The recent development of conservative civil society in Poland is integrally linked to the actions that the Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) party has taken since it won power in 2015. The PiS government has created a new political context designed to favor certain civil society organizations (CSOs). The main institutional framework for this change is the creation of a National Institute of Freedom – the Center for the Development of Civil Society (NIW), affiliated with the office of the prime minister. This organization has replaced the Fund for Civic Initiatives, which was managed by the Ministry of Social Policy and previously served as the main body distributing public money to Polish CSOs. The change is not purely organizational; it is a symbolic gesture stressing the importance of civil society to the new government. It also signals that the PiS government wants to wield the power of civil society to advance its policy goals and conservative values—all under the guise of broadening access to public funding and government support for CSOs.
Minister of Culture and National Heritage Piotr Gliński, a professor of sociology whose academic career focused on the study of Polish civil society, was the main proponent of creating the NIW. He explained the government’s intentions at a November 2016 press conference: “Our goal is to provide all Polish civil society organizations with an equal access to public funds.”1 The conference was meant to dismantle a potential conflict with CSOs. Not long before this press statement, a government-controlled public television channel had aired a clip aimed at discrediting some CSOs run by family members of PiS political opponents, including Zofia Komorowska, daughter of former Polish president Bronisław Komorowski, and Róża Rzeplińska, daughter of the former chairman of the Constitutional Court. The television clip claimed that these individuals and organizations had benefited from disproportionate amounts of public funding. Gliński’s announcement was intended to assuage potential criticism by arguing that the government was merely trying to solve CSOs’ systemic problems.
However, his efforts were undermined by then prime minister Beata Szydło, who stated that “we are constantly criticized for not building civil society, but the government supports its development with millions of złoty. Unfortunately it often occurs that the beneficiaries are controlled by the politicians of the previous governing clique.”2
For Szydło, “providing equal access” translated into cutting public funds for organizations affiliated in any way with PiS’s political rivals—a move that at least partially undermined the political credibility of his argument.
Nevertheless, conservative CSOs have used this statement to justify their support for the government’s policies toward Polish civil society, as well as their attempts to limit both funding and potential avenues of public influence for their ideological opponents. The argument about the necessity of “providing equal access” has become a potent tool used to criticize organizations that do not share the government’s policy goals, as well as those whose agenda does not comply with conservative values. It has allowed conservative CSOs to attack their rivals on issues such as patriotism, gender, family, and reproductive rights while maintaining the formal appearance of democratic pluralism. In other words, emboldened by the government, these organizations have attempted to push their values forward not by questioning democracy, but rather by insisting that their actions represent a necessary correction of democratic process.
The dominant narrative among Polish conservative CSOs is the one of victimhood. As some conservative intellectuals have argued, anticommunist activists and dissidents were responsible in part for importing the idea of civil society to Poland, regarding it as a means of recreating civic bonds after years of a “sociological vacuum” under communist rule.3 As the Polish communist party had subsumed or controlled almost all institutions of public life for nearly half a century, the dissidents could not refer to any local concept for civil society and had to look elsewhere. Western experts and policy advisers came up with the handy notion of civil society, adjusted for the nascent Central European democracies. For conservatives this entailed a cost, as it meant that a broad spectrum of traditional self-organization in Poland (for example, women’s groups in rural areas) was deemed not modern or professional enough and, in effect, was left out of civic support programs.4 Considered from this perspective, “providing equal access” to public funds for all CSOs would be a means of correcting an historical injustice and bringing to power political forces that postcommunist activists and liberals allegedly marginalized after 1989.
New conservative CSOs and ones reinvigorated by PiS’s ascent to power have combined this historical narrative of exclusion with the more modern trope that liberal and left-wing civic organizations were generously funded both by private and public money in order to promote a vision of society contrary to most Poles’ wishes and traditions. The symbolic figure connecting these earlier injustices with modern democratic maladies, such as immigration and multiculturalism, is the billionaire investor George Soros. As conservative Catholic columnist Grzegorz Górny remarked of Soros in an essay for the weekly wSieci, one of the magazines that strongly supports the government, “This declared atheist and enemy of strong national identities supports—both in America and in Europe—different organizations promoting abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, and sterilization. Thanks to his money and influence, he attempts to push the world in a worrying direction.”5
Soros is an enemy figure not specific to Poland. Many right-wing and conservative movements and politicians point to him as the archetypical promoter of all things that, in their opinion, corrupt modern democracies. Yet Polish conservatives have adapted the anti-Soros theme to their native political discourse. Instead of arguing that certain conservative values, such as opposing abortion or same-sex marriages, are supported by a majority of Poles, they claim that Polish public life discriminates against, excludes, or even persecutes conservative values. One example of this mindset appears in a report published by the conservative parents’ organization Fundacja Mamy i Taty (Mother and Father Foundation) titled Against Freedom and Democracy: The Political Strategy of the LGBT Lobby in Poland and Around the World. The report categorizes various antidiscrimination campaigns undertaken by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists as the “tyranny of a minority.” Moreover, its authors describe an alleged “global strategy” of pushing an LGBT agenda in three steps: immunizing public opinion by presenting gay people in casual, everyday contexts and styling them as “victims of society”; demanding legal protections and antidiscrimination laws; and, finally, stigmatizing opponents as aggressive homophobes.6
Ironically, these three steps—self-victimization, demanding protective antidiscrimination laws, and stigmatizing opponents as intolerant—are the essence of the new strategy that conservative CSOs use to push their own agenda. Here, the narrative of historical injustice—dating back to the beginnings of Poland’s transition to democracy—meets modern conservative fears of dismantling traditional gender roles and dissolving national cultures.
Three Types of Conservative CSOs in Poland
The change of government after the 2015 elections heralded a new political climate that promoted and rewarded CSOs allied to the official political line. The government sent CSOs clear signals to that effect. For example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs selected only conservative organizations to organize “regional centers for international debates,” a network of cultural and diplomatic institutions across the country tasked with raising awareness and educating the general public about foreign affairs and diplomacy.7 An equally strong sign was the Interior Ministry’s decision to cut funding allocated from the Fund for Asylum, Migration and Integration to organizations working with refugees and asylum seekers.8 As the Polish government remained reluctant to accept European Union quotas on refugee allocation, such organizations became undesirable partners.
These new financial and political incentives, along with Gliński’s announcements that public funds would be more equally distributed among CSOs, prompted conservative organizations to form an official umbrella organization, the Polish Republic Confederation of Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) (Konfederacja Inicjatyw Pozarządowych Rzeczypospolitej, or KIPR). The KIPR was created as an alternative to the existing Polish Forum of NGOs (Ogólnopolskie Forum Organizacji Pozarządowych), which contained a wider range of organizations with varying degrees of political engagement and different ideological leanings. A closer look at the organizations that compose KIPR reveals some important differences in their agenda and strategies. They can be grouped into three general categories: policy influencers, memory shapers, and social conservers.
Policy influencers are first and foremost interested in legislation. They concentrate on strategic litigation and overseeing the legislative process, occasionally coming up with their own drafts of laws. Their goal is to sway the legal system in a conservative direction, such as penalizing abortion, limiting antidiscrimination organizations access to schools (particularly in the case of organizations focusing on LGBT issues), or securing the right of Catholics to publicly express or act on their views. The most illustrative example is the legal think tank Ordo Iuris. This organization became known to the broader Polish public in 2016 when it led the efforts of a civic committee called Stop Abortion. It tried to push for the adoption of a draconian law that would prosecute and even imprison women who terminated a pregnancy, even one that resulted from rape.9 When the project reached parliament, it triggered massive nationwide protests and, in response to this public pressure, the ruling party rejected it.
Memory shapers are less interested in legal changes. Rather, they focus their efforts on preserving cultural heritage and cultivating a patriotic—in some cases, nationalist—version of Polish history and tradition. Examples of memory shapers associated with KIPR include the Three Dots Association (Stowarzyszenie Trzy Kropki), Normal Culture (Normalna Kultura), and Service to the Independent Poland (Służba Niepodległej). Some of these CSOs, like Three Dots, seem to have been created in direct response to the new political context, with the primary aim of securing public funds allocated for promotion of values important to the government. Three Dots was registered as an association in February 2017 but, by May, it had already won a large grant from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs within the framework of the public diplomacy program.10 Other organizations, like Odra-Niemen, existed for some years before PiS came to power, but their agenda—in this case, helping Polish diasporas in Belarus and Ukraine and cultivating memory about combatants of the Polish Homeland Army in World War II—was a good match for the government’s historical politics.
Social conservers combine elements of the two aforementioned types. They occasionally have become involved in the legislative process by organizing referenda aimed at countering unwelcomed proposals, but their main goal is raising public awareness and education. This group of CSOs focuses predominantly on families and their relations with the state, which is often perceived as oppressive and patronizing. One of KIPR’s founders, the group Stop Manipulation, defines as its main goal as “direct help to victims of judicial failures, particularly falsely accused of domestic violence or sexual crimes.”11 Stop Manipulation focuses primarily on alleged mistakes and misuses of psychology in family courts; other social conservers not affiliated with KIPR (but supported financially by the government) look at family-state relations from a much broader angle. A prominent example of this type of organization is the Parents’ Ombudsman (Rzecznik Praw Rodziców), created by social activists Tomasz and Karolina Elbanowscy. They were particularly vocal critics of the previous government’s plan to extend compulsory school education to six-year-olds. The PiS government reversed this decision, as well as the system of two-tier primary education, and the Parents’ Ombudsman foundation became an official social and consulting partner of the Ministry of Education. Currently, it has issued official statements on a range of issues, from the shape and weight of schoolbags to the benefits of the PiS government’s flagship social program to combat Poland’s declining birthrate, 500+.12 It also runs a support line for parents who are in danger of having their children taken away.13 Social conservers may vary in scope of interest and extent of financial support from the government, but they are linked by a common denominator: deep mistrust in state institutions’ authority to oversee and regulate family relations.
Using Democracy Against Itself
Within the universe of conservative Polish CSOs, an overarching dividing line distinguishes the newcomers from the veterans. The latter seem to be using familiar, tried-and-true methods and techniques, as in the case of the Odra-Niemen association promoting a specific vision of Polish history and organizing fundraisers and educational activities to provide assistance to Poles who were not repatriated from Belarus or Ukraine after World War II. Their values and goals merely happen to be in accordance with the historical narrative of the current government so they, and similar CSOs, benefit from the current political situation.
The newcomers, by contrast, use very different language and have a much more ambitious agenda. A good illustration of this ambition was Ordo Iuris’s decision to represent Catholic philosopher and columnist Tomasz Terlikowski in his legal challenge against the Warsaw Medical University. When Terlikowski, a vocal opponent of abortion, was dismissed from his duties as an instructor of philosophy and bioethics by the university, he decided to take the university to court. Ordo Iuris argued on his behalf that his dismissal was a case of religious discrimination. According to the organization’s chairman, Jerzy Kwaśniewski, “We would like to show that European Union regulations limiting the free market can become a weapon in fighting against discrimination of people adhering to Christian values. Maybe it will force Polish and European politicians to rethink their attempts at further limiting freedom of speech and free market in the name of ideologically motivated antidiscrimination.”14
One can question what the free market has to do with antiabortion views, but Kwaśniewski’s statement reveals something important about the new type of populist conservative CSOs operating in Poland: they not only benefit from a favorable political context but aim to change the political playing field altogether. Their goal is to use democratic institutions, procedures, and values—such as referenda, civic legislative proposals, and laws protecting freedom of speech and conscience—against democracy itself. In doing so, they advocate something closer to a tyranny of the majority than a more pluralistic system of coexisting views and lifestyles. Their language is full of pseudodemocratic promises to restore power to the people, but their concrete solutions effectively limit or eliminate pluralism.
1 “Gliński ‘gotów przeprosić’ za słowa o NGO. Między innymi Komorowską i Rzeplińską” [Gliński “ready to apologize” for comments about NGOs. Among others, Komorowska and Rzeplińska], TVN24.pl, November 25, 2016, https://www.tvn24.pl/wiadomosci-z-kraju,3/wicepremier-glinski-przeprasza-za-slowa-o-ngo-sach,694909.html.
3 The term “sociological vacuum” was coined by Polish scholar Stefan Nowak in 1979 to describe the propensity of Poles to identify with family and nation, rather than any intermediary social institutions such as associations, parties, or clubs.
4 For a refined and well-documented version of this argument, see Dariusz Gawin, Wielki zwrot. Ewolucja lewicy i odrodzenie idei społeczeństwa obywatelskiego 1956–1976 [A great turn: The evolution of the Left and the revival of the idea of civil society, 1956–1976] (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Znak, 2013).
5 “Miliardy Sorosa przeciw Kaczyńskiemu” [Billions of Soros against Kaczynski], Sieci Prawdy, June 18, 2016, https://www.wsieciprawdy.pl/miliardy-sorosa-przeciw-kaczynskiemu-w-nowym-wydaniu-tygodnika-wsieci-pnews-2845.html.
6 “Przeciw wolności i demokracji” [Against freedom and democracy], Fundacja Mamy i Taty, November 5, 2010, http://www.mamaitata.org.pl/raporty/przeciw-wolnosci-i-demokracji.
7 A glimpse at the recent activity by one such center in Warsaw, operated by the association Wspólnota Polska (Polish Community/Community Poland), confirms that it tries to prove itself useful to the government. In March, when the international crisis around the draft of the so-called Polish “memory law” peaked, the center was preoccupied with touring the Masovian region with an exhibition about Poles saving Jews during World War II.
8 See a detailed report by the Polish Helsinki Committee: Witold Klaus, Ewa Ostaszewska-Żuk, and Marta Szczepanik, “Fundusze europejskie i ich rola we wspieraniu integracji cudzoziemców w polsce” [European funds and their role in supporting the integration of foreigners in Poland], Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, September 2017, http://www.hfhr.pl/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/raport_po-FAMI_net.pdf.
9 See the draft, article 2, points 2 and 5, at https://www.stopaborcji.pl/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/projekt_2016.pdf. The draft exempts women from criminal responsibility, but leaves it at the discretion of a judge.
10 The grant was supposed to cover expenses for organizing a tour of a Polish patriotic rock band Contra Mundum in the United Kingdom, but a scandal broke out when it turned out that the shows were either cancelled or very poorly attended. See “Śpiewają o Łupaszce, MSZ zapłaciło 150 tys. zł na promocję Polski. Efekt? ‘Trasa widmo’” [They sing about Łupaszka, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs paid 150,000 PLN for the promotion of Poland. Effect? “The ghost tour”], Gazeta.pl, March 11, 2017, http://wiadomosci.gazeta.pl/wiadomosci/7,114884,22601615,od-msz-dostali-ponad-150-tys-zlotych-na-promocje-polski-a.html.
11 “Prowadzone działania stowarzyszenia” [Activities conducted by the organization], Stop Manipulacji, n.d., http://www.stopmanipulacji.info.pl/art.php?p=4.
12 Under the 500+ program, Polish families receive 500 PLN (about $140) per month for every child they have beyond the first one.
13 See the Rzecznik Praw Rodziców (Parents’ Ombudsman) website at http://www.rzecznikrodzicow.pl/.
14 “Ordo Iuris w imieniu Tomasza Terlikowskiego pozywa WUM za dyskryminację” [Ordo Iuris, on behalf of Tomasz Terlikowski, sues the Medical University of Warsaw for discrimination], Ordo Iuris, March 28, 2018, http://www.ordoiuris.pl/dzialalnosc-instytutu/ordo-iuris-w-imieniu-tomasza-terlikowskiego-pozywa-wum-za-dyskryminacje.