“It’s hard not to think of Russia”: Concern over Polish government’s move to “bring order” to NGOs

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By Daniel Tilles

Poland’s media and civil society have reacted with concern to Prime Minister Beata Szydło’s announcement that the government wants to bring NGOs under more centralised control, because, in her view, too many of them are still ‘subordinate to the policies of the previous ruling system’.

To this end, her office is in the process of establishing a Department of Civil Society which will be responsible for ‘bringing order to the whole sphere’ of NGOs. It will collect and disburse all money intended for such organisations, and set goals for their work.

Leaving little doubt about the purpose of this move, Szydło says that, although NGOs should ideally not be under government control, ‘it turns out we have not yet got to the moment at which politicians do not want to control social organisations’.

In response, Poland’s ombudsman for human rights says that he’ll wait to see exactly what the government is planning (the new proposal has been in the works for months, it still hasn’t been shown to any outside experts for consultation). But he warns that when ‘the state tries to arrange what civil society looks like, it should raise doubts’.

Jurek Owsiak, the organiser of Poland’s largest annual charity fundraiser, says that the decision ‘defies any kind of logic’. His own event (long disliked by Polish conservatives for its secular, hedonistic values) has been shunned by the new government: this year, for the first time since it was founded, the finale will not be screened on state-run TV and the post office will not print commemorative stamps to raise funds for the charity.

Opposition media have reacted with predictable outrage. Left-liberal Gazeta Wyborcza calls the plan ‘Orwellian’, warning that NGOs will be expected to promote ‘patriotic education’ and ‘the cult of Smolensk’ while ignoring equality and human rights, especially anything associated with feminism or the LGBT community.

In perhaps a taste of things to come, earlier this year the government withdrew funding for the Women’s Right Centre, an organisation that provides support to female victims of domestic violence, but whose activity has a feminist flavour not to the liking of conservatives.

Jarosław Kaczyński, the chairman of the ruling party and the government’s de facto leader, has also publicly attacked George Soros for trying to create ‘societies without identity’ that can be more easily ‘manipulated by billionaires’. Soros helped establish and fund one of Poland’s most important NGOs, the Stefan Batory Foundation, which supports initiatives to build an open, democratic society.

More neutral voices are also worried. Writing for centre-right Rzeczpospolita, Michał Szułdrzyński raises concern that the government wants to ‘harness the tertiary sector to carry out a social revolution’. He argues that not only is there ‘no basis’ for such a move, but that PiS’s record in power offers worrying precedents:

Experience shows that when Law and Justice want to depolitise something it ends up as extreme “partyfication” – just recall the civil service, national television, the National Media Council. And transparency? PiS has gone far in the other direction, for example by introducing further difficulties in the work of journalists in parliament.

Another ‘serious problem’, he adds, is the potential for the Department of Civil Society to evolve into another tool of patronage for the ruling party, just as state-owned companies have become. Szułdrzyński concludes that ‘it is impossible to avoid comparisons with Russia or Hungary, which for many years have been making life difficult for NGOs so that they don’t become centres of opposition activity’.

 

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