The Three Mistakes of Transition

Posted February 12, 2015

Categories: Blog, Eastern Europe, Featured

Start with a failing economy. Throw in a team of inexperienced politicians, people in fact who had spent their careers deliberately avoiding official politics. Add a population with the highest possible expectations. And, as a wild card, introduce an international community that was not offering very much in the way of financial assistance.

This was the situation in Poland in September 1989 when Tadeusz Mazowiecki became the first non-Communist prime minister in the region in more than 40 years. Considering the odds against Poland at that time, it’s remarkable that the country survived and, eventually, prospered.

Ryszard Holzer is a writer and journalist. When we first met in 1989, he was working on an underground newspaper, which remained underground for a while even after Solidarity was legalized. “We were like that Japanese soldier who emerged from the jungles of the Philippines 25 years after World War II ended,” he told me with a laugh when we met up again in Warsaw in August 2013.

After 1989, he tried tabloid journalism but never could become accustomed to the new focus on celebrities. He spent a decade at the daily Gazeta Wyborcza, and then became a business writer. He currently works for the Polish Newsweek.

At the end of our wide-ranging conversation, he identified three mistakes that the Polish government made in that critical first year of transition.

“I didn’t understand back then, 23 years ago, how different and contradictory the interests of different groups could be,” Holzer told me. “I much more believed in the common interest. This was the great mistake, or maybe it was not a mistake, of Bronek Geremek when he was the head of Solidarity’s parliamentary group (OKP). In early 1990, it was clear that OKP would fall apart. And Bronek was trying to do everything possible to keep it together as one body because he believed that it was his duty to provide support for the Balcerowicz reforms. He didn’t really believe that the differences were anything but the ambitions of the different members of the group. He didn’t believe in contradictory interests. He treated them only as ambitions.”

The Solidarity camp fell apart, and it was not an easy breakup. “From my perspective today,” Holzer continued, “I would say to Bronek: try to negotiate an amicable divorce between the different groups. Tell these people to make their own parties and then create a coalition. And then they can negotiate interests and views. This probably would have been less effective from the point of view of supporting the Balcerowicz reforms, but probably there would have been less animosity among the politicians coming from the Solidarity bench. It was like a marriage in which the couple hated each other, but they also had a child – the Balcerowicz plan – who was close to taking an exam. The couple hated each other but didn’t want to divorce for fear of disrupting the child and the exam preparation.”

The second mistake concerned the justice system. “Balcerowicz would never tell you that he made a mistake,” Holzer said. “We meet from time to time these days when I need to ask him something important. Balcerowicz is not a person you ask, ‘What are your mistakes?’ But he knows that the biggest mistake back then was that there was no real reform of the justice system. He didn’t know then how important the justice system is for the economy. He knows it now. Back then was the only moment when you could do this kind of reform, when you can create a new system. We only had a half a year to do that reform. And we didn’t do it. That was a big mistake.”

And the third mistake was the educational system. “Schools were reformed only something like 12 years ago,” he lamented. “For the first 10 or 11 years, of course there were new programs, but teachers were very poorly paid.”

There are still major problems in Poland, he pointed out. But problems are normal. The politicians, however, are not addressing them. “I’m not panicked about the future,” Holzer concluded. “We still have quite smart people here and quite a good economy. So I don’t expect civil war or the country falling apart. But I expect a political and economic crisis at some level in Poland.”


The Interview


Do you remember where you were when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?




Do you remember where you were on June 4, 1989?


Sure, I do. I was a so-called trustee of Solidarity in one of the electoral commissions. The commissions had members from each of the parties, and I was from Solidarity. Each candidate of Solidarity had his own trustee. And I was the trustee of Andrzej Lapicki, a very popular Polish actor who died half a year ago. My mistake, sorry – he died in summer 2012. He ran for election to be a member of parliament, so I was his trustee, and I was very much afraid that his Communist opponent would cheat. The commission was just some clerks who didn’t care very much about what would happen. It was very hot, and the night was very long, and I was terribly tired. In the morning I realized that, whoa, we won! We won by a huge margin.


He was running for the Sejm or the Senate?


For the Sejm.


What was your expectation that the election results would be?


It was a long long time ago. I didn’t really expect an honest election. I expected that the real numbers would be unknown. I thought that a majority, but not a huge majority, would vote for Solidarity. And I expected that the Communists would cheat. The official numbers would be maybe two for the Communists and one for us. You have to remember that only one-third, 35% to be precise, of the seats for the Sejm were up for competition: the rest were reserved for the Communists. But I didn’t expect that such a huge majority of people would vote for Solidarity. It was completely unexpected — not only by me but by everyone.


You started out in the student movement?


I was too old for that. The Independent Students’ Association (NZS) was born in 1980, already after my studies. I’ve been engaged with the underground cultural life back in the 1970s — as a student and emerging poet/writer. I finished my studies in 1979, and then I was conscripted into the army. This was a story in itself. In the army, I was a deputy head of a motorized unit at a huge military training area in the northwest of Poland. It was August 1980, and we expected and were afraid that we would be used for suppressing the strikes. There was gossip that we would be sent to Torun to suppress the strikes there.

I remember the night we were at the camp, sleeping in tents. I was drinking with one of the officers, a captain as far as I remember, talking and drinking late into the night. We were both terribly afraid.

He said, “Ryszard, what am I going to do?”

I said, “I don’t know, but I’m not going to kill people.”

He said, “Okay, but maybe our choice will be to kill or be killed.” It might sound funny these days, but it was not funny at all. We were very afraid.


You were quite young.


I was 25. I left the army after a year —


Nothing happened in August 1980?


No, nothing happened. We were all conformists. Some of us were a little less conformist, some a little bit more. I too was a conformist. I was not talking to everyone in the army – it was not like civil life where there was a strong group of similar-thinking people — about what I thought about the fucking Communists and the Soviet Union. I was also afraid. Jacek Kuron was not a conformist, and nor were the people in KOR (the Workers Defense Committee, later KSS KOR, the Committee for Social Self-Defense). But the majority of people were. This captain I was drinking with, the head of the company, he was a little bit more conformist than I was, and the political officer was a little bit more conformist than the captain.

The political officer got his instructions from Warsaw. Every morning, he met with the company and told us what was “really” going on. This was in August. Every day, his instructions were more and more different from reality, from what was reported on TV, for example — because his instructions were sent from Warsaw with a delay of about a week. After a week, he came to us and said, “You know guys, I have these instructions of what to tell you. But it completely doesn’t make sense.” It was completely different from what appeared in the official newspaper. He gave up. “Just read the newspapers,” he told us, “I’m not going to discuss this with you.”

Me and some other guy, another university graduate, we were meeting with soldiers in some remote place. We were talking with them about what was really going on in our opinion. We were making counter-propaganda, so to say. A guy who had been a radio officer — each company had a person like that — he took an antenna to the top of the tree in order to get Voice of America or Radio Free Europe. In August 1980, it looked like the army was going to fall apart. But later on, more problems appeared and Party control over the army became strengthened.

After the army I went back to Warsaw and worked for Tygodnik Solidarnosc (Solidarity Weekly). This was my first permanent job. I was 26. I worked in the Letters department. In those remote times, people used to write letters to the newspaper. We got something like a thousand letters a day. It was unbelievable. There were 15 people working in the letters department, reading these letters all the time. I don’t know what happened to those letters, whether they still exist some place. They would be a very interesting document of those days.


What were your responsibilities?


We were just reading the letters and answering the letters, or passing the letters to the county commission of Solidarity or to the different authors or other people. We were deciding what to do with the letters. After a few months, I became responsible for deciding which letters to publish and then editing those letters. The last page of Tygodnik Solidarnosc was a page of letters from workers, scientists, teachers.


Do any letters stick out in your memory because of how unusual they were?


They were usually comments about the political situation or proposals for how to change the situation. Plenty of the letters were about the situation in the state enterprises, complaints about bosses or the quality of life, that there was too much work or very badly organized work. Some were about politics, but not all. Self-censorship was still rather strong. People very rarely wrote about relations with the Soviet Union. There were some anti-Semitic letters, but very few. The same with nationalist letters. Most people were writing about what was going on in their factory, in their town, the relations between nomenklatura and normal people. Also plenty of complaints about lack of food, lack of apartments.

Before going to the Army, I was engaged in the underground movement in Warsaw but less as a student and more as a young writer. I was a member of the Writers Union, the official organization of writers, where there was a branch for young writers. We were not doing anything very important. It started with different open letters. Every month, there was another letter to the Sejm or to the first secretary of the Communist Party, complaining about how Polish history was treated or how people were treated. It started for me in 1976, with a letter of protest over the suppression of the worker strikes in Ursus and Radom. The workers were beaten, treated awfully, fired from their jobs. I knew who was gathering signatures for the letter. I was very much afraid of signing that letter. So I avoided the people who would ask me to sign. But after a week or so, one of the other students from my group asked me, “Ryszard, maybe you will sign this letter of protest?” I didn’t want to sign, but I signed. And I was convinced that the next week I would be sent to Siberia. But nothing happened. So I signed another letter and another letter. After a while I was interrogated by the secret police, but it didn’t seem very serious. It was routine. They didn’t like their work, those guys, and they were bored.

I was also circulating various underground magazines and books. I went to the army. I worked for Solidarity newspaper. I also worked for Solidarity’s cultural weekly. Then Martial Law came and I didn’t have this work any more. I was one of the editors of the weekly of one of the underground papers — Tygodnik Wojenny (Martial Law was stan wojenny). We created this newspaper, then with other friends we also started the other one – cultural magazine called Wyzwanie (Challenge). Culture was very important – it’d been our weapon. Then my daughter was born.

It was not that I was so very afraid. I lost my faith. I was completely sure that it would be forever like this, forever and forever and forever. When I look back to the Martial Law period, and those first years after Martial Law, I don’t remember the sun or any warm days. I remember only winter and snow and autumn and rain and everything was grey and boring. This was the time that I really thought about emigration. But to make this decision about emigration, you have to have some power in yourself to decide that you’re going to do something. I didn’t have even this power. I was somehow broken. Martial Law broke all of us in some way. There were people who were broken by police, by agents. I was broken because of my internal lack of will. I thought it would always be like this. I would have my daughter and my wife and my circle of friends. I was organizing poetry readings, prose readings, and exhibitions at a church every two weeks. So there was some cultural activity. I was writing. I left Tygodnik Wojenny and Wyzwanie. I was distributing underground papers and books. I had a scholarship from the underground to work on my literature. I was doing some translations. I worked as an interpreter for some Western journalists. I wrote some poems, some books. But when I look back to the 1980s, I feel that this time was passing by just like water through my fingers. I don’t really know what was I was doing those years.


It’s when you published your book of poems.


Yes, my first book of poems was prepared before Martial Law and was published in 1982 or 1983 officially. Even during Martial Law books were published. The same year, I published a book of underground poems. In 1987, I published a book of fairy tales. And in 1987 or 1988, I published a book of short stories. I was also working on my novel, which I never finished. I read it 20 years ago and threw it away because it was awful. In the 1980s, I decided in my head that I would not be a journalist any more. I would become a writer. But I was probably not talented enough to become a writer.

Then the Round Table came, and I still didn’t realize how important it was. During the Round Table, I was still broken, according to my self-definition. Just before the Round Table talks started, but after they’d been announced, the same people I’d been working with before asked me if I would join them in another underground paper, Przeglad Wiadomosci Agencyjnych. So I joined them. It was still in the underground. It was funny. Even after Mazowiecki became prime minister and there was an official Solidarity daily paper, Gazeta Wyborcza, we were still doing our underground weekly. We were like that Japanese soldier who emerged from the jungles of the Philippines 25 years after World War II ended.


Do you think this underground newspaper is still going on today?


No, because it didn’t make any sense. And we realized that after a while. We decided to legalize our activities somehow. Then we quarreled among ourselves. And we broke apart. And I started to work at first in a new magazine for youth. Then I started to work at Zycie Warszawy, which was then a popular daily newspaper in Warsaw, as the head of the political department and as a parliamentary correspondent. Then I became a head of the foreign department. I worked there for about three years. Then I went to Super Express, which was the first real tabloid in Poland. I was the deputy editor in chief, which was one of the stupidest experiences in my life because I didn’t know what it was all about.

Some journalist came to me to tell me that he had a scoop.

“So, what is it?”

“Some popular actor’s wife is divorcing him.”

“So what?”

“It’s a great scoop.”

“You think so?” I didn’t really know who the actor was. From time to time I was missing the scoops because I didn’t understand anything about celebrities. This was the time when celebrity culture was born. I was really trying but it was too complicated for me.

After about a year, I left Super Express for Gazeta Wyborcza, which was from one point of view a catastrophe in my life. I earned a lot of money as deputy editor-in-chief at Super Express. My idea of making a big career fell apart. At Gazeta Wyborcza I was just one of many editors. After a while, I became deputy head of one of the departments. I liked the place and the people, at least the majority of the people. I worked there for 10 years, which was probably two or three years too long, but it was a very good experience. Then I went to Pulse Business, because I wanted to become a business journalist.


During the 1980s, you published two books of poem, a short story collection, a children’s book. You had a child. You had a very productive time of it!


Yes, but still this is my subjective vision of the 1980s. It was a hollow time. It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it. I can talk about it. But it was a kind of a blockade. For example, I was distributing a lot of books and papers. I was earning some money from this — buying the books from the underground office for 100 zloty and selling them for 110 zloty. It was not a lot of money, but it was some money. I was cruising all over Warsaw. When you think about it nowadays, we guys all looked the same. We all had beards, wore these green American army jackets, with huge rucksacks. How is it possible they didn’t know who we were and what we were doing?


It wasn’t camouflage.


The militia never asked me once what was in my rucksack. Probably it was possible because all of us looked like this. The police would have had to stop and search everybody. I just hated this time. I remember scenes from my private life, with my daughter. We all of us had private life: meetings with friends a few times a week, plenty of family life and life with friends, private gatherings in apartments. But nothing above this.


It was a claustrophobic feeling.


A political claustrophobia. Only the Pope’s visits were something above. There was no public life. You cannot live without public life. There was only a surrogate of public life. For me as a writer, a surrogate for public life was these poetry readings. I remember when Kurt Vonnegut and William Styron came to Poland probably in 1985. Styron was head of the American PEN club, and they came at the invitation of the Polish PEN club. They had some meetings with Polish young writers. I remember meeting with them in someone’s apartment, and it was very important for me. This was a surrogate for public life. Or maybe this was public life. It lasted for seven or eight years. Very few things happened in my life during those years.


And you were young.


This was between my 27th and 35th years, which is a very important period in people’s life, when you accumulate experience and contacts. I had no contacts. It was all the same group of friends, with no new contacts. There’s the poem by T.S. Eliot about “hollow men,” so that’s why I use this word “hollow.”


Let’s move to the 1990s and Gazeta Wyborcza. People have told me that Gazeta changed over the years. In the early times, it supported the Round Table negotiations and of course the Mazowiecki government. But there were shifts at Gazeta later on. Were you there during this evolution?


You have to remember that I came to Gazeta Wyborcza at the start of1995. I wasn’t there from the start. I was treated for a long time as someone who is “new.” Of course I knew Adam Michnik and other people from the opposition from before Gazeta Wyborcza. Still, in the very institution of Gazeta I was new somehow.


Did you think that Gazeta Wyborcza changed its political orientation during that period? For instance, these days, people point out that Gazeta publishes a lot of pieces from members of Krytyka Polityczna.


Yes, from my point of view, it became very leftist or maybe I would say populist. But during my period of time, it didn’t really change. It remained more or less coherent between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, supporting the free market and minority rights and the trend toward Polish membership in the European Union. Probably the most important evolution, but also a very controversial one, involved the changes that happened in Adam. He was one of the most important people I met in my life. He was a student of my father’s before March 1968 when he was jailed. I knew Adam since I was 15 or 16 years old. He was like a legend for me. And he was a very important person not only for me but for everyone. Until the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, Adam was always, and this is my interpretation, a wunderkind beloved by old wise guys.

After he was kicked out of university, when he was 24 or 25, Adam became a secretary for Antoni Slonimski, the Polish poet, who was then like 75 years old. He was a very important person, a guru for a lot of people. He was a good poet, not a great poet, but very important as a moral authority. When you read memoirs of writers from the 1970s, you can see how this young guy, Adam Michnik, was extremely important as an authority for people who were much older, who were in their sixties or seventies. Many of them felt broken, and they thought that Communism would last forever. And here was this young guy, the best pupil and good friend of Jacek Kuron, and he made them become active. This wave of open letters was possible because Adam forced those people — writers, professors, some priests, important people – to become again politically active in the opposition. Aside from writing his own essays, he was animating those people. And he always needed to be with these old people.

But at the end of the last century, people in his microcosm like Wiktor Woroszylski, Jacek Kuron, Antoni Slonimski, all these great moral authorities of the past died. And that’s when Adam did something that a lot of people thought was scandalous — I too thought it was scandalous — and he had no right to do it. In his microcosm, Wojciech Jaruzelski and Czeslaw Kiszczak filled the empty space left by those old moral authorities. He conducted interviews with Jaruzelski and Kiszczak. He wrote essays about him. A lot of people thought that Adam forgave them in the name of Polish society, and he didn’t have the right to do so. A lot of people of my generation feel that Gazeta Wyborcza and Adam betrayed them, that it was not the job of the editor-of-chief to forgive people. That’s the job of writers, priests –


– the Pope?


The Pope but not the paper. The paper can teach. It shouldn’t pretend to be a moral authority.


His argument in response was that he didn’t forgive them. He saw it simply as an extension of the Round Table negotiations.


No. There’s a Polish proverb. If two people tell you that you’re a drunkard, you don’t argue with them. You go home and you go to sleep. When everybody feels that Adam forgave them publicly, no matter what he thinks, all the other people think otherwise. He argued that this was an extension of the Round Table. But there were no Round Table talks any more. They were not eternal. They’re not like the Bible. They were made in a particular historical and political situation. After the Communist Party was dissolved, after the Soviet Union didn’t exist any more, everything changed.


It also takes place in a larger context in which the Kaczynski figures, and people further to the right, argue that the Round Table process was itself a betrayal, and that Michnik and Geremek engaged in an unforgivable act. And the negotiations had both their public and non-public sides — I’m thinking here of the Magdalenka discussions.


There was no public life. It’s impossible to make public negotiations in a country that is not open, that doesn’t have free media or democracy or rule of law. When you have no public TV, you can’t have a public political discussion. Of course, the very nature of the talks was secret. You can say as well that if Kuron and Michnik were cheating society, to follow Kaczynski’s logic, the Communist Party was cheating its Russian sponsors as well. By the way, Kaczynski was part of the same process.

I know plenty of people who participated in the Round Table talks. I knew Bronislaw Geremek as my uncle Bronek, which I used to call him from my childhood. I knew Mazowiecki very well since he was my first boss at Tygodnik Solidarnosc. He was also godfather to my daughter. I know what they were thinking about the Round Table negotiations then and afterwards. In 1983, when Mazowiecki was freed from detention camp, we met in the apartment of one of our colleagues from Tygodnik Solidarnosc. I was arguing that Polish society was broken. Mazowiecki said, “Yes, it’s broken, and probably nothing will come in politics in this decade because a new generation has to mature. The economic problems will become more and more impossible to resolve. In something like 10 years, we’ll have another try. But we are learning from the experiences we are having now.”

Probably Martial Law and the Warsaw Uprising from 1944 were two of the most important things that made the Round Table talks possible. In Polish political culture, and this is the way Kaczynski is arguing, there are no compromises with the enemy. But there is the characteristic notion of a blood sacrifice, which comes from the period of Romanticism, to make Poland free. The Polish nation made this sacrifice plenty of times — in the 19th century, in World War I and II, in the Warsaw Uprising, during Martial Law. The Round Table talks were also possible because there was a high level of apathy on both sides — on the side of society but also on the side of the nomenklatura. The nomenklatura didn’t believe that it could go on forever. Society was sure that Communism would last forever. Both sides were wrong, in contradictory ways. They were both apathetic, and because of this we could have this compromise. In some narratives that Kaczynski uses, the Adam Mickiewicz narrative, they betrayed the nation. But this is not the Pilsudski or Dmowski logic — they were very smart guys and were able to make compromises.


Let’s move to economics. I interviewed Lech Jeziorny.


The businessman from Krakow who was jailed. I never met him. I don’t know him.


He told me that his case is not unusual. He was held for 9 months and then released for lack of evidence. They have an organization of 200 members and 1,000 cases — entrepreneurs who argue that the state has targeted them unfairly through taxes or imprisonment. I was astonished by this.


Poland has plenty of cases against the government in the tribunal of justice in The Hague. The government loses the majority of them.


How is this possible?


Good question. There are different international rankings that include Poland. The most well known is the Doing Business ranking done by the World Bank. From this report, and all the others that I read during the year from Price Waterhouse Cooper and so on, Poland faces three major problems. The first is the lack of innovation. Polish economy is not very innovative. But this is not such a great problem because we still have to catch up to other countries. We don’t have to be so innovative. It’s enough if we implement innovations from abroad — this is more or less okay, at least in this decade.

The second problem is transport and infrastructure, still rather poor in comparison to our western neighbor.

The third problem is our justice system. At the very top is the Polish parliament, which changes laws so often and incoherently that it produces plenty of contradictory laws. Probably there is also some corruption and illegal lobbying. For instance, there’s a law proposed in parliament, and at the very last moment, someone will add a few words that changes the situation in favor or against someone. The most known example is called “i czasopismo” — and magazines. These were two words that came up during the Rywin Affair, which concerned a law about TV regulations. The Agora publishing house – publisher of Gazeta Wyborcza – wanted to buy a TV station, and another group connected to the ruling post-Communist party under Prime Minister Leszek Miller, wanted to block Agora from buying the station. At the very last moment, someone added the words “and magazines” to the list of entities that couldn’t buy TV stations because otherwise it would be a monopoly. Since Agora published Gazeta Wyborcza, the most popular Polish daily, it therefore couldn’t buy the TV station.

But this is just one very well known example of dozens of examples. The legislative process is awful. There are too many laws, and the process of making the law is unclear. The process in the Polish parliament is such that any member can propose any amendments, which produces such a terribly long and unclear process that the laws are terrible. For the last 23 years, most of the governments tried to control prosecutors. The position was enormously politicized. It just changed last year. It’s still not good, but I hope it will be better. And prosecutors and judges still don’t take responsibility even if they make an obvious mistake or do a stupid thing. A very good example appeared in the last few weeks. A few years ago, the head of the police, General Papala, was killed. There were different investigations in Lodz and Warsaw, and two different people were prosecuted as his killers. I’m not a specialist in criminal justice, and I can’t give you lots of details about the case. But I can tell you that our justice system is lousy. I think it’s even worse than Italy, but Italians insist that theirs is worse.


If I were a Polish entrepreneur, I wouldn’t take the risk.


I’m sure it’s been much better over the last five years. The politicization of the justice system is much less than under the Miller government or the Kaczynski government. The worst was a very well known case that happened under Miller’s government: the case of Roman Kluska, the founder of the Optimus computer company. He was jailed under false accusations of tax fraud. He was taken from his home at night and kept in custody with no habeas corpus. It was clear in this case: one of the deputy ministers of finance was interested in getting a bribe from Kluska. He refused to give the bribe and was jailed. And the company fell apart, went bankrupt. This deputy minister was fired, but never jailed, never prosecuted. What can I say — our justice system is terrible.

I can give another example from Warsaw. In 1946, all the private properties were nationalized. Everything: all the buildings, the grounds, fields. This was made in a typical Communist way. Now, under democracy, it is possible to win a claim in court, but only if you are rich enough to pay a lot of money for a good lawyer and your property is worth enough to pay for the legal fees. If you lay claim to a million-dollar property, your cost will be up to a quarter of a million dollars. My grandfather had a private transportation firm, a small one on the outskirts of Warsaw. The claim is worth no more than $100,000, and there are six or seven inheritors. So, the costs to make the claim will be at least half of what it is worth. The first time the idea of a law of restitution was introduced was back in 1990 or 1991. After 21 years, we still don’t have this law. Poland has had enormous successes in the economy. But if I were asked for the biggest problem in Poland, it’s the weak state.


A weak regulatory state?


Not only regulation. There are plenty of reasons, which we could talk about for hours. The liberal idea is to have a small and strong government: the policeman who takes care of order in the market. Our problem is that we have a drunken policeman, who is untrained and badly paid and who doesn’t care. And we still have a big state in terms of the percentage of GDP produced or controlled by the state. And the level of public expenses is still very high. We have both a big state and a weak state.

I’m not a Chicago boy. I’m just saying that the critics of the big state are right in their criticism of the state trying to regulate everything, from which private company will build an electric plant and who will dig for shale gas to the entire educational system from kindergarten to the universities. This is why I responded to you the way I did when you asked me 22 years ago which branches of the economy the Polish government should support. The Polish state is much better than it used to be. It could probably decide which branch of economy to support. But the question is: did we do enough to create a strong state? Back in 1989, we were not at a zero level. In terms of the quality of government, we were at a negative level.

My ideal state is a Scandinavian state like Sweden. I remember complaining to a Swedish journalist about the Polish state. He said, “Come on, Ryszard! The first case in which a Swedish peasant won a court battle against the state was in the 18th century.” That’s when Polish peasants were like Black slaves in the American South. The idea to create a strong state is a little bit like this famous opinion about creating an English lawn. You have to cut the grass just so — for 100 years. Then you have a perfect lawn. The state is probably much the same.

All the things you say about Jeziorny and the other guys, well, I think things are better than they were seven or eight years ago. But we are still closer to Italy than we are to Germany.


You listed the problems: innovation, infrastructure, the weak state. There’s also corruption, unemployment in the rural areas. So, how do we explain the successes of the Polish economy?


Back in 1980, I was talking with Artur Miedzyrzecki, the head of the Polish PEN chapter. I was not his friend. He was like a god to me. But I was often invited to his apartment to talk with him and his wife in the evening over whisky. I was complaining at the end of 1982 about a friend of mine who decided to take a job with the official government paper. He said, “Ryszard, we do not love people because they are perfect. We love them even though they are not perfect.”


Sometimes because they are not perfect.


Yes. Poland has these economic successes not because everything is okay but even though we have these problems. Our GDP average growth for the last 20 years was around 4 percent. The question is: why wasn’t it 7 or 8 percent? We have had plenty of investments from abroad. We have had a very good demographic situation for much of that period, with not that many retired people and lots of working-age people. We have good soil. We are close to Europe. If we had smarter politicians and a better state, we would be in a better situation today. It’s not that the British politicians are better but the British state is better, and those politicians inherited a better quality of state. But the Polish situation is not bad. Twenty years ago, you would have been scared walking along this street after 8 pm and there were no good restaurants.


There were zapiekanki. I remember telling you that I ate zapiekanki and you were horrified.


I thought: this guy must be a little bit crazy. You just don’t do such things!


I talked with Maciej Kozlowksi today. He was at Tygodnik Powszechny. They forced him to retire because his name came up through lustration. He told me the whole story. It sounded ridiculous. Why is lustration still an issue today?


My father was also one of the victims of lustration — under the Kaczynski brothers. About seven years ago there was a story in Rzeczpospolita that my father was a collaborator for the intelligence agency. Here’s what really happened. In the 1960s, for the first or second time he was allowed to travel abroad. He went to West Germany. Remember, he is Jewish by origin, and when the war was over he was 15 years old. So, this was the first time he was traveling to Germany as a historian. He’d been asked to write a report when he came back — not about this person or that person, but about attitudes, what the political situation was, which politicians were friendly or not toward Poland. As a child of the Holocaust, he felt that it was extremely important that the people ruling in Poland really know what was going on in Germany. He was 33 years old, a relatively young guy, whose knowledge came from the official papers in Poland. He went for three months to West Germany. He came back and wrote a report.

He told me what he wrote in the report. He’d been shocked, 18 years after the war, that West Germany was not ruled by the Nazis. Of course he knew that there were some “old people” still active. But he’d been shocked to see how different those democratic Germans were in comparison to these old Germans. So, he wrote a sincere report about how different Germany had become. There was no public life at the time in Poland, no newspaper where he could write an article about it. He was not able to communicate with society. He couldn’t even quite talk about it in his lectures, except maybe with some students in his apartment. So, this was the only one way to share his opinions about it, and he thought it was important. Half a century later, the bomb explodes that Professor Holzer was a collaborator with military intelligence. This was awful for him. It cost him a lot. He was not able to discuss it.

So, you ask how it is still possible and why it’s still important. People like Kuron, Geremek, and Mazowiecki were so very much interested in the economy. They thought the main problem of Poland was to catch up with the West, and the economy was the priority. They didn’t really ever think about schools, about teaching history. They never thought about doing a de-Nazification process like in Germany. De-Nazification in Germany had two legs. One leg was saying that this person couldn’t be a judge or a teacher. The other leg was public education about Nazism. There was never any real effort to do public education about Communism in Poland. Because of that, the field was open for Kaczynski. My father remembers talking to different ministers back in the 1990s. They told him, “It’s important what you are talking about, but we have to focus on the economy because it’s the most important.” So, this field was given away to populists and nationalists like Kaczynski.

The first 15 years after 1989 were wonderful for many of us. They were years of success. But plenty of people lost their jobs. Some people became rich, and some people lost their status. The woman working in a battery store was a very important person under Communism. People went to the store and befriended her. She had control over something very rare. She was able to say, “My son would like to go to the kindergarten but there is no place there.” And the woman at the kindergarten would tell her, “Not a problem, we can do that.” These people were important in society because they had some goods to share among each other.

And then the market came. The market is a market. It negotiates for you, you don’t negotiate with other people. You work in a battery store, you have to sell the batteries, nothing more. If you are not nice — and the queen of the battery store was often not nice — the new owner fires you. A lot of people felt that Communism didn’t provided enough food and sufficient wages, but they were happy with it because it made them important. The very structure of Communism made members of society important for themselves. What Marxists say about the dehumanization of human relations in the market is true — it’s obvious!

So, there was a lot of stress. A lot of people felt betrayed. And these people became the political base of the Kaczynski brothers and the right-wingers. And this group also had its political tools – like lustration and history education and the question of national identity. All the questions that were neglected, forbidden, or treated as unimportant became the political tools of the Kaczynski brothers. The fault is not only on their side. The fault is on our side as well.


When you think back to your perspective in 1990 –


If I knew then what I know now, I would have studied economics.


That’s a good answer, but to a different question! I was thinking more about whether you’ve changed your perspective dramatically since 1990.


I can tell you the changes in my way of thinking. I’m more Westernized these days. Today I really understand what democracy is. Democracy is a tool of negotiating the interests of different groups. I didn’t understand back then, 23 years ago, how different and contradictory the interests of different groups could be. I much more believed in the common interest. This was the great mistake, or maybe it was not a mistake, of Bronek Geremek when he was the head of Solidarity’s parliamentary group (OKP). In early 1990, it was clear that OKP would fall apart. And Bronek was trying to do everything possible to keep it together as one body because he believed that it was his duty to provide support for the Balcerowicz reforms. He didn’t really believe that the differences were anything but the ambitions of the different members of the group. He didn’t believe in contradictory interests. He treated them only as ambitions.

From my perspective today, I would say to Bronek: try to negotiate an amicable divorce between the different groups. Tell these people to make their own parties and then create a coalition. And then they can negotiate interests and views. This probably would have been less effective from the point of view of supporting the Balcerowicz reforms, but probably there would have been less animosity among the politicians coming from the Solidarity bench. It was like a marriage in which the couple hated each other, but they also had a child – the Balcerowicz plan – who was close to taking an exam. The couple hated each other but didn’t want to divorce for fear of disrupting the child and the exam preparation.

Balcerowicz would never tell you that he made a mistake. We meet from time to time these days when I need to ask him something important. Balcerowicz is not a person you ask, “What are your mistakes?” But he knows that the biggest mistake back then was that there was no real reform of the justice system. He didn’t know then how important the justice system is for the economy. He knows it now. Back then was the only moment when you could do this kind of reform, when you can create a new system. We only had a half a year to do that reform. And we didn’t do it. That was a big mistake.

The deputy minister, and then president of the Highest Court, Adam Strzembosz, whose task was to reform the justice system, was a very good Catholic, the kind of Catholic who believed that people are good by their nature. He believed that all judges would be wonderful judges under a democracy, that they would surely change. That didn’t happen. It was another important mistake.

And the third and last of those big mistakes was schools. Schools were reformed only something like 12 years ago. For the first 10 or 11 years, of course there were new programs, but teachers were very poorly paid. When a profession is poorly paid, it’s always over-feminized. Eighty percent of the teachers are women. It’s not that women are worse teachers than men. It’s easy work for a woman who goes to school, works a little bit, comes home to make lunch for the husband and take care of children. It’s not a really serious job. So, the level of teaching is very bad.


The last thing I do is ask three quantitative questions. When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed in Poland from 1989 until today, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?


8 or 8.5 Not 9. But more than 7.


Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?


A bit less, mainly because I didn’t write books. I wasn’t able to still be a writer. So, I am not a writer and second, I didn’t have a second child, mainly because of economic reasons and also because my wife and I were on the verge of separating. Because of those two things: 6. May be 7.


Looking into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for Poland on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 optimistic?


Politics, geopolitics, economy?


The prospects for Poland in general.


I would say 5 because I am very much dissatisfied with Prime Minister Donald Tusk. He’s enormously skilled as a communicator. I would compare him with Tony Blair as a communicator. But he is even worse than Blair in governing. He doesn’t understand his job at all. What is worse, there are no competitors.

This is what I expect: this government is falling in popularity, but people are not supporting someone else. They are not going to vote in the next election. Or they will do what I am going to do. I will go to the booth and cross out everybody. In the next elections, Kaczynski will win, but with only a 30 percent turnout. He will win not because he is more popular but because he has a stronger base. He will create a very weak government. He won’t have a huge parliamentary majority like Viktor Orban in Hungary. But he will behave like an Orban. Which will probably lead not to catastrophe but to big problems.


A minor apocalypse, to quote Konwicki.


Yes. And also because Tusk is not solving any problems. Problems are normal. Politicians deal with them. But Tusk is not dealing with them, only sweeping them under the carpet. Sooner or later they will explode. They will explode under Kaczynski and he will be even less able to deal with them. I’m not panicked about the future. We still have quite smart people here and quite a good economy. So I don’t expect civil war or the country falling apart. But I expect a political and economic crisis at some level in Poland.


Warsaw, August 13, 2013



  1. From: Polish Landed Gentry
    [excerpted quote]:
    “At the end of World War II, by the Polish Land Reform (1944) carried out by the Polish Committee of National Liberation this group was eliminated. Many gentry families, especially those descended from hereditary nobles or Jewish landowners, but also the landed gentry of commoner origin were eliminated by the Germans and Russians even earlier during the War.

    With the liquidation of the People’s Republic of Poland (1989) the Polish landed gentry became politically active, struggling for restoration of land ownership or at least compensation. In this respect of note are attempts to delegitimize the land reform of 1944.”

    The interview frequently refers to circa 1989 yet no mention is made of this particular (power?)faction(?) or coalition of interests from previously established “formal” society. I wonder that these are not recognized as political forces and wonder if they emerge as political party core participants and leading influences in the following two and a half decades?

  2. No – politically they are not important (not “recognized as poitical forces”). On contrary – PSL (peasants party)is a very influential one, in total being a member of the diferent ruling coalitions for about 14 years during last quarter of the century. And you may bet they would not risk quarrel with their voters over delegitimization of the land reform. But – of course – there was some situations in which descendants of the former owners were given back different things which were taken by the communist state from their fathers, but more buildings, mansions, or – say water mills, not land

    1. Thank you for this response. Power relations have morphed so dramatically over the past two decades that “transition” seems too one dimensional. The ‘bottom-up’ collectivist/peasant democratic urge seems to have established transitional coalitions that have fragmented more recently into more classic class structuring divisions (and perhaps factions). I noted somewhere that some of the old guard communist figures had a hand in establishing the “Civic Platform” at its start. Am I mistaken to say that the Civic Platform seems to be the core privatization force at this time going after public sectors of the power base for the more popular democratic coalitions? I am curious over the long run if the power concentration is a more paleo-conservative or neo-conservative distinction or merger? I guess I am trying to figure out who is the mainstream behind the faces, and how liberalization is consolidating or distributing power and economy in this current decade. The rule is generally to follow the money, but in Poland it seems that class structure is political power itself, while the economy has a good deal of smoke but no recognizable fire.
      Do you have thoughts on these interests?

  3. “Anyone who was not an apparatchik under the previous regime, is not a radical trade unionist, extreme traditionalist or a xenophobe, and who wishes to support a party that has a chance of getting into the Seym, will have great difficulty in finding their positions represented outside of the PO. Real opposition – coherent, sharply defined, with a consistent and transparent programme, such as the LPR [the League of Polish Families] on the right and the SDPL [Social Democratic Party of Poland] on the left – is either extra-parliamentary or stands almost no chance of entering the next Parliament, or both. Moreover, there is no indication that this situation is likely to change. One year ago the Platform won the election because the electorate saw it as the main anti-PiS party. These days the PO dominates the scene because nobody has managed to offer a sensible alternative.”

    Quoted from: | Jacek Żakowski | Polityka March 31, 2009
    A Leading Force
    Although written 6 years ago to the month, the question is whether this statement is even more true today. Foreign relations is the big game along with its financing, but internally the power structure seems in some ways more British than Polish. Is that an overstatement?

  4. Careers, Justice and Education as fault lines to transition don’t really speak to the infrastructure failure in the economic domain where the conflict of traditional identities are not accommodated by financial “modernization” conversions that are as much transgressive as trans-formative. Eastern Poland is divided from the more western centers favoring “development” into Pro-West/post-communist promises, and the younger progressives are less aligned with the more folk cultures with traditional interests. The schism is one of identity in a political culture that is stillborn between the contradicitons of all things past and its present contradictions of all things future!

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