By Andrzej Nowak, professor of History at the Jagiellonian University and the Institute of History at the Polish Academy of Sciences, member of the National Development Council at the Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland.
Just before Christmas the New York Times published two commentaries on Poland: on December 21st an editorial titled “Poland’s Tragic Turn”; and two days later a commentary entitled “Stalin’s Lengthening Shadow” by Ms. Sylvie Kauffmann as a follow up. Both pieces refer to recent events in Poland.
Every sentence of the above-mentioned pieces should be extensively complemented in order to get closer to an informed and well-balanced overview of the current political and social situation in Poland. Especially when discussing relations between the Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – PiS), which gained a majority in parliament in last year’s general elections and whose candidate had been elected President earlier in 2015, and part of the opposition.
So called „reforms”
To recall: The Polish Parliament (Sejm) is composed of, excluding PiS, the representatives of four parties, of which only two: the former ruling party, Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska – PO), and Modern Party (Nowoczesna – N.) systematically contest the democratic mandate and legitimacy of PiS to exercise its political rule. It should also be noted that PiS still enjoys, by far, the greatest support among the population, as expressed in all opinion polls. The editorial commentary of the NYT depicts PiS as a party driven by political revenge, whose sole purpose is to bring authoritarian rule. The commentary mentions “reforms” introduced by the Law & Justice Party, as aimed in that direction. One can ask, then, is this the reason why PiS enjoys the largest support among Polish citizens? Is it because Poles are a worse and unworthy kind of people, who prefer authoritarianism and political revenge? Or perhaps it is because there are other reforms introduced by the government that make it so popular? The authors of the NYT commentary write about Poland of the last 25 years as a “model of post-communist transition to democracy”. They do not, however, mention the costs of this transition, of what has been lost, of neglect of previous governments in addressing growing social problems, including primarily demographic catastrophe and poverty. The Law and Justice government has introduced a fundamental reform in this respect: financial allowance for children, significantly reducing the level of poverty in Poland. One can either criticize or support this reform, but claiming that one understands the current situation in Poland, without mentioning it, is a far-fetched statement.
Constitutional Tribunal and public gathering
One can also discuss the attack of the current government on the Constitutional Tribunal, but it is worth remarking that the Tribunal had become a political tool in the hands of the previous ruling coalition, which appointed 15 out of 16 judges, including three in an indisputably illegal manner. It was this action that became a hotbed of controversy over the Constitutional Tribunal following the 2015 elections. It might be worthwhile to ask the NYT readers whether they would consider it to be a natural state of things, where 8 out of 9 Supreme Court judges were appointed by the Obama administration, including two in violation of the law. Would GOP, after winning Presidency, not try to change this state of affairs?
These are just examples of themes that are non-existent in the texts published in the New York Times. Obviously, a newspaper does not have to cover all stories. But when it decides to write about a topic, it should be done truthfully, in accordance with press standards of confronting opposing opinions and fact-checking. Unfortunately, it is not the case with these two commentaries. The editorial presents an interpretation of the amendment to the bill on public gatherings – an interpretation that is incompatible with the facts, but very much in accordance with the narrative presented by the radical part of the opposition in Poland. The editorial affirms that “the government has cracked down on public gatherings” and in protest “hundreds of thousands of Poles have taken to the streets”. By far and large, it is certainly not the true scale of protests. Even the Polish media outlets supporting the radical opposition do not speak in these numbers. However, even if a couple of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets, then one may ask whether it has happened in accordance with the current law on public gatherings, or not? Does the government prohibit public gatherings? Of course it does not.
Latest protests and blocking the Parliament by the opposition
Furthermore, the authors describe, quite modestly, the form of political protest of two parties of the radical opposition (PO and N.) as an occupation of the Parliament chambers. It might be worth to clarify: an occupation of Parliament chambers in this particular case means seizing by force the place of the Chairman of the Sejm (lower chamber) and preventing the conduct of meetings of the parliamentary majority and those opposition parties that do not support the radical protest. Once again it is worthy to provide an analogy for NYT readers: it is as if after winning a majority in the House of Representatives, one party would purposely prevent the other from exercising their right to govern, to carry out debates in Congress, and occupy a place that belongs to the Speaker of the House for several weeks. In Poland, such an action has not met with any reaction from the Parliament’s security personnel, nor the government. The seemingly “authoritarian” majority did not react, but moved the deliberations to another chamber in the Sejm. Let the readers of the NYT judge whether it is good or bad.
The authors of the editorial use certain means of persuasion in order to convince the readers of what the answer should be. They use the argument from the point of authority. The voice of two Poles people is juxtaposed with the “demonic” Jarosław Kaczyński, whom they oppose. These people are: the former President of the Constitutional Tribunal professor Rzepliński and Lech Wałęsa. Both are presented as “role-model” democrats, who inherited and live by the traditions of the Polish anti-communist movement of the 1980s. The picture is clear: on the one hand, an authoritarian government encapsulated in Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS, and on the other hand, the heroes of the struggle for democracy.
Solidarity heroes on both sides
Two days later, Ms Sylvie Kauffmann raised this narration to another level. She equates Martial Law, introduced in December 1981 by General Jaruzelski in order to break the “Solidarity” movement, with the current political conflict in Poland. Using the argument from the point of authority, Kauffmann cites one of the heroes of Solidarność: professor Karol Modzelewski, who happens to be a strong supporter of the radical opposition against the ruling party. Praising the great changes that have taken place in Poland since 1989, he refers highly critically to the current situation: “the only thing which has not changed is the opposition. They are still the same people.” As such, is it enough to confer that on the one side of the political dispute today are those, who were against their own nation in 1981 with general Jaruzelski, and on the other those, who heroically fought for freedom?
Well, it is a truly unpleasant statement that is far from the truth. Everyone who is at least a bit familiar with the last 40 years of the Polish history knows what role for the democratic opposition, for Solidarity, played such names as Antoni Macierewicz and Piotr Naimski (the last living founders of the first anti-communist democratic opposition organization, Workers’ Defence Committee KOR which was a precursor and inspiration for efforts of the Solidarity movement a few years later), or Andrzej Gwiazda and Krzysztof Wyszkowski (founders of Free Trade Unions before 1980, later also joined by young Lech Walesa), Kornel Morawiecki (founder of Fighting Solidarity), Zofia Romaszewska, Bronisław Wildstein, Czesław Bielecki, Jan Olszewski… The list could go on, but what’s important is that all these people are in favor or part of the current government in Poland. Their services to democracy, Solidarity movement and their battle with communistic enslavement are not less vital than those of Lech Walesa, Adam Michnik, Bogdan Borusewicz or Władysław Frasyniuk who support the current radical opposition. Today’s divisions in Polish political dispute are not as Manichean as presented in Ms Sylvie Kauffmann’s editorial. It is not a clash between a historical camp of the good and that of the evil. What it truly represents is a division within the camp of the people who used to be heroes of Solidarity.
What’s most striking about Ms Kaufmann’s commentary is the statement that among all former Communist states it is Poland that challenged the formula of democracy and free-market economy in the most spectacular way. Not only does such a statement equate current situation in Poland with Putin’s Russia, but it also suggests that Stalin’s shadow over Poland is now denser than anywhere else. Let’s think about it. Russia is ruled by an elite comprised of former totalitarian political police members, KGB, under the aegis of its ex-lieutenant-colonel Vladimir Putin. During his time in the office, all free media institutions were closed (at least TV stations), hundreds of journalists were murdered, dozens of people seeking the truth about Stalin’s crimes were imprisoned, and dozens of opposition activists such as Anna Politkovskaya, Boris Nemtsov or Alexander Litvinenko were killed.
In Poland, meanwhile, privately run TV stations with the largest share in the media market express sharpest criticism against the government. The Kaczyńskis brothers do not stem from KGB, but from the democratic opposition: Lech Kaczyński, a twin brother of the ruling party leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, was Lech Walesa’s deputy in Solidarity. From 1976, Jarosław Kaczyński himself was a collaborator of the first Workers’ Defense Committee, KOR. Within the last several years, there has been one victim of political murder indeed – but it was no one from the current opposition. On the contrary, it was Kaczyński’s party co-worker shot dead in 2010 by a fanatic who under the influence of the media supporting the government back then (and today’s radical opposition) decided to ‘solve the problem’ of hated Kaczyński.
Considering today’s political division in Poland, it seems necessary to mention that the whole circle of people who used to work within the communist secret service structure, SB (Polish equivalent of KGB or Stasi) is against Kaczyński’s party. The reason is simple: it is the current government that intends to deprive them of pension privileges that they were granted before 1989. The group of around 30 thousand ex-officers of the repressive apparatus who introduced Martial Law in Poland and suppressed freedom are now one of the most dangerous opponent of the current government in Poland and a slightly troublesome (but still valuable thanks to their organizational and mobilizations skills) ally of the radical opposition that was presented in a highly simplified way by Ms Kauffman. It is a pity that she did not mention it at all.
For hundreds or even hundreds of thousands (if we count in around 200 000 ruthlessly murdered Chechens) victims of Putin’s system it is indecent to equate them, in fact their death, to the current opposition’s situation in Poland. The opposition that occupies the Parliament in peaceful and comfortable conditions and the opposition that is supported by the strongest TV stations in Poland and the New York Times.
Such a comparison made by the authors of commentaries in question, may lead to more adverse consequences than a sole distortion of reality. The worst thing would be to convince the liberal part of the American public who values the opinion of the New York Times in particular – to appease Putin’s regime. If Poles (and Hungarians or maybe other Eastern-European nations as well) had not met the New York Times’ standards, maybe they should be left alone to Putin? He at least is powerful, so why should we argue about something which is not worth it? In our history there was a time when propagandist campaign tried to say that to American readers – it was when Yalta Conference in 1945 took place and when Stalin’s shadow was indeed lengthening over the whole Eastern Europe – with the consent of Roosevelt’s America.
The New York Times underlines how important it is these days for the media to stay independent. Their role is invaluable in all times. At the end of her commentary, Ms Kauffmann calls for standing up to the “assault on our values” which in her opinion is to be most brutally observed in Poland. My impression is that the most important of “our values”, or at least the one we should always fight for, is media independence based on thoroughness in striving for truth. The source of thoroughness, let me underline that again, is confrontation of sources and collection of opinions of all sides participating in a political dispute. That’s what apparently the commentaries in question lack the most.
The New York Times authors authoritatively stated that Jarosław Kaczyński does not meet foreign journalists. It is not true which is proved by the latest, lengthy interview for Reuters and Die Welt. Couldn’t this one-sided picture of Poland presented in NYT commentaries have been confronted with the aforementioned ex-opposition activists who support the current government or those who have a perfect command of English and who know a wide circle of the government representatives such as for example President Andrzej Duda, or with deputy PM and minister of economy and development, Mateusz Morawiecki; or deputy PM and minister of culture, professor Piotr Gliński or at least the Polish Ambassador to the U.S., professor Piotr Wilczek? With their contribution, the picture of Poland might turn out to be more complicated than presented in the commentaries, but at the same surely closer to the truth.
Professor Nowak’s comments:
[In response to untrue and prejudicial articles on current-day Poland published before Christmas by New York Times I bestowed it upon myself to send my polemic to the editor. I sent it in two versions, an extended article and a shortened version. Regrettably despite an immediate confirmation of my submission, NYT did not publish it during the next 6 days. Therefore I publish it here. I wanted to thank Mr. Stanislaw Peltz of the President’s office for help with translation.]