As the 20th anniversary of the Solidarity movement’s triumph approaches, Poland finds itself divided politically and unhappy with its current state of affairs.  That’s a good thing.


Krakow Post’s Ewa Spohn notes the irony that Thursday’s celebrations had to be moved to Krakow.

The festivities were to be held in Gdańsk, the birthplace of the Solidarity trade union and where Lech Wałęsa himself emerged as a political force and cultural icon, but the threat of strikes and protests by the Solidarity trade union over the increasingly bleak future of the shipyards meant that the Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, decided that a safer and less controversial location was necessary.

That’s right:  Solidarity was threatening strikes to protest a celebration of the victory that Solidarity achieved twenty years earlier with strikes!

The disruptions threatened by Gdańsk shipyard trade unions are a protest against the EU’s intervention in the privatisation and restructuring of the ailing shipyards. The shipyards’ future has been uncertain for some time (as reported in the Krakow Post in June and July 2008) as Poland was judged to have fallen foul of EU rules that prohibit state funding of national industries. The EU ordered Poland to come up with a viable restructuring plan or repay the billions of złoty it had given the shipyards in subsidies. A number of plans were made and submitted but none satisfied the EU. In late 2008 the EU demanded that Poland sell the Gdynia and Szczeciń shipyards in order to pay off creditors and repay the illegal subsidies, while the future of the Gdańsk shipyard is being handled directly by Brussels and its fate is still unknown.

Indeed, as James Pethokoukis blogs for Reuters, “Two decades after they helped overthrow communism in eastern Europe, shipyard workers in Poland’s Solidarity are ready to fight for the right to share the subsidies that have bailed out businesses in the West.”  Indeed, “Lech Walesa, the shipyard electrician who led Solidarity to victory in 1989 and became Poland’s first post-communist president in 1990, recently appealed to the EU to save the Gdansk shipyard, saying it was part of Europe’s heritage.”

That’s right:  The movement that crushed Communism in Poland now wants socialist bailouts!  Then again, why should the Poles be any different?   The United States Government has bailed out Chrysler and GM— neither of which actually brought democracy to their country.

Thankfully, there’s still a soft spot in the West for Walesa and his legacy. European Union Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes has all but guaranteed that the Gdansk shipyard will be spared and “would not have to return hundreds of millions of euros in illegal state aid.”

Jason Burke for New Zealand Herald.

Piotr Karwowoski, a retired trade union official and factory worker, will not be celebrating. When he travels the 160km to Warsaw from his home of Swidnik, he will instead be heading to a three-day administrative meeting of his union’s industrial wing. Karwowoski played a key role in the years of struggle, strikes and demonstrations that finally culminated in “semi-free” elections on June 4, 1989. But the 65-year-old is not in the mood for nostalgia. “Twenty years ago I was euphoric at the prospect of change, especially after all we had done. But the Poland that resulted was different than I expected. I don’t really want to celebrate.”

Two decades after the triumphant defeat of the communist regime which took its orders from Moscow, there is no doubting the Polish transformation that is visible in the streets.  The rows of inefficient, clunky local cars that once clogged Warsaw’s Constitution Square have been replaced by Fiats, Toyotas and BMWs. Under a flat, grey, rainy sky, the trams and the 1950s Stalinist architecture hinted at what once had been. But the Green Coffee cafe with its ciabatta bread sandwiches, fresh orange juice and black T-shirted waitresses symbolise the present and the future.

“What is the difference between Warsaw and England? The side of the road on which we drive?” asked veteran film-maker Marek Drazewski. “There are the same films, the same McDonald’s. Warsaw is a standard European capital and when I go to the United States now I feel at home. The biggest difference is that I am allowed to smoke.”

Homogenization is a recent and controversial byproduct of modernity. It’s certainly true that globalization has made Warsaw more like London and Milan more like New York.  Something has surely been lost along the way in terms of local charm and tradition.

Still, one presumes the Poles driving BMWs actually prefer marvelous German sports sedans to ” inefficient, clunky local cars.”  And, surely, ciabatta bread beats bread lines?  And who, exactly, pines for Stalinist architecture?

Indeed, one suspects the very spread of these comforts has led to the loss of appreciation for them.  Burke reports that “One poll found only 41 per cent of the 38 million population knew what the celebrations were actually for.”  While I’m dubious of the figure, there’s no doubt a significant part of the population with only a fuzzy memory or none at all of the Bad Old Days.

“The political class is exceptionally mediocre,” said Jaroslaw Kurski, deputy editor of the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper, which published its first issue just four days after the June 4, 1989 elections that saw the Solidarity union sweep into effective power. Maciej Stryjecki, a former ministerial private secretary and activist, agreed: “I have observed many governments close up. Each new one is worse than the last. Competent, honest, experienced people are very, very rare.”

The disenchantment is especially strong among younger Poles. For Robert Kulik, a 28-year-old legal adviser in Lublin who recently returned from a year in the UK, “solidarity is not just a slogan or the name of an organisation. It can only be something that exists between people. There isn’t any real solidarity in Poland any more”.

Unhappiness with the quality of one’s politicians, too, is a sure sign of a maturing democracy.  Gone are the days when Poles were excited to vote; that’s now simply expected.  But the expectations of new democracies are absurdly unrealistic and thus inevitably dashed.

Twenty years ago, Poland was part of the Warsaw Pact; today it’s part of NATO.  Then, it was on the outside looking in at Europe’s prosperity; now it’s a member of the EU.  Then, it was under Soviet domination; now it’s free.   Then, its people hated the government and they do again.  At least this time, they’re free to complain about it without the risk of being arrested. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.


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