Poland and Russia are now experiencing a backlash against the liberal and democratic values that flourished after the fall of communism nearly two decades ago. Not surprisingly, the targets of these forces in both countries are often Jewish. While the threats in Poland and Russia are quite different, both places offer plenty of reason to worry — not just for Jews but also for anyone who cares about democracy and human rights.
Poland remains a firmly democratic country with independent judicial institutions and a free press. As a member of the European Union, it cannot veer too far away from Western political and business practices.
But under the leadership of twins Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski — respectively, president and prime minister — Poland is turning inward and focusing more on revenge against former communists and their alleged allies, which includes everyone who does not share the xenophobic and anti-modern worldview of their Law and Justice Party.
When the Solidarity movement defeated the communists in 1989, it avoided retribution against communist officials and those with ties to the Secret Service. Instead, both conservative and post-communist governments focused on economic reform and on E.U. membership.
When the Kaczynskis took control of both the presidency and the government in 2005, they argued that the communist security apparatus still ran the country and announced a massive purge. Under their lustration laws, any state employee and government official has to declare that he or she did not collaborate with the security service. Those who refuse to do so, or who file a false declaration, are to be fired and banned from working in their profession for 10 years.
Among those who refused to sign the document was former Solidarity leader and foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek, who is Jewish. The government tried to strip him of his seat in the European parliament, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski accused him of “damaging his fatherland” and of “provoking an anti-Polish affair.” Shortly afterward, the Polish high court ruled the lustration law as unconstitutional.
Equally worrisome for Poland’s small Jewish population is the setup of the coalition government. It includes Andrzej Lepper, who is a deputy prime minister and agricultural secretary from the populist Self-Defense party, and Roman Giertych, secretary of education from the far-right League of Polish Families. The League of Polish Families has well-known links to violent neo-Nazi groups, and Lepper accepted an honorary doctorate from MAUP, a private Ukrainian university that publishes several antisemitic newspapers and journals. Perhaps even more worrisome, a key backer of the government is Radio Maryja, whose audience of 3 million is bombarded daily with antisemitic and xenophobic messages.
In Russia, the increasingly repressive government of Vladimir Putin has no direct anti-Jewish agenda. But not coincidentally, many of its main critics have Jewish roots. They include former Yukos oil company CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was sent to a Siberian labor camp after the Kremlin smashed and robbed his huge oil concern; oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who resides in London, and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who has been beaten up and detained as he tried to organize anti-government protests. In addition, more than a few of the journalists who have been muzzled by the crackdown on the press are practicing Jews or of Jewish descent.
Meanwhile, the government often seems to encourage xenophobic nationalism and allows racist murders by skinheads to go unpunished. Jews need not yet fear for their safety, but they have good reason to feel tense. An economic crisis caused by a sharp drop in oil prices could quickly make life very uncomfortable for minorities and those with strong ties to the West.
There is some talk of a new Cold War between Russia and the West because of the elimination of virtually all opposition forces and because of Putin’s intimidation of Russia’s formerly communist neighbors. Ironically, the main target for Russia’s new imperialism is Poland, which faces a partial trade boycott and in turn takes revenge by blocking most attempts to improve cooperation between the E.U. and Russia.
If Poland continues to drift rightward, it will undermine the integrity of the E.U. and call into question the whole process of accepting former communist countries as members. Fortunately, the Kaczynski brothers are prone to political missteps, and thanks to a long economic boom most Poles know that they would lose out if they turned their back toward Europe and the West.
The situation is more critical in Russia. Its leadership is determined to roll back the messy and chaotic democratization of the 1990s and to use its control over energy reserves to regain the international influence it lost after the collapse of the Soviet empire. Even though Putin remains popular and the opposition is weak and divided, the Kremlin tolerates less and less dissent and is easily irked by criticism from the West.
But just like in the old Soviet Union, external pressure can help those who are trying to change the country from within. The opposition needs all the support it can get from Europe’s and America’s governments and civil institutions. People like Kasparov are often labeled as foreign agents. In reality, they are the true Russian patriots.
Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.