I’ve been coming to visit family in Poland since late communism almost 30 years ago, when restaurants ran such shoddy operations they could barely boil a pot of water. Back then it was weird driving through the former Soviet satellite state to see virtually no advertising. Highways didn’t exist until this decade. And people used to have to bribe doctors with cigarettes and vodka just to get medical attention. Everyone looked sad to an intimidating degree, but then would invite you into their homes and treat you like royalty.
In a span of 50 years, Poland was leveled by Nazis, enslaved by the Soviet empire, and is now fending off another imperial invasion: American neoliberalism. This summer, I ate at Poland’s first ever Michelin-star restaurant, where one course was just a tiny frozen sorrel leaf served on a huge rock. It cost $85 (for lunch!) and left me hungry 45 minutes later. In the capital of Warsaw, new minimalist architecture stands beside regal Stalinist high rises, and banal cement apartment blocks abutt the kind of rustic chic that typifies gentrified districts in cities across America. Poland hasn’t had an economic downturn in 23 years — including during the 2008 global recession. Part of the reason is because after communism, its markets were liberalized slowly and responsibly. Since the government gave everyone an equal start, the country doesn’t have any oligarchs. This is the opposite of what happened in Russia, where a series of rigged auctions sold off publicly-owned assets to shady businessmen, paving the way for rampant poverty and an economic crash.
But now that Poland is on the cusp of becoming an economic powerhouse, it’s also becoming a total asshole about everything. That’s because Poland’s version of Donald Trump has taken over. It’s three years this month since the hard-right Law & Justice party swept into power as part of a wave of European nationalist uprisings, running on a platform of isolationism. Since assuming control of the government, it’s thrown shade at the European Union, waged war against the judiciary, and ignored minority rights. Neo-Nazis march often.
Law & Justice’s isolationism has found a foothold in part because of the Polish people’s legitimate grievances about the over-westernization of their country. “The main social problem was poverty and the sense of inequality, of people in small towns and rural areas having been left out of the [economic] transformation,” said Monika Scislowska, a longtime Associated Press reporter who’s covered the country before privatization. It’s how Law & Justice got into power, by promising to re-nationalize a country lost out to Europe’s limousine liberals. Classic populism. But many residents like being part of the EU and feel Poland was already doing well.
The man calling the shots, party founder Jarosław Kaczyński, is an ultra-Catholic momma’s boy who at 69 is still a bachelor and lives without a driver’s license or cell phone. He’s the type of sheltered leader who needs an army of handlers and assistants just to get through the door. Kaczyński doesn’t even hold an official government position — he was Prime Minister in 2006 and 2007 — but has been a shadow president for years now. Nearly all of the country’s top government officials, including Kaczyński’s then-president twin brother, died in a 2010 plane crash that is considered Poland’s 9/11. Kaczyński blamed the center-left opposition party Civic Platform for his brother’s death, even though publicly he didn’t actually believe this. He just wanted to scare people and stay in power.
In 2015, Kaczyński warned that migrants carried “very dangerous diseases long absent from Europe” and that gay people should not be teachers. People took him seriously, too. Poland is a 99 percent white, heavily Catholic country, and as you might surmise, has a nasty xenophobic streak. The church is pretty much the government these days. Even still, the Polish people are actually turning away from God more than any other country in the world. This cultural schism came to a head recently, when a Polish court ordered the Catholic church to pay damages to a sex abuse victim, spurring unprecedented protests. Moreover, hate crimes committed against Muslims grew by more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2016, according to data from the Warsaw University’s Center for Research on Prejudice.
And Law & Justice is seeing red everywhere, fearing that communist apparatchiks continue to corrupt the government. That’s one of the reasons it is replacing about a third of the judges in the country through forced early retirements. The government also tried to ban abortion — which is already virtually illegal — in instances of down syndrome. In response, women took to protesting en mass for the first time in the country’s modern history.
Still, Law & Justice is super popular with 40 percent support, while its chief opponent, Civic Platform, has 21 percent support. Polls show the party is surging into the Oct. 21 local elections, which will serve as a bellwether for parliamentary elections next year and the presidential race in 2020. Even young people tilt right these days.
So how is this trash government still popular? By targeting working class people in rural areas through a deceptive mix of conservatism and socialism. It’s providing something no Polish government has ever done: handouts. Since taking over, Law & Justice has lowered the retirement age and offered an ambitious child welfare program, hoping voters will overlook its racial and discriminatory politics.
Olgierd Annusewicz, a University of Warsaw professor specializing in political marketing, said such a government program giving people straight cash is a first for Poland. “Help was previously limited to people in dire need. The benefits were small. Meanwhile, the child welfare program is of universal nature — the scale of reach is enormous,” wrote Annusewicz in an email.
The welfare program, called 500+, gives families about $136 per month (a good amount in Poland, where the average income is about $1,340 a month, according to the country’s Central Statistical Office) for the second and every subsequent child born until they reach 18. It has so far raised the country’s birth rate and helped lift children out of poverty, but has also had adverse effects on the labor market, incentivizing people not to seek work. By lowering the retirement age to 60 for women and 65 to men (down from a collective 67), the government is hoping these initiatives will work in tandem to keep people from leaving Poland.
“Even [their] harshest opponents say that PiS has done a proper analysis of the social and political situation, named the main problems and is addressing them now. The problem is in the way it is addressing some of them,” said Scislowska.
Law & Justice’s support is also concentrated in the eastern, poorer part of the country, where the average income is a mere $1,161 per month. “Critics say PiS has bought voters this way, but the program has really changed things for many people. I know a hard-to-do family in Warsaw with two little daughters and they are getting 1,000 zlotys each month ($275) for both girls. Now they decided they can afford to have a third child,” Scislowska told me.
In Różanystok, part of a cluster of eastern provincial villages near the Belarus border where my family is from, most people work for the local school or they leave families for long periods of time to find work in other countries. My friend’s husband drives a truck all day to make $208 a week to support a family of four. My aunt and uncle don’t think the government has helped rural areas, despite its claims otherwise. “The countryside has changed a lot, but it’s not because of Law & Justice. Right now Poland gets more out of the EU than it is paying,” said Darek Klin, a retired school administrator who credits Poland’s progress to joining the EU.
For my family, life was always good because this was all they ever knew. They also had connections to America and were able to come overseas to make money. But compared to the West, and for most people out in the sticks, things still aren’t great. I knew a guy, who for as long as I can remember, lived alone in a house without power, and was totally okay with it. It wasn’t until he saw the news one day that he realized he was poor. Różanystok has gotten worse since I’ve been visiting in the 90s. A community pool is long gone. The public works department barely exists. Tall stalks of grass cover everything, and tap water often comes out brown. Instead, it seems like all the money goes towards the endless remodeling of an 18th century church while everything else goes to shit. People live oblivious to the modernization that has taken place in other parts of the country. It’s almost like communism never ended.
“In the West, they do not understand what damage communism has caused Poland. These damages work to this day,” my other uncle, Andrzej Budnik, told me. He fled to America in the 80’s when the communist party sought his allegiance — the sort of offer you couldn’t refuse if you wanted to stay in Poland — then returned after the coup. Today he oversees a series of banks in the small city of Białystok.
Currently, it’s a situation where the so-called anti-elite government is actually the elite itself. Sound familiar? Poland’s prime minister is part of a leadership that supposedly hates huge transnational corporations who feed off emerging European countries like Poland, but the man himself is a rich technocrat who ran an international bank.
There isn’t one party that is responsible for Poland’s success. Poles have always had a crazy drive in the face of adversity, going abroad to make money and bringing skills back home. Jacek, a small business owner in Warsaw, told me: “No party in Poland can take credit. Why did things change? Because Poles are the type of people that strive to function.” Poland is scrappy beyond belief — during World War II, they held their own against the invading Germans, despite the fact that the Nazis had tanks and the Poles had... horses.
Today, this spirit of defiance perseveres. Life overall seems to be better. Things are finally happening. People are realizing they don’t have to succumb to the right. Earlier this year, Robert Biedroń, Poland’s first openly gay mayor, launched a broader progressive movement. The homophobic country might just get its first gay president. In the port town of Słupsk, Biedroń has prioritized environmental sustainability, and cut back on debt. He believes money from the EU should go right into the hands of local governments, instead of to the gatekeepers in Warsaw. And he wants to open up abortion restrictions and promote more equality. It remains to be seen if he will successfully draw the rural vote away from Law & Justice.
In the end, it all goes back to the feeling of being occupied, either by Russia, the Nazis, or the EU. The seminal Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński summed up why Poland’s view of government was so different from Russia’s. “In the Polish experience, the state was always a foreign power. So, to hate the state was a patriotic act.” That still hasn’t changed.