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Democracy is at stake in Poland. Why are we silent?

Jillian Stirk is an associate at the Simon Fraser Centre for Dialogue. She has spent more than 30 years in foreign service with assignments to Poland, NATO and as ambassador to Norway.

As Poland turns back the clock on democracy and the rule of law we find barely a mention in the Canadian discourse. Home to generations of Polish immigrants, Canada has always had more than a passing interest in the fate of Poland. In the 1980s, when I served at the Canadian embassy in Warsaw, advocating for human rights was at the core of Canada's foreign policy in Eastern Europe, but especially in Poland where Solidarity, a trade union, stood up for freedom and democracy in the face of an authoritarian regime. Since the collapse of the Communist government in 1989, Canada has been a strong supporter and ally of Poland and of the Polish people. Canada was among those who advocated most strenuously for Poland's early entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a means of cementing its reforms and its place in Euro-Atlantic security. So where is Canada today as the Law and Justice Party (PiS) moves one step further away from the rule of law and the principles for which Poles fought so hard?

To recap: The Law and Justice Party, first elected to government in 2015, has moved steadily to curtail the power of democratic institutions. Attacks on the constitutional court, increased control of the media and politicization of the security services have all contributed to a sense that PiS is rolling back the separation of powers that characterize post-Communist Poland. Most recently, the Polish parliament passed a series of bills that undermine the independence of the judiciary. One such bill would force all supreme court justices to resign and empowers the PiS justice minister to determine those who should continue. Another gives politicians control over the national judicial council. These are just the latest in a series of measures that move Poland away from the democracy it so wholeheartedly embraced with the collapse of Communism and in its quest to join the European Union, NATO and to take up its rightful place in Europe.

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Although Polish President Andrzej Duda, in a surprise move, put the brakes on the legislation, vetoing two out of the three bills, it is unclear whether he is seeking minor cosmetic changes or a real rethink. Perhaps he has been swayed by the size of the protests and EU pressure, but that would mean standing up to the éminence grise of the party, some say the real power in Poland today, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Mr. Kaczynski holds no elected office and is best known for his wild conspiracy theories, his ultranationalist agenda and a virulent streak of xenophobia. No small irony in a country better known for its emigration than for receiving large numbers of immigrants. But Poles have a reputation for fighting ghosts and the creation of scapegoats plays well in rural communities less convinced of the benefits of EU membership.

Sadly, we have heard more about U.S. President Donald Trump's "clash of civilizations" speech in Warsaw and its enthusiastic reception by government supporters than about those who oppose this dogma and the protests which this latest legislation has generated. Last weekend former Polish president Lech Walesa, the architect of Poland's bid for freedom in the 1980s, joined the protests in Gdansk and the tens of thousands of Poles across the country who are calling on the government to rethink its approach.

We recall how Poland has so often stood up for freedom and how Poles were at the forefront of the battle for human rights, the rule of law and democratic freedoms which eventually spread across Central Europe. But Poland also has a legacy of flirting with authoritarian governments and a history of anti-Semitism, which helped pave the way for the horrors of the Holocaust, an uncomfortable truth the current government declines to acknowledge.

When I last visited Poland in 2012, I found a prosperous country confident in its future, showing regional leadership and showcasing the benefits of democracy. For those of us who advocated on behalf of human rights in the 1980s, it was everything we dreamed of and even more than we might have believed was possible at the time. I recall the thrill and the sense of vindication when I saw the Polish flag first raised at NATO headquarters in the 1990s. It was unimaginable that Poles would ever question their choice, even when the costs of opening up the economy and implementing democracy were not always easy to manage.

Today, Poles have a choice to make about what kind of society they want going forward. They know better than anyone where authoritarianism can lead. Of course, it goes without saying that this is their choice to make. But Canadians should not stand silent. Canada made significant investments in Poland's post-Communist reconstruction and more recently in its security, including stationing troops there as part of a NATO deployment. Canada should lend its voice to the millions of Poles who do not want to turn back the clock and return to authoritarian rule and the kind of intolerance that has no place in today's Europe. We have done so before and it is time to do so again.

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