A common feature of Russia's assessment of Poland is that although Polish society is politically divided, what unites most Poles is hostility to Russia.
The recent presidential election in Poland was undoubtedly one of the most important political events in Europe this year. Many of the contexts associated with the election campaign, but especially with the election results, are now – and will likely remain – the subject of detailed analysis and reflection.
In Poland, the key decision was over the direction of this large European state in the domestic political, social and economic areas, the state of the rule of law, the system of human rights protections, the operation of public and independent media, social policy and economic strategies.
The external context was no less significant since the impact of the election results on Poland’s relationships with its neighbours (from Germany through the V4 countries to Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia), the European Union, the US and NATO can be considered extremely important.
For experts (political scientists, historians, sociologists, experts in international relations and security), today’s Poland is a remarkable and somewhat unique case for the analysis of various factors influencing socio-political developments.
History is intertwined here with the present, traditions with modernity, religion with secularism, nationalism with cosmopolitanism – all in peculiar, Poland-specific forms.
Kremlin: “Russian-Polish relations are bad”
The Polish presidential election did not escape – and could not escape – the attention of the Russian media. Few European countries recently have earned such attention from the various levels of the Russian state and Russian society as Poland.
Today, the seemingly lifelong President Vladimir Putin regularly devotes extensive passages to Poland in his public appearances and in articles on historical topics. Subsequently, a well-coordinated team of loyal politicians and pro-government commentators conveys the president’s ideas directly to Russian households – through federal television and radio broadcasting and other media.
Poland – certainly inadvertently – holds a unique position in the official Russian narrative about twentieth century history that is forming today. It is a revisionist and cynical-imperialist narrative.
Within it, Poland is presented, firstly, as a country responsible (along with Nazi Germany) for the outbreak of World War II; secondly, as an ungrateful and treacherous state that, instead of friendship and gratitude for liberation from Nazism, betrayed its liberators, left the socialist camp and fled to the other side in confrontation with the West; and thirdly, as an advanced bastion and the most active part of some sort of world anti-Russian (‘Russophobic’) alliance.
With such an interpretation of Poland’s role, the possibilities for improving the Polish-Russian relations are, either now or in the future are entirely precluded; even when Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov sheds tears in vain in an interview with the TASS agency:
“Our current relations with Poland are not only distant from their better form, but they are simply bad. They are probably at the lowest possible level that clearly contradicts the interests of our two countries because the nations of both countries are interested in the opposite.”
Who is good for whom
In the evaluation of the Polish presidential election by the pro-governmental Russian media, the third dimension of the aforementioned Russian narrative is present in an open and pre-planned form: on Poland and Poles as the primary theatre and actors of the world’s ‘Russophobia’.
But in the background, the first two dimensions can also be traced: the circumstances and consequences of the Second World War and the pro-Western orientation of the current Polish state.
What unites Russian pro-governmental commentators in assessing the results of the Polish presidential election is their almost exclusive use of the Russia-centric optics.
What do these results mean for Russia? Which candidate is better for us? Which, on the other hand, is good from the point of view of our enemies? Which candidate can harm our enemies, and thus his victory becomes the desired option for us? These kinds of considerations dominate the Russian media discourse.
A common motive is an idea that although Polish society is politically divided (which is supposed to be confirmed by the narrow election results), what unites most Poles is hostility towards Russia. Based on the election results, some authors even calculate the proportion of Poles suffering from ‘Russophobia’ or adverse attitude to the Russian state.
“Duda is good for us”
The commentator of the daily Vzgliad Dmitry Bavyrin in his article Losers in Polish Elections Were Merkel and Zelensky is trying to find an answer to the question, which is almost obsessively dealt with by other pro-governmental Russian commentators: qui bono? It means – which state or international player will benefit the most from the results of the Polish elections?
According to him, Moscow, in particular, should rejoice, as the victory of Andrzej Duda is ultimately in its interest. How did he come to such a strange conclusion?
Bavyrin characterises the Law and Justice Party (PiS) as an entity with the support of the elderly, zealous Catholics, Eurosceptics and “dumb patriots”, winning elections in regions that were once part of the Russian Empire (what allegedly resulted in “PiS epileptic Russophobia”). He calls Duda “an adept of historical wars with Russia” and “one of the Kremlin’s main critics.”
At the same time, however, he claims that maintaining the power monopoly of the national-conservative PiS “is paradoxically only in our favour.” Why? Here is the answer:
“Although we cannot a priori like the falsification of the history of the Great Patriotic War and the demolition of monuments of Red Army soldiers, we can look at the re-election of the PiS protégée from another angle, which turns out not to be so bad news. Especially because it is clearly and unconditionally bad for other regional actors: Berlin, Brussels and Kyiv.”
According to Vzgliad’s commentator, strong anti-German rhetoric could be heard along with anti-Russian rhetoric in the Polish election campaign. At the same time, Germany is the leading force in the European project, while Poland is allegedly perceived in the EU as a “sick individual” and PiS opposes Brussels’ values and “claims leadership in an alternative European project – conservative, without gay marriages and European bureaucrats that are good-for-nothings”.
The Russian commentator argues: “The turning point in the future collapse of the EU should be through Poland – there are many reasons for this.” Duda’s victory is, therefore, a defeat for EU officials and Angela Merkel herself, who failed to ‘sell’ to Poles an alternative vision of Europe, despite trying really hard. The Polish president will remain an unbearable, uncomfortable and organically alien person for them.”
They will not enjoy Duda’s victory in Ukraine either, since, according to Bavyrin, “conservative power in Warsaw is an organic opponent of nationalist power in Kyiv and an obstacle to its further integration towards the West.”
In summary, according to the daily Vzgliad, the situation following the Polish presidential election in 2020 is, from the point of view of Moscow’s strategic thinking, as follows:
“It is not possible for the re-elected President Duda to be perceived in a clearly negative light. Yes, he is our enemy, but this enemy brings divisions and dissent to the EU camp that undermines its political base. It has always been more appropriate for Russia to pursue its interests through the governments of individual EU member states than through the EU’s bureaucracy with its ‘common standards’, ‘civilizational solidarity’ and ‘practice of sanction detention’. That is why it is customary among Russian “opinion leaders” to keep their fingers crossed for all kinds of Eurosceptics like Marine Le Pen, and although Duda is not our friend, he is the same kind of Eurosceptic.”
“Duda and Trzaskowski are two evils”
The political scientist and commentator of the online portal EurAsia Daily, Vadim Trukhachev sees the election results differently. He characterises the election of the head of state of Poland as the “choice of different kinds of evil” for Russia.
According to him, the most unacceptable candidate from the point of view of Russia is Andrzej Duda, however, his main rival Rafał Trzaskowski also cannot be called a suitable candidate (as well as most other candidates except one, which he describes as “relatively good”).
The commentator argues that Duda’s view on Russia can be expressed in a single phrase: “Russia is an existential enemy and a major threat to Poland and the whole of Europe.” Acknowledging that Trzaskowski and his Civic Platform have a more conciliatory stance on Russia, he recalls that the Mayor of Warsaw expressed the idea that “the two great nations [Poles and Russians] deserve more than to be in constant conflict.”
But he warns: “It is time to cast off illusions. Trzaskowski’s supporters see the history of Russian-Polish relations in grave colours and tend to accuse us of all deadly sins. They see Russia as one of the main threats to Poland, they condemn Nord Stream 2. And speaking of Ukraine, the Civic Platform is even more prepared than PiS to cooperate with it and act as its advocate in the EU and NATO.”
According to Trukhachov, the only candidate relatively loyal to Russia in the election was Krzysztof Bosak, a representative of the conservative eurosceptic party the Confederation (this is the “relative good” mentioned above, which won an incomplete 7 per cent of the vote in the first round).
Based on the results of the first round and using a simple arithmetic operation, the EurAsia Daily’s commentator calculates the share of Russophobes in the total population of Poland. According to him, the result is unpleasant for Russia: “44 per cent of active Polish voters cannot be called anything other than sincere Russophobes. Another approximately 37 per cent have an anti-Russian mood… About 11 per cent of Poles can be considered relatively neutral towards Russia and only less than 7 per cent feel sympathetic to us to one degree or another. ”
The commentator is convinced that Polish society is entirely anti-Russian, and comes to a rather radical conclusion regarding the fate of Polish-Russian interstate relations:
“It is a mistake to think that the Poles love us and that only Polish politicians are US mercenaries. Yes, they are all pro-American, but their Russophobia has deep roots and the widest support in Poland. No matter who wins the second round, no major changes in relations between Russia and Poland can be expected. The Polish state will remain our convinced adversary. If Trzaskowski succeeded, the form might change, but the content would not. Trzaskowski would be a lesser evil than Duda. However, both are absolute evil for Russia. And nothing can change about that in the foreseeable future.”
A black scenario with a “good” ending?
In an interview with RIA Novosti, political scientist and former head of the Russia-Poland Center for Dialogue and Understanding Yuriy Bondarenko outlines a rather black scenario for post-election developments in Poland, even in the context of relations with Russia. Behind the scenes, he detects a foreign hand. Few will be surprised that it is the American hand.
According to the political scientist, “the most Russophobic party won the election, and it is also very suspicious to pro-European initiatives of Brussels and Berlin.”
Bondarenko continues: “The entire Polish elite is Russophobic, but the most prominent Russophobic party has won. With Trzaskowski one could at least keep a dialogue. There is nothing to talk about with Duda. The current line of extreme Russophobia will continue. The demolition of all the monuments will be completed.”
And how is it with the notorious American hand? Here it is: Poland allegedly always considered itself “the 51st American state” as it was confirmed by its readiness to “accept any number of American troops, to invest in the construction of American military bases – only to create problems for Russia.”
However, the expert also sees the light at the end of the tunnel, at least from Russia’s point of view. That light is to come from the problems in America: “This absolutely insane policy will continue until serious problems begin in America. As soon as serious problems break out there, in Poland, as in other countries, the whole Russophobia will disappear within 24 hours.”
This article is the seventh of a monthly series called “Central Europe in the mirror of Russian media“ run by the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) and the supported by the Open Information Partnership. It is also available in Slovak on Denník N and in Polish on Res Publica Nowa.