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A Common Ideological Pipeline

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In early May, Radek Sikorski drew some fire when he compared the North European Gas Pipeline deal linking Russia's West Siberian fields and Germany to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. That the Polish defense minister had decided to comment on what is, strictly-speaking, an economic matter was sign enough that Poland's politicians are currently dealing with a shortage of sober analysis. "Hysterical" is how Gleb Pavlovsky, a public relations guru with close ties to President Vladimir Putin, accurately described the outburst.

The 1939 pact was a deal between totalitarian regimes from opposing ideological extremes that was principally designed to postpone an inevitable war between Germany and the Soviet Union so that the two could get other nefarious projects out of the way first.

These days, war between Russia and Germany is anything but inevitable, so it was clear from the start that Sikorski's historical reasoning had gone amiss. No one doubts that Poland has a right to its historical sensitivity in relation to Germany and Russia. The experiences of the Nazi devastation of Warsaw, among other crimes, and the 35 years of Communist rule engineered by Moscow will always lead the Poles to cast a wary eye on happenings to their immediate east and west. But Sikorski's comments mark a recent turn in political attitude that is having ramifications on the domestic front as well as in the international arena. This new shrillness has grown since the Law and Justice, or PiS, party became the ruling party in a minority government back in September. With the formation of a populist coalition between the PiS, the Self-Defense Party -- which largely targets the country's farmers -- and the far-right League of Polish Families, or LPR, in early May, the volume has just climbed higher and higher.

Intolerance often gets people screaming, and in Poland's case a growing fear of outsiders has led to an increase in decibels. But this has happened in such a way that, despite the sullen manner with which Poland's political leaders greet anything Russian, events in Polish society are amazingly beginning to mirror those taking place in Moscow and beyond.

The hysteria is not confined to Poland, of course. Last year, when thugs attacked the children of Russian diplomats in a Warsaw park, the Kremlin screamed that it was evidence of widespread anti-Russian sentiment. Had the response been calmer, Russian hooligans would probably not have been encouraged to mount a series of retaliatory attacks on Polish nationals in Moscow in the weeks that followed. When Russian Muslim leader Talgat Tajuddin said that gay parade marchers "should be bashed" if they dared venture onto Moscow's streets, he was echoing, almost verbatim, remarks made by LPR deputy Wojciech Wierzejski when the possibility of a gay parade in Warsaw was again. "They should be beaten with batons," he said. "Once they feel the pain, they won't come again because gays are, by definition, cowards." The last sentence was aimed at German gay activists who were planning to come to Warsaw for the event. So much for a repetition of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. If we can speak of an ideological pipeline being laid in Europe, then surely it is between Warsaw and Moscow, with liberal Berlin being firmly left out in the cold.

As was the case with Putin, Polish President Lech Kaczynski was elected largely because he promised to end the endemic corruption that had infected the previous administration. Putin's pursuit of the oligarchs has led to accusations of creeping dictatorship. The PiS government's accelerating initiatives against the post-communist left have raised suspicions of an anti-democratic witch hunt.

Control of the media is also a major issue in both countries. That there is a lack of independence in Russian broadcast journalism has been well documented. In Poland, the PiS-led government just appointed Bronislaw Wildstein, an aggressive anti-communist who believes in exposing and charging those people who had dealings with the old regime, to head Polish public television. In March, PiS chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski charged there was "no press freedom" in Poland and that the new government would take steps to allow journalists "to report the truth," a statement that drew attacks from media representatives. "The time when the state controlled the media has long passed," said Wanda Rapaczynska, head of the Agora group, which publishes the daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. "I hope the PiS chairman will not try to capitalize on this fantasy that journalists are not free to report truthfully."

So the picture of Poland that was being painted during Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the country belied the atmosphere of suspicion, and sometimes fear, that has been building up since the right-wing populists came to power. The pope's message was largely a humble one, with occasional critical allusions to the arch-conservative clerics who allow anti-Semitic comments to be broadcast on the radically Catholic Radio Maryja

Russia is also no stranger to virulent racism, which is invariably anti-Semitic to the core as well. The members of the Mad Crowd ultranationalist group that were arrested in St. Petersburg and charged with a number of murders -- motivated both by racism and infighting -- are only its most extreme manifestation.

While Polish extremists have yet to take up arms against their hate targets, their activities are also becoming alarmingly vicious. Earlier this month, an anarchist was stabbed in Warsaw, seemingly because his attackers found his name and address published on an extreme right-wing web site. Polish football hooligans -- notoriously right-wing -- have upped their level of violence in recent weeks and, along with rioting in Warsaw's Old Town and generating some other disturbances, have reportedly been involved in kidnapping and extortion. Kaczynski's clean, bold new Fourth Republic thus comes full circle.

So, despite the bile that Moscow and Warsaw frequently spit at each other, perhaps the best bet for the two countries' leaders would be to sit down and talk it out man to man. What is already clear is that the two sides will find that they have a whole lot in common.

Colin Graham is a freelance journalist based in Warsaw.

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