17.10.23 Review

Elections in Poland and the Unseen Eastern European Battlefront: Public opinion in the region is the weakest link in the chain of ‘European unity’

'Euroscepticism' and the 'Russia-Ukraine question' remain core subjects of contention in the public opinion landscape of Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe. In most countries in the region, with the exception of the Baltic states and Poland, these issues intertwine. The flagship of European revisionism is Hungary, led by Viktor Orban, who recently paid a visit to Vladimir Putin's residence in Beijing. Hungarian public opinion does not exhibit a particularly strong attachment to Russia but leans toward a pragmatic and self-interested approach to foreign policy matters. This alignment draws Hungary closer to the Global South and is a matter of concern for the European mainstream. In Poland, where the level of solidarity with Ukraine has been among the highest in the last year and a half, the recent elections dealt a blow to right-wing 'Eurosceptics.' Liberals are ready to see these election results as the 'right-wing wave' on the wane and a sort of comeback following their defeat in Slovakia. However, despite the polarity of views on the Ukraine-Russia issue in Poland and Hungary, recent polls reveal a certain convergence of public opinion in these countries when it comes to the practical integration of Ukraine into Europe and their attitudes towards refugees. In this sense, the situation on the unseen battlefront of public opinion in Eastern Europe is likely to remain tense.

The elections in Poland on Sunday have given European liberals cause for hope. The results for the ruling 'Law and Justice' party (PiS) were even worse than expected (35.5%), while the opposition coalition secured a majority. The anti-immigrant referendum initiated by PiS, aimed at challenging Brussels' policies, also failed. In these results, the opponents of PiS in Poland and across Europe are ready to see a sign of the decline of the 'right-wing wave' and a sort of comeback following the defeat of the liberals in Slovakia.

However, these hopes may be premature. The underlying battle for European unity in Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe continues. The topics at the heart of this battle remain both 'Euroscepticism' and the Russia-Ukraine war, and the level of support for Ukraine. As Re:Russia has previously reported, surveys show that there are three groups of countries in Europe with regard to the second issue. The zone of maximum support includes the wealthy Northern European countries, the Baltic states, and Poland. The zone of strong support consists of the major European powers, primarily Germany and France. And, the zone of weak support encompasses Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe. Here, public opinion is much more sensitive to the refugee issue and is susceptible to many of the narratives of Russian propaganda.

Poland's peculiarity lies in the fact that the 'Russia-Ukraine question' has been removed from the agenda of this confrontation. Poland demonstrates almost complete declarative unity in its support for Ukraine, based on the conviction of the need to contain Russia alongside anti-Russian solidarity. However, when it comes to Ukraine's European integration, the Polish public and political class hold significant reservations, which are evident in the conflict over the supply of Ukrainian grain to the European market.

In other CEE countries, on the contrary, the Russia-Ukraine issue is intertwined with 'Euroscepticism'. And in such a composition of divisions, the regional trend looks unfavourable. A striking recent example here is Slovakia, where the pro-Ukrainian government, which was one of the first to transfer aircraft to Ukraine, is set to be replaced by a pro-Russian and 'Ukraine-sceptic’' government under Robert Fico. The fact that 'Ukraine-scepticism' is gaining popularity is underscored by the visit of Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban to Vladimir Putin's residence in Beijing, where both leaders are attending China’s 'Belt and Road' conference. This meeting shocked the European political establishment.

Poland and Hungary represent unique poles in the region when it comes to their stance on the Ukraine issue. A recent survey and overview by the Pew Research Center shows that in 2019, the public opinion positions in these two countries regarding their global orientation (towards Russia and/or the United States) were relatively aligned. At that time, 53% of Poles and 55% of Hungarians believed that it was important for their country to maintain relationships with both Russia and the United States. Interestingly, in Poland, a slightly higher proportion of respondents (12%) favoured closer ties with Russia, while in Hungary, this figure stood at just 8%. However, data from surveys conducted in 2022 and 2023 show a significant divergence.

In Hungary, approximately half of those surveyed (50% in 2022 and 56% in 2023) continue to express support for maintaining cooperation with both countries. In Poland, however, the popularity of this position plummeted to 28% in 2022 and decreased further to 17% in 2023. 76% of Poles surveyed were in favour of their country orienting itself towards the US (up from 29% in 2019) and 17% of Hungarians believe that this is the right approach (down from 24% in 2019) .

Attitudes towards Russia and the United States in Poland and Hungary ('Which country is it more important to have close relations with?'), 2019-2023, % of those surveyed



At the same time, Hungarian public opinion cannot be classified as explicitly pro-Russian. Only 23% of Hungarians surveyed hold a favourable view of Russia, while 73% view it in a negative light (in Poland, the corresponding figure is 98%). Additionally, just 19% trust Putin. The difference in views on Russia is primarily determined by a stark contrast in the perception of security issues and their attitudes towards Brussels' position.

Poland considers itself a frontline state, with 77% of Polish respondents indicating that Russia poses a significant military threat to its neighbours. In Hungary, only 33% of those surveyed hold this opinion. One in four Hungarians believes that Russia does not pose a threat (27%), compared to just 5% of Poles surveyed.

As a consequence, despite not harbouring warm feelings toward Russia, a substantial portion of Hungary's population leans towards national pragmatism in its relations with Russia, opposing Brussels' idea of pan-European solidarity with Ukraine. For instance, almost half of those surveyed in Hungary (48%) believe that sanctions against Russia should be eased (in Poland, this figure is only 3%). Among right-wing voters in Hungary, this position is held by 55%. On the other hand, the majority of Poles (67%) are in favour of tougher sanctions against Russia, while in Hungary, only 8% support this. This 'self-interested' approach to foreign policy aligns Hungary with the position often observed in countries of the Global South and the so-called middle powers.

The only issue where the publics of Poland and Hungary appear relatively aligned is the matter of refugees. About half of both Poles (52%) and Hungarians (49%) support the admission of refugees from countries facing violence and wars. At the beginning of the Russian full-scale invasion, 80% of Poles and 63% of Hungarians felt inclined to support refugees from Ukraine. However, after the actual acceptance of nearly a million Ukrainians in Poland, this support dropped to 52%. In Hungary, despite the significantly lower number of actual refugees arriving in the country (about 50,000), support for refugees also decreased to a similar value (49%).

Thus, the refugee issue and questions of Ukraine's European integration (contrary to the EU's position, Hungary has also extended its embargo on Ukrainian grain exports) will likely shift the Polish position closer to that of Hungary in the foreseeable future. However, under a new government, if it is formed, this process will become more restrained due to the pro-European orientation of the coalition that won the election.