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Polish president unlikely to get earful from US

Laura King, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Even before Polish President Andrzej Duda walks into the White House on Wednesday, he'll have notched a political win.

Poland's nationalist government in recent years has had an increasingly acrimonious relationship with the European Union, defying the bloc it joined 15 years ago with a string of measures including a crackdown on the independent judiciary and the free press.

So from Warsaw's point of view, a warm relationship with Washington -- in particular, the optics of a one-on-one meeting between Presidents Donald Trump and Duda -- counterbalances the distinct chill emanating from Western European capitals such as Paris and Berlin.

And with Polish parliamentary elections four months away, a show of friendship with an American president is a campaign selling point for the ruling party.

Poland is part of a cohort of Eastern European countries that shook off communist rule three decades ago, but now embrace a brand of staunch nationalism that meshes well with Trump's ideological leanings.

In a 2017 visit to Warsaw, Trump portrayed Poland as a bulwark of Western civilization, lacing a high-profile address with blood-and-soil rhetoric and a menacing depiction of immigrants and Muslims -- a message that resonates with right-wing movements in Europe as well as the United States.

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Despite his title, Duda isn't Poland's most important political figure. The real power is considered to rest with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who heads the ruling Law and Justice party, or PiS. But the White House visit boosts Duda's prestige.

The White House says rule-of-law issues are part of an ongoing U.S.-Polish dialogue, but if a visit last month by Hungary's authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, is any guide, the Polish leader is unlikely to encounter much pushback from Trump over a recent spate of anti-democratic moves.

When Orban came to call, Trump used a joint news conference to praise him as a respected leader, brushing aside expressions of alarm from human rights groups and Western governments.

In Trump and Orban's side-by-side White House appearance, there was no mention of the Hungarian leader's sustained attacks on his country's democratic institutions, his conspiracist-style railing against Hungarian American philanthropist George Soros, or the Hungarian government's punitive campaign aimed at nongovernmental groups with missions such as helping migrants.

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