MOSCOW – One of the saddest ironies of this year’s commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union is that Hungary and Poland, always the most restless of the Soviet empire’s captured nations, are now led by men mimicking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s governing style. They, too, are hollowing out independent democratic institutions and suppressing citizens’ fundamental freedoms. As the old saying goes, we become what we hate.
After the fall of communism, Poland and Hungary declared that they were Eastern European countries no more. Instead, they were part of Central Europe – Europa Srodkowa, the Poles called it – or even of Western Europe, on par with Austria. Today, however, they are embracing Putin-style authoritarianism, to the point that the European Union may impose sanctions against them. Such reprimands are fully deserved.
Poland, now ostensibly led by President Andrzej Duda, is really controlled by former Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński, Chairman of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. Kaczyński is the twin brother of the late President Lech Kaczyński, who died in a plane crash near Smolensk, Russia, in 2010, on his way to commemorate the victims of the Katyn massacre by the Soviets in 1940. Though the crash was deemed accidental, PiS calls it the result of a Kremlin conspiracy – a paranoid charge that is all the more bizarre given Kaczyński’s apparent determination to emulate Putin’s behavior.
Both Kaczyński and Putin are certainly contemptuous of the rule of law. In Russia, the manipulation of trials of the regime’s perceived enemies is among the Kremlin’s favorite tactics. These supposed enemies have included former Yukos Oil Company Chairman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who doubted Putin’s fitness to be president; the anti-corruption lawyer Alexei Navalny, who was investigating Putin’s wealth; and the punk rock group Pussy Riot, who mocked the Russian Orthodox Church, a core constituency for Putin. Just last week, in a notorious show trial, the Ukrainian helicopter pilot Nadiya Savchenko was handed a 22-year prison sentence on falsified evidence that she was involved in the killing of two Russian journalists during the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.