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Many in Poland fear their country is moving toward autocracy

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

To Poland now, where last Sunday, an estimated half a million people filled the streets of the capital, Warsaw. It was one of the largest protests of its kind in recent memory.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

DAVIS: It was the anniversary of Poland's first elections 34 years ago, and people took to the streets to protest their current government's attempt to curb that democracy. Poland's right-wing ruling party had just passed a law that will ban anyone from public office if suspected of being subject to Russian influence. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports from Warsaw.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Poland's ruling party says the country's new law is necessary now that Russia has invaded Ukraine.

JAROSLAW KRAJEWSKI: (Through interpreter) In order to guarantee the security of our country, this law is crucial to understand how Russia has penetrated our political process.

SCHMITZ: Jaroslaw Krajewski is a member of Parliament. He represents the ruling Law and Justice Party, which came up with this law. Within days of its passing, both the United States and the European Union expressed serious concerns about it, and so do many Poles. They see this law as a tool to remove popular opposition candidates like former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who addressed the crowds alongside Poland's first democratically elected president after communist rule, Lech Walesa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TUSK: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: Tusk said Poles then and now did not and will not let themselves be intimidated. Poland's popular television news channel TVP, now effectively run by the state, called the event a march of hate, and ruling party politician Krajewski insists the new law has nothing to do with removing Tusk and his civic platform party from the upcoming national election in October. But when he's asked who should be investigated for Russian influence, this is the first person he mentions.

KRAJEWSKI: (Through interpreter) It's interesting that under Donald Tusk as prime minister, there was a plan to have the Polish Secret Service train together with Russian special forces. And his own minister of foreign affairs wanted Russia to join NATO, which sounds insane today.

SCHMITZ: Krajewski says the Russian influence law will establish a commission of nine members, five from the ruling party, who will gather information on Russian influence, find out who was subject to it, and then hold public hearings. If they're guilty, the accused would be banned from holding an office that manages public funds.

KRAJEWSKI: From the very beginning till the very end, it is unconstitutional.

SCHMITZ: Retired Judge Miroslaw Wyrzykowski knows something about Poland's constitution. He helped write it.

MIROSLAW WYRZYKOWSKI: And I proposed that Article 1 - Poland is a democratic state ruled by law. How was the reaction of the people around me? New concept. Interesting, sexy, full of potential. They accepted.

SCHMITZ: Wyrzykowski says public hearings to root out Russian influence remind him of a certain period of American history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEPH MCCARTHY: The thing that the American people can do is to be vigilant day and night to make sure they don't have communists teaching the sons and daughters of America.

SCHMITZ: Former U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy's hearings in the 1950s to root out communists in American society comes to mind. He says the very idea of a commission where the accused is publicly interrogated by a state-controlled body on vaguely defined grounds also reminds him of something, ironically, that Russia would do. As one of the authors of Poland's constitution, Wyrzykowski says he's deeply sad by the slow death of it under the ruling Law and Justice Party.

WYRZYKOWSKI: I'm feeling like one of the hundreds of mothers and fathers of this constitutional system in Poland, and I'm feeling that my child is dying.

SCHMITZ: On the streets of Poland's capital, everyone we stopped to interview is also angry about the Russian influence law, including Marcel Majchrowski.

MARCEL MAJCHROWSKI: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: He says if the ruling party wants to look for Russian influence in Poland, they'll have to accuse everyone over the age of 40 because the country was entirely under Russian influence when it was behind the Iron Curtain up until 1989. He says the law makes no sense, and he says far more Poles will likely protest if the hearings go forward. Poland's government says the first report from the Russian influence commission will be published September 17, one month before the country's national election. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Warsaw. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.

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