WARSAW, Poland — Halfway through November, World War III suddenly seemed imminent.
A missile strike hit the town of Przewodów, Poland, killing two people — and suggesting that Russia’s offensive in Ukraine had crossed into NATO territory, which the U.S. and its allies had pledged to defend “with the full force of our collective power.” Journalists and analysts began warning of a spiral of escalation that could end in nuclear Armageddon.
Officials quickly determined that the attack was a Ukrainian mistake, allowing Washington and Moscow to avoid a confrontation. The Polish government offered a surprisingly measured response to the incident, holding back from blaming Russia despite Poles’ historic distrust of their aggressive neighbor.
But amid Europe’s worst conflict in decades, the most dangerous and delicate front line in the world is in Poland. This year brings an even bigger test for the country: a national election that will determine whether the governing Law and Justice party can solidify its power with a third term in office.
U.S. officials, independent analysts and Polish opposition figures believe Poland’s 30-year-old democracy is on the ballot. The election could quickly push the country far closer to becoming an autocracy, creating big risks for Poles and global order.
The ruling party, also known by the Polish acronym PiS, has heavily interfered in the country’s judiciary, spurring the European Union to withhold more than $100 billion in support for Poland and impose huge fines until Warsaw commits to reform. PiS’ intimidation of judges and the media has alarmed international watchdogs; Freedom House says Poland has seen the fastest decline in democracy among countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, while the Cato Institute’s international freedom ranking has moved Poland from 21st to 49th place since 2011. And PiS could take troubling new steps with another stint in government, from further restricting human rights in the mold of its deadly near-total abortion ban to appointing more underqualified political loyalists to key jobs.
“This election which is coming will determine the fate of this country for the next four years, but I think for a much longer perspective, because we are at the turning point,” said Dariusz Rosati, an opposition lawmaker in Poland’s lower chamber of parliament.
To Rosati, a grizzled former foreign minister, Poland’s return to more authoritarian politics is a shock.
“I cannot understand it,” he said. “I lived in the communist times. … We built a vibrant market economy. We have entered NATO and the [European] Union. We have become part of the Western alliances and Western civilization. I thought this was forever, and suddenly it’s not.”
America’s reliance on Poland is higher than ever. Ahead of the upcoming polls, the U.S. could emphasize the importance of democratic principles, urge a fair contest and discourage corrosive campaign rhetoric against European unity and minorities such as LGBTQ people. Or Washington could end up with a vital ally that is more autocratic and unstable, where popular frustration grows, talent withers or flees and right-wing idiosyncrasies, not expertise or consensus, shape policy.
Right now, the U.S. is not treating Polish democracy as a pressing priority. The choice is unsurprising given the situation in the region, but it is also one more depressing example of America’s penchant for fixating on one problem while others percolate.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the alliance between Poland and the U.S. “has become very one-note,” said a U.S. official who requested anonymity to speak frankly.
“It’s all been focused on the military relationship,” the official told HuffPost, as U.S. and NATO troops deploy to Poland to deter any Russian advance and as Western arms shipments to the Ukrainians pass through the long Poland-Ukraine border. “A lot of the other issues … have receded into the background.”
America’s deepening involvement is frequently discussed within Poland, but the U.S. does not often speak of Polish democratic decline, according to Marta Prochwicz-Jazowska of the German Marshall Fund think tank.
“The state of democracy in Poland … should still be on the agenda. Maybe it is behind closed doors — I’m really hoping that it is,” she said.
Prochwicz-Jazowska, a well-connected former Polish government official, told HuffPost she has raised her concerns with the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw.
Proponents of U.S. involvement know that PiS has legitimate popular backing, but they worry that without scrutiny from Washington, the party will rely on harmful anti-democratic tactics.
To defend democracy in Ukraine, America is donating expensive weaponry and tens of millions in humanitarian aid. To bolster Poles worried about autocracy in Europe’s fifth-largest economy, the U.S. could instead deploy diplomatic and political influence — and it may be the only force that could guarantee success.
“Civil society organizations need help from the U.S., and they are in the best position,” Prochwicz-Jazowska said, “PiS would have a hard time telling the Americans, ‘Sorry, we don’t want to talk to you about this.’”
An Unlikely Romance
In the heart of Poznań, a 1,200-year-old city central to Polish identity, lies the proof that Poland now plays the role once held by West Germany: the West’s strategic front with Russia.
Four months after Russia torpedoed post-Cold War assumptions about how to avoid war in Europe, President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. would maintain a full-time military deployment in Poznań — creating the first permanent U.S. troop presence behind the former Iron Curtain and thrilling PiS. Party-backed Polish President Andrzej Duda declared that the step was “a gigantic breakthrough.”
Two hundred soldiers from the U.S. Army’s V Corps are now at Camp Kosciuszko, a compact Polish military base set amid communist-era apartment buildings that is named for Polish freedom fighter and American Revolutionary War hero Tadeusz Kościuszko. The group has a strong sense of history — founded in World War I, the corps was deactivated for years when Europe seemed to have achieved a lasting peace — and a deep affinity for its Polish counterparts.
“They have done everything that they can to accommodate us, and it shows. [The base] looks nothing like it did a year ago,” said V Corps Forward Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Prosser. Pointing to construction sites across the facility, he told HuffPost, “It’s gonna get better.”
As the base grows, U.S. troops will likely bring their families to Poznań, forming communities like those at American bases in neighboring Germany and developing a lasting embodiment of the U.S.-Poland bond. “There’s a lot of things that we’re trying to do to help integrate ourselves into the community, but [the Poles are] always two steps ahead of us,” Prosser said.
By developing its easternmost base in Europe, the U.S. is proving it is committed to NATO and European security, said Lt. Gen. John Kolasheski, the head of the V Corps. Simultaneously, Poland is paying millions for new weaponry from the U.S. and American ally South Korea, cultivating new potential military recruits and expanding its influence over NATO decision-making.
A Warsaw-Washington romance on Biden’s watch seemed unimaginable until Feb. 24.
PiS took over Poland the year before Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency, and the two bonded over their nationalist views and disdain for liberal norms. But the year after PiS won its second term, American voters replaced Trump with Biden, who pledged to challenge authoritarianism globally.
2021 saw U.S.-Polish relations became increasingly tense.
PiS upset America and Israel by limiting Holocaust restitution claims, slow-rolled Biden’s appointment of a new ambassador to Poland and proposed a media law targeting TVN, the country’s biggest independent broadcaster and a subsidiary of the American conglomerate Discovery. The bill drew complaints from Washington, where a bipartisan group of senators called the move proof of “a troubling trajectory for Poland’s democracy” that would deter American investment, and spurred street protests among Poles. Ultimately, Duda, a PiS ally seen as a moderate, vetoed the legislation.
Meanwhile, the EU launched a legal action accusing Poland of undermining Europe’s top court. And human rights groups and United Nations experts lambasted Warsaw for its harsh treatment of Middle Eastern migrants and asylum-seekers whom Belarus — a Russian ally — had misled into traveling to the Polish border.
Yet as governments worldwide scrambled to process Russia’s assault on Ukraine, their past concerns with PiS seemed less relevant. The party got an opportunity for redemption.
“They are … hoping to use the occasion,” said the U.S. official who requested anonymity. It’s working: Poland has secured a visit from Biden and the U.S. base that PiS previously tried to win through tactics like promising to name the facility “Fort Trump.”
With Poland’s greater importance comes greater potential for foreign policy upheaval — through intra-European squabbling or sudden spats that threaten crucial relationships.
Fear-mongering about the EU and historic issues with Poland’s neighbors are core to PiS’ identity as a force that claims to represent the “true” Poland. As the party has attacked outsiders from Lithuania to Germany, Poles have become used to saying the only neighbor they are not fighting is the Baltic Sea, according to Rosati, the former foreign minister.
Barbara Nowacka, a lawmaker who is part of the former ruling party Civic Platform, told HuffPost she gives PiS credit for supporting Ukraine but she worries that the ruling party’s tendencies may jeopardize “strong alliances.”
As PiS courted Trump, it kept its distance from Biden and fellow Democratic heavyweight Hillary Clinton, risking Poland’s ties to the U.S., she noted.
By constantly picking fights with American liberals, Brussels and Berlin, PiS “is saying that the enemy is in the west,” Nowacka said. “I think they are completely wrong; the enemies are in the east.”
Fighting For Change On An Uneven Playing Field
In the fall of 2019, just before Poland’s most recent parliamentary election, media outlets close to PiS began publishing texts and emails linked to Krzysztof Brejza, the campaign manager for the country’s largest opposition party. Night after night, the state-owned broadcaster — Poland’s most-watched channel — used doctored messages to cast Brejza as a criminal.
Brejza had no idea how his data was leaked, and he repeatedly denied allegations against him. But he began receiving death threats serious enough that PiS assigned him state protection. His young children were traumatized, and the smear campaign extended to his mother, a professional musician who had never been involved in politics. “They were destroying us,” recalled Dorota Brejza, the campaign manager’s wife.
Come election day, PiS triumphed and Brejza’s party saw its vote share shrink. The cacophony of accusations quieted. Authorities never charged Brejza, who has since become a senator.
Two years later, researchers at the University of Toronto and Amnesty International announced that Brejza and two other PiS opponents were targeted with Pegasus, an infamous spyware program that Poland’s government had never acknowledged possessing, much less deploying against its political rivals.
PiS chief Jarosław Kaczyński and his aides initially professed no knowledge of the software. Then Kaczyński suddenly conceded that Poland used Pegasus, arguing that “it would be bad” if security agencies lacked the tool — but denying that it was used for electoral purposes.
Unconvinced, Brejza is suing Kaczyński.
“They should stand before the courts for what they did — not only to us, but to the Polish people, to the citizens of our country, because you don’t have free elections when they are conducted by the secret service and by the public television,” said Dorota Brejza, a serious, soft-spoken attorney who is representing her husband. “We are in a very crucial moment. We will go either by the path of authoritarianism or the path of democracy.”
With that moment approaching, independent experts and PiS’ critics see little chance of an even playing field in this year’s election.
Spokespeople for the Polish government did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment on Pegasus and the risk of an unfair election.
The opposition’s best chance to overcome the long odds is to tap public skepticism that PiS can tame problems like inflation.
“The problem for most people isn’t the rule of law. … People are looking for change. PiS has become the party of power,” said Andrzej Bobiński, the managing director of Warsaw-based research group Polityka Insight.
“They have given away a lot of jobs — places on boards, in state-owned companies — and this trickles down pretty much to the village level,” Bobiński continued. “The country is not working all that well, and it’s because of the level of human management. They’ve done away with many of the civil servants. They’re not willing to work with people they don’t agree with. They don’t have that many experts.”
Even figures who share some views with PiS are disappointed with its tenure. Dobromir Sośnierz, a lawmaker from the far-right Confederation party with a long ponytail and small-government views, slammed the recent expansion of welfare spending. “The worsening situation is not possible to hide anymore, even with bribing,” he said.
As they try to block an unprecedented third term for PiS, the party’s rivals are debating whether to contest the election as a united group. That’s the preference of Civic Platform, the biggest opposition force — but other groups are wary.
A partnership could lose key voter blocs, such as religious Poles who would not cast ballots for a coalition that includes advocates of abortion access.
PiS-style populists have faced challenges in both the Czech Republic and Hungary in recent years, noted Michał Kobosko, the vice chairman of a fast-growing new political party called Poland 2050. Czech opposition parties formed two separate blocs and succeeded. Hungarian voters handed their grand opposition alliance a striking defeat.
Smaller parties also want to ensure that they can wield real influence after years in the wilderness.
“What makes me really sad is that Civic Platform is pushing away every attempt to tell them, ‘Let’s not talk about only if we go into a coalition against the government, but … about what we want to do in Poland and how,’” said Poland 2050 adviser Katarzyna Jagiełło, a former Greenpeace activist who has kept her dreadlocks and her swagger.
PiS’ bid to retain power features two sometimes conflicting messages: that it is less extreme than its critics say, and that it — and the Polish heartland — must vanquish devious enemies.
Duda, the Polish president, is pushing reversals of the party’s judicial reforms that could unlock billions in suspended EU aid for Poland, easing anxiety about the funding that has hurt PiS in the polls. Yet it’s unclear if the party and its hard-line allies will pass those changes or if experts and European officials will deem them sufficient — and in the meantime, PiS is directing more money to the notorious state-run broadcaster ahead of the fall vote.
Many PiS figures still take a dark view of Europe and their opponents. Just last month, the government countersued the EU.
Zdzisław Krasnodębski, a senior PiS member who serves in the European Parliament, told HuffPost he sees his colleagues from across the continent as “very emotional, even fanatics, concerning our democracy and management of our state.”
“We see it as a question of independence and sovereignty,” he continued. Then he leaned in closer and lowered his voice.
“I have no evidence for it,” Krasnodębski said. “But I think many of these bad opinions about backsliding in our democracy … [were] in the interest of Russia.”
In recent months, PiS has also reignited a long-standing debate by asking Germany to pay Poland $1.3 trillion in reparations for the vicious Nazi occupation of the country.
Amid the Ukraine crisis, the gambit enraged many observers. “The populist BS the Polish govt is peddling is doing more to divide the [NATO] alliance than unite it,” Max Bergmann, the Europe director at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, recently tweeted. “That hurts Ukraine, hurts NATO, and it ultimately hurts Poland.”
But it’s clear that many Warsaw power players feel little need to compromise.
Even if Germany is now their ally, many Poles outside PiS remain frustrated over its past, argued Sławomir Dębski, the high-profile director of the government-linked Polish Institute of International Affairs, in an interview last fall.
“I would say that [Joseph] Stalin was even better” than Germany, Dębski said. Noting that the Soviet leader funded the construction of the iconic Palace of Culture and Science skyscraper in Warsaw, he continued, “The Germans are worse than Stalin in this record.” Separately, Dębski downplayed objections to the government’s maneuvering with judges, saying it was only natural that PiS would respond to popular dissatisfaction with the judiciary.
Once he was done rejecting criticism of the ruling party, Dębski concluded, “Those who try to label Poland as a kind of autocratic country, that’s absolutely nonsense.”
A New Factor
Diana and Zlata Amedro are two quiet women who have lived in Warsaw for less than a year. They are also two members of a group that many observers expect to be a major new force in Poland’s politics: the millions of Ukrainian women and children who have fled to the country since February, of whom roughly 1.5 million still live in Poland.
The Amedros, a mother and daughter, arrived via train and bus in March, they told HuffPost in an interview last fall. Teenage Zlata Amedro said her cat was so nervous during the trip that it refused to leave her arms. Her father is still in Kyiv helping Ukraine’s military effort, her mother said through tears; most men are barred from leaving the country.
Poland has given Ukrainians more support than any other European country. Ordinary Poles invited refugees into their homes, and the government gave them special stipends and access to schools, jobs and health care. Many politicians and experts thought this sympathy would plummet as the war dragged on, citing the growing cost of living in the country and long-standing distrust between Poles and Ukrainians.
Nearly all Polish interviewees told HuffPost they were shocked that this shift has yet to occur. Sośnierz of Confederation repeatedly said he disavows some fellow party members’ protests against the Ukrainians.
But given Poland’s mounting economic problems and the spread of nationalist election rhetoric, a worrying change seems to be afoot.
Diana Amedro works at a UNICEF community center that provides education support and child care. Ukrainian parents say their children face growing discrimination, she told HuffPost.
Many Polish schools have expanded class sizes, reorganized their schedules and hired Ukrainian teachers, leading to visible changes for Poles. Ukrainian schools are also opening in the large Polish cities where most members of the community live. Zlata Amedro attends one now and also, like many of her compatriots, takes online classes with her school in Ukraine. (Her friends back in Kyiv rarely turn on their cameras, she said.) She relayed the story of one Ukrainian friend whose Polish classmates regularly scare her by making loud noises.
The Amedros had their own run-in on the metro, the teen said, when a Polish mother began telling her husband and young son that the Ukrainian women looked like monkeys and questioning why they were there.
Diana Amedro quickly jumped in to say she had forgotten the incident and to emphasize her gratitude to Poland. “Everybody has their own opinion; maybe it would be the same in Ukraine if the Polish came there,” the mother continued. “It’s 99% positive — all the rest is just a tiny, stupid thing.”
But to Ivan Posylnyi, a Ukrainian graduate student who has lived in Warsaw since 2018, the potential for a greater Polish backlash is clear. He recalled being yelled at by a guard when he asked for directions in English soon after arriving in the city — “If you do not speak my language, get the fuck out of here” — and said that despite the capital’s cosmopolitan vibe, he is careful about revealing his sexuality given Poland’s social conservatism.
“The combination of being gay and being Ukrainian, it’s flammable,” Posylnyi said.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Poles have regularly asked him about his background and his views, and his Polish friends who began volunteering to help refugees are still doing so months later, he added.
Yet he sees troubling double standards. Poles typecast Ukrainians as mostly fit for roles in which they have few protections, like cleaners and construction workers, Posylnyi said. And he added: “If you compare what happened here with Afghan refugees … this is ridiculous. I know it is because we have a common enemy, but there is also a part of this that is racist.”
As campaigning politicians whip up Polish nationalism, they could fuel resentment toward Ukrainians. Posylnyi recalled billboards in the Warsaw Metro in 2021 that highlighted the Volhynia massacre during World War II, when a Ukrainian insurgent offensive in Nazi-occupied territory led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Poles and Ukrainians. Poland’s parliament deemed the campaign a genocide in 2016.
Noting that PiS has an electoral incentive to demonize outsiders, Posylnyi continued: “I like to remember what politicians and public figures said before. I don’t like to follow the idea that what they’re saying now is enough. … And what was said before was not very pro-Ukrainian.”
On The Brink
The U.S. has a road map for how to encourage a fair Polish election — and an awareness that Poland’s democracy is at stake.
The work involves more than just ensuring accurate vote-counting, said the U.S. official who requested anonymity. Other steps include monitoring whether PiS uses government resources to effectively try to buy votes, whether the party pressures state employees to support it, and whether opposition and PiS candidates have similar opportunities to campaign.
The official noted that Washington has spent years concerned by Poland’s alignment with the global group of so-called illiberal democracies, notably Hungary, which often worked with PiS to fight the EU. So when Warsaw pulled away from Hungary because of its pro-Russian approach to the Ukraine invasion, “that decision really reassured a lot of people that Poland was going to stay on the right track,” the official said.
“Where people were confused about the future trajectory of Poland, including on foreign policy, at least the foreign policy side of that question was answered,” the official continued.
The official believes the question of the country’s domestic path — democratic or not — will be answered this year.
To the extent that Washington decides to exert pressure, it’s clear that it can work. PiS did eventually back down on the proposed media law and after years of defying Brussels over judicial meddling, it has inched closer to a compromise since European officials cut off more than $35 billion in funding.
The decision likely depends on how quickly U.S. officials realize just how much the moment and Poland itself matter.
Poles across the country’s political spectrum feel it should already be obvious that the center of gravity in the Western alliance has shifted.
Krasnodębski of PiS noted Poland’s role in the Ukraine war and how Warsaw closely cooperated with Washington at other major moments in recent decades, like when Poland was the only country other than the U.S. and Britain to deploy a full division to Iraq. The country’s geopolitical heft is likely to only grow given its plans to develop one of Europe’s strongest militaries.
“If you look at how different European states behaved in this situation, how Poland supported Ukraine versus how Germany and France did … it is clear that this is a division line which is permanent,” Krasnodębski said. “Americans should understand this.”
A Transatlantic Media Fellowship from the Heinrich Boell Foundation supported reporting for this story.