BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Tuesday it was "totally unacceptable" to associate fellow top EU official Donald Tusk with Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, as has been done by Polish state TV.
Tusk, an ex-Polish prime minister and an arch-rival of the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party now governing in Warsaw, delivered a stinging critique of the government in a speech during a visit to the capital last week.
Poland's state TV broadcaster, tightly controlled by the PiS since the party came to power in late 2015, reacted with a clip seeking to discredit Tusk as a politician more inclined to serve the interests of Germany than of Poland.
Next to Tusk's image, the clip showed pictures of Stalin and Hitler, whose Soviet Union and Nazi Germany respectively invaded Poland in 1939. Millions of Poles lost their lives under occupation during World War Two.
In his speech, Tusk told the eurosceptic PiS to stop flouting the rule of law and Poland's own constitution.
His remarks came amid speculation about his possible return to Polish politics after his term as president of the European Council of member states expires at the end of November.
Juncker told a news conference in Brussels: "If this (Hitler-Stalin comparison) is possible, this has something to do with the overall political atmosphere in the country, I don't like that. I find these remarks totally unacceptable."
He called the Hitler-Stalin insert "highly disgusting".
"But I think Poland has its place at the heart of Europe... Although we have some divergences and differences with the Polish government, we'll be able at a given moment to solve these problems," Juncker added.
"Europe is a construction of people, not of governments."
The conservative nationalist PiS government has placed public media, courts and civil society under tight state control, clashing repeatedly with the EU over accusations that Warsaw is backpedalling on democratic standards.
Despite criticism from the bloc and international rights advocates, the PiS remains popular in Poland with its combative nationalist rhetoric and increases of social spending.
Poland is due to hold parliamentary elections this autumn and a presidential vote in May 2020.
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Mark Heinrich)