08/25/2015 09:42 am ET Updated Aug 25, 2016

Poland's Uncivil Society

During the 1980s, Poland had perhaps the strongest civil society in the world. The Solidarity trade union movement, created in August 1980, eventually counted 10 million members, a quarter of Poland's population. And when the government cracked down on Solidarity, declaring Martial Law in December 1981, the opposition was strong enough to survive underground under considerably adverse conditions.

In 1989, as Solidarity became a legal organization, it created citizens' committees that enlisted Poles from all walks of life to discuss the transformation of the country. These committees, in every part of the country, mirrored the Round Table negotiations between the government and the opposition that took place at the elite level.

In 1990, I interviewed Leszek Konarski and Zygmunt Fura who were involved with environmental issues and the creation of Poland's first Green Party. Twenty-three years later, I met up with them again in Krakow. They were no longer involved with the Green Party. And they were disappointed with the state of the country's civil society.

"I was in favor of having citizens' committees everywhere," said Konarski, who works now as a journalist. "Those committees were very good. Solidarity liquidated all the citizens' committees. There are no such committees in Poland at the moment. Those committees were institutions that involved a variety of different people: workers, university professors. They were non-party institutions. Then Solidarity reconstituted itself into Solidarity Electoral Action. This Solidarity Electoral Action was already a political party that gained power. And then began political activity and big politics. To this day it's politics and there are no citizens' committees. Society doesn't engage in any dialogue in Poland."

Fura was particularly unhappy with the state of party politics. "Parties are groups of organized crime," he told me. "They organize in order to divide the state spoils among themselves. Everyone -- the Right, the Left -- everyone does the same thing. Society does not participate in voting because it has no influence. What kind of influence does voting have if the participation rate is 40 percent, not more than 50 percent?"

Konarski raised the issue of recycling to demonstrate the weakness of Polish civil society. "The whole West, all of Europe is already able to deal with the problem of trash separation," he told me. "We still don't separate 90 percent of our trash. We can't deal with it because our society is not organized. We simply don't have the internal organization necessary to say: bottles go here, paper goes here, plastic goes here. There are parties, but the parties don't talk about trash. They talk about big politics. We speak of big politics, and we can't handle ordinary matters."

I asked what happened to the Green Party. Fura talked about its demise. "Possibly I made a mistake in being fascinated with the Greens in Germany where I lived for a year," he confessed. "We translated all the statutes and so on from the German Greens. We didn't take into account the specifics of Poland: the climate, the mentality, Polish Catholicism."

We talked about Green politics today in Poland, the difficulty of figuring out where parties lie on the political spectrum, and the surprising popularity of the Revolutionary Choir.

The Interview

What happened with the Green Party here?

Zygmunt Fura: We were in the first group that established a Green Party in the general wave of social and ecological protests. The foundation was a social movement connected to Solidarity activism demanding ecological change. The party emerged in 1988, the first party on an ecological basis in Eastern Europe. The second was Lithuanian, the third Hungarian. We had contact with these groups, for instance with Janos Vargha in Hungary. Our party was like other Green parties.

We committed a few mistakes. We wanted to be identified with the Green movement in Europe. And some divisions emerged within the party because not everything could be precise. For instance, the structure of the party had three leaders. Also possibly I made a mistake in being fascinated with the Greens in Germany where I lived for a year. We translated all the statutes and so on from the German Greens. We didn't take into account the specifics of Poland: the climate, the mentality, Polish Catholicism. Hence there were a lot of mistakes. That's one thing.

The other mistake is that we tried to be a wide movement. Like the Swedes and Germans and other Greens, the movement should have been created and controlled from the top. Intellectuals don't try to control things. Various groups arose and various people became involved. But I don't want to explain all the mechanisms about how that came about. Leszek and I were active in the Green Party until 1994. In the elections in which we participated, the party didn't get less than 3 percent. That was a lot.

Leszek Konarski: In the polls.

Zygmunt Fura: Yes, in the polls and in the elections as well. And now, what remains after all the arguments, splits, and the suspicions that the Green party was influenced by the KGB and the Special Forces? It's nonsense. And what's really unpleasant and painful is that the attacks on us were by the people who, after us, created a new party Greens 2012. These were people from Freedom and Peace (WiP).

Leszek Konarski: Not 2012. Greens 2004.

Zygmunt Fura: Yes. Greens 2004. That was Radoslaw Gawlik and people who had been in the Freedom and Peace movement, not only them, but in various similar formations. And now what kind of support do they get? 0.3 percent. It's nothing. They can't even get above one percent. In more difficult times, we were able to get more support. The mistake is that they also want to be international Greens along the pattern of the Greens in Holland or Germany, but on Polish grounds. They're concerned with feminism, minority issues. That's temporarily necessary, as a strategic purpose, for those divisions. But it would be better to focus on ecology, on the poor.
And what's happening now? Ecology is a luxury good. If you have the cash you can buy healthy food. Health should be for everyone, and ecology should have the same program that treats everyone the same way. Just as schools do.

Meanwhile, the Green Party establishes partnerships with minorities. And as a result, it distances itself from people. It should be a party supported by all people, from the well-educated to the farmers. But there are no farmers in the Green Party. In the German Greens there's a strong farmers' contingent around ecological agriculture, and they take a position in the European Parliament as well. Each of us somehow lives ecologically for own purposes. Ecology at the moment has become like commerce: for the purpose of creating your own personality through campaigns, grants, and spectacular actions.

Meanwhile what's troubling is that there's no real public ecological education -- in schools, in clubs. We conduct discussions about how beer is healthy and how to push cosmetics. Now there's a big threat in the realm of the free market, which is just pushing garbage. All of these products are cheaper, displacing healthy Polish ecological food. If I buy these large potatoes from Cyprus or these large onions from Spain - I have my suspicions. Because I'm accustomed to small onions and I know that they have...

Leszek Konarski: You're right, Zygmunt. We were too fascinated with the German Greens. We had had contacts with them; they came here. We adopted their statutes. Zygmunt translated them and we created the party on the German model. But they were a step ahead.

Zygmunt Fura: They were a generation ahead. They advanced slowly, slowly, and now they are quite pragmatic.

Leszek Konarski: Yes, we copied them so that in our party there couldn't be one leader, there had to be three, as there was in Germany. That was our terrible error. Among the German Greens, there are three leaders but they try to cooperate with each other.

Zygmunt Fura: Here it's a rivalry.

Leszek Konarski: It turned out in Poland with three leaders, each one created their own bloc because, simply, this is Poland. And we didn't realize at the time that it wouldn't work. Germany is a country with a higher level of political culture, perhaps. I can't imagine what it's like in America, but it's possible there as well. But not in Poland. In Germany it's possible, although with the German Greens, as I see, they don't have so much success.

Zygmunt Fura: But the Greens there always get between 7 and 10 percent of the vote.

Leszek Konarski: They told us that we must have 50 percent women and 50 percent men in the leadership of the party. We did that, and I think it was a mistake because our women were still not yet ready for politics. We searched and we often found only stupid grandmothers, stupid women. This led to conflicts because we didn't have enough smart people. But in Germany this was the way it was and we simply copied it. Also each country has its own specific politics and doesn't freely take steps against its traditions. It can't jump ahead 20 years. The Germans were 20 years ahead of us.

Zygmunt Fura: All parties eventually create a political class, a political elite. And parties should have an elite cadre. For instance, there are 400 people in the Norwegian Green party, out of a population of four million, but they manage to possess all the necessary wisdom and clarity. In a party like that, the leader must be an intellectual visionary able to organize the masses for the elections. All the time, the leader must be in social contact, otherwise the party breaks up and dies. PO is in the middle of such flux, so it doesn't have a chance. It's scattered. There's the Right bloc, the Left bloc, the ecological bloc, this bloc and that bloc. It's falling into pieces. But that's good. In five years, we'll have clear divisions. The political organization of society should be this way: Left, Right, and Center. The Center and Left are in the process of creation. Meanwhile, a new Right is emerging, not on the PiS base, because it must be completely different. PiS is leftist. It's concerned with things that are too idealistic, whether we're talking about Smolensk, Katyn and historical issues like that: settling with the past and Catholicism. I believe that a Catholic party should be set up in Poland - for the people who are sectarian in that way.

Leszek Konarski: But the Church has never wanted a Catholic party.

Zygmunt Fura: Why? The Church wants to have influence everywhere, even among leftists. The Communist party was the most servile toward the Church in this period.

Leszek Konarski: The Church has Jaroslaw Gowin. I've written about Gowin. He was a minister of justice. Now he wants to be chairman of PO. I wrote a long article about him. I wanted to look at what he represents and what he's doing. I did a lot of research on which cardinal supports him. It's clear that he's the Church's man. But it's not Cardinal Dziwisz or Father Rydyzk from Torun. I checked. No one. It's very strange who supports him. I suggested that perhaps he's controlled by Opus Dei. He had a meeting with Opus Dei here in Krakow. I have witnesses who wrote to me about his connections to Opus Dei. Probably he's controlled by Opus Dei, but I don't know. He's a very strange man, Gowin. He wants to take the place of Tusk. But he will get very few votes in the election, and it's not clear what he will do. I suppose he'll leave PO. Maybe he'll try to create a new Catholic party. He wants to move in the direction of a republican party.

Zygmunt Fura: People are tired of partisanship, and the parties are going in the direction of elitism.

Leszek Konarski: Which party will win in the next Polish elections? Probably PO will lose, however. I don't know, maybe PiS will win. Anyway...

Zygmunt Fura: PO will probably come in second, SLD third.

When we talked 23 years ago, we talked about the quality of Green parties. There were various parties. For instance, we talked about cucumbers (green all the way through) on the one hand and watermelons (green on the outside, red on the inside) on the other.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.