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WARSAW, Poland – Only months ago Mateusz Kijowski was a computer specialist unknown to the Polish public. Today the 47-year-old is leading the largest civic protest movement that Poland has seen since Lech Walesa's Solidarity defied the communist regime.
His Committee for the Defense of Democracy took form in November, soon after the right-wing party Law and Justice took office and started consolidating its grip, weakening the power of the constitutional court and other institutions that should be checks on government power. That has prompted the European Union and international human rights groups to express alarm about the state of democracy and the rule of law in the EU's largest eastern member.
Kijowski's group, which is supported by many former Solidarity activists and embraces the same values of nonviolent resistance, has organized a string of protests over the past months that have brought many thousands of people into the streets. But he has come under withering verbal attack from the Law and Justice leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who has denounced the movement as anti-patriotic and even guided by foreign interests.
In early April Kijowski will travel to Washington for meetings on Capitol Hill and at the State Department, a trip organized by Freedom House, the U.S.-based group that advocates human rights worldwide. His said his message to U.S. officials will be that democracy is under attack but that much of Polish society remains committed to democratic values — and that the country should therefore not be sidelined internationally.
"We want to put strong pressure on the government but we do not want to build barriers between Poland and other countries," Kijowski told The Associated Press in an interview.
As the movement, generally known by its Polish acronym, KOD, has brought people to the streets over the past four months, Kaczynski has lashed out. First he called the protesters "Poles of the worst sort" — a slogan they adopted and now use sarcastically on buttons and banners.
Recently, with the country under greater international censure, Kaczynski's accusations have become stronger. He said the supporters of KOD "despise" Poland and have taken their complaints to the Russian embassy. An adviser to the president also accused the protests of being an element in Russian "hybrid warfare" aimed against Poland.
"I have never been in the Russian embassy," retorted Kijowski. "They are trying to discredit us, and are lying about us to show that we are not true Poles, that people shouldn't trust us."
"If we treat the language seriously it is horrible because it's going in the direction of fascism," Kijowski said. "But it's probably more funny because he wants to be a dictator but doesn't have the power for that."
Kaczynski is on a mission to create a stronger nation state that is built on traditional, small-town Catholic values, pushing back against pressure to accept gay rights and other values that have arrived with EU membership. A key mainstay of his worldview is that the country is radically flawed by the 1989 deal that ended communism because it left a large degree of influence and wealth in the hands of former communists, the price paid at the time for a peaceful transition. Law and Justice defends its various political moves as necessary to root out liberal and post-communist influences that it sees as harmful.
Kijowski criticizes the ruling party's values, saying they exclude many Poles who don't share its conservative view.
"We are trying to be a civic society that connects every citizen, which is open to every citizen, open to all political sympathies, all religions," he said.
He accuses the ruling party of dismantling the legal order. Like the EU and human rights groups, he points to new laws that have paralyzed the Constitutional Tribunal, tightened government control over the state media, given police greater power to spy on citizens and broadened its scope for investigating citizens.
"But the most dangerous thing is the whole affair around the constitutional court because all the other things could be stopped by the Constitutional Tribunal if it could proceed normally," he said.
Kijowski was too young to be a part of Solidarity but says that a lot of his movement's support comes from people active in that anti-communist resistance. He said he has sought the advice of Walesa, who has given the movement his support.
"The people who knew communism have deja vu now," Kijowski said.