What Criticism? Obama Praised Polish Democracy, Officials Insist

  • Obama said Poland must do more to sustain democratic values
  • Poland may hire PR firm to boost image abroad, Kaczynski says

Poland’s leading politicians sought to downplay U.S. President Barack Obama’s remarks calling on the country to do more to uphold democratic values, saying he wasn’t criticizing the country’s eight-month-old conservative government.

After meeting his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda on July 8, Obama voiced concern about a crisis surrounding the European Union and NATO member’s highest court and said “more work needs to be done” to maintain Poland’s democratic framework. His comments coincide with an unprecedented stand-off between the country of 38 million and the EU, which has launched its first-ever probe into whether a member state’s government is backsliding on rule of law.

“Obama recognized that Poland is still a bulwark of democracy,” Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told TVN24 television on Monday. “I don’t believe that Obama’s words were in any way defamatory, offensive or critical.”

Poland is sparring with its allies in Brussels and Washington amid concern that its ruling Law & Justice Party undermined rule of law by passing legislation that overhauled state media and paralyzed the Constitutional Tribunal. The government rejects accusations that it’s undemocratic, and Waszczykowski criticized Poland’s privately-owned media and foreign press for “manipulating” Obama’s remarks. State television -- run by a former Law & Justice lawmaker -- maintains that the U.S. leader said nothing critical.

‘Universal Values’

Just hours before Obama’s arrival in Warsaw last week, Law & Justice rushed through another revamp of the Constitutional court through the lower house of parliament that brushed off criticism from the country’s ombudsman and its non-partisan national judiciary council. The legislation also ignored recommendations from the European Commission after an earlier overhaul of the tribunal triggered the EU probe.

Obama said the “rebirth” of a free Poland after communism collapsed in 1989 was an “inspiration” that showed democracy and pluralism are the “universal values” that the U.S. speaks up for “around the world, even with our closest allies.”

“We’ve urged all parties to work together to sustain Poland’s democratic institutions,” Obama told reporters after meeting Duda, according to the official White House transcript of his comments. “That’s what make us democracies -- not just by the words written in constitutions, or in the fact that we vote in elections -- but the institutions we depend upon every day, such as rule of law, independent judiciaries, and a free press.”

‘Great Success’

President Duda took no questions from journalists at his appearance with Obama or his news conference marking the end of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit a day later. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo declined to “interpret” Obama’s comments, saying on Monday that the summit, where the U.S. agreed to deploy troops in Poland, was a “great success.”

The government may engage a public relations company to counter the “very serious problem” of worsening international opinions about Poland, said Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who wields the power behind the government despite holding no elected position other than that of lawmaker.

Asked about Obama’s remarks, Kaczynski said he remembered “best his words about our sovereignty, and that we will be an example of democracy for the world,” according to an interview with Rzeczpospolita newspaper published Monday. “Indeed, we are an example and an island of freedom in a world that is increasingly less so.”