WROCLAW, Poland—Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz, 68, has made a political career sniffing out supposed collaborators with the defunct Soviet Union and agents of the Russian Federation.
But when this man obsessed with Moscow’s machinations took the stand in a parliamentary debate last week to demand that an opposition politician be punished (because in Poland these days, to be in opposition is to be vilified by the government) he was promptly met by derisive chants: “Do Putina! Do Putina!” (Go to Putin!).
Cameras panned away so we couldn’t see his reaction, but having spread innuendo and peddled infamy for decades—he kicked off the post-communist era in the early ’90s by publishing a list of high-ranking officials he said had collaborated with the secret police—he must have known the way this could play out.
In a world shaped by the conspiracies of the KGB and its East European franchises, people learned that super patriots could be agents provocateurs, that those who attack traitors might be ones themselves.
In this case, the defense minister has spent the past seven years trying to prove that the crash of a plane carrying much of the Polish government in 2010, including then-President Lech Kaczyński and his wife, was no accident in heavy fog, but instead a vile assassination plot by Putin’s government. The flight was on its way to the Russian city of Smolensk near the Katyn forest where the Soviets had massacred thousands of Polish officers 70 years before.
At one point, in a widely derided attempt to prove his conspiracy theory, Macierewicz even cited an experiment that involved exploding sausages (supposedly analogous to the fuselage).
When U.S. President Donald Trump went to Warsaw last month, he reportedly promised the public broadcaster TVP that he would do his best to bring the plane wreckage back into the country. Macierewicz rushed to confirm that the U.S. president, with whom he’d had a five minute chat, was “very determined, very clear” on this matter.
“Because of Macierewicz, any analyses of the Kremlin’s work in Poland started to seem like another conspiracy theory,” investigative journalist Thomas Piatek tells The Daily Beast. When reporters write thoroughly researched stories about certifiable Russian machinations, they find themselves under attack from liberals, as Piatek notes, who say, “Go to Macierewicz with these crazy theories!”
In the meantime, amid the chaos created by a Polish government determined to impose authoritarian rule, Macierewicz and his allies constantly play the nationalist card to cover up their obvious failures. The Polish army is in desperate need of modernization and new equipment, but the country is still waiting for helicopters after a deal with France fell through last October, and Macierewicz’s deputy basically told critics to go fuck themselves because, you know, “Poland taught the French how to use a fork.”
The new priority for the flamboyant nationalist defense minister is to set up squads of civilian volunteers to protect Poland against what he has referred to as the “real enemy” (Russia).
This initiative has already started recruiting from the country’s growing number of informal paramilitary groups. If their members join the territorial defense they get to have rifles, but not a whole lot of military training. And unlike the regular army, it is difficult to predict how the new territorial defense would react in the case of a riot or other kinds of civil unrest—which are certain to happen.
A report that was published by Poland’s National Center for Strategic Studies last year (PDF) suggested that the new army of volunteers could be used to “deter anti-government activity,“ perhaps with machine guns. The document cites two of the center’s experts, Grzegorz Kwaśniak and Krzysztof Gaj, whom Macierewicz hired to develop the strategic concept for the territorial defense. Kwaśniak thinks NATO is all talk and no action, and Gaj said he supports Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Whatever Macierewicz does, you can be sure that the Kremlin will open Champagne,” says political scientist Radoslaw Markowski. He points out that when Macierewicz tried and failed to prove a conspiracy about the disbanded Polish WSI (military intelligence service) more than a decade ago, he also slipped up by naming dozens of spies who were serving on his own side.
The rabble-rousers in parliament aren’t the only ones wary of the defense minister’s credibility—in an article that was published in April in the Polish magazine Polityka, an MI6 communications officer was cited saying that, in light of the purges in public institutions (notably the military) that leave the door open for political appointees, she expects “mass infiltration attempts by the Russian services,” which “want to put as many of their people in the Polish administration as possible.”
“Poland is no longer being viewed as an ally in the face of the challenges of Russia, but as a threat to the entire community,” she said.
This is also what investigative journalist Tomasz Piatek is worrying about. His new book Macierewicz and His Secrets, describes a web of connections that he claims ties Macierewicz not only to the Russian secret service, but also to international bad guys like the Solntsevo mafia. “The network of people around Macierewicz is Putin’s best weapon,” Piatek writes.
His accusations against Macierewicz are shocking. But when I met him in Wrocław recently he told me that he cannot imagine that Macierewicz’s supporters, the same people who accept, without any proof, that Russia was involved in assassinating the former polish president, would even consider believing his findings.
“They are attacking me,“ Piatek said, referring to the state-run media. “They say the book has been rejected by the main publishers, which is not true, and that I grew up in the town of Pruszków in order to create the impression that I am linked to the Pruszków mafia.”
“Both groups are in their own bubbles,” Michal Romanowski, who works for the German Marshall Fund in Moscow, says. “Both want to mobilize their own electorate, which for its part is only exposed to and interested in media sources that promote their parties’ narratives.”
Private stations like TVN24 do invite PiS politicians to appear. But PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, the late president’s brother, who refers to the independent media and their audience as “second sort,” has ordered them not to. The public TV station, TVP, on the other hand, has lost 1.3 million viewers and 60-year-old Markowski says he cannot remember “such nasty propaganda” even from the times of Soviet occupation.
Still, this does not explain why, as copies of Piatek’s book sell rapidly and chances of finding a free seat at his readings are pretty unlikely, there has been no official statement from the defense minister in reference to the accusations against him.
Grzegorz Rzeczkowski, who edits the center-left Polityka, is blunt: “Law and Justice politicians will check each article about the party to see if there is a single inaccuracy. If they find any, they will react ruthlessly. In many cases when you hear nothing, then you know you got it right.”
Nor has Macierewicz tried to sue for defamation in court. Instead he has done something unprecedented since 1989, and is having the 43-year-old journalist investigated by the military office of the national prosecutor’s office—for “public insults or humiliation” and for “using force or threats against a public official.” The latter charge can be interpreted as an act of terrorism—the modern demagogue’s go-to excuse for any abuse of power.