Tusk Vs Kaczyński: Explaining the Conflict

The conflict between Donald Tusk and Kaczyński erupted once again upon Tusk's most recent visit to Poland. He was asked to give his testimony to the prosecutor's office; the accusations against Tusk are absurd and complicated. How did this conflict emerge? Michał Sutowski discusses the historical background and presents an analysis on current events.

Nikoleta Kriki: Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, former Prime Minister of Poland, came to Poland from Brussels for a few days this month. I saw hundreds of people cheering him on like he was some kind of savior when he got off the train in Warsaw. Who actually is Donald Tusk?

Michał Sutowski: He is certainly one of the most important Polish politicians of the last quarter of the century. His intellectual background began in the 80s when he was a co-author and editor of an intellectual journal called Political Review (Przegląd Polityczny) which was established in Gdańsk. It had a liberal orientation and was published through an underground press. Some people who were working there later became close to his party, Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO).

The early 90s was a time of national conflict, of so-called “war on the top.” To sum up, this was a conflict between two camps within the former Solidarity (Solidarność) movement. One was liberal European, the other being rather conservative nationalist. Tusk was associated with the liberal side of Polish politics, on the side of the forces of neoliberal transformation. Although, at that time Donald Tusk wasn’t very influential; he was quite well known however because of his participation in the so-called “Night Shift.”

What is “Night Shift?”

The name comes from a very important film made by the chief of current state TV, Jacek Kurski. It was a documentary with a sort of conspiracy theory focus in which the right-wing government was overthrown by the liberal, leftist, post-communist (and other) forces. Tusk was, at that time, a member of the Liberal Democratic Congress (Kongres Liberalno-Demokratyczny, KLD), a party that had some influence on economic transformation due to being in Parliament. But only won a few percent of votes, and then joined forces with the Democratic Union – which was so called centrist, perhaps even a bit leftist. This was followed by the formation of the “Freedom Union of Liberty,” which became clearly neo-liberal. After a few years of being a member of that party, Tusk realized it has little perspective for the future.

They totally lost election in 2001 and were then entirely out of the Parliament. A little earlier he killed the party because he, along with some other members still in the party, decided to create a new political force called Civic Platform (PO). They deliberately avoided using the phrase “party” in their name, because they were trying to present themselves as being a non-partial. PO was headed by Donald Tusk, Andrzej Olechowski, former foreign minister of Poland, and Maciej Płażyński. It was actually a conservative liberal party, with a moderate conservative agenda, and moderately anti-communist.

If you look at PO now, they always present themselves as a very much pro-European, pro-integration, but at that time they were also using this soft nationalist and sort of anti-communist language. Kaczyński established his party, Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) almost simultaneously, and they ran on a pretty similar platform at that time.

Now they’re in the most heated conflict yet. Polish media is often writing about how the country is caught in a political war between PO and PiS.

Kaczyński’s campaign said that Tusk’s grandfather was a German soldier of Wehrmacht during WWII.

In the beginning they were very similar, were using very similar language and the idea was actually that they would establish a coalition after beating the post-communists in the 2005 election. Of course PiS was more conservative and clearly more nationalist. The idea presented in that campaign was that they would be two wings of a new anti-communist, center right coalition, but in fact no one wanted that. The first moment when Tusk got a chance to become a man of the state was in 2005 when he was a candidate in the presidential elections and he lost against Lech Kaczynski – to his great surprise.

PO was labeled as a liberal party and PiS as the party of solidarity. A decisive moment for Tusk and his conflict between Kaczynski happened five days before the elections in 2005. Kaczyński’s campaign said that Tusk’s grandfather was a German soldier of Wehrmacht during WWII.

Since then, it seems there are no holds barred in Polish politics.

It was total bullshit, but nevertheless probably since that moment Tusk realized that in politics there is no such thing as morality and you can use any means to win. This was the time when he lost the presidential election.

The coalition government led by PiS lasted only two years; it basically felt apart because the tensions between ruling parties. Snap elections were called in 2007.

And in 2007 PiS got even more votes than in 2005. Nevertheless, they lost. PO got even more, because the turnout was much bigger than in the previous elections. This is the time when Tusk becomes not just a party politician, but also the symbolic leader of the whole anti-Kaczyński political camp. Many voters casted their vote for PO not because they supported it; Tusk was perceived as the only man who could stop Kaczynski.

And in fact, he did stop him.

Well, it worked – for 8 years. Tusk was the first Prime Minister of Poland who was chief of the government for almost two full terms. He became an icon for centrist liberal politics. They aimed on achieving comfortable life for people, slow progress, middle-class aspirations. Also, there was this prevailing notion that he was protecting people from that crazy guy, Jarosław Kaczyński. It was this role that was probably his most important after 2010.

What happened then?

On 10th of April 2010 a plane crashed near the city of Smolensk, Russia, killing all 96 people on board. Among the victims was President Lech Kaczyński (twin brother of Jarosław Kaczyński), his wife, and many members of the Polish government.

Somehow this tragedy evolved into a personal conflict between Tusk and Jarosław Kaczyński?

 Yes, their conflict is indeed personal. But I would say it was sort of personal since only since 2005. They were the two strongest men in their parties. Media demands that politics have strong leaders and want conflict to be personalized; this is much easier for the media than to frame the conflict in some ideological terms. So, since 2005 the conflict was personalized, and since 2010 it became personal. Why? Because Kaczyński thinks that Tusk is at least morally responsible for what happened.


Well, the plane was arriving from Warsaw to attend the 70th anniversary of the massacre in Katyń that took place in 1940. Before the plane crash a conflict had emerged between the then Prime Minister, Tusk, and the President, Lech Kaczynski due to their inability to come to an agreement on who should represent Poland. In the Polish constitution, it is defined in a very ambiguous way and it is not very clear who the leader is of foreign policy. If the president and the PM are from the opposite parties, this becomes problematic.

We could call it a softer version of blaming Tusk for the plane crash. The stronger version says it straightforwardly: Tusk orchestrated the assassination of Lech Kaczyński hand-in-hand with Vladimir Putin.

I do not think Kaczynski believes a conspiracy theory of some deal between Putin and Tusk leading to the assassination, but he does spread that bullshit. About 20% of his voters buy that story. So he has played that tune since 2010, with some exceptions. Blaming Tusk for Lech Kaczynski’s death really raised the temperature of political conflict in Poland.

Jarosław Kaczyński is made up of two traumas: the one is Smoleńsk, the other one is 2007, when he lost power. He believes that he is morally obliged to do everything in his power to sustain the government and to prevent liberal and post-communist forces from getting back into power.

This Polish domestic conflict recently entered the arena of international politics when the current government tried to block the reelection of Donald Tusk for the position of President of the European Council. 27 states voted in favour of Tusk, while only Beata Szydło, the Polish Prime Minister, voted against.

It was a diplomatic failure on PiS’s part. They were unable to convince a single head of state to support their strategy; not even their supposed ally Viktor Orban, the Hungarian PM, supported their strategy. Such a move could never be successful, but they tried anyway.


Because Kaczyński and his acolytes hate Tusk. That would be the answer from the personal perspective. A more analytical answer would be that they interpret Tusk’s position as the one supported by Angela Merkel, and now they try to oppose German dominance over Europe.

There is also another explanation to their strategy: if Tusk got reelected against Poland’s will, then PiS could present him as a German candidate and a German politician. But this probably only works on 20% of the voters that actually believe in the Smoleńsk conspiracy theory.

But maybe it wasn’t impossible to block this reelection, maybe they actually had a plan, but it didn’t work out.

If they really believed they could succeed, they probably imagined the following scenario: Tusk comes back to Poland, and there is no position for him. He is not a member of the Parliament. In his party, PO, there has always been a leader fighting for his position since anyone can remember. So the fight for the leadership in PO starts. And the biggest party of the opposition is divided.

What PiS did in Brussels was a tremendous PR disaster. The poles show that PIS lost probably around 4% or 5% of support, going from a strong 35 down to 30. It’s very clear that their anti-Tusk campaign is the reason for that.

Tusk returned to Poland this month, but not for good. Just for a day or two, because he was to give his testimony at the prosecutor’s office. What is this case about? Is he accused of something?

The accusation is not about the matter itself, that they shouldn’t do this deal, because it was clearly needed, but that formalities were not fulfilled.

The accusations are quite complicated and quite absurd. It is about a cooperation deal made between the Polish secret service and the Russian Federation’s Intelligence on mutual cooperation in terms of fighting terrorism. The deal was needed because Polish soldiers were in Afghanistan. Military equipment, like tanks, cars, and weapons need to be transported via Russia to reach Afghanistan. This was an arrangement between military intelligence of Poland and Russia on protection of this transportation, clearly technical – nothing political. Tusk was Prime Minister at that time, andlLegally, this kind of arrangement has to be signed by the PM. Tusk stated that there was no request on paper but he was informed orally and he responded in agreement. Thus the accusation is not about the matter itself, that they shouldn’t do this deal, because it was clearly needed, but that formalities were not fulfilled.

So, why did they bring him from Brussels and interrogate him for a few hours?

That was another act of this political theater for the 20% of their most devoted electorate to show that Tusk was making some dirty deals with Russia. There is no serious expert who treats this seriously. It’s technically and legally complicated, so not many people understand the nuances of the case. The only message that reaches them is that Tusk and his clique were doing some deals with Russian intelligence.

Do you think it’s possible that Tusk would get convicted in this case, or in any other case?

I cannot imagine this scenario to happen. They will probably try to involve him somehow at least as a witness. Maybe they will do some kind of proxy trials. Let’s say they sue a person who is formally responsible for organizing the presidential visit in Smoleńsk. Or they try to associate him with the mayor of Warsaw because of her real involvement in scandals of the reprivatization of land and real estate in the capital city. It’s very hard to imagine they will really sue him for something formally. Of course they can try to discredit him in Europe, but Kaczyński has such a bad reputation in Europe that he cannot be seen as trustworthy by any means.


Nikoleta Kriki
She graduated with a degree in Greek philology from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.