Council on Foreign Relations

Lionel Beehner

Interview with John Micgiel and Andrew Nagorski on the upcoming Polish elections.

Twenty-five years after the birth of the anti-Communist Solidarity trade union, which is credited with contributing to the collapse of the Soviet government, Poland is poised to become one of Europe’s dominant players. A newly minted member of the European Union, Poland holds parliamentary elections September 25, a prelude to its October 9 presidential election. Poles, mindful of high unemployment, lack of reform, and endemic corruption, are expected to vote out the current government in favor of one of Poland’s right-of-center parties, says Andrew Nagorski, a senior editor with Newsweek and the magazine’s Warsaw bureau chief from 1990-94. The election should not impact Poland’s foreign policy, says John Micgiel, director of Columbia University’s East Central European Center. Lionel Beehner, staff writer, interviewed Nagorski and Micgiel on Poland’s upcoming elections, its uneasy relationship with its European and Russian neighbors, and its role in Iraq.

What are the main issues facing Polish voters as they go to the polls?

ANDREW NAGORSKI: I just came back from the twenty-fifth anniversary of Solidarity in Warsaw and Gdansk. It was an occasion for everyone to sort of stand back, pause, and really take stock of what this country has done over the past fifteen years, which has been extraordinary. Anybody who hasn’t been to Poland in a while comes out with their head spinning in terms of the economic development, the sense of dynamism that is there, and the opportunities for talented young people to study abroad and launch businesses. On the other hand, you have these elections where all the frustrations with the current situation come out, and they’re very real, too. It’s a country with 20 percent unemployment, where you have people who’ve done extraordinarily well, but you also have a large group of people struggling and can’t adjust. No government, whether on the left or the right in the last fifteen years, has figured out what to do about this. Now you have a left-wing government in power. So therefore, the left is not going to have a chance at winning these elections. But the people on the right are also highly controversial, and a lot of people wonder if they’ll be able to come up with better solutions.

MICGIEL: The main issue is, of course, to choose a parliament, and there are around six parties that have a chance to get into parliament. The leading parties over the past two months have been those of the center-right. One is called Civic Platform, and its candidates for president and prime minister are leading in the polls, even though over the past couple days Truth and Justice, a party led by the mayor of Warsaw, is moving up a little bit in the polls.

What are some of the right’s proposed solutions?

MICGIEL: The center-right parties are running on a variety of issues. The mayor of Warsaw, for example, is running on a platform that calls for law and justice. If he were elected, he would try to reintroduce the death penalty in Poland. I don’t think that’s going to happen because I don’t think there’s any country inside the European Union that has the death penalty.

NAGORSKI: First of all, when you say “the right” in Poland, like in many countries of Central Europe, it’s not necessarily the right as we think of it in the U.S. The right tends to be defined by social issues and opposition to Communism, which are still a legacy of the battles of the past. But within the right are two main parties contending for the parliamentary elections [Civic Platform and Truth and Justice]. And it looks like both of these parties are going to have to join together in a coalition, and there’s always the problem of coalition politics. Does this make it a powerful bloc, or do they get tangled up in their own disagreements and just constrain each other from doing something significant, as is the looming prospect, for instance, in Germany?

One party, which right now seems to be doing the best, is Civic Platform. It is seen as more pro-business, centrist, willing to talk about tax reform, and very wary of extending the characteristics of the welfare state any further. You have the other party, which is considered further to the right [socially]—Truth and Justice—but, in economic terms, it is very populist. By populist, I mean, this party talks about maintaining or increasing subsidies for coalminers, for instance, which doesn’t make economic sense but wins you votes. It talks more about the redistribution of wealth than the production of wealth.

You mentioned Poland’s high unemployment. Is it at abnormally high, or is this typical of Poland’s economy?

NAGORSKI: First of all, Poland started from a state economy; there’s officially no unemployment under the Communist system. Then unemployment grew and was somewhere around 12 or 13 percent very quickly. One of the main things that happened in smaller towns and cities was that many of the old state industries went bankrupt or were effectively phased out. They were producing shoddy goods that nobody wanted. In the Soviet-style system, you might have a town built entirely around one steel mill or one big factory. When that went, many people had no concept of social mobility or reeducating themselves. None of that existed and has had to develop slowly. There’s also, like many countries, a shadow economy. Some question whether people who are registered as unemployed are doing other things. Whatever the real numbers are, unemployment is very, very high.

Is corruption playing a big roll in this election?

MICGIEL: Well, corruption is one of the items that people are pointing to, saying, “I will not vote for that man or this party because they’re mired in this corruption scandal.” That is what in fact brought down the Left Democratic Alliance (SLD), which has the most number of seats in parliament but whose support went from around 40 percent down to single digits.

NAGORSKI: I think corruption’s still quite prevalent. I’m not sure where it ranks onTransparency International’s [corruption] ratings, but it’s high. Journalists who go after these scandal stories with a vengeance are another sign of the incredibly vibrant media in Poland and nobody pulls any punches. Quite the contrary: A lot of journalists complain the corruption level is very, very high and has saturated the government and big business.

How are Polish farmers doing a year after joining the European Union?

NAGORSKI: My impression is it’s a little too early to tell. With those kinds of transformations and getting all the new mechanisms in place, that’s a very short time.

Will the election have any impact on the outflow of low-skilled labor, the so-called Polish plumbers, and if so, how will this outflow affect the country’s economy?

NAGORSKI: Poles can travel pretty freely these days. Yes, a lot of Poles go abroad, take jobs legally or illegally depending on their status, but what I think is very interesting is that, by and large, these are people who want to work for a while and then come back to Poland. They want to make enough money, for instance, to maybe buy a house, start a business. In many cases, that’s still easier to do for a person who’s not really very skilled by going to the West where the pay scales are higher. So I think the whole Polish-plumber business [the idea that workers from Eastern Europe steal jobs from Western Europeans] was a clever advertising campaign [to dissuade Europeans from voting “yes” to the draft European Union constitution], but most people in France and elsewhere would say, “Give us a few more of those Polish plumbers.”

What are the parties’ differences on foreign policy?

MICGIEL: There really isn’t a great deal of difference [on foreign policy] between the left and right in Poland. On some issues, people will disagree—for example, on the subject of Iraq. There were people who pointed out very early that the decision for Poland to send troops to Iraq was done not in accordance with constitutional measures, that the president of Poland overstepped his authority by committing Poland to that course of action. However, here we are in September, and the Poles have already said they’re going to be leaving Iraq at the end of this calendar year. So it really isn’t an issue unless somebody wants to make it an issue and say, “I will bring our boys home now.”

NAGORSKI: First of all, you have to realize Poland has been a very pro-American country traditionally. This is particularly because of the legacy of the Cold War, in the sense that America stood by its side. It has been very prone to seeing America as its ally, more so in many ways than Western Europe, which wavered in many cases during the Cold War. That’s beginning to change a little bit. Americans should not take for granted that’s going to go on forever.

Does Poland feel it was not adequately compensated for its support in Iraq?

MICGIEL: There was an expectation that Poles or Polish firms would be given lucrative armaments contracts and construction projects in Iraq. By the way, they already had a very good reputation on this because they had been dealing with Iraq on construction projects and armaments back in the 1980s. The history of cooperation between Iraq and Poland led people in the [Polish] armaments industry to feel they had a very good chance of renewing those old contacts and getting some money. And that, for the most part, has not happened. There have been contracts signed but maybe that was pie-in-the-sky [thinking] for Polish firms to believe they would be treated on an equal basis with firms like Halliburton.

Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld recently said relations with Russia have grown “worse and worse.” Are Polish-Russian relations expected to change after the upcoming elections?

NAGORSKI: There’s been a lot of tension with Russia on a number of issues. Some of those on the left tried to play these issues down; parties on the right have played them up. The underlying issue is Russian irritation over Poland’s support for Ukraine’s Orange revolution. There have been some Poles who’ve even expressed sympathy for Chechnya, which of course drives the Russians crazy. It was very evident during the Solidarity [twenty-fifth anniversary] celebrations that there were a lot of expressions of support for the Belarusian opposition, such as it is, saying we hope this bastion of dictatorship will fall, and that makes the Kremlin very nervous and irritated.

MICGIEL: I think a lot depends on the Russians because [Russian President] Mr. [Vladimir] Putin’s decisions have essentially heated up these relations and made them worse. The latest series of events that have impacted the relationship between the two countries was an incident in Warsaw in June, in which several [Russian] kids were attacked in a park in Warsaw and roughed up a little bit. The Russians decided this was something that demanded an official apology from the Polish government, but the Polish government said this was hooliganism and they’d find out who did it, but it’s not a reason to apologize to the Russian people. That was insufficient for the Russians, and in a very short period of time, several Polish diplomats were beat up right outside the embassy in Moscow. Now, that can also be put down to hooliganism because lots of Third World and Second World embassy officials get beat up regularly in Moscow.

Do you expect Poland, which has a diaspora of some 400,000 Poles in Belarus, to play as large a role in the country’s upcoming elections in March as it did in last year’s elections in Ukraine?

NAGORSKI: It’s much tougher. [Belarusian President] Alexander Lukashenka has just cracked down on the Polish diaspora very hard. There was sort of a Polish association of residents in Belarus and Lukashenka, in essence, had the independent voices of that association ousted and replaced by his people who are totally submissive to the regime. There’s no question Lukashenka is trying to quash any Polish dissent within Belarus or any Polish influence from outside Belarus.

MICGIEL: Polish nongovernmental organizations [NGOs] will play the main role here. It will not be the Polish state because it doesn’t interfere in the politics of an independent country. There are, on the other hand, lots of NGOs operating in Poland and outside Poland who have lots of good reasons for trying to bring change, peaceful change, through a change of government [in Belarus]. Now the prospects of that are not terribly good, to be honest. You know they weren’t terribly good in Ukraine until a certain point, and even in Poland sixteen years ago things didn’t look like they were going to change until one day they did.