The Real Reason Behind Poland's Controversial New 'Russian Influence Law'

Poland Passes Bill On Russian Influence
Poland Passes Bill On Russian Influence

Former PM Donald Tusk is seen at Poland's parliament on May 26, 2023. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party voted through legislation that critics say targets opposition figures like Tusk. Credit - Jaap Arriens—NurPhoto via Getty Images

Once seen as a European problem child over its rule of law violations, Poland appeared to turn a new leaf. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, the eastern European country rebranded itself as the standard-bearer of European solidarity with Kyiv, as well as a staunch defender of democratic values. In a speech in Warsaw earlier this year commemorating the anniversary of the war, President Joe Biden spoke warmly of Poland’s role in maintaining Western resolve against Russian autocracy. “We’re seeing again today what the people of Poland and the people all across Europe saw for decades,” said the U.S. President. “Appetites of the autocrat cannot be appeased. They must be opposed.”

But Poland’s makeover was only ever skin-deep. This became especially apparent this week, when Polish President Andrzej Duda signed into law new legislation that could effectively ban opposition lawmakers from public office for a decade under the guise of rooting out Russian interference in the country.

Put forward by the ruling right-wing nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS), the law paves the way for the creation of a new commission that the Polish government says would be tasked with investigating alleged Russian interference in the country from 2007 to 2022. In particular, the commission will look at gas deals signed with Moscow that the government says left the country overly reliant on Russian energy.

More from TIME

According to Reuters, the commission will be comprised of nine members appointed by the Polish parliament’s lower house—the majority of whom are expected to be PiS lawmakers—and could deliver its initial report as early as September. That is just weeks before the country’s fall parliamentary election. Those deemed guilty of acting under “Russian influence” (the exact parameters of which is unclear) stand to face harsh penalties, including a potential 10-year ban from managing public funds, which would in effect disqualify them from public office. There is no apparent appeals process for those who are found guilty under the legislation.

Critics of the new law have dubbed the legislation “Lex Tusk” after the purported target of the new legislation, the former Polish prime minister and centrist opposition leader Donald Tusk. In 2010, Tusk’s government signed a deal with Russia’s Gazprom, which was reportedly cited in the official justification for the new bill. But many say that the creation of such a commission is unconstitutional on the grounds that it would be open to abuse and empower an extrajudicial commission to bar the government’s political rivals from public life. The commission’s powers amount to a “symbolic beheading,” said Mirosław Wyrzykowski, a retired judge on the country’s Constitutional Tribunal, “based on an absolutely discretional assessment of information and evidence.”

“It is the sign of the end of Polish democracy,” Wyrzykowski tells TIME. While most others have taken to calling the new law Lex Tusk, he says he prefers to refer to it as the “Russian Commission” because, as he sees it, “It is a regulation which could be adopted in Russia, in Belarus, in North Korea. But not in Poland.”

“A ‘Committee on Russian Influences’ composed of ruling party hacks will be able to exclude key opposition figures from politics,” tweeted Radek Sikorski, a Polish politician and former foreign affairs minister under Tusk’s government, adding that he too would expect to be a target. Krzysztof Brejza, the parliamentary leader of Tusk’s Civic Platform party, dubbed the commission a “Soviet-style idea” and a “witch hunt.”

In response to these criticisms, Duda said that the law would be subject to examination by the country’s Constitutional Tribunal, which due to an ongoing dispute over who should lead it has been unable to gather a quorum to review legislation. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki suggested that only those with something to hide are opposed to the new commission.

By framing the commission not as an illiberal means of neutering political opponents but, rather, as a means of rooting out Kremlin influence, the Polish government has sought to deftly maintain its reformed public perception while simultaneously pressing ahead with the kind of illiberal policies that have made Poland among the world’s most notable backsliding democracies. “There’s a deep irony in the bill ostensibly being about investigating Russian influence in Polish public life while providing for the creation of a kangaroo court straight out of Putinist ideology,” tweeted Ben Stanley, an associate professor at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw.

But it hasn’t necessarily succeeded. Within hours of its passage, the new law was met with vocal criticism from both sides of the Atlantic. The U.S. government issued a statement on Monday expressing concern that the new law could be used to “to interfere with Poland’s free and fair elections” and called on Warsaw to ensure that it would “not be invoked or abused in ways that could affect the perceived legitimacy of elections.” Didier Reynders, the E.U. Commissioner for Justice, said on Tuesday that Brussels had a “special concern” about the situation in Poland and “will not hesitate to take measures if it’s needed because it’s impossible to agree on such a system without a real access to justice.”

In response, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement on Tuesday clarifying that although the legislation “remains within sovereign national competence of the Polish parliament, we are always ready to clarify and explain all potential misinterpretations and doubts about it,” adding in particular that “Poland highly values the alliance with United States and remains ready to engage in further dialogue through diplomatic channels.”

But these comments may not be enough to placate worries that the legislation is aimed at ensuring that PiS glides to victory when Poles head to the ballot box in October or early November, in an election where the party is seeking an unprecedented third term. While opinion polls show PiS with the most support, it may not be enough for the party to command a parliamentary majority. (Although Duda is backed by PiS, the outcome of the election will have no bearing on his position; his presidential term ends in 2025.) By weaponizing the newly-established commission’s powers, the ruling party could seek to eliminate or greatly hinder its opponents—and, critics say, steal the election.

This approach could backfire, though. “Instead of dividing the opposition, it could unify it,” former Polish Prime Minister Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz tells TIME in a statement. “It may also mobilize many voters who had not intended to vote, but who recognize that a line of security and decency has been crossed.”

Poland’s opposition is banking on the fact that public opposition could yet force the government to change course. Tusk has called on people to hold a mass protest in Warsaw on June 4, the anniversary of the 1989 election that marked the end of communist rule in the country. “We will be well heard and seen from the windows of your palace,” Tusk said in a tweet directed at Duda. “Will you come?”