The illness of a backbencher MP in the Visegrad Group should not have exploded with such unease across international media as has occurred recently following the lengthy sickness of Jarosław Kaczyński.
But Kaczyński is no ordinary politician – he is the Chairman of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party though, more importantly, he is seen today as de facto leader of Poland. With a hefty political background in tales of hardship and typical Polish resolve, Kaczyński promotes what the people want – a strong, independent Poland – a vision remaining powerful despite the domestic political alarm at recent conservative measures.
His is an example of the growing Eastern European trend of personality politics – which is precisely why international media are concerned about his ill health.
Using historical resentment
Across the Visegrad Group, a toxic cocktail of pragmatism and ideology is beginning to take hold, founded in the political trendsetters themselves. Establishing a semi-cult of personality alongside efforts to regulate cultural memory, key politicians in the Visegrad nations – Kaczyński, Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Andrej Babiš of the Czech Republic – are stamping their own impressions of recent history, which paint themselves as bastions of their states.
The Visegrad Group positively laps up the idea of a nation protecting itself against international threats; a method proven to work in Eastern European political spheres time and time again. Historical turmoil and intimidation from larger European nations provides easy acceptance of a feeling that their countries are on the cusp of vulnerability – which leaves international relations ripe for exploitation. Of course, this situation is exacerbated by what these governments – particularly Kaczyński’s and Orbán’s – see as meddling by the EU in current diplomatic and international affairs, most notably over right-wing agendas and migrant quotas, prompting measures to face the fear of liberalism.
This is precisely how Orbán has managed to utilise the memory of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, portraying today’s Hungarian struggle against the EU as an echo of the struggle against Moscow. But what Orbán, Kaczyński and – to a certain extent, Babiš – promote in the first place is a history which prioritises the everyday citizen, suggesting their lot should, above all, be improved. This is why their parties remain so popular.
Kaczyński and Orbán have turned away from their roots as freedom fighters to embrace nationalist values, promoting a de-communisation of the state and rejecting those like Lech Wałęsa as collaborators. When US President Donald Trump visited Poland in 2017 and acknowledged Wałęsa, the former Polish president was booed by the crowd as he rose to his feet.
Wałęsa is now working alongside other Polish ex-leaders to promote freedom in the country, calling on the EU to protect democracy, whilst reviving the 1980s Citizens’ Committee to monitor elections and unify democratic groups.
But it is Kaczyński’s political character – a focus on pragmatism imbued with sacrifice and martyrology – which remains the most powerful voice in Poland.
This is a character who profusely borrows ideas from Orbán, who was at first opposed to nationalism but embraced populism when – as occurred in Poland – the liberal opposition cracked at its seams, refusing to engage with the larger questions relating to national values. Kaczyński and Orbán have not just lost interest in post-1989 liberal politics – they are desperate crusaders against it.
Babiš is the more democratic of the three; perhaps because he is a relative new-comer and less steeped in the years of struggle which have left Kaczyński and Orbán central threats to European democracy. But even he is now playing the populist cards – dubbed Babisconi; his use of smooth-talking business acumen allows him the glimpses of authoritarianism and anti-EU rhetoric Kaczyński and Orbán have had to muscle their way through parliament.
But the pattern – one individual against the world – is the same.
Even in Slovakia, the winds of change are beginning to howl, following the political crisis which exploded after the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak. When Prime Minister Robert Fico eventually resigned, he vowed he would remain “an active party leader” – a very Kaczyński-esque move of steering politics from the background. Though Slovakia is beset with more internal pressures than external threats, there is a notable feeling of an anti-democratic reactionary force creeping across the Visegrad Group.
A politically dangerous dispute
What makes Poland unique is that Kaczyński appears to be steering the entire creaking ship from the background alone – but, in reality, he has always been part of a double act. He established PiS alongside his twin brother, Lech, and for the majority of the early 2000s they took turns dipping their toes into authority, Jarosław often giving way to the softer Lech to present a more palatable party.
It was a perpetual system: one brother in power, one brother orchestrating this power.
But the twins’ grumbles about the transition erupted in arguably the central political event in recent Polish history aside from the legacy of 1989 – the death of Lech, then President, in a plane crash in 2010. Suddenly, an undeniable sense of national grief came to the foreground – a role critics say Kaczyński has employed with fanaticism.
The crash itself occurred whilst the former president was en route to commemorate the Katyn massacre (where an estimated 22,000 members of the Polish intelligentsia were murdered by Soviet forces in 1940), so the setting was already ripe with diplomatic tensions.
Thus, it was no time at all before a semi-hysterical reaction to Lech’s death permeated across society, with acting-President Komorowski stating, with reference to Katyn, “Our world went crashing down for the second time at the same place”. Poland, shrouded in deep mourning, chose Lech Kaczyński to be the icon for the ideal of protecting Polish interests at all costs.
Nowadays, allegations of Kremlin foul play in the disaster are bandied around with gusto: some conspiracy theories go so far as to include involvement from Donald Tusk, who Jarosław Kaczyński lost to in the 2007 elections.
There are plans for at least 145 commemorations of Lech Kaczyński across Poland, including a statue to be erected in Warsaw’s Plac Piłsudski later this year. Under the shadow of the papal cross monument already on the square, Lech appears as a martyr-like figure, healing years of political uncertainty behind crucial ideals – a measure Poland perhaps needs, following splinter parties and corruption scandals after 1989.
However, as Sławomir Sierakowski pointed out in a recent article for Project Syndicate, PiS’s stubborn attitude is beginning to err on the side of infantilism, with President Duda refusing to answer the telephone after US secretary of state called to discuss the new historical memory law.
This may be the case in part, particularly with regard to PiS’s promotion of a revisionist view of the past – but equally, Jarosław Kaczyński’s methods are extraordinarily astute on a political level. Promoting an us-versus-them dichotomy, Kaczyński has surprisingly managed to unite the Polish state under one idea: make Poland great again.
The pull of populism
In the V4, it is particularly Kaczyński and Orbán who are playing these nationalist cards, appealing to supporters by reinforcing the notion that they are victims of the transition from communism – and who now have an opportunity with them to take back power.
And, in Hungary, another cross causes contention. Set atop a hill in Kőszeg, the looming Trianon Cross, riddled with bullet holes, points to the areas of Hungary lost in the Treaty of Trianon of 1920, a measure which still causes bitter feelings of national humiliation. Another battle is being fought here alongside attitudes of victimhood – Orbán said in 2013 that ethnic Hungarians must unite, despite territorial boundaries.
Babiš might be playing it safe by focusing less on this idealist rhetoric and more on the pragmatic side, particularly as he holds less political capital than Orbán and Kaczyński. Worse still, he is also facing allegations of collaboration as a former communist collaborator; a Slovakian court earlier this year dismissed his claim he was wrongly identified as a former agent.
But, in all three, what matters most is the future of their nations – and they want this future to be as independent and protected as possible. At the moment, no serious damage has been made to diplomatic relations with the EU, but recent conservative laws are stretching the union’s patience. What the three leaders want is for the EU to compromise; to consider their own domestic situations, but this would push tensions to breaking point.
Still, there is little evidence of what, exactly, is wrong with Kaczyński – reports have ranged from a life-threatening condition to a knee malaise. But, regardless, his influence – and the influence of politicians like him – promises to not leave the Visegrad Group anytime soon.
Juliette Bretan studies English Literature at the University of Cambridge and also works as a freelance journalist, specialising in Polish current affairs and culture.