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Poland's Remarkable Round Table

When I lived in Poland in the first half of 1989, the topic of constant discussion was the Round Table negotiations. Some people liked it. Some people hated it. And many people saw it as a necessary but tedious stage that the country would have to endure in order to exit Communism. Later, this multi-tiered set of discussions -- and ultimately, compromises -- between the Communist government and the Solidarity opposition movement came to seem almost antiquated in comparison to the rapid transformations in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

But Poland's Round Table was in fact one of the most important political innovations of the late 20th century, on par with the more widely cited truth and reconciliation commissions. It not only set the stage for the non-violent transformation of Polish politics. It also established a model that other countries -- East Germany, Hungary -- followed as well.

The efficacy of the Round Table can in part be appreciated by looking at the places that did not go that route, such as Romania and Yugoslavia. The Round Table lacked perhaps the drama of the Berlin Wall's collapse or Vaclav Havel's leap from prison to presidency. But its patient politicking also represented an alternative to the violence of Romania's revolution and Yugoslavia's descent into war.

Elzbieta Matynia, a sociologist and director of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies at the New School for Social Research, has spent a lot of time thinking about the Round Table as an innovative form. In her book Performative Democracy, she discusses the significance of the Round Table and likens it to the kapia, a space on a bridge where people who might not ordinarily meet one another can sit, rest, and talk on their way from one point to another.

"It's extremely easy to forget how incredibly congenial [the Round Table] was at a time when people on the one hand were really tired of the extended stalemate, and on the other, wanted to avoid violence," she told me in an interview last September in her office in New York. "They constructed this incredibly intricate piece of furniture: literally a huge round table, but metaphorically speaking with many little drawers and sub-tables and cubbyholes in which more specific issues could be discussed and negotiated. This was really a piece of political architecture, a metaphor, what I've called a 'political idiom,' or social imaginary."

We talked about the enduring legacy of the Round Table format, the drawbacks of Wikileaks, the continuing political polarization in Poland, and the emergence there of new political formations that suggest, once again, that Poland might be pointing the way to a different future for the region.

The Interview

Is the roundtable model only useful for this transitional period, or does it have lasting implications for the region as what you call a kapia, the place on the bridge where people who are coming from different directions can sit down and talk?

Of course it was a very serviceable model at that time. It's extremely easy to forget how incredibly congenial it was at a time when people on the one hand were really tired of the extended stalemate, and on the other, wanted to avoid violence. They constructed this incredibly intricate piece of furniture: literally a huge round table, but metaphorically speaking with many little drawers and sub-tables and cubbyholes in which more specific issues could be discussed and negotiated. This was really a piece of political architecture, a metaphor, what I've called a "political idiom," or social imaginary.

If there is anything at the end of the 20th century that contributed to the betterment of the world, it was the invention of the roundtables -- in Spain, in Poland, and more or less successfully in other places. Wherever it was used, the country avoided the Ceausescu scenario, where people actually could not talk, could not negotiate. The roundtables legitimized conversation and delegitimized the use of force, and for that I think they were important. Romania was the only case in Eastern Europe where blood was shed at that time, and it was also perhaps one of the most difficult places for democratic culture to take root.

Since I published that book, I have actually expanded on the idea inspired by the kapia (that extra space in the middle of the bridge on the Drina River, as envisioned by a 15th-century builder, where travelers could rest, talk, and get to know each other) in an essay called "The Promise of Borderlands." Soon after the book was published I had a Skype conversation with people in a Kurdish section of Iraq that was relatively peaceful. They had their own self-governance. The people I talked to understood the book because they were artists, and I write about artists. It was a group of artists who were interested in how to make a political difference through their art. We were talking over Skype and I said, "You have to see what kind of spaces your culture provides you with." We ended up with the idea of the teahouse. In their traditional culture, the teahouse is a very important place where people come and talk and where only recently women have been invited.

The roundtable, of course, was built as a new concept from the beginning, in South Africa as in Spain. There were roundtables in Hungary and in Bulgaria. Some of the success of the Polish case was that it was really crafted with a complete understanding of the situation there and at that moment. In other words, the roundtable idea wasn't brought to Poland in a suitcase from outside. In Poland, they went back to the talks with the government at the Gdansk shipyard, to the Gdansk Agreements and to the ideas that launched Solidarity. The government in 1980-81 came to the shipyard, negotiated those agreements, and then signed them. And then, of course, the government went back to Warsaw and in the course of the next 16 months did everything -- including demagoguery, cheating, and finally the use of force -- to undo the agreements.

But this time, in April 1989, it was different. It was all public. It was broadcast. Well, most of it was broadcast. And this time the democratic opposition, the Solidarity side, the society side, made sure that the carefully constructed table contained so many safety features that it would not collapse or be so used as to break in half.

This was probably the most innovative political construction ever created in the modern history of Poland. We don't have many new political idioms, new devices, new ways of managing things public. And it's not a solid structure. It's a form, a pliable one, in which people can actually reach consensus outside of existing institutions such as a Potemkin parliament. I would like for people to start thinking in terms of actual spaces that bring people together rather than divide them. But, you know, there is often a bitter follow-up, because with consensus nobody is perfectly happy. With consensus you end up with a messy situation. Only blood cleans everything, and there was no blood, right? Blood, revolutionary bloodshed, allows you to start a new chapter.

One of my Polish friends said about the Polish changes that "there was no Bastille, and every revolution needs a Bastille."

We know now that in 1789 there was almost nobody in the Bastille. They freed just a few people, but it doesn't really matter.

I think it's incredible that in that otherwise fairly murky time, people were able to build the Roundtable in Poland. It's very interesting that they were also able to do it in South Africa. Poland's one-party state had emerged on the basis of a predominant culture of party cadres. This culture didn't allow for conversation, for discussion, for give and take, or for disagreement. It was about silencing, though a total silencing was impossible once Stalin died, and the news about crimes committed by the party leaked through the Iron Curtain. The trajectories in Poland and in South Africa were similar, particularly when one looks at the late 1980s when the ANC and members of the ruling nationalist party began to talk with each other.

But of course there was the use of force in South Africa, where the political violence was so acute and ubiquitous that there is no appropriate comparison. And this can be seen now, 20 years later. But that's not what we were talking about.

So, yes, to put together these round tables, you had to have your builders, your architects. And just as no two bridges are alike, no two roundtables are alike.

I want to ask about the flip side of the roundtable, and that was Magdalenka, the private meetings between Solidarity and the government that took place alongside the round table negotiations. When I was there in 1989, there were so many conspiracy theories. There was an entire book published called Magdalenka, which purported to disclose all the secret agreements. And because nobody knew what was going on, both sides were able to project all of their worst fears onto this Magdalenka.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

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