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Smolensk (again!)

I’m so tired of writing about this. When a government spends so much time repeating a lie, the rest of us are forced to spend equal time rebutting them. And since the available attention span for news from Poland is so limited in the English speaking world, vital stores get buried because we have to wrestle with the same old canards. Now, on the seventh anniversary of this event, we are at it again.

On April 10, 2010, a tragic airplane crash led to the deaths of 96 Polish dignitaries in Smolensk, Russia. There should be nothing political about that statement – it is a simple fact. This is not one of those issues on which intelligent and honest people can disagree, on which different experts have arrived at different opinions. The belief that the crash was an assassination attempt has been spread by the propaganda apparatus of the current Polish regime, but that should be irrelevant to anyone interested in what actually happened. This story belongs in the ignominious hall of shame alongside claims that Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland was provoked by an attack by Polish troops on a radio station in Gliwice; that US ships were attacked by the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964; that Sandam Hussein was compiling weapons of mass destruction and cooperating with Al Qaida in 2001. There is no legitimate debate or doubt here, but because politicians from the governing PiS party in Poland repeat the lies, the international press feels the need to print headlines saying “Poland Says Explosion Behind 2010 Plane Crash in Western Russia” (Bloomberg), “Polish Commission Says President’s Jet Likely Exploded Before 2010 Crash In Russia” (Radio Free Europe) “Polish crash is linked to ‘explosion’” (The Times), “Polands 2010 Smolensk Crash Caused by Explosion” (Daily Beast), “Polish leader’s jet probably exploded just before 2010 crash” (Reuters). All this based on the newest recapitulation of the lie, which came at a major press conference yesterday, on the 7th anniversary of the crash.

There is a mountain of evidence that the crash was the result of a combination of mistakes by both the pilots and the air traffic controllers, made under unfavorable weather conditions. There is absolutely no legitimate evidence to the contrary, despite what you might find if you wallow in the conspiracy swamps of the internet. Yesterday the government released their most recent “theory” of how it happened: having failed to find any evidence for their wild ideals, they came up with the desperate claim that a thermobaric bomb was the cause of the crash. These are devises which consist almost entirely of explosive material, as opposed (for example) to the mix of 25% fuel and 75% oxidizer in gunpowder. As a result, thermobaric bombs leave few if any traces. It’s perfect: now the lack of any evidence of an explosive device can be presented as proof that there was in fact such a bomb on board.

Experts in aviation disasters have ruled conclusively that the crash was an accident; those who would like to read the complete report of the crash investigation commission can download it here. I prefer to focus on an even simpler argument: there was no conceivable reason for the enemies of Lech Kaczyński to carry out such a risky operation. Let’s assume that Donald Tusk, Vladimir Putin, and perhaps even Angela Merkel wanted Lech Kaczyński to be removed from the presidency of Poland. That desire would have been reasonable: Kaczyński had been seriously undermining (then Prime Minister) Tusk’s foreign policy, the President’s support for Ukraine and Georgia was irritating Putin, and his nationalistic euroskepticism was a problem for Merkel. But let’s return to the early months of 2010: at that time Kaczyński’s favorability rating was at a record low: 23% deemed his performance as president to be “rather good” and a miniscule 3% “very good.” Presidential elections were scheduled for later in 2010, and there seemed little hope that Kaczyński would be re-elected. Meanwhile, PiS’s overall support remained stuck far below PO’s: throughout the period from 2007-2010, the two parties were consistently separated by more than 10%. In other words, in April of 2010 all the indications were that Kaczyński was on his way out, and that the movement he represented was collapsing alongside him. It is likely that the collapse of the Kaczyński brothers after an electoral defeat would have been decisive. The Smolensk crash turned that around by creating a martyr for the movement, and a foundational legend on which to base the party’s reconstruction. I do not doubt for a moment that Jarosław Kaczyński was devastated personally by his twin brother’s death, but as a political matter, he and his fellow members of PiS may well be the only ones who benefited from the catastrophe.


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Civil Disobedience

The phrase “civil disobedience” is often bandied about by political activists, but it’s a risky tactic if the goals aren’t clear. Is the purpose to solidify the commitment and solidarity of the protesters? That’s pretty easy to accomplish: being arrested, particularly as part of a group, can be a transformative experience (to say the least). But what if the goal is to actually shift public attitudes? That’s a lot harder, because it requires the sort of act that disinterested observes will understand and respect, so that if the police do intervene, most people end up sympathizing with those being arrested.

Yesterday I received a lesson in how to do this, and I saw how very, very hard it is.

The context was the 7th anniversary of the airplane crash that killed 96 Polish dignitaries, including then-president Lech Kaczyński, the twin brother of Poland’s current de facto ruler, Jarosław Kaczyński. The current regime in Poland propagates the lie that the crash was an assassination organized by the enemies of the nation both inside Poland and abroad, a legend that Kaczyński uses to justify his assault on the norms of constitutional rule and liberal democracy. (For further background on the mythology of this alleged “assassination,” click here.) His goal, as he has said repeatedly, is to purge Poland of the traitors and enemies, so that national security, strength, and above all unity can be restored.

The anniversary ceremony was unusual even by the standards of Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS). Terrified that the event might be unsettled by some sign of protest, they blocked off nearly the entire historical center of town and only allowed those with invitations to enter.

Thousands of PiS supporters had arrived from all over the country to participate in the commemorative mass, and I overheard bitter complaints from them wherever I went yesterday afternoon, as they realized that they wouldn’t be able to get close to their heroes. The pre-screened audience got to watch speeches by various Polish dignitaries in front of the Presidential Palace, and people following the official propaganda channels on TV saw a respectful crowd that responded with unified approval as different speakers repeated the conviction that Lech Kaczyński had been assassinated by Poland’s enemies. The small crowd then marched towards Castle Square, where a select few were admitted into St. John’s national cathedral. The mass was broadcast on a big screen TV in front of the Royal Castle, giving the impression that those who couldn’t fit in the cathedral nonetheless got to participate in the event. Nothing could be further from the truth; the police were carefully screening who was allowed to go where.

About a kilometer away on Piłsudski Square, about a thousand anti-government activists had gathered with the goal of sending a simple message: the Smoleńsk disaster should be remembered as a national tragedy, and not co-opted for the political purposes of one party. After all, among the 96 casualties were representatives of every political perspective. The majority were from PiS, but on board were representatives from all the leading parties, both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox clergy, and above all a large number of people with no political function (including, of course, the flight crew and the attendants). Since they were on their way to commemorate the anniversary of the WWII Katyń massacre, representatives of the families killed in that horrible event made up a significant share of the delegation. But the diversity of the victims (just like every other kind of diversity) is being erased by the current government. Yesterday, when a new monument to those who died in the crash was unveiled at the Council of Ministers building, only those affiliated with PiS were named.

The crowd at Piłsudski Square was organized by a group called “Obywatele RP” (Citizens of the Polish Republic). This is not affiliated with the better known and much larger Committee for the Defense of Democracy [KOD], though the two groups share the same basic goals. The difference is that ORP engages in peaceful civil disobedience with the goal of exposing the regime’s brutality. Paweł Kasprzak, the group’s informal leader, was an anti-communist activist before 1989, and now he’s brushing off his old techniques.

He is rather pessimistic; as he said in his speech yesterday, the defenders of democracy in Poland today are in the minority, and even if PiS is removed from power the social forces behind PiS will still be there. I don’t entirely share his view on this point, but it’s undeniable that there are millions of people in Poland who have lost faith in liberal democracy. And it is also probably true that big marches won’t accomplish much, particularly since the recent ones haven’t really been big enough to create any kind of political challenge.

Obywatele RP are emphatically non-violent, and even their approach to civil disobedience is remarkably polite and respectful. The goal yesterday was to quietly join the crowds watching the Smolensk anniversary ceremony, holding up signs that said “Mourning Unites Us, Political Demonstrations Divide Us,” or “We Remember All The Victims of the Catastrophe” or “I Continue to Believe in Empathy, Not Revenge.”

They were ready to chant “Constitution, Liberty, Democracy” if the moment called for it, but they also practiced going silent on cue. One of the most important things, Kasprzak said, was not to interfere with anyone’s prayers, so during the religious parts of the ceremony they were to be silent and respectful, and only get noisy if the PiS supporters did so first. Kasprzak said that PiS was trying to divide the country into “true Poles” and “traitors,” so the goal of ORP must be to display unity and compassion—even with their opponents.

The police were out in force, surrounding the ORP protest and taking pictures of everyone who was present (though plenty of activists were taking pictures of the police in turn).

Kasprzak told his supporters to treat the police with respect, because they were just following orders. He emphasized, however, that those orders were unconstitutional, and that the police had a duty to disobey such orders. Specifically, he was referring to a new law stating that no demonstrations could be held within half a kilometer of any other event expressing an opposing point of view. The law included mechanisms to ensure that pro-government events would almost always be given first dibs on important times and places, thus relegating opposition events to the margins. The consensus opinion by Polish legal experts was that this law was unconstitutional, but now that the government has seized control of the high court, it was implemented without any problems. Yesterday was the first big test of that law.

Throughout what followed the ORP leaders remained in constant dialogue with the police, who for their part allowed the demonstration to march right up to the edge of Castle Square. At that point, however, they were met by a double-cordon of policemen, blocking every possible entrance to the entire historical district of the city. Waiting to the sides were even more police, who were quickly redeployed to whichever point of access the ORP demonstrators tried to used. The protestors had been instructed to speak to the police with a respectful tone of voice, and try to give them a pamphlet that explained how the new law was a violation of the constitutional right of free assembly. At one point Kasprzak said to the police commander, “do you sincerely think that we are a threat to anyone, or that we are going to disrupt the service?” It was clear from everything they had done so far that they were going to avoid any such disruption. When any sort of prayer was in progress, the ORP activists held up signs reading “silence!,” and to that point there had been no chanting or singing. To Kasprzak’s exasperated question, the police officer replied with startling and revealing honesty that he wasn’t worried about what the ORP people would do, but what the PiS supporters might do to them.

The stand-off lasted for a long time, as Kasprzak and his supports searched for ways to reach Castle Square, while hundreds of police kept the group corralled. Finally Kasprzak told his people to disperse, because nothing more was going to be accomplished that night. The media was there to record the whole episode, so his goals had been (mostly) achieved. As Kasprzak put it, a public event to commemorate a shared national tragedy was being held in a public space, but the government was preventing a peaceful, respectful group of citizens from taking part. I think Kasprzak was hoping that either PiS supporters would attack them, or that the police would try to break up the ORP demonstration by force, but the highly professional tactics employed by the police ensured that it never got to that point.

As I was following one group of demonstrators away from the event, a small confrontation did break out. The police were still there in force, so the two sides were separated by a double-cordon, but volleys of chants were exchanged.

The difference between the two sides was eloquent. The ORP protesters chanted about Democracy, Liberty, and the Constitution, while those on the other side shouted “Traitors” and “Jarosław”. One side had lofty values, the other had invective and devotion to their leader. I don’t want to idealize Obywatele RP, nor do I want to demonize the rank-and-file supporters of PiS. But the contrast really was striking.

Earlier, Kasprzak was telling his supporters about the need to respect everyone, and to maintain dignity and calm even if things got confrontational. Democracy, he said, entailed courageous civil action aimed at persuading fellow citizens, and it was essential not to make the already deep divides even deeper. As he was speaking, two PiS supporters who had been standing next to me stormed off, and one said in disgust, “fucking lefties.” The other replied “yeah—you can see the sort of people we have to deal with.” At that moment, I was proud to be standing with the fucking lefties.


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How to Stage a Huge Protest

After writing yesterday’s post on the celebration of the EU’s 60th anniversary in Poland, I went back to compare photos taken during last October’s pro-choice march and last Saturday’s pro-EU march. The differences are stark.  Here was the scene last weekend:

And here’s a photo from the same vantage point last October:

The difference is even greater than it might appear, because the bottom picture captures only a fragment of the crowd, which extended as far as the eye could see in all directions.

And this was despite the fact that the weather for that earlier protest was atrocious: rainy and only a few degrees above freezing.  The weather last Saturday was dry and only a bit chilly–for March in Warsaw, that counts as a nice Spring day.

So why the difference?

Whatever your views on abortion, the issue is specific and concrete. The underlying principles are abstract, involving the definition of “human life,” the complex symbiotic nature of pregnancy, the extent of individual sovereignty, and whether there should be legal control over a woman’s reproductive capacity. But none of that was what inspired a few hundred thousand people to join a march in the freezing rain. They were there because the government was threatening, at that very moment, to take away the (already tightly regulated and limited) right to have an abortion.

It isn’t hard to make the argument that broad principles have vital real-world consequences, and that political structures matter. Nonetheless, those sorts of issues involve, for most people, several leaps of imagination in order to link the general with the specific. Many people are deeply upset that the Polish judicial system has been stripped of power and that the government will henceforth decide for itself whether to adhere to the Polish constitution, and what that adherence entails. But so far, the overwhelming majority of Poles can go about their lives just as they did two years ago, when an independent constitutional court still existed.

Those of us who care about general ideals and large-scale political causes all too often look down on those who don’t see the importance of these matters. We were inspired by Václav Havel’s call to “live in freedom,” and we rebuke those who engage in the countless acts of quotidian collaboration that sustain oppressive regimes. But the disturbing truth is that what we see as lamentable political disengagement and apathy is, for the vast majority of people, a sensible prioritization of the things that matter in life: family, friends, work, play….

We cannot and probably should not expect masses of people to turn out for protests in defense of “democracy” or “liberty.” On the one hand, this means we shouldn’t be disappointed when political demonstrations are relatively small. On the other hand, it also means that we shouldn’t expect those demonstrations to have much of an impact. The point now is to proclaim the values of liberal democracy as loudly as possible, even though we know that this won’t accomplish anything in the short term.  If we are correct that these values are the necessary prerequisites for a world that’s truly better for everyone, then sooner or later an issue of intimate, concrete immediacy will emerge. Then and only then will the crowds really turn out. Then and only then will the authoritarian regimes weaken. It might take a while, but it will happen.


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Poland and the EU

Across Europe last Saturday there were ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which launched the process that eventually grew into today’s European Union. Poland was no exception, though here the events were emphatically not supported by the current government. In this context, the anniversary celebrations became de facto opposition demonstrations, which is a sign of how much Poland has changed over the past few years.

The EU has long been popular here—enormously popular, in fact. The referendum on the accession treaty held in 2003 registered 77.6% approval (with 59% turnout—high by Polish standards). Starting in 2006, the Pew Research center has been running a comparative survey on attitudes towards the EU, and Polish support has declined since then by 11 points: from 83% to 72%. Still, Poland has been at the top of this chart every single year. A recent survey commissioned by Gazeta Wyborcza showed that if a Brexit-style vote were held here, the “remain” side would win easily, but with “only” 61% of the vote. The Poles are still the undefeated champions of Euroenthusiasm, though even here Brussels is losing some of its luster.

Another sign of where things stand was on display during those 60th anniversary celebrations/protests. One the one hand, there were gatherings all over the country, and in virtually every town square at noon people gathered to sing the European anthem. In Warsaw, this was combined with a march along the city’s emblematic “Royal Way,” leading to Castle Square and the Old Town. Every opposition political party, several of the country’s leading media outlets, and a who’s-who list of activists and cultural figures joined together in sponsoring the march. At first glance it seemed quite impressive.

I spent most of the event watching from an excellent vantage point, atop the bell tower of St. Ann’s Church. This allowed me to capture the entirety of the crowd, which looked up and waved for a “group portrait” taken by the professional cameraman whom I was conveniently standing next to.

Speaking from the stage, the editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, Jarosław Kurski, said that the ten thousand people gathered here were a much better representation of Poland than the current foreign minister. Maybe so, but 10,000 strikes me as a disappointingly small number for such a well-advertised event. This was half the size of the event for Women’s Day on March 8, and less than a tenth the size of the record-setting pro-choice demonstration held on this same site last October.

This reveals, I think, a key aspect of the current political dynamic in Poland. This country has a reputation for big protests, marches, and strikes, and even today the level of public mobilization here is higher than anywhere else in the region. But in keeping with the pattern seen even back in the 1970s and 1980s, that activism really only rises to the fore when people are faced with very concrete challenges to their personal well-being. For the most part, Kaczyński has been smart enough not to push up against those sorts of issues. His strategy has been to focus on dismantling or undermining all the institutions and norms that sustain liberal democracy: the independent judiciary, the public media, the constraints of parliamentary rules, NGO watchdog groups, etc. Acts of opposition to the government’s assertion of control in all these areas have simply been ignored or dismissed as the ravings of “elites” who don’t understand the “real Poland.” The result of this strategy has been that opposition to the state carries very little real danger (there’s little opportunity for anyone here to become a martyr for the cause of democracy), but also very little chance of accomplishing anything. If you want to ignore politics and just get on with your life, it’s been possible to do so. Kaczyński demands active support from those who want to serve in the state sector, but for everyone else he just encourages demobilization and apathy.

This is where the anti-liberal authoritarianism of the 21st century has learned a great deal from the models from the 20th century. Nazism and Stalinism demanded a lot more, but the post-Stalinist communism of the 1960s and 1970s allowed people to carry out their private lives without all that much interference. That’s the system that’s being rebuilt now. It’s one in which most people, most of the time, can live their lives without worrying about politics. The government would love to
have your support, but if they can’t get it, they only ask that you go about your business and leave politics to them. This is a system that promotes disengagement rather than active obedience or enthusiasm.

Of course, those in targeted minorities (whether ideological, national, sexual, religious, or whatever) will feel the power of the authoritarian state. Sooner or later even those in the majority will experience the consequences of anti-liberal democracy. By then, however, the institutions and structures that they could have used to protect themselves will be gone. That’s when we will see the really big crowds once again, but they won’t be as polite and celebratory as they were last Saturday. Nor, I fear, will the authorities be as passive.

 

 


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Another Rainy Protest

The democratic opposition in Poland has had the worst luck when it comes to the weather.  The now famous “Black Monday” march from last October was successful despite the elements, but similar weather today (41 degrees Fahrenheit – 5 Celsius – and a steady rain) undoubtedly kept the size of the crowd down. Under the circumstances, though, it was impressive. The march was organized by KOD (the Committee for the Defense of Democracy), and focused primarily on the independence of the judiciary and the preservation of local self-government. After last week’s absurd attempt by the PiS government to block Donald Tusk’s second term as EU Council President (and their defeat by a vote of 27-1), the protests today also had a strong pro-EU theme.

This highlights a challenge facing the opposition here, and in the US as well. When confronted by an ongoing cascade of attacks on constitutional democracy and simple decency, it’s hard to focus attention and organizational effort on a single outrage. Even coming up with a list of demands becomes difficult, because the terrain shifts so often. Without a clear and focused goal, however, the opposition becomes dispersed and unclear. The October protests had one clear objective: stop the government’s plan to completely outlaw abortion. And that goal was accomplished–the only successful challenge to PiS so far. Today’s march was aimed at the preservation of constitutional rule-of-law, democracy, and European integration.  I’m not even sure what it would take for such a march to be called a success. The point, I suspect, is mainly to sustain the morale of the opposition, without any real hope that they can actually block the PiS regime’s relentless assault on the constitution. If we accept that this fight is almost certain to continue for years, then protesting for the sake of maintaining camaraderie and commitment is a good strategy. Maybe the only strategy.


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Poland, Land of Diversity

If I could abolish just one cliché, it would be this one: “Polish society is nearly homogeneous.”

Just pick up any article about Poland from any source on any topic, and you are likely to find this claim. For example, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here….OK, you get the point.

Sometimes you will even see the claim that Poland and the other countries of East-Central Europe have no “tradition of diversity.” That’s so obviously incorrect that it hardly merits rebuttal. Prior to the mass murders and ethnic cleansings of the mid-20th century, there were few places on earth with more heterogeneity than here. But that’s not want I want to write about today.

Nor do I want to remind you about the Kashubians, the Łemkos, the Tatars, the Silesians, the Górals, or the remaining communities of Lithuanians, Belarussians, or Ukrainians that one can find along Poland’s eastern border. The small but vibrant Polish Jewish community reminds us that the Holocaust did not entirely wipe out that legacy, but that’s not my topic for today, either. I’m currently living next door to Warsaw’s Holy Trinity Lutheran Church—but I’m not going to talk about that, or the local Vietnamese community, or the growing expat groups that have settled in Poland’s larger cities.

All those categories are indeed small, and they don’t detract from the fact that 98% of the residents of this country (according to the most recent census) claim Polish as their native language, and 88% claim Roman Catholicism as their religion. A mere 1.8% of the population was born in another country. The Polish census does not include a category that would match the American concept of “race,” but one would have to search very hard to find anyone who does not have the pale skin color typical of northern Europe.

So yeah—Poland is a homogeneous place. As long as the only markers of diversity you care about are language, religion, and skin color.

Our understanding of diversity has been hobbled by the tendency to take the fault-lines of difference from one time or place, and superimpose them to different times and places. In the 1930s, the boundary lines in Poland were drawn around religion and language, and since those lines can’t be found any more, we call the country homogeneous. In America we have to grapple with the enduring legacy of racial classifications and oppression, so if we turn our attention to Poland, we see a stark uniformity.

But diversity and homogeneity are themselves ideological constructions, and it is vital that we take a critical eye to the claim that Poland is a land without significant internal cultural fissures, prejudices, or stereotypes.

When skin-color, religion, or language cannot serve as markers of difference, that doesn’t mean that difference itself disappears. Instead, the vectors of cultural diversity migrate to other categories, ones that we may not be primed to notice. For example, even though nearly everyone is Roman Catholic in Poland, the actual patterns of devotional practices and theological beliefs are almost as divergent here as they are in the denominational grab-bag of the United States. Rates of attendance at religious service are about the same, and the role of “faith” in public life is comparable. In survey questions regarding matters of religious doctrine, Poles show an enormous range of beliefs—an issue that the clergy here has always complained about. According to a recent survey, only 18% believe that the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church provide an adequate guide to moral behavior, and 57% reject part or all of the Church’s moral teachings. Only 14% think that Catholicism should provide the foundation of the “values and norms taught in the public schools,” and only another 11% think that a more general Christianity should serve this purpose. A more detailed survey conducted in 2015 revealed that 56% believe in hell, but a mere 4% (!!) believe that only Christians can be “saved” (with another 8% reserving salvation for all “religious people.”) A startling 30% believe in reincarnation! In the US, those diverse beliefs are expressed by switching from one religion to another. Here in Poland, all these various convictions remain bundled under a notional Catholicism. That singular label matters, of course, but it shouldn’t lead us to assume that Poland is a land of actual religious uniformity.

Even more culturally and socially important is a vector of difference that is hard for outsiders to see. For centuries, nearly all the labor in northeastern Europe was performed by bonded serfs. “Pańszczyzna” (mandatory work for a master) was ended here at about the same time slavery was abolished in the United States, and both systems left an intractable cultural legacy. The descendants of the nobility and the peasantry are all called “Poles,” and they can’t be distinguished by any biological identifiers, but that doesn’t mean that the divide is irrelevant. The nobility constituted around 10% of the population in pre-partition Poland, but they monopolized property ownership and completely dominated culture and politics. The Stalinists tried to change this by adopting a program of hiring and university admission akin to American “affirmative action,” but that didn’t change the overall picture much. Only briefly in the early 1950s did the scions of the nobility constituted fewer than half of the university students. The history of Poland as it is conventionally taught is really the history of the nobility, with the peasantry erased to an even greater degree than African-Americans are erased from US history. Today the vast majority of Poles live in towns and cities, and the traditional peasantry is long gone, but the cultural gap remains very, very deeply entrenched. To be sure, the lack of phenotype differences makes the lines more permeable than racial divisions in the United States, but that doesn’t mean that the lines don’t exist.

A picture of homogeneity requires that we ignore certain differences and prioritize others. It leads us to imagine that a highly-educated Warsaw businessman from a “good family” who goes to church on Christmas and Easter is part of the same national community as a devout smallholder from Podlasie with a primary education.  Meanwhile, we are taught to see a nearly unscalable wall between that peasant and his Belorussian-speaking, Eastern Orthodox neighbor. I’m not dismissing the latter divide, but it is absurd to imagine that the absence of religious, linguistic, or ethnic barriers has led to homogeneity. At most, it has only made the heterogeneity a little bit harder to see.


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What’s the Point?

As Magdalena Moskalewicz pointed out last week in the Washington Post, the idea for a 2017 Women’s Day strike was born in Poland, in the aftermath of the amazing “Black Monday” protests last October (which I wrote about here). Based on my very impressionist sense, not many women here actually stayed home from work on March 8, but the demonstration in the evening was impressive enough. The official estimates from the Warsaw city government had the crowd at 17,000.

Protests are becoming a regular occurrence in today’s Poland, and any reader of this blog knows that people have plenty to protest about. But I’m forced to wonder: what’s the point? Jarosław Kaczyński sees public opinion as something to control, not something that he needs to respond to. The government has shown repeatedly that they have no particular interest in expanding beyond their support base, which currently constitutes about 33% of the electorate, with another 8% supporting an allied party (37% and 9% if only decided voters are considered). PiS’s actions suggest that they intend to hold on to power by tweaking the political system so that their existing base is adequate. For example, they are pushing forward a massive expansion of the boundaries of Warsaw, because only by including a huge swath of the countryside around the city do they stand any chance of ever winning control of the local government. They’ve advanced a proposal (so far at the trial-balloon stage) to institute single-round voting for mayors, as opposed to the current system that requires winning candidates to get 51% of the vote (with runoffs if necessary). Since the opposition remains divided, such a system would allow PiS to win most of the time.

More generally, the rhetoric of the regime is focused on deepening the divisions in Polish society, and cultivating an “us against them” mentality in their supporters. This, I think, is why they seem willing to tolerate protests and the continued existence of an opposition media. In the 20th century, authoritarian regimes attempted to establish monolithic sources of information, but this ended up backfiring. Most people (at least here in Poland) came to distrust the official TV stations and newspapers, and the slogan “the press lies” became popular at demonstrations in the 1980s. Nowadays one hears that slogan at both pro-government and anti-government rallies, albeit aimed at different media outlets.

Truth itself has become a partisan preference, with awkward facts dismissed as if they were just opinions. In this context, PiS does not have to convince most people that their media is right, and they don’t have to suppress the opposition media. In fact, in a perverse way they need the opposition in order to sustain the claim that there is an ongoing struggle for power in which each side is using newspapers and TV to advance their goals. This mobilizes die-hard supporters on all sides, but it leaves an enormous segment of the population—perhaps a majority—frustrated, confused, and disillusioned with public life altogether. Kaczyński is counting on the fact that PiS will remain the largest single political party, even if it stays well short of a majority. He’s probably right: the opposition now includes everyone from socialists to free-market liberals to Christian democrats, and it’s hard to imagine how they could ever create a single unified political organization to compete with PiS.

In other words, the goal is not to turn the PiS worldview into a hegemonic force accepted by nearly everyone. Even Kaczyński must understand that he’ll never accomplish that. Instead, the goal is to build a system that allows a committed and mobilized minority to govern through the application of raw power, demobilizing much of the population and counting on the continued fragmentation of the rest.

This strategy is working, and will probably continue to work for a long time to come. PiS support has remained rock solid, in sharp contrast to every other government in the history of Poland’s Third Republic. It’s not going up, but it’s not going down either. Protests, even large ones, might help mobilize the opposition, but to hard-core PiS supporters, those events just provide evidence that “the enemy” is still strong. This can’t continue forever, but it can go on for many, many years. And the longer it continues, the less energy there will be for protests like yesterday’s. When faced with a government that is uninterested in winning the support of a majority, much less listening to the concerns of any minority, what is the point of taking to the streets?

If PiS deployed old fashioned authoritarian measures—riot police, overt censorship, mass arrests, etc.—then the opposition would have a playbook of responses. Ironically, 21st century authoritarians don’t use those brutal techniques, which both makes them easier to endure and much, much harder to fight.


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It could be worse

Without in any way downplaying the current crisis of liberal democracy, I just got a reminder that things could be a lot worse. I came across the following 1986 document from the campus affiliate of the Niezależne Zrzeszenie Studentów (Independent Student Society) at the Szkoła Główna Planowania i Statystyki (Main School for Planning and Statistics). The text is quite mundane: announcements that a new, elected student council is being formed, that some new anti-communist stamps are for sale, that a special mass for NZS is scheduled, etc.  But note the format: paper so thin that it is translucent, blurry printing, and a size smaller than a ballpoint pen. This is what you can produce when you are operating an illegal organization with few resources, and when discovery of your activities might get you expelled.

I’ve made comparisons between today’s increasingly authoritarian Polish government and the communist Polish People’s Republic, and I continue to believe that we can learn a lot by setting the two alongside each other.  But this 1986 document was a useful reality-check for me. Poland has gone much further down the antiliberal path than the US has, but even Poland isn’t close to the oppressiveness of the 1980s, which itself wasn’t remotely as bad as the Stalinist era, which was a vast improvement over the horror of Nazi rule. One might be tempted to evoke a slippery slope metaphor when talking about today’s government, and that’s not entirely unjustified.  But political activism is like putting on snow-tires in order to get some traction on that slope; we need to keep in mind that rolling downhill is not inevitable. Moreover, no matter how much we might wish to stand at the summit, let’s not confuse the hillside with the valley.

Historical perspective teaches us to see potential dangers even when they are only just starting to appear. That’s why so many historians are worried and angry nowadays.  But historical perspective also offers us a useful psychological survival mechanism, a way to avoid the despair that I’ve seen in so many friends and colleagues recently. Less than five years after the above leaflet was produced, the Polish People’s Republic ceased to exist, NZS was legalized, and SGPiS became the Szkoła Główna Handlowa (which they advertise in English as the “Warsaw School of Economics”).  Today, NZS no longer needs to use such surreptitiously produced and distributed leaflets; instead, they communicate about their activities here.


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Warsaw from Sea to Sea

Another weekend, another protest march in Warsaw…. This one wasn’t as large as some of the others that have made headlines since PiS took power in 2015, but it represented an issue that could become extraordinarily important. Even as Jarosław Kaczyński’s authoritarian rule has grown stronger, even as one public institution after another has fallen, even as the judiciary has lost the ability to protect the constitution—even through all this, Poland’s cities have retained a vibrant public sphere thanks to the ability of city councils and mayors (called “city presidents” here) to circumvent the heavy hand of the central government. Nowhere is this more evident than Warsaw, where anti-government demonstrations are held with the blessing of the city administration. This is a vital line of defense for those who continue to believe in liberal democracy, which is precisely why it is now under threat.

Last week a parliamentary delegate from PiS introduced a piece of legislation that would transform Warsaw into a massive urban agglomeration, linking the city with dozens of towns and villages in the surrounding countryside. This didn’t come directly from the government, because according to parliamentary rules a formal government proposal must go through a process of committee hearings and public comment. A law proposed by an ordinary parliamentary delegate can move quickly to a vote without any of these delays. If anyone knows why such a strange loophole even exists, please tell me. Regardless, there is very little the anti-PiS opposition can do to block this law.

The rationale behind the legislation is transparent, though of course its author denies it. As the proposal currently stands, the new metropol would have a governing council with representative elected by district, so that a massive downtown neighborhood with hundreds of thousands of residents would have the same number of votes as a farming village beyond the current city boundaries. Since PiS controls most of the rural areas, this would allow them to take over Warsaw. It would be as if, in the United States, Montana had the same number of senators as California. Oh, wait…. Anyway, this is the only way PiS will ever take over Warsaw, and even this strategy only works if the boundaries are pushed far, far beyond anything that looks like an urban space. The law would make Warsaw the largest city by land area in Europe, five times larger than Paris.

The city council of Warsaw immediately announced a referendum, scheduled for March 26. Presumably the residents of the city will vote overwhelmingly against the reform. Even setting aside the antidemocratic nature of the law, there will be major consequences that will shape the city’s future. Opponents have noted that the longstanding complaint of the small towns and suburbs around the city has been the lack of adequate downtown parking or good limited-access highways into the city center. The city residents, however, tend to favor improved public transport, less downtown traffic, and cleaner air. The battle is being described as parks vs. parking lots.

This was the issue behind the protest last Saturday. The signs reflected the ironic, referential sense of humor typical of Varsovians (see the pictures below). For example, one placard read “San Escobar demands annexation to Warsaw” (if you don’t get the joke, click here) and another said “We demand Warsaw from Sea to Sea, with Madagascar included” (referring to the description of the Polish-Lithuanian Republic as stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and also to the bizarre demand of pre-WWII antisemites that Jews be deported to Madagascar). Another poster was a copy of a poster from the early 1950s labeled “The Great Architect of the New Warsaw,” but with Kaczyński’s face inserted where Stalin’s had been. My favorite was a cardboard copy of the landmark from Warsaw’s palace square, the so-called Zygmunt Column. The original has on top the figure of the king who moved the capital from Kraków to Warsaw, but this version had an inflatable duck with the label “Jarosław III Żoliborski,” a play on the famous Polish king, Jan III Sobieski. Kaczyński’s name has led to lots of duck jokes (kaczka=duck), and this one added a reminder that he comes from the prestigious intelligentsia neighborhood of Żoliborz, which is ironic given his longstanding populist tirade against the “elites” of Warsaw.

Will this sort of demonstration accomplish anything? Probably not. The humor will have the same impact as a Saturday Night Live skit: the liberal audience will be thrilled, but the people who support the government won’t appreciate the jokes, which will feel like insulting taunts to them. But in a way, that misses the point. PiS has all the power right now, and the only constraint they face is the risk of a wave of protests so massive that they disrupt the functioning of the state—something on the order of Maidan in Ukraine, Tahrir Square in Egypt, or (more relevantly) the Solidarity movement right here in Poland. That’s extraordinarily unlikely, to put it mildly.

But that doesn’t mean that protests are irrelevant, or that the upcoming referendum in Warsaw (which won’t block the legislation) is pointless. The democratic oppositions in Poland or in the United States can’t realistically stop Kaczyński or Trump. Only a revolt within PiS or the Republicans could do that. But the opposition can, and must, work to maintain a strong sense of civic engagement and democratic activism, because the alternative is cynicism, hopelessness, passivity, and atomization. If those attitudes spread, rebuilding a democratic culture after Kaczyński and Trump fall (as they must, eventually) will be extremely difficult.

This struggle won’t end any time soon. Those who believe in liberal democracy have to focus on the long term, and be prepared to persist even if success remains years away. Demonstrations like the one in Warsaw last Saturday are a key part of that strategy.

 

 

 


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Poles Want Democracy

Do Poles value democracy?  That’s a silly question: obviously it depends on what you mean by “democracy.”  Nowadays authoritarian leaders like to describe their regimes as “anti-liberal democracies,” and very few public figures openly criticize democracy as such. When Jarosław Kaczyński, Victor Orbán, Marine Le Pen, or Donald Trump proclaim their belief in democracy, they mean that everyone should obey the proclamations of governments that truly represent the interests of the nation. To go against the (singular) will of the people is to defy democracy, in this vision. Liberals, on the other hand, insist that democracy should be characterized by an ongoing respect for compromise, consensus, and respect for minority opinions (and identities). In this second worldview, firm legal and institutional frameworks and a strong sense of political norms should constrain the power of the majority from doing anything too extreme. Interestingly, for much of the 19th century, Europeans didn’t usually call that worldview “democracy,” but rather, “representative government.”  John Stuart Mill famously argued that the latter was preferable over the former, precisely because “the tyranny of the majority” (as he put it) posed a threat to individual liberty. Against Mill’s arguments were “democrats” who hearkened back to Rousseau’s idea of the “popular will.”

For better or worse, we don’t have that distinction any more: everyone nowadays is supposed to believe in democracy, with adjectives attached when we want to clarify what sort of democracy we like. At least, that’s the impression one would get listening to the political debates of the early 21st century: you accuse your opponents of being antidemocratic, but never claim that label for yourself. Yet an interesting survey has been conducted in Poland ever since the fall of communism, asking people “Do you agree that sometimes a non-democratic government is better than a democratic government?” The newest iteration of this poll shows that a record-high number of people believe that democracy is always the best, though a significant 28% continue to envision circumstances when it would be better to dispense with democratic principles.

There are many possible interpretations of this result, and they depend on a more nuanced exploration of how the meaning of the term “democracy” has shifted in public discourse over the past 20 years.  For example, it is possible that there is a stable level of support for the idea that a strong leader elected by a majority should have absolute power.  In that case, the recent drop in people who question the value of democracy would be tied to the spread of the concept “anti-liberal democracy.”  A lot more research would be needed to verify or debunk that hypothesis.

But for all the ambiguity of this survey, a very curious pattern is evident.  When PiS first rose to power in 2005, the number of people doubting the value of democracy was at an all-time high.  During the ensuing two years, appreciation for democracy rose dramatically, peaking at the moment when Jarosław Kaczyński lost power in 2007.  Similarly, after the party’s return to power in 2015, appreciation for democracy once again jumped upwards.  It is tempting to conclude that the experience of authoritarian one-party rule makes people appreciate the inefficiencies, the tedium, and the unsatisfying compromises of liberal democracy.  That’s what I want to believe—though it could also be true that authoritarian populists express opposition to democracy whenever they are out of power, but like it when they are in charge. But I’m going to reject that possibility for now, because it is so much more hopeful to believe that Poles are rallying around democracy now that they feel its absence.  If that is true, then it suggests that opposition to authoritarianism is growing.

I have no good reason to believe that this is the case, but I’m determined to find some rays of hope during these dark times.