The Kremlin’s Polish frenemies

When I got back to Moscow after the winter vacation earlier this January, one of the first things I had heard (on the boring but, at least, non-government-owned FM station that pretends to focus on “business” but mostly babbles amateurishly about financial markets) was news from Poland.

The Kremlin seems to influence the choice of subjects covered by private news outlets. Reports of any discord within the EU are music to certain ears in Moscow. The tiniest disagreements there get magnified to grotesque proportions in the Russian media.

After reading up on the Polish developments, I realized they were under- rather than over-reported.  I’m not even talking about their media law passed this month. I’m talking about the Polish parliament’s assault on the constitutional court, which Martin Schulz, the president of the European parliament, has likened to a coup d’état.

What happened in December 2015 looked very much like a coup, with the parliament – with assistance from the president – usurping absolute power by emasculating the constitutional court (and all the judiciary). In particular, no parliament should be able to staff the highest court of the land with loyal members at will, bypassing the required hearings, or to interfere with the decision-making procedure at the top court.

Schulz has warned against the “Putinization” EU politics, but openly breaking the constitution is not Putin’s style. Compared with his devious Moscow cousins, the little man pulling the strings in Warsaw is a straight walker. The big man in Minsk seems more like his role model:

Professors Łętowska and Zoll compared the President’s acts to that of President Lukashenko of Belarus, who in a similar way, invalidated the appointment of a constitutional judge in 1993.

Not that Poland is going to be “punished”: Hungary has been denounced for similar shenanigans but otherwise let be. Maciej Kisilowski explains why the Kaczynski government had to resort to such ugliness:

Abortion or gay marriage are often the first issues that come to mind when we talk about constitutional courts. But the Polish court is already highly conservative in that respect. A much more plausible explanation is that the government needs the court’s acquiescence to pass the sweeping and costly economic reforms that Law and Justice promised during its political campaign.

The Law and Justice party (PiS) are socially conservative statists:

Just the flagship pledge to offer each family approximately €100 a month for its second and third child could increase the budget deficit above the 3 percent level accepted by the EU. And there is more: Law and Justice has promised a higher threshold for the zero income tax rate, a lower retirement age (as early as 60 for women), subsidies for coal mines, and a vast increase in defense spending.

The constitution sets the government debt ceiling at 60% of the GDP. Is the PiS desperately trying to bypass this restriction? Not necessarily: Kisilowski rejects this straightforward explanation:

…the new spending will have to be covered by unorthodox taxes, perhaps announced on short notice or even retroactively.

The retroactive Hungarian-style golden parachute tax has already been passed.

It’s a tax on severance payments to managers of state-controlled companies. Not necessarily a bad idea by itself – unless retroactive.

As George Soros reminds us, Putin wants the EU to collapse. I don’t think Kaczynski wants the same: Poland has benefitted enormously from being a member. But his conviction that a country can reap the perks of membership without playing by the rules of the club places him, in an odd way, on Putin’s side.

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