So far, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Polish Law and Justice (PiS) party chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s “illiberal” counterrevolution has meant cracking down on the independent judiciary, public media, and — in the case of Orbán’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 reorganisation of the army, the likes of which have not been seen since the imposition of communist rule.
A recent Ministry of Defence communiqué 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 communiqué reads.
“In the general staff, these changes encompass 90% of command positions, and 82% 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, Miroslaw Rózanski, 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 defence 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.
Macierewicz has systematically humiliated Poland’s military personnel. His spokesman and chief of staff, Bartlomiej 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 centre 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 honour not usually accorded to people in his position.
When General 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.
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”.
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 defence strategy, so Macierewicz’s decision suggests that something strange is afoot within the PiS.
One likely possibility 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 manoeuvring to seize control back from Macierewicz.
Slawomir Sierakowski, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement, is Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.