sierakowski68_CHRISTIAN HARTMANNPOOLAFP via Getty Images_orban johnson Christian Hartmann/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Mini-Trumps in the Wilderness

After four years of hiding behind Donald Trump while they dismantled their countries' democratic institutions, populist leaders in Poland and Hungary have suddenly found themselves exposed and out in the cold. Poland's ruling Law and Justice party, in particular, should be preparing for an overdue reckoning.

WARSAW – Joe Biden’s election as president of the United States has seriously weakened authoritarian and populist governments around the world. For independent global powers like Russia, Brazil, and Turkey, Donald Trump’s departure need not amount to a complete tragedy. But for the current governments of Poland, Hungary, and Serbia – and perhaps Boris Johnson’s United Kingdom, too – it is a veritable disaster.

Not surprisingly, each of these smaller players has greeted Biden’s election with fear and loathing. Putting it most bluntly, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has already complained that, “I did not get along with Biden when he came to Serbia [as Barack Obama’s vice president]. I can’t get along with him now. I congratulated him and that’s it.” Clearly, Russia, not America, will remain Vučić’s Pole Star.

For his part, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has long made it clear that his “Plan A” was for a Trump victory, reflecting how close the two have become. Like Vučić, the Hungarian government harbors resentments for things Biden said back in the Obama era, when, according to Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, Hungary was the subject of “continuous lecturing, accusations, and attacks.”

To be sure, before Trump came to power, Orbán was practically persona non grata in Washington, DC. The last US president to visit Hungary was George W. Bush in 2006, when Orbán was out of power. After Orbán took office in 2010, the Obama administration repeatedly criticized him for its authoritarian tendencies, clampdown on public and private media, and kleptocracy. In return, Hungary introduced sanctions against several high-level US officials, and – following Trump’s arrival in the White House – kicked the US-accredited Central European University out of the country.

But Orbán has long tried to juggle several geopolitical balls. While maintaining close relations with Russia and even China, he has enjoyed the protection of German – particularly Bavarian – politicians who do not hide their sympathy for him. Orbán thus has gotten away with repeated attacks on basic European principles such as the rule of law, and has even indulged in open anti-Semitism. Yet to this day, his party, Fidesz, remains in the European People’s Party, the umbrella group for conservatives in the European Parliament.

It is Poland’s government that has the most to worry about. When the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power in 2015, it initially chose the UK as its main ally within the EU. But since the 2016 US election (which followed on the heels of the UK’s Brexit referendum), PiS has bet everything on its cozy relationship with Trump, an American leader who could not care less about democratic principles or the rule of law.

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Now that Trump is on his way out, and Johnson (inelegantly dubbed “Britain Trump” by the US president) is rushing to get in Biden’s good graces, the Polish government is left with no powerful friends on the international stage. Because Poland is staunchly opposed to Russia, too, it now stands completely alone. This development represents another breach in Poland’s post-communist diplomatic strategy, two principles of which are to avoid dependence on any one country, and to avoid isolation at all costs.

Of course, PiS cannot say that it didn’t know the risks of losing its last ally. Just last month, Biden made his low opinion of the PiS government clear when he included Poland alongside Hungary and Belarus as an example of the “rise of totalitarian regimes in the world.” Whereas Polish President Andrzej Duda was effusive in congratulating Trump on his 2016 victory, this time he congratulated Biden merely “for a successful presidential campaign.”

For Trump, Poland was proof that foreign policy could be transactional. The PiS government signed multiple arms contracts with the US in exchange for symbolic gestures, such as Trump’s invitation to Duda to visit the White House during his own presidential campaign in June. On November 9, Duda signed a Poland-US defense cooperation agreement that is brimming with Trumpian overtones. A similar agreement concluded by a previous Polish government had held the US responsible for construction costs and granted Poland legal jurisdiction over US personnel and bases on its soil. Under the new accord, Poland will receive US financing, and the US will maintain jurisdiction.

Excellent relations with Trump were supposed to enable Poland to dismiss the European Union’s criticism and maintain cool ties with Germany as the PiS government subdued Poland’s judiciary. Now Trump’s electoral loss is compounded by a second piece of catastrophic news.

Earlier this year, the European Council and the European Parliament agreed to make EU funding conditional on compliance with the rule of law, which PiS has been undermining ever since it came to power. The European Council is now set to adopt this “conditionality” clause with a qualified-majority vote, meaning that Poland has no veto. Yes, Poland could try to block another element of the EU’s budgetary process – the so-called own-resource decision (determining how much a given country pays to the EU) – but only if it is willing to lose the last remaining support it has in Germany. At this point, not even Orbán is likely to go out on a limb for Poland.

Moreover, the EU has its own nuclear option, that is, accepting the new €750 billion ($884 billion) Recovery Fund as a 25+2 intergovernmental agreement, which would suit many net payers, as Poland is one of the biggest beneficiaries. Here, too, Orbán has no incentive to stick his neck out for PiS. Just like when he supported the bid of former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a PiS bogeyman, for a second term as European Council president, Orbán will not hesitate to leave the Polish government out in the cold.

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