Populism at the barrel of a gun?
So far, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Polish Law and Justice (PiS) party Chairman Jarosław Kaczynski’s “illiberal” counterrevolution has meant cracking down on the independent judiciary, public media, and — in the case of Orban’s government — even private universities, such as Budapest’s Central European University. But now it is apparent that even the military may be brought under the control of a single political party. In Poland, the PiS is carrying out a revolutionary reorganization of the army, the likes of which have not been seen since the imposition of communist rule.
A recent Ministry of Defense communique reveals the sheer scale of the changes the PiS is demanding, as well as their political underpinnings. “Minister of Defense Antoni Macierewicz has implemented wide-scale staffing changes at the highest levels in operational units, replacing officers selected by Civic Platform,” the communique reads. “In the General Staff, these changes encompass 90 percent of command positions, and 82 percent in the General Command.”
Kaczynski’s claim that the now-dismissed officers were connected to Civic Platform (the former ruling party) is completely groundless. After his own shocking dismissal, Mirosław Rozanski, general commander of the Polish Armed Forces, pointed out the absurdity: “I received my first star from President Aleksander Kwasniewski, the second from Lech Kaczynski, and the third from Bronislaw Komorowski.” Only Komorowski was with Civic Platform.
Meanwhile, Macierewicz has also barred military officers from corresponding directly with Polish President Andrzej Duda, even though the president is the supreme commander of the armed forces under the Polish constitution, and Duda has faithfully carried out all of Kaczynski’s commands.
Even before these recent changes, civil-military relations had become increasingly strained since the PiS government took office in 2015. Prior to assuming power, the party had indicated that Jaroslaw Gowin, a moderate former justice minister from the PiS-allied Poland Together Party, would be appointed defense minister. But when the new government announced its Cabinet, Macierewicz, one of Poland’s most extreme politicians, was named instead.
While in office, Macierewicz has fostered the “Smolensk cult,” which promotes the paranoid fantasy that European Council President Donald Tusk and Russian President Vladimir Putin are responsible for the 2010 plane crash that killed Kaczynski’s brother, then-Polish President Lech Kaczynski, and 95 others. At this year’s Munich Security Conference, Macierewicz mentioned the crash, along with Russia’s incursions into Ukraine and Georgia, as “examples of Russian aggression” that make NATO necessary. He then appealed to NATO to help investigate the crash, even though it has long since been ruled an accident. Not surprisingly, NATO did not take Macierewicz’s request seriously.
In Poland, the PiS is carrying out a revolutionary reorganization of the army, the likes of which have not been seen since the imposition of communist rule.
Shortly after assuming office, Macierewicz earned the nickname “Minister of National Disarmament,” when he canceled a carefully negotiated contract for the purchase of 50 Caracal helicopters from the manufacturer Airbus Helicopters. As a result, French President François Hollande called off a planned trip to Poland. Macierewicz then responded by declaring that Poland would purchase new helicopters from the US, only to suggest soon after that Poland would produce its own helicopters jointly with Ukraine, or perhaps restart negotiations with Airbus. He caused further diplomatic embarrassment, when he falsely accused France of selling two Mistral-class assault ships to Egypt, in order to deliver them to Russia, in contravention of international sanctions.
Macierewicz has also systematically humiliated Poland’s military personnel. His spokesman and chief of staff, Bartłomiej Misiewicz, is a 26-year-old former pharmacy assistant who does not have a college degree. In December 2015, Macierewicz had Misiewicz direct a late-night raid by Polish military police on a NATO counterintelligence center in Warsaw — an episode that culminated in an investigation by the Polish Prosecutor General’s office (which is, however, subordinate to the government).
But the most shocking episode came when Misiewicz visited military units and demanded that servicemen and officers salute him and address him as “Minister,” an honor not usually accorded to people in his position. When Gen. Waldemar Skrzypczak — the former commander of Poland’s Land Forces and of Multinational Division Central-South in Iraq — refused to comply, he was immediately fired from the Military Institute of Armament Technology.
There is only one plausible reason why an extremist like Macierewicz would be entrusted with such an important position, and why a loyal president would be cut off from the army: Kaczynski needs someone who will not hesitate to use the army to suppress public protests if needed. As Radek Sikorski, a defense minister under the previous Civic Platform government, recently pointed out: “This kind of behavior is characteristic of people who believe that the army can be used to maintain power.”
Likewise, Adam Michnik, the editor-in-chief of the national daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, has accused the current PiS government of carrying out a “creeping coup” according to its own variant of “Putinism.” Indeed, to understand why a political party would seek direct control over the military, one need look no further than Russia and Turkey.
Still, by elevating Macierewicz to this level, Kaczynski has created new problems for himself. As the high priest of the Smolensk cult, Macierewicz enjoys strong support from Radio Maryja, a Church-owned broadcaster influential among Catholic extremists. Owing to this base of support, Macierewicz is now the only Cabinet official who can get away with not listening to Kaczynski.
This was evident when Macierewicz, springing his latest surprise, moved to limit Poland’s role in Eurocorps — an integrated military unit built around a core Franco-German brigade. Kaczynski has long called for a common European defense strategy, so Macierewicz’s decision suggests that something strange is afoot within the PiS. Given Poland’s national-security concerns, why would Macierewicz need to risk his country’s relations with its allies by recalling the 120 Polish Eurocorps officers currently based in Strasburg?
One likely explanation is that Macierewicz’s decimation of the officer corps has left Poland with an officer shortage. What remains to be seen is whether the PiS leadership is trying to stack the army with loyalists or is maneuvering to seize control back from Macierewicz.
• Sławomir Sierakowski, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement, is director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.