01/21/2014 02:56 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2014

Poland: The Revolution Devours Its Children

The great Polish playwright and intellectual Slawomir Mrozek was best known for his absurdist plays, most of them written after he'd gone into exile in 1963. I saw his play The Emigrants performed by two enterprising Polish actors in a camper van parked on a Dublin street as part of the Fringe festival there a couple years ago. Before an audience of 11, pressed together in the back of the van, the characters enacted their dark duet of hopelessness, homesick for the totalitarian world they'd left behind and ill-equipped for the free world where they'd washed up.

Mrozek wrote The Emigrants in the 1970s, but it could apply to East-Central Europe today as well. Many people in the region look back to the past as if it were a kind of old country that they set off from in 1989 and that, however impoverished, still evokes warm feelings of nostalgia. As for the new society into which they've been thrust, it may be the "land of opportunity," but those opportunities often seem tantalizingly out of reach.

Mrozek died this past August in France, the day before I sat down to talk with the journalist Jacek Zakowski in the café attached to the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza in Warsaw. The Polish news media was full of tributes to the émigré playwright, and he entered our conversation as well. Zakowski pointed to a passage in Mrozek's play Na Morze (On the Open Sea) to illustrate the dilemma facing the Solidarity government and the Polish public during the year of economic transition in 1990.

"Three people are in a lifeboat, and they are dying of hunger," Zakowski recounts. "Two of them decide to eat the third. One says, 'In the name of preserving the community, we will eat you!' That's what was going on [in the early 1990s]. Polish society had to eat a third of itself! Kuron was basically explaining to this third of society that we had to eat you. But people were still not happy."

In 1990, when I met him for the first time, Jacek Zakowski was the spokesman for the parliamentary faction of the Citizens' Committee, which had grown out of the Solidarity movement. His boss was the well-respected medieval historian and Solidarity intellectual Bronislaw Geremek. Even with all the political credibility and intellectual firepower of the new Solidarity politicians, it was not an easy task to push through what would ultimately become a politically unpopular economic program. Indeed, when voters went to the polls in 1993, they put the former Communist Party back into power.

"Mazowiecki paid the necessary price," Zakowski says, referring to Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the Solidarity-backed prime minister who took office in the fall of 1989. "So did I! And Geremek. One had to be very stupid to believe that society would say, 'This is fantastic! We lost our savings. We are four times poorer that we were before you came to power. We love you!' No, they had to hate us. And we had to pay this price. The revolution must eat its children, and this is universal."

It might seem as though Poland had a choice in 1990 in terms of what economic reform to pursue. But Zakowski argues that there really was no choice.

"The economic reforms were agreed to before we came to power," he remembers. "They were agreed to by the Rakowski government in talks with the IMF and World Bank. When we came to power, there was really very little space to renegotiate these terms. That's what Balcerowicz and Sachs did. But in fact the major decisions were forced on us by the Americans. The place for decision-making was really small. We could only say that we would do it this week or next week. There was no space for negotiations with trade unions, for example. Of course we could have said: we will not do it. But we were bankrupt. If they did not lend us more money, there would have been no oil, no food in the country. The situation was extreme. The only thing we could do was explain."

The Interview

You were in a very important position in the parliamentary caucus of the Citizens' Committee (OKP). During the time that you worked there, what do you think were the major achievements and the major mistakes that this initial opposition formation made in the early days of Polish democracy?

The major achievement was establishing democracy in the country. We were able to change the constitution, even though we were only a minority in the parliament. This was a very sensitive game with the Communists and Russia and with Germany as well. My boss Bronislaw Geremek was patient enough to listen to what our Western partners were saying, that we should not hope to be a Western country and join Western alliances like NATO or the European Community. That's the achievement.

If I think about mistakes, perhaps we should have tried to create more of a social state and less of a liberal state. For example, we could have put more pressure on social institutions like the public media or the educational system. We could have focused on the quality of education rather than on institutional changes. We were very much fond of a kind of institutionalism. We believed that if we changed institutions from authoritarian to democratic, people would become democrats. That's not true, of course. We must work on culture. Culture is created intentionally. We did not understand that. What we believed is that Poles are generally good and only the system is bad. Our naive narrative prevailed.

Speaking about mistakes, we usually mention the "war at the top" between Walesa and Mazowiecki. But I believe that it was inevitable. In fact, when you look from today's perspective, I would even say that it was necessary, not just inevitable. The price society paid for the crisis and for the change of the system was so big that support for the government had to decrease very rapidly. Walesa felt this. I'm not saying that he understood it: he felt it. In fact, he saved the changes. Otherwise, the post-Communists would have come back to power not in 1993 but in 1991. That would have meant that the change could have been stopped. I don't think it could have been reversed. But if it stopped for a long time, it would have been very difficult for the country.

Mazowiecki paid the necessary price. So did I! And Geremek. One had to be very stupid to believe that society would say, "This is fantastic! We lost our savings. We are four times poorer that we were before you came to power. We love you!" No, they had to hate us. And we had to pay this price. The revolution must eat its children, and this is universal.

But it was a nonviolent dinner.

Yes, and this was a big success of Walesa's. After being in OKP, I was appointed the president of the Polish Information Agency, by the government of Jan Krzysztof Bielecki. This was a government appointed by Walesa. In a small way, this was symbolic. What Walesa did was to destroy the Mazowiecki government to save its politics. He also appointed Balcerowicz as minister of finance. What happened was a kind of controlled explosion. What we usually consider a mistake was in fact a kind of political master shot.

As a spokesman for Geremek, along with the spokesman for Walesa, who was Jaroslaw Kurski, and the spokesman for Mazowiecki, Malgorzata Niezabitowska, we prepared a joint declaration for them saying that we would work together, we would be together forever, that we love each other, all this stuff for the good future of Poland and so on. We didn't tell them about it. We gathered them in one place, and said, "We are responsible for public relations for all of you. Our strong request is that you sign this and follow this." And they agreed.

We organized a press conference. In front of dozens of journalists, they signed the joint declaration. It was a big wow. That was a time when the "war at the top" was already on. In the evening Walesa went back to Gdansk and the next morning, after a few hours talk with Kaczynski, he declared that it was bullshit. Nothing could change that situation. Hegel is right. There are some processes that you cannot stop and you perhaps shouldn't stop. We didn't understand it then. Now of course it's much easier to understand.

I talked with an economist who participated on the side of Solidarity during the Round Table. He thought that the most important mistake Solidarity made after the Round Table negotiations was not to insist on continued consultation and discussion with the government. It abdicated its responsibility on economic issues. Do you agree that this was an economic mistake and might this have helped create a more socially oriented market economy?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.