WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The United States has long been an indispensable Polish ally — a friend in the struggle to overthrow communism and join NATO, a steady partner in times of tension with other European countries, the ultimate guarantor of security against Russia.
But today ties between Warsaw and Washington are seeing new tensions that are unusual, perhaps unprecedented, in 27 years of Poland's democracy. The reason is that the United States is exerting pressure on Poland to resolve a constitutional crisis considered a threat to the rule of law, something Poland's nationalistic new leaders reject as an unwelcome violation of their national sovereignty.
Five American Senators, all members of the Senate's Intelligence Committee, are to meet Polish President Andrzej Duda in Krakow on Saturday. While Duda's office says the discussions will focus mainly on security, it's likely the constitutional crisis will also come up given the U.S. concerns over it.
U.S. officials have been urging Polish leaders to resolve the crisis, mainly with a quiet form of democracy that does not embarrass the Poles and seeks to minimize any defensive reactions.
Despite that cautious approach, Polish leaders have made their displeasure very clear.
"People who only built their state in the 18th century are going to tell us what democracy is?" Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz said last weekend.
Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski tried to do damage control, insisting Macierewicz was not referring to any specific country.
Certainly there have been other tensions in recent years. It's a sore point that Poles still need visas to travel to the United States, unlike Western Europeans, despite their military contributions to the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Polish officials also felt betrayed when information began seeping out of Washington about the CIA prison that operated for several months in Poland starting in 2002, where suspects were abused.
However, the current tensions are unusual since Poland is one of the most pro-U.S. countries in Europe, and particularly since the expressions of irritation are coming from Law and Justice, a party that has traditionally been skeptical of Russia and Germany but exceedingly pro-U.S.
The issue centers on a political stalemate surrounding the Constitutional Tribunal, Poland's highest legislative court. After taking power last year, Law and Justice passed laws that have paralyzed the court, essentially preventing it from acting as a check on the party's power.
Last week, the court ruled that that the new laws are unconstitutional and the Venice Commission, an international human rights body made up of legal experts, said the government moves threaten democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
However, Law and Justice refuses to recognize the court's ruling. And it's not really clear what the United States — or the European Union, which is also alarmed — can really do about it.
When Hungary's Viktor Orban began centralizing power in recent years, undermining independent institutions, U.S. officials were openly critical, something that only made Orban more combative.
One form of leverage that could work would be threatening to reverse plans to build up a NATO presence in Poland, something that is expected to be announced at a NATO summit in Warsaw in July, and which is very important to Poland.
But Marcin Zaborowski, vice president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, said that is extremely unlikely because in the U.S security assessment Poland is still considered a crucial ally and it is seen as unwise to mix up security issues with unrelated political matters.
The senators who will meet with the Polish president are Richard M. Burr, Republican from North Carolina; Dan Coats, Republican from Indiana; Angus King, Jr., independent from Maine; Barbara Mikulski, Democrat from Maryland; and Mark Warner, Democrat from Virginia.
In February three other senators — Arizona's John McCain, Benjamin Cardin of Maryland and Richard Durbin of Illinois — sent a letter to Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo expressing their concerns over the rule of law. Szydlo and other Polish leaders replied that they were misinformed about what is happening in Poland and have no right to lecture Warsaw.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the powerful head of the ruling party, said on Friday that: "Foreign pressure on Poland's government concerning the tribunal is a very serious infringement of our sovereignty."
He also suggested it is driven by prejudice against the mainly Roman Catholic country.
Associated Press writer Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.