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SSEES Research Blog


A showcase of research from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies staff and students


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New Russian Exodus: Russians Protest With Their Feet Against Putin’s War in Ukraine

By Lisa J Walters, on 21 October 2022

Written by Svetlana Ruseishvili[1], Oswaldo Truzzi[2] and scholars of the Sérgio Vieira de Mello Academic Chair for Refugees at the Federal University of São Carlos, Brazil. Svetlana Ruseishvili will be a Visiting Scholar at UCL SSEES for Term 2, 22-23. 

Putin’s attack on Ukraine resulted in casualties, destruction, and large-scale migration. In Ukraine, the main demographic consequences of the war were the massive loss of life and the vast number of refugees and internally displaced persons. Since the war began, thirteen million people have been displaced from Ukraine, both internally and abroad. According to UNHCR estimates, 7.4 million Ukrainian refugees have been registered in Europe. About 3 million people left or were taken to the Russian Federation.

The scale of emigration from Russia itself became unprecedented. Although emigration from Russia for political and economic reasons occurred before the war, it was Putin’s invasion of Ukraine that triggered a massive flee to nearby visa-free countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Turkey, Armenia, Estonia, and Latvia. According to rough estimates, between 500,000 and 1 million people left Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. Exact statistics are unavailable, as emigrants have left and continue to flee in an emergency, without de-registering in Russia, arriving in visa-free countries. This is a massive new exodus from Russia.


Researching Poland from Abroad: Challenges of Doing a PhD in Area Studies: Insights from the Polish Studies Group Northern Workshop in Manchester

By Lisa J Walters, on 1 September 2022

Anna Stanisz-Lubowiecka and Carolin Heilig, current UCL SSEES PhD students

A PhD is a special but equally challenging period. For those in the midst of it connecting with others in a similar position can make you realise that your experiences are shared by others and for those just about to embark on the PhD journey, an exchange with more experienced PhD candidates can help to mitigate certain challenges from the get-go.

On 23–24 June 2022 during the Polish Studies Group Northern Workshop in Manchester we moderated a session dedicated to the needs of PhD students in Polish Studies. The aim of the session was to discuss challenges students have encountered at different stages of their PhD journey and share experience on how some of these challenges may be overcome. The discussion took place in a friendly and supportive atmosphere of a PhD student network and also invited PhD students at Manchester University researching other countries in the region. Students who attended our session were doing their PhDs at a number of British universities and represented different disciplines, but they had one thing in common: they were all doing research on some aspect of Poland. For many of us this was the first occasion to come together to discuss challenges of researching Poland from abroad. For this reason, we ended up focussing primarily on discussing the challenges themselves, rather than providing solutions.


Student blog | Inaugural Lecture by Prof Richard Mole: Nationalism, Populism and Homophobia in Central and Eastern Europe

By barboraposluch, on 9 June 2022



Through his inaugural lecture entitled ‘Nationalism, Populism and Homophobia in Central and Eastern Europe’, Professor Richard Mole guided us through an insightful analysis on how LGBT identities have been politicised in the region and how they are intertwined with populism.

Following an address from the SSEES Director, Professor Diane P. Koenker, and from the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences, Professor Sasha Roseneil, Richard began his lecture with a short research timeline and explanation of his research interests. In particular, Richard’s research activity centres around understanding how and why states treat their sexual minorities in specific ways.

His lecture begins through operationalising homophobia. Particularly, he highlights a mismatch between the degree of legal rights granted to LGBT groups in specific European countries and the societal support for legal equality for these groups. These differences are particularly noticeable in the case of Poland and Hungary, which, perhaps not so coincidentally, have strong populist parties in power.

The question thus arises: why do populist parties weaponise homophobia?

Richard begins to answer this question by first defining populism. Through the definition he uses, developed by Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser, populism is generally seen as a thin ideology that divides the society into “corrupt elites” and “pure people”. He then explains how East European populism overlaps with nationalism, resulting in a promise by populist parties to restore traditional values.

As such, populist discourse in these cases tends to limit the definition of “pure people”; in Poland, for example, it restricts the term to “catholic, ethnically Polish heterosexuals”. This limitation permits the delegitimization of opposing views, making way for narratives such as the anti-LGBT one. This logic is illustrated by the anti-LGBT zones legislation in Poland.

Richard’s lecture then shifts focus towards explaining the implications of this anti-LGBT discourse: namely why politicians say they initiate such legislation and why they actually do so.

When seeking to justify such legislation, politicians usually adhere to a series of reasons why queer individuals are seen as a threat to the nation: they fail to contribute to biological reproduction, they fail to contribute to cultural reproduction, they fail to adhere to traditional stereotypes of gender roles and they deviate from religious norms. In Poland’s case particularly, LGBT individuals are also seen as disloyal, often turning for help towards the West and not domestically. This also plays well into the populist rhetoric that homosexuality is a Western import.

When assessing why politicians actually choose anti-LGBT legislation, Richard highlights politicians’ need for a scapegoat, turning the LGBT community into a distraction from other state issues, such as economic problems. Moreover, this discourse strengthens their support among the conservative electorate and helps to generally deligitimise liberal politics.

Richard then delves into the research that he conducted together with Dr Agnieszka Golec de Zavala on nationalism and homophobia. Namely, he explains the distinction they made between nationalism as “national in-group satisfaction” and “national collective narcissism”. Their research finds a direct relationship between the latter and homophobia, identifying that individuals scoring highly on collective narcissism are more likely to also display homophobic attitudes. This research ties in perfectly with Richard’s thesis on the connection between populism and homophobia.

The lecture concludes through circling back to the LGBT-free zones case and its political aftermath, with mentions on the international and LGBT community response to the situation. As the general populist discourse tried to reframe queerness as an ideology championed by the West, the Polish LGBT community itself began reclaiming national symbols. Richard finishes his lecture by emphasising the importance of LGBT activism given that the instrumentalisation of homophobia by populists is unlikely to disappear any time soon.

The event ended with a heartfelt reflection from Professor Michael Worton, who pondered the hardships spotlighted through Richard’s lecture in regards to nationalism and populism across the region.

Overall, Richard’s lecture was an eye opening synopsis on the socio-political climate the LGBT communities in Central and Eastern Europe face. His research proves to be a vital means to reach causality between the anti-LGBT phenomenon and populism, explaining the factors underpinning the persistence of LGBT oppression in the region.


A recording of the Lecture is available to watch on UCL SSEES YouTube Channel.


The Belovezh Accords – A Warning from the Dacha

By Lisa J Walters, on 7 April 2022

Author: Pippa Crawford, MA Russian Studies

On 8 December 1991, six men met in a hunting lodge in the ancient forest between Poland and Belarus. There they signed the Belovezh Accords, triggering the collapse of the Soviet Union. The signatories were the Presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and their respective prime ministers, with the leaders of the other Soviet republics conspicuously excluded from the dialogue. Whether or not the Belovezh Accords were legal remains difficult to prove, as the original document was destroyed. There are persistent rumours that none of the leaders came to the dacha with a coherent plan for the future of the Union, and that whiskey and vodka were involved. One thing is certain – the events of 8 December sent shock waves across the Soviet region, the effects of which are still palpable today.

Viskuli Dacha


Christian churches, social capital and the 2020 Belarusian uprising

By Lisa J Walters, on 9 August 2021

Author: Paula Borowska, PhD Candidate at UCL SSEES. Paula’s working thesis is ‘Religion and social capital: the case of Protestants in Belarus’

This August marks a year since the large-scale protests had swept through Belarus following the fraudulent presidential election. With several protesters dead and the number of political prisoners in hundreds, Belarus is undergoing one of the most dramatic periods since it proclaimed independence in 1990.

Source: belsat.eu

Despite the violence of the authorities, the persistence of the protests demonstrated something unanticipated. One can hardly say that civil society in Belarus is the ‘least developed in Europe’ (Lenzi, 2002) or ‘weak’ (Matchanka, 2014), while social capital is in ‘low stocks’. In fact, social networks, solidarity and trust of Belarusians have never been at these levels.

The brutal suppression of peaceful protest marches has also triggered reaction from various Christian churches in Belarus. This blog post explores how Christian churches engaged with the ongoing crisis. It views their participation as talaka, a form of voluntary assistance, historically, traditional to Belarusian rural communities. Considering the political turbulence and the state repressions, churches efficiently facilitated acts of solidarity within society.


In Memoriam – Prof. Oleh Havrylyshyn

By tjmsrol, on 6 October 2020

Prof. Oleh Havrylyshyn died on the 20th of September 2020. In this piece, Elodie Douarin pays tribute to her friend and colleague, recounting her experience of working with him.

Oleh Havrylyshyn first came to SSEES in the fall in 2017. I had received in the summer an enthusiastic email from Yuemei Ji: she had had a long conversation with Oleh at a conference and they had both concluded that he needed to come and visit us in London. I could not agree more: Oleh’s expertise on the Economics of Transition was widely recognised, but he also had much broader interests covering Politics and History, thus making him a perfect match for our multi-disciplinary area study school! As we started discussing the organisation of a visit, many people came on board, and Jan Kubik, who at the time was SSEES director, was in particular very supportive. His early enthusiasm was instrumental to getting the visit finalised.

Fast forward to December 2017, and Oleh was finally here. He had come to London with his wife Natalia, and in the space of 4 days, he took part in 4 different events: speaking about his book on Ukraine with Andrew Wilson, discussing Ragusa and historiography with Wendy Bracewell, commenting on the book I had just published with Tomek Mickiewicz and finally discussing 25 years of transition in a public lecture for our PG and UG students. He was delighted by his visit: he tremendously enjoyed exchanging with Andrew, they mostly agreed in their analyses but Oleh really appreciated the intricacies of Andrew’s argumentation. The conversation around cheese and wine continued long after the event was meant to finish, with speakers and audience members exchanging anecdotes till late in the evening. The discussion with Wendy was warm and instructive. Again Oleh left enthused, he had received constructive criticism and had now new ideas to investigate further the success of mediaeval Ragusa. His presentation to our students was also a success. He had a very personal experience of transition, having worked both for the IMF and for the Ukrainian government, this gave him a lot of personal anecdotes and “small stories” to tell to liven the bigger stories of transition. Oleh’s talk ended with a standing ovation and a few audience members coming to him to express how privileged they felt to have met him, with one even asking Oleh for an autograph. Oleh was visibly touched by the recognition, if maybe a little puzzled too.

In all settings, Oleh was incredible: he was excited to exchange and argue his views and always did it clearly and precisely, with references to facts, data and sources. He was very knowledgeable and very good at structuring his arguments to maximise impact. But he would also recognise inconsistencies or areas in which he thought more work was needed, and he genuinely liked receiving constructive criticism, as an opportunity to improve and refine his work. There was not a trace of vanity or arrogance in him: he was engaging with specific academic arguments because he found them fascinating and his motivation to improve knowledge – nothing more, nothing less.

After this first visit, we stayed in touch. He had praised “Economics of Institutional Change”, and our informal discussions during his visit at SSEES had made it clear that we were very much in agreement in our views on transition. This wasn’t surprising, Oleh had been central to my education on the the subject (together with my numerous conversations with Tomek Mickiewicz and an earlier reading of Aslund’s book “How Capitalism was Built”). He continues to feature repeatedly in the reading lists for the courses I teach (Emerging Market Economies and Economic Development and Policies). Oleh had an engaging writing style, his papers and books were highly pedagogical, explicitly engaging with interpretations that differed from his own to clarify where the disagreements came from, always embedding his arguments in data, and often nuancing his conclusions to recognise areas where more research was needed. As we kept exchanging, the idea of co-editing a book together reviewing the evolution of “Comparative Economics” over the past 30 years emerged. I felt honoured that he found the idea appealing, and it took us only a couple of iterations to finalise our full book proposal: we had a truly common vision of what the book should be about. Three very detailed sets of reviews later, we had a contract signed for a Palgrave Handbook of Comparative Economics.

Working on the book was hard work, much more than I had anticipated. However, I would definitely do it all over again. We had an incredible set of contributors, who embraced our vision for the book and delivered on our expectations. And I really enjoyed working with Oleh. He was extremely reliable, never missing a deadline and always responding swiftly to queries, even the most mundane ones. We had frequent discussions, and made sure we both agreed on the feedback we sent to all our contributors. I benefited greatly from his experience, and he named me head of communication and technology, because of a slight comparative advantage in using some of the more modern tools (Oleh would smile reading this. He was often making fun of his difficulties with technology).

Oleh really impressed me with his stamina: we worked through the final versions of most of the chapters for the handbook while I was in lockdown in Italy and he was increasingly social distancing in Canada. Some collaborators were facing all sorts of difficulties in their diverse locations, as the pandemic enfolded. Our response was to increase the turnaround at which we were providing feedback: the handbook would just have to be a priority for a little while, as it was the only way we could support our contributors, to try and make the publishers deadlines, without adding pressures on others. But in his case, he was doing this after an intense period of work putting the finishing touches to another book…

“Present at the Transition” (CUP) is indeed the latest book written by Oleh. It is an engaging book reflecting on the experience of transition away from communism and towards market economies in Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, and it is such a perfect reflection of Oleh’s views and personality because the book does what Oleh did best, providing a detailed review of the academic literature and an astute discussion of key data, peppered with personal anecdotes which both illustrate and nuance the academic perspective. The book is both really accessible (and would make a great read for anyone interested in a detailed overview of transition from undergraduate students to early career researchers alike) and exhaustive, providing a formidable account of transition, from many perspectives. Indeed, the book presents an economic analysis of transition but also discusses historical legacies, political economy constraints, and external influences. The subtitle to the book reflects this approach well: “An Inside Look at the Role of History, Politics and Personalities in Post-Communist Countries”. It does bring together a lot of Oleh’s knowledge and expertise, providing a compelling overview. It just came out in May 2020 and incredibly, Oleh was able to finalise the proofs as we were between the first and the second drafts of most of the chapters for the handbook.

As I write today, we are also working through the proofs of the handbook, which should be released by the end of the year or early in 2021. However, Oleh will not be there to see this happen, as he left us on the 20th of September 2020, passing peacefully in the night. The news came as a complete shock to me, I had been in touch with him several times a week for the past 2 years, and pretty much every day since the beginning of 2020. He had always been warm and upbeat, often mentioning his plans for future research. He had also become a friend. In my last email to him, I had attached a picture of my newly redecorated working-corner at home, and he had informed me on the latest changes in his garden. He died just a few days after proof reading his handbook chapters: one last time delivering on time on the tasks he had committed to perform.

Oleh will be dearly missed, because he was such a knowledgeable academic who over decades had contributed to educating many, like me, to the intricacies of transition, because he enjoyed debating and honing his arguments, while always respecting and valuing the views of others and had thus earned the respect of those who agreed and those who disagreed with him, because he had a diverse experience and also wanted to embrace a diversity of points of view, making him a true advocate of inter-disciplinarity, because he was kind, generous and supportive to all, especially younger scholars. I will miss him dearly as a great colleague and a friend.

Oleh’s wife, Natalia, was always a fantastic support for Oleh. She attended some of his talks, always a supportive and loving presence at the back. She encouraged and supported his work, but also reminded him to take care of himself and stand back when needed. My thoughts are with her, as well as their children and grandchildren, in these difficult times.

The family invite friends and colleagues to submit their thoughts and reflections on Oleh’s legacy using this Google form.

Join our PiraMMMida scheme!

By tjmsrol, on 8 July 2020

Join our PiraMMMida scheme!

Launched on 1 July 2020, PiraMMMida.life, an experimental exhibition platform curated by UCL SSEES Lecturer in Critical Area Studies and FRINGE Centre Co-Head Michał Murawski, in collaboration with David Roberts (Bartlett School of Architecture), Masha Mileeva (Courtauld Institute) and Denis Maksimov (Avenir Institute).

PiraMMMida features the work of over 20 contributors: scholars, artists, architects, practitioners and others. SSEES contributors include Lecturer in Eurasian History Philippa Hetherington, Associated Professor in Czech with Slovak Literature Peter Zusi and Professor of Sociology Alena Ledeneva. The first batch of contributions was published on PiraMMMida.life on Wednesday 1 July; while the remaining contributions will continue to drop, like money from the MMM tree, in weekly batches every Wednesday until the end of July 2020. A virtual PiraMMMida conference will take place on 1 September, with the Call for Contributions (open to all) to be circulated in due course.

PiraMMMida.life – the cyber version of the PPV show at the (cancelled) Venice Biennale of Architecture 2020 – is a transmedia, transdisciplinary project exploring the relationship between finance, architecture, art and power. PiraMMMida borrows its name from MMM Bank, a notorious post-Soviet pyramid scheme launched by Sergei Mavrodi in 1991 and persisting in various guises (as MMM Global) until today. PiraMMMida explores Ponzi schemes, such as Mavrodi’s, and other “fake horizontals”: pharaonic edifices of exploitation and fraud masquerading as paragons of grassrootist virtue.

PiraMMMida.life is a project of PPV (Perverting the Power Vertical: Politics and Aesthetics in the Global East). It is supported by the Bartlett Architectural Research Fund, the FRINGE Centre for the Study of Social and Cultural Complexity and the UCL European Institute, carried out in collaboration with S.a.L.E. Docks and the Avenir Institute.

This is an excerpted fragment of an interview with Michał Murawski about PPV first published (in Russian) in Project Russia (www.prorus.com) on 3 July 2020. The interview was carried out by Asya Belousova.

Asya Belousova (AB): Perverting the Power Vertical (PPV) started as a seminar series that Michal Murawski has been running at UCL with some colleagues. Could you get into details and say what the seminar was dedicated to and how it progressed to become a platform for research and projects for Venice biennale? 

Michał Murawski (MM): The art historian Masha Mileeva and I launched PPV as a seminar series at University College London in October 2018. Actually, it was initially called “Power Vertical: Politics and Aesthetics in the Global East”. We invited Denis Maksimov, an independent curator, scholar and weirdo, to give one of the first seminars. It turned out he lived in London and we had similar seditious ideas about how to work with institutions, so he joined us as Co-Convener of the seminar series. Actually, he perverted us, and gave us the idea to change our name from PV to PPV


With regard to the Venice Biennale […] in our first year of operation, we worked with Arts Territory’s Kasia Sobucka’s and the Signum Foundation to put on a small project, called the Palace of Ritual, at Palazzo Dona Brusa. […] This year, we are working with the like-minded S.a.L.E. Docks, an activist initiative which squatted an exhibition hall on Dorsoduro, to realise PiraMMMida at the Architecture Biennale. We hope to realise this project in physical form in Venice in 2021, but we had a hunch that the Biennale would not go ahead this year – despite misleading promises to the contrary – so we decided to go online, with some funding from the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL. David Roberts is our comrade and Fellow Traveller from the Bartlett, and he has joined as co-curator of PiraMMMida this year.

PPV #8: The Palace of Ritual, May 2019, photographs by MM

AB: Why are you attracted so much to the pyramid? You are concentrating on the Eastern Europe. Why? What cases are you exploring and dissecting?

MM: Perhaps we can begin with why we are attracted to the “power vertical”. We are interested in ideas, concepts or phenomena that derive from East European or other post-socialist contexts; we are committed to trying to “unanchor” these ideas from their places of origin (while remaining conscious of their origins), and to applying these ideas into the broader world, to try to understand the world through categories derived from the “East”; rather than always trying to understand the East, and the South, and everywhere else, through categories taken from the West or the North, from France or America. Why do we always have to understand Russia or Nigeria “through” Foucault or Agamben? Why can’t we understand things that are happening in the core liberal capitalist countries through categories taken from our own peripheral or semi-peripheral contexts? We are not the only people who think like this – Yevgeny Fiks did a similar thing with this suggestion of “theory of pleshkha” as an alternative to Judith Butler-derived “queer theory”, the anthropologists Doug Rogers and Don Kalb have also written about it, and our colleagues the geographers Elena Trubina and Martin Müller are thinking along the same lines with their understanding of the “Global East” – but we are trying to institutionalise this move of unanchoring or “unbinding” theory from the East in as perverted and relentless a way as possible.


We were attracted to pyramid schemes for different reasons, I think. As an anthropologist I am really obsessed with the vernacular architecture of the pavilionchiki [temporary retail pavilions], which were demolished by Sergey Semyonovich [Sobyanin, Mayor of Moscow] on the so-called “Night of the Long Diggers [9 February 2016]; and generally with the other Las Vegas-esque pyramidal forms that sprouted up all over the post-Soviet world during the 1990s and 2000s. There are so many of them and they are amazing! My favourite one, of the ones I have been to, is the Kazan pyramid. I want to have a big party one day in the restaurant at the tip of the tower. And my other ambition is to one day visit the bus station in Chelyabinsk, which emanates a particularly otherworldly sort of cosmic power. These pyramidal forms are emanations or embodiments of the era of “wild capitalism”, the era of gryby i mutant (mushrooms and mutants), in Dasha Paramonova’s phrase, which – in theory – came to an end on the Night of the Long Diggers. But, as we are trying to point out, this era is far from over.


3) What are the prerequisites and mechanisms that enable pyramid schemes to come about? 

Pyramid in Kazan, photograph by Michal Murawski

MM: […] Pyramid schemes like MMM come about – and are able to entice vulnerable people in – at times of crisis, systemic transformation and desperation; at the kinds of times when statues fall, inflation goes hyper- and people take to the streets to riot. Various parts of the world are more or less always in this kind of state of normalised crisis, especially the formerly colonized countries, which are kept in this state of crisis by the global monetary system. The most famous pyramid schemes in the West – those of Ponzi and Madoff, for example – also came about at times of global financial meltdown. And the rise of cryptocurrency – in essence, these are get-rich quick schemes, which profited their early investors but which go in and out of cycles of explosion or implosion every four years or so – promised to be a radical new type of “truly horizontal” pyramid scheme, which began to proliferate in the long recession following the sub-prime mortgage crisis; a recession followed by over a decade of brutal austerity, which many people seemed to never get out of. And, of course, our current Covid moment is ripe for these kinds of schemes to develop too: inequalities are sharpened, battle lines are drawn on the lines of class, race, gender and sexuality; statues and monuments are toppled. We are in the middle of this sort of systemic reconfiguration, and we won’t know what the other side looks like for some time yet. We would like it to look less vertical, and more egalitarian, more queer, more black, less white, less hetero, less male.

Of course, we’re not too hopeful that this is possible, but we shall see. We are also very aware, of course, that the more you emphasise how horizontal, how democratic, how transparent something is, the more you of a rhetorical emphasis you place on this horizontality and democracy, the more pyramidal and the more pharaonic and exploitative things actually tend to be in essence. So this is in a sense what PiraMMMida is about. The PiraMMMida project is sort of an exploration of “fake horizontality”, an examination of the ways in which people claim things are horizontal, whereas actually they are as vertical as a vysotka [a Stalin-era skyscraper]. This is what most of the contributions to PiraMMMida explore. Rita Kuleva writes about pyramids in the art world, Philippa Hetherington about pyramids in public health (what does “flattening the curve really mean?). Artworks by Alena Ledeneva illustrate various types of informal political and economic geometries. The text contributions explore these themes very directly, the visual and architectural contributions do so a little more subtly.

A Mavro voucher, photograph by Michał Murawski

Another example is [former Georgian President] Saakashvilli’s all-glass police stations – built, of course, in the form of pyramids. They are supposed to be transparent, so that the police are in theory forced by this transparency to be more polite and less corrupt. But, of course, what happens it that the police just go and beat people up underground, in the dark dungeons beneath the light-filled police station (or this what people in Tbilisi joke, anyway). And what’s happening with the [Russian] constitutional referendum is another crazy manifestation of this kind of fake horizontality. First Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] pretended that the changes to the constitution were all about making the Duma stronger. Then [Valentina] Tereshkova [Russian deputy and cosmonaut, the first woman in space] “forced” him to take upon himself the burden of accepting amendments that would make him President for ever (and who better to descend from on high with such an initiative than somebody with the extraordinary cosmic, otherworldly, divine authority of Tereshkova?) And he modestly accepted this burden. Then – after the whole process was injected with this horrendous, heteronormative patina – the vote happened. And the vote is being carried out in the most democratic way ever! You don’t even have to go to the polling station – the polling station comes to you! And what could be more democratic than a transparent ballot box (if only the boxes were in the shape of pyramids)?

A Perverso voucher, photograph by Michał Murawski

And, to cap it all off, you are rewarded vouchers for voting, which you can redeem in Azbuka Vkusa [a Moscow grocery chain]. You are basically given Mavros [the name of the “vouchers” issued to participants in MMM Bank] for voting! Or Perversos (this is the name of the (crypto-)currency which we [launched] at the virtual vernissage of PiraMMMida.

The “Good Change”: Polish populist presidential campaign 2015 and now

By tjmsrol, on 23 June 2020

By Carolin Heilig and Paulina Lenik (FATIGUE Early Stage Researchers)


The 2020 presidential elections in Poland have received international attention on how to proceed with election without compromising on the population’s health, while still acting within the provisions of the constitution. These elections, however, are a potential turning point in the illiberal trajectory that Poland has been on for the last five years – they could also be the final step to solidify the country’s illiberal swerve to a proper illiberal turn (Bustikova/Guasti, 2017). That is the expected outcome if incumbent Andrzej Duda consolidates his support winning the second term in office. In this blog, we focus on Duda’s 2015 and 2020 campaign as the his backing party PiS has become the seasoned “the establishment”. To illustrate this shift we collected budgetary statistics, press releases and the 2015 and 2020 election campaign materials.

To compare Duda’s 2015 and 2020 election campaign in the light of populism, we employ Cas Mudde’s ideational approach, understanding populism as a thin ideology that pitches the “pure people” against the “corrupted elites” and can then be thickened with other ideologies such as nativism (Mudde/Rovira Kaltwasser, 2017). At the core of the thin ideology of populism are the exaltation of the ‘will of the people’ and the preference of substance over procedure in a democracy (Kubik, 2012) (Kubik, 2012). As such, populism is not at odds with democracy per se but with liberal democracy (Albertazzi/Mueller, 2013). Liberal democracy and populist ideology are clashing most strongly in questions of individual rights, freedom of speech and separation of power (ibid.).

Grim expectations: between a turn and a slide

In their distinction between an illiberal turn from an illiberal swerve, Bustikova and Guasti (2017), name three conditions: 1) executive aggrandisement (Bermeo, 2016), which in Poland took place in the form of the judicial reforms and increased government control over national media , 2) contested sovereignty that increases polarisation, most clearly exemplified by the increasingly exclusionary and heteronormative identity politics and 3) the dominant party winning two consecutive elections. Their argument focuses on parliamentary elections, not presidential ones, but the Polish case underlines the importance to include presidential elections in this calculation. The Law and Justice party (PiS) – united with its two small partners Agreement and United Poland as the “United Right”- has set the scene in the 2019 parliamentary elections. The current quest for power is to assure Duda’s victory in the 2020 elections. An opposition-backed president may be more willing to use a veto power to block further executive aggrandisement and manage to overcome deeply rooted divisions within the Polish society.

Presidential elections: a competence refresher

Poland’s political system is semi-presidential. The President is the representative of the State in foreign affairs, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, appoints the Prime Minister and their cabinet, as well as judges to the Supreme Court, common courts, administrative courts and military courts. As Art. 127 of the Polish Constitution specifies, the President of the Republic of Poland shall be elected in universal, equal, and direct elections, conducted by secret ballot, for a 5-year term of office and may be re-elected only for one more term. To run in the election a candidate requires the support by the signatures of at least 100,000 citizens having the right to vote in the elections. If no candidate receives 50% of the votes in the first round of the elections, the two candidates with the most votes will compete in a second round on the 14th day after the first vote.

The legislative competences of the Polish president have received increasing attention under Duda’s presidency since 2015. The President has the right to submit a legislative initiative (Constitution), however, the vast majority of debated initiatives in the Sejm are submitted by the Council of Ministers, Sejm committee or groups of at least 15 Members of the Sejm. Following Art. 122 of the Constitution, the President must sign a legislative act adopted by the Sejm for it to enter into force. He furthermore holds considerable veto power: if he has doubts concerning the appropriateness or purposefulness of an adopted act, the President may apply his veto. The Sejm than has the possibility to reject the President’s veto by majority of 3/5 of qualified votes in the presence of half of the MPs – currently, the United Right falls short of such a majority. The President’s veto is not selective; hence they cannot question only some regulations, but rather the act as a whole. If the President doubts the compliance of the act with the Constitution, he can submit it to the Constitutional Tribunal for examination.

Populists, not officeholders: the 2015 campaign

In 2015, Duda was chosen as PiS’s candidate to challenge PO’s Incumbent president Komorowski. Duda was then a PiS MEP with considerable experience but relatively unknown to many Poles. In the presidential elections, Duda was the face of an ambitious campaign that was underestimated by the complacent incumbent Komorowski, who had been leading in polls before the election (Markowski, 2016).). Eventually, Duda secured 51.55% of the votes in the second round, ever since connecting his presidency closely to PiS and its programme to lead Poland out “of ruins” and bring about the “Good Change”.

As corrupted elites, Duda’s campaign framed the governing elite of the then ruling PO as arrogant and detached from ordinary Poles’ lives. Touring around the whole country, meeting with these ordinary Poles, he aimed to distinguish himself from those liberal heirs of the Solidarity movement that sold out Poland’s interests to foreign actors. Duda stressed the historical legacies of Poles, by evoking heroism of older generations, drawing on direct family lines. This wass visualised in his campaign video that shows young scouts at the Warsaw Uprising Memorial, images of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, or people waving Polish flags with the “Polska Walcząca – anchor” at his campaign inauguration – a symbol created in the resistance to Nazi German occupation and nowadays increasingly coopeted by radical right-wing actors in Poland. In his speeches as well as in his official campaign video, Duda stressed his legacy of the late PiS president Lech Kaczyński who lost his life in the 2010 Smolensk tragedy, but this remains the only allusion to recent history. The Polish nation and its heroism are evoked through its resistance and perseverance in the times of Nazi German occupation and the Second World War.

Aside the historical nostalgia, Duda ran as a candidate for all Poles, bringing hope and dignity to those from whom the ruling elites had unjustly withheld prosperity after the hardships of transition after state socialism. The pure people are defined through their belonging to Polish nation and its history, but in contrast to 2020, his 2015 campaign did not highlight the family as the core of the nation.

Populists in the seat: the 2020 campaign 

Duda linked his presidency completely to the PiS party and its government since 2015. This is probably best illustrated by his campaign slogan of 2020 “Obronimy Polski +” (“Let’s defend Poland +”), which is a clear reference to various social welfare programmes paid out by the Polish government since 2015, ranging from child benefit 500+ to a pension increase 300+ and other projects. Additionally, images in his campaign spot of Duda together with PiS prime minister Morawiecki shall illustrate the president’s cooperation skills. In his official appearances during the election campaign, Duda stresses his role in signing the respective laws, directly alluding that an oppositional president would refuse to sign laws passed by the Polish parliament or even threat to strip Poles from existing benefits.

The populist rhetoric has also visibly intensified over the last years and Duda’s definition of the pure Polish people has narrowed down. In the presidential debate held on the 17.06.2020 he cited the constitution defining marriage as a union between man and woman which builds the basis of the family he almost exclusively seems to target in his campaign. Tellingly, this was the only time during the debate that he cited the Constitution to underline his argument, while the Left’s challenger Robert Biedroń brought his own copy to the debate to wave it at the president accusing him of disrespecting the Constitution and the rule of law during his presidency. Duda’s narrow focus on families most recently found yet another peek with his move to sign a Family Charter (Karta Rodziny), reliant on a similar charter promoted by the radical-right conservative law think tank Ordo Iuris (involved in the establishment of so-called LGBT free zones in Poland ) which met with considerable backlash and many universities (among them Duda’s own alma mater the Jagiellonian University in Kraków) issuing supportive statements for their queer students and staff- Duda openly declared LGBT to be a “foreign ideology” and compared it with Soviet indoctrination.

Duda’s recursing to national heroism also increased, which even became a special point in his 2020 programme called “Historical truth and the image of Poland”. Among others it states: “[…] Poland needs a president who will continue to restore national pride. We are a nation of heroes. In our history we have demonstrated courage and steadfastness. Today, Poles can and should be beneficiaries of the attitude of their grandparents, for whom there was no matter more important than honour.” . In line with this, Duda continuously cites in his speeches the Polish national anthem “Poland has not yet perished as long as we still live.” It should not come as a surprise that the Polish national colours red and white become even more dominant and images of Duda commemorating Polish soldiers fallen during the Second World War become even more prominent in his campaign videos, underlined by heroic and epic music. In order to underscore his focus on Polish families, many children and teenagers feature his campaign. In the 2020 campaign they are particularly often dressed in traditional folk dresses (see here).

With PO’s candidate Rafał Trzaskowski rising in the polls , narratives of the arrogant PO neglecting ordinary Poles have made a reappearance in Duda’s framing of the corrupted elites, playing with soft Eurosceptic images and rekindling the old post-Solidarity division, between those who argue that Polish interests were sold out during transition and the years after under PO rule and those who supported a liberal reformist approach to the Polish transition (see Aronoff/Kubik, 2014: 229ff). (Interestingly this narrative is also used, but differently, by the independent candidate Szymon Hołownia, currently polling third, who stresses in his campaign that Poland needs a president independent of both camps and political elites PO and PiS to create a fair and just Poland.)

Good or sizable? Change in the presidential cabinet’s expenses

Every newly elected president appoints the new cabinet (Kancerlaria Prezydenta Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej, the KPRP) which manages the daily routine of the head of state. The current organisational structure has undergone substantial changes with a consequently expanding tendency. Arguably, such expansionary red tape goes against the narrative fostered by PiS and Duda in the 2015 elections of the “Good Change” narrative fostered by PiS and Duda in the 2015 elections, that is putting an end to excessive spending under the previous “elitist rule” of the Civic Platform’s (PO) president Bronislaw Komorowski. The particularly astonishing finding is that it is not transparent where and how much resources are devoted to some of KPRP activities, as for instance the two counselling bodies that Andrzej Duda has established in the memory of the late Lech Kaczyński, that is the Narodowa Rada Rozwoju (National Development Council Body, NRR) and Rada Przedsiębiorczości (Entrepreneurial Council, RdsP).

The competence of the cabinet  (KPRP) is specified in the , entirely defined by the newly appointed president. A brief comparison between the previous presidents, Bronisław Komorowski, and the incumbent Andrzej Duda’s, cabinet reveal an interesting bureaucratic trajectory. During Komorowski’s term, the cabinet had 14 offices, 4 secretaries of state and 6 full time advisors (9 supernumerary social advisors) all in accordance with the set up Chancellery status. Duda has expanded the overall office substantially. For the sake of simplicity, we have summed up the current organisational structure in the graph below with enumeration of the most critical individuals (non-repetitive) who are holding these posts as managers, advisors, and secretaries of state. Each of the management offices is led by an independent office director, adding up to 28 management divisions (offices and top management) in the chancellery.

KPRP under Komorowski:

KPRP under Duda

Summed up, the current cabinet has bureaucratically expanded about 30%, that is from 14 offices to 19, from 4 secretaries of state to 6, and from 6 full time advisors to 8. Moreover, the incumbent president has rekindled an initiative already proposed by the late Lech Kaczyński in 2009, the National Development Council Body (Rada Narodowego Rozwoju, in memory of the late president). The body, which has not published any results since 2010 and has only met twice since its establishment, comprises 102 experts subdivided into 6 thematic teams, serving as a presidential council. In a similar manner, President Duda has also set up another body of the same format, the Entrepreneurial Council back in May 2019, with yet too little contribution to assess its usability. The organisational structure of these bodies is shown below. Unfortunately, we have no access to the funding act or whether members are being recompensated in any manner for their participation (our query for it has not been answered at the time of writing).

Setting aside the difficulty to assess the contribution of those council bodies, the little oversight of the legal basis for the body to proceed is a worrying signal. The presidential sources are not transparent with regards to financing of these bodies, and their establishment has not been set up in the KPRP status, which on its own remains a weak legal act reliant majorly on the Art. 143 of the Constitution.

These observations are worrisome, as citizens are not aware of how these experts are being financed, and if expenses are covered by the public budgetbetween the expertise of the councillors, and arguably some of them are a surprising choice for presidential advisory board, as a gynaecology expert.

What we may state clearly is that the work of the Chancellery is fully funded from the public budget. The Ministry of Finance is responsible for budgetary planning, and the Chancellery has to comply with its annual calendar, the overarching deadline falling on every March. Both the planned expenses as well as the executed budget from the previous accounting period are legally required to be available to the public. Worryingly, however, at the time of writing, the presidential cabinet has not made the budgetary expenses available for the past year. That is to say, the administration has not complied with the budgetary requirements and we are unable to verify what were the past year’s budgetary expenses.

The latest document is the Chancellery ex-ante annual expense plan for the 2018/2019 budget. The comparison of these planning documents confirmed that since 2015 the planning has not changed a notch. Every year, the official per planned category budget of the Chancellery is 30 million PLN (€7.5 million) per designated unit. That may be a little surprising given that the budgetary excess has essentially increased as indicated by the total executed expenses. There is some substance to believe, that the financial oversight over the presidential dealings is not particularly exigent as the tables made available to the public are of generic, repetitive character, as shown on the table below.

There are more elaborate ways to complement these figures, either through the Supreme Audit Office (NIK) which is conducting the annual audit of the public budget, or through the Ministry of Finance. To our surprise, the NIK annual report for 2019 has not been issued yet, what indicates that the delay with financial oversight might be of graver nature. The only accessible statistic on how much the incumbent’s cabinet requires to provide for the bureaucratic net, is through the Ministry of Finance. Here, what has been substantiated by the recent press on the matter, we find evidence that Duda’s Chancellery is the most expensive since the transition. The annual operational budget has consecutively increased every year, reaching 200 million PLN in 2019 (€50 million) , that is almost a billion the past five years. We have again, little knowledge on expenses given the very generic nature of the expense categories. However, even brief calculation indicates that the president requires PLN 20 million (€5 million) per month to keep the vast offices he has set up  during his term. The further investigation confirmed that, the presidential palace is spending PLN170 million (€43 million) per annum on the administration offices alone (with additional PLN 30 million (€7.5 million) on residences, security, and promotional activities). To have a relative comparison, the annual cost of Bronisław Komorowski’s Chancellery was PLN 167million total (€43 million), that is roughly PLN 30 million (€ 7.5 million)  less than currently. Clearer oversight of the incumbent president’s spending would also be crucial to understand better how much of the budget is used for PR and campaigns such as #5latPAD (“Five Years President Andrzej Duda”) that seemingly mixes presidential PR with his current re-election campaign .

Conclusion: why it matters?

Duda will most likely continue to further Poland’s illiberal turn: after the judicial reforms which undermined the rule of law as one pillar of liberal democracy, he is now increasingly zooming in on minorities. Poland is already one of the most homophobic countries within the EU. The government is repeatedly promising to keep children safe from “LGBT ideology” and “propaganda”, what is reminding one of Russia’s anti- “gay propaganda” law.

In 2015, Duda’s win under the banner of the “Good Change” started the profound reform of the Polish state following the ideas of Jarosław Kaczyński, it was followed by PiS taking over the government in fall 2015 and defending its majority with the United Right in 2019. The president has gained the nickname by his critiques as “długopis” (pen), for signing most laws presented to him by the Sejm and even when he used his veto power in the judicial it fell short of expectations and has been the subject of continuous clashes with the EU over the rule of law in Poland.

These changes are distressing, because are difficult to reverse. The pressure on judiciary, and overtaken media loosen the traditional oversight over the rule of law. The brief examination of the budgetary dealings of the Chancellery showed that the promise of “Good Change” has been far from materialised. Not only has the incumbent president substantially increased the annual presidential spending (30 million PLN, i.e. €7.5million per annum more), reaching the astounding 880 PLN million in five years, but it has also departed from the legally binding foundation of the office. The set up NRR and RdsP have no officially accessible status, and citizens are in the fog concerning how these bodies are funded. Aside finance, these bodies have dubious results so far, with very few analytic reports (2010 NRR). The transparency concerning how the counselling bodies act is unreachable, the information of their financing is difficult to acquire. Essentially, the populist promise to sever with “corrupt elites” has merely turned the beneficiary wheel to the new incumbent’s own direction.

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edit. This post has been edited to clarify that it is the ballot that is secretly conducted, not the election itself (4th paragraph).