Political Change

Poland's Solidarity Goes Up in Smoke

Polish demonstrators TUS ZMIJEWSKI-dpa
Protests are on the rise in Poland.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Poland is a key part of eastern Europe and its new government’s determination to alter its constitution will have implications for its smaller neighbors.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Poland’s new government, under Prime Minister Beata Szydło, has already enacted new laws to tax banks and foreign-owned supermarkets more heavily.
    • A draconian law “to protect Poland’s reputation” is also in the works.
    • The government has purposely embarked on a radical departure from the policies of the two previous administrations, and from the nepotism and corruption associated with them
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    Audio

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On a recent Saturday in Warsaw, tens of thousands had taken to the streets. “Stop the bloodbath against democracy,” read one sign and another: “Everyone must uphold the constitution. EVERYONE!” The words “PISs OFF!” were printed on one protestor’s sign, in reference to the ruling Law and Justice Party, which is abbreviated PiS.

“This party is destroying everything we have built for ourselves in the last 20 years,” said Justyna Scibiorek-Wilewska, angrily shaking her head while scrolling through news and images from the last few days. The 31-year-old is not an anxious type. She runs a company, is a young mother and the breadwinner in her family. But her government’s policies do not inspire her with confidence. “You never know what will come next,” she said.

It began with the conflict over the constitutional tribunal, which has now escalated. Poland’s highest court declared as unconstitutional a law enacted by the PiS government regulate precisely that court. But the government has refused to recognize the court’s verdict. It argues that the court did not abide by the new regulations in reaching its verdict – precisely the regulations the court views as unconstitutional.

European Union legal experts also believe the regulations pose a threat to the constitutional state. Although the European Commission is waiting until after Easter to decide whether it will call on Poland to amend the regulations, the case is already unprecedented.

For these people, the European Union is a machine of disincentives, a machine that makes it lucrative to only use fields for sowing and mowing grass.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo abandoned a government pledge to take in migrants under a European Union relocation agreement, changing her country’s position a day after suicide bombers killed dozens of people in Brussels, the European Union’s capital.

The new Polish government, which has repeatedly clashed with the Commission over rule-of-law and other issues after coming to power in October, has repeatedly warned of the danger of admitting migrants from the Middle East and North Africa.

“I will be very clear: At the moment, I don’t see a possibility for migrants to come to Poland,” Ms. Szydlo said in a TV interview on Wednesday.

Ms. Szydło has been in power for less than half a year. The bustle of activity in her cabinet within that time has been impressive, but also alarming. The party, headed by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, holds an absolute majority in the Polish parliament, the Sejm. Warsaw is now enacting a new law every week.

There are new taxes for banks and foreign-owned supermarkets, and there is new management for all state-owned companies, from the oil company to the famous Arabian horse stud in the tiny village of Michałów.

A law to “protect Poland’s reputation” is also in the works; it targets foreigners who are allegedly maligning the country. In the future, using the adjective “Polish” before the phrase “concentration camp” will be a crime punishable with up to three years in prison. “Unbelievable,” Ms. Scibiorek-Wilewska said. “Who is going to perceive us a reliable partner anymore?”

As radical as the rebuilding to the PiS Party is, its critics are just as incensed. “Komitet Obrony Demokracji,” or “Committee for the Defense of Democracy,” is the alliance that is calling for demonstrations nationwide. The abbreviation KOD carries strong connotations. The KOR or “Committee for the Defense of Workers,” was a civil rights movement of the 1970s, the germ of the Solidarity movement. Anyone who uses the term KOD is automatically thinking of an upheaval, civil protests and the struggle for freedom.

Ms. Szydło and her political mentor, Jarosław Kaczynski, had promised to change the country. They have divided it instead.

 

Beat Szydlo-Stephanie Lecocq-dpa
Most recently, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo abandoned a government pledge to take in migrants under a European Union relocation agreement. Source: tephanie Lecocq/DPA

 

The blatant self-interest and primitive rhetoric of Polish representatives are also a source of consternation in Brussels. The Polish foreign minister, for example, made it clear that Poland would not allow itself to be patronized by the European Union, and that Germany, in particular, should show “a greater understanding for our political situation.”

In a recent interview with Polish media,  President Andrzej Duda said the rest of Europe cannot expect Polish solidarity in coping with the refugee crisis. Unfortunately, he added, the countries of Western Europe are unwilling “to accept that this crisis only affects them, but not the countries in our region.”

Mr. Duda made these comments to a magazine called Wprost, a publication that occasionally prints images of German politicians in Nazi poses. A recent cover depicted German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and other European Union representatives bending over a map of Poland – dressed in uniforms and in the same pose as Adolf Hitler and his generals were once depicted in.

The demons of the past have returned, and so has Poland’s fear of being downgraded to a buffer zone between East and West, as it was in the period between the two world wars. Even worse is the memory of the 18th century, when Prussia, the Austrian Habsburg monarchy and Russia divided up the Polish Commonwealth and made it disappear from the map for more than 100 years. The fear of irrelevance and foreign dominance is deeply embedded in the Polish soul.

As much as one can sympathize with Poland’s painful history, a question persists: Why is this country, which has benefited from joining the European Union more than any other member state, turning so abruptly away from Europe as a community of peace and values? The economy has been growing for years, and unemployment remains significantly below 10 percent.

“I have never understood how people could vote for the Kaczynskis,” Ms. Scibiorek-Wilewska said. “After all, everyone is better off today.”

As a student, she spent a year in Bavarian city of Passau, remembering only rigid borders in Europe from her childhood days. For the past 13 years, she has worked for her family’s company, which her grandfather built after the fall of communism in the old textile-making cities of Lodz and Bialystok. The company imports decorations for lingerie.

Ms. Scibiorek-Wilew manages the branch in Bialystok, as a partner in the company. Her business revolves around lace, pearls and silk ribbons. She has never been involved in politics. But when she recently traveled to a trade show in Paris, one of her business contacts asked her: “What’s going on in Poland? Do you want to get out of the E.U.?”

The search for an answer to this question lies in the regions where PiS captured more than 50 percent of the vote, to places like Rzeszów in the Subcarpathian region. Unemployment there is a few percentage points above the national average of 7.5 percent, but the city’s 190,000 residents have recently experienced a meteoric rise.

 

Good Business in Poland-01 GDP economy unemployment rate

 

Piotr Zawada, who works for a local investment company, portrays this rise in colors reminiscent of the colorful facades on the city’s market square. Red, blue and green circles cover the map on the wall in his conference room. The larger the circle, the greater the economic output, notes Mr. Zawada who likes to point out how many new jobs have been created in the region’s aviation industry, which local residents proudly refer to as “Aviation Valley.”

“We are one of Poland’s most attractive regions,” he said, underscoring a signature project. In May, the city will open a new convention center with a giant glass dome.

People who live in the hinterlands near the Polish capital have a different notion of attractiveness. On Sundays, traffic is slowed down every few kilometers by rows of parked cars. The masses are flooding into churches, whose parking lots are too small to cope with the many visitors’ cars.

“Ordinary people” live in the region, as their mayors put it, and they have “ordinary values” that prompt them to ask questions like: Whose fault is it that international supermarket chains like Tesco, Géant and Lidl dominate the Polish market? Why do two out of three Polish banks have foreign parent companies? Why should Poles be forced to support Muslims?

For these people, the European Union is a machine of disincentives, a machine that forces their cities to award contracts to cheaper Portuguese companies and draws away young people. Nearly 2 million people have left the country for the West since the fall of communism.

These are also the people who shrug when told that this machine is distributing €2 billion ($2.23 billion) across eastern Poland between now and 2026. It is a paradox of the European Union that its members hold one hand out while simultaneously holding up the other hand defensively. Still, this contradiction feels especially bizarre in Poland, where not a single street, train station or hospital has not benefited from E.U. subsidies.

Adam Cichocki tries to shed light on this paradox. The round, jovial man has experienced much in homeland. He was in prison for three years during the communist era, and when communism ended, he had “nothing but a wife and five children.” He took advantage of the new freedom to embark on a career in the energy sector, where he restructured steel mills, and he now runs his own consulting firm in Warsaw.

Mr. Cichocki still lives in Lublin, where he was also a member of the resistance movement against communism. He commutes between his job and home every weekend, a three-hour drive. “The PiS party,” he said during one of his commutes, “was elected because it promised: ‘We will turn Poland back into a country worth living in once again.”

 

szydlo merkel getty images
Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and Chancellor Angela Merkel are increasingly disagreeing on European policy. Source: Getty Images

 

The party’s main objective, he said, is to make up for the mistakes of the previous administration. The Civic Platform party, under current European Council President Donald Tusk and subsequently Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, was in power for eight years. There were cases of nepotism and corruption, coupled with the arrogant self-confidence of being reelected. The economy was also given many freedoms, which Mr. Cichocki called “disincentives.”

“The first thing a company owner here is told by his accountant is that he doesn’t have to pay any taxes,” he said, claiming that only 1 percent of Poles benefited from the policies of the Civic Platform. “Tusk and his ilk haven’t had anything to offer the average Kowalski in a long time.”

The “average Kowalski” earns about €1,000 a month, and is often forced to accept unsteady, short-term jobs. “There a millions of these €1,000 Kowalskis,” Mr. Cichocki said. “They feel overlooked.”

Another problem is that consumption standards rose to Western levels when Poland joined the European Union. The same goods are displayed in shop windows as in Western Europe, but a North Face jacket or an iPhone can cost a month’s salary. As a result, the average Kowalski often has installment loans and debts.

Mr. Cichocki travels a lot for his job. His children attend the university, travel, live in Warsaw and demonstrate against the PiS. Nevertheless, he said: “This change is good for the country.”

Poles can also see the effects of the change in their bank accounts. Beginning in April, Polish families receive a monthly child allowance of 500 zloty (€125, or $140) beginning with the second child. The government aims to provide free medication to retirees and reduce the retirement age once again. It has already imposed a new wealth tax for banks. The PiS would also like to curb the profits of the large international supermarkets.

“They’re just trying to pay for their campaign promises,” said Ms. Scibiorek-Wilewska, who has also taken out a loan in zlotys, for which she is paying a high interest rate. “Who is helping me?” she said laconically.

Poland, once a model Eastern European country, makes a sobering impression today. Perhaps a change of perspective is worthwhile. The boundaries between traditional and modern Poland disappear when observed from an observation tower in Warsaw. On the left are shiny office towers, straight ahead is the picturesque historic district and on the other side of the Vistula River is a soccer stadium built with E.U. subsidies.

A man stepped up to the railing and shouted: “My country!”

His mother was a Pole and his father was Ukrainian. He has been living in São Paulo for 20 years. When asked about the rift with the European Union, he said: “People are doing pretty well, but they’re upset about the E.U., and the E.U. is upset about them? And the new government is going haywire? So what?”

The man then buttoned up his jacket, revealing a Poland scarf. He held it up and, as soon as his daughter was ready with her mobile phone camera, began to sing the Polish national anthem, Poland is Not Yet Lost.

 

Corinna Nohn joined Handelsblatt in 2013, and specialises in cultural studies and Central and Eastern Europe. To contact: nohn@handelsblatt.com

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