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Poland Wakes Up from a Bad Dream

After the October 2007 elections, is Poland finally ready to stop tearing itself apart from the inside?

October 25, 2007

After the October 2007 elections, is Poland finally ready to stop tearing itself apart from the inside?

At various stages over the past thousand years, Poland has found itself abused by neighboring Germany and Russia. Alternately — and sometimes even collectively — they took advantage of their smaller neighbor.

Another part of this unfortunate saga is that, at critical stages in Poland’s history, the country’s nobility was distinguished by being particularly undistinguished. Compared to their counterparts in other countries throughout Europe, they lacked a sense of national purpose and cohesion.

Instead, they preferably engaged in all sorts of short-sighted, quickly shifting alliances with various foreign parties that had an interest in ruling over Poland.

United against Poland

The sad outcome was that competing Polish nobles would selfishly ally themselves with various sets of foreign interests to ensure their own material gain, while leaving Poland striving for both unity and territorial integrity.

And even after that chapter of Polish history was finally overcome with Józef Pilsudski restoring the country’s independence back in 1918, Hitler and Stalin did their criminal parts in undermining Poland’s integrity and future.

So it came as a real miracle — and blessing — when Solidarity managed to trigger the downfall of communism in 1989. A popular union-led movement proved capable of defeating an oppressive military regime and its Communist support structures.

Lessons of the past learned for good

Even more miraculously — although Poland’s economy had never been strong — after the end of martial law, successive governments managed to transform the Polish economy in a dynamic, fair and forward-looking manner.

All along, these efforts were led by Leszek Balcerowicz, the country’s erstwhile finance minister and then long-standing central bank head, a superb policymaker who was forced to leave office in early 2007 after he was not offered another term in his post.

In addition to Mr. Balczerowicz, a series of other highly talented and disciplined policymakers, such as Gregorz Kolodko, drove Poland’s reform agenda forward. These officials were often driven by a Cartesian logic that would leave even their French counterparts in the dust.

As a result, Poland achieved something truly impressive: the most successful post-communist economic transformation of any large country in Eastern and Central Europe.

While problems inevitably remain, the economy continues to attract foreign investors who are choosing the country as a manufacturing and services center location, for everything from car manufacturing and food processing to airline bookings.

So at long last, the rarest of moments in Poland’s history seemed to have arrived. The country was at peace with itself, the economy was humming along nicely and its borders were secure.

Back to the future?

And at precisely that moment, Poland’s modern-day tragedy began to unfold: The Kaczynskis — Lech and twin brother Jaroslaw — entered the scene. Serving as president and prime minister, respectively, they went to work swiftly.

Their political agenda can be summed up by a single image. In fact, that image was created in the 19th century by Honoré Daumier — and it is one of the most famous political cartoons in history.

Drawn in black ink, it shows two salacious-looking men, with fork and knife in their hands, sitting down for lunch over a globe. Their goal? To fork it out over who would get which part of Poland.

And there you have the full sense of Poland’s contemporary tragedy. At a time when nobody wants to divide Poland any longer from the outside, the country’s two top political leaders were keen on doing so from the inside.

Their official cause célèbre was their frustration over the fact that, after martial law ended, no radical house-cleaning was undertaken to brand and tag former Communists as persona non grata.

Witch hunts

In the Kaczynski vision, even former Communist youth functionaries — such as the rather impressive predecessor of President Kaczynski, Alexander Kwacsnievki — should not have had the right to stand for political office.

These developments were potentially tragic because they risked reversing the accomplishments of the 1980s and 1990s.

Back then, Poles had proved too smart to follow the disastrous path of the Bush Administration in Iraq, which simultaneously dismantled the country’s army and ruling Baath Party — moves that precipitated a predictable collapse into chaos.

The Poles, to their credit, did things the post-apartheid South African way. They focused on national unity and the talents of all non-criminal elements of the nation to achieve its prospects.

But the Kaczynskis would not have it that way. They were keen on tapping into that other dimension of Polish tragedy — that which is of the nation’s own making.

Traditional Catholic voters

In addition to the historic smallmindedness and extreme shortsightedness of the country’s nobility, the corresponding element at a popular level was the smallmindedness and shortsightedness of traditional Catholic voters.

Their agenda, as elsewhere in Europe before, had been to put narrow religious values on top of all other concerns, including domestic economic growth and social peace.

More often than not, because they live in rural areas, they were counted among the “losers” in the economic transition from Communism. As a result, these Catholics in the countryside are susceptible to stoking the flames of social envy. In short, the Kaczynskis’ operating mode, regrettably, was a strategy of celebrating a personal sense of inferiority as nationalism.

That was an especially unfortunate turn of events because, undoubtedly, Catholicism played a vital role in advancing the cause of Polish unity, including in the Solidarity revolution.

As further evidence consider the late John Paul II, a key figure in the history of modern Poland, worked happily with Polish politicians of all political stripes — provided they were capable of moving the country ahead. To him, a rigorous political litmus test was not a relevant political consideration.

However, this changed when the Kaczynski twins came onto the scene in October 2005 and, in a strange twist of history, managed to sweep to power in Poland via a minority government.

Open-minded once again

After this weekend’s elections, modern Poland — and, in fact, all of Europe — can breathe a sigh of collective relief. Hopefully, an ominous veil that had started to cloud the country’s outlook and dynamism has been lifted.

For it would have been a tragedy of historic proportions if Poland — at a rare moment when nobody from the outside is intent any longer on dividing it — were to be divided at the hands of its current leaders.


Poland achieved the most successful post-communist economic transformation in Eastern and Central Europe.

It is important not to put religious values on top of other concerns such as economic growth and social peace

At critical stages in Poland's history, the country's nobility lacked national purpose and cohesion