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How We Lost Poland: Heroes Do Not Make Good Politicians

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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.

Economics, however, cannot entirely account for the Poland's electoral shift. The return to power of former communists was avoidable there. Poland may have been the first to try a rapid, sweeping conversion to capitalism -- free-market "shock therapy" -- but it was also the first to overcome the resultant drop in economic output. The Solidarity-led government's austerity program of currency devaluations, relaxation of price controls, and cutbacks in subsidies was enacted in December 1989, but economic growth returned as early as the first half of 1992, and voters should have begun to notice the benefits by September 1993. However, rather than reformers gaining approval, the renamed communist party captured the largest number of seats in the Polish parliament in the elections that month. By comparison, the recession in the Czech Republic was almost as severe as Poland's, but Vclav Klaus is still the prime minister there, his coalition increased its share of the vote from 42 percent to 44 percent in recent elections, and the former communist party is marginal. Last fall Poland was unquestionably in the midst of a sustained economic boom, yet Poles elected Kwasniewski over Waffilesa. Nor, contrary to conventional wisdom, did only the poor and disadvantaged vote for the former communists. In a poll published after the 1993 election, 60 percent of Polish entrepreneurs said they voted for Kwasniewski's coalition, the Democratic Left Alliance.

Although the economic cycle certainly created conditions favorable for the resurgence of the old ruling class, the immediate causes were political. To put it bluntly, the former anticommunist opposition in Poland lost power because of a long list of cardinal sins in political craftsmanship.

THE TURN OF THE ROUND TABLE

The way in which power was transferred from a communist government to a democratic one was the original sin of the opposition. Czechoslovakia had a proper revolution -- demonstrations, skirmishes with riot police, and a spectacular collapse of the old regime, followed by dancing in the streets. Poland, on the other hand, was liberated gradually, without mass participation. The so-called Round Table agreement of February 1989 between the old regime and the democratic opposition initiated a slow, measured withdrawal of communism. The accord legalized Solidarity, established the rights of free speech and association, and provided for democratic elections of state bodies. It led to the June 1989 elections, in which a third of the seats in the National Assembly and all of the seats in the Senate were freely contested. Almost all the open seats went to the Solidarity-led opposition. Thanks to the Round Table pact, Poland had its first noncommunist prime minister since World War II. Meanwhile, opposition movements in the rest of Central Europe had barely begun to stir.

But the settlement was a good deal for the communists, too, because it was half-baked. The Solidarity prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, was timid and stymied by communists who still ran the powerful defense and interior ministries. Worse, the Round Table negotiations divided the various strands of the Solidarity-led reform movement. The communists decided who were "responsible" politicians -- that is, those with whom they would deal -- and their definition was implicitly accepted by those who sat down at the negotiating table. The Round Table talks between the dictatorship and the pro-democracy forces, held at a mansion outside Warsaw called Magdalenka, had a public facade of antagonism and a secret agenda of collaboration.

It is hard for any political observer to fathom the bitterness and mistrust that still plague Polish politics without understanding the spirit of Magdalenka. It was there that veteran dissidents such as Adam Michnik, now editor of the Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest daily, and a personal friend of Kwasniewski, came to view their communist negotiating partners not as villains who might one day deserve forgiveness, but as allies in ruling an allegedly dim and xenophobic nation. That collaboration raised the level of paranoia in Polish politics, which was never low to begin with.

Poland, in the wake of the Magdalenka accord, split into roughly four camps -- the former communists under the dictator General Wojciech Jaruzelski; their Peasant Party allies; the Magdalenka faction of the anticommunist opposition, led by Mazowiecki; and the remainder, comprising various right-wing parties and the Solidarity trade union, informally led by Waffilesa.

The negotiated communist withdrawal also evolved into an awkward merger of the communist and democratic governing cultures in 1989-90. In the Czech Republic, the duo of Klaus and President Vclav Havel launched their government with a style befitting a cheerful new democracy. Klaus adopted the manner of the students' favorite professor, while Havel played the cool philosopher-king, with hippie bodyguards and rock star Frank Zappa in attendance. It seemed that power had not corrupted them. In Poland, some of the nomenklatura's ways quickly rubbed off on their Round Table partners. Instead of abolishing the special government clinic where generations of high-ranking communists and their families took refuge from the decrepitude of public hospitals, Mazowiecki extended the privilege to his cronies in academia. His cabinet secretary fought like a lion to preserve a dozen government guest houses and hunting lodges used by high officials, grander and more numerous than those belonging to many a Western government.

The Round Table agreement soon led to other fiascoes. In the June 1989, elections voters rejected the communist party totally: in Senate elections, where the vote was entirely free, only one out of a hundred seats fell to a communist, and that was because he was a popular businessman. But the Round Table accord also bent the electoral rules dramatically in favor of the communist regime and its allies; they were guaranteed at least 65 percent of the seats in the lower house, regardless of how the public might vote. Jaruzelski, the dictator under martial law for most of the 1980s, was extremely unpopular and was an unlikely president for a free Poland. Yet he was elected -- with the decisive votes cast by members of the Magdalenka faction of Solidarity -- because of the spirit of common cause with the communists that was engendered at the Round Table. By this time, ordinary Poles had reason to suspect that their views were not being taken seriously. The seeds of mistrust toward the new political class were sown.

GETTING WHAT YOU ASKED FOR

The government that Prime Minister Mazowiecki inherited in 1989 was a hybrid of his Solidarity-led partisans and then-President Jaruzelski's nomenklatura. It was also bankrupt. Interest on international loans had not been paid in months, reserve funds were depleted, inflation was out of control, and economic output was sinking. Whatever path the government chose, hard days lay ahead. But Mazowiecki never explained, let alone campaigned for, his reform program. In the Czech Republic, Klaus spent about half his time conceiving and implementing reform measures, and the other half selling those measures to the public, not just on radio and television but by ceaseless proselytizing in his speaking engagements. In Poland, only Jacek Kuron, the social affairs minister, made a stab at informing and persuading the public, in his weekly television appearances. The father of Polish economic reform, Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz, was very good at it when he tried. He just did not think it important enough. Even though their mandate was only half-democratic -- Jaruzelski, after all, was still president -- Mazowiecki and his ministers imagined that Poland was theirs to rule for a decade and that, since market reforms would kick in fairly soon, there was no need to debate with the hoi polloi.

Solidarity reformers were almost exclusively urban intellectuals. Years of contact with trade union leaders like Waffilesa had made them sensitive to worker sentiment, but their sympathy never extended to Poland's hearty peasantry, which had kept 80 percent of the land in private hands throughout communist rule. The 1990 credit squeeze and the change in the terms of trade associated with reform hit the peasants hard. But the reformers, blinded to the political implications by free-market romanticism, failed to make any gestures of sympathy for the plight of the peasants and barely bothered to hide their contempt. Thus Solidarity lost the political support of a social group comprising some 16 percent of the voting population, a constituency that in Britain, for example, had traditionally been one of the staunchest supporters of the conservative party. The first Solidarity government was formed in 1989, when the Peasant Party, which acts as a sort of trade union for small landholders, deserted the communist party. The post-communist Democratic Left Alliance regained power when the Peasant Party rejoined its coalition in 1993. But the political lesson of this change in allegiance has still not sunk in, and Solidarity politicians are as patronizing as ever.

The reformers committed yet another sin of omission in the spring of 1990, when the communist party dissolved itself. A new party, now known to have been financed with KGB loans, was immediately formed: the Social Democrats of the Republic of Poland, one of the parties now in charge. This was a golden opportunity for the reformers to break with the Round Table agreement and hold elections to install a new, fully democratic parliament. A parliament elected in 1990 would have undoubtedly been Solidarity-dominated, with no need for exotic coalitions. It also would have had a mandate until mid-1995, by which time the worst of the political upheaval and economic crisis would have been over.

The trouble was that the top opposition politicians at that time, the faction of Solidarity that had negotiated at Magdalenka, feared democracy. Most were former members of the communist party who had been schooled for decades in its machinations and later in the clandestine ways of the dissident movement. They felt uncomfortable with a process whose outcome was unpredictable. Warsaw intellectual salons began to resound with the view that the designations of left and right were obsolete and what Poland needed was not traditional parties but a single dominant political machine like Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party. In their dreams of consolidation, the Magdalenka faction even imagined that Waffilesa -- founder of Solidarity, slayer of communism, and Nobel Peace Prize winner -- could be pushed to the sidelines.

That plan could not work. When Waffilesa declared his presidential bid in the fall of 1991 and promised to smash the Round Table deal, his approval ratings shot up. The Center Alliance that rallied behind him was a broad coalition, ranging from economic liberals to traditional conservatives to Catholic democrats -- the potential nucleus of a Polish Republican Party. The election, won by Waffilesa, highlighted voters' dissatisfaction with the Magdalenka faction; its candidate, Mazowiecki, lost not only to Waffilesa but also to Stanisffilaw Tyminski, a Peruvian-Canadian-Polish businessman who claims to have psychic powers.

NOT RIGHT NOW

From 1991 onward, the right wing of the reformist movement blundered the most. The first fully democratic election in Poland in half a century, in October 1991, was held under an extreme version of proportional representation. The results were predictable: fragmentation of the Polish parliament into more than a dozen quarrelsome factions. The prime minister the parliament finally managed to elect, Jan Olszewski, was a distinguished lawyer who had defended many dissidents, but he failed to broaden his coalition to give himself a working majority in parliament.

Less than a year later, the government suffered the fiasco of lustracja, or lustration: the attempt to weed out from state structures those who had been informers for the totalitarian regime's secret police. In the Czech Republic, employers were given an opportunity to review the files of their employees. The files revealed that up to half of all journalists active during the communist regime had been compromised. Prime Minister Klaus said the Czech approach had benefited democracy because it cleared the air and preempted the opportunities for blackmail. In Poland, scores of secret police agents were still members of parliament, ministers, and ambassadors. The end of their influence on Polish politics should have been a breakthrough for open government.

Poland's lustration, ill-prepared and hastily executed, achieved aims opposite to those intended. The contents of the files were leaked before they had been evaluated. Olszewski's interior minister, Antoni Macierewicz, was accused, falsely, I believe, of tampering with the information for political reasons. In the ensuing controversy, the government was brought down in parliament by Waffilesa and several parties whose members risked exposure. The media coverage convinced many that the informers, not their targets, were the victims of a witch-hunt.

The reformist right kept on blundering. When the electoral law was revised to require a party to receive five percent of the vote to qualify for parliamentary representation, the leaders of the various right-wing parties and splinter groups failed to take this into account. Predictably, none of the reformist right-wing parties in the September 1993 election made it into the new parliament despite winning, cumulatively, about 30 percent of the vote. The former communists polled just under 20 percent, but their united faction received 35 percent of the seats. The legislature, once again, was theirs.

THE FAULT LINES

Such a massive defeat should have led the former dissident movement to second thoughts, regrets, and a united stand in the presidential elections last year. It did not. Each faction still regarded itself as the sole standard-bearer of patriotism and truth, and each nominated its own candidate, none more suitable than the next. The Freedom Union, which was the former Magdalenka faction of Solidarity, named the likable Kuron, although he did not project a presidential persona, and it was widely known that he had a drinking problem. The right wing of Solidarity failed to unite behind a single candidate, thus ensuring defeat.

Waffilesa's term, from 1990 to 1995 was a series of erratic, sometimes brilliant, tactical maneuvers that in the end fit no strategy. His abrasive personality and uncouth manners jarred voters to the point where, eventually, many of them came to miss the more dignified Jaruzelski.

Waffilesa, who had once been jailed by the Jaruzelski regime for almost a year, allied himself with unreconstructed elements in the army and security services, apparently because they proved to be more pliable and willing to join his power plays than his own supporters. He wrecked the movement that brought him to power. In the end, a man who had achieved immortality destroyed his greatness with his own hands.

During the campaign, Waffilesa put up a good fight, but his past caught up with him: the broken promises, the succor he had given the communists during much of his term, and the shady characters in his entourage, such as Mieczyslaw Wachowski, a chauffeur who was made minister of state. Still, it looked as if he might win after all, until his obnoxious performance in a television debate with Kwasniewski. Waffilesa was arrogant, ranting, and crude, and he refused to shake hands with his opponent. His behavior cost him eight percent of support. He eventually lost by two percent.

UNEMPLOYED HEROES

For five years the Polish electorate watched patiently as Solidarity politicians bickered and fumed, broke promises, displayed hypocrisy, arrogance, and corruption. The warning signs that the fund of trust in the Solidarity elite was dwindling were numerous and frequent. Each year the number of votes cast for parties led by former Solidarity activists dropped, while the former communists steadily grew in strength. Nobody paid attention. Solidarity lost of its own accord.

In the end, the former dissidents from across the political spectrum erred not because they were bad people but because they were heroes. Only the most idealistic, single-minded, and stubborn individuals could sustain decades of seemingly hopeless resistance against communism. Dissident activity taught its practitioners to distrust others and to stand on principle, come what may. The basic skills of a normal democratic politician -- media showmanship, coalition-building, administrative management, legal proficiency -- were impossible to acquire.

For communists, paradoxically, collaboration with the dictatorship was good preparation for democratic politics. The communist party attracted ambitious, pragmatic, morally flexible individuals -- exactly the sort that make successful democratic politicians these days.

The Catholic Church also contributed to the decline of the reformers. It had been a bulwark against totalitarianism, but with the advent of democracy its authoritative tone began to grate. What alienated many Poles was not necessarily the church's attempts to wield political influence (its power as a lobbyist was inevitable in a predominantly Catholic country), but its clumsiness in doing so. It pressured the government to reintroduce religious education, which had been banned in the 1950s, into the Polish school system by executive decree rather than by legislation after proper public debate. The church twisted the parliament's arm to get a proposal introduced for the toughest antiabortion law in Europe, after Ireland's. The method smacked of hypocrisy: while publicly arguing that moral matters should not be decided by a vote, the church and its followers intimidated members of parliament into voting for the change, alienating even more voters.

The media also played a part. Poland's largest news magazine, Wprost, glorified nomenklatura capitalism. Gazeta Wyborcza went out of its way to launder former communists into respectability. Meanwhile, publications sympathetic to the reformist right were poorly financed, unprofessionally edited, and often shrill. None has attained national stature and a mainstream readership. In sum, for the five years of reformist government the Polish voters were bombarded with political and economic information that was unreliable, biased, libelous, and confusing. No wonder they came to view all politicians as equally corrupt, hypocritical, and untrustworthy.

LET DOWN BY THE WEST

Last but not least among the factors contributing to the descent of the former dissidents, the West did not help. When the Mazowiecki government slashed tariffs on Western imports, for example, the Western nations did not respond in kind. Poles were told that they could export as many satellites and microchips as they wanted, provided they did not try to sell their steel, textiles, or strawberries. Western talk of aid to the region masked mind-boggling hypocrisy. All the aid programs did not add up to a fraction of what the Polish economy was losing because of barriers to trade. Moreover, six years after the collapse of communism, Central Europe has still not been offered any firm commitments for either NATO or European Union membership. If Solidarity governments could have presented themselves as guarantors of eventual membership in Western institutions, voting for the ex-communists would have been less attractive. But seeing the Solidarity leaders duped time after time, voters correctly concluded that the former communists would be savvier; they would not be naively and unconditionally pro-Western and would extract more concessions by playing hardball.

THE MESSAGE OF MORAL RENEWAL

Poland's politicians, religious leaders, media, and Western friends all failed to convey that a return to democracy should have been, above all, a process of moral renewal. Poland needed to rebuild normal democratic and civic institutions and to return to the value system of a free society. This could not have been achieved by sweeping uncomfortable truths under the carpet, nor by following people who had made their careers with collaboration.

The reformers defended capitalism simply on the grounds that it was more efficient; they did not dare to argue that it was also more moral. They surrendered the language of morality to the former communists. No wonder many people turned to the party that spoke the language of social values the loudest -- the former communists -- who promised, however falsely, a kinder and gentler capitalism.

Do any of these failures matter? Perhaps Poland has already arrived at the happy stage at which, Italian-style, its messy politics no longer interferes with its economy. After all, inflation is dropping, GDP is rising at a healthy six percent annually, and currency and credit ratings are firming up. In January, while military prosecutors investigated the prime minister for spying, the Warsaw stock exchange boomed. Russia may be making threatening noises again, but foreign investment is pouring into Poland.

Unfortunately, the former communists are more like a nascent ruling class than the elite of a traditional Western social democracy. Using money stashed in foreign bank accounts and taking full advantage of the leniency of Solidarity-led governments, former apparatchiks have amassed fortunes. The entrepreneurs who voted for the former communist party did not suffer from "false consciousness." Quite the contrary. They voted for their friends. The money generated through the collusion of nomenklatura businessmen and corrupt bureaucrats is being plowed back into politics to win votes. President Kwasniewski won not just because he was the most attractive candidate. His campaign was also the best financed. Naturally, this post-communist ruling class will now try to perpetuate its economic and political dominance, causing bitter resentment and provoking social strife.

Does the return to power of former communists matter to the West? Yes. If Central European countries are to be admitted to the councils of NATO and the European Union, their representatives at those institutions should be men and women of integrity, not security risks. Perhaps only a new generation of politicians, uncorrupted by either communism or the dissident movement, can make Poland a normal democracy at last.

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