The Three Mistakes of Poland's Transition

05/13/2015 06:45 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2016

Start with a failing economy. Throw in a team of inexperienced politicians, people in fact who had spent their careers deliberately avoiding official politics. Add a population with the highest possible expectations. And, as a wild card, introduce an international community that was not offering very much in the way of financial assistance.

This was the situation in Poland in September 1989 when Tadeusz Mazowiecki became the first non-Communist prime minister in the region in more than 40 years. Considering the odds against Poland at that time, it's remarkable that the country survived and, eventually, prospered.

Ryszard Holzer is a writer and journalist. When we first met in 1989, he was working on an underground newspaper, which remained underground for a while even after Solidarity was legalized. "We were like that Japanese soldier who emerged from the jungles of the Philippines 25 years after World War II ended," he told me with a laugh when we met up again in Warsaw in August 2013.

After 1989, he tried tabloid journalism but never could become accustomed to the new focus on celebrities. He spent a decade at the daily Gazeta Wyborcza, and then became a business writer. He currently works for the Polish Newsweek.

At the end of our wide-ranging conversation, he identified three mistakes that the Polish government made in that critical first year of transition.

"I didn't understand back then, 23 years ago, how different and contradictory the interests of different groups could be," Holzer told me. "I much more believed in the common interest. This was the great mistake, or maybe it was not a mistake, of Bronek Geremek when he was the head of Solidarity's parliamentary group (OKP). In early 1990, it was clear that OKP would fall apart. And Bronek was trying to do everything possible to keep it together as one body because he believed that it was his duty to provide support for the Balcerowicz reforms. He didn't really believe that the differences were anything but the ambitions of the different members of the group. He didn't believe in contradictory interests. He treated them only as ambitions."

The Solidarity camp fell apart, and it was not an easy breakup. "From my perspective today," Holzer continued:

I would say to Bronek: try to negotiate an amicable divorce between the different groups. Tell these people to make their own parties and then create a coalition. And then they can negotiate interests and views. This probably would have been less effective from the point of view of supporting the Balcerowicz reforms, but probably there would have been less animosity among the politicians coming from the Solidarity bench. It was like a marriage in which the couple hated each other, but they also had a child -- the Balcerowicz plan -- who was close to taking an exam. The couple hated each other but didn't want to divorce for fear of disrupting the child and the exam preparation.

The second mistake concerned the justice system. "Balcerowicz would never tell you that he made a mistake," Holzer said.

We meet from time to time these days when I need to ask him something important. Balcerowicz is not a person you ask, 'What are your mistakes?' But he knows that the biggest mistake back then was that there was no real reform of the justice system. He didn't know then how important the justice system is for the economy. He knows it now. Back then was the only moment when you could do this kind of reform, when you can create a new system. We only had a half a year to do that reform. And we didn't do it. That was a big mistake.

And the third mistake was the educational system. "Schools were reformed only something like 12 years ago," he lamented. "For the first 10 or 11 years, of course there were new programs, but teachers were very poorly paid."

There are still major problems in Poland, he pointed out. But problems are normal. The politicians, however, are not addressing them. "I'm not panicked about the future," Holzer concluded. "We still have quite smart people here and quite a good economy. So I don't expect civil war or the country falling apart. But I expect a political and economic crisis at some level in Poland."

The Interview

You started out in the student movement?

I was too old for that. The Independent Students' Association (NZS) was born in 1980, already after my studies. I've been engaged with the underground cultural life back in the 1970s -- as a student and emerging poet/writer. I finished my studies in 1979, and then I was conscripted into the army. This was a story in itself. In the army, I was a deputy head of a motorized unit at a huge military training area in the northwest of Poland. It was August 1980, and we expected and were afraid that we would be used for suppressing the strikes. There was gossip that we would be sent to Torun to suppress the strikes there.

I remember the night we were at the camp, sleeping in tents. I was drinking with one of the officers, a captain as far as I remember, talking and drinking late into the night. We were both terribly afraid.

He said, "Ryszard, what am I going to do?"

I said, "I don't know, but I'm not going to kill people."

He said, "Okay, but maybe our choice will be to kill or be killed." It might sound funny these days, but it was not funny at all. We were very afraid.

You were quite young.

I was 25. I left the army after a year --

Nothing happened in August 1980?

No, nothing happened. We were all conformists. Some of us were a little less conformist, some a little bit more. I too was a conformist. I was not talking to everyone in the army - it was not like civil life where there was a strong group of similar-thinking people -- about what I thought about the fucking Communists and the Soviet Union. I was also afraid. Jacek Kuron was not a conformist, and nor were the people in KOR (the Workers Defense Committee, later KSS KOR, the Committee for Social Self-Defense). But the majority of people were. This captain I was drinking with, the head of the company, he was a little bit more conformist than I was, and the political officer was a little bit more conformist than the captain.

The political officer got his instructions from Warsaw. Every morning, he met with the company and told us what was "really" going on. This was in August. Every day, his instructions were more and more different from reality, from what was reported on TV, for example -- because his instructions were sent from Warsaw with a delay of about a week. After a week, he came to us and said, "You know guys, I have these instructions of what to tell you. But it completely doesn't make sense." It was completely different from what appeared in the official newspaper. He gave up. "Just read the newspapers," he told us, "I'm not going to discuss this with you."

Me and some other guy, another university graduate, we were meeting with soldiers in some remote place. We were talking with them about what was really going on in our opinion. We were making counter-propaganda, so to say. A guy who had been a radio officer -- each company had a person like that -- he took an antenna to the top of the tree in order to get Voice of America or Radio Free Europe. In August 1980, it looked like the army was going to fall apart. But later on, more problems appeared and Party control over the army became strengthened.

After the army I went back to Warsaw and worked for Tygodnik Solidarnosc (Solidarity Weekly). This was my first permanent job. I was 26. I worked in the Letters department. In those remote times, people used to write letters to the newspaper. We got something like a thousand letters a day. It was unbelievable. There were 15 people working in the letters department, reading these letters all the time. I don't know what happened to those letters, whether they still exist some place. They would be a very interesting document of those days.

What were your responsibilities?

We were just reading the letters and answering the letters, or passing the letters to the county commission of Solidarity or to the different authors or other people. We were deciding what to do with the letters. After a few months, I became responsible for deciding which letters to publish and then editing those letters. The last page of Tygodnik Solidarnosc was a page of letters from workers, scientists, teachers.

Do any letters stick out in your memory because of how unusual they were?

They were usually comments about the political situation or proposals for how to change the situation. Plenty of the letters were about the situation in the state enterprises, complaints about bosses or the quality of life, that there was too much work or very badly organized work. Some were about politics, but not all. Self-censorship was still rather strong. People very rarely wrote about relations with the Soviet Union. There were some anti-Semitic letters, but very few. The same with nationalist letters. Most people were writing about what was going on in their factory, in their town, the relations between nomenklatura and normal people. Also plenty of complaints about lack of food, lack of apartments.

Before going to the Army, I was engaged in the underground movement in Warsaw but less as a student and more as a young writer. I was a member of the Writers Union, the official organization of writers, where there was a branch for young writers. We were not doing anything very important. It started with different open letters. Every month, there was another letter to the Sejm or to the first secretary of the Communist Party, complaining about how Polish history was treated or how people were treated. It started for me in 1976, with a letter of protest over the suppression of the worker strikes in Ursus and Radom. The workers were beaten, treated awfully, fired from their jobs. I knew who was gathering signatures for the letter. I was very much afraid of signing that letter. So I avoided the people who would ask me to sign. But after a week or so, one of the other students from my group asked me, "Ryszard, maybe you will sign this letter of protest?" I didn't want to sign, but I signed. And I was convinced that the next week I would be sent to Siberia. But nothing happened. So I signed another letter and another letter. After a while I was interrogated by the secret police, but it didn't seem very serious. It was routine. They didn't like their work, those guys, and they were bored.

I was also circulating various underground magazines and books. I went to the army. I worked for Solidarity newspaper. I also worked for Solidarity's cultural weekly. Then Martial Law came and I didn't have this work any more. I was one of the editors of the weekly of one of the underground papers -- Tygodnik Wojenny (Martial Law was stan wojenny). We created this newspaper, then with other friends we also started the other one -- cultural magazine called Wyzwanie (Challenge). Culture was very important -- it'd been our weapon. Then my daughter was born.

It was not that I was so very afraid. I lost my faith. I was completely sure that it would be forever like this, forever and forever and forever. When I look back to the Martial Law period, and those first years after Martial Law, I don't remember the sun or any warm days. I remember only winter and snow and autumn and rain and everything was grey and boring. This was the time that I really thought about emigration. But to make this decision about emigration, you have to have some power in yourself to decide that you're going to do something. I didn't have even this power. I was somehow broken. Martial Law broke all of us in some way. There were people who were broken by police, by agents. I was broken because of my internal lack of will. I thought it would always be like this. I would have my daughter and my wife and my circle of friends. I was organizing poetry readings, prose readings, and exhibitions at a church every two weeks. So there was some cultural activity. I was writing. I left Tygodnik Wojenny and Wyzwanie. I was distributing underground papers and books. I had a scholarship from the underground to work on my literature. I was doing some translations. I worked as an interpreter for some Western journalists. I wrote some poems, some books. But when I look back to the 1980s, I feel that this time was passing by just like water through my fingers. I don't really know what was I was doing those years.

It's when you published your book of poems.

Yes, my first book of poems was prepared before Martial Law and was published in 1982 or 1983 officially. Even during Martial Law books were published. The same year, I published a book of underground poems. In 1987, I published a book of fairy tales. And in 1987 or 1988, I published a book of short stories. I was also working on my novel, which I never finished. I read it 20 years ago and threw it away because it was awful. In the 1980s, I decided in my head that I would not be a journalist any more. I would become a writer. But I was probably not talented enough to become a writer.

Then the Round Table came, and I still didn't realize how important it was. During the Round Table, I was still broken, according to my self-definition. Just before the Round Table talks started, but after they'd been announced, the same people I'd been working with before asked me if I would join them in another underground paper, Przeglad Wiadomosci Agencyjnych. So I joined them. It was still in the underground. It was funny. Even after Mazowiecki became prime minister and there was an official Solidarity daily paper, Gazeta Wyborcza, we were still doing our underground weekly. We were like that Japanese soldier who emerged from the jungles of the Philippines 25 years after World War II ended.

Do you think this underground newspaper is still going on today?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.