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US 'Concern' Over Poland's Democracy Threatens Warsaw's NATO Base Ambitions

© AP Photo / Alik KepliczPolish Army soldiers check their tank after the NATO Noble Jump exercise on a training range near Swietoszow Zagan, Poland, Thursday, June 18, 2015
Polish Army soldiers check their tank after the NATO Noble Jump exercise on a training range near Swietoszow Zagan, Poland, Thursday, June 18, 2015 - Sputnik International
The conflict between Poland's conservative government and the country's constitutional court is undermining its 'special relationship' with Washington and threatening Warsaw's ambitions to station permanent NATO bases on its territory.

Last Friday, a senior White House official told reporters that the president has "certainly been concerned" with developments in Poland, where a standoff between the right-wing Law & Justice Party government and the country's Constitutional Court has met with seething criticism from the Venice Commission, a legal body of the Council of Europe. The White House, the official noted, is worried about the "steps the [Polish] government has taken that may be inconsistent with liberal democratic norms."

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Also last week, the Venice Commission backed the Constitutional Court, saying that changes to the rules of the court's functioning introduced late last year had undermined the separation of powers, the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

And while the Obama administration backtracked from its criticism almost in the same breath, serious damage to the 'special relationship' between Washington and Warsaw appears to have been done, the European edition of Politico suggests.

While voicing the administration's concerns, the White House official softened the critique, noting that "the new Polish government is still fairly young and finding its way forward, so we want to see how they respond to the report of the Venice Commission."

And respond they did: Over the weekend, the Polish government reiterated that it would not abide by the Venice Commission's recommendations, noting that it "could not publish the decisions of some Constitutional Tribunal judges that are not based on law" (without publishing the verdict, it will be impossible to enforce it).

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For his part, Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski called the tribunal's decision "the private position of a certain group of people." At the same time, party officials slammed the Venice Commission itself, with a parliamentary spokesman telling reporters that the commission's opinion "is not a binding opinion" and that countries which rejected its opinions in the past "didn't cease to exist."

As for the US's concerns, Polish officials have decided to stand firm in making clear exactly how little Washington's opinion means to them in this case.

Over the weekend, speaking at a security conference commemorating the anniversary of Poland's accession to NATO, Defense Minister Witold Waszczykowski, well known for his outspoken commentary, effectively said that the US has no right to lecture Poland on its democracy.

"People who were only building their country in the 18th century are telling us what democracy is – a nation that already had structures of representative democracy in the 13th and 14th centuries," Waszczykowski said.

At the same time, the minister noted that Poland "demand[s] equal treatment through gaining not only political but also military guarantees before any threat that could face us."

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However, Politico suggested, Poland's "diplomatic ill-temper" is "going to be a tough sell for the US administration at a time when Poland is seen as straying from the normal rules of democratic states."

Speaking to the newspaper, Heather Conley, a former Bush administration deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, suggested that the situation in Poland may give the White House cause to scale back bilateral engagement with Poland, "and not give the Polish government a lot of meeting time bilaterally" at the upcoming NATO summit in July.

"That's already happening with the nuclear security summit in Washington on March 31," Politico added. "Polish President Andrzej Duda is attending, but despite efforts on the Polish side, the US has not said if there will be a one-on-one meeting between him and Obama."

People hold Polish national flag during a demonstration in Gdansk, Poland February 28, 2016. - Sputnik International
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Ultimately, Pawel Kowal, a former deputy foreign minister from the previous Law and Justice who left the party in 2011, warned that the standoff between Washington and Warsaw may escalate into a full-blown rift, resulting in Poland's 'international isolation'.

"It could turn out that additional defense measures do come to the region, but that they don't come to Poland," he told the paper. "Polish history is really pretty definite. We're either in some sort of a union, or else Russian troops are stationed in Poland," he added.

And while it may be absurd, in the 21st century, to suggest that a more independent Polish position would inevitably lead to Russian occupation, it is interesting to ponder how far the rift between Warsaw and its Western partners has to go before the government reconsiders its 'special relationship' with the US, the EU, and NATO itself.

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