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In Poland, Twin Leaders Push Nationalist Agenda

Times Staff Writer

They were precocious childhood actors who once plotted to steal the moon, but these days the silver-haired Kaczynski twins have a new goal: leading Poland to the right.

President Lech Kaczynski and his identical twin, Jaroslaw, leader of the dominant Law and Justice Party, believe Poland has been weakened by years of liberalism and corruption. They’re stoking patriotism and forming alliances with ultraconservative parties.

Their homespun rhetoric resonates in an economically troubled nation that has yet to bury the vestiges of 40 years of communism. The brothers, who oppose gay rights and have chastised a media they view as instigating moral decay, want an education system that emphasizes all things Polish. They also want a new anti-corruption agency to root out communist holdovers.

“Their policies endanger certain rights, and I don’t like some of their ideas,” said Jakub Marzec, a law student wearing dreadlocks and a gray suit. “But maybe we should give them a chance. Their agenda of a clean state is really attractive. It’s difficult not to recognize this as something good after years of Poland’s corruption.”

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Identical in appearance save for a mole on Lech’s cheek, they are different in personality. Former Warsaw Mayor Lech, who was elected president in October, is the public persona of the family. Jaroslaw, who lives with his mother and cats, is the less visible ideologist and strategist whom political commentators view as the power behind the presidency.

“I don’t see any dangers for civil liberties with this government,” said Piotr Maciej Kaczynski, an analyst with the Institute of Public Affairs and no relation to the brothers. “What I see is a struggle over power. They’re trying to create a sense of Polish identity around a strong state. There are dangers, and the biggest one is the concentration of power into one man [Jaroslaw] who doesn’t even run his own party democratically.”

Human rights groups for years have been concerned by the Kaczynskis’ politics, which run counter to the more liberal and secular leanings of the European Union, which Poland joined in 2004. In a report last month, Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, said an “official homophobia” existed in Poland.

Robert Biedron, president of Poland’s Campaign Against Homophobia, characterized the Kaczynski brothers’ position as “medieval conservative.”

“It’s actually more clerical than conservative,” he said. “It’s very much what the Catholic Church says. They’re trying to build a Polish nationalist country and bring these values to the European Union.”

Many in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation do not think of the brothers, who were prominent Solidarity revolutionaries in the 1980s, as nationalists. Supporters consider them conservatives whose policies are what a proud yet insecure Poland needs to emerge as a strong political voice between Western Europe and the former Soviet states. Much of the Kaczynskis’ agenda centers on the political equivalent of tarring and feathering former communists.

After Lech Kaczynski took office in December, the government announced that it would recall 10 Polish ambassadors who had connections with the communist regime that collapsed more than 16 years ago. The government wants to investigate former communist politicians and businessmen linked to scandals involving oil and Russian spies and questionable post-Soviet deals. Some of these officials belong to leftist and social democratic parties that have only recently left power.

“We name streets with the names of heroes, not traitors. So we now have to decide who are the heroes and who are the traitors,” said Bronislaw Wildstein, a writer and supporter of Law and Justice. “The Kaczynski government wants deep reforms to the laws and to speak openly about the set of values that exists for much of Poland.”

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The Kaczynski brothers, who were born in 1949, came to public attention in 1960s as mischievous boys in the allegorical film “The Two Who Stole the Moon.” In the 1970s, they joined the anti-communist underground and later Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement. The brothers are not charismatic speakers, but their steely disdain for the communist era and populist sound bites have won over much of the country.

“I would like to clean the state,” Jaroslaw Kaczynski said in a recent interview with the daily Gazeta Wyborcza. He said former communists and their business partners still controlled “a large portion of our national product.”

Civil libertarians have complained that the proposed anti-corruption agency could be used by the government to wiretap and monitor political dissidents. Other Poles are more concerned over what they view as the brothers’ moral fervor and their choice of political allies.

Law and Justice won the most votes in the last election, but not a clear majority. Differences with the nation’s second- largest party, the pro-business Civil Platform, forced Law and Justice to seek other coalition partners. They include the ultra-right Polish Families League, the populist Self-Defense Party and the Polish Peasant Party.

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Law and Justice leaders acknowledge that they are uneasy with these ties but say they had no other choices to form a government. They fear that such parties lend a radical taint to the government and bolster complaints that the Kaczynskis are less concerned about fixing the economy and its 18% unemployment rate.

The twins have tried to navigate between mainstream and conservative causes while seeking to soften the stances of their coalition partners.

For example, during the last campaign Law and Justice candidates appeared on a popular Catholic program on Radio Maria whose ultra-right views are often not supported by the church. This boosted Law and Justice in rural areas even as the Kaczynskis distanced themselves from Radio Maria’s politics. But the brothers believe a creeping liberalism is harming the country.

“Will our civilization be able to renew itself if there will continue to be this incredibly intensive promotion of evil and moral decay?” said Jaroslaw Kaczynski, referring to the media in a recent magazine interview.

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As Warsaw mayor last year, Lech Kaczynski cited traffic restrictions to ban a gay rights march. The rally took place anyway, and the courts later ruled that such bans are illegal. Law and Justice-backed Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz was quoted last year as saying that homosexuality is “unnatural -- the family is natural, and the state must stand guard over the family.”

Rights groups are also concerned that the president may advance his agenda this year, when he is expected to appoint six judges to the country’s 15-member Constitutional Tribunal.

A more conservative court will make it less likely that Poland’s strict abortion law will be overturned. Last month, a Polish woman with severe myopia went to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, arguing that the law forced her to have a child despite findings by three doctors that giving birth would increase her chances of going blind. Her suit says that her eyesight has worsened since the birth in 2000 and that she is “significantly disabled.” The Catholic Church pushed for the tougher abortion law after the fall of communism.

The Kaczynskis are “playing on fears,” said Adam Bodnar, legal coordinator with the Helsinki Human Rights Foundation in Warsaw. “These days Poles feel there is a need for a good sheriff.... The president has called for a moral censorship. This is like winking to the electorate that we’ll protect you from gays and all the ills that prey on our good Catholic Polish society.”

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Such characterizations are exaggerated, said Law and Justice’s Ryszard Legutko, who is deputy speaker of the Senate. He said that the government was reflecting the will of the country and that proposed reforms were overdue. Although the proposed Institute of National Education has been criticized as an attempt to instill nationalism through schools, Legutko said it was an opportunity to better teach students about their nation’s often turbulent history.

“Poles always believed that we were so traditional, so in love with our history that we were unable to keep up with modern technological issues,” Legutko said. “The Poles being in love with the past is a myth. Polish kids today can’t even tell you about martial law” during communist rule.

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Fleishman was recently on assignment in Poland.

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