Poland has a proud history of protest, dating back to the multiple insurrections and uprisings against colonial rule in the 18th and 19th century. During the Cold War period, Poles mounted several challenges to the Communist system, culminating in the 10-million-strong Solidarity movement of 1980.
Since the fall of Communism, Polish dissatisfaction with the political status quo has divided into three parts. In the larger group, Poles nurse their grievances in private, grumbling among friends or to a few strangers in public places. A smaller number of Poles continue to take to the streets or try to organize actions similar to the Solidarity mobilizations of the past. And perhaps the smallest group of all tries to channel that dissatisfaction into advocacy within the system to change the nature of Polish politics.
“That’s our natural condition, to be dissatisfied,” he told me in his office in Warsaw in August 2013. “But people are also dissatisfied with protests. For a long time after 1980, protests were used and abused in such a way that they lost their credibility.”
Przybylski points to the reborn Solidarity trade union under its leader Piotr Duda as an example of a respected institution that has lost its credibility through protest. “We know from some media investigations how much money from public funds is given to trade union leaders who are conductors of trains,” he relates. “They earn more than the prime minister or the president! Even if they go out onto the streets to protest [Former Prime Minister Donald] Tusk, people say, ‘You’re so well off you can afford to protest while other people work.’ That’s the general attitude I find among my peers and around Poland.”
Many Poles voice their dissatisfaction by leaving the country, which has dramatically reduced the number of people who might otherwise take to the streets in protest. “A lot of Poles, more than two million, have emigrated since the borders and labor market were opened,” Przybylski points out. “Poles are the biggest minority in the UK after Pakistanis. The people who protest are often mobile, entrepreneurial — and they left. True, there was a protest here against ACTA. There was also a mobilization of liberal-Left urban dwellers to celebrate a national independence day in a colorful and cheerful way, and there was a more traditional patriotic celebration that attracted even more people onto the streets. But they were not protesting. A small group of hooligans has captured the media’s attention with their street protests. But they don’t have a political agenda to change democracy as such. No, they want to take over. They are semi-fascist or simply fascist organizations attached to football hooligans or New Age Slavic nativism.”
Pzybylski prefers to channel dissatisfaction with politics into different forms of action. “Groups like ours advocate and engage in changing how politics works,” he explains. “We try to get people engaged and heard by decision makers. We experiment in decision-making, for instance with participatory budgeting at a municipal level and perhaps even at a national level. We do this to change the nature of politics but not by going onto the streets.”
We talked about the reasons for Poland’s economic successes, the high level of support for the EU, and the shifting definitions of Central Europe.
Do you remember where you were when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Honestly I don’t remember.
Do you remember where you were on June 4, 1989?
That I remember. I was in front of a TV with my mom. We were closely watching and hearing everything. I can frankly remember only emotions. She started to cry. And I started to cry because my mom was crying. But that was it. I was emotional, getting into the patriotic feeling at the age of nine. Later that year my mom also explained to me the kind of song the politicians were singing at about that time. That was Bogurodzica [“Mother of God”–old Polish hymn]. I asked what it was. It had been long banned because it was connected to the Christian independence tradition. It was very powerful for me. Later on at school when we were taught that song, it reminded me of that time.
Was there much change in your school as you went from 1989 to 1990?
One thing changed. When I was nine, we started to have history classes, and I can’t remember the history teacher even being present. That was primary school. She simply wasn’t participating. That was interesting for me. This was the one class I was really interested in, but she was not giving the class. It was just: read the book or do activities according to some handbook. She was not teaching in the proper sense. Otherwise there wasn’t much difference, at least as far as I can recall.
Was there a particular moment in your life when you started on your current trajectory of writing and thinking about the intersection of politics and culture?
I think it happened in high school. In 1993-4 there was a huge spirit of innovation all around Poland. I’m not originally from Warsaw. I’m originally from the region of Silesia. I was going to school in Sosnowiec, the birthplace of Comrade Edward Gierek. This high school was one of the top in Poland in terms of ranking. I was very fortunate that it had for a short time a very ambitious headmaster. She was an English language teacher and very entrepreneurial. She wanted to bring innovation into schools because she believed that schools changed the world. She was open to experimental teaching at that point. She recruited new students before they completed primary school for a zero class. They then continued for four more years. They took extensive courses in English, and university professors taught selected courses in history, geography, mathematics, and physics.
From that moment on, we were very fortunate, our group of 30. We were always debating public affairs, politics, and so on. We were self-organizing Scout groups contrary to the traditional Communist Scouts. We wanted to get a sense of community based on an older Scout model inherited from decades before. The graduates went to different universities worldwide and then to different public institutions today. From this sense of competing within this group, among our peers, we developed an appetite for public affairs. It was obvious to us that our fortune in having this education depended on the quality of public life.
Poland is not getting a lot of press in the West. But the press that Poland has gotten has been quite positive — that the country has avoided the pitfalls of Hungary and Fidesz, the pitfalls of the Czech Republic and Vaclav Klaus. It’s the only country to post positive economic growth during a Europe-wide recession. And it has had reasonably clean government with Donald Tusk. How did Poland manage to succeed in comparison with countries that were earlier considered to be the frontrunners?
It’s a good question that I don’t have a clear answer for. One answer is that we are, as a nation, peasant people. That means that we like hard currency and we don’t like speculation. That’s the metaphor and argument of Marcin Krol.
Another answer is that we had these hardcore reforms at the very beginning, in the early 1990s, and people paid a big price. That includes not just Leszek Balcerowicz, though he became a symbol of those reforms. We also had a lot of banking scandals at that time. Because of those scandals, we created an institutional framework that prevented the kind of banking fraud and speculation that took place more recently in the rest of Europe’s monetary system.
We also shouldn’t forget about the power of narratives here in Poland, or what Benedict Anderson would call our “imagined community.” There are a lot of very important clashes within this society. For instance, we are a religious nation. But there is a lot of debate about secularism and the installing of a secular state, the same kind of debate that took place in many countries a long time ago. This generates a lot of energy and struggle over the issues. It also creates a lot of engagement. In the midst of all these fights and debates, you get better politics. Passionate politics means better politics. Many of the other countries you’re talking about have had dispassionate politics over the last 20 or 30 years. Our politics is lively. It’s not always good, but it’s healthy.
Also, Poland is a relatively big country compared to its southern neighbors, which nobody really noticed before. It’s not that we were unsuccessful before. We were successful. But now, compared to other countries, we get more visibility.
One more thing has changed. For a long time, we were captured by the ghosts of the past. All we could speak of was World War II and Solidarity and historical memory. It’s important and defining and crucial for any community. But we couldn’t get past that. We couldn’t communicate with the rest of the world. We are still perceived through the lenses of Solidarity, the heroism of the Second World War, or the Holocaust experience. But now new generations are coming to the stage. These younger people don’t have the first- or second-hand experience of these events. They discount the experience of their grandparents, who were connected to these events. The rhetoric is changing, and so is the perception of Poland from the outside. Some say that the new generation, people in their thirties or forties, are much more pragmatic. They’re involved in business. They’re less involved in Romanticism, which was a common feature of Polish culture. That drives a lot of change.
Finally, I wouldn’t say that we’ve been so tremendously successful in terms of growth. Where we’ve been able to develop in recent years, much of it is thanks to Europe. Poland’s position in the EU structures and political decision-making has enabled the country to have more visibility, gain more influence, and make some strategic alliances. These ambitious efforts at the EU level have been supported by all political forces. You could see it in the Kaczynski government as well as in the current government.
That’s the political side. Even more importantly, our reforms have continued thanks largely to the financial support of the EU funds. These funds are not that important in terms of the money poured into the economy. Rather, they establish certain tracks for modernization that bring progress to Polish politics and economy from a long-term perspective.
One of the unusual aspects in this discussion is the level of support for the EU among the Polish population, which is higher even than the levels in France. I’m referring to an article that you were quoted in, from the Christian Science Monitor, which cited support here in Poland at 60-plus percent compared to France where it was 40-something. In this region, you’ll find that support for the EU chiefly among political elites and not always there either. Is it simply a question of money plus the modernization tracks that explain the high level of support? Or is it more because of a lingering fear of turmoil in the east?
That’s present everywhere in the region, the theme of escaping the east. I should send you a PDF of one of our more recent editions of Res Publica in English because there we ask the question of whether we are east or west. That question has long defined the debate regionally here in Poland. Are we east or west? East of the west or west of the east? It’s always been a defining geopolitical context for us because of Russia. We just didn’t want to be connected with Russia.
Sure, we love the EU because of the funds. But we loved the EU before. It’s something different from the Czechs. I just spent half a year in Prague talking to Czechs. They’re fine with themselves. They don’t necessarily appreciate things just because they’re foreign. In Poland, it’s the other way around. We don’t like ourselves as Poles as much as we like foreigners, especially if they speak French or English (or German too, which is a recent development). I remember in the 1990s when my native English-speaking friends were complaining that they wanted to learn Polish. They started to ask questions in Polish. But everyone wanted to speak English, even if they spoke English worse than my friends spoke Polish.
It’s something you can trace back to the roots of Polish culture and literature and to our conviction that there’s a better world to the west than to the east. There was never a high level of support for Russia after the Bolshevik revolution. Support for Tsarist Russia was pretty high, a fact that’s not appreciated right now in Poland. At that time, Tsarist Russia brought a lot of modernization to Poland. But there’s a belief here that what we can achieve is better than what can be imposed by someone else. It’s a kind of slave mentality, though perhaps that’s too strong. But it’s certainly connected to our peasant culture.
Poles also want stability, and Polish politics have never offered stability. Perhaps that’s the double-edged sword of the reforms of the 1990s when we achieved a lot but we grew more distant from our state. Even earlier, in the 1980s, the state was becoming more laissez-faire after Solidarity had been more or less dissolved and people were going off in more individualistic directions in order to survive. It’s common for Poles to believe in the capacity of our own state to take care of the common good and public affairs and individual prosperity. Perhaps it’s a fairy tale, but we also believe in Brussels. So far it has proven to be very efficient in doing that.
There was a report on This American Life, which usually just focuses on U.S. domestic issues, on Poland after the Smolensk crash. The writer of the piece used the conflict over the cross in front of the Warsaw Castle as a metaphor for how divided Poland was. Was it misreporting on how deeply divided Polish society was at that point? Or has Poland transcended that division? It certainly doesn’t seem as divided here today as it is, for instance, in Hungary.
We don’t have the kind of deep division that you’ll find in Hungary. Most Poles don’t participate in politics. You can say that about Hungarian society as well. The levels of participation in economy, politics, public life, NGOs, and the Church are more or less the same in Hungary and Poland.
But in that particular debate over religious symbols in Poland or over the Smolensk crash itself, the divisions are visible but important only to small fractions of publicly active people. It’s more important to see how many people say that they won’t vote, won’t participate, won’t choose any political option because they are so discouraged by what they see. They don’t want to legitimatize any of that. That’s more and more visible — not only in Poland but all around the Western world.
But these conflicts are what the media writes about. It’s the easiest subject. And it’s the aim of the people who bring these issues to the media to use symbolic debates to cement the support of a particular party, in this case the Kaczynski party, and build the hardcore of a new/old political force. But this is not a debate that you would have at the dinner table with the family on Sunday, where you usually have such debates. On Sundays, Poles debate health care, transpiration and roads, the modernization project — just as before. As conditions change, the talk at the dinner table gets updated. But they’re definitely not talking about the cross or the Smolensk case, at least to the extent that these debates are present in the public media. Public opinion is not fooled by all that.
Of course it is important to explain the reasons for why the Smolensk crash happened. And this is a failure of the Polish state, regardless of the government. Government after government decreased the level of professional service when it comes to the security of public officials. There were mistakes. At this point, who wants to go by plane to the east? I don’t. I go by train. In the political debate, people are not fooled into thinking that this is the fault of one party or another. They just don’t want to participate in politics.
For the last six years I have been commuting to Warsaw every day. It should take 30 minutes (30km or so). Last year it took on average one hour and something because of train failures and track modernization. I heard one of the passengers say, “Who’s to blame? I’m sure it’s Donald Tusk!”
Everyone responded with laughter. Some laughter was more ironical than others, and some passengers were more critical of the prime minister. But everyone knows it’s just a game. Tusk is not the real issue. Perhaps we’re misinformed by the media, and that’s the real issue. We’re not getting enough information about the decision-making process. And the media isn’t really following the modernization process because it’s quite rapid and extensive. So, there’s crossover with the general media crisis.
You mentioned people opting out of politics. Earlier you mentioned the protests taking place around the world, which in some sense is opting in — in a protest form. Throughout the region, people are highly dissatisfied with political institutions and politicians — not with democracy abstractly but with “real existing democracy,” if you will. But not many alternatives have been put forward. Is that the case here in Poland as well?
Not that much, no. But it’s not the case that people are not dissatisfied. That’s our natural condition, to be dissatisfied. But people are also dissatisfied with protests. For a long time after 1980, protests were used and abused in such a way that they lost their credibility.
Today, for instance, we have the “rebirth” of trade unions, of Solidarity, the leader of which, Piotr Duda, aims to be a political leader at some point. At the very beginning, his aim was to restore credibility to the trade union, but he’s losing that. We know from some media investigations how much money from public funds is given to trade union leaders who are conductors of trains. They earn more than the prime minister or the president! Even if they go out onto the streets to protest Tusk, people say, “You’re so well off you can afford to protest while other people work.” That’s the general attitude I find among my peers and around Poland.
The second point concerns emigration. A lot of Poles, more than two million, have emigrated since the borders and labor market were opened. Poles are the biggest minority in the UK after Pakistanis. The people who protest are often mobile, entrepreneurial — and they left. True, there was a protest here against ACTA. There was also a mobilization of liberal-Left urban dwellers to celebrate a national independence day in a colorful and cheerful way, and there was a more traditional patriotic celebration that attracted even more people onto the streets. But they were not protesting. A small group of hooligans has captured the media’s attention with their street protests. But they don’t have a political agenda to change democracy as such. No, they want to take over. They are semi-fascist or simply fascist organizations attached to football hooligans or New Age Slavic nativism.
Of course, some groups are dissatisfied with the nature of politics. Groups like ours advocate and engage in changing how politics works. We try to get people engaged and heard by decision makers. We experiment in decision-making, for instance with participatory budgeting at a municipal level and perhaps even at a national level. We do this to change the nature of politics but not by going onto the streets. The traditional street strategy is to build a negotiating position with the establishment to secure a compromise, and in this way politics evolve. So far, we’ve been trying this from the outside. I don’t know any group that wants to do it the traditional way. Even though we sympathize with the Occupy movement, they abandoned that kind of strategy as well. And that movement failed because it didn’t change what they wanted to change.
One difference here in Poland is the presence of Krytyka Polityczna. There are Left groups in other countries, but they are quite small. But here there is an independent Left that is viable and even entrepreneurial in spirit.
I’m not sure they’re so Left. Their rise coincides with the crisis of ideologies that has been long discussed, and with the crisis of the Left that is somewhat newer, from the last 20-30 years. Krytyka is creating a Pop Left. My interpretation is not so favorable for them even though I admire them for many of the things they do. But they are quite liberal (market oriented) in the way they do things. They create a kind of corporation, with branding and marketing — which is not a bad thing since that’s how things work. And they use the Left brand or the New Left brand because there has been a huge demand for it.
Having said that, Krytyka does a lot of good things. They inspire a lot of debate, which was really needed, about alternative ideas from around the world, about how community is more important than personal egocentric greed. They offer a substitute for the shallowness of traditional mass media — traditional at least in the last 25 years. They’re doing a great job. They’re not who they say are – but that’s part of the game. They set an example of how to get organized and work for the benefit of the community.
Some people have pointed out that Krytyka started as a project to influence the direction of the Social Democratic party, the post-Communists. They failed, and they understood their failure. They no longer have that ambition. They say that politics can be changed locally, through grassroots initiatives and education, which I very much agree with. They support long-term investments into changing people’s hearts and minds at a very early stage with progressive ideas and a spirit of innovation. But perhaps Krytyka lost some of its charm when it failed to become involved in contemporary politics. That early involvement was ambitious and promising even though it was perhaps too romantic. Poles appreciate a romantic struggle that becomes all the more cherished the harder it gets. They made a pragmatic decision to abandon electoral politics, which is perfectly understandable but also disappointing to many.
Various new kinds of parties have emerged in the region, like LMP in Hungary and Palikot here. Have these parties achieved only temporary success or will they have a greater impact over the long term?
We will see with Palikot. They have tremendous problems right now. The longer Palikot himself stays in politics, the more he becomes part of the establishment. He can’t do the same trick twice by claiming to be an outsider. The Palikot party was quite successful in securing the political support of specific groups like the LGBT movement and the legalize marijuana movement. That was a great surprise, especially the second one. The LGBT movement was very much organized and politicized before: it just needed someone to reach out to them and build on that potential. But the marijuana movement was a big surprise. I was observing people around Poland smoking and advocating for Palikot. I had an awkward feeling that they were succeeding by doing nothing other than smoking joints! They weren’t going door to door to get out the vote or pursuing any of the other modern tools of politics. No, it was just: “chill, brother.”
It’s the modern form of “anti-politics.”
Yes, and it was working!
Palikot still has a chance to get into parliament for a second time, but it won’t be easy for him. He’s already part of the establishment, though he’s not in the government. And he went in with a very diverse group of people. It’s a group of MPs he can’t entirely rely on. The challenge is the same as with any such organization. Either he overcomes these challenges in time for the next elections — they argue and struggle but overall this could have a positive effect on the organization by producing a new electoral program — or he fails. It comes down to a matter of organization. He has a group that has voted for him. But he could fail in making his organization into a really effective electoral machine. A second challenge would be if he adopts rhetoric that kills this political initiative, which is likely given his temperament. He wants to be too much of an intellectual in politics.
You talked earlier about the meaning of Central Europe. You said you wanted to get away from Milan Kundera’s concept of Central Europe as a region dragged eastward. But you also mentioned the cosmopolitan urban environments that have characterized the region.
Kundera wrote that Central Europe is part of the West, dragged eastward, captured, and kept captive even though its heritage is part of Western world. Today, Central Europe is more defined by the institutional cooperation of the Visegrad group. It’s pragmatic. That’s the political concept of Central Europe. Because of different heritage and a different material situation, we’re a distinctive part of Europe that can find its common interests–even with Spain, which has similar structural problems (and the project will be a failure if Central Europe doesn’t align itself with Spain). This project is more open, political, and pragmatic than Kundera’s notion.
In terms of Central Europe as a city, there is a specific social structure and social history connected to urban life. This broad region, extending eastward to Belarus and Ukraine and down to the Balkans and over to southeastern Germany, is defined first of all by ethnic diversity, by all the minority groups in the area. The cities in this region were created by one minority group and inhabited by many others. They were very diverse. But because of so much turmoil — this was a region of war and bloodshed long before World War II — the ethnic structure has dramatically shifted. You can see this from the bridge over the Drina in Bosnia through cities like Kosice in present-day Slovakia up north to the borderland towns of Poland and Lithuania. The population shifts have been dramatic. It has been a melting pot in a different sense than in the American system.
The small and medium-sized cities constitute geographically and culturally what the region is today much more than the big cosmopolitan cities. Of course such regions of small and medium-sized cities exist elsewhere as well. But it’s what distinguishes this region from the rest of Europe. This space, and the memory of this space, creates a distinctive identity. Geography matters. It’s a world of fluctuating identities. So, this is another interpretation of how Central Europe can be defined. It’s also a brand for the region. As you travel through the region and see the richness of the architecture – and sometimes the richness of the communities — it’s really specific, worth paying attention to. It’s not just the touristic jewels like Krakow, Prague, and Budapest. It’s also places like Lublin, Kosice, Plzen.
I just went to Kosice for the first time, and I was astounded by how beautiful the city was. But at the same time, I was disturbed by the ethnic homogeneity. It’s no longer a meeting place for Slavs and Hungarians. The only sizable minority population was Roma, and the city was doing whatever it could to get rid of the Roma population by sending them to the countryside. They weren’t doing this directly. They were getting rid of the large public housing projects and Roma couldn’t afford to live anywhere else in the city, so they went to the countryside. So, this was de facto ethnic cleansing. The official rhetoric of the city was that it contained many cultures, but the actual practice was the opposite.
Poland, as much as it likes to express the multiethnic element of our culture, is very homogenous. Central Europe is white, compared to other regions in the world. It generates interest if there is a person of black or yellow skin color on the street. People look at them because they’re different. Roma and other minorities might suffer problems because of that. Roma communities are also generating problems, so it’s two-way. The governments here don’t have an appropriate modus vivendi for dealing with Roma. In addition to expelling them from the city, they build big walls around the settlements. They ghettoize them.
All the mistakes of the past are being repeated. I wouldn’t say that this is the case everywhere in the region. There are certain areas in certain countries. It’s not a national problem, but a problem on a regional level. This is also a European problem: remember how Sarkozy reacted to the Roma populations by expelling them, violating many EU agreements and policies about immigrants. So, these are the other definitions of Central Europe, which are not all sweetness and light.
I talked with people about decentralization in Serbia, where so much is focused on Belgrade. I was told of one study of the nightly news in which only 18 seconds of the 30 minutes was devoted to news of Serbia outside Belgrade. What’s the situation here?
Poland is a country where decentralized politics and economics play an enormous role. This doesn’t get a lot of attention in the media, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not important. City policies have an enormous influence on national policy. Most of the taxes come from small and medium-sized companies. Family businesses and individual entrepreneurs are the ones paying taxes. This is what Viktor Orban dreams about when he’s talking about his middle-class project. We have it here in Poland.
We were successful in implementing reforms in 1995 to change local government. This method by which we gave independence to local government based on taxes and voting is unique in Europe, with the exception of Germany. Local governments actually shape public policy a lot. When you take into account how many cities and municipalities and gmina there are, all of which provide services like education and culture (libraries, museums), then you can understand the success Poland has enjoyed that you asked about before.
When you think back 10 years or so to the worldview that you had when you were starting out in this field, have you had any major changes in your thinking on politics or economic reform?
Nothing dramatic. During my studies I took a job as an intern and then as a coordinator at the Adam Smith Resource Center. I worked on projects monitoring the World Bank and the freedom of information act. What hasn’t changed much since then is my belief in entrepreneurial spirit, meaning community-supported individualism, and that there are many more players than just the government — not just in Poland but worldwide.
But I have come to accept over the years, more as a result of debate, that there should be some government regulation, for instance around gay couples. That wasn’t my position at the beginning. I started from the position that the state should not interfere with how people live. But that’s not possible. The state has to interfere and regulate.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed in Poland, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?
Looking into the near future, how would you rate the prospects for Poland, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
Warsaw, August 7, 2013