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People watched over Castle Square earlier this month when President Obama spoke in Warsaw at a ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of Poland’s first free elections.

Stephen Crowley • New York Times,

Counterpoint: The real Poland, 25 years later

  • Article by: Tony Clarey
  • June 12, 2014 - 6:25 PM

I am an American who has lived in Poland for most of the last 16 years. The Poland that Prof. Peter Przytula describes in “25 years after the fall of communism” (June 4) is not the one I live in.

To make sure it wasn’t just me, I forwarded the article to other Americans here in Poland. Some ridiculed its assertions, others were angered and all were generally negative, including one of Przytula’s former students.

The article started off with the statement that “the majority of the dreams from the 1980s have failed, and Obama can legitimately be blamed for at least three of them.” This makes it seem like President Obama is almost single-handedly responsible for quashing all of the dreams of Poland’s Solidarity Revolution. This is obviously deliberate on the author’s part.

I was not in Poland in 1989, but it is safe to assume that the dreams of Poles then were for freedom of speech, the right to vote, a free-market economy, safety from persecution, general national security and maybe a few other things. Well, the good news is that Poland in 2014 has all of those things.

The notion that visa-free travel to the United States, more contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and permanent U.S. military bases on Polish soil were dreams of the 1980s is patently absurd. I spoke recently with Stephen Mull, the U.S. ambassador to Poland. He pointed out that the law does not permit visa-free travel for any countries with a visa refusal rate of greater than 3 percent. Poland has a refusal rate of just under 10 percent. The Obama administration has asked for a change in the laws to help countries like Poland. A new law has passed in the Senate but is blocked in the House.

As for contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the big ones were no-bid contracts to companies like Halliburton during the Bush administration. Przytula seems to conveniently skip this point.

As for military bases, look at how it works domestically in the United States. There is a massive fight any time a military base is tagged for closing. The United States has invested for more than 50 years in infrastructure in Germany to support bases there. In a time of tight budgets, it is doubtful approval could be gained for throwing that away. Obama did recently ask for $1 billion from Congress to improve military infrastructure in Central Europe so that future deployment of U.S. troops would be easier.

Poland did endure hard reforms in the 1990s, but those have made its economy among the best-performing in Europe, with an eye toward growth. While the large emigration of Poles to elsewhere in Europe is tough for the Polish labor market, was not freedom of travel one of the dreams of those who struggled for freedom during the Solidarity times? How does that differ from when labor moves from colder U.S. states to warmer ones, as it has over the last few decades?

The European economy generally suffers from a lack of innovation and dependence on state spending. It is not a uniquely Polish problem. That said, Poland does have an increasingly vibrant technology and start-up culture. Recently, Google announced that it would open an innovation center in Warsaw.

Przytula wrote that “[p]articipation in elections has been deplorable.” As the saying goes: All politics are local. It is true that about 24 percent turned out for the recent European parliamentary elections. For local elections, the turnout ranges from 40 percent to 60 percent. The discrepancy isn’t good, but it is not a uniquely Polish phenomena.

Przytula also would have you believe that everyday political protesters in Poland — for instance, heroically opposing an award for an ex-communist oppressor of the Polish anti-communist resistance — get prison terms and fines. What really happened in the case of Zygmunt Bauman, which he cites, is that someone made the horrible decision to award this guy an honorary degree. The protesters were actually neo-fascist skinheads who showed up at the ceremony, and started making fascist salutes, flying fascist flags and singing songs about hanging communists from the nearest tree.

Poland is a fairly civil society except for these types of skinheads and football hooligans. Genuine protesters could have picketed, taken out ads on billboards, done editorials, called their politicians and countless other things that citizens do in civil societies. Fascist salutes and threats of violence are not tolerated in normal societies.

The fact is that Poles have never had it better. Inclusion in NATO and the European Union are among the best things that have ever happened to their country. Poles have better infrastructure, plentiful consumer goods, the ability to work anywhere in Europe and more. The country has made significant strides against corruption.

As I write, there are five squadrons of F-16s — four Polish, one American — watching out for Poland’s safety. There are other American troops on the ground here now for the same purpose.

I’ve had the pleasure of traveling frequently in recent years to Ukraine, Poland’s neighbor to the southeast. Poland is not perfect, but it is very much a model of what Ukrainians would like to have in their country. They have good reason to want to emulate what Poles have accomplished in the last 25 years.

 

Tony Clarey has lived in Poland since 1998.

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