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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

After Courting the West, Poland Turns Inward

WISLICA, Poland -- This modest village in south central Poland, standing in the shadow of the Basilica of the Birth of Blessed Virgin Mary, finds itself reaching back to its deepest roots soon after Poland, and much of Central Europe, won the prizes of membership in NATO and the European Union.

Most of the residents have given their support to a nationalist Roman Catholic government that in the few months since coming to power has been defending Christian values and acting with an aggressiveness that alarms more secular people in Poland and Europe.

One villager, Wieslaw Cygan, voted for the League for Polish Families, a party that is now part of the governing coalition. "I would like to see a new political party," he said. "A People's Democratic Christian Conservative Party that would be Catholic and patriotic."

The labels that Cygan attaches to his dream party suggest the struggle for identity that is going on in deeply Catholic and rural Poland, and rippling across other formerly communist countries in Europe. Nearly 17 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and two years after Poland and other former Soviet bloc states joined the European Union, it is a surprising time in Europe. On the very heels of what could be deemed a historic achievement -- the defeat of communist dictatorship and the merging of Eastern and Western Europe into a 25-member club of solidly democratic countries -- Europe is in a strange and sour mood.

In the West, ever since the rejection a proposed constitution that was supposed to put Europe into its next phase of integration, there seems to be no energy or political will directed toward what used to be called the European project.

Meanwhile, the former Eastern bloc nations, though objectively in better shape economically and politically than at any other time in their histories, seem lost, bereft of the purpose that inspired them when their only goal was to topple the communists. "That was a very romantic time in Eastern Europe," Krisztian Szabados, director of Political Capital, a political analysis organization in Budapest, said of the immediate post-communist period. "But the romantic time is over."

In Wislica, the answer for the problems of Poland is symbolized by the solid basilica, which anchors the village of just a few streets of modest houses and an expanse beyond of small farms.

But the government itself is not so solid. In early July, the moderate prime minister, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, stepped down. To fill the post, President Lech Kaczynski appointed his twin brother, Jaroslaw, the leader of the Law and Justice Party. The move gives the Kaczynskis a dominance in Poland unseen since the days of communist rule.

President Kaczynski is remembered in Europe for having banned a gay pride parade in Warsaw when he was mayor there two years ago. But more recently, he reacted so vociferously to a parody of himself in a German newspaper -- demanding that the German government investigate the paper and apologize -- that some German commentators argued that it had been a mistake to have allowed Poland into the EU.

"It's true that some of the demons of the past have returned," said Zbigniew Lewicki, a professor of American studies at Warsaw University. "I blame the leadership for it. They keep talking about the last 17 years as a time of dishonesty, ... a time we should be ashamed of.

"If [people] can't believe in the last 17 years, and they can't believe in the communist tradition, they turn to the prewar tradition. And the only strong prewar tradition is nationalism: ... Polishness."

It is the adoption of Catholicism as an unofficial state religion that may have changed Poland's atmosphere the most.

For 17 years, said Marek Ostrowski, an editor at the weekly magazine Polityka, the political mainstream did not pay attention to the resurgent religious values. "Now that has changed," he said.