It may seem surprising, but the only political formation that is pro-Russian in Poland is in fact made up of extreme nationalists. However, those who have looked into the rise of far-right across Europe in the recent years would be less surprised. Practically all the extreme far-right parties in Europe – including French National Front, Alternative for Germany, the Brexit Party or the Italian Lega - are all pro-Russian.
This increasingly looks like a design that is promoted and supported from Moscow. Recent development and the rise of Confederation suggest that even Poland has ceased to be an exception in this trend.
For the first time since the fall of communism, Poland has an openly pro-Russian party – called Konfederacja/Confederation – that appeals to a meaningful sector of the population. In the recent elections to the European Parliament, the Confederation got 4.6% of votes, which means that whilst it did not win seats in the European Parliament (Poland applies 5% threshold), it came out as the 4th strongest party.
This may seem as a minor distortion in the party system that is dominated by two large blocks (socially-conservative Law and Justice and a liberal European Coalition), yet considering the fact that the Confederation was put together only 3 months ago, its result is impressive.
Moreover, the party run a surprisingly sophisticated campaign that was grabbing headlines in the last weeks leading up to the election. Confederation – as the name suggests – is, in fact, an alliance of various extreme forces – and it may not last. However, if the alliance maintains its unity it is likely to grow its support base and become a player in the Polish party system.
Russian factor in Polish politics
Poles are known for being sceptical about Russia. Many West Europeans are in fact irritated by what they consider a Polish Russo-phobia, which in Paris, Berlin or Rome is considered as a sign of strategic immaturity.
However, just like the Baltic States, the Poles have good historical and contemporary reasons to watch their Eastern neighbour with suspicion. After all, the Polish-Lithuanian state ceased to exit and was wiped off the map as a result of the three partitions initiated by Tsarist Russia at the end of the 18th century. Throughout the 19th century, millions of Poles were subjected to the forceful Russification and the modern Polish nationalism emerged in large part in opposition to the Russian rule. The Russians have brutally put out various national uprisings that resulted in purges, expulsions and eventually a pauperisation of whole sectors of Polish population.
When Poland regained independence in 1918, it was immediately threatened by Soviet Russia with the red army reaching Warsaw where it was eventually defeated. 20 years later, the Russians had their revenge when the Soviet Union joined forces with Nazi Germany in invading Poland in September 1939. During the war, the Nazis were exterminating the Poles – including 3 million Polish Jews – in concentration camps. But the Soviets executed thousands in the Katyń forest and other locations and forcefully relocated hundreds of thousands across the Soviet Union, many of whom perished in the process.
After the war, Poland found itself, in fact, under the Soviet occupation. The communist governments were imposed on by the Soviet Union, and their rule utterly depended on the presence of the red army as well as a constant threat of a “brotherly intervention”.
Following the end of communism, a new Poland got rid of its Soviet bases, stopped teaching the Russian language at schools and redirected itself westwards. Even the former communists became social-democrats whilst their foreign policy became overtly pro-American.
Under the administration of newly rebranded social-democrats, Poland became one of America’s top allies in Iraq and antagonised the Russians by being one of the strongest supporters of the Ukrainian pro-western orange revolution. In short, till recently there was no serious political force in Poland that would be pro-Russian and this includes former communists.
The tradition of Polish patriotism is essentially anti-Russian because historically Russia represented the gravest threat to Poland’s independence.
What is the Confederation?
The Confederation is made up of several groupings, which are connected by extremism and pro-Russian leniency. The alliance uses a collective branding composed of the names of its top leaders: Janusz Korwin-Mikke, Grzegorz Braun, Liroy and the National Movement. These three individuals and the National Movement may seem like an unlikely bag that will not hold together, but there are considerable similarities in the agendas of the groupings’ leaders.
Korwin-Mikke is a former libertarian and a former notorious Member of the European Parliament where he proved to be too extreme to be accepted into the alliance led by Marine Le Pen. Outside of Poland, Korwin-Mikke is best known for his misogynistic tirade at the European Parliament during which he argued that women should never have equal pay with men because they are “smaller, weaker and less intelligent than men”. Korwin-Mikke is also known for opposing the para-olimpics and any special provisions for the disabled. He openly contests democracy and argues in favour of “enlightened dictatorship”.
Grzegorz Braun is a keen advocate of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. He argues that Jews and Masons rule the world whilst Poland is ruled by “a German-Russian condominium under a temporary Jewish administration”. Braun favours the criminalisation of homosexuality and a ban on any other religion than Roman Catholicism.
The National Movement is an extreme organisation preaching racial purity and homophobia. Its backbone is a youth para-militaristic organisation ONR – composed mostly of young men with shaven heads and penchant for black shirts. The movement has its origins in the pre-war fascist organisation “Falanga” known for stirring anti-Semitic incidents.
Liroy is a former rapper, known for combining extreme views with a liberal attitude towards the use of marijuana. His presence amongst the leaders of Confederation de-stigmatises the image of extremists and increases the support amongst the younger voters, which indeed is impressive.
The pro-Russian views are one of the most essential elements holding the Confederation together. The leaders of the alliance frequently praise Putin as a “great man” or at least a very reasonable leader (Korwin-Mikke) and are strongly anti-Ukrainian. Speaking to the Polish edition of Sputnik News, Korwin-Mikke clearly stated that he considers Putin an ally because he is anti-Ukrainian.
In December 2015, shortly after the Russian annexation, Korwin-Mikke, as a member of European Parliament, and his party member Lilia Moshechkova, a Russian living in Poland, paid an official visit to Crimea where they met with the authorities and spoke in support of Russian policies.
Moshechkova, who was standing in recent elections from the Confederation list, is a strong supporter of the Russian separatists in Donbas, for whom she collects money in Poland. She also helped the so-called “Night Wolves” a pro-Putin Russian biking gang who tried to enter Poland to stage a pro-Putin event. According to the correspondence leaked by Belarussian hackers, Moshechkova acted as a liaison between Korwin-Mikke and Russian separatists as well as pro-Putin news agency Regnum, known for its extremism. In the leaked correspondence there has been also a mention of money that is needed in order to sustain pro-Russian demonstrations.
The Confederation also includes the so-called “Środowiska Kresowe” meaning the Poles from the territories incorporated to the Soviet Union in 1939. These group members who joined the Confederation are known for raising territorial claims against western Ukraine. Following the annexation of Crimea, the leader of Russian ultra-nationalists Vladimir Zyrynovski, issued a letter inviting the Poles, Romanians and Hungarians to participate in the partition of Ukraine. The Polish foreign office and all the major political forces immediately dismissed the invitation but it has attracted a warm reception amongst several figures in the Confederation.
The Confederation also breaks away from boycotting Russian Sputnik and RT channels both of which are considered cogs of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. The party leaders regularly give interviews and appear on Sputnik News and do not shy away from maintaining contacts with Russians journalists accused of espionage.
For example, Grzegorz Braun, who gave several interviews to Sputnik, proudly photographed himself with Leonid Sviridov, a Russian journalist who was deported from Poland on the suspicion of espionage in 2015. Overall, the pro-Russian positions of the Confederation are no different than the positions of Western-European far-right parties including the Alternative for Germany, the Italian League or the French National Front.
What does this mean?
The rise of an overt pro-Russian party may not be against a larger European trend but it represents a watershed moment in Poland. Pro-Russian sentiments are counter-intuitive to Polish national identity and till recently were unlikely to draw a major following.
In the run-up to the European elections, the state-run and private media supporting the governing Law and Justice party have run a campaign highlighting the Russian links oto the Confederation. The two parties were in direct competition for anti-liberal voters hence the campaign was on occasion rather brutal.
As opposed to Law and Justice, the Confederation had limited or no access to state-run television and radio, which are fully controlled by the government. The fact that despite these hurdles Confederation emerged as the 4th strongest party from these elections demonstrates the existence of an electorate that welcomes extreme messaging, which also included the pro-Russian elements.
It may also demonstrate that Polish political culture is changing and that there is a space in it for pro-Russian sentiments. Given the fact that the Confederation won in the group of youngest voters, those between the age of 18-24, this is likely to be a growing phenomenon.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight.