Today, Poland will celebrate 25 years of freedom, and President Obama will be there to join in the festivities. However, the majority of the dreams from the 1980s have failed, and Obama can legitimately be blamed for at least three of them.
Undoubtedly, the president will deliver a speech saying all the right things about Polish-American friendship, Solidarity and freedom. Regrettably, he will not address any of Poland’s top three requests of the United States — freedom to travel to the United States without a visa, more rebuilding projects being allotted to Polish corporations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and permanent presence of U.S. military bases in Poland. Needless to say, the last issue has become even more urgent in view of the recent events in Ukraine.
As for what Poles themselves are responsible for, the balance of the achievements of the past 25 years is seemingly good: Poland joined NATO in 1999 and became a member of the European Community 10 years ago. There is freedom of mobility. The Polish Constitution guarantees freedom of expression. Many Poles develop businesses that trade around the world. Polish students study all over Europe, and even Polish athletes fare impressively well in the NBA, NFL and NHL. However, closer inspection of what today’s Poland is really like strikes a dramatically different chord.
Harsh reforms that were introduced in Poland back in the early 1990s were designed to turn Poland into a modern capitalist country practically overnight. Though much needed, this shock transformation marginalized both economically and socially about 20 percent to 25 percent of Polish people. Some reformers called it necessary “economic collateral damage,” but 25 years later, the unemployment rate in Poland is still about 14 percent and it exceeds 20 percent in many regions.
Well more than 2 million people — most of them ages 22 to 26 — have emigrated from Poland in search of better economic opportunities abroad. Such exodus is painfully reminiscent of the forced emigration of 1982-83, when hundreds of thousands of Polish dissidents were forced out of the country by the communist regime. Granted, this time the young people have not been kicked out of Poland and can return home whenever they want — but statistics show that most of them never will.
In general, the Polish economy of today is “dependent and thin on innovation, and meager economic growth stems mainly from European Union allocations,” says Polish sociologist Jadwiga Staniszkis. In 1989 communism may have lost out, he added, but about 100,000 people who were in charge of it have done very well indeed over the past 25 years. Not only have they ensconced themselves in businesses, they have avoided being tried for their past abuses of human rights; those who have retired receive generous pensions nowadays.
Even though freedom of expression is supposedly in place in Poland, many media outlets are constantly sued, whether by politicians (including former presidents and prime ministers) or individuals. However, the press itself is not all that innocent, either, as many editors in chief also exhibit a penchant for suing, and with the enthusiasm of an aerobics instructor, they file cases against any person or other media (!) daring to criticize them.
Even worse, most of the mainstream media in Poland have turned from watchdogs to lap dogs of the administration. In view of that, it is not surprising that last year a young man who started a blog that poked fun at the president was found guilty of libel and was sentenced to 15 months in prison plus a fine. (The appeal lowered the sentence to one year.)
Not only are Polish media politically enmeshed, but many in the industry are fiscally corrupt. For example, standard public- and media-relations activities lead nowhere unless coupled with sumptuous adverting placement. The practice is commonly known as “play for pay.”
Participation in elections has been deplorable. In the first semi-free 1989 election, participation was about 97 percent. Two weeks ago, elections for European Parliament brought only 23 percent of Poles to the ballot boxes.
Some of the developments and events in recent sociopolitical life are truly Kafkaesque and would be pretty laughable if they were not so tragic.
For instance, in 2013, Zygmunt Bauman, a well-known sociologist residing in the United Kingdom who in the 1950s worked as an officer in the Ministry of Interior and was directly responsible for the deaths of many Polish patriots resisting communist ideology, is now celebrated by some Polish “elites” and has been invited to speak at a university in Poland. And if this isn’t enough, young people who rightfully protested the idea of inviting him to speak got sentences ranging from one to two months in prison and were fined $1,000 to $2,000.
This past weekend, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski — who in an effort to put down Solidarity, the first independent labor union in the communist bloc, imposed martial law in Poland in 1981 and who was aptly described by the late U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger as a Soviet officer in a Polish uniform — was buried with state honors.
During the funeral, Polish President Bronisław Komorowski praised Jaruzelski “as a great soldier,” and Aleksander Kwasniewski, an ex-communist who later became a president in free Poland, called him “a great statesman” and praised him for “serving his homeland so well.”
Lech Walesa — the former electrician, the first leader of Solidarity and the former president of Poland — is now a millionaire who travels the world delivering speeches and taking selfies in luxury bathrooms (most recently in Dubai) in order to place them on his blog and show off how much he is loved globally.
At the same time, some of his colleagues from the 1980s Solidary leadership live in one-bedroom apartments in housing projects, subsisting on very modest pensions.
Last, Polish people are now told by their pseudo-elites that such terms as patriotism, homeland or love for your country are a thing of the past and a sign of backward (or even fascist) thinking, because today “we are all Europeans living in harmonious European Union.”
The irony is that, in reality, the European Union is dominated by France and Germany, and the best thing that the Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, can do these days is not to miss a chance to be quiet and fully agree with the dominant powers. Regrettably, he has consistently delivered in this regard.
“This is not the kind of Poland that I fought for, and my fiancé died for, back in the 1944 Warsaw uprising,” reflects my 89-year-old mother. Her comment is not a sign of a typical generational gap — her profound disappointment is shared by a fast-growing group of discouraged young and middle-aged Poles for whom today’s Poland is a far cry from what they fought for back in the 1980s and early ’90s.
Peter Przytula is a professor of public relations at St. Cloud State University and frequently travels to Poland.