Updated Mar 25, 2022 - World

Biden's unlikely embrace of Poland

Poles at pro-Ukraine rally in Krakow
Protesters march against Russia's invasion of Ukraine on March 24 in Krakow, Poland. Photo: Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

President Biden's visit to Poland on Friday will punctuate the country's unlikely turn from illiberal agitator to symbol of European solidarity, putting on hold U.S. and EU concerns about Warsaw's democratic backsliding to celebrate its embrace of over 2 million Ukrainian refugees.

The big picture: In October 2020, Biden described Poland in the same breath as Hungary and Belarus while warning about the "rise of totalitarian regimes." Today, Poland is leading the West in calling for maximalist support for Ukraine as its democracy threatens to be crushed by Vladimir Putin.

Background: Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has been clashing with the EU ever since coming to power in 2015, when it began pursuing a right-wing agenda that Brussels claims has violated its rule-of-law standards.

  • Amid the long-running dispute with Brussels, Poland's leaders found a friend in Donald Trump, who met with President Andrzej Duda at least five times during his presidency.
  • Trump was more popular in Poland in 2020 than in any other European country, including Hungary, according to Pew research.

Flash forward: The EU has for months been withholding billions of dollars in pandemic recovery funds over Poland's crackdown on judicial independence, prompting the leader of PiS to accuse Germany in December of seeking to turn the EU into a "German fourth reich."

  • The EU's judicial dispute with Poland hasn't ended, but European leaders are searching for a resolution that would unlock the funds and help Warsaw manage the flood of Ukrainian refugees entering the country.
  • Stephen Mull, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland, tells Axios concerns about democratic backsliding haven't gone away, but that right now "there's a house on fire right next door" to a key security and intelligence ally that plays a stabilizing role in Europe.

Between the lines: Even before the Ukraine crisis eclipsed domestic issues, Duda had taken a number of steps to push Polish politics back to the center and halt the country's drift toward isolation, says Daniel Fried, another former ambassador to Poland.

  • In December, for example, Duda vetoed a controversial media law condemned by the U.S. for appearing to target an American-owned news station often critical of the government.
  • He has also proposed a compromise to end the EU courts dispute, and earlier this month vetoed a law that would have restricted teaching on LGBT and reproductive rights in schools, saying "we don't need more conflicts."
  • "At a time of national emergency duty, Duda is the one who's representing Poland's interests on an issue which has seized Polish society," Fried told Axios. "He's made it a lot easier for the Biden administration to embrace Poland as an ally, as we need to."

The other side: Opposition leaders and critics inside the EU argue that Duda's moderation is a smokescreen and that the West should continue to hold Poland accountable for its democratic backsliding ahead of next year's elections.

  • PiS "conducts international policy for the purpose of national policy," Wojciech Olejniczak, a former Polish presidential candidate, tells Axios.
  • That means they’ll embrace a popular cause like solidarity with Ukraine while continuing to conduct populist policy within the country, Olejniczak argues.

The big picture: Polish society — not just Polish politics — has fully mobilized behind Ukraine.

  • Ukrainians are permitted to travel on the state-run railway system for free and have been granted access to health care, education and other benefits.
  • Few refugee camps exist because so many Polish families have welcomed Ukrainians into their homes, including traditionally anti-immigrant government officials.

What they're saying: "It's this Polish national consensus, and you basically have the whole society organizing itself to help people," said Fried, who spoke to Axios while returning from a visit to Warsaw.

  • "And when you ask them why, they'll look at you and say, 'Because that was us," Fried said, referring to Poland's history under Nazi and Soviet occupation.
  • "Poles think, 'They're suffering just as we suffered, but we can do something about it. Because we're in NATO, we're safe, and by God, it's our obligation.' It's really quite stirring," said Fried.
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