Poland's Politics of Dissatisfaction

03/15/2015 12:33 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2015

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.

Wojciech Przybylski is part of this last group. He is the editor of the respected liberal journal Res Publica Nowa and its associated bi-annual publication Visegrad Insight.

"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.

The Interview

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.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.