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Focus on Poland

Wiktor Osiatyński

Wiktor Osiatyński

Poland appears a prosperous country. New construction sites loom over the cities and the price of apartments soars. The roads are full of Western cars. New shopping malls are packed with customers. There is steady economic growth and exports are booming, despite the very strong Polish currency. EU accession has turned out to be a great success. European subsidies and investments flood in. The opening of Western markets to goods and workers from Poland has cut unemployment, which was close to 20 per cent before 2005. After accession nearly two million people left Poland. The government uses these figures as proof of its success.

However, a visitor who reads Polish newspapers and watches TV would be surprised by the contrasts between what one sees on the streets and what one reads or hears in the media. The dominant tone is one of complaint, anger and resentment. The gap between observable progress and the perception of reality is a wide one. It is as if the Poles do not appreciate what they have achieved during eighteen years of transition to the market and democracy. In fact, many people, both in the authorities and the media, claim these years were wasted and that Poland needs a new beginning. The goal of Law and Justice (PiS), the right-wing party that won both parliamentary and presidential elections in autumn 2005, is nothing less than the creation of a “Fourth Republic” (the first having existed before the partitions of Poland in the eighteenth century, the second between the two wars and the third since 1989).

The PiS formed a coalition with a populist peasant party, Samoobrona (Self Defence) and the radical right-wing Catholic League of Polish Families (LPR). Step by step, the coalition has consolidated its power over all the independent institutions of the state (the Council of Radio and Television, the Ombudsman for Citizens’ Rights, the Central Bank; it has also packed the Constitutional Court with its appointees). In July 2006, the twin brother of President Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław, became prime minister. With support for the PiS declining, the brothers have became hostages of their radical allies, who incessantly increase their demands. Even the notorious scandals which exposed Samoobrona members as having been involved in trading public office and sexual harassment (and probably also rape) did not shake the coalition.

The government has an active right-wing agenda, focusing on decommunisation and lustration (political purification). The main target of their attack, however, is the liberal-democratic elite that led Poland through the transition, and to NATO and EU membership. A major motivation of the Kaczyński brothers seems to be revenge against former friends from Solidarity who did not appreciate them enough in the early stages of transition. But their rule has more durable consequences than just getting even.

After 1989 there was a broad consensus about liberal-democratic values. With the exception of marginalised radicals, all major parties agreed on the principles of the market economy, democratic government and such essentials of the liberal state as the rule of law, protecting human rights, constitutional limitations on government and the creation of institutional checks and balances.

The 2005 elections had two important features. First, their record of corruption turned the parties of the former left-wing government into an insignificant political force. Thus the main contest was between two right-of-centre parties. The PiS and its main opponent, Citizens’ Platform (PO), shared many ideas. In fact, they promised to form, after the elections, a coalition government with a super-majority that would allow them to write parts of a right-wing programme into Poland’s constitution. The dynamics of the presidential race between the leaders of the two parties, Lech Kaczyński and Donald Tusk, however, made that coalition impossible and pushed the PIS, which won by a narrow margin, into a right-wing populist coalition. Now the main opposition party is almost completely silent vis-a-vis the government’s actions, for to oppose the PiS the PO would have to reject its own 2005 electoral platform. Thus there currently exist no reliable political checks against the government.

Second, during the campaign, the liberal-democratic consensus itself broke down. Indeed the PiS posited an opposition between liberalism and democracy as the centrepiece of its electoral strategy. The Kaczyński brothers juxtaposed a “solidarity-based Poland” to the “liberal Poland allegedly represented by their opponents from the PO. Liberals were identified with market fundamentalism, privatisation, corruption and the enrichment of the few. The “solidarity” platform promised welfare payments, thus making a right-wing platform attractive to the orphaned left-wing electorate. With solidarity opposed to liberalism, many principles of democratic liberalism were criticised or rejected as a part of a liberal agenda.

The policies of the present coalition aim at durable institutional change. Prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński openly says that all institutions of the state should be under the control of the government. As mentioned, the PiS managed to capture the chairs and governing bodies of all the independent institutions of the state. The parliament and the government have also created new institutions, allegedly to fight corruption, with broad investigative powers. In addition, the Institute of National Memory (a body set up in 1998 to investigate Nazi and communist crimes against Poland) has received the power to control the past and to launch a society-wide lustration. A new lustration law which entered into force in March rejects the principle of the pressumption of innocence and limits the freedom of scholarly investigation and expression. It makes any allegation of participation by the Polish nation (naród Polski) in communist or Nazi crimes a punishable offence. PiS appointees are, by now, chairs and members of the boards of almost all market enterprises with mixed private and state capital. This, in turn, gives the party a great deal of control over private media through its power to place or withdraw advertisements from such companies. In February 2007, the positions of the heads of the ministry of interior and of the police were given to former prosecutors, forging an extraconstitutional alliance between the interior and the justice departments.

The state is introducing reforms in the areas of criminal justice, education and administration that weaken constitutional principles and often directly violate human rights. Generally, the PiS is implementing a broad legislative strategy that aims at the perpetuation of a right-wing agenda in Polish society long after they may lose power. Thus the state, which was the main agent of change in the transition period, has been taken over by parties and groups inimical to market reforms and to an open society in Poland.

Between 1989 and 2005, the reformers focused on the state rather than civil society as the main agent of change. They channelled their message and influenced society through state educational institutions, public radio and television and many newspapers and magazines of the political centre. The radical right, by contrast, did not have access to the institutions of state or the public media. They created many non-governmental institutions as the instruments of their influence. Particularly active in this process were radically conservative elements of the Catholic Church in Poland. The strongest independent media force is the right-wing Radio Maryja, augmented by its own TV station (Trwam), and a daily paper (Nasz Dziennik). Many other right-wing papers, magazines, publishing houses, private high schools and universities have also been created. At state universities, numerous right-wing student organisations have been active. The liberal-democratic centre has not matched these efforts.

In 2005, liberal democrats lost the state. At first, the new government adopted Radio Maryja as its prime media vehicle: some of the government’s press conferences took place at the Trwam TV station. But with time the new coalition took control of all public and a great number of private media. Today it is right-wing rhetoric that dominates public discourse and the voices for liberal democracy are weak and defensive. Moreover, the strategy of putting the blame for all setbacks, frustrated expectations and corruption on liberal-democratic reformers seemed attractive to large segments of the population. When the goals of the reformers, NATO and EU membership, had been achieved people quickly forgot about their significance and became attracted by criticism of former leaders. At the same time, liberal democrats proved incapable of formulating new goals and ideas beyond national security through NATO and economic growth through EU membership.

Most of the liberal democratic elite belonged to the intelligentsia, a social group peculiar to Russia and East Central Europe. In the almost complete absence of a middle class, the intelligentsia has always been an engine of change in Poland. It helped preserve national values and culture during the period of the partitions. It formed a new generation of patriots between the two wars. It kept Polish resistance alive during the Second World War and prevented the nation from complete submission to the Soviet system after 1945. It was due to the intelligentsia that Poland was the most free country in Central Europe. In the 1970s, many people in Russia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and other countries learned Polish – just to be able to read Western books published in translation and Polish cultural magazines that published things they could not even dream about in their countries.

The other island of freedom in Poland under communism was the Catholic Church. Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, imprisoned during the Stalin years, resisted oppression and strengthened the church’s influence in society. Cardinal Karol Woytyła of Kraków, before he became pope, was a champion of human rights. In the 1980s, under martial law, the church was the centre of an alternative civil society in Poland. Individual freedom and human rights were high on the agenda. After the restoration of democracy, however, a large part of the Catholic hierarchy wanted to exploit their new room for manoeuvre. The church became triumphalist and increasingly opposed liberal values and freeedoms. Some elements openly interfered in politics, the most visible being Radio Maryja, led by a redemptorist priest, Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, in the town of Toruń in northern Poland. Radio Maryja promoted a clearly right-wing, anti-liberal and anti-Semitic programme. Even though the Vatican criticised the station, it had many supporters among the Polish bishops. In time, there was a clear shift within the church towards conservative ideas and practices, a tendency that was accelerated after the death of the Pope John Paul. But even before then, many bishops and priests had turned against the liberal intelligentsia, their former ally.

As noted, the intelligentsia was the conscience of the nation, and a vital element during the period of oppression and duress. But the market does not need conscience and neither does democracy. Both have a new idol, the number: number of euro, number of votes, number of viewers or readers. The intelligentsia, with its liberal standards and conscience, was seen as a threat by newly emerging elites, who launched a cultural war against it. First, they turned to symbols that were attractive to large numbers of voters: nation, religion, and the myths of Poland’s glorious past, championing values which could challenge the “nihilism” of the more self-critical intelligentsia. The first battlefield was over the revelation of the truth about Jedwabne, a village where Poles burned alive several hundred local Jews in 1941. The admission of wrongdoing prompted a strong response and a vigorous defence of the traditional view in which Poles must be seen purely as victims. After 2005, this tendency has been supported by government money within the so-called new historical politics.

The second front in the cultural war is the attempt to discredit the older intelligentsia. Since the members of this intelligentsia were active during communist rule, a radical rejection of this entire period is useful. Jarosław Kaczyński, in his passionate speeches, condemns post-communism (that is the reforms between 1989 and 2005) more fiercely than communism itself. The Institute of National Memory, which holds the files of the former secret police, plays an important role in these struggles.

True, the reformers themselves have also contributed to their present weakness. They were extremely neglectful in communicating with the electorate, taking for granted that people would automatically support their good intentions. They lost the support not only of the unemployed and excluded, whose plight they treated as “colateral damage” of economic reform, but also of many social groups that are indispensable for a durable democracy. One is the middle and lower middle class, another teachers and medical professionals, and finally young Poles, who did not see great prospects for their future in a country with 30 to 40 per cent unemployment among recent college and university graduates.

There are many reasons why a majority of young Poles are attracted to conservative ideas. One is the phenomenon called the “generation of John Paul II”. The late pope was a major moral and personal authority for much of Polish youth and his visits to his homeland attracted millions of young people, who found in the Catholic Church community and common purpose. For many others coming of age in the 1990s, conservatism was a means of expressing rebellion against their socialist or liberal parents. As noted, many young students were attracted to right-wing associations active in the school and college environment.

But there are factors other than ideology that tend to make the right-wing political agenda attractive to ambitious youth. The PiS was created by frustrated politicians who were alienated from their more eminent colleagues in the Solidarity movement. Even Lech Wałęsa, in 1991, though already in fierce conflict with liberal democrats like Bronisław Geremek and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, still purged the Kaczyński brothers from his chancery. They have retained very few loyal friends from the Solidarity generation. As a result, when forming the Law and Justice party they had to turn to young people, whom they could easily find on the right. Being driven by resentments against almost the entire generation of older politicians, the brothers are happy to see them purged from office and replaced by loyal young apparatchiks from the PiS.

Thus lustration has been turned into a mechanism of generational change. A new law weakens procedural safeguards against false accusations and makes it possible to publish the file of every person who becomes active in the public sphere. With the lack of a clear definition of collaboration, virtually anyone can be smeared and purged. (For example, although it was proven that the recently appointed and then deposed Archbishop of Warsaw, Stanisław Wielgus, did sign an agreement with Poland’s intelligence services in the 1970s, in an independent court he would probably not be found to have been an informer since he never provided any information to those services.) Lustration and other right-wing policies have thus become as attractive to young politicians today as anti-Semitism and anti-revisionism were to young Communist Party apparatchiks pushing their way up back in 1968. Then, the engine of the assult was located in secret police. Today, the files produced by the very same police are used for a similar purpose.

EU accession has paradoxically increased the dominance of right-wing attitudes among Polish youth. Young people who take a critical view and dislike the Kaczyńskis’ Poland pack their suitcases and leave – for Ireland, England, Spain or Norway. That doesn’t bother the Kaczyński brothers. The ones who leave, better educated and more open-minded, did not vote for them. The ones who stay, less educated and more dependent – did.

Political opposition to the right-wing offensive is weak. The PO is passive and torn by internal conflicts. Its leaders seem to have adopted a strategy of waiting quietly until the PiS coalition breaks up or runs out of steam before the next elections, due in 2009. Even though the PO scored significant successes in local elections in autumn 2006, it has yet to translate this boost into meaningful opposition. (In fact, when the PO won a majority of the self-governing regions, the PiS coalition introduced a new law granting central government a veto over how such governments could spend EU money. The PO strongly opposed the bill, which was passed by a single vote. But as many as 23 PO deputies did not bother to attend the vote.)

The two bulwarks of resistance were, until recently, the Constitutional Court and the Central Bank, led by Leszek Balcerowicz. The court was packed with six new pro-PiS judges and Balcerowicz was replaced on January 10th this year, when his term ended, by Slawomir Skrzypek, a close friend of the Kaczyńskis whom they had previously wanted to name as head of the partially state-owned PKO Bank Polski. However, at the PKO, Skrzypek could only become acting chairman because of his lack of banking qualifications. The Central Bank does not have such a competency requirement, so Skrzypek could replace Balcerowicz.

Civil society is weak. There are only a handful of watchdogs in Poland, the most active of which are the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the Batory Foundation, the Institute of Public Affairs and the Women’s Coalition. Other NGOs act in the sphere of social services and are heavily dependent on government money. Attempts to mobilise professional organisations to monitor the situation in Poland have not borne fruit. Watchdog NGOs did monitor appointments to the Constitutional Court, but with limited success – primarily beause it is difficult to shame a shameless government. It is also the case that there is no effective external pressure on Poland. True, the Kaczyński brothers are ridiculed in foreign news media. Nor are they treated seriously by other EU heads of state. But there are no measures for monitoring or intervention comparable to those of the pre-accession process, which forced aspiring members to change laws and observe liberal-democratic standards.

The media do play a monitoring role, primarily in the exposition of corruption and scandals involving Samoobrona. The desire for sensational headlines prevents them, however, from engaging in a more sustained campaign to defend reform; it also makes journalists an extremely easy target in any provocation by the secret police and its files. Moreover, competition in the press prompts many papers to attack and smear the only left liberal-democratic daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, which still has the highest circulation among serious papers. But another serious daily, Rzeczpospolita, has already been captured by the radical right. The dominant tone in the media is one of moral revolution, the promise of which was so attractive to many people who felt unjustly treated by history, the transition and the way in which the economy developed.

Over the past fifteen months the “moral revolution” has been compromised. The government has not provided much in addition to what the booming economy has produced. The PiS has given up on any effective communication with society and instead simply continues to reiterate the themes of its electoral campaign, aiming to retain its 2005 supporters. Instead of reconciliation, Polish society is today deeply divided. There has never been so much aggression, intolerance and hatred in public life. EU accession has not helped: the ruling coalition is formed by parties that were against the EU. At the same time, all polls show that the number of Poles who are happy about accession is constantly growing and has passed 80 per cent. It is as if these two realms were not related at all. The Poles are pro-European when they think about the EU in terms of the economy, open frontiers, the ability to work abroad, and they are pro-PiS because the PiS and the right wing have effectively captured the realm of symbols.

No other party, no social movement, no individual person has come up, so far, with an idea that could effectively counter the slogans of the “Fourth Republic” and its “solidarity-based Poland”. Yet the development of such a symbolic alternative is of crucial importance. This may require comprehensive research into the political attitudes of the voters. Probably, the liberal-democratic agenda will need new packaging for it to be revitalised in the public mind. The benefits of EU membership should become a part of this new symbolic language. Perhaps Poland’s participation in Europe will help revitalise liberal-democratic ideas in society.

An important role in this process can be played by the new Polish migration – to Ireland, Britain, Spain and other countries. In contrast to other historic waves of emigration, today’s Poles abroad are in touch with their families and friends who stay in Poland. They are experiencing in their host countries the advantages of liberal democracies, markets and open societies. Poles in Ireland can see the benefits the European Union has brought to a traditional Catholic society. They will learn that there is no prosperity or democracy without a viable civil society, particularly at local level. Being mostly young, the emigrants can influence young people in Poland. Perhaps they could help transfer some mechanisms and institutions to their communities of origin. They can invite other young people to come, visit, see and learn. Such a transfer of democratic customs and mechanisms should be supported by Western governments, by the European Union and by private foundations. Who could have predicted, back in 1989, that one would think of Ireland as a seed of hope for Poland?


Wiktor Osiatyński a professor of comparative constitutionalism and human rights at Central European University. He is the author of twenty books, including Contrasts: Soviet and American Thinkers Discuss the Future, Rehab and Citizen's Republic. In the 1970s, he worked with Ryszard Kapuściński for the Kultura weekly in Warsaw.

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