How We Lost Poland: Heroes Do Not Make Good Politicians

Poland's election last year of Aleksander Kwasniewski, its former communist minister of youth affairs, as president does not augur a turn away from reform, but it does mark the end of the Solidarity era. After a brief intermission from 1989 to 1995, the nation's presidency, executive branch, and parliament are again controlled by the faction that ruled by totalitarianism for 45 years, a descendant of the Polish United Workers Party and its allies. Sensible fiscal and monetary policies continue, but the reformers who started them have been rejected by voters. With defeated President Lech Waffilesa's sulky return to Gdansk and the shipyard, where in 1980 he led the biggest strike movement in the history of the Soviet bloc, the political failure of those who fought against totalitarianism is complete for now. What went wrong? Why did the electorate reject those who had led and symbolized the struggle for liberty? Why did the Solidarity political elite fail to get credit for the success of its reforms? Why did Poland not follow the pattern of the Czech Republic, where anticommunists have held on to power?

Most Western commentary assumes that the reasons for the former communists' return to power throughout Central and Eastern Europe, with the exception of the Czech Republic, are chiefly economic: market-oriented reforms squeezed money supplies, causing recessions that wiped out workers' savings, created marked economic inequality, and worsened unemployment and underemployment. In societies where sloth was the work ethic for two generations, the argument goes, the pace, unpredictability, and stress of life under capitalism came as a shock. But the answer has more to do with betrayal of principle, myopia, and sheer political incompetence.

Poland and the Czech Republic are, of course, very different. As early as the 1930s, the Czech economy was among Europe's most developed, while Poland's relied heavily on agriculture. Although Czech communists repressed their democratic opposition more harshly, they also managed the country's economy better, bequeathing it to their reformist successors with relatively low debt and inflation. Moreover, the former Czechoslovakia discarded its lesser half, the poorer Slovakia, which has languished while the Czech Republic has progressed. Poland would have been easier to reform if its exhausted industrial regions like Silesia could have been abandoned.

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