Volume 12 Number 4
What Has People Power Done for Poland?
01 August 1999

Mike Lowe revisits Poland, ten years after its return to democracy.
History will surely record 1989 as one of the most remarkable outbreaks of democracy the world has ever seen. The toppling of defunct communist regimes across Central and Eastern Europe (see below) gathered pace through what has been dubbed the 'autumn of the peoples'.

Two years later a failed coup attempt in Moscow led to the break-up of the Soviet Union itself and moves towards multi-party democracy in most of its constituent republics. The end of the Cold War rippled out throughout the world, facilitating movement towards democracy in South Africa, Ethiopia and Latin America.

At the heart of these changes was Poland, a country I have come to regard as a second home. I first visited the country in 1986 and in the early Nineties lived there for a year. In April I returned to assess what the changes have meant there. Seen from the perspective of 1989, they are little short of miraculous.

The former headquarters of the Communist Party is now the Warsaw Stock Exchange. The old grey drabness has been completely transformed by entrepreneurship and a host of new skyscrapers is rising, just one sign of the huge investment that has been pouring in. Poland's Gross Domestic Product was forecast to be up 21 per cent in 1999, putting her economic growth ahead of all other transition economies.

A few weeks before I arrived, President Kwasniewski had ratified the North Atlantic treaty, formally joining Poland to NATO, in the same hall that the Warsaw Pact had been signed half a century earlier. It was a symbolic completion of the long tortuous circle since Poland found itself on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain after World War II.

On my first visit to Poland a friend in Krakow invited me to walk the six-day pilgrimage to Czestochowa with her and 10,000 others. These pilgrimages to the icon of the Black Madonna, believed by the devout to have saved the Polish nation at various times of crisis, have a long tradition. But since the banning of the Solidarity trade union in December 1981 and the introduction of martial law, the pilgrimages had taken on a new urgency. On the final day we joined the half-million who had come from all corners of Poland and walked triumphantly along the tree-lined avenue that led to the shrine. Out came the sun and out too came the Solidarity banners. In Poland, religion and politics were closely linked.

The process of change can be traced to 1979, when John Paul II first returned to his homeland as Pope. His words, 'There is no history of Poland without Christ,' had a cataclysmic effect. A friend in Warsaw recalls seeing men of 50 with hardened granite faces crumpling into tears. The following year a strike in a Gdansk shipyard gave birth to Solidarity. Its demands went far beyond better working conditions or more pay: Solidarity was from the first a struggle for the soul of the nation. The workers carried pictures of the Pope and sang, 'Poland is not yet lost'. Support was so broad that in 1980 up to a million Communist Party members joined Solidarity--without leaving the Party.

Because of this breadth of support, Solidarity proved impossible to crush even though its leadership was rounded up and imprisoned with ruthless efficiency. Since the mid-Seventies there had been an unofficial alliance between Poland's secular intelligentsia and the Church on the basis of fighting for truth, human dignity and defence of human rights. The birth of Solidarity extended that alliance to the workers and after the imposition of martial law the whole movement sheltered under the wings of the Church--though even that couldn't protect Fr Jerzy Popieluszko, a charismatic young priest who was brutally murdered by the police in 1984 for his pointed preaching on human dignity. His church in a suburb of Warsaw still carries an exhibition which testifies to the struggles of the Eighties.

I recall the conversations I had in '86 and '87 with members of the Catholic Intelligentsia Club in Krakow and Warsaw. We talked then of the kind of society we dreamed of--one which valued simple honesty, where solidarity with one's fellow citizens was a reality not a slogan, a society which rewarded merit not cronyism. These dreams were deeply rooted both in Christian tradition and in Central European humanism.

Lech Walesa paid tribute to this in May 1989 when he received an award from the Council of Europe: 'Solidarity is a trade union, but it is also an instrument which fights without bloodshed for trade union and citizens' rights and the protection of human rights... I am convinced that respect for human rights and human dignity reflects a great and living Christian heritage in Europe, and a great and living heritage of humanism. Thus the believer and the non-believer can be found next to each other in the respect for human rights and in the fight to guarantee those rights.'

Returning ten years later, I asked Adam Szostkiewicz, Political Editor of the weekly Tygodnyk Powszechny, what had happened to that legacy. 'Our new democracy means our agendas are set day by day and we tend to overlook the deeper questions of where we are going,' he replied. Although he treasures the heritage of the Eighties he doesn't mourn its passing, seeing this as the price that must be paid for living in a 'normal' democratic country. 'The kind of conversations we used to have in the Eighties are no longer possible because now we are divided by politics.'

When the first free elections were held on 4 June 1989, Solidarity won all but one of the seats available in both upper and lower houses. This remarkable unity came as a surprise to everyone. The film director Andrzej Wajda, who had just been elected to the Senate, remarked: 'Polish society, often badly assessed by itself and its leaders, has proved itself better and much more mature than we thought.' People recall mentally dividing society into 'us' (the people) and 'them' (the communist leadership) and feeling that Solidarity represented 'us'.

After 1989, Solidarity broke up. Szostkiewicz says this was inevitable. 'If there was a consensus in the Eighties, it was on the basis of human rights, democracy, independence. More detailed questions of, for example, the economy, were not raised--we always said it wasn't the right time to discuss them. We didn't predict that Communism would go when it did.'

He feels that to some extent the unity of the Eighties was based on the luxury of not having responsibility--ultimately it didn't matter what opinions people had about the economy because they weren't in power. 'Obviously when you do rather than just talk you make mistakes. Today there are real choices to be made and I would much rather be in this position than what we had before.'

Szostkiewicz says that the Pope has come to embody Poland's 'soul-searching' in a way which has absolved the political class from this role. 'Each time the Pope comes people wake up to discuss what is left of our heritage,' he says. 'It is not an ideal solution--we should be asking this kind of question for ourselves.'

In 1991 the Pope warned Poles that they could either 'take the last place among societies of consumption or realize a great ideal by linking the free market with solidarity'. Bernard Margueritte, a French journalist who has lived in Poland for over 25 years, feels that Poles have opted for the former. 'The new ruling elite has only a very vague and mythic view of what a free market means and how it is that Western democracies function,' he says. 'When one takes into account how thoroughly communism atomized Polish society, killing any sense of togetherness or community, one begins to understand how this idealized view of capitalism, with its cult of the rugged loner, can wreak havoc on what remains of the social fabric.'

Margueritte is one of many I spoke to who felt that Poland was in danger of going the way of Latin America, with an increasing gulf between rich and poor. Up to 15 per cent of the population have attained levels of wealth unthinkable a decade ago, while 40 per cent still languish on the poverty line.

Unlike some other transition economies, most of this wealth has been created honestly. Poles are regularly shocked by revelations of corruption in the press, but it is not endemic. One of the great achievements of the last ten years has been the building of trustworthy institutions, such as thebanking sector, which underpin much of the economic success.

Jacek Sygutowski is typical of many of the new entrepreneurs. After graduating from the Warsaw Polytechnic in electrical engineering he worked for a variety of firms before being head-hunted for a position with the main IBM dealer in Poland. With the experience he gained there, he was able to start his own computer business which has done well--though not without struggle.

When I knew Sygutowski in the early Nineties he was holding down both a full-time and a part-time job, whilst simultaneously finishing his Masters thesis and raising a young family. Nevertheless he reports that all his friends from college days have been able to buy their own apartments--no mean feat in a country where it is virtually impossible to borrow money for this purpose. For his parents' generation it has been a different story. His father-in-law, a construction engineer, has hardly worked in recent years.

In the early Nineties many of Poland's big traditional industries went bankrupt including the Gdansk shipyard, birthplace of Solidarity, now rescued but a shadow of its former self. These factories now stand empty, so-called 'monuments to communism'. Professor Andrzei Stelmachowski, who was part of the 1989 round-table talks between the government and Solidarity, admits that the workers in these factories may have cause to feel betrayed. 'These people who were at the heart of the struggle for changes have paid the highest price,' he says.

It is hard to see how things could have been different--the collapse of traditional markets to the east and the flood of Western imports meant that factories starved of investment over decades simply couldn't compete. But Janusz Witkowski, a former factory director who never joined the Communist Party (a rare achievement in his day), feels that some of these factories could have been saved.

'After 1989 the old Party bosses took over industry and bled the factories to death,' he says. 'Although the government gave power to the workers' councils--mostly Solidarity-dominated and good men--these were ignorant of management issues. The managers hoodwinked them by, for example, persuading the factory to put its purchasing into the hands of an independent contractor, who was in reality a crony of the manager--in some cases even his wife. In this way the circles of cronies accumulated vast fortunes while the factories died.'

Such issues fire the debate over how to deal with the past. From the start, Witkowski says, 'we wanted to identify those who had supported the communist regime out of cowardice or for personal gain--not to punish them, although those who were guilty of crimes such as murder should stand trial, but simply to know who was who.' It is only now, after ten years, that a commission has been set up to examine the pasts of those who hold public office.

Szostkiewicz points out that there just hasn't been a good time until now to tackle this issue. 'Immediately after '89, under Mazowiecki, we weren't strong enough--the communists still had control of the Army and Ministry of the Interior. After that we had internal struggles between Mazowiecki and Walesa and then in '94 the former communists (SLD) won the elections so another four years were lost.'

Szostkiewicz suspects that in spite of the commission it is now too late to address these issues. In any case, the former Solidarity politicians have not all been whiter than white. After four years of SLD government, during which there were various scandals and allegations of cronyism, an ugly slogan went around Solidarity circles which roughly translates as 'Now it's our ****ing turn!'

Today the problems Poland wrestles with have a boringly familiar ring to a Westerner: Reforms to the welfare system, in health and education. The struggle to keep inflation down and the budget balanced. And at a deeper level, the problem of how to bridge the gulf between ordinary people and a political class which seems remote to their concerns. It would be a pity, I reflect, if all those noble dreams and courageous struggles end up with debates about the economy and the trivial pursuits of the consumer society.

Szostkiewicz says it is too early to pass judgement on the new Poland. 'What we see now is the surface pop culture, which is not always appealing. But there is more. Many young people are out there collecting for the refugees from Kosovo. And there are still many who go to church--of their own free choice not for any political or social reasons.'

Coming here as a young man in the Eighties, I responded to a sense of purpose and the moral vision which seemed to be missing in the West. I was always aware that mine was a privileged position--I was materially comfortable and could afford to travel. I had always hoped that there might be a third way, somewhere between the free-market consumerism of the West and the Utopian socialism of the East.

On his most recent, and possibly his last, visit to his homeland in June, the Pope addressed the Polish Parliament. He urged them not to forget the moral lessons of Solidarity and warned of the risks of 'an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism.... As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism....

'The events of ten years ago in Poland created an historic opportunity for the continent of Europe, having abandoned ideological barriers once and for all, to find again the path towards unity,' the Pope continued. 'If we wish Europe's new unity to last, we must build on the basis of the spiritual values which were once its foundation, keeping in mind the wealth and diversity of the cultures and traditions of individual nations.'

My personal wish for Poland echoes this vision. Standing at the crossroads of Europe, Poland has a special vocation as bridge between East and West, which is already partly realized. As we enter the next millennium Poland must decide whether or not to remain true to its heritage.
Mike Lowe

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