Poland's Democracy Is Not Failing

Flags of Poland and the EU. Wikimedia Commons/Michal Osmenda

Polish democracy is learning to play the kind of bare-knuckled, hard-ball politics that have always prevailed in the Anglosphere.

Poland is active inside Ukraine as well. While the United States and its allies publicly debate the merits of providing the Ukrainian government with the military hardware it needs to defend itself, Polish civil society organizations have been quietly providing the Ukrainian people with the technical skills they need to build a better society.

For example, the Polish Family Business Association is teaching Ukrainian small businesses how to set up purchasing cooperatives so that they can scale up to reduce costs. Polish journalists are working to professionalize the practice of news reporting in Ukraine. Such everyday practices are the building blocks of civil society — and ultimately of democracy.

One of the most important ways that Poland spreads Western civil society norms in Ukraine, Belarus, and other post-Soviet states is through education. Some 24,000 Ukrainian students study at Polish universities, most of them for free through a provision for the domestic treatment of students from formerly Polish areas of Ukraine and Belarus. The Polish government has also set up special scholarships from Ukraine's war-torn eastern provinces.

Poland's Belsat TV also beams uncensored content into Belarus, providing perhaps the only source of real news in the Belarusian language. Belsat TV hosted the only open political debates between candidates in the September 11 Belarusian elections.

For Belarus and Ukraine, Poland is a model of what a vibrant democracy looks like, a democracy in which two sides can vehemently disagree with each other without descending into civil war or turning to the European Union to resolve disputes.

Europe versus the people

Poland's democracy may not be perfect. But it is better than most, and good enough for export. Poles who are dissatisfied with their government should be debating and campaigning and (yes) protesting. But the rest of us should stay out of the way.

Western Europe's political class — along with many in North America and Australia — have almost universally condemned contemporary Poland as a dictatorship in formation. That is ridiculous. Poland's PiS may not be the kind of government that western intellectuals want to be governed by, but that doesn't make it undemocratic.

Nationalist governments in Poland, Hungary and elsewhere may be out of step with dominant intellectual currents, but democracy does not entail an obligation to support internationalism. Internationalist intellectuals have the right to an opinion too, and to oppose governments of which they disapprove. But there is a difference between opposition and condemnation.

When the day comes that the European Union suspends a democratically elected government that has not invaded, jailed, or even silenced its critics, the European Union will have outlived its usefulness and its values. Poland's government and legal institutions may or may not be making the right decisions. But that is for Poles to decide.

Salvatore Babones is an Associate Professor of Sociology & Social Policy at the University of Sydney.

Image: Flags of Poland and the EU. Wikimedia Commons/Michal Osmenda