Post-Communist Poland is walking a fine line—and thriving
BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE EU
Post-Communist Poland is walking a fine line—and thriving
Radek (Radoslaw) Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, is one of the most intelligent and charismatic young men in any European parliament. Tall, muscular, energetic, casually well-dressed, a former student activist in the pre-democracy Solidarity movement, an Oxford graduate, author of four books, war correspondent, adviser to Rupert Murdoch, and erstwhile fellow of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, he carries his credentials with a surprising lack of self-regard. Like many Polish intellectuals, he returned from selfimposed exile after the collapse of Communism in 1989, but unlike most of them, he immediately entered political life as deputy defence minister. The thought of continuing to enjoy the financial rewards of working in Washington had never occurred to him. Assuming responsibility in an atmosphere that Adam Michnik, Poland’s leading intellectual and editor-in-chief of its largest daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, describes as replete with “envy, intrigue, greed, suspicion, and the urge for revenge,” must have seemed the most obvious choice. It is, after all, democracy.
Michnik, who served a long jail sentence under Communist rule, is a former Solidarity leader and one of the men—yes, they were all men—responsible for bringing “shock therapy” economist Jeffrey Sachs and his “big bang” approach to economic reform to Poland in 1989. The first post-Communist government removed price controls, tightened credit, cut subsidies, sold off government assets and decided to leave retribution for Communist apparatchiks and their henchmen off its agenda. It was not until 1998 that a different government established the Institute of National Remembrance, responsible for the old secret police files and prosecution of “crimes against the Polish Nation.” It has had few successes in its zeal to “out” those who had harassed, imprisoned and ordered the killing of dissidents. Radek Sikorski thinks the files should all be made public.
The past few weeks have been particularly stressful for the foreign minister. He delivered his longest state-of-the-challenges speech in parliament—10 hours in all, including question period. Russia, Poland’s old nemesis, blessed its new president, who is likely to be no more than Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s cat’s paw, yet Sikorski has to appear both pleased and optimistic about dealing with Dmitri Medvedev. He continues to share the unenviable task of ensuring a continuous supply of oil and gas for Poland’s burgeoning economy—and he has to deal with the United States’ increased pressure to install a missile defence system in central Europe.
With Poland still balancing, at times precariously, between competing pressures from East and West, these challenges may seem overwhelming. But signs are that the current government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk, whose centre-right Civic Platform party supplanted the right-wing, xenophobic Law and Justice party of the Kaczynski twins last October, may pull off this delicate tightrope act. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who was prime minister, and his brother Lech, who remains president, had successfully alienated both Germany and Russia. Tusk’s government is ready to lay old ghosts to rest. It will not risk angering Russia unless the risk is worthwhile. “Last week I asked the Russian chief of staff not to threaten us with nuclear annihilation more often than once a quarter,” Sikorski says with an open grin.
But for Poles, relations with their two more powerful neighbours have rarely been a joking matter. In the case of the Russians, they invaded, brutalized, deported and generally abused Poles over several centuries. The 1940 murder of more than 20,000 Polish army officers, most of them reservists—lawyers, scientists, teachers who could have become resistance leaders—is just another reason for Poles to mistrust Moscow. Although the truth was an open secret, it was not until 1990 that then-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev finally admitted that Joseph Stalin himself had ordered the massacre of the unarmed prisoners of war. They had surrendered to the Soviet army after Poland’s defeat in 1939 at the hands of both German and Soviet forces—a result of the now-infamous secret Ribbentrop-Molotov pact to divide eastern Europe between Germany and Russia.
Last year’s top-grossing film in Poland was Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn, about the murders of 5,000 of the victims in Katyn forest. Oh yes, the Poles are not likely to forget their injuries.
The new Warsaw Rising Museum is another example of that. It celebrates the astonishing bravery of civilians and the Polish Underground Army that dared to rise up against the German occupation forces on Aug. 1, 1944—an uneven battle that was encouraged by the Allies but went unaided. Soviet forces, by then partners with Britain and the U.S. in the fight against Hitler and advancing from the east, sat on the bank of the Vistula River, which goes through Warsaw, waiting until the Poles were beaten and the capital bombed. When the war ended, with six million Poles dead as a result of the conflict, and with Soviet forces in control of Poland, Stalin was unwilling to see any possible Polish heroes emerge, and tried to erase all memory of the uprising. Its survivors were imprisoned, leaders discredited, and all commemorations forbidden. Now, the museum draws vast crowds of both the young and the old. And near the picturesquely rebuilt Old Town, there is a massive monument to the heroes of Aug. 1, 1944, where groups of schoolchildren with notepads and cellphone cameras bear witness to the fact that this new generation will not have to rely on the memories of the old for its inspiration about the past.
Adam Daniel Rotfeld, a former Polish foreign minister and current chairman of the UN’s Advisory Board on Disarmament, was in 2008 appointed special envoy for dealing with Russia. He places Poland at the heart of “a historical and eternal dilemma of being caught between Germany and Russia. All its efforts for balance between the two rivals for territory have been doomed to failure.” Which brings up the whole question of the agreement for the Nord Stream pipeline to transport Russian gas underwater directly to Germany, bypassing Poland and other countries Russia describes as unstable. There are few ghosts of past horrors that make Poles more uneasy than another potential Russian-German pact.
But with a new government in Warsaw, and with Poland a member of both the EU and NATO, relations with Berlin are amicable. “I think we now have the best relationship with Germany,” says Jaroslaw Sroka, director of corporate communications for Kulczyk Holdings, one of Poland’s largest and most profitable corporations. Moscow, though, remains another matter. The real question is who, in effect, will rule Russia. Sikorski, expressing cheerful optimism contrary to Polish experience, says the appointment of Medvedev is “a hopeful development because he is the first Russian leader who doesn’t come from the Communist party or the security services.” And indeed, since the centre-right Civic Platform’s majority was elected last September, Russia has lifted its ban on Polish meat imports and, once more, assumed a role as one of Poland’s preferred customers for farm products. “We do 17 billion euros in trade with Russia,” Sikorski recently told the BBC. As for the issue of oil and gas, Sikorski calmly says that these are not geopolitical tools but commodities like any other (besides, Poland has the biggest coal reserves in Europe).
Still, Medvedev’s recent and massive goldand-incense inauguration, complete with Orthodox patriarch, was a ceremony that still featured the trappings of empire and power— and so long as Russia has delusions of empire, it continues to be dangerous. As Daniel Passent, chief columnist for the influential newsmagazine Polityka, puts it: “the weaker Russia is, the better it is for Poland.” Passent agrees with Sikorski that Poles “need good relations with Russia, but it is, ideally, a peaceful, democratic Russia without ambitions of extending its powers.” Not the kind of Russia that invaded Chechnya, opposed democratic elections in Georgia and the Ukraine—and continues to meddle in the affairs of its neighbours.
Poland’s relations with its new allies, though, can also be tricky. With his country now part of NATO, Sikorski is clear about Poland’s commitment to the coalition’s effort in Afghanistan, although sending armed men, he is quick to point out, is not enough for securing the region’s future—there must be long-term financial commitments to the Afghan people. (Sikorski knows that terrain better than most—he travelled through Sovietoccupied Afghanistan with a group of mujahedeen in 1987 and wrote about his experiences in his book, Dust of the Saints: A Journey to Heart in Time of War.) But he is cautious when he speaks of U.S. pressure to install a missile shield in central Europe. Quoting a French politician, he says with a smile, “It is always a mistake to please the Americans too quickly.” He declines to tell me what kind of bargain he has in mind, but a year ago he told the Washington Post that “if the Bush administration expects Poles... to jump for joy and agree to whatever is proposed, it’s going to face a mighty crash with reality.” That’s tough talk for a guy who was happy to see Polish troops committed to the U.S.sponsored war in Iraq (they are coming home in October), despite Russian opposition. Poland has been, in fact, one of the most proU.S. countries in Europe. And it’s not just because of the eight million Americans of Polish background in the U.S., or Ronald Reagan’s unstinting support for Solidarity, but because of what U.S. democracy has represented to the Soviet-repressed Poles. But, says Sikorski, “U.S. influence and esteem have diminished in Poland.”
THE RELATIONSHIP WITH RUSSIA HAS BEEN STRAINED, BUT POLAND ALSO FACES PRESSURES FROM ITS NEW ALLIES
That may, in part, be due to the fact that Poles now have a newly invigorated self-confidence. Only four years after joining the European Union, the country’s economy is looking good. A projected 5.3 per cent GDP growth for 2008, shrinking debt, the promise of flatter income tax and less bureaucracy next year, lower inflation, and reduced unemployment, mean that Poland is now at the leading edge of central Europe’s transformation into a euro-friendly, hard-working country. With 67 billion euros offered by the EU as additional incentives for building infrastructure and public/private partnerships, the potential exists for fast development over the next several years, in spite of continuing challenges such as a 15 per cent national unemployment rate and a growing black market.
`LAST WEEK I ASKED THE RUSSIAN CHIEF OF STAFF NOT TO THREATEN US WITH NUCLEAR ANNIHILATION MORE THAN ONCE A QUARTER'
Czeslaw Milosz, Poland’s greatest poet, once described the difference between eastern and western Europe as rather like one within a family, between respectable upstanding members and a set of embarrassing, slightly annoying, always importuning relations. Well, all that has changed. Young Poles who had gone to work in Britain since Poland’s entry into the EU have started to return home. The Institute of Public Policy Research in Warsaw has reported that more than half of the almost 500,000 Poles who went to the U.K. have already left. The British pound is weak, the zloty is strong, inflation appears to be in check at below four per cent, and Warsaw looks like a tourist attraction. Gone are the grey war-scarred buildings that still dominated in the ’70s. Today, new towers dominate the skyline and even the old Stalinist Palace of Culture and Science that once lorded it over the city seems to be spruced up for spring. Despite its many ghosts, it is open to schoolchildren and sightseers, and does not seem particularly out of place across from the Intercontinental and Marriott towers. The Gold Terraces shopping centre is as well-stocked with high-end labels as any other European mall, and its translucent undulating ceiling is more inventive than most.
Nearby, at 44 Zlota St., ground has been broken for the most luxurious apartment building in Poland. It will be 45 stories high with indoor pool, fitness floor and sun terrace. The architect is Daniel Liebeskind, fresh from his success with the Royal Ontario Museum’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. Liebeskind was born in Lodz, an old centre of Jewish learning that became the site of the notorious ghetto whose emaciated inhabitants—some 100,000— were deported and murdered at Chelmno. It is part of the Holocaust’s tragic narrative that Poles rarely include in their own narrative (there was no recognition of the Holocaust under Communist rule) of the heroic past, but it is one that will be all too familiar to Liebeskind. Communism, according to Adam Michnik, is like a freezer. Everything from 1946 on was covered by a thick layer of ice. In 1989 central Europe returned to history.
What Poland’s citizens share in equal measure is the desire to be a normal, stable, prosperous, perhaps even a boring European country, one that recognizes the rule of law and individual rights. There is an old Russian joke Michnik has said when he described the challenges of establishing “civil society” after it had been destroyed by 45 years of Communism: “We know you can turn an aquarium into fish soup. The question is can you turn fish soup into an aquarium?” So far as the eye can see in Warsaw, the answer is yes.
Anna Porter’s most recent book, Kasztner’s Train, won the Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.