POZNAN, Poland—Despite the fact that Poland’s archconservative ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) looks well placed to win its third straight election on Oct. 15, its leaders are spooked that a low turnout will force it into a coalition, perhaps with the country’s even-further-right party, the Confederation Liberty and Independence. In desperation, PiS is lashing out wildly: at Germany, the European Union, the liberal opposition, developing world refugees, and critically minded filmmakers—as well as war-battered Ukraine, which until now it had buttressed with steely determination.
A Sept. 21 comment made by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki that Poland will stop arming Ukraine, which he later walked back on, set off alarm bells from Kyiv to Washington. “The message is not that Poland is pulling its support from Ukraine,” said Konstanty Gebert, a Warsaw-based author and analyst, “but rather that Ukraine is much too ungrateful toward its colonial benefactor. It should simply accept what it gets from Poland and be thankful.”
Even if the Morawiecki remark was misinterpreted—Poland is boosting its own depleted defense capabilities, he clarified—the implications are unnerving for the Atlantic alliance, which until now has marshalled its members’ consensus on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and active solidarity with Kyiv intact. If Poland, of all countries—a committed foe of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia and until now a champion of Ukraine—can waver in its support, how far behind are other countries long fatigued by the grinding war, the cost of sanctions, and hobbling energy crises?
Morawiecki’s comment came on top of a string of flare-ups between the neighbors and allies—flare-ups that PiS, rather than address constructively, has chosen to exploit for electoral gains. In a swing at Ukraine [on Sept. 20], Polish President Andrzej Duda, a conservative backed by PiS, said, “Ukraine is behaving like a drowning person clinging to everything he can. A drowning person is extremely dangerous; he can pull you down to the depths … simply drown the rescuer.”
He was referring to the burden Poland bears in backing Ukraine, which it has done by channeling humanitarian aid and weapons as well as opening its borders to refugees. But he could well have been describing PiS’s increasingly desperate flailing to burnish its populist credibility in the run-up to the election after years of holding power.
Poland and Ukraine have been locking horns over underpriced Ukrainian grain shipments, mostly corn and wheat, which last spring began to flood Polish, Slovak, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Hungarian markets until the Central Europeans, with the EU’s blessing, imposed a ban on Ukrainian imports, which expired on Sept. 15. When Russia first cordoned off the Black Sea to Ukrainian exports, the EU told the Central Europeans to open their borders to Ukraine to move agricultural commodities through their territories as an alternative route. The ban allowed them to do so while preventing domestic sales of the Ukrainian products. But Ukrainian grain, which is exempt from EU customs duties, leaked out into the Central European markets anyway. This forced out regional crops from domestic and some export markets, pushed prices down, and ignited farmers’ protestations. On Sept. 16, Poland and Hungary defied the EU and reimposed the ban on imported Ukrainian food products, which then prompted Kyiv to announce its intention to take the rift before the World Trade Organization.
In contrast to Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia, the Polish government has not been able to work out a compromise solution for the Ukrainian imports. The European Commission, which has no lost love for PiS, has sided with Ukraine.
“PiS is doing everything it can to divert attention from its own failures, but it’s not empty electioneering,” said Konstanty Gebert, a Warsaw-based author and analyst. “To get the big rural vote on their side, which it has to do, PiS is willing to pay a high political price for putting Ukraine down. The upshot depends on the electoral results, the percentage of peasant votes lost, and those gained by the extreme-right with their anti-Ukrainian propaganda.”
PiS’s flailing, Gebert said, reflects its conviction that only it understands the true interests of the Polish nation and that “its falling from power poses a life-or-death threat to the nation.” In the eyes of the PiS, Gebert added, “If it loses, Poland will come under the yoke of Brussels, be a slave to Germany, and flooded with Black and Muslim rapists. It wants to save Poles from the fate of people in the West, who they say can’t go out on the streets without fearing violent crime.”
Ukraine poured fuel on the fire by upbraiding Poland in front of the United Nations in New York. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused some EU countries of “feigning solidarity by indirectly supporting Russia”—a barb that understandably stung Poles, whose animosity toward Russia is legendary.
Another red-button issue at the front of PiS’s campaign is immigration. PiS is resisting EU plans to introduce a new migration pact that would give countries quotas of relocated migrants and require them to pay 20,000 euros (about $21,180) for each one they refuse. It is not the million-plus Ukrainian refugees in Poland that PiS encourages Poles to dread, but rather the roughly 20,000 refugees from Northern Africa and the Middle East that have entered Poland through Belarus this year. Belarus and Russia signal to these regions that individuals can gain access to the EU through Belarus; the unsuspecting refugees are let loose at the Belarusian-Polish border, often subject to beatings at the hands of first the Belarusians and then the Poles.
Agnieszka Holland’s film Green Border, which throws a harsh light on Poland’s treatment of refugees, premiered last week in Poland to the hysterical outcry of government officials, one of whom renounced the film as “disgusting libel” that is “harmful to the Polish state and Poles.”
While the Ukrainian refugees in Poland have thus far enjoyed the sympathy and support of Poles, their situation is changing, said activists from Logos and Spilno Hub, nongovernmental organizations in Poznan that assist Ukrainian nationals. Earlier this month, the Polish government announced it would be ending aid payments to Ukrainian migrants. However, in contrast to Germany, Ukrainian refugees in Poland are given immediate access to the job market, and they have pounced on it, helping Poland plug labor market gaps. The unemployment rate in Poznan, a business-minded city in western Poland, is 1 percent.
But Polish generosity is wearing thin. The Ukrainian activists say the social media rants against all refugees is vitriolic, much of it calling back to World War II-era atrocities between Poles and Ukrainians. A Ukrainian aid worker, Valentina, from the northeastern city of Sumy, was accompanying a class of Ukrainian school kids when teenagers accosted her, screaming, “Hey bitch, go back to Ukraine!” Physical violence is now increasingly common, Gebert said.
The geopolitical consequences of PiS’s histrionics reach far beyond Poland itself. In Slovakia, elections this weekend could bring about the return of Robert Fico, a former prime minister who is openly anti-EU and pro-Russia. Hungary, too, has long been a mouthpiece for Moscow in Europe.
And PiS’s most likely coalition partner, called simply the “Confederation” in Poland, makes no bones at all about its hostility to Ukraine and the more than 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees in Poland. (Its 2019 European Parliament campaign included a five-point platform: “We don’t want Jews, homosexuals, abortion, taxes, and the EU.”) Its presence in a coalition government led by PiS could entail a Poland-Ukraine realignment of some sort—and diluted sympathy for the Ukrainians now living in Poland.
A government that’s even more nationalistic than the current one in Warsaw might throw a wrench into Ukraine’s accession to the EU. After all, Ukraine’s high costs could shrink Poland’s slice of the EU pie. And a lukewarm, tight-fisted Poland could cause Kyiv to swap besties, putting its full faith in France and Germany rather than Poland. They, at least, have the clout in the EU that Ukraine needs, while PiS is openly hostile to Brussels.
PiS’s roughshod campaigning will hurt Poland in the long run, wrote Marek Swierczynski in Polityka, a centrist weekly news magazine. “PiS is toying with matters of strategic importance in this election campaign,” he argued. “And it is also toying with the very risky issue of anti-Ukrainian resentment. Now we have exposed ourselves to the criticism of global public opinion, all for the sake of this party scoring a few points with its own supporters.”
The gravitas that Poland has accrued over the past year and a half is immense—but it can expire if Poland’s will proves fickle.