Sunday, 25 July 2010

Kapuściński - Non Fiction


The following article is a review I wrote about Artur Domosławski's biography on Ryszard Kapuściński. The publication of the book at the beginning of this year instigated a wide and at times heated public debate - which touched upon the different interpretations of Poland's post-war history. Hopefully this book will soon be published in English.



Kapuściński Non-Fiction by Artur Domosławski, Świat Książki, Warsaw 2010


The publication of Artur Domosławski’s biography about his mentor and friend Ryszard Kapuściński has caused a stir both in Poland and abroad. Despite the fact that ‘Non-Fiction’ has yet to be published in English it has already been widely commented upon in the English speaking media, with attention focussed mainly upon the issue of Kapuściński’s journalistic style and the disclosures of how he had at times exaggerated the truth or even made up certain facts in his work. Another area of wide media interest has concerned the small part of the book that is devoted to Kapuściński’s personal life and the fact that his wife attempted to block its publication. However, ‘Non-Fiction’ has had a much wider and important resonance in Poland and touched upon the more fundamental issues of its post-war history.

Ryszard Kapuściński is known and famous around the world for his writings on the societies and political events occurring in the countries of the Third World. Kapuściński spent most of his working life abroad and he never wrote one significant piece of work or book about his native Poland. However, Domosławski allows us to understand how his life and thinking were rooted in Poland and at how he was both a product of and a part of a system – the Polish People’s Republic (PRL) – which he helped both to build and then finally broke from.

Contemporary Polish political and social life has become dominated by two competing ideologies that are partly related to interpretations of the past. The first regards communism as an illegitimate system that had been imposed upon Poland, but one in which people were required to live and work. It is therefore necessary to draw a line on the past and allow those from different political biographies equal rights in the new Third Republic. In contrast, a competing ideology states that communism was a criminal system and that those who had collaborated with it should be treated as traitors. The failure to bring those to account for the crimes they had committed in communism has hampered the formation of a healthy political system and society and therefore a new campaign of vetting should be carried out within the country’s elite.

Domosławski shatters this dichotomy and presents an alternative, and genuine left-wing voice to the public debate. The views and opinions of Kapuściński are not presented as the ashamed utterances of a collaborator, former party bureaucrat or careerist. Rather we see how Kapuściński stood in the traditions of socialism, anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism. His life was guided both by his ideals and by his political allegiance to a party and government in which he believed. It was only once he deemed that this system had definitively betrayed these principles that he eventually broke from it.

Kapuściński was one of the great observers and analysts of the second half of the twentieth century. However, he was also a product of his time. The generation coming to age at the end of the last century was shaped by the degeneration and collapse of communism, the disintegration of the post-war consensus in Western Europe and the rise of neo-liberal global capitalism. Yet for Kapuściński’s generation their formative experiences were wholly different. Emerging out of world war, fascism and the holocaust (with the memories of the great depression ever present) communism came to represent for many the hope that a new and better world could be created. It was in this reality that a young Kapuściński – who had moved to Warsaw from the eastern town of Pińsk during the war – actively threw himself into building socialism in Poland. By 1950 the still teenage Kapuściński had become a leading member of the Union of Polish Youth and joined the editorial board of its newspaper Sztandar Młodych.

Domslawski postulates that the experience of living through this revolutionary transformation, and the difficulties and travails that it entailed, Kapuściński came to understand the paradoxes of revolutions and how these affect people’s lives. Even in these early years, as an activist and agitator, Kapuściński was not a loyal mouthpiece of the party but a committed and passionate advocate of socialist ideals. During the height of Poland’s relatively short Stalinist period, Kapuściński travelled round the country collecting and recording the opinions and stories of ordinary workers. This concern and instinct for understanding the difficulties of people’s lives both gained him a reputation as a skilled journalist within the party; whilst also raising him as a symbol and authority for those opposing the bureaucratisation of socialism in Poland.

This position guided him through the most turbulent times of Poland’s post-war history; such as the workers rebellion in Poznań in 1956, the anti-Semitic repressions of the intelligentsia in 1968 and the famous Solidarność strikes in Gdańsk in 1980/81. During these latter events Domosławski describes how Kapuściński immersed himself into the life of the strike, recording the views and opinions of workers and how he became fascinated with the charismatic leadership of Lech Wałęsa. Drawing on his experiences of revolutions abroad he instinctively realised how the strikes were unfolding in a revolutionary direction, as the demands of the strikers evolved from matters of economic interest to ones of honour and dignity. Yet, the book also details how Kapuściński had attended the shipyards as a trusted journalist of the party and at how once the strikes had ended he travelled around the country in order to present a detailed view of society to the Central Committee. Also, once the initial euphoria and optimism of the Gdańsk strikes had subsided, Kapuściński looked to the rise of a grass-roots ‘horizontal’ movement within the party as the best hope for a progressive solution to the country’s difficulties. True to course, Kapuściński supported the democratisation and socialisation of communism, whilst hoping that this would encompass and be led by the party.

Kapuściński’s relationship with communism in Poland was not just a matter of political ideals and beliefs. Within the post-communist world of historical revision and suspicion attention has regularly focussed upon those who had gained notoriety during communism. For Kapuściński to be allowed to travel and write – often working for government news agencies and officially approved publications – he had to maintain connections and be trusted by people at the top. At one point Domosławski refers to the praise that Kaspuscinski pays to a book published in Poland that compared life in communism to that during feudalism.[i] A main thesis of the author was that those lower down the hierarchy needed to maintain contacts with those higher up in order to solve certain problems and advance themselves. The point is not expanded upon by Domosławski and the identities between feudal and communist societies should not be exaggerated. But it does raise an important issue as to how people were able to gain not just influence or positions in communism but also as to how goods and capital were acquired themselves. Money and private capital increasingly played a minor role in social and economic life during communism; while people’s lives were shaped by competing for (sometimes scarce) goods and services from the state. This meant that maintaining contacts within the system was an integral part of the social logic of life in the communist world. Of course Kapuściński’s connections reached far beyond the average person’s social and political network. Kapuściński had the ear of some leading members of the party and state and used these associations to travel and write as a Polish foreign correspondent abroad. However, maintaining social and political ties and using them to help open doors or smooth over problems was nothing exceptional, but woven into the system’s social fabric.

The combination of Kapuściński’s ideals and his connections to communist Poland both directed and assisted his work abroad. Firstly, he was able to empathise with the anti-colonial struggles in the Third World and sought out the stories of the poor and those struggling against oppression. Also, as Kapuściński was writing about those countries trying to free themselves from the oppressions of colonialism and western imperialism, the fact that he was from ‘behind the Iron Curtain’ allowed him greater access to and less suspicion from the participants of these movements than was afforded some of his colleagues from the West. Yet, at the same time, Kapuściński found himself caught between the revolutionary anti-colonial and socialist movements in the Third World, with whom he most naturally identified, and the realpolitik of the Cold War. Poland’s foreign policy, alongside its other communist neighbours, was dictated to by Moscow’s strategy of ‘peaceful coexistence’ with the West. The aim was to retain the international status quo and its established spheres of influence, not encouraging revolutionary movements that could both upset this balance and be out of Soviet control. Such a policy not only conflicted with many indigenous revolutionary and communist movements in the Third World, but also created schisms with other communist governments (e.g. in Cuba and China.)

Kapuściński had to walk this diplomatic tight-rope a number of times during his life, as for example when the local communist movement in Nigeria wanted to move towards a strategy of armed revolt, which was more in line with Beijing’s policy of open engagement. For Kapuściński this incongruity was most acutely revealed through his strong support for the Cuban revolution and his fascination with the iconic figure of Che Guevara. Cuba’s backing of Latin American partisans and their support for revolutionary expansion in the continent was unacceptable for a Soviet leadership focussed on stability and compromise. Che was a figure beyond Moscow’s control and someone not trusted in the corridors of power in the eastern bloc.

In such circumstances it may have been expected that Kapuściński would have had to either accept the realism of working for a communist government or sacrifice his career for his ideals. However, once again Kapuściński’s idealism and realism combined, as he translated into Polish Che Guevara’s Bolivian Diaries - the only book he ever translated in his life. He was only able to do this because of his contacts with leading members of the central committee, which furthermore were maintained with those who had risen to the top of party as part of the nationalist campaign in 1968. Kapuściński was operating within a dual reality that expanded beyond the actualities of life and politics in communist Poland to encompass the anti-colonial struggles in the Third World, which in turn contradicted at times with the wishes of his political masters at home. And his political matrix did not end here. Kapuściński has commented that he always wrote with Polish readers in mind. However, on at least one occasion he went a step further by concealing commentary about the political system in Poland inside his writings about life elsewhere. It was common practice in the PRL, particularly in film, to use metaphor and symbol as a way of avoiding the censor and criticising the system. In Kapuściński’s work such allegory was most evident in his book The Emperor – formally written about Haile Selassie’s Ethopia but commonly interpreted in Poland as a metaphor of Edward Gierek’s government during the 1970s.

By the time Kapuściński had reached his mid-fifties the joint pillars of realism and idealism, that had supported his life, had begun to disintegrate. Kapuściński resigned from the party shortly after Martial Law had been implemented in Poland in December 1981. The Solidarność movement had arisen out of the disenchantment that accompanied the end of the economic boom of the Gierek years, yet once this period of romantic idealism had subsided all that was left was repression, stagnation and degeneration. The party had turned against the workers who were proposing the self-management of their workplaces as a basis for creating a new self-managed republic. As the tanks rolled onto the nation’s streets the party had lost all legitimacy in the eyes of the people and power was moving to the military. For Kapuściński the party and government, with which he had identified and supported throughout his life, had now finally deserted him and broken from the values that he expected them to uphold.

The defeat for Kapuściński was a double one. Not only was his system falling apart but the ideals which he had held throughout his life were now seemingly becoming redundant and outdated. Reading ‘Non-Fiction’ one relives, through Kapuściński’s eyes, the disorientation, despondency and resignation felt by millions of socialists and communists around the globe at this time. In face of the seemingly inexorable force of free-market globalisation, Kapuściński aligned himself with the liberal wing of the opposition and welcomed the neo-liberal economic reforms that were ushered in on the ruins of communism. This political road was not a lonely one, with Kapuściński joined by an array of prominent left-wing figures and intellectuals (from both sides of the ‘barricades’) in endorsing this rapid jump to capitalism. In retrospect it is still bewildering as to how such a range of committed left-wing individuals could adjust their political compasses so dramatically and rapidly. In Poland this is most spectacularly expressed through the political trajectory of Jacek Kuroń. The former icon of the Solidarność movement and author of the opposition letter to the party in the 1960s – which was on the reading list of any good Trotskyist around the globe – served as the Minister of Labour and Social Policy in the early 1990s, helping to implement the shock-therapy reforms. By the end of his life Kuroń had admitted that this had been the greatest mistake he had ever made.

Kapuściński never made such a declaration. However, Kapuściński also never engaged actively in politics and certainly played no part in government. Also, he only followed the neo-liberal path for a short period before realising the pitfalls that lay ahead. A recurring phase in ‘Non-Fiction’ is political correctness. Domosławski does not use this in its common form: as a means to undermine the social and liberal gains of the post-war era. Rather it is deployed to explain how Kapuściński questioned the political ‘common sense’ of his time and sought to replace it with some ‘good sense’. It was this talent that drove Kapuściński to turn, for example, a routine task on reporting on the new socialist model town of Nowa Huta in 1955, into an account of the struggles and frustrations of its inhabitants; or how his assignment to record the 65th anniversary of the Russian Revolution became a detailed description of the everyday lives of people in the far-reaches of the Soviet Union. The Fukuyamian façade of the post Cold-War world could not conceal the reality of neo-liberal globalisation from Kapuściński for long. By the second half of the 1990s, he had once again begun to write as a left-wing critic of neo-liberal global capitalism. Now writing as a journalist for Gazeta Wyborcza (the once opposition newspaper turned media conglomerate) Kapuściński broke decisively from the majority of the Polish intelligentsia (including the newspaper’s editor Adam Michnik) over events such as 9/11 and the war in Iraq. Kapuściński had understood how these were the result of expanding economic divisions in an increasingly globalised world and in turn how the West’s professed desire to export democracy by force abroad was a new form of colonialism.

Such sentiments were more likely to find support in the countries of Southern Europe or Latin America than in his native country Poland. Unfortunately here he is generally treated as a ‘great’ a ‘maestro’, while the actual message of his writing falls on deaf ears. This was no truer than in his final years when his ideals of anti-imperialism and the rights of the oppressed could not even be repackaged in an acceptable ideological form. Yet, while the liberal intelligentsia closed their ears and smiled in embarrassment the conservative right went on the attack.

Kapuściński became increasingly perturbed by the anti-communist conservative right, which rose to power in his final years (‘these terrible guys’ is how he described them.) A few months before his death it was ‘revealed’ in the Polish edition of Newsweek how Kapuściński had worked with the communist secret services. However, as in most other such cases, Polish society has proved itself to be more mature and understanding than these ‘terrible guys’. As one commentator has stated - what shame is there in a communist being a member of a communist party?[ii] Still the publication of ‘Non-Fiction’ has allowed his critics to raise their voices once again. One leading conservative commentator has described ‘Non-Fiction’ as justifying conformism and collaboration behind the brave sounding phrases of socialism and anti-imperialism. The same author also fears that the book may have received such wide attention and caused so much controversy due to the fact that it is written from the perspective of the ‘new left’.[iii] And in this respect he may be correct. Domosławski has managed not just to produce a biography of impressive magnitude and depth but he has also broken through the ruling political correctness of his time and provided a genuine left-wing perspective on Poland’s post-war history, through the eyes of one of its great observers and participants. It is hard to imagine a better tribute that could have been paid to the life and work of Ryszard Kapuściński.



[i] Kula, M (2003) Religiopodobny Komunizm, Krakow: Zakład Wydawniczy NOMOS
[ii] Żakowski, J ‘Ta biografia nam pomoże’, 04.03.2010, Gazeta Wyborcza (http://tinyurl.com/y395rld)
[iii] Semka, P ‘Pochwała peerelowskiego konformizmu’, 23-02-2010, Rzeczpospolita (http://tinyurl.com/y3pgga8)

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Fallen Masks
















Well that didn't take long did it? After weeks of fawning over the left electorate, and talking about conciliation and an end of Poland's internal political war, politics has returned to normal. The matrix of two parties from the conservative political right arguing about everything except how to actually improve people's lives has once again come to dominate public life.



The most dramatic – although equally predictable – political conversion has been that of Law and Justice (PiS) party's leader Jarosław Kaczyński. Realising the unique political and emotional circumstances in which the Presidential elections were taking place – following the Smoleńsk tragedy – Kaczyński adopted a tone of political conciliation and compromise. Particularly noticeable was his refusal to raise issues connected to the Smoleńsk tragedy and the warm words delivered to the left. Following his narrow defeat in these elections Kaczyński has now gone on the political offensive.


The first line of this offensive concerns the Smoleńsk tragedy. The historical and political symbolism of the crash, and the fact that a necessarily long and detailed inquiry is being led by the Russian government, has opened the way for conspiracy theories and political gossip to thrive on the political margins. Most famously this sentiment was shown on public television in the 'documentary' Solidarni 2010– partly created by a prominent right-wing publicist – in which one of the participants shouted that PM Donald Tusk had 'blood on his hands'.


In a recent press conference Kaczyński has said that he has a 'moral imperative' and a duty to his brother to raise the issue of the Smoleńsk crash. He has stated that PiS will be seeking to discover all the 'facts, games and intrigues' behind the tragedy and has claimed that his brother Lech Kaczyński had been subject to a huge political attack from different sides prior to his death. Although Jarosław Kaczyński has refrained from making any direct accusations he stated that the crash was very 'strange'. A PiS MP - Joachim Brudziński - has taken the political rhetoric a step further, arguing that PM Donald Tusk should dissapear from political life because on the day of the tragedy, when he met Putin at the site of the crash, he 'left the body of the President lying in a Russian Coffin'(!)



The second area of political division concerns the cross that was erected by the scouts outside the Presidential palace during the period of mourning. Up until the election of a new President this was an uncontroversial matter. However, the issue of whether a religious symbol should remain standing outside such an important public building is of high political importance. Referring to Komorowski's statement that he thought the cross should be removed and placed in a Church in Warsaw, Kaczyński said: 'If President Komorowski removes the cross it will be completely obvious who he is and on which side of the historical divides that have affected Poland he stands….. it would be the same side as Napieralski and Zapatero". Of significance here is the manner by which Kaczyński has stopped praising Napieralski as representing a new genuine left and returned to denigrating him.


It is often necessary to second guess Kaczyński's tactical decisions and work out what are the political considerations behind his various maneuvers and cosmetic conversions. It is sometimes claimed that he is one of Poland's great tacticians, a Machiavellian genius who is always playing the long-game. However, there is also some basic political realities at play here, which concern maintaining the relatively broad conservative-nationalist coalition that he has assembled in PiS. One of his great political achievements is helping to virtually wipe out all political rivals on the conservative-nationalist right in Poland. This has meant that the party's membership and electorate range from centre-right conservatives to far-right nationalists and extreme anti-communists. Exactly where Kaczyński stands along this political spectrum is difficult to say but what we do know is that at times the most extreme wings of PiS are unleashed and that at others they are restrained.


On the other side of the political fence lies an all-powerful Citizens' Platform (PO). It is easy for the left to sympathise with PO on matters such as those raised above . The inquiry into the Smoleńsk tragedy should be allowed to continue according to international standards and crosses should not permanently be placed outside of the Presidential Palace. On these issues PO broadly represent the opinions of the majority of society that does not want to get bogged down in a new round of internal cultural wars. Yet, PO are also playing their own political games. The unleashing of its political clown – Janusz Palikot- to stir up political debate has been a long-favoured tactic of the PO leadership. Shortly after the Presidential elections Palikot countered that L.Kaczyński had 'blood on his hands' as it was his office that had organised the trip to Smoleńsk. Insinuations in the media that Jarosław may have phoned Lech shortly before the crash occurred are helping to fuel alternative theories about the crash that as yet have little substantiation.



After making a series of political promises during the election campaign – in order to lure the left electorate – PO is returning to its role as a governing party of the conservative right. They have made no moves towards introducing funding for in-vitro, signing the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights or introducing gender parity in parliament. The veil of economic solidarity has also fallen, with the government announcing the freezing of many public sector wages.


Normality has unfortunately returned.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Public Opposition to Spending Cuts

The financial crisis hardly featured as a topic in the recent presidential elections in Poland. Throughout Europe political leaders are attempting to out-do each other by implementing wide-ranging public spending cuts in order to 'heal' their burgeoning budget crises. However, in the Polish presidential elections the two main candidates were competing in their promises of increased social spending.

To date the Polish economy has avoided falling into recession and its public finances are in a relatively good state. Although the budget deficit increased from 1.9% in 2007 to 7.3% in 2009 and public debt rose from 45% to 51% of GDP during the same period, these are manageable figures within the present European context. The influx of EU money in recent years has meant that the government has been able to partly fund some large infrastructural projects. This use of public (both Polish and EU) money has partly offset the fall in private investment and helped to keep the economy afloat during turbulent global economic times. Furthermore, the improved economic performance, since the stagnation at the end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s, has allowed for some increased spending on public services. This has included rises in some public sector salaries, which had been severely depressed throughout the postsocialist transition.


It now seems that this may be coming to an end. Public debt in Poland is predicted to reach nearly 60% of GDP by the end of 2011. Big deal you may say. After all, in countries such as Belgium, Greece and Italy public debt already exceeds 100% of GDP. The problem however is that written in Poland's constitution (adopted in 1997) are a number of so-called safety thresholds. These culminate in the proviso that if public debt reaches 60% of GDP then the government must introduce a balanced budget for the next year. This would obviously trigger a round of severe spending cuts.

This excessively restrictive monetarist piece of legislation is now beginning to impact upon the government's policies. Without the fear of a presidential veto the PO government has announced that it will freeze the wages of half a million public employees – including the police, army and civil servants (it will not include teachers.) Earlier the government had agreed that these employees would receive salary rises equal to the inflation rate + 1% (which would be an increase of around 3.3%).

These initial attempts reduce social spending are unlikely to be accepted by the majority of Poles. In a recent opinion poll 51% agreed that spending cuts would help the economy, against 43% who disagreed. However, 53% are against (40% for) freezes in public sector salaries and 81% (16% for) would oppose freezing rises in pensions or cutting unemployment benefit. Also, 66% of Poles are against another government proposal to raise the retirement age of women to 65. The government's ongoing project to 'commercialise' (read: privatise) the health service is also not supported by the vast majority of Poles. 58% believe that privatising the health service would be negative for society (17% believe it would be positive)and 51% consider that medical treatment is cheaper when provided by the state (10% believe that it would be more cheaply provided by the private sector).

Despite the political offensive underway in the media, a large majority of the population is opposed to the government's programme of public sector cuts and market reforms. For months the government has been presenting Poland as a 'green island' in a continent of negative economic growth. The greatest threat to this position is the government withdrawing money out of the economy at a time of huge economic uncertainty.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Europride – The politics of hyPOcrisy


This Saturday, 17th July, the Europride march will take place in Warsaw. This is significant for two reasons.

  • It will be the first time that such an event has taken place in a postsocialist country and signifies another step forward in promoting equality for lesbian and gays in the region.

  • Secondly, this comes only a few years after demonstrations organised by the Polish lesbian and gay movement were banned and is taking place in a context where many basic civil rights are still denied the lesbian and gay community in Poland.

I can remember seeing some of the first gay pride marches in Warsaw in the 1990s. They were small, isolated events that were battling to get a voice heard in public life. All this changed after Lech Kaczyński – then serving as Mayor of Warsaw – banned a gay pride march in 2005. The lesbian and gay movement went ahead with its 'march for equality' and were joined by thousands of people from Warsaw who supported this basic civic right. At this time the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) were still in power and despite the illegality of the march the police protected it and most of the people arrested on the day were counter-demonstrators.

Thereafter the 'march for equality' has become a growing annual event. When Kaczyński became president of Poland and his party PiS formed a government they steered away from banning such marches. Nevertheless, this government still pursued an openly homophobic political programme. For example, the Education Ministry banned a Council of Europe handbook on lesbian and gay issues from schools and there was discussion in the government about preventing lesbian and gays working in professions such as teaching. One of the worst features of the PiS government was that it formed an alliance with the far-right party the League of Polish families (LPR). The political backwardness of LPR was highlighted when one of its MPs claimed that 'if deviants begin to demonstrate, they should be hit with batons'.

Despite the advances made since this time the lesbian and gay community still faces many challenges. The march on Sunday will not be just a manifestation of life-style, but include a number of political demands such as the right to legally register partnerships, the introduction of anti-discrimination legislation and the reform of education . The slogan of the march is for 'Freedom, Equality and Tolerance'.


Although the Warsaw government has not attempted to ban Europride, it has certainly not helped or welcomed it. Warsaw is now run by a coalition headed by Citizens' Platform (PO), under the presidency of the high-profile PO politician Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz. For the first time in the history of Europride a city government has not helped with the financing of the event. Gronkiewicz-Waltz will not be opening the march or participating in it, as she will unfortunately be on 'holiday' this weekend. This is in contrast to when europride took place in London for example. Here the government committed 2 million pounds to help fund the event and the then Mayor Ken Livingstone marched at the front of the demonstration.

The political conservatism of Gronkiewicz-Waltz and PO have meant that Warsaw is losing an opportunity to promote itself as an open and modern city and attract visitors and revenue. It is estimated that around 70,000 people will attend the march this Sunday and that around 20-30 thousand of these will be from abroad. However, this is far below the numbers that have attended many previous Europride marches - such as the 1.5 million in Madrid in 2007. Due to a lack of funds the organizers have been unable to sufficiently promote the event abroad and the numbers will be far smaller than they could have been otherwise.

This shows how, despite its pretenses, PO remains a party of the conservative right. It should be remembered, for example, that it was the PO mayor, Ryszard Grobelny, who had previously banned 'marches for equality' in Poznań.

Despite these difficulties the Warsaw Europride is predicted to be the largest political demonstration in Poland for over 10 years. The majority of Warsaw's residents (48%) now agree that such events should be allowed to take place in their city (against 45% who are opposed). Only a few years ago those accepting such marches taking place in Poland's capital stood at just 12%.

This shows how the population of Warsaw has progressed on this issue – it is now time for its politicians to catch up with them.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Austerity in Central-Eastern Europe

The global economic crisis has moved from the private to the public sphere. After spending billions on bailing out the failed financial system and propping up the very institutions that caused the crisis, it is now up to the tax payer to carry the burden. In recent months attention has turned to those eurozone countries in Southern Europe (such as Greece and Spain), which have faced acute public finance problems. In response the international financial markets, the IMF and the EU have exerted pressure upon these governments to enact severe spending cuts, while the EU has committed over €750bn in a bailout fund for holders of Greek government debt.

The graphic pictures of demonstrators in Greece have focused media attention on the problems occurring in Southern Europe. However, in Central-Eastern Europe (CEE) there has been no such concern, despite the severity of the economic collapse in many countries. In 2009 the average rate of economic decline in CEE was nearly 8%, while it was just above 4% in WE. Also, between 2007 and 2009 unemployment increased in CEE from 6.8% to 10.3%, while in Western Europe it grew from 7.4% to 8.0%.

Those economies that were most exposed to the global crisis and reliant upon foreign capital suffered the largest economic declines. Therefore, in 2009, GDP fell by over 13% in Estonia and by over 18% in Latvia and Lithuania. Furthermore, unemployment has rocketed in these countries - increasing by 12% in just one year in Latvia.

A feature of the present economic crisis has been the withdraw of capital from the peripheries back to the centre. This has been particularly pronounced in CEE, where over 70% of all banking assets are in foreign hands. Also the governments in CEE have had less available resources than their counterparts in Western Europe to protect their domestic economies, which has worsened the economic contraction. The EU refused to provide a rescue package for the CEE economies last year, which has left them exposed to the demands of the financial markets and international financial institutions.

The IMF provided loans to CEE countries - such as Hungary, Latvia, Romania and Poland - in order to ease their solvency problems. Concurrently, and often as a condition of the help provided by the IMF, the CEE countries have been pressured to reduce their budget deficits. In line with agreements with the EU, the CEE countries are expected to bring their fiscal deficit down to below 6% of GDP in 2010 and below 3% from 2011 to 2013. A series of government spending cuts were introduced in 2009, well before those in countries such as Greece and Spain. For example, the Latvian government announced a package of public spending cuts and tax increases that amounted to €712m in an aim to reduce the budget deficit by 10% in 3 to 4 years. This included cutting public sector wages by up to 40%, pensions by 10% and reducing social benefits and health care payments. Likewise Hungary agreed to reduce its public sector by 2.5% and introduce a new rules-based fiscal programme. The financial markets severely punished the new government when it suggested it could not meet its agreed targets. In Bulgaria public spending was cut by 15% in 2009, in order to avoid an end of year deficit and maintain its currency peg with the euro. In order to meet the conditions of their IMF and EU loans, the Romanian government announced in May 2010 that it would cut all public sector salaries by 25% and pensions by 15%. When the Romanian constitutional court declared that this cut in pensions was illegal, the government responded by hiking VAT. Even in Poland, which has so far avoided falling into recession, slowing revenues have meant that the budget deficit nearly doubled from 3.8% of GDP in 2008 to 7.1% in 2009. The Polish government has announced both public spending cuts and a programme to start a new round of privatisations aimed at raising €6.6bn in revenues.

The burden of the global financial crisis is being shifted onto those who did least to cause it and have the least resources to pay for it. It seems that the populations of CEE are being expected to pay a disproportionate share of this cost, which will deepen its own recession as well as that in Europe as a whole.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Bronisław Komorowski Elected President – But Does the Winner Take All?



And so it was Komorowski after all. Following his victory in the second round of presidential elections on Sunday, Citizens' Platform (PO) now have total political power. Alongside the presidency they run the government, under the premiership of its leader Donald Tusk, and have their own appointee in place as President of the National Bank of Poland. Never has a government enjoyed such political success in contemporary Polish history. If it manages to repeat this success at the parliamentary elections next year it will have become the first political party in postsocialist Poland to have been returned to office after having served a term in government. However, this is a big 'IF'.

The second round of presidential elections confirmed the huge social and geographical divide that dominates Polish politics. Komorowski once again won a majority in the wealthier areas in the North-West of the country and won in every city apart from Lublin. His electorate was drawn predominantly from the younger, wealthier and more educated sections of society. To gain an understanding of Kaczyński's electorate, simply invert this picture. The clear social and political schism in Poland was reflected in the narrow victory for Komorowski, who won 53% of the vote against Kaczyński's 47% - in an election where the turnout was 55%, which for Poland's standards is relatively high.


This was an extremely successful campaign for Kaczyński and the Law and Justice Party (PiS). Only a few months ago the party had seemed to be running out of steam and unable to recover the trust of society after the debacle of its last government. Kaczyński started the election campaign with support in the low 20s. Therefore to not only take Komorowski to a second round but also to run him close in these elections represents a significant achievement for PiS. It shows how it is once again a force to be reckoned with and has a chance of winning next year's parliamentary elections.

PO now faces some serious political choices. Despite their pragmatic exterior PO and Tusk have strong ideological roots. During communism Tusk was a member of the so-called Gdańsk Liberals. In the 1980s this current criticised the leadership of the Solidarity movement for concentrating on issues such as democracy and equality and for maintaining economic policies that had a 'socialist character'. It looked to promote individual freedom through economic activity and advanced a programme of mass privatisation. They published the work of classical liberals such as Hayek, Popper, Friedmen and Aron and developed a dogmatic support for the free market, even claiming that they would prefer a free-market economy without democracy to socialism with free elections (Gazeta Wyborcza 14.10.2005).

Of course the trappings of power and the weariness of age can smooth many ideological commitments. Since becoming PM, Tusk has generally tried to avoid political confrontation and has steered away from introducing some of the most controversial aspects of his political programme. However, prior to the election of Komorowski, there was always an excuse for this: the presidential veto. Now there is no such pretext and even the presence of the Peasants' Party (PSL) in government will not be accepted as a reason for PO not pushing ahead with its reform programme.

And herein lies the contradiction. On the one hand PO have committed themselves to the privatisation (whoops there I go again – I mean 'commercialisation') of the health service, raising the retirement age, introducing a flat-income tax and reducing the budget deficit from the present 7% to 3% by 2012. However, Mr Komorowski had to sweep all this under the carpet during the election campaign and instead offer his own list of promises. These included introducing a 50% discount for student travel, opposing student fees, arguing against the privatisation of hospitals and introducing the state funding of in-vitro treatment (this latter proposal is particularly unpopular with the most conservative wing of PO).

With pressures (both internal and external) increasingly bearing down on the government to reduce its spending and the budget deficit, PO are going to have to walk a very tricky path to the next parliamentary elections. The opposition parties will be watching the government and president's every move and undoubtedly highlight every contradiction and missed promise.


This does not mean that PiS will have an easy ride itself. Kaczyński managed to expand his support by positioning the party in the political centre and building upon the particular atmosphere that followed the Smoleńsk tragedy. However, this strategy has already raised voices of discontent within the right of the party. Many high-profile politicians from PiS, from the most conservative and anti-communist wings of the party, were notable by their absence during the election campaign. It is to be seen to what extent PiS can continue to promote its cosmetic political conversion or whether it will again go on the political offensive. Certainly it is hard to see how PiS, barring a large fall in support for PO, could win these elections if it remains so unpopular in the cities.


The elections may be over but the campaign is ongoing. Watch this space.


Thursday, 1 July 2010

A New Opening for the Left?







Grzegorz Napieralski, candidate of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), gained 13.7% in the first round of Poland's presidential elections. It is a sign of how far the Polish left has fallen in recent years that this was met with an almost euphoric reaction in Napieralski's camp. However, this vote was more or less the same as the left had achieved in the 2007 parliamentary elections and far below the more than 40% that had taken the SLD into power in 2001.

Yet there are some very real reasons why the left should welcome Napieralski's result. Firstly, is because it had looked as though it was going to be much worse. At the start of the campaign support for Napieralski was languishing in low single figures and he seemed unable to galvanise many within his own party and the wider left. Those standing on the edges of the SLD, and those who had previously defected, rushed to give their support for Citizen Platform's (PO) candidate – Bronisław Komorowski. These included representatives of the failed Social Democratic Party of Poland (SdPL) such as Marek Borowski and Tomasz Nałęcz alongside former Prime Minister Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz. Also, the most liberal wing of the SLD – under the influence of former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski – abstained from participating in Napieralski's campaign, with high-profile figures such as Ryszard Kalisz openly critical of Napieralski. The Komorowski camp also reached out to the liberal wing of the left by, for example, appointing another former PM, Marek Belka, as the new president of the National Bank of Poland


The distancing of the left's liberal old-guard from Napieralski perhaps turned out to be his greatest asset. Napieralski was elected SLD leader in 2007, replacing his rival Wojciech Olejniczak, after the failed attempt by the SLD to create an electoral alliance with the small liberal-centre currents that remained outside of PO. Olejniczak was promoted by Kwaśniewski, who for nearly two decades has been seeking to form a political alliance between the left and the liberal centre – a strategy that has time and again ended in failure. The final logic of this approach has been to try and move the SLD towards forming an alliance with PO – a party that can only really be considered to be liberal on economic issues. This would once again drive the left into an isolated cul-de-sac and would almost inevitably signal the SLD's fatal demise.


In the run-up to the 2nd round of presidential elections, liberal voices within the left-camp have urged the left electorate to give their votes to Komorowski. These have included elements of Poland's cultural elite, parading as representatives of the left, who have focused on the minor differences between Komorowski and Kaczyński on cultural issues, whilst entirely ignoring matters of economic policy.


Despite these pressures Napieralski has announced that he will not recommend a vote for either of the two right-wing candidates in the second round of elections. This decision was the correct one if the left has any chance to rebuild itself as a strong, independent force in Polish politics. We can understand why this is so if we analyse the vote that Napieralski received in the first round (I shall be partly drawing upon a good analysis of this vote which can be found in Polish here).


Firstly, Napieralski received his highest number of votes from young people and the lowest amongst the elderly. This inverts the previous perception of the SLD as being a party of the older generation who are attached to the former 'communist' system. Concurrently, however, Napieralski also gained a high vote in small towns and in Poland's provinces. In effect this means that Napieralski managed to win the votes of those that are more drawn to culturally liberal issues and those of personal freedom; alongside those who would support more economic redistribution and social equality.


This in itself is a minor breakthrough for the left – because it takes them out of their shrinking ghetto and expands into new sections of the electorate. By not supporting either candidate in the second round of elections, Napieralski is potentially able to build upon this opening.

This however will not be easy. Napieralski's relative success was not built upon delivering a clear programme of political sustance that could unite and take forward the left. Rather he managed to present himself as a young, independent alternative for those who are tired of voting for candidates who represent two sides of the same conservative coin. Napieralski ran an energetic campaign - travelling extensively around the country and visiting workplaces and factories. However, this rested largely upon a PR campaign focussed upon building the image of Napieralski as being young, modern and in touch with ordinary people.

Napieralski now faces a dilemna. On the one hand he could hope that the goodwill felt towards him will spill over into the forthcoming local elections and next years parliamentary elections. This would at best maintain the SLD's present level of support, allowing it to negotiate places in a future PO-SLD (or even PiS-SLD) government. However, the long-term effects of such a strategy would be disastrous for the left and would undoubtedly speed up its decline. The other alternative is that Napieralski returns to his former role of being a loyal representative of the SLD and concentrate on firming up the support of its core electorate. However, this would lead the SLD into isolation, fail to expand the left's vote (for simple demographic reasons this loyal SLD electorate is steadily declining) and continue its steady demise.

Rather Napieralski has to attempt to seize the political iniative and use this limited breakthrough to help unite the left within a new political and organisation framework. The challenge for the left is to break apart the governing political dichotomy, which is based upon dividing society between 'winners' and 'losers' of the transition. The essential assumption is that on the one hand there are a group of voters who are culturally open and modern and supportive of free-market economic policies; while on the other there is a section of society who are culturally conservative and supportive of economic redistriion and government intervention. This is far too simplistic a description of Polish society. The left has to attempt to forge a new political position which can attract the support of different sections of society on a programme of economic development, equality and cultural tolerance.

This will not be an easy task and it is a perspective that is not focussed entirely on the upcoming elections but one that seeks the long-term strengthening of the left. It is to be seen whether Napieralski is able to take the first step in such a political direction.