Auteur: Paulina Pacula
A new pro-Russia party has emerged on the Polish political scene and is hoping to scoop as much as 12 percent of votes in elections later this year.
Zmiana - meaning “change” - has a strong anti-American streak and supports Russian president Vladimir Putin i’s politics, seeing Russia as a natural ally for both Poland and the European Union.
Mateusz Piskorski, Zmiana’s leader, denies there is Russian aggression against Ukraine, supports pro-Russian separatists, says Crimea's secession referendum (deemed illegal by the EU and UN) was fair, and criticises the Polish government’s “confrontational” and “anti-Russian” politics.
"Russia’s support to Ukrainian separatists is a natural reaction to a situation in which country’s compatriots are threatened by Ukrainian nationalists," the political scientist told EUobserver.
In a country where the government strongly condemns Putin’s politics and pushes for a strong EU line against Russia, the emergence of such a party may come as a surprise - but it shouldn’t, say experts.
"Polish society is not monolithic when it comes to the support of the government’s foreign policy in Ukraine," Rafal Chwedoruk, a political analyst, told EUobserver.
"The attitude toward Russia also varies.”
For some, the appearance of the party is a clear sign of Putin’s propaganda making its ways onto the Polish political and media landscape.
The recent emergence of the Sputnik radio and news site, which itself admits it is spreading “Russia's point of view”, and websites like the Vilnus’ and Lviv’s People’s Republic, which call on Poles to take back “their” territories in Lithuania and Ukraine, plays to this theory.
"We have to be very vigilant about who is financing such parties and enterprises and for whose benefit they are working," foreign minister Gregorz Schetyna said last month.
Zmiana was even analysed by the National Security Council, but for now no evidence of direct ties with Russian entities were found.
"The claims that Zmiana party is run by some Kremlin agents is part of the political fight," says Chwedoruk. "In my opinion there are people in Poland who have positive views on Russia and Putin and Zmiana just responds to those political moods”.
Analysis of recent opinion polls suggests there is potential support for the party.
Due to historical events - like the Volhynian massacre - there is a strong anti-Ukrainian sentiment among Polish society. A March poll found more than one third of Poles believes that Poland should not support Ukraine in the current crisis.
More than half of Poles believe that Poland should help Ukraine but shouldn’t go beyond the collective EU respose.
The sceptical attitudes were visible after Polish prime minister Ewa Kopacz’s recent announcment that Poland would be lending €100 million to support Ukraine’s economy. Fifty-six percent of Poles, in a February poll, thought the amount was too much.
A large majority - 75 percent - fear that the Ukraine conflict poses a direct threat to Poland. It is these sentiments that Piskorski wants to tap into.
"According to our estimates, Zmiana could gather even 12 percent of votes in the coming elections," he told this website.
Political analysts thinks that those estimates are exaggerated.
"The most important thing for Poles when it comes to voting behaviour is the political charisma of the leader. Piskorski has none. This is just another example of a discredited politician trying to make his comeback," says Wojciech Jablonski, a political scientist.
Piskorski was previously involved in the populist agrarian party Samoobrona. Today, Zmiana is trying to appeal to a similar electorate hoping to entice Polish farmers who have suffered under Russian counter-sanctions, which inlcude a ban on most EU food exports.
Zmiana plans to oppose “American interference” on the European continent and the so-called “Atlantic option” for the economy and international security.
"These kind of anti-American attitudes are not yet strong in Poland. People don’t understand the concept of neo-colonialism and they don’t really see anything fascist about the European Union or Germany," says Jablonski.
Meanwhile, Polish support for Nato was never as strong as it is today - 80 percent of Poles support Nato membership, while only three percent would rather see Poland outside the alliance
Other pro-Russia voices
Both Jablonski and Chwedoruk believe the likelihood of Zmiana getting a foothold in the Polish parliament in the October elections is small. There is a 5 percent hurdle to clear to get into the assembly.
But Zmiana is not the only pro-Russia voice on the country's political scene.
Jan Tomaszewski, a newly elected MP for Civic Platform, the PM's centre-right party, recently said there is no Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine and that the whole conflict is “[Ukraine president] Poroshenko’s fault” because he wants to “lead Europe to World War III”.
A more pragmatic approach toward Russia is starting to appear even in the Polish Peasants' Party, Civic Platfrm’s coalition partner - its leader, Janusz Piechocinski, opposes EU sanctions.
Magdalena Ogorek, the presidential candidate for the former communist SLD party, also supports the idea of restarting a Polish-Russian dialogue.
"Clearly the attitudes toward Ukrainian crisis will be an important factor in the coming elections and different political parties will try to differentiate themselves from the government," Jablonski said.