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Polish President Andrzej Duda offers changes to law on 'Russian influence' amid growing criticism

Polish President Andrzej Duda defended the controversial law but offered changes to address the growing criticism.
Polish President Andrzej Duda defended the controversial law but offered changes to address the growing criticism. Copyright Markus Schreiber/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Markus Schreiber/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved
By Jorge Liboreiro
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The European Commission suspects the new Polish law could deprive individuals from their right to run for public office.

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Facing growing criticism from Brussels and Washington, President Andrzej Duda of Poland has offered to make changes to a controversial law designed to investigate cases of so-called "Russian influence" inside the country.

The law, which establishes a committee with prosecutor-like powers, has raised fears it might be used to target opposition politicians in the run-up to the general election that Poland will hold in the autumn.

Shortly after Duda signed the bill on Monday, the European Commission and the US Department of State issued statements voicing their concerns over the committee's mandate and its possible interference with the right to run for public office.

Under the legislation, the nine-member body is entitled to probe individuals who are considered to have acted "under Russian influence to the detriment of the interests of the Republic of Poland" between the years 2007 and 2022.

Potential penalties include bans on holding a security clearance, a position that involves the management of public funds or a weapons license.

The prohibitions could last up to 10 years and hinder a candidate's electability.

Critics have decried the committee as anti-constitutional and quasi-judicial, saying it represents a blatant violation of the separation of powers. The definition of "Russian influence" is also under scrutiny for being overly vague and broad.

The law has been dubbed "Lex Tusk" because it could possibly target Donald Tusk, who served as prime minister between 2007 and 2014 and currently leads Civic Platform (PO), Poland's largest opposition party.

In a speech delivered on Friday, President Duda defended the law as necessary to prevent Russia from meddling with Poland's internal security but acknowledged its contentious nature and the need to strengthen "transparency."

Duda proposed three key amendments to the text:

  • All the penalties will be removed. Instead, the committee will simply issue a statement declaring that a person has acted under "Russian influence" and is not fit to perform public duties.
  • The committee will be made up of non-partisan experts. No member of the parliament or the senate will be allowed to sit in the body.
  • Those under investigation will be able to file an appeal against the committee's decisions in a common court anywhere in Poland. Under the present legislation, appeals can only be filed in an administrative court.

Jakub Jaraczewski, a research coordinator at Democracy Reporting International (DRI), a Berlin-based group that analyses democratic governance, said the announced changes alleviated "some concerns" surrounding the legislations, such as the separation of powers and "the danger of abuse of remedial measures."

"But the very fact that such a (committee) is being set up just before the elections given the context and the scope, is still problematic," Jaraczewski told Euronews.

"Above all, these rapid 180° turns as to the law from the President are in contempt for the rule of law and the stability of Polish legal order."

Unexpected offer

Duda's announcement on Friday came as a surprise given his previous wholehearted support for the legislation. The president urged lawmakers to approve the changes in an expedited manner. 

It was not immediately clear if Duda had consulted with the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), the original promoter behind the legislation, before tabling his proposal.

The Polish government insists the committee, despite its powers, will not act as a court, will not pass judgment and will not "deprive anyone of their public rights."

"It is important to examine all Russian influences on Poland's internal security that have taken place in recent years. The situation beyond our eastern border shows how much such a (committee) is needed to strengthen the cohesion and internal security of our country," a spokesperson for the government told Euronews, referring to the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

In Brussels, the final approval of the law has been met with quiet consternation. The European Commission sent a formal letter to Warsaw earlier this week asking for clarifications, documents, and a full legal analysis.

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"This new law raises serious concerns in terms of conformity with EU law, as it grants significant powers to an administrative body which could be used to bar individuals from public office and which hence could restrict their rights," Didier Reynders, European Commissioner for justice, wrote in the letter.

A Commission spokesperson said they were aware of the amendments suggested by Duda on Friday but would not comment until they are passed into law.

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