiS head Jaroslaw Kaczynski signed the European far-right declaration, his party introduced a bill that would effectively expropriate the main independent TV station, TVN. TVN, however, is owned by Discovery Inc. and the reaction of the State Department has been fierce. It is difficult to imagine how low Warsaw-Washington relations will fall if the major American media conglomerate is indeed pushed out of Poland.
Relations with the Western EU partners are, likewise, at the rock bottom. Last week, Poland’s grotesquely politicised Constitutional Court declared, in a clumsy ruling, a broad swath of jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice unconstitutional under the Polish law. Last month, Angela Merkel reportedly refused to meet with her Polish counterparts for the customary celebration of the anniversary of the historic border treaty between the two countries.
Politically, however, PiS may not have a choice but to accelerate its authoritarian course, even if it broadens the rift with the Western partners. Especially in the COVID era, the inherent contradiction of championing quick economic recovery and catering to religious fundamentalists opposed to vaccinations, can only be resolved by silencing independent journalists who ask tough questions and forcing judges to take a harder line on the opposition.
Donald Trump’s 2020 defeat highlights the stakes for populists at the time of the pandemic. If PiS destroys TVN, the only remaining private TV station of national significance will be Polsat — an increasingly government-friendly broadcaster owned by Mr. Solorz-Zak, the above-mentioned billionaire working on the Kaliningrad powerplant project.
At a deeper level, Mr. Kaczynski and Mr. Putin are natural allies as their political visions align almost perfectly. While Victor Orban is a rather unconvincing latecomer in the Christian fundamentalist camp, Kaczynski has for decades endorsed a vision of a regressive state propped up by Poland’s heavily nationalistic Catholic church. This vision echoes closely the role of the Russian Orthodoxy championed by the Kremlin. Both church-state relations produce precisely the same list of convenient enemies, starting with LGBTI people and feminist women.
Kaczynski must understand that the mainstream West will never accept his regressive vision as compatible with European values. While the EU has been slow in responding to technical violations of the rule of law, it may act much more swiftly when basic human rights are at stake.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, those who discount the possibility of the PiS-Putin alliance fail to realize a peculiar way in which right-wing populists understand the very concept of “an alliance.” Liberal democracies or even communist dictatorships of the twentieth century were internationalist in their outlook. Their geopolitical alliances depended on at least a veneer of friendship.
With their Darwinian narratives about world relations, right-wing populists carved for themselves a new possibility of an alliance without friendship or, perhaps, even with a level of ostensible enmity.
Donald Trump charted the way here. To his base, Trump, portrayed his Russia policies not as an alliance or even rapprochement in a traditional sense, but as a kind of ruthless realpolitik based on the general insistence that “we do not want to be the suckers anymore.” Throughout his tenure, he almost obsessively focused on a narrow point of Putin being a “strong leader” in “a system I don’t happen to like.” His outreach to Putin was always couched in terms of uber-pragmatic national self-interest. “We’ll see how it works,” he said at a 2016 rally. “Maybe we’ll have a good relationship. Maybe we’ll have a horrible relationship.”
Other autocrats borrowed from this playbook. “No country can change its address,” said Victor Orban bluntly during Vladimir Putin’s 2019 visit to Hungary. “Every country is located where God created it. For Hungary, it means being in a Moscow-Berlin-Istanbul triangle.”
Unless he is toppled by the twin impact of COVID and Donald Tusk re-energizing the democratic opposition, Kaczynski may be tempted to pursue the same path. If the liberal West moves to more aggressively reject authoritarian, intolerant peripheral states such as Poland, PiS’s paranoid base, may accept that, in the world of no friends, Putin may be the least bad of their enemies.