Setting Poland on Fire
A topic pulsating under the surface of media attention concentrated on Donald Trump is the state of the European Union. American journalists largely avoid the topic because of its complexity. If they break the silence, it is usually to instruct and sermonize those members of EU who are trying to overcome half a century of communist misrule.
Poland in particular seems to be a whipping boy. In American and European media one hears laments over the alleged rise of authoritarianism after the Law and Justice Party got to power in legitimate and lawful 2015 election. In a recent issue of the Atlantic, David Frum does not fail to snort at Poland and Hungary as European examples of Trumpism.
On February 16, 2017, those who lost the 2015 Polish election crafted a letter to the College of Commissioners of the European Union. They mobilized a number of NGOs not known for their familiarity with Polish affairs (sometimes not known at all) to cosign the letter. In alarmist tones, they inform the world that the rule of law has been breached in Poland, because the party that won the election weighed in on the appointment of judges to the Constitutional Tribunal. Anyone familiar with the process of appointing judges to the U.S. Supreme Court would just shrug his shoulders, but hey, an upstart in postcommunist Europe should not be permitted to initiate a shakeup without consent of the unelected Brussels bureaucrats. The signatories of the letter try to set Poland on fire and urge the EU to extinguish the fire by curtailing the country’s rights as an EU member. The letter got wide circulation in the media.
I see the situation differently. What is taking place in Poland (and Hungary) is the society’s rejection of the corrupt elites that appropriated for themselves the fruits of the return to capitalism in 1989. Now these elites try to return to power and use the contacts abroad developed in the 1980s, when the entire Polish society was struggling against communism. L’état, c’est moi, said Louis XIV. The postcommunist elites in Poland seem to believe likewise. They refuse to accept the fact that after 2015 the parties they represent became a minority, not a majority, in the parliament. They have already resorted to violent occupation of the parliamentary chamber. They have declared parliament meetings in another chamber unconstitutional. They coined the term “total opposition,” which suggests that their goal is to overturn the present legally elected government. On February 10, 2017, after Prime Minister Beata Szydło’s car accident, they lamented the alleged authoritarianism of the government because it did not take instant responsibility for the collision (caused by a 21-year-old driver turning left and forcing the government limousine to swerve and hit a tree).
The losers have not succeeded in energizing large crowds. They demonstrate, lonely figures, in smaller and smaller groups. But the power of photography makes demonstrations appear larger than they are in reality. The photos are picked up by foreign press agencies. Former foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, former president Bronislaw Komorowski and former prime minister Ewa Kopacz provide contemptuous commentaries about the government’s doings. These commentaries are reported in domestic and foreign media. It is as if those who lost comfortable salaries could not reconcile themselves to living on pensions that are several times smaller -- and let us not forget that Poland is a poor country and even former presidents make less money than a university professor in the United States. So the battle is not only ideological. Some say that it is primarily economic: the former elites fight to return to their privileged status. As journalist Konrad Kołodziejski said, “there is no opposition in Poland. There only are groups of interest that would like to return to power at any price.” The opposition seems to believe that Poles who voted for the present government must apologize to those who lost the election and then perhaps they will be forgiven.
The new government, in office for less than two years, discovered massive corruption in many state institutions. The VAT collection has been particularly corrupt. By tightening tax laws the government managed to shrink the budget deficit to the level that seemed unreachable to the previous administration.
In unified Germany, persons who held high positions in communist East Germany were barred from holding public offices. Such radical vetting did not take place in Poland, where the first postcommunist government, with the blessing of the West, introduced the so-called “thick line” separating communism from postcommunism, virtually exonerating former communist functionaries from responsibility for past misdeeds. This took place in 1989. Since that time, a good number of former communist functionaries established themselves comfortably in Polish political and economic life, prompting their opponents to coin a saying that in Poland, the third generation of KGB supporters struggles with the third generation of freedom fighters.
When the new administration began to look into illegal privatization processes and sift through the ranks of lower government officials, they discovered that hundreds of former party and political police members and their descendants slipped into the new system without anyone in the previous government raising an eyebrow. Nepotism? You bet. The elite that is now struggling to get back to power includes those whose fathers and grandfathers belonged to the privileged class under communism. This is not a question of snooping into people’s biographies; it is a question of national security. The spate of car accidents that happened to government personalities since Law and Justice party came to power might be just that, accidents; but it might be something else as well.
At present, the Polish justice system is investigating the ways in which members of the former communist elite enriched themselves under previous postcommunist governments. This is a legitimate activity. But some Western Europeans and Americans, who do not face such problems, equate it with an authoritarian flirtation. Articles in foreign media raise alarm about fascism descending upon Central Europe. Poland thus finds itself in a catch-22 situation. If it does not perform the belated vetting and does not weed out corruption, it has no future. If it engages in a vigorous construction of civil society, it will be declared authoritarian.
Cut Poland and Hungary some slack! They are not the troublemakers in Europe. While Western Europeans have had generations and centuries to hone their diplomatic skills and build a class of professional public servants, the countries of Central Europe had to start from scratch after half a century of murderous communist occupation. Countries cannot be ruled from abroad. If the EU Commissioners try to serve the democratically elected government in Poland their own interpretation of the Polish constitution, their action would amount to neocolonialism. An attempt to “punish” Poland for not conforming to arguable interpretations of law would be an unprecedented act with unintended consequences. As has been the case earlier in history, setting Poland on fire may result in destabilizing Europe.
Ewa Thompson is Research Professor of Slavic Studies at Rice University