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Did the Fall of the Berlin Wall Produce Trump?

The Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago. It was one of the few unambiguously joyous moments in modern history. This popular, nonviolent explosion of dissent effectively toppled East Germany’s despotic regime. And it signaled, if only symbolically, the end of the Cold War that had divided Europe for nearly half a century.

Thirty years later, a united Germany remains far and away the largest economy in Europe (and the fourth largest in the world). Most of the countries of the former Warsaw Pact are members of the European Union, and their populations have seen dramatic improvements in living standards. After the horrendous bloodletting that tore apart Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the threat of war in Europe has again receded.

Who can argue with such success?

It turns out: a lot of people. At some point, something seems to have gone terribly wrong with the transition from communism to liberalism to the end of history.

A new version of the Berlin Wall runs through Ukraine to divide east once again from west. Actual walls have been built throughout the Balkans to block desperate refugees and migrants from heading northward. Right-wing authoritarian leaders are challenging democracy in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and elsewhere in the region.

Frozen conflicts and kleptocracies prevail all over the former Soviet Union. Virulently racist movements have been consistently gaining political power throughout Europe, with Vox most recently becoming the third largest party in the Spanish parliament. The United Kingdom is involved in a slow-motion secession from the European Union.

And Donald Trump presides over the unraveling of the international order like some imp of the perverse.

I recently attended a conference at the University of Pennsylvania on the lessons of the “transition.” Two dozen scholars provided a variety of ground-level and big-picture analyses from the disciplines of economics, political science, and anthropology. Their goal: to reconcile these two pictures of the last 30 years.

On the one hand, there’s the purported triumph of liberalism. On the other, there’s the widely held view in the region that liberalism is the “god that failed,” as I’ve recounted in my book Aftershock: A Journey Through Eastern Europe’s Broken Dreams.

Economists and political scientists, looking at the numbers, have declared the transition over because the countries of Eastern Europe have become more or less “normal.” Anthropologists, looking at people’s lived experience, have argued that the transition, in the sense of a continued legacy of the Communist period and a painful adjustment to life in a larger Europe, is still very much a flawed work in progress.

After two days of bifocal analysis — of scrutinizing the fine print and gazing into the distance, of trying to determine whether the glass is half full or half empty — I was convinced of one thing above all. The “transition” is not unique to Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union. The entire world, to one degree or another, has been undergoing a comparable transformation. That’s why Hungarians are suffering under Viktor Orban just as Americans are enduring Donald Trump.

In a circuitous, contradictory, and confounding way, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reactions to it have produced both of these morbid symptoms.

The Short End of the Stick


Poverty in Bucharest (Shutterstock)

Comparatively speaking, East Europeans got a raw deal after 1989.

For one thing, they didn’t get a Marshall Plan, a huge influx of capital to repair their ravaged countries. After World War II, an enormous helping hand from the West contributed to producing the Wirtschaftswunder — the economic miracle — that put West Germany on top of the European economic order only a decade after the war.

After 1989, some assistance flowed into Eastern Europe — and less into the former Soviet Union — but nothing on the order of a Marshall Plan. Instead, the West assumed that the invisible hand of the market would do the trick.

Nor did East European countries, as they entered the European Union, get the same kind of deal that earlier incoming members received. Tens of billions of dollars in EU structural funds helped Ireland, a primarily agricultural country, close the gap with the rest of the EU within a single generation.

By the time that Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and the Baltic countries joined in 2004, the EU no longer had the funds or the collective commitment to bringing new members up to the community average. For Romania and Bulgaria, which joined in 2007, the gap was larger and the resources even scarcer.

Having shucked off their old Communist identities, the new populations of Eastern Europe expected to live like their counterparts in Austria or France or Sweden within five or ten years (or so they told me when I interviewed a couple hundred folks throughout the region in 1990 and again nearly 25 years later). That expectation gave meaning to their sacrifices when the new democratic governments pushed through “shock therapy” economic reforms that turned their lives upside down. They’d experience the pain of adjustment, but it would be worth it in the end.

Thirty years later, however, even the best performing countries in Eastern Europe haven’t closed the gap with the West. Slovenia’s per-capita GDP ($36,747) — adjusted for cost-of-living differences — is about three-quarters that of Austria ($52,137). Bulgaria ($23,156) is not even halfway there.

But even these figures are deceptive. After all, the metropolitan centers of Eastern Europe — Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Bucharest, Sofia — have attracted the lion’s share of foreign investment and closed the gap more quickly with their western counterparts. So, that means that smaller towns and the countryside in Eastern Europe are really far behind the West.

Poland B: that’s what Poles call the areas that have by and large not benefited from the economic transition. The “losers of transition” include pensioners, minority populations like the Roma, farmers who can’t compete with Western imports, and workers in industries with no future. You can find this “B team” throughout the region.

Anthropologist Kristen Ghodsee has chronicled the rise and fall of Madan, a predominantly Muslim city in southern Bulgaria. Once a mining town with a population of over 100,000 people, Madan has dwindled to a scant 6,000 or so. The mines closed during the economic transformations of the 1990s and virtually everyone of working age left for the larger cities or to go abroad, leaving behind pensioners and children sent to live with their grandparents.

With many of the buildings in the town in ruins, Madan looks as if it were hit by war or natural disaster. There are many towns and cities like it in Bulgaria, where the population decline has been catastrophic: around 9 million in 1989, Bulgaria’s population is down to around 7 million today. It’s part of a region-wide demographic crisis.

For a lot of people in the region, then, it’s not a question of a glass half full versus a glass half empty. That metaphor implies a balanced scoresheet from the last 30 years and divergent perceptions of that scoresheet. But this image is misleading. Instead, the glass overfloweth for a handful of super-wealthy, who made out like bandits during the economic upheaval, and the glass is practically empty for many others.

The political parties that pushed through the economic reforms, with the encouragement of international financial institutions and their advisers, also ended up as the losers of transition, as voters took revenge on them at the polls. Liberal parties disappeared or drifted into irrelevance. Former Communist parties, which returned to power in the initial backlash against the economic reforms, by and large instituted the same austerity measures and were relegated to the political margins as well.

With both liberals and leftists discredited, a new kind of party emerged: nationalist, culturally conservative, and anti-liberal in its economic and political orientation. These populist parties have consolidated control in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic. Even more reactionary movements — like Pegida in eastern Germany, the Our Homeland Movement in Hungary, and Ataka in Bulgaria — lurk in the wings.

Sound familiar?

Transition, Western Style


Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (Shutterstock)

Consider the economic transformations that took place in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s as a transition not to the market per se, but to the global economy more generally. After all, a number of Eastern European countries had experimented with market reforms prior to 1989 (like goulash communism in Hungary). But other than a few loans from and some anemic trade with the West, they all remained disconnected from global capitalism.

That would change after 1989. But instead of a gradual accommodation to the global economy, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union jumped off the high board into the deep end. The huge splash of chlorinated water has stung the eyes of all concerned, even the onlookers.

It turns out, however, that a lot of other countries preceded the Eastern bloc into the pool.

In the 1980s, conservative politicians like Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the United States pushed a similar agenda of economic adjustment: cutting government spending (except on the military), reducing barriers to trade, promoting the financialization of the economy.

As in Eastern Europe a decade later, it wasn’t just conservative politicians who felt compelled to push this agenda. Socialist Francois Mitterrand pursued something similar in France. Then, in the 1990s, it was the turn of Third Way liberals — Bill Clinton in the U.S. and Tony Blair in the U.S., but also the Labor parties in Australia and New Zealand and the Swedish Social Democratic Party — to move toward the neoliberal center.

Whether a project of market-oriented conservatives or liberals, this neoliberal accommodation to economic globalization has produced a similarly skewed pattern of benefits: Planet B if you will. It has increased the gap between rich and poor nations — with a few notable exceptions like the Asian tigers — as well as the wealth divide within nations. Planet B contains some of the same communities left behind during the Eastern European transition: workers in sunset industries, minorities, pensioners.

The financial crisis of 2008-2009 only exacerbated the problem. In the United States, the government bailed out the big losers — like banks — and those in the top income brackets actually improved their position. Everyone else took a hit, with economic inequality widening.

In Europe, the EU failed to protect its member states from the crisis. In fact, the countries in the Eurozone had fewer government levers at their disposal — such as significant deficit spending — to pull themselves out of the crisis. The EU was beginning to look like part of the problem, not part of the solution.

After 2008, as Sheri Berman writes in a study of Why the Left Loses, “the center-left lacked a convincing message for dealing with the crisis, or a more general vision of how to promote growth while protecting citizens from the harsher aspects of free markets. Instead, it kept on trying to defend outdated policies or proposed watered-down versions of neoliberalism that barely differentiated it from the center-right.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the democratic world experienced the same political reaction as Eastern Europe after its particular economic disruption. The benefits of economic globalization were unevenly distributed; so, too, was the pain of the financial crisis of 2008-209. Politics as usual was beginning to look inadequate to the task.

Unintended Consequences


Neo-Nazis stand off with anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville. (Photo: Evan Nesterak / Flickr)

Donald Trump and his populist coevals are not only the result of a revolt of the have-nots or a political backlash against the parties that supported undiluted economic globalization (and its industrial-strength version in Eastern Europe). They have taken advantage of another facet of globalization: migration.

There were two major sources for the major uptick in refugee flows in the last three decades.

The first is war, particularly wars launched by the United States. Those wars initially mobilized a wide range of support from both conservative and liberal governments (with some notable exceptions). As the wars dragged on and produced an increasing flow of refugees, support waned, providing an opening for a populist like Donald Trump to claim opposition to America’s “endless wars.”

The migrants themselves, even if they served the economic needs of the receiving countries by taking jobs that the native-born didn’t want, became a rallying point for xenophobes of various political hues. Right-wing populists giddily seized on the Afghans, Syrians, Libyans, and others fleeing war zones as yet another malign side effect of globalization, for was it not “globalists” in the EU elite who were welcoming these outsiders into Europe?

In the United States, meanwhile, Trump was railing against the influx of people from Mexico and points south and repeating the canard that his opponent Hillary Clinton, another “globalist,” supported “open borders.”

War, free trade, “open borders”: these became associated with a national elite supposedly addicted to all manner of malign activities beyond their national borders. Even populists who’d supported various military operations and benefited personally from economic globalization — like Trump — saw advantages in championing the opposite: a nationalist fixation on sovereignty, strong borders, and government-sanctioned xenophobia. Even populists who’d once championed fast-track transition, like Viktor Orban, switched sides at the first whiff of political opportunity.

A second source of migration was connected to the policies of the European Union. As part of the “four freedoms,” citizens of member countries have the right to work in any other member state. There have been exceptions. The Roma, for instance, discovered that they weren’t welcome when they left their homes in Eastern Europe and went to Italy or France. A state could invoke concerns about “public safety” or “public health” to keep people out. Established member states were also granted phase-in periods to block workers from the new states that joined in the 2000s.

But in general, EU accession created an enormous outflow of East European workers to the west. Roughly 750,000 Poles, for instance, went to Great Britain after accession, turning Polish into the second language in England after English. Because of this influx, a sufficient number of Brits soured on the European project to give Brexit its thin margin of victory in the 2016 referendum.

Internal migration after the accession of the 1990s has likewise boosted Euroskepticism and nativism throughout the continent. One of the great virtues of the EU has turned out to be, thanks to a poorly thought-out accession process, an Achilles’ heel.

Rethinking the Transition


(Photo: Garry Knight / Flickr)

It’s not a direct line from the fall of the Berlin Wall to Donald Trump or Brexit.

Rather, it’s the way Eastern Europe handled the transition — or had the transition handled for them — that has ultimately given rise to today’s populism. Moreover, the same factors in play in Western Europe and in the United States, namely a “transition” to an economically and politically polarizing global economy, has produced a similar crop of political figures.

Yes, of course, other factors produced Trump, Brexit, and the like: feckless opposition, the impact of social media, outright fraud and misrepresentation. But such idiocies could never have gotten within whispering distance of success without these underlying economic “adjustments” and the backlash to them.

Many East Europeans expected a kinder, gentler transition. When that didn’t happen, they either voted out the parties that orchestrated the shock-therapy adjustments or they voted with their feet. The disgruntled of Western Europe and the United States have focused their revenge on the polls.

Could it have happened differently 30 years ago?

Theoretically, yes. There could have been a Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe. The EU could have helped create a giant social safety net for its newest members. But resources were tight in the early 1990s because of an economic downturn that lasted from 1990 to 1994. And austerity, not largesse, was the watchword of that era.

Also, you could legitimately ask: why just Eastern Europe? Shouldn’t the former Soviet Union be included among the recipients? And why not South Africa after apartheid? Or, to backtrack just a couple years, the Philippines after Ferdinand Marcos? Were the people in these countries somehow less deserving?

Finally, Eastern European countries were not in a position to buck the status quo. Neither the United States nor Western Europe was interested in delaying the region’s entrance into the global economy. There were choice properties in the region to acquire and lower-wage workers to exploit. But the even more salient point is that the West was engaged in a similar process of transition, though it had started earlier and could therefore attenuate the negative effects.

This larger transition is still ongoing. Economic globalization is now encountering two significant backlashes.

The first comes from the right-wing populists, who basically want to redirect the economic benefits accruing from their control of the state into their own pockets and those of their loyal clients. The second comes from environmentalists, who recognize that an ever-expanding global economy has pumped a dangerously high amount of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

Perhaps the notion of a largely unregulated market spreading into every nook and cranny of the earth will one day seem like a very quaint notion, like the spread of a single religion across the map or a single country’s domination of the globe. As the waters continue to rise, let’s hope that there will still be economists, political scientists, and anthropologists who will debate the costs and benefits of this great transition.

But that will depend a great deal on whether the world embarks on a more sustainable transition to replace the one that has brought us all to this perilous crossroads.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, November 13, 2019

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A Fairy Tale from 2050

Once upon a time, long, long ago, I testified before the great assembly of our land.

When I describe this event to children today, it really does sound to them like a fairy tale. Once upon a time — a time before the world splintered into a million pieces and America became its current disunited states — this old woman was a young idealist who tried to persuade our mighty Congress that a monster was stalking the land.

“Did they listen to you, Auntie Rachel?” they typically ask me.

“Oh, they listened to me, but they didn’t hear me.”

“So, what did you do?”

“I thought and I thought, and I wrote and I wrote, and I put together an even better presentation,” I say patiently. “I had to somehow make that monster visible so those mighty people could see it.”

“What did it look like, Auntie Rachel?”

“It was invisible, my dear children, but we could feel its hot breath. And we could see the terrible things that it did. It could make the oceans rise. It could make the crops wilt in the fields. Still, we kept feeding this terrible beast.”

“But why?”

“It’s what the monster demanded. Some monsters want to devour little children. Others insist on young maidens. But this one insisted on tankers of oil and truckloads of coal. Even as it grew, it only demanded more and more.”

At this point, the children are always wide-eyed. “What did you do then?”

“I talked to those great people again. And this time I tried even harder to describe the monster.” As I slip into the past, the faces of the children become those of long-dead politicians. “I provided more detailed graphs of rising temperatures. I cited statistics on the impact of burning coal and oil and natural gas. I displayed photos of what the melting ice and the surging waters had already done. And then I showed them pictures of what the future would look like: submerged cities, drought-stricken lands, dead seas. They looked and still they didn’t see. They listened and still they didn’t hear. Great people,” I conclude, “are not always good people.”

“What did you do then?” they always ask.

“I stopped talking, my darlings. I came here to escape the monster. I came to Arcadia.”

They look disappointed. The children know their fairy tales. They expect someone — perhaps a knight in shining armor — to appear suddenly and slay the monster.

“There was no knight,” I lament. “And the monster still lives. We can feel its hot breath even now.”

Of course, my young charges don’t really understand my story. Today, in 2050, there is no Congress. There are no committee hearings. There are no intergovernmental panels or global gatherings. I might as well be telling them about Roman banquets or medieval jousts. And yet my little students always clamor for more stories of the vanished world of Washington, D.C., 2017, just as they would beg for yet another of Aesop’s fables. But they don’t quite see how these tales of long ago connect to their lives today.

After all, they live in a post-political world.

The Death of Politics

Before the global thermometer went haywire, before the great economic panics of the early 2020s, before the battles escalated between vigilantes and jihadis, before the international community cracked like a mirror smashed by a fist, there was that initial death, which was barely noticed at the time.

As the historians — those left to tell the tale — will inform you, there were no funerals for the death of politics, nor were there obituaries. And even if there had been, few would have shed any tears. The confidence the American public had in Congress back in those days was lower than in any other institution — a mere 9% had such confidence, compared to 18% for big business and 73% for the military.

Politics in the muggy swamp of Washington, where I lived in those antediluvian years, had become a tug of war between two hated teams. Sometimes, one side won and dragged the other through the muck. Then the situation would be reversed. No matter: at the end of the day, everyone was left covered in mud.

Yes, things might have turned out differently. Radical reforms might have been enacted, a new generation of politicians cultivated. But at the moment of greatest peril — to the republic and the world at large — Americans turned their backs on politics, electing the most anti-political candidate in the history of the country. The founding fathers had done everything they could to ensure that the system would not produce such a result, but there was no way they could have anticipated Donald Trump or the circumstances that put him in power.

When the initial Europeans arrived in North America more than half a millennium ago, they brought weapons far more powerful than the stone axes and wooden clubs wielded by the First Nations. But it wasn’t just the guns that proved so devastating. The Europeans carried within them something far more lethal: invisible diseases like smallpox and the flu. Those viruses cut through the Native Americans like so many scythes, killing nine out of every ten of the original inhabitants of this continent.

Many centuries later, Donald Trump arrived in Washington armed with the explicit weapons of extremist rhetoric and sociopathic sangfroid with which he had destroyed his political opponents. But it was what he carried hidden within him that would ultimately turn out to be so catastrophic. Although he had railed against the political establishment in the election campaign that put him in the Oval Office, in his own way he had also played by the political rules to get there. Deep down, however, his greatest urge was to destroy politics altogether: tweet by tweet, outrage by outrage.

And his attack on politics would finish off the world as we knew it in Washington circa 2017. In the end, it would render congressional testimony and Congress itself irrelevant. Even today, more than 30 years later, the bodies are still piling up.

The Judgment of Paris

I teach science to the young children here in Arcadia. It’s not difficult to explain the basic scientific concepts that so changed our world, and we have a well-equipped lab for them to run experiments. So they understand the science of climate change. What bewilders them is how the crisis came about.

“Why didn’t our grandparents run the factories every other day?” a bright young girl once asked me. “Why didn’t they drive those stupid cars just on the weekend?”

Our children know little but Arcadia, and this community is fully sustainable. We produce everything we need here in this corner of what was once the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. What we don’t grow, we synthesize or create on our 3-D printers. We conduct limited trade with the few neighboring communities. If there is an unexpected death, we issue another birth permit. If our solar batteries run low during the winter, we ration energy. Everything is recycled, from our chicken bones to our night soil. The children of Arcadia don’t understand waste.

They also don’t understand the now-strange concept of an international community. They’ve never ventured beyond the walls of our little universe.  It’s only thanks to virtual tourism that they’ve seen the world outside, which just reinforces their desire to remain here. After all, the world out there is just a collection of sharp little shards, what my ex-husband used to call the “splinterlands” of this planet. My students can’t comprehend how those shards, most of them exceedingly dangerous micro-environments, once fit together to form larger nations that in turn sometimes cooperated to solve common problems. It’s like that old story of the elephant and the six blind men. The children of Arcadia can understand the parts, but unsurprising enough, given the events of the last three decades, the whole eludes them.

Think of that long-gone international community, I tell them, as a squalling infant born in 1945 to bickering parents. A troubled childhood was followed by an awkward youth. Only in middle age, with the end of the Cold War in 1989, did it finally seem to come into its own, however briefly.  Unfortunately, within a few short years, it was prematurely in its dotage. In 2017, at 72, the international community was past retirement age, in frail health, and in desperate need of assisted care.

Once upon a time, this aged collective creature, this Knight of the Sad Countenance, was supposed to be our savior, the slayer of the horrible monster. When the time came, however, it could barely lift a lance.

Without some knowledge of the life cycle of the international community, my children can’t possibly understand why global temperatures continued to rise in the first part of this century, despite the best efforts of scientists, environmentalists, and concerned citizens. Several countries, Uruguay and Bhutan among them, had gone to extraordinary lengths to reduce their carbon footprint, and more than a dozen cities eventually became carbon neutral. Individuals adopted vegetarianism, drove electric cars, turned down their thermostats in the winter — as if lifestyle changes alone could slay the monster.

Unfortunately, a global problem really did require a global response. The Paris climate accord, which 196 countries signed at the end of 2015, was just such an effort. Only two countries refused to sign, one (Syria) because it was mired in a civil war and the other (Nicaragua) due to sheer cussedness. And yet the terms of the agreement were far from adequate. The international community, which had come together in this twilight of cooperation, well understood the enormity of the challenge: to keep global temperatures from rising two degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial average. At best, however, the Paris treaty would have kept temperatures from rising three degrees.  And as everyone now knows, the best was hardly what happened.

In this way did that community abandon the very idea of sustainability and embrace its lesser cousin, resilience. I try to explain to my children that sustainability is all about harmony — maintaining balance, never taking more than what we give back. Resilience, on the other hand, is about making the adaptations required by a crisis, about simply getting by. The judgment of Paris, with its nod toward resilience, was, in fact, an acknowledgment of failure.

Although flawed, it was at least part of a process. That’s what democratic politics is all about, I tell my charges. You have to begin somewhere and hope to improve from there. After all, there’s always the possibility that one day you might even graduate from resilience to sustainability.

But, of course, there’s also the option of going backward, which is exactly what happened, big league — to use an expression of the new American president — in 2017.

The Trump Revolution

It’s an unfortunate fact of our world that destruction is so much easier than construction. Anyone can wield a sledgehammer; few can use a trowel. An inadvertent sneeze can take down the most elaborately built house of cards.

Donald Trump was more than just a sneeze. His devotion to the destruction of the “administrative state” was impressive. At the time, we were all so focused on the domestic side of that destruction — the toppling of the pillars of the welfare state, the repeal of universal health care, the rollback of legal protections and voting rights of all sorts — that we failed to pay proper attention to just how devastatingly that destruction spread internationally.

Yes, the new president cancelled pending trade deals, thumbed his nose at traditional allies, and questioned the utility of agreements like the one that mothballed Iran’s nuclear program. But those were largely bilateral attacks. Much more dangerous were his fierce sallies against the international administrative state.

The most important of these, of course, was his decision to withdraw from the Paris accord. Admittedly, it was a weak, voluntary agreement. Yet even that was too much for Donald Trump. The president declared that the agreement would disadvantage Americans and force workers and taxpayers “to absorb the cost” of reducing greenhouse gas admissions through “lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production.” It didn’t matter that none of that was true.  Renewable energy programs were creating more well-paying jobs in the United States than the dirty energy industries were trying to maintain.  In his surge of destruction, however, President Trump never felt the need to justify his actions with recourse to actual facts.

The United States, moreover, was both the richest country in the world and historically the largest producer of carbon emissions. As we tell our students here in Arcadia, if you’re most responsible for the mess, you should be most responsible for the clean-up.  It’s a simple concept for children to absorb. Yet it was beyond the ken of most Americans.

Worse than being merely indifferent, the new president was determined to hasten global warming, single-handedly if necessary, by expanding offshore drilling; green-lighting more gas and oil pipelinesreducing restrictions of every imaginable sort on the dirty energy industry; cutting support for the development of alternative energies; encouraging the production of, and reduced emissions standards for, gas-guzzling vehicles; and slashing the budget for the enforcement of environmental standards of every imaginable sort. Trump, in other words, wasn’t just willing to let the buried treasure of fossil fuels well enough alone.  He was eager to feed the monster even more than it demanded.

If we had been living in a normal time, it might have been possible to fight back effectively in political terms against this onslaught. But just as Trump’s carbon-based vision of America and the world was exploding upon us, politics was taken into a backroom and strangled.

The Politics of Antipolitics

I remember the birth of antipolitics. I was a young woman when dissidents in the communist world began to associate official political activity with support for an immoral order. Voting, they believed, was an empty gesture if the ruling party won 99% of the ballots cast. Parliaments were empty vessels if the Party leader and the Politburo always ended up making all the decisions. When politics are compromised in this way, all but the opportunists retreat into antipolitics.

Communism died in 1989, and politics was reborn in those lands of antipolitics — but all too briefly. Within a decade, the new converts to democracy began reverting to their earlier mistrust of anything political and conventional politicians became the enemy.  Collaboration and compromise were once again anathema.

And then this very dissatisfaction with politics as we knew it began spreading beyond the post-communist world. Voters elsewhere became dazzled by the most illiberal of politicians, a crew who were naturals for one-party or one-leader states. Donald Trump was just part of this new fraternity of nationalist populists that included Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and Viktor Orban of Hungary.  All of them quickly began concentrating power in their own hands in an attempt to rule by decree (or, in Trump’s case, by executive order). In the process, they used antipolitics strategically to defeat any potential challenges at the domestic and transnational level.

It was odd that, in so many countries, voters seemingly couldn’t wait to disenfranchise themselves through this new antipolitics. To a man, these autocrats came to power not through coups but through elections. Odder still was the fact that, in those years, it was increasingly young people who no longer considered it important to live in a democracy. When only the old believe in such a system, then it, too, is but one step from the grave.

Perhaps the culprit was economic. The major parties in these countries had almost uniformly supported policies that widened the gap between rich and poor, robbing young people of jobs and any hope for a future. No surprise, then, that they lost faith in the secular religion of democracy.

Or perhaps technology killed politics. The computer and the cell phone combined to reduce the attention span required for sustained involvement in public affairs. The micro-communities created by social media obviated the need to interact with those who didn’t share one’s own micro-concerns. And of course everyone began to insist on immediate results at a single keystroke, which, at the political level, translated into an increased preference for decrees.

For a brief moment, the Trump “shock” provoked a counter-reaction. In the United States, there were huge protest marches, while unsympathetic government bureaucrats dug in their heels — but this only strengthened the populist narrative of an irresponsible liberal elite and a hostile “deep state.” In this brief moment of seeming reversal, Trump’s allies in Europe even lost a few elections, but the victors in those contests continued policies that disadvantaged the majority economically and politically and in the next round or the one after the predictable happened.

As those of a certain age remember, Trump himself eventually fell from power, undone in the end by his own self-defeating vengefulness.  At that moment, his critics exulted in their schadenfreude, only to find that he was replaced all too soon by someone who shared his destructive anti-politics without his noxious personal traits.

Trump stunned the international community. His successors gutted it.  And as everyone in Earth’s splinterlands now knows, the monster continued to be fed, while the thermometers, floods, droughts, wild fires, sea levels, tides of refugees, and all the rest continued their inexorable rise.

Childhood’s End

Fairy tales should have happy endings. I assure our children that they are safe inside Arcadia. They can see for themselves how successfully we raise our crops. They are far enough from the ocean’s tidal waves not to fear the waters. They participate in the democratic political life of our community. The occasional breakdown notwithstanding, Arcadia is a small island of hope in a sea of despair.

The temperatures continue their climb. Outside, the scramble for resources becomes bloodier by the year. Many of the communities that once dotted the landscape around us are nothing but a memory. The walls surrounding Arcadia may be next to impregnable and our armory remarkably well stocked, but the question remains: Can we survive without our founding members, who are just now beginning to die off?

We raise and educate our children under the threat of the same monster grown larger yet. As they get older, some of the young accuse my generation and me of failing to slay that creature and, unfortunately, they couldn’t be more right. I believe that we, at least here in Arcadia, did do our best, but sadly it wasn’t good enough.

Soon, it will be our children’s turn. They will tend the crops and maintain the armory. They will continue the search for a scientific solution to climate change in the absence of a political one and an international community to enforce it. And they will be the ones who must make sure that the monster, however much it huffs and puffs and threatens our very livelihood, does not in the end blow our house down, too.

TomDispatch, July 18, 2017

Blog Eastern Europe Featured Uncategorized

The Rubik’s Cube of Roma Rights

Many European organizations, the Open Society Foundation among them, have put a great deal of money and energy into addressing the issue of Roma. Some progress has been made. Roma parliamentarians, business people, journalists, lawyers, and academics have for instance pushed for equal rights for the Roma minority in their respective countries. They are the visible sign that policies of inclusion have worked.

And yet, for the vast majority of Roma, inclusion remains a distant goal. More than 70 percent of Roma live in poverty, and at best only 29 percent graduate from secondary school.

Larry Olomoofe is the racism and xenophobia advisor for the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization of Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Warsaw. After working on Roma issues for many years, he likens the challenge to a Rubik’s Cube. There are a lot of working parts, and it requires considerable coordination. You can make progress up to a certain point, and then it just seems impossible to get any further.

“I’m one of the biggest critics of ‘Romanomics.’ It’s an industry,” Olomoofe told me in an interview in Warsaw in August 2013. “We pump so much money into the situation, and all it does is privilege a few, the ones who know our rules and play our game.”

“If you do a rough estimate of how much money has been pumped into the Roma issue over the last years, let’s just say it’s a billion euro,” he continued. “That’s a conservative estimate at the time I wrote the piece, in 2007-8. And there are 15 million Roma in Europe. They could have given 25-30,000 euros to each Roma! Even if they squandered it, at least it would have been them. Whereas the representatives of the Roma have access to these funds, and it has had no impact on their community.”

We talked about an incident that happened around the time of our discussion in the Hungarian city of Ozd where the mayor shut the water supply to the Roma community. It took place during August when the temperatures had exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

“How is that not part of the Roma discourse that people can still treat “Gypsies” this way?” Olomoofe said. “At the same time, they can lecture me or Roma in the city center to keep quiet? I saw this guy once screaming loudly at a Roma woman for speaking on the metro. Roma rights? The prevalence of Roma discrimination continues. People feel that they can act with impunity, whether it’s ordinary citizens, government officials or neo-Nazi groups that march through their neighborhoods. This process of Roma rights is just a self-propagating mechanism to empower people who are the messengers not the people down below. That’s why it’s like a Rubik’s cube.”

The Roma Decade of Inclusion is set to run until the end of this year. It’s unclear what will happen next, although the various stakeholders have “supported the option of continuing the Decade but in a revised and streamlined form.” That will likely mean less money and less country-level buy-in.

Olomoofe recommends a different approach with the funds allocated to Roma inclusion. “The funds should have been used very differently to create infrastructure in the Roma community,” he concluded. “I’m not talking about housing. That’s still the state’s responsibility in terms of quality of life. But if you want to create a representative system, you have to find a way to get the people involved. I’ve always suggested that there should be more community-based activities. And that’s not to say that it should be politicized. Instead we should create what we call citizen advisory roles in the community itself. There should be a building in the community that does Roma rights at the local level. How you harness that energy is another matter. There are 15 million Roma across Europe: how do you best gain access to those Roma? Instead of creating a structure that pretends to have that access, there should be an organic development, rather than something imposed.”


The Interview


You were talking about the work on Islamophobia being done here in Warsaw at the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.


I have a very precise definition. At the OSCE, the portfolio is not called “Islamophobia.” It’s called “intolerance against Muslims.” And intolerance can manifest itself in a broad variety of ways, which doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s Islamophobia. There’s a danger of collapsing everything into one category, like taking the banal act of someone saying that women shouldn’t wear headscarves in public as Islamophobia instead of as a legitimate critique — in the same way that we question crosses in a classroom. It’s about secularism. A reductive challenge to Islamophobia would suggest that the crosses being removed from public space or the non-display of religious attire or paraphernalia in public offices is a form of phobia or resentment of Christianity: a form of Christianophobia. So you create an illegitimate discourse that serves political interests or needs and doesn’t address the fundamental problem. What we advise in my office is to have a more discerning eye.

The minaret ban in 2009-10, then, isn’t Islamophobia. It’s intolerance or discrimination against Muslims. For me Islamophobia is the obliteration of Islam — in the same that homophobia is the eradication of homosexuality in society. The Danish cartoons of Mohammed then are also not Islamophobia, though people see them as that.


It’s like genocide. If we use the term too broadly, when it does take place…


People are going to be immune to it. Or they’ll say, it’s been with us for so long, why should we pay attention to it? That banalization is a huge danger to our work. We’re trying to capture hearts and minds. We should be concerned about the forms of Islamophobia that create a radicalization that people feel compelled to do something about. We’re looking at that at the OSCE as well. We call it violent extremism leading to radical terrorism, and it’s based in the anti-terrorism unit in Vienna. My advice is that we don’t lose the general human rights approach. Instead we’re focused on a reaction to radicalism, or perceived radicalism. And how do you define radicalism?


There’s the case in Bulgaria involving the 13 imams and that’s the issue: what is radicalism? The question is over what they are doing and what they are saying. It’s a legal discussion and a discussion in the media. The acts involve money transfers from Arab states to the Bulgarian Muslim community. Are these radical acts?


This is a result of 9/11 that allows authorities to encroach on such activities. Money transfers are a byproduct of globalization. When I was growing up in London, my mom was forever sending money back to our family in Nigeria via postal orders. There was no Western Union at that time. When I was living in New York, Western Union was a very lucrative business, in Harlem and Brooklyn especially. International transfers have been with us for a long time. To identify that as somehow connected to terrorism is to implicate I don’t know how many billions of people. It gives the authorities the right or the opportunity to expropriate, and, as you know in some countries, the state now uses this opportunity to cut off sources of international funding.


To dry up support for the so-called foreign agents.


Exactly. In an inverted fashion, it creates the clandestine transfer of funds. I remember when I was in Moscow to do a training with the European Roma Rights Center and I had to carry $20,000 in cash, secreted on my body. Then I had to to hide the money all over my hotel room. It was to pay for accommodation and travel for the participants.


I remember one protest here in Poland organized bizarrely by the Buddhists in alliance with a far-right organization against the building of a mosque. Have there been others?


No. I don’t think there’s too much animosity or tension with Muslims here. I was talking to my friend, who runs the “intolerance against Muslims” portfolio, and he told me about a historical site in Bialystok where there’s a renowned mosque. It’s a landmark that people are proud of. It’s a vestige of the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. And there’s no tension in the community.

What you have with these far-right wing groups is the bandwagon effect. They’re just jumping on to the latest trendy thing, in the same way that Gay Pride always causes anti-Gay tension. Because of what happened with the minaret ban, they feel they should do the same here. But there’s no real threat. Unless they conflate Islam with Turks.


My experience here in 1989 was that there were strong levels of racism. There were some attacks against students studying here from other countries. The racism was represented in op-eds and political cartoons. People would say, “We Poles are treated like Africans by the international community, and we shouldn’t be treated that way because we are Europeans.” But it sounds like the situation has changed.


Well, I don’t know how we could test that. But we could look at what happened in the intervening period. When you were here before, Poland wasn’t a member of the EU. It was pretty isolated. There wasn’t a lot of movement. There weren’t many places in the West where Poles could go to other than maybe Germany. Now they are members of the EU and have freedom of movement. They have themselves migrated. And a lot of them have had the usual migrant experience in the UK where they suffer the animosity meted out to typical migrants.

There’s this well-known event that took place in 2011 around Christmas on a tram in London where this woman was caught on camera having a racist rant against any Black person within the vicinity. In the first six or seven seconds, she says, “What is this country coming to? Fucking niggers. Fucking Poles.” I tell people, when I give presentations, that they need to bear this in mind, that they are all potentially migrants somewhere. It’s that knock-on effect. It’s my job to remind them that their extended family, their diasporic family, is subject to the same negativity that they are meting out to others.

To some extent, that’s had some direct impact on the public psyche if not the social consciousness of Poles. They’ve suffered now. They might characterize it now that they’ve been treated the same as Africans. Well, that’s right, they are! That’s the whole point about discrimination. There’s always a lateral movement where one group replaces another. It’s not a rational issue: it’s an emotional one. It makes logical sense that Poles would be seen in a threatening way by hosts. It’s generic. At the time this whole thing started to come out about Poles in Britain, there were approximately 600,000 Poles in Britain. But there’s been a strong connection between Polish émigrés and Britain for a while. I had a lot of Polish friends and I didn’t realize that they were Polish at the time. They were just, for instance, Rob. I didn’t realize that Boronsky was a Polish name. We played football together. There was a Polish community in NW London that congregated every Sunday at the community center and did Polish things. I can see why there’s been this steady migration. It’s another wave of globalization.


I read an article that Polish is now the second language in the UK.


Think about that! Or look at Los Angeles where Spanish is so prevalent in some places. I recall when I used to live in New York, in Spanish Harlem, everything was in Spanish. People didn’t need to speak English. If you wanted to make a buck, you had to learn the language in order to communicate. That’s why I love New York so much. That’s the same thing that can happen with Poles. It’s the biggest Eastern European country in the EU. If you think about the Polish population — its economy, landscape, farming — it’s a lucrative new member.


That’s true. But everyone has expressed a concern about the brain drain here. I was told that Scandinavian countries give third-year medical students here the language training so that they can earn four times the salary in Norway or Sweden. They’re just extracting the intellectual elite.


That’s an inevitability given how the global economic infrastructure operates. The centers of migration attract particular talent. Places like Sweden, given its socio-economic relationship with its neighbors, would do that.

When I used to live in Nigeria, I had a friend who was quite clever. He was born in London, just as I was. And we both ended up in this private school. I asked him what he wanted to do. He said, “I want to go to America.”

“Why?” I asked him.

“Because you can do anything in America.”

I was 17 at the time. It stayed with me. I thought, “Can’t you do anything you want in the UK?” Well, that’s not quite true. America was just too far for me to comprehend. It was completely divorced from my heritage. I had family in London, in Nigeria, but nobody in the United States. I thought it was brave of my friend to just go off there.

That perception is still there today. It’s part of the marketing of America that has sustained itself. People still harbor that ambition even though it’s more difficult to go there after 9/11. As a consequence, many people end up in Canada. They can’t get into America, so that’s the closest thing.

Here it’s so easy to get to the UK by train or bus. A flight can cost 100 euros. And English is a second language in this region. It’s going to continue. People go to these places and get four times their salary because at that salary they’re still cheaper than a local person. And that indicates what the salaries are here. That’s the predominant factor for accession. They can get good quality manpower or talent for one quarter the price.


Let’s go back to the issue of Roma. There was a period of time, which to a certain extent still continues, when a lot of resources went to address the economic and political disparities between Roma and non-Roma as well as persistent discrimination. Have you noticed any significant improvement over that period?


I’m one of the biggest critics of “Romanomics.” It’s an industry. That’s one reason why I left my old organization. It used to be dynamic. It used to pioneer, push boundaries, and establish jurisprudence on Roma rights in the European court system. It was akin to the Legal Defense Fund in the United States. The strategies are the same. After doing a training on Roma in 2008, I came back and wrote a piece I called “The Rubik’s Cube.” It talked about the problematic of Roma rights. Have you ever completed a Rubik’s cube?




Neither have I. I could get three sides, but then I was blocked over the last few squares, so I never got it done. I used this as an analogy for the Roma rights situation. We pump so much money into the situation, and all it does is privilege a few, the ones who know our rules and play our game. During this training for the community, I kept on meeting the same people I’d met over the last five years.

If you do a rough estimate of how much money has been pumped into the Roma issue over the last years, let’s just say it’s a billion euro. That’s a conservative estimate at the time I wrote the piece, in 2007-8. And there are 15 million Roma in Europe. They could have given 25-30,000 euros to each Roma! Even if they squandered it, at least it would have been them. Whereas the representatives of the Roma have access to these funds, and it has had no impact on their community.

You were in Budapest last weekend, right? You heard what happened in Ozd. The local authorities disconnected the water supply to the Roma ghetto at the hottest time of the year. How is that not part of the Roma discourse that people can still treat “Gypsies” this way? At the same time, they can lecture me or Roma in the city center to keep quiet? I saw this guy once screaming loudly at a Roma woman for speaking on the metro. Roma rights? The prevalence of Roma discrimination continues. People feel that they can act with impunity, whether it’s ordinary citizens, government officials or neo-Nazi groups that march through their neighborhoods. This process of Roma rights is just a self-propagating mechanism to empower people who are the messengers not the people down below. That’s why it’s like a Rubik’s cube.”

The Roma Access Program is a necessary program, but not an end in itself. Some people see it as an end in itself because Roma go to the Central European University, get their robes, put their stuff on Facebook, and they’re done. We wanted to create a sense of self-belief in Roma, even a sense of arrogance. Then they could go out and promote themselves and Roma issues. But the problem is that it was internalized as an end in itself. You don’t get people promoting. You get exceptions, not the rule. After 12 years of investment, the 18 year olds are now 30. And all they think about is their own development and progression. That’s the saddest thing.


Where did you want to publish it?


My former organization put out a magazine. And it was the first time that one of my articles had been rejected. It wasn’t a matter of ego or pride. I have other platforms where I can publish. But it’s what was said: “I don’t think we’re the best place to publish this.” After 15 years of doing this kind of work, if they’re not best place to publish it, who is?

And that’s why this thing in Odz affects me so much. After all of this, on the doorstep of many Roma organizations in Budapest, something like this can happen, and all these organizations do is send out a communiqué? Other people did a Facebook campaign to compel the authorities to switch the water back on.


As you said, you were critical of your former organization even before it became a shadow of itself. What could have been and what should be done in terms of avoiding this Talented Tenth approach to Roma rights issues? Would the legal strategy be simply part of a larger strategy?


I worked with the human rights education department. I didn’t actually litigate. But it made me look at strategic litigation as part of a strategic approach. At the time, in 2008, we had the case DH and others v. the Czech Republic, a case on structured discrimination. They were sequestering Roma kids in special schools. We won at the European Court of Human Rights. At the time, we had a new executive director, and she said, “What are we going to do with this?” She thought we had to focus our efforts in the Czech Republic and the Czech Republic alone. And that overlooked the strategic aspect of using the European Court. The European Court case became a precedent that you could apply across the member states. And that was the point. To go to the places where you could find a similar pattern of sequestration or segregation and say to them, “This took place in the Czech Republic. If we take you to court, we’ll win because of this precedent. So let’s work together and try to change it.” That has been the strategic approach.

My job as a human rights trainer was to go into these countries and capacitate judges and government officials so that they could become more congruent with international standards. The directorship at the time thought it better to concentrate energies. We had a falling out at the staff meeting. She asked, “Why would anyone else take this case seriously?” Because they do the same things in their countries! Orsus and others v. Croatia came out later, based on the same result. There was a knock-on effect. If we had to position ourselves properly during the intervening time, things might have changed. Minority Rights international and Amnesty International used this as a catalyzer.

But they didn’t have the grassroots connections that my former organization had, through the internship program, through OSI. And they just let those connections fritter away, or evolve into something else. Now it’s become a token. They’ve lost the momentum. When the strategy was strategic litigation, it included advocacy, research, publishing. We had country reports. And capacity-building. It was a multi-pronged approach that used litigation as a catapult into European society. I saw that the organization was losing its import.

To come to the Talented Tenth part, I used to teach the talented tenth – in internship programs, summer workshops, trainings. They get the positions because they are qualified. The young people will say that they’re the leaders of the Roma movement because they’re educated. And I remind them that many people who were leaders of movements were not educated in a formal way. A person that I look up to on a regular basis is Malcolm X, and he had a checkered history. But he was not formally educated. Education is useful but it’s not always necessary.


Sometimes it can be an impediment!


This is how Roma rights looks like to me today. [A Roma panhandler comes up to us] I don’t give. This is ironic. After all these years of doing this work, we still have this. This is what people still see as Roma. They’ll get kicked out aggressively. But I won’t make that contribution any more.

I was recently talking to a former Roma intern. People who were trained several years ago are now in government positions in her country. She went to one of them and asked for a job. And he said he’d give her a job if she slept with him. This is what Roma rights has come down to. We’re contributing to that.

I’ve always had a problem with creating the Talented Tenth. When DuBois was talking about the Talented Tenth, he was talking about an organic development, which wasn’t necessarily about education per se. It could be different talents — schoolteachers, administrators, provocateurs — in the Black community at the time. He was in the South trying to implement this educational system. What facilities were there? So, people have misapplied this particular theory. Roma rights is a testing ground for all these social engineering projects that didn’t work in the past, so let’s try these new techniques here. The Talented Tenth to do what? They’re supposed to have a purpose.


Let’s take the two extremes — the billion dollars given to Roma NGOs and just giving every Roma $25,000 to do with what they want. If you had a billion dollars as an administrator, is there a different option?


I think there is. The funds should have been used very differently to create infrastructure in the Roma community. I’m not talking about housing. That’s still the state’s responsibility in terms of quality of life. But if you want to create a representative system, you have to find a way to get the people involved. I’ve always suggested that there should be more community-based activities. And that’s not to say that it should be politicized. Instead we should create what we call citizen advisory roles in the community itself. There should be a building in the community that does Roma rights at the local level. How you harness that energy is another matter. There are 15 million Roma across Europe: how do you best gain access to those Roma? Instead of creating a structure that pretends to have that access, there should be an organic development, rather than something imposed.

Roma rights is like a hologram. You flick it different ways and see different things. There’s a perception of what it is and what it should be, and then you get closer and you see that it’s something very different.

When I took the position at my former organization, I had an intern from Bulgaria who has been like a brother to me. He’s slightly older. He’s not a member of the formal Roma human rights structure. He was just a random person who contacted me through our website. I said, “Come over and we’ll see what we can do.” He was raw. But I liked that rawness. He was still connected to people on the ground.

I asked him why he was interested in Roma human rights. He was a singer who also played the guitar.

He said, “My uncle. He has an orphanage.”

“What does your uncle do?”

“He’s an undertaker.”

“How’d he get involved?”

“He was a street child. Now that he’s made some money, he wants to give something back.”

So, my Bulgarian intern took me to this place, on the other side of the tracks in Sofia, off the radar. He took me there at night. It was such a harrowing experience. His uncle who drove us. I remember turning this corner, the road was bumpy, unpaved, and I just saw these eyes, running to the car. These kids were running at us, going “wooh, wooh, wooh.” I asked what was going on. The kids were sniffing glue. Then this woman came up to me and begged me to help her. She had a child. I said I wished I could, but I had money in my pocket that was there for these programs in Haskovo, which we funded and which I was there to assess. I said I couldn’t help her, because I couldn’t give her the money. It wasn’t part of the structure. The uncle said that he helped her however he could. The kids were between six and ten, sniffing glue. They were going completely crazy. These kids were lost. There was no remedial social service in place to rehabilitate them. And what she called home was harrowing too. It was a plastic tarpaulin, maybe from a huge container. It was on some sticks. The only source of light was a candle. It was a death trap. It was snowing and raining at the time.

I got into the car, and I was so angry that a human being at the dawn of the 21st century was living like this — in Europe. It’s important to me to make those distinctions. While the comparison between Africa and Europe might be distasteful, it’s still helpful, because it’s true.

Then I went to the program in Haskovo, which is on the border of Turkey. When I turned up at the office, it turned out to be a room and a fax machine, nothing else. They were getting $300 a month, consistently. I was pissed off. I asked them what they were doing.

“We’re monitoring discrimination,” the woman in the office said.

“So, show me what you’re doing. Show me some documentation.”

She took out an A4 piece of paper, folded up. It was a faxed copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And the fax came from my former organization. And I thought, “We’re paying you?” I closed the program down on the spot. I called the office and told them to stop funding that operation even before I got to the car to go back.

My intern asked, “Why’d you do that?”

I said, “You saw that woman yesterday.”

“I never saw anybody do that before,” he said.

That’s how we became friends. I look at his uncle, who uses his own resources and is not part of the organized Roma infrastructure, and he does more for those kids in his own little way. He has created something palpable in the community. It’s organic. This artificial selection, this cherrypicking of the Talented Tenth is not the solution. It’s disruptive.


It’s a paradox. In some way, it’s the presence of these organizations with their money that compounds the problem. So, the spectrum I offered was not entirely accurate because there are problems that exist outside this spectrum.


What’s disgraceful is that they should know about these realities. They’re identifying people to go back and work in the best interests of their communities. But it’s not happening. If you were to do some research among Roma communities and ask them what they think about the Roma HR discourse, they’ll say it’s all about people exploiting them, whether they’re Roma or not. Some Roma have said to me, “if we’re going to be exploited, we’d rather be exploited by our own, not by gadje.” That’s progress? It’s not a paradox. It’s a contradiction, and I’m not the first person to see it. Many people see it but don’t want to accept it. They get invited to these nice public events, which are just a facade. If the problem were solved today, these people would have nothing.

When I used to work on Roma rights, people asked me, “Why aren’t you working on civil rights with Black people?” I don’t want to be categorized by my race or ethnicity. I have particular skills that can be applied across the spectrum. I have particular oratorical skills that don’t just have to be used on behalf of Black people. Part of my role in life is to confound assumptions and perceptions and push for newer realities. I’m currently working as a diplomat for an international organization. Many people don’t expect that when they see me. I’m happy for them to be confronted by that. Maybe they’ll learn as a result not to stereotype people. You can’t do that with Roma. People get chosen because of their Roma identity. With the closing of certain funds, there will be chaos: all these Talented Tenth with no jobs and no capacity to do something else because they can’t compete as a consequence of tokenism.


How has your previous experience working on Roma issues translated into the work you do now?


I came here in a management position as a deputy head of department. I also have experience in training. Part of my job is to capacitate members of staff. When I came here, people asked me why I wanted to leave my last job. I wanted a new challenge. The OSCE needed to take ownership of what they did. I work on hate crimes specifically. I’m not completely out of the Roma thing, it’s just a different approach. I used to work as a consultant for the OSCE to develop their portfolio on hate crimes. I was part of the review committee for their publications. They did pioneering training here in Warsaw and in Hungary and in Bulgaria. I was involved in this. When the deputy head position came up, I applied for it. I always felt that the OSCE paid us as consultants but didn’t retain what was produced. It was just an item on their website. But they didn’t actually do the training. They funded the training. It was important for them to take ownership and for it to become institutionalized.

That’s what I said in my job interview for the OSCE. If I came into the post, part of my job would be to help to create the momentum so that they could do their own trainings. Four years on, we are now doing our own training without consulting external experts. There was a shift in my position. I just didn’t have enough time to do all the administrative work along with the training, capacitating staff, attending conferences, and writing budget reports. They created a new portfolio — training coordinator and advisor on combatting racism and xenophobia. I do training on anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Roma sentiment, racism and xenophobia, freedom of religion and/or belief, and other human rights issues. That’s why I’m involved in the discussion on violent extremism leading to radicalization that includes training of police officers and judges. We’re doing these things now that we wouldn’t have done four years ago.

The experience of Roma allows me to have a perspective. I have to stress that the other movements or issues are less developed. It’s a form of understanding one stage removed from where we are with Roma. With Roma, there’s a consciousness of what the process can bring to them personally. Here, people don’t have that “rationalization.” They come in with a naive perspective. They want to do something, but they don’t know how. So, we help to empower them.

For instance, we’ve done trainings with Muslim groups across Europe. They feel empowered now to report and respond to hate crimes because they know what their rights are. They started to take on cases and prosecute them. They consider those trainings an important part of their history. I get greater satisfaction because I can see the impact of what we’re doing. It’s about prosecuting, recording, holding public officials accountable. These officials may not be discriminatory against particular groups, but they may not be aware that the graffiti next to the scene of the crime is connected to the crime itself. It’s our job to make those connections, whether liminal or explicit.

Working with public officials, I insist that they have to do their jobs properly. They don’t have to love the Roma. They don’t have to love gay people or Africans. They just have to be professional in what they do. I’ve done it from one side, and now I’m doing it from the other. The impact is much more visible than training 20 human rights activists from the Roma community and expecting them to do stuff when they go back to their organizations or communities. That’s not going to happen. Here, because we have the institutional and structural connections, we can follow up.

The work I’ve done with Roma has made me much more committed to what I’m doing now. I consider that a significant failure, all the energy expended and so little gained. I’m not talking about personal development. I feel proud about certain people. It’s a 10 percent rate of return, and for all that energy, that’s too low. And here it’s 30-40 percent. We can see the discernible impact on the policing strategies and approaches, at least among those who have done the training. And we have access to legislation, and that changes things too. It’s galvanizing, a catalyzer.

I still have the opportunity to go out into the field and train civil society activists on hate crime. My current project is now working with people of African descent. Because of my experiences elsewhere, I can be much more forthright with African descendent people. We’re now developing a couple of projects that the OSCE is funding for people of African descent. We did a training last year and a big event the year before devoted to people of African descent, which was the first time in the history of the OSCE on this issue. The American delegation to the OSCE has been very kind to fund a number of ideas we put forward. We’re working to put together a trip to the United States to get the Helsinki Committee members together as well as the Congressional Black Caucus to talk about the situation affecting people of African descent in the OSCE region. It would be an opportunity to get another audience interested instead of just going to Brussels all the time. The OSCE, even if it’s only at a nominal level, has access to certain institutional offices that you just don’t get in Brussels.

This particular journey is about to reach its conclusion in terms of advocacy. And then I’ll just go back to academia.


Here? In Britain?


I have an ambivalent relationship with the country of my birth. I’ve had discussions with folks in the pub about my academic background. People will say, “If Britain was so discriminatory, you wouldn’t have been able to go to the universities you went to.” But I did that not as a consequence of British tolerance or acquiescence to some notion of equality. It was despite their racism. I still suffered racism at the university. I went to Oxford and Cambridge. Every day I went from my college to the faculty and I had to show my pass whereas other people could just walk in. Twice a week I went to these same places for the duration of my time, and I still had to show my ID. Or people would ask me the purpose of my visit. Because I didn’t fit in. That’s my point about confounding people.

When I had an opportunity to do a Ph.D., I was told by one of my professors that I should go to New York. I went to America, met a Polish professor, who then took me to Krakow, who told me I could teach a class as a TA. I got into the idea of teaching, and I was offered a job teaching at the university in Budapest, very quickly. That’s why I came to the region. It has nothing to do with the UK. My Britishness only allowed me to travel without a visa. That’s the only benefit. My education wasn’t anything the British can take credit for. I had to struggle every step of the way. I have British friends who helped me keep sane so that I could finish what I set out to do. There were plenty of times when I wanted to leave.

I’m not going to leave Poland. I came to that conclusion a month ago. I’ll stay here, and work from here. I can do consultancy here. And there are a couple books I want to write. One of them is about the experiences that I’ve had — which not many Black people have had. It’s about showing how racism manifests itself, even the benign forms. When people say things, and they think they’re being your friend, but they’re actually compounding the perception of who you are. I travel across the region, and usually I’m the only person who looks like me doing this.


Can you give me an example? In Poland?


It doesn’t happen here. There’s a negative stereotype about Black men, that they’re all drug dealers and so on. But I don’t hear that personally. I hear that indirectly through focus groups. I can’t give you an example in Poland. They’re uniquely anecdotal and funny.

For instance, when I travel I have my headphones on. When I check into hotels, people ask me questions in a way to be my friend: “Hey how are you, are you a deejay?” I say no. Then they say, “I’m sorry. So, why are you here?” Would they ask you that question?

I was doing this event on racism and sport in Vienna at our secretariat. A person who was there then saw me a week later. He said, “I saw you in Vienna. I thought you were a power lifter.” I just turned it into a joke: “Yes, I have to carry the weight of the programs on my shoulders.” They’re impromptu acts of racism, though they’re not perceived as racism. They’re stereotyping.

I wrote an article about this a few years ago called “Visible Invisibility,” based on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I used the oxymoron to signify that I’m here but I’m invisible in the same way as the character in the book. I tried to apply it to the psychological-interactive phase. People see you but put you in a box. This happens everywhere. When I was in Budapest, people would ask me if I was there teaching English. I said, “No, I’m here teaching.”

“You teach? Not English? What do you teach?”

“Social philosophy, international law.”

And they’re like, “Really?”

If I said I was there doing sports, they’d say, “Yeah, I understand that.”

But I’ve never had this experience in Poland. I’ve lived here almost four years. But I hadn’t thought about it until you asked me the question.


What do you see as the potential for the OSCE at this point?


There are a number of mechanisms or activities that make the OSCE relevant, like the Helsinki Final Act, which puts all the countries on a level base, or the Moscow Mechanism or the election monitoring. We also get requests to monitor elections outside the OSCE. We have this huge palace on Miodowa street. Before that we were on Aleje Jerozolimskie. We’ve been connected to institutions of power here. We’ve been here for 22 years. People don’t know that. I don’t know if this is because the OSCE likes this concept of quiet diplomacy and interventions like early warning mechanisms.

The second part of your question has to do with hate crimes. I believe in the evangelical aspect of what we do. Hate crimes happen everywhere. We’re starting to establish an institutional arrangement with the UN so that we can start training their staff. We can only work within the OSCE participating member states. Outside the 57, we can’t do anything unless we have a conduit. For instance, for election monitoring in Afghanistan, there’s a special relationship between the UN, the mission in Afghanistan, and our office. The same applies to trial monitoring. Since aspects of our work are essentially global, we’re trying to work around the arbitrary geographic distinctions.

As you might know, along with our Mediterranean partners in North Africa and the Middle East, we worked during the Arab Spring to bring people from there to Warsaw to do training on hate crimes, discrimination, and transitional governments. As an institution, we still have a role to play. The potential is immanent and needs to be explicated. Mongolia just last year joined the OSCE, became the 57th member. When you think of Mongolia’s location near China — I’m not suggesting that China become a member of the OSCE — but the scope of influence, at least geopolitically, could be quite important.

The OSCE will continue to be a platform where the two can meet. There’s the principle in the Helsinki Final Act, which is reinforced in the Moscow Mechanism, that you need to reach a consensus before things are done. The fact that they’re compelled to do this allows diplomacy to prevail. There are tensions. It would be silly not to acknowledge those. So, the OSCE will continue to provide a platform for dialogue and at the end of the day, they will reach consensus.

In light of contemporary challenges, I think we can transform the organization and ensure that it continues to be relevant. That’s a benefit of working at the OSCE. If you have a vision you can have an impact and transform things, instead of just doing the ritualistic stuff. When it comes to capacity building, that’s something the ODIHR never did. Now you come to our trainings and you are trained by OSCE staff. The potential of the OSCE is quite broad. It just needs to be husbanded properly — because there are so many different things that we can do.


We’ve seen a rise of intolerance from explicitly nationalist parties. We’ve also seen the emergence of mainstream political parties that are explicitly challenging a liberal consensus about how democratic institutions and markets function. They certainly strike a chord in the population. Why do you think it’s happening now, and where do you think it will end up?


I don’t think it’s just happening now. Look at the Roma rights discourse. It teaches us that there has always been intolerance. They were just targets that didn’t cause concern for us or for the public to pay attention to, so it wasn’t an issue. Jobbik didn’t just arrive five years ago. In many countries we see the promoting a nationalistic agenda in reaction to EU interference and as a strategic approach to get power. These proponents know that they could increase their support by attacking the credentials of the alliance of liberals and putting forward a revisionist interpretation of history and the role the intellectuals played.

The political climate changed, and the intolerance discourse empowered people, gave them the legitimacy to express themselves. It was wrapped in the “patriotic” discourse. This discourse was always there. I don’t think there’s a spike per se, just a spike in expression and people are following it more. It’s always been there with the Roma, but people said, “It’s only the ‘Gypsies’.” What’s changed now is that they’re extending it to people who have access to means of expression.

This embedding creates political norms that are here to stay. Since many of these countries are enduring the impact of the global economic crisis, they’re scapegoating, which is a standard response to big crises. Look for someone else to blame: it’s not our fault, and they are taking our jobs.


Warsaw, August 16, 2013



Blog Eastern Europe Featured Uncategorized

From Solidarity to Business

When I met with Mariusz Ambroziak in 1993, he was secretary for the Solidarity trade union in the Mazowsze area around Warsaw. He’d been a Solidarity activist for most of his life, starting out as a young worker involved in the famous Solidarity chapter at the Ursus tractor factory in Warsaw.

But by 1993, he was having difficulties getting up in the morning and going to work. It took two alarm clocks, he confessed to me, to get him roused out of bed. The union was shrinking in membership, and it just didn’t have the resources to help people. Moreover, its reputation was taking a beating. “The union,” Ambroziak pointed out, 
”is paying today with its name because 
under the banner of Solidarity the entire 
economic reform was undertaken.”

As it turned out, Ambroziak didn’t stay much longer with Solidarity.

“I worked in Solidarity until the end of 1993,” he told me when I caught up with him in Warsaw in August 2013. “That’s when I resigned, but not for political or ideological reasons. It was simply because I was looking for some kind of new path for self-development connected above all to economic independence. Already the enthusiasm from the end of the 1980s and the beginning of 1990 had ended. I saw that other people, my friends and acquaintances, were already taking advantage of the free market. I simply went my own way, professionally.”

Today, Ambroziak is involved in a variety of businesses and charitable activities. He keeps in touch with his colleagues from the old days. But they’ve become trade union professionals working a job, no longer inspired by a mission.

“When I look at Solidarity today it’s as if time has stopped,” he told me. “Sometimes I go to the Mazowsze regional office, after five, 10, 15 years. I meet with the same people, only they’re older. It’s apparent that the organization has not been revitalized, that there’s been no internal changes. But perhaps there’s nowhere to change to? Because all the time there’s the same group of members, since there’s nowhere to get young leaders.”

Many of the workplaces where Solidarity was so strong – the shipyards, the mines – are no more. Even the Ursus tractor factory has disappeared. “We also as activists often asked the question, ‘Where are all the enterprises where we all fought together?’” Ambroziak said. “And that’s a difficult question. Of course after 1989 several million firms were created in Poland, but that one doesn’t exist any more. And it had been around in Poland for 100 years. It was a very valued firm before the war in Poland. The key mistakes in this matter were in 1990 and 1991. Maybe there would have been not 20,000 workers at a restructured Ursus but maybe 5,000 or 3,000. Still, the brand, the tradition, the history, all that potential could have continued until this day.”

He believes that unions still play an important role in Poland and will do so in the future. But he also believes that Poland needs a “business-oriented administration.”

He told me, “I have to say that I am satisfied with the way my family and friends accommodated themselves in capitalism. The overwhelming majority has their own businesses. Some of them are more successful, some of them less, but the overall result is definitely positive. That is why I believe we need a business-oriented administration that would serve as a helping hand for the business sector. The current state institutions either don’t understand the way the business is conducted nowadays or they approach it in too administrative or rigid a way. The bureaucracy is overdeveloped. Every issue is now being solved by new regulations. It’s completely different than at the beginning of the 1990s. The state administration does not see entrepreneurs as people creating value. Instead their initiatives are perceived as suspicious. This is absolutely wrong.”

We also talked about privatization, decentralization, and the meaning of active citizenship.


The Interview


At the moment, you are working in a private office. What does that mean?


I’m working now in the insurance and building industry. In the insurance industry, I’m an insurance broker, and in the building industry I help manage projects under the name IDS. That’s a rather large construction firm in Warsaw.


When we talked 22 years later, you were…


I was then the secretary of Solidarity in the Mazowsze region in Warsaw. I think we met on Alej Ujazdowskij, near the American embassy.


Yes, that’s right. And how long did you work there?


I worked in Solidarity until the end of 1993. That’s when I resigned, but not for political or ideological reasons. It was simply because I was looking for some kind of new path for self-development connected above all to economic independence. Already the enthusiasm from the end of the 1980s and the beginning of 1990 had ended. I saw that other people, my friends and acquaintances, were already taking advantage of the free market. I simply went my own way, professionally. But I didn’t resign from public or social activities. I remain active until today in the civic sphere. Over the last 20 years, I’ve been connected to dozens of different associations and foundations. The majority of those foundations are active in very different spheres: social, charitable, political, civic, local. It’s my passion to help organize civic life in this way, through such associations.


How did you first become involved with Solidarity and the opposition in general?


I come from a small town about 100 kilometers outside of Warsaw. At the time, that seemed to me very far away. Today I know it really isn’t. I came here to attend middle school in Warsaw, in Ursus, where my brother was working. I was on the professional trade track at Ursus, at the tractor factory there. It was winter 1985, and I was 15 years old. I was part of a group of young people who announced a work stoppage. There were 10 or 15 of us, and we thought of ourselves as demonstrators. But it was just a mess.

That’s when an underground Solidarity activist approached me, Marek Jarosinski. I was able to watch what he was doing, and we started to cooperate. He was older than me by eight years and had already worked several years at the factory. And he asked me to cooperate, and we began actions together.

My brother already worked in the tractor factory at Ursus before 1980. He was one of the first people who introduced me to the history of the opposition when I was still a child. That’s how the first newspapers and leaflets appeared in our home. He wasn’t involved in an active manner. He’d talk about it, but it was more just a way of building awareness. Plus, of course, in many Polish homes there was Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, BBC, and so on. That was standard. But for a kid like me, who was 11 years old in 1980, it was already enough. This atmosphere remained in my head, along with a family that provided me the historical background. No more was necessary.


And during Martial Law?


At the time of Martial Law in 1981, I was still living with my family in the countryside. Of course, I remember that day very well. I remember the reaction of my parents, the reactions of the neighbors. And of course I remember what took place on the street. We were living in a place where there were basically two roads, and down both these roads came the tanks.

I remember that the first decision that my father made was to kill a pig. That came from his experience. During World War II, my father was a child. His entire family, including his grandfather, was displaced during the course of the war. They were evicted from their farms, displaced. Somewhere deep in their thinking, they believed it could happen again. This experience was something passed down from generation to generation.

Two-and-a-half years after that, I showed up in Ursus as a middle school student. I was aware that in this city, in this factory, there was a strong Solidarity chapter. It wasn’t all new to me. I had this picture in my head of something big, something great. Later it turned out that it wasn’t really such a big group of activists. Over the course of a year or two it was possible to get to know and meet all of them. It wasn’t that everyone was an activist. But it was somehow part of the atmosphere.


And you were also a member of the Independent Students Association NZS?


No, no. I was a Solidarity activist at Ursus. I was an activist later in the Mazowsze region, and in between I was an activist with Freedom and Peace (WiP).


Here in Warsaw?


In Warsaw. I began to work here with Jacek Czaputowicz, Piotr Niemczyk, Jan Maria Rokita, that circle of people. In 1987 I got called up for military service, and I wrote to them that I was refusing to serve for political reasons. Not for religious reasons or for health reasons, only for political reasons. This was in the provinces, not in Warsaw and therefore I received a postponement. And one year later came the law on alternative military service.

We started up an office at Ursus for people who’d refused military service for political reasons. Later came all the rest, the strikes in 1988. At that point, I was an 18-year-old on the strike committee at Ursus. Later came all the varieties of actions: strikes, demonstrations. Everything was connected to underground activities.


When the strikes took place in 1988…


There were two. The first was in May. That was the strike they were waiting for in Gdansk and Silesia that would push things forward in Warsaw. That was a very difficult period of time. We met a couple of days before the strike at Ursus – 10 or 12 people, including Zbigniew Janas and Zbigniew Bujak. The strike was going to begin on a Friday. We met on the Friday before and then Saturday and Sunday. We arrived on Sunday at the meeting and of the 12 people we expected there were only four. The rest had been arrested. I remained with just three other colleagues. We had a big dilemma: should we or should we not begin the strike?

We decided to go ahead with it. We were on site. Of course, the there was military, the security service. It was general chaos. The main leaders were not there because they’d been seized. We began the strike and continued it until 12 at night. By that time, 300 people remained in the factory. Then we began to talk with the administration in order to find some kind of exit. There were so few people to continue the strike and yet, on the other hand, there were such high expectations for us to go forward.

Our main demands at the time were the release of political prisoners, the registration of Solidarity, and a few other social matters. There were a lot of social incentives for more people to participate in the strike and for the government not to crack down on strike participants. We wrote up a paper and at night, like 1 or 2 am, we received certain general guarantees. So we gave up. The strike committee was appointed the next day, and all the demands became the subject of future talks with the administration. And we struggled for these demands for several more days. Later, Prof. Andrzej Stelmachowski, Andrzej Wielowiejski, and Piotr Lukasz Andrzejewski got in touch with us. So, we had the support of very committed experts. That was in May 1988.

The situation repeated itself again in August. Only in August it was a different atmosphere. First of all, the situation was much more intense in Silesia. The authorities were scared of the miners — that holds true even to this day – plus there were many other enterprises involved. And the people were already very serious. It was a similar situation: we held a march in front of the factory and then the militia attacked the march, and there was a confrontation. Nobody on our side did anything, except for a minor things. But the confrontation took place anyway. It was a group of 500 or 1,000 people. Several people were arrested right there on site. A number of us, including me, fled. After a few days we found each other again. Later already were the talks between Walesa and Kiszczak. And the talks between Stelmachowski and Czyrek began. That was the pre-Round Table atmosphere.


What did you think about the Round Table? Was it a good step?


At the time I was absolutely convinced that it was a good direction. The rest were participating in dozens of meetings at the enterprise level that connected to the various sub-tables, for instance the youth sub-table with Andrzej Celinski, Jan Maria Rokita, and the MZS group where we represented Solidarity youth. I was absolutely convinced that this was a good idea. Besides which, I was close to the perspective of the Church and its conception of non-violent struggle. Poland is a country where people respect the teaching of the Pope and Cardinal Wyszynski to find a compromise at all costs and avoid the spilling of blood. I understood this. For me this was really obvious.

There are a number of things that I know today that allow me to look at this more clearly and make some slight adjustments. But back then I was a big enthusiast about everything that happened. I was happy about everything even if in the end I didn’t appreciate what was going on. But certainly I was fascinated with that period. It occurred to me that once we had freedom all our problems would be solved. It was just a question of what we could do. Because once we had the freedom to act, there’d be no problems. I was 100 percent convinced of this. We know now that’s not the case. But back then we, my contemporaries and I, were convinced that freedom would in principle solve all problems.


You were an optimist at that time.


Yes, I was. And I’m an optimist to this day. However, looking at public, social, and political matters, I was absolutely convinced that this was a good direction. Of course, our knowledge of politics, economics, and international affairs was weak. But perhaps our enthusiasm also resulted from that lack of knowledge. If we’d had deep specific knowledge, then maybe most of us would have made different decisions, right? In terms of my social and civic experience, that was the most important period in life. I can say that as well today.


At that time, at Ursus in particular, the workers expected that the economic situation would be more difficult? Given the competition between….


I can tell you from my own point of view at that time. It seemed to me that most of us were absolutely convinced that with our independence and sovereignty we would have more influence on reality, that workers would begin to make more money, that firms would begin to develop better.

Of course, today I know that in order for a factory like Ursus to continue until today in the shape that it was in at that time, in that place, would have required even more radical restructuring, more radical economic transformation at the very beginning. From just the political standpoint, the process of change was stretched out over a longer period. There just wasn’t enough time for the market to save the factory. It was a Communist-era factory that was considered strategic, a key part of the economic order. It was a really energy-intensive factory. A lot of the money in that factory was wasted. Only a conscious management in cooperation with the workers could have maybe saved the factory. And that process was stretched out for, I don’t know, 10 years.

Now the firm doesn’t exist. In general, firms like that have disappeared, as well as the entire range of things connected to those firms. We also as activists often asked the question, “Where are all the enterprises where we all fought together?” And that’s a difficult question. Of course after 1989 several million firms were created in Poland, but that one doesn’t exist any more. And it had been around in Poland for 100 years. It was a very valued firm before the war in Poland. The key mistakes in this matter were in 1990 and 1991. Maybe there would have been not 20,000 workers at a restructured Ursus but maybe 5,000 or 3,000. Still, the brand, the tradition, the history, all that potential could have continued until this day.

The brand still exists: the company is listed on the stock exchange. But it was sold. It’s still a valuable brand, but it’s no longer connected to the factory in Ursus. That was a loss.


In general, what do you think of the Balcerowicz reforms? Were they more or less good, or should there have been changes in the plan?


In general the entire plan was good. But it could have been accompanied by at least a couple more elements. I’ll tell you about two of them. The first element is a vision of development for the Polish industrial economy that would not have given up on enterprises like Ursus. There should have been a determination of which parts of the Polish economy could have been preserved and which ones subjected to total competition. Poland had several sectors of the economy with potential, which could have been nurtured and, over the years, transformed into competitive sectors, not just in Poland but in Europe and in the world.

The second element was that the process of distributing property in Poland should have been sped up. That was a good period, 1989-90, to systematically decide the matter of returning property that had been taken from Polish citizens after the war. Maybe it was the only moment to solve that problem. Several thousand national enterprises needed to be transferred to the original owners. Many of these factories had fallen apart. But that was the one moment when it was possible to conclude a systematic understanding with the people who had the right to get back property they’d lost as a result of World War II. Perhaps a large number of those firms are today still functioning. Warsaw has documented claims for a very large amount of money. More than a million undocumented claims are still in legal process. These claims would absorb the entire budget of a city, even of Warsaw, the biggest city in Poland! But there’s an obligation to resolve this specific historical matter.

All of the things that were done back then, from today’s perspective, I believe were the right things to do. But it seems to me that several radical decisions were not made.


Because that was the moment when things could have been solved.


It was a very brief moment.


Yes, very brief. And yet it was a very interesting moment too. But I think the moment in Poland was longer than in other countries. Because there was the Round Table and the process was a bit stretched out.


Yes. Also that was my experience and observation. It was clear that there was at that time major problems: inflation, the lack of a banking system, the lack of personnel, of knowledge, of experience. And some issues have still to this day not been decided, like the return of property. During the transition from the 1980s to the 1990s was the time when it was possible to include something in the various social agreements. “We can’t give you everything,” the government might have said, “because everyone is poor. But you’ll get something, maybe 20 percent.” But the problem continues today. And Poland doesn’t have a budget surplus. Poland all the time needs capital, all the time needs investment, all the time needs social stabilization. For all that, money is necessary.


I have a question about Solidarity’s strategy in 1989-90. Of course, Solidarity’s support for the government was very important, but eventually Solidarity decided to strike. Do you think that Solidarity’s strategy at this time was the best from the perspective, on the one hand, of a trade union, and on the other from the perspective of the commonwealth?


Solidarity in 1989-1990 was a national liberation movement that succeeded without violence to regain sovereignty for Poland. The expectations for this movement were that it would quickly change Polish reality in all aspects – economic, social, everything. But only a small number of people had the kind of knowledge or experience to develop a vision of national development. Otherwise it was mostly a series of trial and error: decisions, errors, decisions, errors, and then learning from errors. Solidarity leaders were not political leaders in the sense of being prepared to take power. There were very few who had lived in a free environment, who knew the world, knew how to benefit from global experience. Only a very few were consciously prepared to take over responsibility for governing. Those were either older people who still remembered the Second Republic or people who functioned somehow during the Communist period.

In addition, the Solidarity environment contained a lot of people who had very different perspectives, particularly different economic views. Some believed that state property was sufficiently well-administered, that there was no theft or waste, that it was wisely managed. Some thought that there should only be private property. There was a variety of interests. During that period of 1989-91, it would have been possible to bring about political changes more quickly. It didn’t have to wait for parliamentary elections in October 1991. Those elections already should have taken place in 1990. If that had happened, maybe the enthusiasm could have been sustained for longer. Of course, there was talk of a distracted parliament. People complained that the Communists voted against everything that Solidarity presented. However from today’s perspective it seems that that was a political mistake.

Meanwhile, the union was then only in the public sector, for there was no private sector. That’s still the weakness of Solidarity. It’s not been able to, and this applies to trade unions in general, be attractive in Poland’s private sector. There are many reasons for that. Meanwhile, Solidarity was on the one hand withdrawing from politics, and on the other hand everyone looked to Solidarity to maintain the power that it had at the beginning when it was acting in the tradition of a national movement representing all of society. I don’t really know how Solidarity could have acted otherwise as a union. But maybe the historical leaders of the movement too quickly left the union, and a dissonance emerged between the institution of Solidarity and the Solidarity leaders who had been the symbol of Solidarity. People couldn’t understand how the Solidarity leadership de facto took a stand against them. People were saying, “Those leaders marched at the head of the demonstrations, and now they’re on the opposite side, and they’re saying that everything must change and Solidarity also must become something else.” They tried to achieve an optimal model at the time, both representing workers and taking responsibility for the state. It was also a very difficult period in the psychosocial sense, emotionally.


It was not a normal situation.


No, it was not a normal situation. Many Solidarity activists withdrew from union activities, and the authority of Solidarity in the public sphere fell very rapidly. But that was the price of freedom, the price of democracy. Solidarity no longer represented all of society. For a long period Solidarity was the political emanation of Poles. But then the institution that represented all of society became the parliament, right? If you wanted to look after your own interests then you participated in the elections. After a year or two, the changes were underway. By 1991 or 1992 already the political center had moved from Gdansk and the shipyard to the parliament.

I remember back in 1989-90 when these delegations from all over the world came to Solidarity: Chinese dissidents, Cuban dissidents, American businessmen, German industrialists. We were meeting with everyone. But that was only in the sphere of symbols, emotions, values, not the sphere of interests. The sphere of interests was the province of state structures. At the same time, there were strikes at various workplaces. In the fall of 1989 and in 1990 there were plenty of strikes – economic, social – as well as demonstrations and protests. We organized a meeting at Warsaw University in the big hall, the Auditorium Maximum. At the time there weren’t many large meeting places in Warsaw. Strikers from a thousand workplaces showed up. Strike, strike, strike. That was the autumn, the October I was talking about when the Mazowiecki government was created and there were so many expectations.

We also had a specific meeting at Warsaw University of the Factory Commission, the factory structure of Solidarity. The whole hall was full of activists and at the same time the Mazowiecki government was created. I heard “strike, strike,” and I knew that the Mazowiecki government would soon come into being. I was at the lectern saying, “Dear activists of Solidarity, Poles, we can’t strike right now because finally we’ll have our ideal government. Everything will change.” We were saying that the workers at Ursus didn’t depend on money. They depended on a free independent Poland. People didn’t depend on money? Today if someone said something like that, that workers don’t depend on money, it would be a provocation. But that was a different time.


What’s the future of Solidarity and trade unions in general? For instance, here in Poland, on the one hand, trade unions have become simply weaker. On the other hand perhaps there will be a Labor Party. I know that there was an attempt before to create such a party, but perhaps there will be a future attempt as well.


First of all, the social structure has changed here in Poland. The main Solidarity trade union organizing was in the large factories. Those large workplaces are much fewer. A huge number of people left the industrial sector for the small business sector – for the service sector or to run their own businesses. The largest trade union base is still in the largest industries like mining, the post office, that type of firm. As far as we can observe today, the unions don’t have any idea about how to function in, for instance, large-scale trade operations like hypermarkets. In fact the relations there between employers and workers are not good, and certainly trade union activities would be very necessary and useful. But the union doesn’t have any idea about how to do that.

Meanwhile, in small workplaces, people don’t feel the need for a union. Where there are 10, 20, 30 workers, they have non-stop contact with the employer. The union officials who represent them in relations with the employer are not generally effective. On the other hand, unions have pretty good organizational and financial structures.

In 1989-90 when Solidarity was officially back in the workplaces, we abhorred the post-Communist unions. They were disgusting clerks, these Communists, and they didn’t represent workers. They were just an apparat. Meanwhile, we were the authentic representatives coming directly out of the workers. But it’s been 20-some years since then. Some activists have been trade unionists for those 20 years. And the perspective of such people changes too. Someone who is a 20-year trade unionist, it’s difficult to imagine that person returning to the workplace, to production, if only because the work itself has changed. There are different tools, different technology, different habits and knowledge. Along the line these union activists have somehow lost an awareness and an understanding of the authentic needs of the workers. I know that if I said that today to a Solidarity colleague, they’d be 100 percent offended. I think that that’s also a problem.

On the one hand the union has become a profession. There are trainings, various courses. There’s dedication, greater precision. On the other hand it seems to me that in most cases there’s a lack of relations between union leaders and an authentic understanding of workers’ needs — not union needs but workers’ needs.

What’s the future? There will always be unions in some form. Solidarity still has its ideology, its historic achievements. There’s still a feeling of historical commitment. I have many colleagues that I was active with and who continue to be active today. I’ve kept all these relations and contacts. We meet. But it’s not like public activity, more like professional activity. They’re not Solidarity activists as dissidents, only activists as professional trade unionists. It’s work. It’s not a mission.

When I look at Solidarity today it’s as if time has stopped. Sometimes I go to the Mazowsze regional office, after five, 10, 15 years. I meet with the same people, only they’re older. It’s apparent that the organization has not been revitalized, that there’s been no internal changes. But perhaps there’s nowhere to change to? Because all the time there’s the same group of members, since there’s nowhere to get young leaders.

You were here in Poland in 1990. Michal Boni was the leader of the Mazowsze Region. Michal Boni, Maciej Jankowski. Do you remember those names?


I remember their names, but I didn’t meet them.


You’re familiar with Michal Boni?


I remember his name.


He’s a member of the government now. He’s the minister of digitization and administration. He’s been one of the closest co-workers of the premier for the last six years. He was also in the Bielecki government, but that’s already history. Back then when they were leaders in Solidarity, every one of them had a vision. They were people who were known not only in the union but in a public sense. They were important people in the public debate. But that’s not the case now with the leaders of Solidarity, outside of the leader of the entire union who is still an important character. Take the leader of Solidarity in Warsaw. If you conducted a research survey, maybe 5 or 10 percent would know who he is. But back then, it was 80 percent.


I’d like to ask you about self-government. I talked with Jan Litynski and he told me that this has been a success in Poland, self-government at various levels from the gmina down to the locality.


There’s a title of a book: A Country Recovered. In other words, Poland has recovered its subjectivity, its sovereignty. We can talk about that at various levels: mental, in business, at the local or regional level. Of course, the self-government reforms in the 1990s and the transmission of authority to the level of the town, the gmina, the region, launched a huge amount of activity that changed the sentiments of Poles. In 1990 there were problems in the north, the east, the west. Warsaw had the authority and that was it. This entirely changed, and now people are aware that many things depend on the distribution of authority to the base. Many cities have developed economically and socially. Certainly this development accompanied the entrance of Poland into the EU and the additional economic possibilities. Now many cities in Poland are no different from cities in Western Europe or anywhere else in the free parts of the world. There are still many things to do in the material sphere, but in many Polish cities there’s been indeed a lot of authentic development both in terms of civilization and infrastructure. People now identify with their cities, their regions, their own little homelands. In general, I consider self-government very positively. In every system there are mistakes, in every system there are pathologies, but the system in general is okay.


Most Poles are a little apathetic around national politics. They prefer to focus on private matters. But self-government is something else: it seems to be an exception to this rule. Poles want to participate in local politics, which suggests that self-government is more or less strong. It seems like a paradox. In other countries, local activity is quite weak, in the Czech Republic or Hungary, for instance, because Budapest and Prague are huge and powerful compared to other cities in those countries. But here in Poland it’s something else entirely. There’s Wroclaw, Krakow, Gdansk –


Poznań. And other large cities like Białystok and Częstochowa.


That’s a big different between Poland and other countries.


Yes, that’s a good observation. But Poles are still not engaged enough in the local communities. It’s probably the result of the Communist policy of the forced obedience of all citizens. When Communism collapsed, people started to act in the very opposite manner, which resulted in a growing number of initiatives of self-organization. People went from state coercion to the conscious need to do something with other people. Of course this is mostly visible in urban areas, rarely in rural areas. However, Polish people need some more time and knowledge to be more active within their own community. Also, it’s a matter of different social needs. At first people are mostly focused on satisfying basic economic and family-related needs. Only later do they go outside and try to engage in the public sphere. This pattern is changing rather slowly.

This is of course my subjective opinion. But as I mentioned to you before I established around 20 different organizations over the last 20 years, so I have some experience. Most of these organizations either focused on children aid or on the local community. In my hometown I founded an association that for the past 13 years has been working on dozens of different projects (cultural, social, charitable, grassroots). Although only a thousand people live in my hometown it took us three years to establish this organization. I am not involved in the activity of the association anymore, since fortunately a couple of other citizens agreed to devote part of their time to the local community and the work of the organization. By the way, your assistant managed to find me through this association’s website. We also publish books through the association. We don’t use public money from either the local or state budget. We use only private funds: we organize, write and publish by ourselves. We also do fundraising and thus we decide how we spend the collected money. This is an example of active citizenship.


What has changed in your perspective or point of view since you started to work in the Solidarity movement? Do you see the world differently?


In the world of politics? We have a political vacuum in our country. The positions of the statesmen are still not filled. From the procedural point of view everything looks fine. The biggest problem is the fact that people don’t want to be engaged in politics. On the other hand I hope that these well-educated people who now are gaining experience in local governments and businesses will later feel the need to become more engaged in politics. Maybe one day they will bring their practical experience to the world of politics and will not be only focused on pursuing their careers within their parties.

Let’s now turn to the economy. On one hand I have to say that I am satisfied with the way my family and friends accommodated themselves in capitalism. The overwhelming majority has their own businesses. Some of them are more successful, some of them less, but the overall result is definitely positive. That is why I believe we need a business-oriented administration that would serve as a helping hand for the business sector. The current state institutions either don’t understand the way the business is conducted nowadays or they approach it in too administrative or rigid a way. The bureaucracy is overdeveloped. Every issue is now being solved by new regulations. It’s completely different than at the beginning of the 1990s. The state administration does not see entrepreneurs as people creating value. Instead their initiatives are perceived as suspicious. This is absolutely wrong.

I will give you an example. One month ago I received an official letter from the Inland Revenue Office. This important letter from the Criminal Department of Inland Revenue Office asked me to appear before the office and explain why I was late with my tax returns. The letter was signed by a female commissioner, and I was supposed to show up in the office within two weeks. I called the commissioner and explained that during 22 years of having my own business I was late with tax returns only once (a one-day delay), and I paid a very small penalty. Therefore I asked her what this case was about. It affected my family: my wife got really upset.

The commissioner asked me to wait. After she returned she said that the letter was generated by the system by mistake and that she apologized for any inconvenience. I could not believe what I heard, so I asked, “Why was the system mistaken and why did you sign this letter, which clearly meant that you knew what the letter was about?” I got really upset. I said that I expected to receive a letter of apology within the next three days because this was not a joking matter for me. Some older people, after receiving this kind of letter, would not have been able to handle it very well. I didn’t really understand how the system made the mistake. The lady commissioner wrote and signed a letter addressed to me that said that if I did not show up at the office on the particular date, the police would act accordingly.

Let me give you an example how it should have been done. Since I used to be a deputy in parliament and a member of the Solidarity movement, and I’m a socially conscious citizen, I believe it would be enough to call me and ask me to come and explain the issue. I would just ask what time she was available and then I’d come and set the record straight. I understand that paying taxes is my duty. I use public healthcare, I am not a freeloader, and I think I do the best I can for my country in every field. However, the example of the letter shows that there is something wrong with our administration. The politicians who could influence it are either too weak or shaped by system, not the other way around. This is what you say about the Obama administration too, isn’t that right? Even the biggest authority cannot change the “system.” This is also a big problem in Poland. We are trying to facilitate the system by introducing changes in the voting system, we are trying to support entrepreneurs – but that is not the point. The main thing is that we should pay attention not to meddle in the economic sphere.

Other spheres also require changes. We don’t really talk much about the international position of our country because it seems to be secure nowadays. However we have to be very careful. From the perspective of recent years our membership in the EU and NATO makes our position on the international scene very beneficial and secure. But we have to remember that international politics tend to change rapidly. Yugoslavia had a similarly secure position, and no one really expected the outbreak of war in Europe on the scale of the 1990s. International conflicts tend to shift rapidly like the weather in the mountains.

As a Polish citizen I care mostly about economic and political position in international relations. The country’s potential is also important since the bigger capabilities the better position on the international scene. However taking into consideration our history and experience I tend to be skeptical. We all know that history has been harsh to our country. We currently have good relations with our neighbors, but we still have a lot to do. It is not ideal. We don’t have a solution for Ukraine, and Belarus has not defined its directions yet. Russia prioritizes strategic and economic goals without really taking care of its citizens. However, this is a topic for a different discussion.

Warsaw, August 27, 2013

Translated by John Feffer


Poland After Solidarity

by John Feffer


Peace and Democracy News

Winter 1992/93


In Solidarity’s regional office in Warsaw, Mariusz Ambroziak fielded my 
questions like a penitent wrestling with 
his conscience in the confessional.

Yes, he conceded, Poland’s famous trade 
union was in deep trouble. Its membership 
was declining precipitously, it wasn’t organizing in the new private sector, it could no 
longer pay specialists to develop alternative 
economic plans. Though only in his twenties, the Solidarity representative spoke with 
the weariness of someone three times his 

Did he have any doubts about his work, I asked almost rhetorically. Ambroziak’s 
broad, freckled face took on a pained and 
humble look. “Every day I wake up and I 
have my doubts,” he replied. “When Solidarity was registered in 1989, I didn’t use an 
alarm clock to get up and come here to the 
union headquarters at 5 a.m. Now I need two 
alarm clocks to get me up in the morning for 
work.” His voice dropped to a whisper. 
”People call here with requests. And I can’t 
give them anything. So, what am I doing 
here? These people keep calling and what 
can I do?”

With their country’s economic and political situation deteriorating daily, Poles 
can tum to few places, other than the Catholic Church, for help. The traditional structures of Polish “civil society” have simply 
collapsed. Offering little real assistance to 
its members, Solidarity has become a memorial to itself; a Warsaw street has even 
been named after the movement, a sign of 
both its historical importance and current 
irrelevance. Expected to capture second 
place in the most recent parliamentary elections, the trade union’s party managed a distant ninth, just ahead of the Polish Beer-Lovers’ Party. Solidarity’s recent threat to 
call a general strike over utility increases 
went unheeded by the government. The 
union backed down, and the rates went up. A 
mass demonstration in April similarly extracted no concessions from the government.

“The union,” Ambroziak pointed out, 
”is paying today with its name because 
under the banner of Solidarity the entire 
economic reform was undertaken.” Sup
porting a shock therapy that primarily hurt 
its own core supporters, Solidarity has ex- 
pended much of its once considerable moral 

Solidarity’s rural chapter, meanwhile, 
has been politically outmaneuvered by the 
former Communist-allied Peasant Party . And 
the Independent Students Association 
(NZS)-the so-called third leg of the opposition-has declined from 20,000 to 1,000 
members and spends most of its energies 
functioning as a travel agency to the West, 
once its chief criticism of the official student 
union. Having personified the Solidarity 
ethos for so many years, Lech Walesa has 
become a president more committed to decrees than to democracy, a leader whose 
pronouncements draw ridicule from the intelligentsia and increasingly command only 
indifference among the workers.

Nor have other social movements taken 
the place of the Solidarity-era groups. According to one European Community estimate, the largest social movement in Poland 
today is the volunteer fire brigade. The 
second largest is the Red Cross. Instead of 
organizing the unemployed or building political movements from the bottom up, Poles 
spend their precious free time putting out 
fires and bandaging wounds.

Given the country’s present economic 
crisis-12 percent unemployment, 38 percent annual inflation, a hard-to-cap budget 
deficit, a recession that stretches month after month-the natural political beneficiary 
should be a reinvigorated Polish left. Poland 
was the first country in Eastern Europe to 
host roundtable negotiations between the 
Communists and the opposition, the first country to hold free elections, the first to form a non-Communist government, the 
first to implement a radical shock-style economic reform. According to the pendulum-swing theory of politics, Poland should therefore witness the first authentic left-wing 

But although it has great potential, the 
Polish left remains fragmented, isolated, 
and incapable of mustering any serious political threat. Both the traditional left based 
in the trade union movement and a newer left 
organized around a cluster of issues including feminism and environmentalism are still 
marginal to Polish politics. Alert to the 
possibilities inherent in the left’s eclipse, the 
right wing has made a bid to take Poland 
back, back to a time before Communism, 
back to an imagined past when the Church 
was always right, the nation was always 
united, the men were always brave, and the 
women were always pregnant.


Confusion of Left and Right


It has become a cliché to observe that the 
categories of left and right make little political sense in Eastern Europe today. In the 
Polish context, for instance, the non-Communist left-occupying what would ordinarily be a social-democratic slot-has 
largely favored the most neo-liberal (or, if 
you prefer, neo-conservative) economic 
policy. Even the former Communists frequently vote on the Thatcher end of the 
economic spectrum. The right wing parties, meanwhile, eschew capitalism’s most disruptive features, which destroy family, 
community, and Church, in favor of a more 
gradual and anti-recessional policy. The 
groups which one would expect to have 
comprised the left have embraced the modern project and its vision of hyper-capitalism uncritically; the right has, even as it 
supports an apparently more progressive 
economic position, decided to trade the twentieth century in for an earlier model.

Given both the domestic and international emphasis on bringing Poland into the 
modern age, one might then expect the right 
wing to be fundamentally incapable of leading the country forward. So I thought back 
in 1990 when I trekked to the outskirts of 
Warsaw to meet Antonin Macierewicz, a 
prominent member of the Christian National Union (ZChN). Smoking a pipe and 
looking every inch the Polish intellectual, 
Macierewicz expounded on the principles of 
this coalition of Christian-minded movements. The Church, he said, did not have to 
be connected to the state. But state 
policy-and even education in public schools-should nevertheless be formulated 
along Christian principles. Thank God, I 
thought at the time, that ZChN only has five 
parliamentary representatives. Thank God 
they are, like Macierewicz’s apartment, on 
the outskirts of Polish life.

Two years later, Macierewicz was 
Poland’s Minister of Home Affairs, a prominent if controversial member of the recently 
removed right-of-center Olszewski government. His party today controls key posts in 
the new Suchocka administration. The 
speaker of the lower chamber of the Polish 
parliament is a ZChN member.

In 1990, I also talked with Krzysztof 
Krol, a spokesperson for the Confederation 
for Polish Independence (KPN). Founded in 
1979, KPN represented the most anti-Soviet, most militant wing of the Polish opposition. It refused to participate in the 1989 
roundtable negotiations, or field candidates in the first partially free national elections in 
June of that year. Later, when anew government was dispensing old Communist Party 
property to new organizations, KPN did not 
wait its turn but instead simply occupied the 
offices of a former official youth organization located in a splendid structure on 
Warsaw’s most fashionable street. No, I 
thought in 1990, KPN is out of temper with 
the times. Poland is on the road of compromise. The Communists have nearly exited 
the stage, and militancy no longer commands much respect throughout society.

I look back at my notes from 1990: “Krol 
predicts a renaissance of the right in Poland.” I didn’t take him seriously. He was 
too young, too undisciplined. Today, Krol is 
the head of KPN’s parliamentary faction 
which, along with ZChN, has brought a new 
variety of right-wing radicalism to the shaping of social policy.

After flirting with a right-wing coalition 
that pledged more gradual economic reform, Poland is, as of July 1992, back under 
the rule of the neo-liberals, led by the new 
prime minister Hanna Suchocka. The term “rule” can be used only loosely, however. 
After the 1991 national elections propelled 
29 parties into parliament, Polish politics 
can charitably be described as diverse or, perhaps more accurately, as incoherent. It is 
not simply the number of parties or their relatively small size that lends an air of 
~ chaos to parliamentary proceedings. These 
5 groupings can barely compromise enough to  maintain internal cohesion, much less work effectively with one another. Unable to 
fashion an effective parliamentary bloc, the 
three recent governments-Olszewski, Pawlak, Suchocka-have been forced to 
preside over a fragmented mirror of Polish 

Particularly difficult for each of these 
governments has been economic policy. For 
instance, after promising to respect the wishes 
of the Polish electorate by reversing shock 
therapy, the Olszewski government reneged 
in the spring of 1992 and proposed a budget 
consistent with the demands of the International Monetary Fund. Parliament rejected 
the plan. Caught between the IMP’s strictures and the electorate’s demands, 
Olszewski became simply the latest of the 
recession’s political victims when his government fell in June. Waldemar Pawlak of 
the post-Communist Polish Peasant’s Party 
lasted little more than a month. With rumors 
of martial law floating around Warsaw, a 
strange assortment of parties–from right- 
wing Christian to secular liberals–came 
together behind Suchocka. The result has 
been the worst of all possible worlds: the 
neo-liberals regained control of economic 
policy while the right wing snatched up the 
”soft” cultural posts in the government.


Theocracy in Poland?


Indeed, with its economic policy thwarted 
by the IMP, the right wing has found greater 
unity and surer success with its social project. 
Its natural vehicle for transforming Poland is 
the Catholic Church, the most powerful 
social institution in the country. Last year, 
several Polish officials broached the possibility of turning Poland into a theocracy. 
The response from the intelligentsia not 
being receptive, the proposal was quickly 
withdrawn. “Don’t worry about this talk of 
theocracy,” a Polish friend told me during 
my recent trip to Warsaw. “It’s the step-by-step moves, the incremental strategy that 
you should watch out for.”

That incremental strategy can be seen 
most clearly on the issue of religion in 
school. In 1990, the Church pressed the 
Ministry of Education to introduce religious 
instruction into public schools. The measure was neither discussed in Parliament nor 
presented to the public in a referendum. 
This year, the Church has pushed ahead with 
stage two: pressuring the Ministry of Education to make religion an obligatory school 
subject. An ethics course has been thrown in 
to give the appearance of choice-but the 
ethics in question are often simply Christian 
and the course frequently taught by a priest. 
If the Ministry and the Church have their 
way, priests will also playa more important role in determining general school policy.

Abortion is the second front opened up 
by the right wing. In 1991, the Polish 
parliament defeated an especially restrictive anti-abortion law. Since that time, the 
Polish Medical College has changed its code 
of ethics to protect “unborn life”; any doctor 
who performs abortions after May 1992 can 
be discharged from the profession. At the 
parliamentary level, the Church has, through 
ZChN, reintroduced legislation to penalize 
both women and doctors who destroy un- 
born life. Yet 60 percent of the population 
supports liberal abortion laws. Many Polish 
intellectuals, regardless of the depth of their 
religious conviction, are fond of pointing 
out that, with the abortion and religion-in- 
schools issues, the totalitarianism of the 
Church has begun to replace the totalitarian- 
ism of the state.


Economic Prosperity, Economic Shock


Warsaw gleams with a deceptive prosperity: the Mercedes-Benz dealership, the 
casinos, the chic new restaurants, the five- 
star hotels for visiting VIPs. Capitalism has 
sprung up like weeds between the cracks of 
the Stalinist concrete. A flashy sign indicates a peep show in the vestibule of an 
entrance to the train station where once there 
was only storage space. In the central post 
office, a video store and a trinket kiosk have 
been set up in the main hall. Around Stalin’s 
gift to Warsaw, the Palace of Culture and 
Science, the ramshackle collection of blankets and tables of two years ago has been 
transformed into the official flea market of 

With a monthly salary of $150, the average Pole stretches out to touch these fruits of 
capitalism only to find, like Tantalus, that 
inflation and austerity measures always push 
the branches just beyond reach. Warsaw’s 
conspicuous wealth conceals the poverty of 
its workers’ suburbs, of the outlying patches 
of agricultural ruin, of the decaying industrial sprawl that embraces the textile factories of Lodz, the coal mines near Wroclaw, 
the chemical plants around Katowice, the 
shipyards of Gdansk. To judge Polish prosperity by its capital’s shiny new Euro-style 
cafes is like trying to get a fix on the current 
U.S. recession from a sushi bar in Silicon 

Given the “neo-con” credentials of the 
economists whose advice it has solicited, it 
is not surprising that Poland is in fact repeating many of the same mistakes as the United 
States of the 1980s. Indeed, visiting Poland today is like being caught in one of those 
science fiction stories where the time-traveler must watch a succession of childhood 
mistakes without being permitted to intervene. Stop, I wanted to shout at the Poles. 
Don’t you realize that the foundations of this 
newly created wealth rest on the shifting 
sands of Reaganomics? Don’t you realize 
that ten years from now you too will be 
writing articles about “what went wrong?”

In 1989, talking with a then little-known 
Polish economist on the question of 
privatization, I tried to indicate some of the 
problems with his version of laissez-faire 
capitalism. Don’t privatize health care, I 
warned, for in the United States this has 
meant 35 million people without coverage. 
He didn’t skip a beat. “Well, 35,000 is not 
really a problem.” “No,” I interrupted, “35 
million. Million! Roughly the population of 
your country!” I don’t think he believed me. 
He went on to serve in government and play 
a key role in developing the yet-to-be-implemented privatization plan.

With the help of such economists, Poland is rapidly developing a new kind of 
class society. According to Andrzej 
Miolkowski, who oversees Huta Warszawa’ s 
privatization, wages at Warsaw’s steel plant 
have fallen to 50 percent of their 1982 value, 
based on what they can buy in today’ s stores. 
The country’s unemployment rate is expected to rise from 12 percent to 20 percent 
by year’s end. One of Solidarity’s former 
economic advisors confessed to me that his 
economic worst-case scenario would be 25 
percent unemployed. If a mere five percent 
separates mainstream expectations from 
worst-case scenarios, Poland is indeed in 

In the face of growing class conflict, the 
various governments consistently failed to 
develop a coherent social welfare policy, 
ignoring the recommendations of advisors 
to the Ministry of Labor and relying instead 
on the invisible hand of the market or the 
limited charity of the private sector. Solidarity is not doing much better, having just 
recently eliminated funding for Posredniak, 
a newspaper that for two years had been 
devoted to helping workers. Former editor 
Zuzanna Dabrowska reported that some of 
the recently laid-off have tried to create a 
union of unemployed. But many workers 
are reluctant to join such a group because it 
takes time away from their own job searches. 
And the organizers, in part because of their 
initiative, have been the first to find employment and leave the movement.

Still, if only for the crassest of political motives, one would expect a more vigorous 
attempt to represent these forgotten casual- 
ties of economic reform. In the tradition of 
class-based politics, several non-Communist left parties are considering a bid to form 
a Labor Party (a compromise name since 
both “socialism” and “Solidarity” have be- 
come pejoratives in the public mind). The 
social-democratic wing of the Democratic 
Union, Labor Solidarity, Zbigniew Bujak’s 
Democratic Social Movement, and perhaps 
the Polish Socialist Party might form the 
nucleus of such a party.

Even putting to one side the limited size 
of these groups, many problems still remain. 
The Democratic Union faction has a residual dependence on shock therapy, Labor 
Solidarity is perceived as too eggheadish, Bujak stands virtually alone in his party, and 
the Socialist Party has not yet recovered 
from the 1991 death of its most prominent 
leader, Jan Jozsef Lipski, a longtime oppositionist and member of the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR). Despite its strong 
second-place showing in the most recent 
parliamentary elections, the former Communists (the Democratic Left Alliance) re- 
main politically isolated, an unlikely partner 
for any new Labor Party. Some of the more 
talented ex-Communists, such as former 
high-ranking official Tomasz Nalecz, have 
left the Alliance and await new political 

The chief stumbling block for this left is 
its allergy toward what it considers populism. Parliamentary representative Ryszard 
Bugaj, Labor Solidarity’s leading member, 
told me of the need to reach out to all the 
Poles who didn’t vote in the last election 
(nearly 60 percent of those eligible). But 
when pressed on strategy, he could offer 
only Bush-like prudence: “We have to be 
careful not to be populist like KPN, not to 
promise things which we can’t deliver on. 
We want to be responsible and remain firmly 
grounded in reality.”

While Bugaj speaks of responsible politics, one Pole has set out to prove that 
irresponsibility is far more profitable. By 
poking fun at the new pieties of clericalism 
and nationalism, former Communist government spokesperson Jerzy Urban has be- 
Come unspeakably rich from his best-selling 
books and popular newspaper Nie (“No”). 
Millions of Poles crave Urban’s critical 
edge, so much so that they are even willing 
to forget how much they despised him in his earlier incarnation. The left should be able 
to take advantage of this sentiment as well, 
fashioning a truly responsible, democratic populism in order to acquire political capital 
where Urban has been content to accumulate the financial variety.

One group capable of appealing to popular discontent-the former Communist-controlled trade union (OPZZ}-has so far kept 
a relatively low profile. With a membership 
of four million (roughly twice that of Solidarity), OPZZ is the largest social movement in Eastern Europe, according to its 
economic advisor Pawel Gieorgica (apparently the EC doesn’t count the union in its 
tally of Polish social organizations). Despite its size and its sponsorship of several 
important strikes, OPZZ has not overtly 
challenged the authorities. Following 
Gieorgica’s advice, its new leader Ewa Spychalska has adopted an instrumental 
populism that guarantees her support among 
the populace, but has gravitated toward a 
collegial pragmatism as a post-Communist 
deputy in parliament. This two-edged strategy has boosted Spychalska’s popularity 
and placed OPZZ in an ideal position to 
exploit the new class politics on the inside as 

Should the new Polish Labor Party, or 
whatever the left decides to call itself, fail to 
seize OPZZ’s standard, it will have neutralized its chief advantage. Poland’s new class 
conflicts can be used creatively by the left, 
if it is wise enough to distinguish between 
principled political organizing and irresponsible populism. The right wing has meanwhile shown little hesitation to rush in where 
the left fears to tread, whether in the form of 
KPN’s paramilitary-style recruitment among 
young people or ZChN’s assertion of religious community as an antidote to anomie.


The Struggling Women’s Movement


Malgorzata Tarasiewicz once worked 
for Solidarity. Told by the International 
Confederation of Free Trade Unions to de- 
vote more energy to women’s issues, the 
Solidarity leadership hired Tarasiewicz, a 
young feminist and peace activist from 
Gdansk, to rectify the situation. During her 
brief tenure establishing a women’s section 
within the union, she set up regional chapters, ran media workshops, tried to put together a working women’s agenda. Suspicious of her feminist proclivities, the Solidarity leadership never provided Tarasiewicz 
sufficient resources to do her job and worse, 
harassed representatives of the section’s regional chapters. Frustrated, Tarasiewicz 
resigned in March 1991.

That June, although she had been banned from contacting members of the women’s 
section, Tarasiewicz nevertheless convened 
another meeting in Solidarity’s regional 
headquarters in Warsaw. “I thought it necessary to meet again to explain why 1 was 
forced to leave,” she says. Catching wind of 
the event, the union’s Warsaw leadership 
was determined to throw the participants out 
of the building. But when 140 women from 
17 regions showed up, the Solidarity leader- 
ship was outnumbered. Thrown off guard by 
this show of strength, union leaders responded by threatening Tarasiewicz herself, 
both after the meeting and when a Helsinki 
Watch report came out in March describing 
the events in some detail. “They are using 
Mafia methods to suppress authentic movements within Solidarity,” she exclaims.

Solidarity’s actions indicate a movement in decline, a movement threatened by 
other movements. In the case of the women’s 
section, the battle was between the union 
leadership and the “new left.” Organized 
around some very potent questions such as 
women’s rights, this new left potentially has 
a chance of gaining a foothold in Polish 

For instance, one could not find a country more in need of a women’s movement 
than Poland. Disproportionately affected by 
lay-offs and cuts in social services, women 
are truly the “hidden victims” of recent 
reforms, as Helsinki Watch has written. “In 
Poland,” Polish Socialist Party member 
Zuzanna Dabrowska says of the images 
available to women, “there are only the two Madonnas, the one with the child, and the other one, your Madonna, the singer. There is no middle ground.” The virgin and the 
whore: while the Church promotes a family- 
style conception of a woman, sex shops and 
pornography have proliferated in the new 
Poland. Prominent women who have tried 
to break out of the Madonna mold are politically vulnerable. Take the case of Anna 
Popowicz, the Minister for Women Family 
and youth. “In the beginning,” feminist 
activist Jolanta Plakwicz says, “Popowicz 
was very conservative. But she was exposed 
to so much sexism and so many attacks in the 
Parliament that she became increasingly 
radical. For instance, she attacked the doctors’ code of ethics. So she was dismissed 
and the government dissolved her office.”

After achieving a measure of equality during the Communist years, many Polish 
women are furious at the crude Church and 
state attempts to impose nineteenth century 
definitions on them. The nascent women’s 
movement, which organized effectively 
against the previous anti-abortion bill, has received money from a German women’s 
foundation to create a center in Warsaw. On 
the 1991 International Women’s Day, 
Warsaw’s small but spirited feminist group 
showed “Thelma and Louise” to an enthusiastic crowd. Plans are in the works to 
translate and sell a Polish version of Our 
Bodies, Ourselves. Yet feminism remains a 
dirty word in the country, even in the minds 
of many fiercely independent Polish women.

Regardless of the strength of the anti-feminist forces, the optimists say consolingly, 
Poland s desire to be integrated into Europe 
will force it to conform to European standards. Indeed, at a Council of Europe meeting in Poznan on women’s issues, Council 
representatives sternly lectured the intolerant Poles in attendance. “No ideology, no 
religion can limit a person’s freedom of 
choice,” France’s Roland Beix told the assembled crowd. “Even if 95 percent of 
society opposes abortion, you must respect 
the will of the five percent who support it.”

But the Polish right wing has declared that it 
wants to enter Europe on its own terms. “Let 
us create a real Europe for ourselves Christian and righteous,” ZChN deputy Alojzy
Szablewski declared in parliament, “and 
some day, Western states will want to enter 


The Role of Youth in the Polish Left


Critical to the success of the new left in 
countering such hubris are young people.

“We have to concentrate on students and on 
those people who didn’t vote in the recent 
elections,” Tarasiewicz explains. “New leaders have to appear. A new generation of 
politicians is needed to create an open society.” Young people were at the forefront of 
change in Poland in the last decade as 
activists in Solidarity in 1980-81, as members of the group Freedom and Peace in mid- 
decade, as leaders of the critical 1988 strikes 
as student radicals in NZS. Today, Polish 
youth has abandoned politics. Many have 
turned to entrepreneurship or have emigrated. Even students seem placid, despite 
execrable university services and a meager 
$75 monthly stipend. “I am surprised-and 
you might be surprised as well-but students are not very angry,” NZS representative Marek Wecowski says. Indeed, students at Warsaw University look remarkably well-fed, well-dressed, and happy, nothing like the Russian students one reads about 
on the eve of revolution in 1917: starved, 
threadbare, intellectually volatile, willing to throw bombs and endure prison sentences. 
But unemployment has not yet hit home for 
these young people, and the attractions of 
the new consumer society have not yet palled. 
The next generation, now beginning to organize against religious classes in the secondary schools, will be simultaneously more 
accustomed to and more critical of capitalism.

Perhaps the largest new left movement is the Greens. Given the dismal state of the 
Polish environment, the popularity of ecology is understandable. Green clubs and 
associations are scattered throughout the 
country, devoted to issues as diverse as 
organic farming, alternative energy, deep 
ecology, and walks in the woods. Individual idiosyncrasies and factional infighting have 
prevented the several Green parties from 
establishing a national presence. The chief 
threat to the environment-and conversely, 
perhaps the most unifying theme for the 
various Green movements-is the market. 
In the Zoliborz section of Warsaw, for instance, residents successfully mobilized 
against the local government’s plan to sell a 
portion of their park to a private business 
club. Green politics has proven a refreshing 
tonic to privatizing fever.

Nevertheless, economic constraints have 
forced uneasy compromises. Janusz 
Radziejowski, associate director of the state- 
affiliated Institute of Environmental Protection, points out that with the current government budget problems, the Institute has had 
to look more to corporate contracts. Didn’t 
that strike him as a conflict of interest? 
”Yes,” Radziejowski admits, “firms will not 
pay us to shut them down.” Still, if the 
government doesn’t provide the money, an 
institute has few options.

In 1980, Poland’s unusual political environment produced an unprecedented but, 
sadly, brief alliance of workers and intellectuals. Today, under the sway of market 
utopias, the country may give birth to a 
different kind of alliance between a left that 
organizes around class conflict and a left 
that addresses a range of social issues. 
Threatened workers and farmers may find 
common cause with women outraged at the 
lack of adequate health services, Greens 
dismayed at the destructiveness of corporate 
capitalism, and young people frustrated with 
the state of education. Add to this mix the 
progressive strands of Catholicism, which 
combine a healthy skepticism of hyper-rationalism with a tolerance for difference 
and choice.

Together, these groups can rescue the 
Polish left-from both its checkered past and 
its present lack of direction. And, in turn, the 
new Polish left can rescue Poland from a 
narrow-minded, undemocratic, and unfortunately all-too-ascendant right wing.

Blog Eastern Europe Featured Uncategorized

Poland’s Uncivil Society

During the 1980s, Poland had perhaps the strongest civil society in the world. The Solidarity trade union movement, created in August 1980, eventually counted 10 million members, a quarter of Poland’s population. And when the government cracked down on Solidarity, declaring Martial Law in December 1981, the opposition was strong enough to survive underground under considerably adverse conditions.

In 1989, as Solidarity became a legal organization, it created citizens’ committees that enlisted Poles from all walks of life to discuss the transformation of the country. These committees, in every part of the country, mirrored the Round Table negotiations between the government and the opposition that took place at the elite level.

In 1990, I interviewed Leszek Konarski and Zygmunt Fura who were involved with environmental issues and the creation of Poland’s first Green Party. Twenty-three years later, I met up with them again in Krakow. They were no longer involved with the Green Party. And they were disappointed with the state of the country’s civil society.

“I was in favor of having citizens’ committees everywhere,” said Konarski, who works now as a journalist. “Those committees were very good. Solidarity liquidated all the citizens’ committees. There are no such committees in Poland at the moment. Those committees were institutions that involved a variety of different people: workers, university professors. They were non-party institutions. Then Solidarity reconstituted itself into Solidarity Electoral Action. This Solidarity Electoral Action was already a political party that gained power. And then began political activity and big politics. To this day it’s politics and there are no citizens’ committees. Society doesn’t engage in any dialogue in Poland.”

Fura was particularly unhappy with the state of party politics. “Parties are groups of organized crime,” he told me. “They organize in order to divide the state spoils among themselves. Everyone — the Right, the Left — everyone does the same thing. Society does not participate in voting because it has no influence. What kind of influence does voting have if the participation rate is 40 percent, not more than 50 percent?”

Konarski raised the issue of recycling to demonstrate the weakness of Polish civil society. “The whole West, all of Europe is already able to deal with the problem of trash separation,” he told me. “We still don’t separate 90 percent of our trash. We can’t deal with it because our society is not organized. We simply don’t have the internal organization necessary to say: bottles go here, paper goes here, plastic goes here. There are parties, but the parties don’t talk about trash. They talk about big politics. We speak of big politics, and we can’t handle ordinary matters.”

I asked what happened to the Green Party. Fura talked about its demise. “Possibly I made a mistake in being fascinated with the Greens in Germany where I lived for a year,” he confessed. “We translated all the statutes and so on from the German Greens. We didn’t take into account the specifics of Poland: the climate, the mentality, Polish Catholicism.”

We talked about Green politics today in Poland, the difficulty of figuring out where parties lie on the political spectrum, and the surprising popularity of the Revolutionary Choir.


The Interview


You were telling me about an interview with a right-wing candidate that your magazine published.


Leszek Konarski: Here in Poland the biggest and most serious left magazine Przeglad (Perspective), which I write for, published an interview with the candidate for president from the Law and Justice Party (PiS) – Piotr Glinski. This was a shock, that a Left periodical would be promoting a right-wing candidate for president. We did this because we came to the conclusion that the paper should promote all for whom the highest value is civil society, not where they stand on Communism or capitalism.

When Poland suddenly transitioned from communism to capitalism, that also was a shock. Everyone was suddenly delighted with capitalism. Solidarity supported capitalism and privatization and so on. But the important thing was not about being a capitalist. It was about building civil society. Therefore our weekly also tried to support all civic initiatives without regard to whether it was a Left voice or a Right voice. Thus, we were concerned with supporting all initiatives that served to build that type of society. And that’s why you see this paradox of a Left magazine supporting a Right candidate.

The Civic Platform (PO) doesn’t strive for civic democracy. There’s no civic democracy in parties where 50 percent of the members don’t vote for their own chief. How can you call it democracy in a party where 50 percent are indifferent to who will be the head of their party? That’s not democracy. We never made the transition to that stage of civil society. For instance, the greatest civic democracy in Europe is in Holland and Norway. I don’t know how it is in all the other countries, but for me Holland and Norway are great examples because 80-90 percent of the people belong to various associations, foundations and so on. For us in Poland, the percentage of people who belong to foundations and associations is, I don’t know, 20 percent. You should check on that. Very few people in general are concerned with civic matters. We have parties that struggle with one another in the Sejm, but those are the party elite. Those are not parties of citizens. Those are not parties that listen to their members. They don’t listen because the members are for the most part dead souls.

That’s why Professor Glinski, in our interview asks, why do we have problems with trash, with separating our trash? The whole West, all of Europe is already able to deal with the problem of trash separation. We still don’t separate 90 percent of our trash. We can’t deal with it because our society is not organized. We simply don’t have the internal organization necessary to say: bottles go here, paper goes here, plastic goes here. There are parties, but the parties don’t talk about trash. They talk about big politics. We speak of big politics, and we can’t handle ordinary matters. When society is organized as in the West, then we’ll be able to manage everything. I can’t at this moment agree with Solidarity because I want Solidarity to be less political and to organize society more to a higher purposes.


More like a movement.


Leszek Konarski: Yes. For instance, I was in favor of having citizens’ committees everywhere. Those committees were very good. Solidarity liquidated all the citizens’ committees. There are no such committees in Poland at the moment. Who liquidated the committees?




Leszek Konarski: Yes. Walesa.


Zygmunt Fura: It happened at the time of the parties.


Leszek Konarski: Yes, and it was a very big mistake because those committees were institutions that involved a variety of different people: workers, university professors. They were non-party institutions. Then Solidarity reconstituted itself into Solidarity Electoral Action. This Solidarity Electoral Action was already a political party that gained power. And then began political activity and big politics. To this day it’s politics and there are no citizens’ committees. Society doesn’t engage in any dialogue in Poland. So, when there are elections to the Sejm, to the Senate, to the European parliament, the frequency of participation is, maximum, 50 percent. The greatest participation rate was for the presidential election, and it might have gotten up to 54 or 55 percent in a given year.


The participation rate in the European parliament has been only about 25 percent.


Leszek Konarski: Yes. The frequency is scandalous. Society in general doesn’t pay attention to elections. For the smallest district council elections, the frequency can be as low as 5 percent. I know a locale here in Krakow, for the district council election no one came, or maybe it was only two voters! It’s a disaster of democracy. It’s a disaster of civil society. We have capitalism, but we don’t have full democracy. We jumped from Communism to capitalism, but we didn’t create for ourselves the necessary civic mechanisms. We’re not able to activate life in our own place, in the countryside – we can’t. That’s why it’s dirty, that’s why there’s all this garbage. That’s why we can’t solve ordinary problems. Because society isn’t organized.


The point of view of Glinski is the point of view also of the party, of PIS?


Leszek Konarski: Yes. Unfortunately, PiS is a party of the elite. And PiS fights with PO. And PO fights with PiS. But they don’t fight with contemporary social organizations. For us on the Left, the views of Glinsky are more interesting than the views of Aleksander Kwasniewski [former head of the Union of the Democratic Left]. Glinski is more Left than Kwasniewski. Glinski is a sociologist. I don’t know how he would be as president, but he has a feeling for what the problems are. How have we organized things? Are we organizing things? Are we going to be a democratic state? I think that we’re not a democratic state. There’s no democracy. Democracy is when society decides its own fate, right? Democracy is when each person is heard. Here it’s necessary to register with one party or the other in order to be heard. There’s an opposition, but….


Zygmunt Fura: The party system is everywhere. In the United States. Everywhere.


Leszek Konarski: Yes, also in America.


Zygmunt Fura: There are no countries without parties, no democracies, except maybe ancient democracies.


Leszek Konarski: I know such a party but it ended badly.


Zygmunt Fura: North Korea? Cuba?


Leszek Konarski: No. I spent a week in Libya and did some reporting from there. There were no parties in Libya. I don’t know if there are any parties today in Libya but then there was a direct democracy. Everyone decided everything. It was a kind of full democracy but without parties. That’s the only country I know where I didn’t encounter any parties.


At that time, but eventually parties began…


Zygmunt Fura: Parties are groups of organized crime. They organize in order to divide the state spoils among themselves. Everyone — the Right, the Left — everyone does the same thing. Society does not participate in voting because it has no influence. What kind of influence does voting have if the participation rate is 40 percent, not more than 50 percent? The election for the president is the one time for national reflection. The other issue is the total misunderstanding of the political spectrum. It’s a mishmash. The normal separation is rightists, leftists, and the center. And what here is the right? Which is the party of the rightists?




Zygmunt Fura: They’re Right? They have a program that’s typically leftist. They’re absorbed with Left problems, only without the label. The Church, anti-Communist ideology: 70 percent of the people support that. And what is the PO? Just a name or what?


The center. The center-Right.


Zygmunt Fura: That’s analyzing their politics, but what about their name? It’s a misunderstanding. Is not the Union of Democratic Left (SLD) also a civic platform? That’s also for the citizens, right? And doesn’t the SLD advocate for law and justice? And doesn’t the PO advocate for law and justice? Everyone does. Here it’s necessary to establish clear divisions — as in the democratic West, yes? Like in Germany: there’s a right, a left, the SPD, the CDU and the CSU, the Greens and a center party as well. That’s clear. The names of the parties should immediately identify the values. Here it’s just camouflage and fraud.

Every party builds its own Polish state according to its own vision. PiS has its own vision of the state. PO too. But we need to build a single Poland, not one or another. A Poland for everyone.


Leszek Konarski: And hence we decided to support the letter of Professor Glinsky.


Zygmunt Fura: The Left made a mistake.


What mistake?


Zygmunt Fura: An essential one. Instead of tackling authentic problems that are connected with the Left — like poverty, homelessness, work issues – it dealt with substitute topics, things that the intelligentsia was concerned with. The program of a Left party should arise out of real values, not marketing. The rivalry with Palikot and this so-called new Left leads nowhere. It’s the same everywhere in Europe. In Holland it gets 3-5 percent maximum. The essential values have died off. Who cares about them? The right? PiS uses Smolensk, Katyn — that’s their main ideology. But those should be the issues for historical institutes, for archivists, not a political party. Those themes can attract only so many people.

Young people don’t care about that. Young people are dormant. They’re interested only in clubs, discotheques, making money in order to consume at clubs and music festivals. It’s like they’re under quarantine. According to this official report of the premier, from the chancellery where Michal Boni directs the experts — it’s official but not widely distributed, though I have access — 50 percent of university graduates are unemployed. That’s a group that could lead a revolt. Just like 1968, right? Just like all the social changes began from SDS and other student movements, in Berlin, Amsterdam and so on. That’s a group whose power can propel all kinds of changes, but it requires young people to organize. They’re not workers, not intellectuals. But they can join together just like the others did, at the barricades, at the University of Paris.


Here too.


Zygmunt Fura: Here too. The only problem is that many people have now emigrated. They all finish their studies only in order to get through. They spend a couple years enjoying themselves and then they escape. They go for a year to Ireland for example. Canada is now open, right? It’s a free market. They work for a year, two. They have their contacts, their own circle, and then they don’t come back to Poland. And what will happen later to Poland? That’s a question now for the country. Who will be in Poland? What happens when more young people are born outside the country? That’s a failure of Poland, of Polishness. Everyone is emigrating. It’s a problem of national identity. What does it mean now to be patriotic? This idea has been hijacked by the football fans. Look at the Polish parties today. It’s like a damn Polish football match.


There’s the NGO called Krytyka Polityczna right now in Poland, which involves a lot of young people.


Zygmunt Fura: Leftists. They’re history repeating. It’s another group of leftists emerging: ultra-leftists, a discussion group, the Che Guevara club at university, fighters working somehow with workers, and so on. In 1969, when I lived in Germany for a year, I saw the same thing: narrow circles of ultra-leftists including pro-Marxist groups, the German Communist Party, pro-Vietnam groups. They were all small groups. And now they’re emerging again. Because people are looking for something near at hand. They’re organizing at that level, the family level, small-scale. Meanwhile there’s no possibility for a wider movement. Wider organizing requires an audience. Clubs, fans. It’s dangerous.


Leszek Konarski: As I mentioned, Przeglad is a Left magazine, and we are on the Left. We’re a group of Left intellectuals trying to achieve a high intellectual level. The articles are all analyses. But we are not connected with the SLD. We are a magazine on the Left based in all the values of the Left, even if they show up in PiS or PO or Solidarity (and we did interviews with people in Solidarity). We’re looking for all Left values wherever they are because the Polish Left is completely confused. The SLD is simply moving in a direction I just don’t understand. Krytyka Polityczna, on the other hand, is a very good center of thinking.


Zygmunt Fura: Krytyka Polityczna? They’re well-educated people. Sociologists. Philosophers. Artists.


Here in Krakow too?


Zygmunt Fura: Yes. Sometimes they have art shows in the Bunker [the contemporary art gallery].


Leszek Konarski: For example, two months ago, I wrote a long report about choirs. In Krakow a Revolutionary Choir started up.


Zygmunt Fura: That was a good article.


Leszek Konarski: You read it?


Zygmunt Fura: I read only your articles, Leszek!


Leszek Konarski: So, the Revolutionary Choir started up. Young leftists began to sing the revolutionary songs of Germany, Italy, Cuba. They give performances. They were singing here in the Old Market, and several thousand people were listening to this Revolutionary Choir, which sings Italian songs against Mussolini, songs of rebellion, songs of Che Guevara and other people, even the Internationale. They sang all these songs from the Communist times – worker songs, but not propaganda. All these people were thinking that as this choir was performing in the Market people would whistle and hoot. But there was an ovation. What does this indicate? Above all there’s a sentiment here in Poland for the workers’ tradition, the Left tradition in support of the poor and the simple. It’s a phenomenon.


Zygmunt Fura: You know the song Chmury (Clouds) by Kaczmarski?


That’s a Polish song.


Leszek Konarski: They didn’t sing that.


Zygmunt Fura: It was a Spanish revolutionary song.


Leszek Konarski: Perhaps. Jacek Kaczmarski was a singer from the Solidarity period. But the Choir didn’t sing Kacmarki songs.


Zygmunt Fura: Give me their telephone contact.


Leszek Konarski: Yes, I’ll give you their contact. Send me an email. So, these people in the choir, they didn’t perform for money. But they didn’t perform just anywhere. They’re idealists. They perform where they believe they need to perform. Not for money.


I have a question about the past. What happened with the Green Party here?


Zygmunt Fura: We were in the first group that established a Green Party in the general wave of social and ecological protests. The foundation was a social movement connected to Solidarity activism demanding ecological change. The party emerged in 1988, the first party on an ecological basis in Eastern Europe. The second was Lithuanian, the third Hungarian. We had contact with these groups, for instance with Janos Vargha in Hungary. Our party was like other Green parties.

We committed a few mistakes. We wanted to be identified with the Green movement in Europe. And some divisions emerged within the party because not everything could be precise. For instance, the structure of the party had three leaders. Also possibly I made a mistake in being fascinated with the Greens in Germany where I lived for a year. We translated all the statutes and so on from the German Greens. We didn’t take into account the specifics of Poland: the climate, the mentality, Polish Catholicism. Hence there were a lot of mistakes. That’s one thing.

The other mistake is that we tried to be a wide movement. Like the Swedes and Germans and other Greens, the movement should have been created and controlled from the top. Intellectuals don’t try to control things. Various groups arose and various people became involved. But I don’t want to explain all the mechanisms about how that came about. Leszek and I were active in the Green Party until 1994. In the elections in which we participated, the party didn’t get less than 3 percent. That was a lot.


Leszek Konarski: In the polls.


Zygmunt Fura: Yes, in the polls and in the elections as well. And now, what remains after all the arguments, splits, and the suspicions that the Green party was influenced by the KGB and the Special Forces? It’s nonsense. And what’s really unpleasant and painful is that the attacks on us were by the people who, after us, created a new party Greens 2012. These were people from Freedom and Peace (WiP).


Leszek Konarski: Not 2012. Greens 2004.


Zygmunt Fura: Yes. Greens 2004. That was Radoslaw Gawlik and people who had been in the Freedom and Peace movement, not only them, but in various similar formations. And now what kind of support do they get? 0.3 percent. It’s nothing. They can’t even get above one percent. In more difficult times, we were able to get more support. The mistake is that they also want to be international Greens along the pattern of the Greens in Holland or Germany, but on Polish grounds. They’re concerned with feminism, minority issues. That’s temporarily necessary, as a strategic purpose, for those divisions. But it would be better to focus on ecology, on the poor.

And what’s happening now? Ecology is a luxury good. If you have the cash you can buy healthy food. Health should be for everyone, and ecology should have the same program that treats everyone the same way. Just as schools do.

Meanwhile, the Green Party establishes partnerships with minorities. And as a result, it distances itself from people. It should be a party supported by all people, from the well-educated to the farmers. But there are no farmers in the Green Party. In the German Greens there’s a strong farmers’ contingent around ecological agriculture, and they take a position in the European Parliament as well. Each of us somehow lives ecologically for own purposes. Ecology at the moment has become like commerce: for the purpose of creating your own personality through campaigns, grants, and spectacular actions.

Meanwhile what’s troubling is that there’s no real public ecological education — in schools, in clubs. We conduct discussions about how beer is healthy and how to push cosmetics. Now there’s a big threat in the realm of the free market, which is just pushing garbage. All of these products are cheaper, displacing healthy Polish ecological food. If I buy these large potatoes from Cyprus or these large onions from Spain – I have my suspicions. Because I’m accustomed to small onions and I know that they have…


Leszek Konarski: You’re right, Zygmunt. We were too fascinated with the German Greens. We had had contacts with them; they came here. We adopted their statutes. Zygmunt translated them and we created the party on the German model. But they were a step ahead.


Zygmunt Fura: They were a generation ahead. They advanced slowly, slowly, and now they are quite pragmatic.


Leszek Konarski: Yes, we copied them so that in our party there couldn’t be one leader, there had to be three, as there was in Germany. That was our terrible error. Among the German Greens, there are three leaders but they try to cooperate with each other.


Zygmunt Fura: Here it’s a rivalry.


Leszek Konarski: It turned out in Poland with three leaders, each one created their own bloc because, simply, this is Poland. And we didn’t realize at the time that it wouldn’t work. Germany is a country with a higher level of political culture, perhaps. I can’t imagine what it’s like in America, but it’s possible there as well. But not in Poland. In Germany it’s possible, although with the German Greens, as I see, they don’t have so much success.


Zygmunt Fura: But the Greens there always get between 7 and 10 percent of the vote.


Leszek Konarski: They told us that we must have 50 percent women and 50 percent men in the leadership of the party. We did that, and I think it was a mistake because our women were still not yet ready for politics. We searched and we often found only stupid grandmothers, stupid women. This led to conflicts because we didn’t have enough smart people. But in Germany this was the way it was and we simply copied it. Also each country has its own specific politics and doesn’t freely take steps against its traditions. It can’t jump ahead 20 years. The Germans were 20 years ahead of us.


Zygmunt Fura: All parties eventually create a political class, a political elite. And parties should have an elite cadre. For instance, there are 400 people in the Norwegian Green party, out of a population of four million, but they manage to possess all the necessary wisdom and clarity. In a party like that, the leader must be an intellectual visionary able to organize the masses for the elections. All the time, the leader must be in social contact, otherwise the party breaks up and dies. PO is in the middle of such flux, so it doesn’t have a chance. It’s scattered. There’s the Right bloc, the Left bloc, the ecological bloc, this bloc and that bloc. It’s falling into pieces. But that’s good. In five years, we’ll have clear divisions. The political organization of society should be this way: Left, Right, and Center. The Center and Left are in the process of creation. Meanwhile, a new Right is emerging, not on the PiS base, because it must be completely different. PiS is leftist. It’s concerned with things that are too idealistic, whether we’re talking about Smolensk, Katyn and historical issues like that: settling with the past and Catholicism. I believe that a Catholic party should be set up in Poland – for the people who are sectarian in that way.


Leszek Konarski: But the Church has never wanted a Catholic party.


Zygmunt Fura: Why? The Church wants to have influence everywhere, even among leftists. The Communist party was the most servile toward the Church in this period.


Leszek Konarski: The Church has Jaroslaw Gowin. I’ve written about Gowin. He was a minister of justice. Now he wants to be chairman of PO. I wrote a long article about him. I wanted to look at what he represents and what he’s doing. I did a lot of research on which cardinal supports him. It’s clear that he’s the Church’s man. But it’s not Cardinal Dziwisz or Father Rydyzk from Torun. I checked. No one. It’s very strange who supports him. I suggested that perhaps he’s controlled by Opus Dei. He had a meeting with Opus Dei here in Krakow. I have witnesses who wrote to me about his connections to Opus Dei. Probably he’s controlled by Opus Dei, but I don’t know. He’s a very strange man, Gowin. He wants to take the place of Tusk. But he will get very few votes in the election, and it’s not clear what he will do. I suppose he’ll leave PO. Maybe he’ll try to create a new Catholic party. He wants to move in the direction of a republican party.


Zygmunt Fura: People are tired of partisanship, and the parties are going in the direction of elitism.


Leszek Konarski: Which party will win in the next Polish elections? Probably PO will lose, however. I don’t know, maybe PiS will win. Anyway…


Zygmunt Fura: PO will probably come in second, SLD third.


When we talked 23 years ago, we talked about the quality of Green parties. There were various parties. For instance, we talked about cucumbers (green all the way through) on the one hand and watermelons (green on the outside, red on the inside) on the other.


Zygmunt Fura: They exist, but only to a residual degree.


Leszek Konarski: Basically there’s no ecological movement in Poland. It ended.


Zygmunt Fura: Yes. At one point in the past we had the Polish Ecological Club, and it was dynamic. Now it’s limited only to very inside activity. Nothing public. No education. No strong statements. They even don’t have offices. It’s a real shame because the ecological club that I was in operated along the lines of a Roman club. It was a club of visionary intellectuals. An elite. They also committed mistakes like moving to a mass structure, and so on. Also, the generation of fighters has died. Or they’ve retired.


So, the parties don’t exist at the moment. But the problems still exist. Like trash.


Leszek Konarski: That’s the biggest problem at the moment.


Zygmunt Fura: We are not prepared in terms of infrastucture to separate trash. The government is not prepared for this kind of problem and society is not prepared mentally.


Why? Even Bulgaria has this kind of policy.


Zygmunt Fura: It’s the politics around waste separation.


But why doesn’t it exist here?


Leszek Konarski: On July 1 a law on waste went into effect. Now all of us must pay a tax on waste. Each of us can arrange with a firm to come and take the waste away. Before, a lot of people were not arranging for the removal of waste. Whoever wants, pays; whoever doesn’t want, doesn’t pay. I pay every month 16 zloty, my wife pays 16 zloty, and each person in my house must pay. We pay the city, and the city now has a responsibility to take away all the trash without regard to where it is. That’s a good thing. A very good thing. But it’s been two months and it’s not working. I think that it will work, but at the most it’s a terrible mess. People are not separating their trash. They don’t know where to throw things or they’re throwing it wherever. They’re throwing away gold, but the gold is glass and paper when the trash is unsorted. We lack an ecological culture. It’s a question of…


It’s a psychological question?


Leszek Konarski: Yes, and it’s lacking. We’re in a difficult period. Everything is good, well-organized, but at the moment it doesn’t work. It will probably be another several months before it will start working. We have to work on education, but we lack now civic education. We have to teach citizens that plastic bottles go here and glass bottles go in this bucket and paper goes over here. None of these people has been taught. They don’t know. I showed my wife, and she now puts things in different places. In the West everyone knows what to do, but here no.


So, that’s the biggest ecological problem. What’s the next biggest?


Leszek Konarski: CO2. We have many problems with…


Zygmunt Fura: Energy.


Leszek Konarski: With carbon dioxide. We have many problems because the EU obliged us to limit emissions, and we were not able to limit our emissions. All of our electricity-generating plants run on coal. All of them. We don’t have even one atomic energy plant. All of them are coal, and all of them release pollution. We will pay a large fine, a lot of money, because we’re not able to meet the requirements of the EU since we don’t have clean energy. We have too little hydroelectric and wind generation. In countries like Szitzerland or France, they have 15-20 percent of their energy coming from hydro, from wind and various unconventional sources, and we continue to fail to meet our requirements. We are a primitive country, unable to generate clean energy. That’s our problem.

Now, there’s a specific problem with atomic energy. Of course our Green Party was against the building of atomic power plants in Poland. But now I wonder whether we made a mistake. Because we simply lack electricity. They say that in two years we won’t have any.


Zygmunt Fura: We consume too much electricity, and we don’t have enough energy conservation programs.


Leszek Konarski: When the state was planning to build an atomic power plant at that time, we protested against it — in the north, at Zarnowiec, on the sea.


And you were successful.


Leszek Konarski: We successfully protested there. But now I regret it a bit because if we had built the plant then we wouldn’t be having energy problems now. It was somewhat old technology — the Russians had offered us the technology. But we blocked the building of the atomic plant, and we don’t have atomic energy at the moment. We have a crisis. We’ve fallen into an energy crisis.


Zygmunt Fura: By 2010 we should probably have had 15 or 20 percent alternative energy.


Leszek Konarski: Alternative, yes, 15 percent. We should have. If we’d built windmills, hydroelectric.


Zygmunt Fura: Leszek wrote about hydroelectric. Remember? I read that.


Leszek Konarski: Yes, but it was too little. We created hydroelectric, but not enough.


Zygmunt Fura: For that you need money. Photovoltaic cells, all the energy of the sun. The EU gives. And the EU takes.


Leszek Konarski: Now the biggest problem in Poland is shale gas. Here everyone says that we have shale gas. If I were active in the ecological movement at the moment, I would protest against that because it’s a degradation of the environment. But everywhere they’ve begun looking for this gas. Firms are devoting lots of money, and they haven’t found any. Up to now, there isn’t any, only a small amount and they haven’t extracted it. There must be alternative energy for Poland. There must be large deposits of gas. They thought that they could be independent from Russian gas and Gasprom. We buy about 12 billion cubic meters from Gasprom. We’re living all the time on Russian gas. And we want to be independent. Also American firms began to look for shale gas, but they found only a small amount. Energy is a big problem right now in Poland.


Yes. So, what do you think about the future? Particularly, the situation of the Green party? Do you think that there will be another chance for the Green Party or something like it? Or do you think the time of such parties has ended?


Leszek Konarski: I don’t know. I can’t predict the future. But there is a small ecological movement, a movement of small local groups.


Yes, but they’re not very large.


Leszek Konarski: Not very. I don’t see whether someone can pull together these movements into a political party. I don’t see whether a Green Party will again emerge in Poland. We can’t be the ones to do it because we have lost contact with all these people. Now there are a lot of small initiatives and it’s very good that they exist. But I don’t see a future for the ecological movement. I don’t see the people who could do this, that have the charisma to take control of such a movement. We don’t have the kind of characters who can make a new Green Party. As soon as everything starts up, it very quickly ends.


We talked about the political changes for you both when you were in Solidarity and then –


Leszek Konarski: Yes, and then I moved to the Left side.


Do you think that kind of evolution is usual for Poland?


Leszek Konarski: I think it applies to a more than just myself, people who consider that capitalism did not fulfill expectations. We thought that this capitalism would provide us with the possibility to participate in life, to achieve democracy and freedom. There is certainly an overall success. We have the possibility to start enterprises. Everything’s in order. Only we lack one thing – the possibility to participate in deciding our own fate. Poles don’t believe that they have freedom. We have a certain freedom, but we lack the instruments of freedom. The parties, such that they are, are not generally interested in the poor, in people who are without work, in everyday problems. In specific towns the parties should be more interested in local perspectives.

That’s why I’m disappointed. The fact that I moved to the Left is a result of this disappointment, and that’s why I struggled with Solidarity, which did not fulfill its promise. We wanted Solidarity to decide everything in the country. We wanted to be civic in that sense. We are absolutely not a civil society, and Professor Glinski is absolutely right that we are a social elite.

Above all we are a party society. No one outside the parties can govern in Poland. Only the parties.


Zygmunt Fura: Aside from Rydzyk.


Leszek Konarski: Yes, the Church.


Zygmunt Fura: This is a country governed through the Church and by the Church. That’s the official culture.


Of course: 90 percent of Poles are Catholic.


Zygmunt Fura: But that doesn’t mean that people every day have to refer to the teachings of John Paul II, the Bible, and the principles of the Church. There’s a complete dichotomy. The Church and religion should be inside me and not simply when I am in church. It should guide my principles: kindness, charity. These are principles for everyday: universal values. The same can be said about Islam. But we are guided here by Catholicism, and we should be a very well structured society.

Those who are initiates go to church. They believe that abortion is killing children. For me too this is a shock, it’s unthinkable. It’s mendacity. For all societies whether they’re 70 percent Islam, 80 percent Catholic, or 90 percent, this must be mendacity. Right?


I asked Leszek how is politics had evolved. In my opinion it’s very interesting when a person who was a member of Solidarity and then maybe a member of the Citizens’ Committee and then –


Leszek Konarski: Moves to the Left.


Yes. Did you have the same evolution?


Zygmunt Fura: I identify with where I’ve come from – where I grew up, my studies, my life path, my past, my coming from a small town, the problems I’ve had with my family, my father, my environment. I was brought up in a Left environment. I don’t hide that. I remain a leftist. That doesn’t mean that my Left politics haven’t evolved. So, for instance, I sympathize with PiS where I have colleagues like Prof. Ryszard Terlecki. I have friends in PO with whom I share certain thinking. I haven’t broken with any of my contacts though there are things that I don’t agree with, and some people don’t answer me who have gone in a certain Left direction. I look for smart people and I will talk with all smart people. That’s necessary in Poland.

As Norwid said: difference is beautiful. And we struggle for beauty with various techniques, even gangsterish techniques, in the name of difference. Let Poland be Poland, as they sing. There won’t be a Poland if there isn’t beautiful difference. Because Poland is a symbol, right? Here there are different people, different groups and interests. There’s always someone to connect to. As they say, the Catholic religion should connect to social values with Christian ethics, should connect us with what is good. Religion tells us what is right to do. It should connect people, but the opposite often happens. The unhappiness of such a nation just continues. Because we are a society of difference. These differences are made possible through a kind of elite that doesn’t talk with groups that are at odds with the people. It’s very easy to cause various conflicts, to set up one after another.


Leszek Konarski: In my opinion, it’s necessary at this moment to build civil society, to promote those kinds of organizations.


Zygmunt Fura: That’s what Jacek Kuron said – don’t burn down the committees, only create them, in every locale around every problem. For instance to develop sports create a sports club for that.


Leszek Konarski: So that in every little town there were 100 different foundations, organizations, committees doing this positive work.


Zygmunt Fura: But the question is what is the next stage in this society. And the country is in a crisis stage when 60 percent of people are struggling non-stop for existence. We should be creating self-defense committees here.


Leszek Konarski: Yes, something like that.


Zygmunt Fura: Or committees of mutual assistance, as there were at one time – friendly assistance, collegial, neighborly.


Leszek Konarski: Before Preglad there was the magazine Przeglad Tygodniowy. It had a different format. It was inspired by the ideas of the movement of positivists in the 19th century, people like Aleksander Swietochowski. The 19th century was called the era of positivism. Particularly in the second half of the 19th century, these positivists believed – and there some important representatives here in Poland – in the necessity to build. The most important thing was to build, to organize, not to destroy. They created various organizations of social self-help. In every little town there were cooperative banks. They promoted these things. I was very interested in this period of positivism. I think that now also something like that is necessary in Poland, to organize society in the direction of positive change, and not party struggle. Therefore I believe that there should be movements, foundations, and local associations in every little town.


Zygmunt Fura: Like Schumacher’s concept: small is beautiful.


Leszek Konarski: I can’t really imagine a non-party system in Poland.


Zygmunt Fura: For environmental activities.


Leszek Konarski: But if new parties emerge, then they should be parties that build…


Zygmunt Fura: From beginning to end: clear and coherent


Leszek Konarski: They should be civic, but not Civic Platform. That party has only the name Civic.


Zygmunt Fura: It’s elite. For the rich.


Leszek Konarski: But it has very nice name: Civic Platform.


Zygmunt Fura: In Poland, only the names of the parties are nice. Civic Platform….


Leszek Konarski: Law and Justice.


Zygmunt Fura: Who can question that?


Leszek Konarski: A nice name.


Zygmunt Fura: Only the Left Union has a clear name, but that’s because it’s a collection that’s identified with past times. With the Communists. But socialism? Today there’s no talk of socialization, of social society.


Last question. It’s quantitative. When you look back at the last 23 years and compare it to the situation today in Poland, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being very dissatisfied and 10 very satisfied?


Zygmunt Fura: For people in general, there’s no one answer. For people who were prepared, for the eternal capitalists, the system was excellent. But in general, I’d say that 60-70 percent of people are totally dissatisfied. The level of dissatisfaction is reflected in the frequency of participation in elections, and it’s intensified by protests, emigration, frustration, what you see on the streets, also in offices, also at the post offices. We’re friendly and all. But the frustration is inside: inside the 70-80 percent of dissatisfied people. The 30 percent of people who have successfully adapted to this system — the entrepreneurs, those who have prospered — they can leave. They have their homes, their work. And there’s the 5 percent, the elite who have their yachts and jets. I believe that among this group at least some of the people succeeded through dishonest means. This would include some gangsters. That’s the way it is everywhere.

Meanwhile, the 60-70 percent of people also takes into account young people who are dissatisfied, who have emigrated, who can’t articulate the existential problems they face. They go to school, make some money distributing pamphlets in order to drink beer and satisfy their needs. We have a hell of a lot of these students. They go to private universities – we have 300 of these private universities. They go to state universities. They have the closed, dead-end perspective of the dissatisfied. It’s a bomb waiting to go off.


And for you personally?


Zygmunt Fura: Maximum 3.


Leszek Konarski: I’d say a little higher, maybe 5 or 6. Because for instance our farmers were afraid of the system, afraid of capitalism. And now see how good the situation is for farmers. They thought that all in all it was a bad end. But farmers in Poland have a lot. Before, there was a lot of land, a lot of fields that no one was cultivating. Now there’s no land on which something is not being cultivated. Everywhere something is growing because each farmer gets grants from the EU, and everything must be cultivated. Indeed, in the countryside you can see the building of new houses and farmers are improving themselves.


Zygmunt Fura: Let me give you my business card. I’m doing now a modern business. Fashion. Fashion show. Fashion TV.


Leszek Konarski: For example, it’s a problem with people who during socialist times were not taught how to take care of themselves, which means they were taught about changing work. The state took care of everyone in terms of housing, work. Everyone was prepared for a good life. I also was doing well back then. Medical care was free, the hospitals worked wonderfully during socialist times. The canteens were great.


Zygmunt Fura: Plenty of electricity.


Leszek Konarski: Here there was a canteen, a restaurant for journalists. We paid such a small amount of money. Every day we ate lunch here. Now there’s nothing because now there’s capitalism.


Zygmunt Fura: No, there’s something here!


Leszek Konarski: There’s no lunch like that. It’s a restaurant where you pay a lot of money. And I can’t come here everyday because I don’t have enough money. For me, life back then was inexpensive. You could go on vacation. Everything was organized.


Translated by John Feffer


Krakow, August 22, 2013



Interview (1990)


The two leaders of the Green party in Krakow are an odd couple. Zygmunt Fura is a bundle of spontaneity and nonsequitors. Leszek Konarski is a journalist for Przeglad Tygodniowy and specializes in the typically European field of reportage: a mixture of reporting and storytelling. He is also running as a candidate for the Green Party in the local elections.

First we talked about the elections in general. Last year, the Green party stayed out of the elections and instead supported the Citizens’ Committee in the national elections: the party’s charter forbids it to participate in less-than-free elections and there was little change that it could have won any seats. This year, however, the Greens are taking the local elections very seriously and have joined in coalition with several parties, different ones in different cities. In Wroclaw, for instance, they are working with KPN; in Krakow, with PAX; in Jelena Gora, with the Democratic Party (SD); in Lodz, with one of the two Citizens’ Committees. Meanwhile, in an election for a temporary mayor for Krakow, the Green party candidate overwhelmingly beat out the Citizens’ Committee candidate, 125 votes in the city council to 16 (more on this electoral surprise in the next section).

One complicating factor in Green politics is the existence of three separate Green Parties, all with the same name. Konarski says that his party represents 90 percent of all Green activists, that the other parties are Green in name alone. One of them is totalitarian in its statutes. The other is interested in ecological business ventures. It heard that the West is interested in ecology and wants to pour money into the field. It is therefore considering the purchase of Perspectiwy, the political weekly, and turning it into an environmental magazine (at a cost of 2 billion zlotys).

The Green party of Fura and Konarski, meanwhile, concentrates on local issues and allows the greatest degree of autonomy for local affiliates. There are 11 spokespeople for the group and this is almost as if there were 11 parties. When they held their Congress in the fall, Green-Fura invited the other two Green parties to participate but they refused. When one of these other groups held its conference recently, it was sponsored by Nowa Huta (i.e.: by business). The Green party of Fura and Konarski is the only one connected with the Brussels international, the only one to participate in the Budapest conference and so on. It also cooperates with groups in the GDR, Ukraine (very strong, says Konarski, who recently returned from a trip to Kiev), Lithuania and Estonia. Groups in Rumania and Hungary have not really come together yet.

We then discussed the principles of the group. The party considers ecology a social issue. Konarski himself knows very little about the nuts and bolts of ecology–the filters, the protective mechanisms–but cares very much about the social dangers of ignoring ecological threats. Second, the group is committed to key individual freedoms, such as the freedom of speech and equates these rights with the right to be free of the threat of ecological catastrophe. Third, the members of the group are pacifists. Practically, this means that they are against both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, third world intervention, imperial tendencies, border conflicts. They are for a common Europe and the preservation of cultural diversity and ethnic rights.

They have some connection with “deep ecology” through the work of Polish architect Janusz Korbel who, with his associates, designs ecologically sound housing. I asked about the various European Green parties. He said they were closer to the English Greens than the German Greens. The first are known, in Poland, as “cucumbers:” green on the outside and green on the inside. The Germans, on the other hand, are known as “watermelons:” green on the outside but red on the inside.

We talked a little about specific suggestions for Poland and, I’m afraid, Konarski was a little vague. First he spoke of the need to eliminate the bureaucracy that so often slows down the penalization process for polluters. He then switched topics and talked about the role of the Church. Only the Franciscans have taken on the issue of the environment. Then back to the local elections in May. The Citizens’ Committees, Konarski predicted, would not win as decisively as it did last year. He also mentioned how apolitical people have become. Few people show up for demonstrations and Citizens’ Committee meetings attract even fewer. The Green party, meanwhile, is quite weak in key areas of Poland, oddly in certain cities where the environmental problem is particularly severe: Rzeszow, Gdansk, Lublin.


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Poland on the Economic Periphery

Poland is in the center of Europe. Poles often stress that their country is in Central Europe, not Eastern Europe. The title of Norman Davies’ immense study of Poland is The Heart of Europe. Indeed, throughout history Poland has been central to the European experience, from the medieval curriculum at Jagiellonian University in Krakow and the scientific theories of Copernicus to the agonies of the country’s dismemberment in 1795 and the tragic role it played in World War II. As the locus of the Solidarity trade union movement in the 1980s, Poland was also central to the fall of Communism.

After the post-Communist transition period, Poland has boasted of its economic success. It weathered the difficult years of transformation in the 1990s to emerge, by the late 2000s, as the only country strong enough to maintain economic growth during the financial crisis that gripped all of Europe. It now aspires to be an economic leader in the region and for Europe as a whole.

As economist Ryszard Bugaj points out, however, Poland’s economic growth of 4-5 percent has been decent but not all that remarkable.

“This economic growth was not impressive against the background of economic history,” he told me in an interview in his office in Warsaw in August 2013. “Most economies during transition periods grew faster than we did, including European economies following World War II. It is also extremely important to keep in mind that we had one-time reserves that we used, and we don’t have them anymore. For instance, the one-time program of privatization was not optimal either from the point of view of efficacy or the strengthening of public finance. Another one-time reserve that is often forgotten was the good shape of the world’s economy on which we were dependent.”

But what concerns Bugaj is not so much the growth rate but the relationship the Polish economy maintains with the rest of Europe. And here Poland’s centrality diminishes. Small countries often have no choice but to align themselves with larger economic entities, as for instance the Baltic countries have done inside the European Union. But Poland is not a small country. It is the sixth largest EU country by population, and the largest country in East-Central Europe (twice the size of its nearest competitor, Romania).

“In Poland one question has to be answered: is Poland trying to be economically independent, or does it want to be a part of another, bigger economic structure?” Bugaj asks. “Without making a conscious decision, we decided on the second path. And now Poland has become to a large degree a peripheral economy in relation to Germany. My personal opinion is that in the long term this was the wrong decision since we had another option. This option is still available, though the chances are smaller.”

That option would be, for Bugaj, the French model. “We should decide on a system that’s rather social and somewhat statist,” he suggested. “That there are no international enterprises in Poland is a warning sign. Such enterprises can only be established under a government umbrella. These kinds of companies were established in France. The French spend a lot of money in support of these state enterprises, and in terms of technology they are far ahead of England where such enterprises have almost disappeared. On the contrary, England before the First World War was a powerhouse in terms of technology while France did not achieve anything. In my opinion we should go down the ‘French path.’ I realize that there are only a few examples of countries where this policy was implemented successfully, like Israel. Another good example is Finland. We should look for such models.”

Bugaj once served in parliament as a representative of the closest thing Poland had to a Labor Party, something called Labor Solidarity. Although he still feels connected to the Polish Left – the pre-World War II non-Communist Left – his views have changed somewhat since we last talked in 1993. In our conversation 20 years later, we talked about the economic policies of the Left and Right in Poland, his take on the state of the Solidarity trade union today, and why he feels that he was naïve in his earlier belief in democracy.


The Interview


What is your perspective on the Polish economy? Most Western economists believe that the Polish economy is a success. What is your opinion?


I am more skeptical. Of course, compared to other European countries, the Polish economy performed quite well during the crisis. It’s a question of interpretation, about what the reasons are for such a course of events. Especially during the second phase of the process of transformation at the end of the 20th century, Poland built a specific model of capitalism that could be characterized as more market-driven than those of most European countries. It resembled more the American than the European model. Some of my economist colleagues think that this is the main reason why Poland went through the crisis so smoothly. I do not agree with this point though. I am not the only one, but we are in the minority. I believe that the reason we avoided the recession is that even though all essential components of the neoliberal economy have been implemented, we did not succeed in particular in eliminating the operation of automatic stabilizers.

In 2009, 2010, and 2012, and even in 2013, public sector revenue decreased while budgetary expenditures have remained the same. Thus the deficit has increased. In the short term, this keeps overall demand on the same level; in the long term the increasing deficit leads to an explosion of public debt. Something similar took place among European countries. Also in the United States. The more liberal-oriented economists supported the idea of Poland entering the Eurozone. But we did not enter the Eurozone. In 2009, the value of the zloty weakened. The weak zloty exchange rate, in turn, increased export viability. Connected to that, according to the statistics for domestic prices, exports of course did not fall.

That of course had an important significance. However, if we look at the long term, serious problems appear. Polish national debt is not that high compared to other countries in the world. Compared to Europe, it is somewhere in the middle. However, our constitution and the public finance bill include a provision on the so-called prudence threshold [which establishes a limit on public debt as a percentage of GDP]. I took a position against this during the creation of the constitution (in the last phase the Polish constitution was created through cross-party talks because its passage required a 2/3 majority vote and therefore compromise was necessary). At that time there was no constitution in the world that included such a prudence threshold provision. The only advantage of such a provision is its preventive quality. It cannot be applied in practice. Let’s say we have a 5 percent GDP deficit in the public finance sector and we exceed the level of 55% debt-to-GDP ratio. According to the public finance bill, next year’s budget should be balanced. Thus a recession would be guaranteed for next year, not to mention the social consequences that would result from the required decrease in public expenditures.

This is a potential trap. In terms of the long-term effects of the transition, it was a success in many ways, but it has also been challenged. Yesterday I gave a speech at the annual meeting of the national committee of Solidarity and I mentioned that although the benefits of transition were distributed unequally, the transition can be regarded as success. Some of the delegates did not want to hear the word “success.” A more critical assessment is that the transition established the “peripheral” structure of our economy. There is no Polish company with a global position in the international market. Not a one. And also a great inequality arose.

There are also certain analogies to Greece. In the Greek scenario, they tried to replace taxes with borrowed money. In Poland taxes were decreased a priori. Now we have a regressive tax system comparable to the U.S. model. It might even be worse. At the same time, there is no social consensus around deep public expenditure cuts, and I don’t believe there will be such in the future. There’s no drama because we are receiving large transfers from Brussels. But there will soon be changes. We find ourselves in a dramatic situation if we talk about political stability. In the next election there will be very low voter turnout, just like the U.S. congressional elections (not the presidential elections). As a result of this and our parliamentary cabinet system, the winning party may have a problem forming a majority government.

Poland is now on the horns of a dilemma. Respected Polish economists like Leszek Balcerowicz are not taking into consideration the social, economic, and political determinants. They only say “reforms, reforms, reforms,” which means the neo-liberal program. But political stability is a very important factor for economic growth and development. Political difficulties can have major economic consequences. I am also afraid of the emergence of a large populist movement, and by populist I do not necessarily mean the leftist or statist movement. Populism can be liberal too. Therefore I think that [Former Minister of Justice] Jaroslaw Gowin, when he refers to the tradition of Thatcherism, does not know what is he talking about. He bases his opinion about economic reforms on strictly ideological judgments. I would say it is like with the attempts to reform the Communist system. You can try, but you won’t succeed, and the effects of those attempts will be fatal.


I’d like to ask you about Poland’s dependence on the European Union. On one hand it is obviously good that there are additional EU funds, but on the other hand this dependence might be dangerous. What is your opinion?


First of all we don’t get as much money as one may think. There are numerous factors to be considered. It’s not just our high dues. We have to take into account the fact that maintaining our relationship with the EU is very costly. For instance, the Agency for Restructuring Agriculture, whose only responsibility is to maintain relations with the EU, employs several thousand people. It is simply a middleman that distributes European founds. That bureaucratic apparatus costs quite a lot. Also, the dues are rising quickly, with the annual contribution of member states now amounting to around 3 billion euro. Of course, in the next seven years, a significant net transfer from the EU seems to be guaranteed.

I used to work as a presidential advisor under Jaroslaw Kaczyński, whom I knew for a long time. When Poland was about to sign the Lisbon Treaty, I told him that it was necessary to distinguish between two things. The treaty would adversely affect us, but the consequences of not signing would be much worse. Brussels owns effective tools to punish us for using our veto power. Our choice when it came to various decisions touching on deeper integration was rather illusory. I personally believe that we should not enter the Eurozone (happily we did not do so). I guess it is still too early to decide whether the Eurozone project can be achieved. It is obvious, though, that European elites invested a lot into this project and will protect it at all costs. But it’s an open question whether Europe is capable of creating a common currency. In my view: not in the near future.

My view differs from the leftist-liberal standpoint of others. I consider that the idea of a common currency cannot be reconciled with a democratic order. I believe that democracy at its core is national. It is rooted in tradition, history, and the communicative codes of national languages. I don’t think it is possible for democracy right now to function outside of the nation-state. If Brussels increases its power, that will just translate into an enlargement of the EU’s bureaucracy.

In the long term the Eurozone project has a chance of success only in northern Europe: Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, maybe France. But that is about it. There are significant differences in the economic structure between north and south as well as between the old EU and Poland and the rest of the countries. We should not also go further with the integration of the banking system. I made these suggestions to President Kaczynski. In theory we have a veto power, but to exercise this right could cost us a lot. We must not squander our veto power.

Another important issue is the environmental program of the EU. For countries like Poland, this program is extremely unfair. Countries like France polluted a lot but have now switched to nuclear power plants while we, because of our delayed development, are still using conventional energy sources. The overall accumulation of our air pollution over the last several hundred years is nothing compared to that of Germany. Nonetheless we pay a lot since we have to pay for what we emit right now, not for the overall amount of air pollutants. This undermines Polish competitiveness, which used to be based on two factors: cheap labor and cheap energy. With the increase of wages, labor has become more expensive. The increase of energy prices significantly diminishes our competitiveness.


You talked about populism. Obviously that’s a very serious issue in this region.


In America also. Isn’t the Tea Party populism in its most visible form?


This is true, and I have written about this issue. It is very dangerous in America.


And the question remains how to handle it…


This is very interesting when it comes to Hungary. Fidesz used to be a liberal party while now it is something completely different. I want to ask your opinion about the Fidesz economic plan.


I need to be careful with my judgment, as my knowledge is very limited. As far as my knowledge goes I have mixed fillings about their program. There are two serious alternatives. One is to continue the neoliberal program of reforms. I am skeptical about this program, and I am afraid of its results. The resulting crisis of neoliberal reforms involved an acceleration of inequalities and other economic consequences. On the other hand, political-economic programs that can be called nationalist-statist are now in vogue. This has been implemented in Hungary on a grand scale. In Poland the biggest supporter of this program is the Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc party (PiS) of Jaroslaw Kaczynski (or it used to be, I am not sure if it still is.) In the core of this program lies an assumption that the market is fair if various “systems” do not distort it. This nationalist-statist approach assumed that the market has been distorted by post-Communist groups and by contacts with foreign countries. There is a small amount of truth to this, but they take this as a core assumption.

A program that would draw on the experiences of the current crisis must no doubt include some Keynesian aspects, but there’s no easy path back to the postwar model of capitalism in Europe. In the postwar model, various regulations pertaining to interventions in the economy went in the wrong direction. But the neoliberal reforms turned out to be too radical. And then the criticism of it was absolutist.

Therefore, when I look at Hungary, I see a political struggle with some of the same dynamics. For example, they claim that they overcame the problem of the deficit and public debt. But they managed to do it only by confiscating private pension funds. In this matter, the Polish government took some similar steps (though less radical). By the way I am opposed to the current pension system in Poland. I don’t think our pensions should depend on what happens on the New York stock exchange. It should depend on what is happening in this country, stabilized for instance by the growth rate. Otherwise it’s absurd if there’s a drop in stock prices in New York and Polish citizens get, for instance, 500 zlotys less in their pension. Everything was already determined by 1997. My political party was the only one that was not in favor of this project.

Nonetheless Hungary has gone too far. From this point of view, the Polish situation is both better and worse. It is better because some of the PiS leaders might have a chance to govern according to rational arguments. I participated in two small meetings during the PiS congress. The first one was very good and proved that they understand a lot. But the one that brought together “their” entrepreneurs did not inspire optimism. Those guys do not understand anything, and this is a huge problem. I have the impression that we have a rather small pool of talent in this regard in our country.


You mentioned Solidarity. Are you still working as an advisor?


Not officially. I am rather close to some leaders in the Solidarity movement, including the chairman, Piotr Duda, and I am trying to help them as much as possible to be powerful because I believe, unlike Lech Wałęsa, that the mission of Solidarity should not be over. What’s more, our political scene is very weak and needs some kind of “prosthesis.” This does not mean, though, that Solidarity should go back to the model of Solidarity Electoral Action. I don’t recommend it. However their presence in politics is necessary. Solidarity is smaller now, with only 700,000 members. It also has a problem with internal bureaucratization. But it remains highly professionalized. Compared to the previous movement, it is now a real trade union.


I heard that relations between Solidarity and OPZZ are getting better, and they are about to organize strike together.


Yes, in fact there’s currently cooperation between the central bodies. There will be a demonstration. But I am not sure if they are capable of organizing a large strike. Sure, there are a lot of workers in the companies, but being a member of a trade union is not an easy thing. In some workplaces managers have decided to cooperate with trade unions while in others they use different tools to fight the unions. Yesterday I met in Gdansk with some trade union activists and they told me various things. In the media there is a big to-do about trade unions nowadays being fragmented and very small. Most of them are created by the companies’ management in order to block genuine trade union initiatives. Another group of small trade unions mobilize the old staff that worked during Communist times. When it comes to the good relationship between Solidarity and OPZZ it is mostly a result of the trade unions’ shift of interest from political to social and employment issues. The agreement between them seems to be a natural course of events.


You said that there are two characteristics of the Polish market: cheap labor and cheap energy. Is the time of cheap labor already over?


It is about to be over, but it is not definite. The strength of the Polish market was cheap labor (relative to workers’ competency). But now this relationship is becoming less favorable. From this point of view our competitiveness will depend on the situation in Ukraine. On the one hand, we have a lot of interest in seeing Ukraine get closer to European integration. On the other hand, we have to realize that Ukraine is a very competitive market for foreign investment.


You also said that during the transformation, Polish enterprises experienced a lot of obstacles when entering the global market. China solved this problem by maintaining state enterprises even when they were not competitive. What do you think about this solution?


There is one general reason why this type of solution could not be applied in Poland. The Chinese project is based on dictatorship and violence. For instance, it is unthinkable to reduce social protections as is now taking place in China. There are millions of Chinese citizens living in big cities without residence permits that cannot send their children to schools. That’s not possible in Poland. So, of course China can take advantage of this powerful competitive advantage, although this too is changing somewhat nowadays. The other stimulus is their policy on the exchange rate. Europe and the United States should not interpret free trade to mean trade with no restrictions (the United States is a delicate matter given the fact that China owns the large part of your debt.) Social dumping in China has reached an unthinkable scale. When social protection does not meet minimum norms, we should have the right to limit free trade.

This problem exists also in Poland. We have a large trade deficit with China. However there is a positive trade balance with Europe. Success in exporting to Europe is determined by relatively cheap labor and energy. If those conditions change, the trade balance with Europe will also change and we can change that only by adjusting the exchange rate. Liberal economists say that structural reforms are necessary, but what does that mean? According to them, it means the further deregulation of the job market with all its implications. This reform has already gone very far in Poland. And this also has negative consequences. My neighbor, who is in his thirties, has never been employed full-time and lives off ad hoc income. Everything points to a future in which he’ll only receive a minimum pension paid by the state. There will be a strong pressure in the future to find additional money in the budget for such people. This means in long term that we’ll be ambushed by our own public finance sector.


Lets talk about Balcerowicz Plan. There are two contrary views on its effectiveness. If you could turn back the clock, would you choose Balcerowicz Plan or an entirely different model of transformation?


People do not realize that the Balcerowicz Plan was not a single document that you could hold in your hands. This kind of document does not exist. The Balcerowicz Plan was a package of agreements, parliamentary declarations, and interviews that can be reconstructed as a plan. In my view during this radical time, Poles demanded radical steps, and there was no radical political alternative to this Plan. Was it a success? I would say that it was a moderate success. The Polish economy became capitalist in 1995-97. Except for the initial recession, the economy grew at a decent pace of 4-5%.

This economic growth was not impressive against the background of economic history. Most economies during transition periods grew faster than we did, including European economies following World War II. It is also extremely important to keep in mind that we had one-time reserves that we used, and we don’t have them anymore. For instance, the one-time program of privatization was not optimal either from the point of view of efficacy or the strengthening of public finance. Another one-time reserve that is often forgotten was the good shape of the world’s economy on which we were dependent.

So what do the Balcerowicz reforms consist of these days? A flat tax? In point of fact, we already have this and it’s a regressive system. Paradoxically, if a flat tax system were formally introduced in Poland, the privileges for the wealthiest would be limited. Can the labor market be further deregulated? In theory, the labor law and official employment could be abolished, but that is only a theoretical solution. In the dispute between Balcerowicz and Rostowski, I favor Rostowski’s view. I believe that all such decisions have to be made by democratic consent. Unfortunately, Balcerowicz did not stop issuing his propagandistic ideas. In 1997 Gazeta Wyborcza published the second Balcerowicz Plan, which assumed a growth rate at the 7% level, which was completely unrealistic.

In my view, the Polish economic growth rate will not be higher than 4 percent, and unfortunately it will probably be closer to only 2%. We should decide on a system that’s rather social and somewhat statist. That there are no international enterprises in Poland is a warning sign. Such enterprises can only be established under a government umbrella. These kinds of companies were established in France. The French spend a lot of money in support of these state enterprises, and in terms of technology they are far ahead of England where such enterprises have almost disappeared. On the contrary, England before the First World War was a powerhouse in terms of technology while France did not achieve anything. In my opinion we should go down the “French path.” I realize that there are only a few examples of countries where this policy was implemented successfully, like Israel. Another good example is Finland. We should look for such models. The United States is not a good example of this, although it does implement the most Keynesian strategy in terms of macroeconomic policy. I suppose it only proves the pragmatism of American policy.


I spoke with the Slovenian economist Joze Mencinger. I don’t know if you know him. The Slovenian model of transition seems to be very interesting…


The Slovenian model of transition differed a great deal from both the Polish and Hungarian models. Slovenian policy differed from what Leszek Balcerowicz talked about and wanted.


It was very a special model and indeed it was different from the Polish and Hungarian cases. But could this particular case have set an example for other countries in transition?


It’s difficult to assess giving the differences between small and large countries. I’ve said this before, but I maintain my position that if I were an Estonian citizen I would support Estonia’s integration into the Eurozone because their only chance for economic growth is deep economic integration with a stronger entity. This might apply to the Slovenian case as well. Poland is less developed and with less of a historical tradition than France. But in Poland one question has to be answered: is Poland trying to be economically independent, or does it want to be a part of another, bigger economic structure? Without making a conscious decision, we decided on the second path. And now Poland has become to a large degree a peripheral economy in relation to Germany. My personal opinion is that in the long term this was the wrong decision since we had another option. This option is still available, though the chances are smaller. This is the reason why I listen with attention to some of the PiS declarations. It is not that I like many of their standpoints, but I wouldn’t like to be forced to choose between PO (Civic Platform) and SLD (Democratic Left Alliance). There are many in PiS who do not know concretely where to go. But when it comes to global policy decisions they are willing to look for an independent path. The dependency scenario is very risky.

I guess Orban also tries not to swim with the tide either. Slovenia is also an example of success although even they have some troubles nowadays. We still don’t know if Hungary will succeed. Even if they don’t, it will not necessarily mean that they took the wrong path. It could also mean that they simply made some major mistakes that had serious implications.


I spoke with representatives of Krytyka Polityczna and I found it very interesting. However they are not a political party but rather an organization. When can we expect to have a real Polish left-wing party with a program similar to Krytyka Polityczna but institutionalized as a party?


I do not know that circle very well. We can talk about leftist movements in two different dimensions that are not entirely contrary to each other. I do not treat the Palikot party seriously. Recently they hung up posters all over Warsaw picturing Janusz Palikot and saying: “0% unemployment rate NOW.” Somebody more reasonable might argue for reducing the unemployment rate to 6% and this would be a huge success. However when you hear someone claiming a 0% unemployment rate “now,” you cannot treat him seriously.

I am willing to identify with the left tradition rooted in the prewar history of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), which was non-Communist, and today advocates for the material interests of workers and for social protections, fights inequality, promotes macroeconomic growth and lower unemployment, and embraces democracy. That left doesn’t exist in Poland, and it doesn’t really appear in the West either. Beneath the left shield a second type of movement emerged during the victorious neoliberal times of the 1980s and 1990s and was mostly visible in the programs of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroder: the concept of the so-called Third Way. It includes the acceptance of neoliberal postulates when it comes to the economy. But who most sharply limited worker rights? Schroder in Germany and Blair in England (Thatcher started and Blair continued this process). Due to the neoliberal retreat from the social and employment rights of social democracy, this third way builds its identity on cultural postulates: same-sex marriages, rights of homosexual people and women, the legalization of drugs in some cases, and so on.

I see Krytyka Polityczna achieving success as a movement, publishing a lot of books that are often very interesting. It’s good that they appear. Krytyka Polityczna is rooted in this second type of left-wing movement. This cultural dimension is part of their program and they know much about it. But when it comes to social-economic questions, they are rhetorically also very left but in my opinion they do not know much about it, and the economy for them is more like a square peg in a round hole.

I have to admit, however, that in spite of my support for the liberalization of the anti-abortion bill, the cultural radicalism represented by Krytyka Polityczna scares me off a bit. Our “liberal” anti-abortion bill, before it was deceitfully revoked by the Constitutional Court, was in force for a certain period of time. I am, nonetheless, against this kind of cultural radicalism, probably because I have gotten old and become more conservative, but not only because of that. These radical cultural demands are supported only by elites and are not accepted by the whole society. As the social, economic, and political movement of the Left is rooted in the working class, this makes their program incoherent. But a programmatic incoherence is also visible on the right side. They are convinced, for instance, that Polish capitalists will perform better than foreign capitalists on the free market. That does not make any sense.

Anyway, the time of Krytyka Polityczna has not yet come. They will occupy a political niche, even if that niche is rather wide. Still, the uniqueness of our history needs to be recognized.


If you had a chance to guide the Polish economy at the moment, what would be your first step in the short term?


I’m sure that the Polish government would not listen to me. In my opinion, the most important issue is to avoid a dangerous collision with rising debt. Theoretically, we can do that in two different ways. One way, which is recommended by more liberal economists, is to drastically reduce the expenditures of the public sector. In practice this would mean limiting social expenditures. This is the only option at the moment. Of course we could also try to reduce expenditures on the huge bureaucracy. But, first of all, we could not implement that within a short period of time, and second, we would need more money than we could get from such a move. In my opinion, the primary flaw with this path is the consequences for the poorest parts of society and the higher probability of a recession because of a decrease in domestic demand. Other sources of demand could be found, but still a recession would be more likely. In my opinion, it’s necessary to search for a path of increasing national income. It’s also not possible to exclude a scenario of increased taxes.

When compared to other counties, taxes play less of an important role in Poland’s GDP. As I mentioned before we have a regressive tax system, which means that incomes varied more after taxes than before. As in the U.S. case, rich people in Poland pay very little tax. Therefore, we should dive into the deep pockets and impose higher taxes on high-income earners. Why? First of all, because it is fair. Second of all, rich people spend only a small part of what they earn, and even this small part is spent on luxury goods that are not produced domestically such as imported cars. The problem is that the current government will never decide on such radical move because their political constituency is the elite. This elite, after all, would try to rebel.

But not only elites are scared of tax increases. In Poland there is an impression that tax increases will hit everyone, not only the rich, which is why everyone is afraid of them. The only party that could eventually implement such a policy (now perhaps only PiS) is scared of losing the support of the large group of the numerous small businesspeople in the Polish market. Tax increases are like the red flag to a bull, even if Poles are not exactly sure what these taxes would mean in practice. From this point of view I am afraid that the best solution is also the least feasible. That is why I do not have a good answer to your question. I guess the only option would be to simply face the crisis.


What has changed in your point of view since the transition period? Has your Weltanschauung altered in any significant way?


During that time I learnt to be more humble. I was a dissident during the Communist period, and I naively believed in the democratic model. I thought that democracy allows the majority to make decisions. Now I am fully aware that the will of majority rarely translates into political decisions, and it is a very complicated process. I was also a true believer in the cabinet system, but now the party that got 21% of the votes, among those who voted in the election, governs us. Apparently 21% already constitutes the parliamentary majority. Nowadays instead of voting according their own choice, people select from a certain narrow set of options. What is in this set? It contains what the political class allows. The political establishment created a kind of oligopoly of parties. For instance, according to the election thresholds, a party must receive 5% (1.5 million votes) to get into parliament. Another example are the election grants to parliamentary parties from the public budget–I am a big supporter of this solution, but those subsidies are so large that they significantly decrease the chances of parties without public subsidies. It’s a closed political market, which is a problem that is not unique to Poland. Just look at what’s happening around Europe: if the left-wing party rules during an economic crisis, then the right-wing party will win in the next elections — or the other way around. No one cares about their political programs. Therefore, I sympathize with practices such as referenda. Although it is ticklish problem, this is the most reasonable solution.

My point of view on the office of the president has also changed (however I am very critical toward the current president). I believe there is an urge need for an institution that is elected by the majority. These are the sad lessons from the past 20 years. That does not mean that I am nostalgic for anything from the past system. I’ll repeat what I’ve stubbornly said all along: even though we have no regrets about exiting the past system, this does not mean that current system is perfect.


Translator: Anna Maria Napieralska


Warsaw, August 29, 2013



Wywiad Po Polsku


Feffer: Pierwsze pytanie jest: Perspektywy dzisiaj gospodarcze w Polsce. Oczywiście na zachodzie przeważnie ekonomiści uważają że Polska to sukces, co Pan sądzi?


Bugaj: Ja jestem trochę sceptyczny wobec tych ocen. To znaczy z całą pewnością Polska przez ten okres kryzysu przechodzi stosunkowo dobrze na tle Europy w szczególności. Jest pytanie o interpretacje, o to jakie są tego przyczyny. Ukształtował się w Polsce, szczególnie w tej drugiej fazie transformacji poczynając od końca 20 wieku, model kapitalizmu bardziej wolnorynkowy niż przeciętnie w Europie. Jest bardziej zbliżony do wzorca amerykańskiego nie europejskiego. Część moich kolegów ekonomistów skłonnych jest postawić tezę że przechodzimy przez kryzys dosyć łagodnie właśnie dlatego. Ja się z tą tezą nie zgadzam, nie jestem jedyny ale jesteśmy w mniejszości. Myślę że fakt że uniknęliśmy recesji, choć nie jest to jeszcze definitywnie przesądzone, wynika z tego że jednak nie wszystkie postulaty ekonomii neoliberalnej zostały zrealizowane. W szczególności nie zostały wyeliminowane działania automatycznych stabilizatorów koniunktury.

W latach 2009, 2010 i 2012 (także trochę w tym roku) jest tak, że gdy spadają dochody sektora finansów publicznych to wcale nie spadają zobowiązania państwa do ponoszenia wydatków. W związku z tym rośnie deficyt. Ten deficyt oczywiście zwiększa zadłużenie i to jest problem dla dłuższego okresu ale w krótkim okresie to ratuje przed spadkiem globalnego popytu. Podobnie było w szeregu krajów europejskich. Także w Stanach Zjednoczonych.Ekonomiści którzy opowiadali się za orientacją bardziej liberalnej byli i są zwolennikami przystąpienia Polski do strefy euro. Co oznacza że gospodarka traci zdolność do dostosowania kursowego. Polska nie przystąpiła jednak do strefy euro i ta możliwość została wykorzystana przede wszystkim w 2009 kiedy kurs złotówki bardzo się osłabił, a rezultatem był oczywiście przyrost opłacalności eksportu i w związku z tym (jak spojrzy pan na statystykę to w cenach krajowych) eksport oczywiście nie spadł. To oczywiście miało znaczenie istotne. Jednak jeśli chodzi o długi okres, to rysuja się poważne problemy. Polskie zadłużanie państwowe na tle Europy i świata nie jest szczególnie wysokie, jest raczej w stanie średnim, a od europejskiego raczej niższe sporo. Niemniej do polskiej konstytucji i ustayo finansach publicznych zostały wprowadzane tak zwane progi ostrożnościowe. W okresie formowania konstytucji, ja byłem temu przeciwny (konstytucja w ostatniej fazie powstawała w trybie miedzypartyjnych negocjacji ponieważ jej uchwalenie wymagało większości 2/3 głosów – potrzebny był kompromis) Wtedy w żadnej konstytucji na świecie nie było jednak takich regulacjitanawiali. Kłopot polega na tym że progi ostrożnościowe jeśli mają jakiś walor to wyłącznie prewencyjny. W praktyce nie można zastosować tych progów ostrożnościowych. Proszę sobie wyobrazić taką sytuacje np. w tym roku mamy 5% deficyt PKB w sektorze finansów publicznych i przekraczamy 55% zadłużenia. Zgodnie z ustawą w następnym roku powinniśmy mieć budżet zrównoważony. No to by oznaczało gwarantowaną recesję nie mówiąc już o konsekwencjach społecznych bo musiały by być jakieś w trybie ekspresowym przepchnięte ustawy które zmniejszały by zobowiązania Państwa do różnych wypłat.

Więc to jest potencjalnie pułapka w długim okresie transformacja przyniosła nam różne sukcesy, ale one sa kwestionowane ( Wczoraj byłem na jubileuszowym uroczystym posiedzeniu komisji krajowej Solidarności i mówiłem, że ta transformacja jednak przyniosła Polsce sukces chociaż dystrybucja korzyści była bardzo nierównomierna. Ale niektórzy nie chcieli sie na słowo sukces zgodzić.) Krytyczna ocena jest o tyle zrozumiała, ze ukształtowała się bardzo peryferyjna struktura polskiej gospodarki. Nie ma w Polsce ani jednego przedsiębiorstwa które miałoby pozycję globalną na rynkach międzynarodowych. Ani jednego. Narosły też ogromne nierówności.

Sa też pewne analogie do Grecji.Cechą greckiego scenariusza to że oni pożyczaniem pieniędzy zastępowali podatki. W Polsce zrealizowano antypacyjne zmniejszenie podatków. Twierdze że w Polsce mamy podatki degresywne może bardziej niż w USA nawet a jednoczenie nie było społecznego przyzwolenia na ostre ograniczenie wydatków i nie będzie moim zdaniem tego przyzwolenia w przyszłości. Na razie nie ma dramatu bo otrzymujemy duże transfery z Brukseli. Ale to się wkrótce zmieni. Znajdujemy się w dość dramatycznej sytuacją jeśli chodzi o stabilność polityczną. Ja osobiście uważam że następne wybory odbędą się przy bardzo niskiej frekwencji. Takiej troche amerykańskiej (nie mówię o wyborach prezydenckich ale o wyborach do Izby Reprezentantów i Kongresu ). I że po wyborach ,a mamy system parlamentarno-gabinetowy, będą wielkie trudności z utworzeniem rządu który będzie miał większość. Polska stoi przed wyborem co dalej. Są tacy ekonomiści – posiadający znaczny autorytet – jak Leszek Balcerowicz który mają kompletnie zamknięte oczy jeśli chodzi o uwarunkowania zarówno te społeczne jak i ekonomiczne i polityczne. I mówią reformy, reformy, reformy co znaczy program ekonomii neoliberalnej. Między postulatem „reform” a dokktryna neoliberalna jest postawiony znak równości. Ale stabilność polityczna jest bardzo ważnym czynnikiem dla wzrostu, dla rozwoju gospodarczego. Jeśli ona zostanie zachwiana to będą tego bardzo poważne konsekwencje. Ja się osobiście boję powstania w Polsce jakiegoś ruchu populistycznego. Przy czym chce podkreślić że populizm nie musi być lewicowo etatystyczny. Populizm może być także liberalny. Zresztą to już widać. Poseł Gowin odwołując się do tradycji taetcheryzmy kompletnie nie wie co mówi. On znajduje się na poziomie całkowicie ideologicznych ocen. To jest trochę tak jak z komunizmem, nie można osiągnąć sukcesu ale można próbować. I skutki próbowania są fatalne rzecz jasna.


Feffer: Dobrze. Chciałbym zapytać o Unie Europejską. Dlatego że wydaje mi się gospodarka Polski zależy być może zbyt dużo na pieniądzach UE. Z jednej strony być może to jest dobrze że są pieniądze z drugiej strony to być może jest fatalna zależność. Co Pan sądzi?


Bugaj: Ja myślę tak. Po pierwsze tych pieniędzy z Unii jest sporo ale mniej niż na ogół się twierdzi. Trzeba tu uwzględnić parę okoliczności. Chodzi nie tylko o nasze wysokie składki. Trzeba uwzględnić fakt że bardzo kosztowne jest podtrzymywanie kontaktów z Unią. Jedna Agencja Restrukturyzacji Rolnictwa zatrudnia kilkanaście tysięcy osób. Ona służy właściwie tylko kontaktom z Unią, jest pośrednikiem i dystrybutorem tych pieniędzy Unii. Ten biorokratyczny aparat sporo kosztuje. Również składka szybko rośnie, która w tej chwili wynosi rocznie jakieś 3 mld Euro. Oczywiście, na najbliższe 7 lat, wydaje się, znaczne transfery netto z Unii są zapewnione Teraz jeśli chodzi o generalne sprawy: tu sie toczy spór , to jest nie łatwy spór w którym racje są oczywiście. Przez pewien czas bylem doradcą prezydenta Kaczynskiego (z którym znalem się od dawna prywatnie). Mówiłem mu: trzeba rozróżnić 2 rzeczy:( to dotyczyło traktatu Lizbonskiego) Traktat Lizboński nie jest sam w sobie dla Polski niekorzystny, ale jeszcze gorzej będzie jeżeli my go zablokujemy bo oni dadzą nam po łapach (dysponują środkami żeby dać nam po łapach skutecznie). Nasz wybór jeśli chodzi o niektóre decyzje dotyczące pogłębionej integracji jest trochę iluzoryczny. Ja uważam że nie powinniśmy wchodzić (i nie weszliśmy na szczęście) do strefy euro. Może jest przedwcześnie żeby odpowiedzieć na pytanie czy to jest w ogóle projekt który można sensownie zrealizować. Jedno jest oczywiste: polityczne elity Europy sporo w to zainwestowały i mają interesy żeby bronić tego projektu do upadłego. Otwarte jest wielkie pytanie o to czy Europa może stworzyć wspólny pieniądz. Mnie się wydaje że w dającym się przewidzieć czasie nie. Ja różnię się z tymi przekonaniami od nurtu lewicowo-liberalnego. Sadzę zresztą, ze idea wspólnego pieniądza jest nie do pogodzenia z demokratycznym ładem. Demokracja ze swojej istoty jest narodowa. Jest osadzona w tradycji, historii, w kodach porozumiewania się w językach narodowych. W dającym się przewidzieć czasie i nie widzę możliwości żeby była demokracja mogła funkcjonować bez narodowego państwa. Jeżeli by wzrosły kompetencje Brukseli to by to znaczyło po prostu tyle ze to kompetencje biurokracji brukselskiej są powiekszone.

Mnie się wydaje ze w długim okresie euro ma szanse na sukces w Europie północnej (Niemcy, Holandia, Austria, pewnie Francja). Ale nie więcej. Są strukturalne różnice miedzy północą i południem gospodarek europejskich a także miedzy starą Unią a Polska. Myślę że dobrze żebyśmy też nie poszli bardzo daleko w sprawie np. integracji systemu bankowego, nadzoru bankowego. Ale tutaj bym już zastosował tę sugestie, którą rekomendowałem prezydentowi Kaczyńskiemu. Teoretycznie mamy weto w ręku ale posługiwanie tym jest bardzo kosztowne. Nie można tym wymachiwać. Tu wielka sprawą jest też program ekologiczny Europy. On jest wobec takich krajów, szczególnie wobec Polski skrajnie niesprawiedliwy. Dlaczego? Przecież chodzi o to co tam jest w powietrzu. Ale przecież „to” się gromadziło przez kilkaset lat. Kraje takie jak Francja na końcu okresu (gdy już wysłali w powietrze wszystkie zanieszczyczenia) przeszli na energetykę jądrową no ale my z racji opóźnionego rozwoju teraz wysyłamy. Jeśli chodzi o skumulowaną ilość tego co wysyłamy to w stosunku do takich krajów jak Niemcy to jest nic. Ale wypada nam teraz płacić bardzo dużo, ponieważ płaci się za to co teraz a nie za to co w ogóle poszło w powietrze.

To podważa konkurencyjność polski gospodarki, która opierała się właściwie na 2 rzeczach: taniej pracy i stosunkowo taniej energii. Tania praca się kończy no bo jednak trochę płace rosną . Jak do tego dojdzie kwestia taniej energii to myślę że będzie problem większy jeszcze.
Feffer: Pan mówił o kwestii populizmu. Oczywiście w tym rejonie to jest bardzo ważne pytanie.
Bugaj: W Ameryce też. Czy partia herbaciana nie jest populizmem w czystej postaci?
Feffer:I w rzeczywistości również i napisałem na tej temat. Tylko ze mowi sie ze to jest bardzo niebezpieczne a Ameryce.
Bugaj: I jest pytanie jak sobie z tym radzić.


Feffer:Ale na węgrzech to jest bardzo ciekawe. Fidesz – partia liberalizmu może 20 lat temu ale w tej chwili to jest coś innego i chciałbym zapytać jak Pan sądzi o planie gospodarczym Fideszu?


Bugaj: Muszę tu być ostrożny bo moja wiedza jest bardzo niewystarczająca żeby dokonywać takich ocen. Na podstawie doniesień które śledziłem mam trochę mieszane uczucia. Myślę że alternatywy które dzisiaj istnieją (poważne alternatywy) to jest z jednej strony oczywiście kontynuowanie neoliberalnego programu reform. Jestem sceptyczny co do jego rezultatu i obawiam się skutku. Myślę że w jakimś sensie skutkiem był kryzys neoliberalnych reform, w szczególności kwestii podziału (wzrost nierówności) i konsekwencje dla procesów ekonomicznych. Istnieje trochę mętny program etatystyczno-narodowy. On jest chyba podejmowany na Węgrzech w dużym stopniu. Wyznawcą tego programu w Polsce był – a nie jestem pewien czy trochę nie został – PIS. To jest taki program którego esencją jest przekonanie że rynek jest sprawiedliwy pod warunkiem że nie jest zniekształcony przez różne „układy” . W krajach postkomunistycznych, ze strony ruchów narodowo-etatystycznych, przede wszystkim akcent pada na to że ten rynek jest zniekształcony przez ukrystalizowane środowiska postkomunistyczne i przez relacje z zagranicą. Myślę, że w tym jest coś na rzeczy, ale tylko troszkę. A oni uważają że ten czynnik wszystko właściwie wyjaśnia.

Program który wyrastałby z doświadczeń obecnego kryzysu musi układać się wokół keynesowskich dyrektyw – to nie ulega wątpliwości. Ale myślę też, że nie ma prostego powrotu do modelu kapitalizmu powojennego w Europie. Tam różne uregulowania niosące interwencje w gospodarce poszły za daleko, a nieraz w niewłaściwą stronę. Ale zmiany neoliberalne okazały się też być zbyt radykalne. Ta krytyka była absolutyzująca.

Wiec jak patrzę na Węgry to myślę że oni się trochę szamoczą. Niektóre z tych posunięć są właśnie takie np. mówi się ze oni opanowali deficyt i zadłużenie. Opanowali jednorazowo przez konfiskatę środków prywatnych funduszy emerytalnych. Ten krok (choć mniej radykalnie) zrobił w tej sprawie również polski rząd. Ja jestem przeciwnikiem (krtykiem) naszego systemu emerytalnego. Zasadniczy powód jest taki, ze emerytura człowieka nie może zależeć od tego co się dzieje na giełdzie w NY. Musi zależeć od tego co się dzieje w kraju. I to zależeć, powiedział bym, z pewnym filtrem osłabiającym tą zależność. To musi być bardziej stabilizowane przez np stopę wzrostu. Nie można się zgodzić by wysokość emeryturu zależała od tego, że gdzieś jacyś spekulanci kupują jakieś opcje a potem okazuje się ze giełda leci w dół i polski emeryt dostaje np. 500 zl mniej. To jest absurdalne. Zresztą niektóre inne rzeczy także są absurdalne. Wszystko to bylo przesadzone już 1997 roku. Moja ówczesna partia była jedyna która nie głosowała za tym pakietem. Nie mniej jednak uważam że Węgrzy poszli zbyt daleko. Myślę że w Polsce z tego punku widzenia sytuacja wygląda i lepiej i gorzej. Lepiej bo przynajmniej do niektórych liderów PiS którzy mają szanse (ale stanowczo nie pewność), że będą rządzić docierają pewne argumenty. Byłem na zjeździe PiS i uczestniczyłem w dwóch dyskusjach. Jedna była świetna, dowodziła ze oni dużo rozumieją. No ale druga gdzie byli „ich” przedsiębiorcy nie napawała optymizmem. Miałem wrażenie, że ci faceci nic nie rozumieją i to jest kłopot. Mam wrażenie ze w Polsce ławka kadrowa jest krótka


Feffer: Pan mówił o Solidarności. Czy Pan jeszcze doradzał?


Bugaj: Nieformalnie, ale jestem trochę zaprzyjaźniony z kilkoma liderami łącznie z Dudą i staram się w miarę możliwości być pomocny, ponieważ uważam że misja solidarności wbrew temu co twierdzi L. Wałęsa nie powinna się wcale w Polsce skończyć. Co więcej, uważam że są ogromne słabości naszej sceny politycznej i jest potrzebna jakaś „proteza” co nie znaczy ze doradzał bym żeby Solidarność powracali do formuły AWS, broń Panie Boże. Ale jakoś inna ich obecność w polityce jest potrzebna. Związek jest obecnie względnie mały – jakieś 700 tyś. ludzi. Ma swoje problemu także z biurokratyzacją wewnętrzną ale się też bardzo poważnie sprofesjonalizował. Gdy sobie przypomnę pierwsza Solidarność i porównuje z tą obecną to widzę, że oni w tej chwili są prawdziwym związkiem zawodowym.


Feffer: Słyszałem też że stosunki miedzy Solidarnością a OPZZ w tej chwili są lepsze i bedzie jakiś strajk.


Bugaj: Faktycznie jest obecnie miedzy centralami sporo współpracy. Będzie manifestacja Solidarnosci. Ale ja nie wiem czy oni są zdolni do zrobienia dużego strajku. Jest bardzo dużo ludzi w zakładach ale bycie działaczem związkowym w tej chwili to nie jest prosta sprawa. Jest teraz trochę zakładów pracy gdzie menadżerowie zdecydowali się na współprace ze związkami ale jest tez wiele takich którzy wojują i maja w ręku wiele instrumentów. Wczoraj wracałem z Gdańska z działaczami samochodem i opowiadali mi różne rzeczy. W mediach jest wielki krzyk ze jest ogromne rozdrobnienie organizacji związkowych, ale duża cześć takich małych organizacji związkowych to są takie które dyrektorzy założyli żeby stworzyć przeciwwagę żeby blokować innych. Jest też drobnych drobnych związków zawodowych które zakładają ludzie, żeby załatwiać swoje doraźne sprawy. To nieraz stara kadra, jeszcze z czasów PRL. Wracając do porozumienia z OPZZ : myślę że to jest po trosze uboczny produkt tego ze związki zawodowe porzuciły w dużym stopniu problemy polityki i koncentrują sie na sprawach bytowych, na zatrudnieniu, na sprawach socjalnych. No i w tedy w sposób naturalny się porozumiewają.


Feffer: Pan mówi że są dwa rodzaje problemów w Polsce: problem taniej pracy i taniej energii. Czas taniej pracy się skończył


Bugaj: Kończy się, ale tu nie można postawić ostrej cenzury. Siłą polskiej konkurencyjności była to praca była relatywnie (w stosunku do kompetencji pracowniczych) tania . Teraz ona staje się mniej korzystna i te procesy narastają. Wiele będzie zależało od tego co sie będzie działo z tego punktu widzenia na Ukrainie. Można powiedzieć ze my z jednej strony mamy niewątpliwie interes zeby Ukraina była bliżej Europy z drugie zas musimy sobie zdawać sprawe ze z punku widzenia inwestycji zagranicznych to Ukraina jest dla nas bardzo konkurencyjna.


Feffer:Pan też mówił że przed transformacją polskie przedsiębiorstwa nie mogły uczestniczyć w rynku globalnym i to był wielki kłopot . Oczywiście w w Chinach są różne rozwiązania na takie problem, istnieją jakieś rządowe przedsiębiorstwa. Te przedsiębiorstwa nie są konkurencyjne, co Pan myśli o takim chińskim rozwiązaniu?


Bugaj: Myślę sobie że jest jeden generalny powód dla którego takie rozwiązanie w Polsce nie wchodzi w grę. Chińskie rozwiązanie jest oparte jednak o przemoc i dyktaturę. Jest jednak nie do pomyślenia by w Polsce np. tak drastycznie ograniczyć socjalne zabezpieczenie jak to ma miejsce w Chinach gdzie przecież ci co nie mają zameldowania w mieście (a są ich miliony) nie mogą nawet dzieci do szkoły posłać. To w Polsce nie wchodzi w gre No ale oczywiście, ponieważ w Chinach jest to możliwe to oni korzystają z potężnej przewagi konkurencyjnej, chociaż też to się zmienia w tej chwili troszkę. No i Chiny oddziałują też poprzez politykę kursu. Ja uważam zreszta że USA (choć to bardzo delikatna sprawa bo Chińczycy maja duża cześć waszego długo w rekach) ale i Europa nie mogą interpretować wolności handlu w taki sposób bezwarunkowy. W Chinach dumping socjalny dokonuje się na niebywałą skalę i myślę sobie że trzeba powiedzieć, że jeżeli poziom zabezpieczeń socjalnych nie spełnia minimalnych norm, to mamy prawa do pewnych ograniczeń w handlu. To jest także w Polsce problem, bo mamy ogromny deficyt w handlu z Chinami (mamy natomiast wysoką dynamikę polskiego eksportu do Europy). Ale, moim zdaniem, sukcesy w eksporcie do Europy są – właśnie – uwarunkowane relatywnie tanią pracą i tanią energią. Jak to sie bedzie zmieniać to zaczniemy mieć trudności, choć – oczywiście – mając elastyczny kurs dość dlugo możemy sie dostosowywać. Liberalni ekonomiści mówią, że konieczne są reformy strukturalne- co to znaczy reformy strukturalne? Według nich to dalsza deregulacja rynku pracy, ale ona poszła juz bardzo dalego w Polsce. Sa tez negatywne tego następstwa. Ja mam sąsiada 30 paro letniego, on jeszcze nigdy nie pracował na etacie, nie byl zatrudniony. On żyje z doraźnych zleceń. Wszystko wskazuje na to ze on w prayszłości będzie miał prawo tylko do minimalnej emerytury. Będzie silna presja by w przyszłości dla tych ludzi budżet znalazł jakieś dodatkowe pieniądze. . No wiec my tu budujemy zasadzkę na finanse publiczne w długim okresie .


Feffer: Jeśli chodzi o Plan Balcerowicza. To jest oczywiście wielkie pytanie. mówie teraz o różnych opcjach. W tym czasie jeśli Polska miałaby możliwość jeszcze raz zrobić Plan Balcerowicza albo inny Plan transformacji. Jak Pan sądzi jaki byłby najlepszy kierunek w tym czasie?


Bugaj:Ja bym chciał jeszcze wrocić do tego planu Balcerowicza który był zrealizowany. Ludzie nie zdają sobie sprawy że „planu Balcerowicza” nie można wziąć do ręki. Takiego dokumentu nigdy nie było. Był pakiet ustaw, sejmowe enuncjacje, wywiady. „Plan” można tylko zrekonstruować. Ja sądzę, że politycznie on nie miał alternatywy. ”Plan” był tworzony w czasie radykalizmu i ludzie chcieli kroków radykalnych, dawali na nie przyzwolenie. Czy był sukcesem? Umiarkowanym. . Gospodarka stała się gospodarką kapitalistycznąjuż w 95, 97 roku. Tempo wzrostu (pomijając okres tej recesji transformacyjnej), był dość przyzwoity. To było tempo na poziomie 4-5%. To nie bylo tempo „powalające” na tle historii gospodarczej. W praeszłości kraje które przechodziły okres szybkiego wzrostu realizowały wyższe tempo wzrostu, (np. Europa w czasie powojennym). Ale to co jest niesłychanie ważne, to fakt, że myśmy mieli pewne rezerwy jednorazowe, które zostały wykorzystane: przede wszystkim usuwanie absurdów gospodarki komunistycznej. To żeśmy skonsumowali, tego już nie mamy. Rezerwą jednorazową było prywatyzacja (nie tylko jeżeli chodzi o efektywność). Miało miejsce ekstra zasilenie finansów publicznych. No i była jeszcze jedna rezerwa o ktorej sie zapomina: dobra sytuacja w gospodarce światowej od ktorej na różne sposoby byliśmy zależni. Więc na czym teraz może polegać Plan Balcerowicza: na podatku liniowym? Właściwie już go mamy, a być może mamy nawet regresywny system obciążeń.. Paradoksalnie, ale gdyby teraz ktoś chciał formalnie wprowadzić podatek liniowy to …to przywileje dla najzamożniejszych zostały by ograniczone. Czy można dalej deregulować rynek pracy? Teoretycznie można sobie wyobrazić że się usuwa kodeks pracy całkowicie, ze nie ma w ogóle zatrudnienia etatowego. Taka możliwość moim zdaniem jest możliwością czysto teoretyczną. W sporze miedzy Balcerowiczem i Rostowskim ja jestem całkowicie za Rostowskim . Można zrobić to na co jest przyzwolenie demokratyczne. Niestety Balcerowicz nie powstrzymał się przed zgłaszniem propagandowych pomysłów. Nie zostało to szerzej nagłośnione ale przed wyborami w 97 roku Gazeta Wyborcza ogłosiła 2 plan Balcerowicza. Przewidywał 7% stopę wzrostu, co było kompletnie nierealne. Moim zdaniem w zasięgu możliwości Polski leży wzrost rzedu 4%, ale nieszczęściem będzie jeżeli będziemy sie lokować na poziomie 2%. Powinniśmy się zdecydować na system dość socjalny i troczę etatystyczny. To ze w Polsce nie ma żadnego przedsiębiorstwa ktore ma status przedsiębiorstwa międzynarodowego to sygnał ostrzegawczy. Takie przedsiębiorstwo mogło by jednak powstać tylko pod państwowym parasolem. Tak powstały takie przedsiębiorstwa swego czasu we Francji. Francuzi wydali masę pieniędzy na wspieranie krajowych przedsiębiorstw. Ale teraz technologicznie Francuzi sa duzo przed Anglia. A po I Wojnie Światowej Anglia była potęga a Francja byla niczym. Ja myślę ze – mimo wszytsko – powinniśmy się na to zdecydować na „drogę francuską”. Są nieliczne przyklady krajów ktore sobie na tej drodze próbują radzic z dobrym skutkiem. Proszę spojrzeć na maly Izrael ktory sobie jakoś radzi. Ale przykładem pewnego sukcesu jest też Finlandia. I myślę że tam powinniśmy szukać wzorców. Generalnie wzorcem nie mogą być Stany choć amerykańska polityka makroekonomiczna jest najbardziej keynesowska To świadczy dobrze pojętnym pragmatyzmie.


Feffer: Ja teraz rozmawiałem z ekonomistą, nazywa się Joze Mencinger w Słowenii. Nie wiem jeśli Pan kojarzy.


Bugaj: Właściwie jesli chodzi o transformację to Słowenia różniła od polskiego czy wegierskiego modelu. Slowenja przyjęła politykę rożną od tego co robił i czego chciał Leszek Balcerowicz.


Feffer: To jest wyjątkowy model np. Slowenii jest dużo różnic miedzy Polską i Węgrami. Ale być może ten model jest jakiś przykład dla innych krajów w tym rejonie. To jest moje pytanie.


Bugaj: Jedna rzecz jest dla mnie trudna do oceny: jednak spora różnica jest miedzy krajami bardzo małymi i krajami średnimi. Ja powiedziałem kiedyś i chciałbym to podtrzymać że gdybym był obywatelem Estonii to byłbym zwolennikiem wstąpienia do strefy euro bo ten kraj musi się zdecydować na bardzo głęboką integrację gospodarczą z jakimś większym organizmem, musi się zdecydować. Myślę ze to jakoś dotyczy też Słowenii. Polska jest słabiej rozwinięta i – powiedzmy wyraźnie – z mniejszą tradycją historyczna od Francji. Ale w Polsce możemy sobie zadać pytanie, czy powinniśmy zająć samodzielną pozycję czy decydujemy się na to by gospodarczo być całkowicie częścią jakiejś większej całości. My bez świadomego wyboru poszliśmy w drugim kierunku. Polska jest w dużym stopniu ma gospodarkę peryferyjną w stosunku do Niemiec. Mnie się wdaje ze w długim okresie to nie jest dobry wybór i że mieliśmy inną szanse. Jeszcze ciągle mamy tą inną szanse choć trochę mniejszą. To jest jeden z powodów dla których ja, z uwagą słucham niektórych enuncjacji PiS. Nie podoba mi sie wiele rzeczy które oni wygadują ale nie chciałbym żebyśmy byli skazani na wybór powiedzmy pomiędzy PO i SLD. W PiS jest wielu którzy nie wiedza dobrze gdzie chcą iść w konkretach, ale jeśli chodzi o wybór globalny to są skłonni szukać drogi samodzielnej. To się nie musi udaćale w tym pierwszym scenariuszu ryzyko także jest ogromne. Tak samo na pewno Orban próbuje nie płynąć z prądem. Mnie się wydaje się wydaje że również Słowenii sporo sie udało choć ma teraz kłopoty. Czy sie uda Węgrom, tego jeszcze nie wiemy. Jeżeli im sie nie uda to niekoniecznie dlatego wybrali generalnie fałszywą drogę. Moze sie im nie udac bo popelnia pare glupstw ktore będą nieść istotne następstwa.


Feffer: Pan mówi o sprawach politycznych. Oczywiście dużo zależy od sprawy politycznej. tutaj w Polsce rozmawiałem z przedstawicielami organizacji Krytyka Polityczna i to było bardzo ciekawe ale to nie jest partia to jest po prostu organizacja. Co Pan sądzi że kiedy bedzie jakieś pradziwie partie wybierane lewicowe. Być może z myśleniem Krytyka Polityczna ale polityczny…?


Bugaj: Ja jeśli chodzi o Krytykę Polityczną, to ja znam to środowisko nie bardzo dobrze. Myślę że można mówić o lewicy na dwa sposoby. Nie całkiem przeciwstawne. Nie traktuje poważnie enuncjacji posła Palikota. Niedawno Warszawa była obwieszana plakatami Palikota z napis Zero bezrobocia – teraz. Ktoś przytomny może postulować ograniczenie bezrobocia powiedzmy do 6%. To byłby gigantyczny sukces ale jeżeli ktoś mówi „0% teraz”, to trudno go traktować w jakikolwiek sposób poważnie. Jestem skłonny nurt lewicowyidentyfikować, historycznie rzecz biorąc, oczywiście nie z komunistami ale z przedwojenną PPS która wyrażała przede wszystkim interesy materialne grup pracowniczych. Który zabiega o ograniczenie nierówności, o rozsądny przyzwoity poziom bezpieczeństwa socjalnego. O politykę makroekonomiczna która gwarantuje wzrost i niskie bezrobocie i o realną demokrację. Takiej lewicy nie ma w Polsce, a i na Zachodzie nie wystepuje powszechnie. Pod lewicowym szyldem wystepuje nurt który moim zdaniem ukształtował się na dobra sprawę podczas neoliberalizmu zwycięskiego w latach 80 i 90, który zaznaczał się w manifestach Blaira, Schrödera , w koncepcji „trzeciej drogi” . Co w nim jest: akceptacja postulatów neoliberalnych jeśli chodzi o gospodarkę . Kto najostrzej ograniczał prawa pracownicze ? Schröder w Niemczech i Blair W Anglii (Thatcher zaczęła a on kontynuował). Wycofując się z pola praw socjalnych i pracowniczych socjaldemokracja buduje obecnie swoja tożsamość na polach obyczajowych na małżeństwach gejów, na prawach dla homoseksualistów, prawach kobiet, nieraz na narkotykach itp. Postrzegam Krytykę Polityczną jako środowisko które odniosło sukces, wydaje dużo książek, i te książki są nieraz bardzo ciekawe. Dobrze ze się pojawiają. Środowisko KP wyrastało z tego drugiego nurtu. Kwestie obyczajowe były im najbliższe, oni się w nich dobrze czuli, wiedzieli o nich dużo. Natomiast natomiast, gdy chodzi o kwestie społeczno-ekonomiczne, to oni byli werbalnie też bardzo lewicowi ale moim zdaniem niewiele wiedzieli na ten temat i to było takie troszeczkę kwiatek do ich kożucha choć to się korzystnie zmienia Mnie ten radykalizm w sprawach obyczajowych nie jest bliski chociaż w parlamencie upominałem się o liberalizacje ustawy antyaborcyjnej i przez pewien czas „nasza” liberalna ustawa obowiązywała zanim ja Trybunał konstytucyjny (w podstępny sposób) ją uchylił. Teraz nieco zmieniłem stanowisko, trochę się zestarzałem, stałem się troszkę bardziej konserwatywny, ale nie tylko to. Myślę sobie ze te radykalne obyczajowo postulaty są postulatami elit które nie sa akceptowane przez przeciętnych obywateli. No a ponieważ kwestia lewicy i programu socjalnego, ekonomicznego, społecznego musi być zakorzeniona w dużych grupach pracowniczych to mamy do czynienia z niespójnością . Ale niespójność programowa – choć o innym charakterze – widoczna jest i „po prawej stronie”. Oni mają złudzenia dotyczące tego jak może działać rynek, są przekonani, ze polski kapitalista będzie zdecydowanie lepszy od obcego, niemieckiego…to zawracanie głowy. Więc ja myślę że czas Krytyki Politycznej w Polsce szybko nie przyjdzie. Są skazani na obecność w niszy, choć ta nisza może być dość szeroka . Trzeba sobie zdać sprawę także z pewnych polskich zaszłości historycznych.


Feffer: Dwa ostatnie pytania: Jedna przyszłość i jedna przeszłość. Najpierw i Pan mówił trochę o tym ale chciałbym dać jeszcze jedno możliwość wytłumaczyć . Jeśli Pan miałby możliwość pokierować polityką rządu co byłoby najważniejszym krokiem żeby zmienić politykę gospodarczą w Polsce w perspektywie krótkoterminowej. Co powinien zrobić rząd w tej chwili?


Bugaj: Ja jestem pewien ze rząd by nie zrobił tego co ja uważam. Myślę sobie że dzisiaj dla Polski jest absolutnie najważniejsze żebyśmy się zabezpieczyli przed ewentualnością zderzenia z normami ostrożnościowymi dotyczacymi zadłużenia. Są teoretycznie rzecz biorąc 2 drogi. Jedna, którą zalecają bardzo liberalni ekonomiści-ograniczyć drastycznie wydatku budżetu państwa, generalnie sektora finansów publicznych. To w praktyce musi oznaczać ograniczenie szeroko rozumianych wydatków socjalnych. Ne ma innej drogi. Można np próbować ograniczać biurokracje która jest ogromna ale po pierwsze tego nie można zrobić w krótkim okresie po drugie trzeba sobie zdac sprawę ze to nie sa gigantyczne pieniądze. . Moim zdaniem podstawowym mankamentem tej drogi (poza politycznymi i etycznymi nastepstwami uderzenia w biednych ludzi) ważniejszym mankamentem jest to ze to oznacza uderzenie w najważniejsza cześć popytu krajowego i zwiększy to prawdopodobieństwo recesji. To nie jest gwarancja recesji bo inne strumienie popytu mogą to skompensować ale prawdopodobieństwo rośnie gwałtownie. . Moim zdaniem trzeba szukać drogi powiększenia dochodów państwa. Nie można wykluczać wariantu podwyżki podatków. Jak pan porówna Polski udział podatków w produkcie krajowym brutto to jesteśmy bardzo nisko. A poprzednio powiedziałem ze mamy system podatkowy który jest systemem degresywnym to znaczy dochody po opodatkowaniu są bardziej zróżnicowane niż przed opodatkowaniem. W Polsce ludzie o wysokich dochodach płacą śladowe podatki, z tego punktu widzenia to jest sytuacja amerykańska bądź dalej idąca. No wiec ja mówię sięgnijmy po większe podatki do wysokich dochodów, do głębokich kieszeni. Dlaczego? Po pierwsze dlatego, że sprawiedliwej, po drugie, bo zamożni ludzie wydają ze swoich dochodów małą cześć a do tego duża część z tej realtywnie malej kwoty wydają na rzeczy które nie są w kraju wytwarzane, na luksusowe wyjazdy, importowane samochodu itp. Kłopot polega na tym ze ten rząd tego nie zrobi na pewno. Targetem politycznym tego rządu są grupy uprzywilejowane. To jest ten rdzeń który się teraz mimo wszystko próbuje się buntować . Ale obawy przed takim krokiem maja tez inni. Trzeba sobie zdać sprawę z tego ze ludzie zamożni tworzą grupy bardzo wpływowe. To co sie rozpowszechniło w Polsce na bardzo szeroką skalę to to że jak ktoś mówi że podatki mają być podniesione to nikt nie rozróżnia jakie, wszyscy się boją. I oczywiście partie które byłyby w tej sprawie skłonne coś zrobić (teraz chyba tylko PiS) boi się tego powiedzieć bo mają dużą grupę poparcia w drobnym biznesie, który jest w Polsce dość liczny, a dla którego taki postulat jest płachtą na byka. Oni są na „nie” zanim sie dowiedzą o co tu chodzi. Wiec obawiam się że to co jest najważniejsze co trzeba byłoby zrobić jest słabo możliwe. Nie mam dobrej odpowiedzi w związku z tym. Obawiam się że niestety nie jest wykluczone że będziemy musieli odchorować.


Feffer: Ostatnie pytanie: To pytanie do wszystkich. Kiedy Pan myślał o punk widzenia 23 lata temu. Co zmieniło się jeśli chodzi o punkt widzenia, jak się mówi po niemiecku weltenshaung . to jest po prostu widok ….


Bugaj: Wie Pan ja przez ten czas nauczyłem się trochę pokory. W czasach komunistycznych kiedy byłem dysydentem z pewnością idealizowałem model demokratyczny. Wydawał on mi się takim modelem w którym większość dość łatwo dokonuje wyborów. Dzisiaj wiem że przecieranie się woli większości, przekształcanie się jej w politykę państwa to niesłychanie skomplikowany proces który nieczęsto zachodzi. i to jest ważna obserwacja w związku z tym jak np bylem gorącym zwolennikiem czystego systemu gabinetowego. No ale przecież dzisiaj nami rządzi ci którzy w wyborach zyskali 21% poparcia (wszystkich uprawnionych do głosowania). To jest większość parlamentarna. to co obserwuje z rosnącym niepokojem to to że wybory nie polegają na tym ze ludzie wybierają co chcą tylko ze wybierają z koszyka. wiec jest pytanie co jest w koszyku? no i w tym koszyku są rzeczy które chce klasa polityczna mieć w tym koszyku. Polityczny establishment stworzył rodzaj oligopolu partii. Z jednej strony są wysokie progi wstępu do parlamentu – 5% to w Polsce jest 1,5 mln uprawnionych do glosowania. Z drugiej strony rozbudowano (ja jestem zwolennikiem finansowania z budżetu polityki, i jednocześnie jestem zwolennikiem twardego zakazu zdobywania pieniędzy prywatnych na rzecz polityki) system dotacji budżetowych dla partii parlamentarnych. Daje się tak dużo pieniędzy z budżetu ze właściwie ktoś kto tych pieniędzy nie ma jest bez szans. Nie ma szans wejść na scenę polityczna. Rynek polityczny jest bardzo zamknięty. Tasują się ciągle ci sami. To problem nie tylko w Polsce, niech pan zobaczy co dzieje się w Europie: jak w czasie kryzysu rządziła lewica to wygrała prawica jak rządziła prawica to wygrała lewica. To po prostu wygrywają ci którzy wtedy nie byli przy władzy. A co maja do zaproponowania to nie ma znaczenia. Wiec dlatego ja dzisiaj sympatyzujęz takim rozwiązaniem jak referendum. Sprawa jest delikatna ale zawsze musimy wybierać cos co jest jakoś zrównoważone. Także inaczej patrzę na urząd prezydenta, choć krytycznie patrzę na obecnego. ale myślę ze istnieje potrzeba instytucji urzędu który jest wybierany przez większość Chodzi o to żeby można było rządzić z woli większości. To jest taka moja smutna nauka 20letnia. To nie znaczy że chciałbym powiedzieć że czegokolwiek żałuję z minionego systemu. Powtarzam to z uporem: w komunizmie nie było niczego czego można żałować ale to nie znaczy że to co powstało na to miejsce to jest wszystko cud malina.



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The Energy of Delusion

The literary scholar Viktor Shklovsky once attributed Tolstoy’s success as a novelist to the “energy of delusion.” The Russian writer was committed to constant trials and experimentation. He had a seemingly endless capacity to put himself in the position of what the Russians like to call a “holy fool” and look at the world as if through a child’s eyes.

Journalists also frequently adopt the attitude of holy fools. They are so often out of their depths and must rely on others to provide them with the information and contacts that sustain their work. It doesn’t help a journalist to assert knowledge – or feign knowledge – in an interview when the objective is to obtain as much information as possible.

In truth, this “energy of delusion” is an important ingredient in any significant enterprise. If we knew how much effort a project would ultimately require, we would not likely undertake the initiative in the first place (as in: if I’d known how long it would take to transcribe and edit 300 interviews, I might never have committed to such a project).

This applies all the more to any effort to change the world. To counter the cynics and naysayers who dismiss attempts to improve on the status quo – by pointing to the failures of the past or the supposedly insurmountable obstacles of the present – activists must almost by definition assert a willful ignorance.

Ann Snitow is a well-known writer, teacher, and activist. She has been one of the key movers behind the Network of East-West Women (NEWW), a group of women’s movement activists on both sides of the former Iron Curtain that continues to be active today from its office in Poland. She began her engagement with East-Central Europe in the mid-1980s. NEWW grew out of a desire to exchange information and experience with women who grew up in “the other Europe.” But to get the initiative off the ground, it was necessary to adopt some attributes of Tolstoy’s “energy of delusion.”

“The advantage of being a stranger who is stupid and doesn’t know anything is that you can sometimes move around in ways that your ignorance enables,” Snitow told me in an interview in New York in November 2013. “Yes, we were naive and ignorant and you shouldn’t do this this and this in the founding meeting. But we would never have done the meeting at all if we’d known all these things beforehand.”

Humility is an important element behind such enterprises. Many people went from West to East on missions: to spread the light to the ignorant natives. That light might have been democracy or capitalism or religion or proper English. In many cases, there was pull as well as push. NEWW certainly provided many books about feminism to women in East-Central Europe who were eager to get their hands on materials that had been scarce to non-existent before 1989. But NEWW was more about an engagement of equals, of mutual understanding, of the West learning as much from the East as vice versa. It had a gendered element as well. There was no mansplaining here. Instead, there was an honest admission that we can all benefit by holding our tongues, admitting our ignorance, and listening.

In her upcoming collection of essays, The Feminism of Uncertainty, Snitow addresses precisely this acknowledgment of ignorance – of language, culture, history. “I’m writing about this and apologizing about the distance that can’t be bridged and the things I’ll never know,” she told me. “And then I found myself writing a paragraph that said, basically, that maybe I like not understanding. Otherwise I might have the illusion that I do understand. It also defines a distance that can never be bridged.”

We talked about debates over pornography and abortion, about divisions within the region, about teaching feminism in Albania, and about a member of NEWW, Agnes Hochberg, who died at a young age (a summary of my interview with Hochberg in 1990 follows at the end).


The Interview


What was your first contact with Eastern Europe?


I was in Eastern Europe briefly with my husband Daniel Goode, because he had a concert in Budapest. We were there in 1984, and I’m so glad I had that moment because I had no thought of going to Eastern Europe. It never occurred to me, and there we were. We saw the bullet holes in the walls, and you couldn’t get food. We stayed in a student hostel from hell, where there was a speaker system that announced things in the bedroom and could not be turned off. And we were thinking, “Oh my god, it’s true, it’s hell!”


And that was one of the nicer places. The happiest barrack they like to call themselves.


The friends we were visiting were very sophisticated musicians for whom the current regime was of course anathema. I wouldn’t say they were dissidents because they were musicians. There were quiet refuseniks. We went to the May Day parade thinking: “My god, we people of the Left, a May Day parade! How exciting!” Our hosts were so withering about our decision to look at this parade. They lived very successfully outside the system. They’d built a little apartment on the roof. They were definitely people who were trying to live as so many people did, outside the orbit of the controlled spheres. I was very impressed by this, and interested in them.

But they were utterly withering about feminism. I spent one evening with a bunch of them and their wives, and they produced the kind of hatred and contempt for feminism that I came to know so very well in so many different ways. They produced the whole package in one evening. I remember thinking, “Oh, here’s a new thing to worry about!” Bringing feminism into conversation in Eastern Europe had never occurred to me. I considered it a completely hopeless location. I was a leftist. I wasn’t about to go criticize. I wasn’t with the dissident crowd that wanted to spend their time on anti-Communism. But we went through the checkpoints and visited Berlin, and the differences between East Berlin and West Berlin were nauseating and frightening. And at the same time I was so angry at having every magazine I had with me taken away lest I contaminate the people of the East. I thought, “This surely can’t work.”

And was I ever right! You couldn’t keep quiet about what was happening in the West. Though later, when a Russian woman became part of the Network of East West Women, she came with real trepidation to America, where she was going to be doing some stuff for us. And we slowly discovered that she was from a poor background, and she was terrified to meet Americans. So the propaganda did also work. She thought we wanted her dead, that we hated Russians unto death.

When it came to the early gifts of books and things like that, it was amazing how little they had and how much they wanted. Sometimes the Network was accused of being imperializing.

“What?” I said. “Imperializing?”

“Yeah, you gave them books.”

And I said, “True, there was a lot of demand. They told me what they wanted to read. We bought the books and we sent them.” Of course you can’t even do that anymore. There are no more Airmail M-bags. Nobody wants them that way anymore. It’s all over. Our book and journal project is completely different now. But in those days Mihaela Miroiu said to me, “I’m 25 years behind!”

And I said, “No, no, that’s not the right way to think of it.”

She started to cry, and she said, “Yes, it is the right way to think about it. I’ve never seen any of these books!”

So, there was a lot of angst and absurdity around that separation. It was a weird mixture of isolation and separation. But of course, the east-west distinction is crumbling, crumbling, crumbling. I think of it completely differently now that we’re all in this post-Communist situation.

In terms of the problems for the Left, I first saw them in 1984. And then, I heard about Slavenka Drakulic’s talk at the Socialist Scholars’ conference in the spring of 1990 when she held up a tampon. I think it was actually a pad, anyway this big visible object, and she made sure the men in the room knew what it was. She said, “Communism failed in part because it couldn’t provide us this.” I’m so sorry I missed it, but her talk was a wild sensation. Katha Pollitt and Barbara Ehrenreich and a couple of other people said they would like to meet with her, and they invited me along, and that was it.

Slavenka said, “Why didn’t you help us?”

And we said, “We should help you.”

She said, “Oh, the men help build up the men so much, you never did anything for us.”

And I thought, “My god, guilt I never even knew existed!”


That’s what we’re here for. To discover new sources of guilt.


And so I said,” Well, what could we possibly do? What can we do now?”

And she said, “We’re all so isolated, all of us feminists.” You know, she’d written an article for Ms where she’d tracked down people who called themselves feminists throughout the region. It was an interesting project. And she said, “We’re all isolated, nobody knows about anybody else.”

And it’s true, that once the Network got going I would get these letters from Romania saying, “I’m the only feminist in Romania!” So she wanted us to support the project of their meeting.

And I said, “Well, why would we be relevant to that?”

And she said, “You have Xerox machines and postage stamps and telephones. You have all of these civil society riches. We don’t have those things. Why don’t you just help us get together and then we promise not to listen to you once we’re in a room together.”

And I’m writing this now in this little book called Visitors, and I say at this point: “This seems to be the kind of invitation that I can’t resist.” It’s just totally alluring. I was very deeply intrigued by what was happening and how fast it was happening. It was such a question mark, what the women’s situation was going to be. What kind of changes were going to happen? Was gender even going to be a category? And it soon became clear that it would be an organizational category in the sense of who works, who doesn’t work, who gets social services: everything. And it was all going to be done very fast. I was totally intrigued. I agreed to work on the conference. I spent the year raising the money. I visited in March to put things together with Slavenka and her assistant.

I visited Zagreb, I visited Belgrade where Sonya Licht was (whom I knew already), and I visited Krakow, to give Slawka Walchewska the money to come to the conference. I was carrying cash to give to the people who were going to travel to the conference because it was really hard to send money at that time. There was no banking, so everything was hard. And we couldn’t have done the conference without the black market rate! I brought all this cash under my dress, which I gave to Slavenka and she changed it on the black market so we got 20% more. That’s how we managed to raise the money.

If you think nobody’s interested in Eastern Europe now, you should have seen it then. It was the year of the Gulf War. People said to me, “You want to raise money so that feminists can have a conversation? Don’t you know there’s a war on?”

I thought, “Uh, yes. You can say that actually every minute of every year. There’s no reason to ever do anything for women because there’s always a war on!”

Anyway, I had a terrible time raising the money. And there was just a handful of us doing it on the Western side with Slavenka and her assistant Alenka doing the organizing and finding people using the snowball method.

In June 1991, just two weeks before the war [in former Yugoslavia] began, we were told not to go – to Dubrovnik for the conference — by the State Department. And we said, “After a year of planning, we’re going!” And 70 people showed up. Two weeks later you couldn’t really go, the war had already started. And then of course a couple of months later the place where we met was bombed. And we got charred pages in the mail from their library. Everything was happening very fast.

There were many Yugoslavs at our meeting in June 1991, and they didn’t know how to name themselves. They’d say things like “Yugoslav” and then they’d say “Ooh, so sorry, I’m a Croatian.” And there was embarrassment. People who were naming themselves at that moment were very confused about what this was going to mean. And there was a great desire to be separate from Serbia, no question. But there were Serbs there as well. One woman from the Czech Republic said, about a Serbian woman who had just spoken, “that Serb, that Serb.” There was suddenly this nationalist craziness and intensity in the region at that time, and it all broke out in the meeting itself. But there was also very clearly a desire to have an international connection. I got totally obsessed, fascinated, and committed in ten minutes. And that’s the answer to your question about how it all started for me.


You mentioned it was difficult to raise money on this side. What was the reaction you got from the feminist community outside of Barbara Ehrenreich and Katha Pollitt and the people who interested at the very beginning in Slavenka Drakulic?


People unknown to me came out of the woodwork who were interested in the region for various reasons: people who were scholars of the region, a Bulgarian at NYU, people who had lived there, Eastern Europeans who were living here. Nanette Funk is a perfect example, somebody who really knew a great deal about East Germany and helped a lot. Or Joanna Regulska. So it suddenly turned out that there was a community of people who cared about this that I hadn’t encountered in my local feminist work. Slowly they formed around the Network. For the first couple of years this room where we’re sitting was where women from all over the region and American women who were interested in them would meet quite often. Sometimes there were 70 people in here.

That era has passed. Someone said to me recently, “Why don’t we have those parties anymore?”

I said, “It passed.”

But at that time there was a hunger, a sense of intensity, a great deal of curiosity that we had about each other as well as the anxiety we had about each other. All of these people were arriving on their first trip to the United States – or the first trip abroad. And then there was our desire to meet with those people. Did you ever know Agnes Hochberg?


I did, yes.


Well, she died. We were devastated. She was at the conference. And she sat right there and said, to this large room that was half American and half Eastern European, “I think the best thing we should do is get rid of abortion. Abortion has been horrible. Feminists should get rid of abortion in Hungary.” And all the American women in the room had a nervous breakdown! But that was an absolutely necessary conversation. The conversation that followed was about how could we make these rights our own. We talked about genuine social services — contraception, sex education, abortion free and on demand — the feminist program that we’d had for decades. But to Agnes, it just sounded like: once a year, me or my friends will have an abortion, without anesthesia. It was one of those moments when you understand that you don’t know anything, which is a good slap in the face.

Agnes was a perfect example because she was so lively and creative about thinking what feminism should do. She said, “I’ve seen that you have all these anti-pornography campaigns. You know, I think we could do that.”

Other people from that region said that to me too, and I said, “Lente, lente. You’ve just gotten rid of certain kinds of censorship. You don’t want feminism to be identified with the return of censorship, do you? Could we talk about sexuality some other way?”

Agnes was wonderful. She said, “Oh, you think it’s a repressive discourse.”

And I said, “Absolutely, around here it’s very contested and we’ve been having terrible fights about this from the early 1980s.” That part was just coming to an end actually because the Supreme Court decided that the anti-pornography ordinances weren’t constitutional. It was not exactly the way you want to win a fight, but it was convenient because those ten years of arguing about whether or not we should censor and punish pornography were exhausting. I told Agnes, “You don’t really want to say that men’s sexuality is defined by pornographic scripts. Maybe it is the only way to find out about sex if you’re 14. But given our current culture, the idea that men are just dangerous, lusting, rutting beasts and we have to protect ourselves from them and from their sexuality, I don’t think that’s a progressive way of constructing our situation or our struggle.”

And Agnes said, “Oh, okay, let’s not do that.” I loved her for it. You know, you’re not supposed to have undue influence. So, if this was the right campaign for them, then go for it. It galvanized a lot of energy here, no question about it. But the danger of cordoning feminism off as this righteous purity movement to save women from the depravations of man and their images really frightened me. This represented a return to the defensive and an indication of an inability to make the culture that we want. It was a discourse of disappointment and rage that came when feminism was slowing down and it was harder and harder to think you were getting anywhere. So, in the end, I persuaded her.


It’s an interesting story, and what I’ll do is I’ll send you my interview with her from 1990, and maybe…


What did she say?


I don’t even remember because I didn’t reread it because I couldn’t re-interview her. But I’ll send it to you and if, because I didn’t interview you in 1990, we can put her interview at the end of my interview with you.


That would be interesting because 1990 was way before our discussion. We were talking in 1991, 1992, 1993. I hope I’m not claiming those conversations more than I should, but they meant a lot to me. The idea that I could change so much what abortion meant to them just made me totally rethink the issue. I still thought they should have free abortion but obviously not the way it had been, and I could see how the whole medical social support system had been a deep pain and insult to everybody. It was just so important to have that change. And then I felt that it was a kind of reciprocity. I said, I don’t think this will work for you in the long run, and I just felt we were – and this was my dream for the Network of East-West Women — trading cards back and forth.


It’s interesting because you started by saying that there was an invitation for you to come, but they were not going to listen to you. But here is an example where there was an exchange of ideas. Was there a time that you were sitting there and thought, “I want to say something, but I shouldn’t”?


After a short while, I was no longer in the room. The Network set things going that I frequently wasn’t part of. We had board meetings where we thought about how things should be structured, what would be most democratic, how do we empower the Eastern Europeans. But the projects themselves went galloping off, and in a way we weren’t in the room anymore. We got a Ford Foundation grant to put everybody on e-mail. And once everybody was on e-mail there was no privileged voice, and there were conversations and exchanges. But I don’t think American women were telling people what the subject should be.

The only other instance I can think of was when a Romanian judge said, “We should make divorce illegal, because it’s only men who use it. Women are too disgraced to use it. What should we do about the inequality that crops up around divorce? Women don’t get anything, they’re suddenly without any support, they’re stigmatized if they divorce. And men are just using it to get out of responsibility. Since 90% of all divorce initiations come from men, we should make this illegal.”

And this was another case, like abortion, when I thought, “You can’t just take something like divorce out of context and say it’s good. You have to think about what it means to women and how it will work.” Even though again, I didn’t think that making divorce illegal would help women in the long run, I remember thinking, “I can’t say anything about this. It has to do with the failure of local culture and structures for women to have any kind of independent life outside the family. Whether divorce is legal or illegal, the point is that there was no place to go.” You had to have a feminism that created spaces, and there was no shortcut for that. She was trying to make a shortcut and save women from the depravations of men who leave.

It reminded me a little bit about my sympathy for New Right women who felt that we feminists were destroying marriage, and marriage was the anchor to make sure that women kept men there but that if they left, they had to pay. What feminism needs to do is make places where people can go and lives that people can have, to create ways of changing the family, changing the woman’s situation in the family, to allow for divorce and remarriage or to be in a lesbian couple. In American society, this is what we expect: so many consumer options, so many choices. There was nothing like that in Eastern Europe. So, I just realized that our American ideas about divorce were, in the Eastern European context, naive and not helpful. We often came up often with examples of our own naiveté and foolishness. We made mistakes, but the conversations continued.

For two years we had meetings here, and it was almost always someone from the region presenting what was happening, and then Americans and other Eastern Europeans questioning that person. That was the structure: the speaker from the region and the encounter in the discussion that followed. And I think that pretty complicated things went on. I wouldn’t characterize it as us telling them or them telling us. The best part of it was the back and forth.

I remember one time a woman from Romania was giving us a talk. She hated American anti-consumerism. She was withering about it. She gave a great presentation about how great it was that now you could buy things that you couldn’t buy before. It was like lipstick feminism. Once Fran Olsen came to talk to my class and she told all these Europeans, “You know really, you don’t need as many colored lipsticks as we have in American culture. It’s just obscene. You don’t want that.”

And they almost killed her. “Don’t tell us we don’t need so many lipstick shades,” they said. “You have them, so shut up.”

That’s a very important kind of exchange. But anyway, this Romanian woman was here, and she was standing right here where we are, talking about what was happening in Romania. At one point she started to climb out the window, and I thought, “My god, my East-West conversation is collapsing. We haven’t said anything yet to her, she’s still giving her presentation, but she’s about to start down the fire escape!” No, it was that she was so horrified by how she wasn’t allowed to smoke in American locations, and she was so desperate for a cigarette that she had stepped onto there to start smoking while still talking through the window.

And I said, “But in my apartment, anyone can smoke. That’s part of what we do in the Network of East-West Women. If people want to smoke, they can smoke.”

And she said, “Oh, okay.” She came back in and she continued talking and was smoking and we gave her an ashtray. It was a cultural collision about freedom. She was furious that this was supposed to be a free society but Americans didn’t let you smoke everywhere. She also thought it was ridiculous that we complained about consumerism since we obviously all delighted in it. Being a great shopper myself, I completely agreed with her about that.

So, you ask whether I chose to be silent or not silent. But the main issue was not silence or no silence, self-restraint or no self-restraint. It was: did a relationship get formed? Was there a kind of back and forth where everybody moved around? In the early days, that definitely happened, and also there were people who changed what they had to say very fast.

Hana Havelkova, for instance, once began by saying how disgusting she thought the other people were on her panel. “You’re all just liberal democrats,” she said. “I’m a person of the Left, and the Left rhetoric is disappearing. The West is bringing in this horrible discourse. Please, just leave us alone. We’re on our own path.” That’s what she said from year one, and I respected it very much. I thought she gave a brilliant talk.

But then a year later she said, “Well, I’ve actually been rethinking that. It actually turns out that we’re becoming you and you’re becoming us, and the split that I was talking about a year ago really doesn’t exist anymore.”

This was a function of people living at a rapid pace. I saw her recently at a conference in Brno. I embraced her and said how much her writing meant to me. I reminded her how each year she had a different construction about what our relationship might be, and that that had been a benchmark for me: watching her capacity to rethink the relationship and rethink what was happening geopolitically so fast. She keeps moving like that. She’s now studying the Communist period and what kind of feminist moves were actually possible during those years. It wasn’t just this metaphor of frozen time and then came the melt. She got a big grant to treat this frozen time as a time when lots of things happened. She has a bunch of researchers working on it. And I thought, “If you had said to her in 1992 that she was going to want to discuss the Women’s Union under Communism, she would have said, ‘That’s just you Americans being romantic about Communism.’” And there’s some truth to that as well.


It’s the same with curators in the region. If you’d said back in 1990, “Hey there’s all this interesting public art from the Communist period,” they would have said, “Please, put it in a park somewhere on the outskirts of town.” And now many of them find that work very interesting. But on the question of the Women’s Union, I’m curious about how that complicated the encounter with women in the region. Back in 1990 when I was in the region, people had bifocal vision. There were folks within the official structures and people in the unofficial structures, whether it was women’s issues or peace issues or whatever. There wasn’t a lot of grey area in between. How did that affect your discussions in the Network?


I’d almost have to go country by country with that, because there were very different relationships that people had. I knew independently those who had been underground or disempowered because they were lesbians. Those are the people I knew. Those were my friends with whom I formed these long-term relationships that mean so much to me. I didn’t really encounter the official stuff. The way you’re putting it is that to them separateness from any official structure was a high value. If you proposed, for example, to get more women into parliament, that would be the moment when they would say, “Are you crazy? Politics is dirty. There’s no way of controlling it. It’s disgusting.” Now it’s just four or five percent. This nice woman, I don’t remember her name, just sent me a chart. The number of women in parliament under Communism was almost zero. Now they’re going up a little again, and a couple of countries have come out with quotas. Serbia and Poland have quotas, which is extraordinary: I didn’t think that would happen. I was just in Serbia talking to the new women parliamentarians. There was a lot of disdain among my friends at the university for me going to parliament and talking to them. I said, “I’ve always believed in insider-outsider strategies. These are new women in parliament, I’m interested in them, and we’ll see whether they’re interested in anything I said. It’s worth a cross-border conversation. Even now people felt that it was hopeless, so imagine how it was earlier.

The place where I encountered what you’re talking about is when I would criticize the idea of feminism as an enclave, separate from the society. It’s a place of refuge, a place where we can all be together, a place where there’s no homophobia. All of that was really important to people and to me because that was my world. These were the people I wanted to talk to. I wanted to support their projects, their cultural efforts with books and journals, their flyers for Manifa in Poland. I was also interested in what women were going to do in the power structures. Who were they? Were they left over from the old power structures, and they just moved over to a new situation? Now there are some rich businesswomen in Poland, and they fund the Kongres Kobiet (Women’s Congress), and I have friends that won’t go there. But other friends say, “What’s the matter? 300 women from all over the country converge? Let’s talk.”

I gave a talk at the Congress about the dangers of neoliberalism. And some people hated that talk. “We want these things,” they said.

It goes back to the old consumerism question. I said, “Well, for us it isn’t working out that well. There’s been a downside to neoliberal economic arrangements, not just for women but for everybody.” So there’s this constant conversation about insider-outsider strategies. And there are problems raised about “purity” that definitely happen the same way in the United States. There are also tensions between Warsaw and Krakow, between the center and the periphery, between “radicals” and those who are “compromised by fancy jobs in the university.” These cleavages are completely familiar to me from the American women’s movement. I wish I could say it’s exotic over there, but it’s the same problems connected to institutionalization. The further they move toward having a civil society that opens up spaces, the more this comes up.

And of course with grant money these questions came up around the issue of legitimacy. There was more pressure over there than even here to be legitimate because you had to register. Slawka registered eFKa, her women’s foundation, already when I’d met her. She’d just done it around 1990-91 because she knew that if she was going to perform as a public feminist in this new situation, she needed to be legitimate and be registered as a public entity. We in the U.S. women’s movement never thought about such a thing. We had this huge movement, but nobody registered anything. It just proliferated in this mushroom effect. Why would you register? Of course I now know how important it was for her independent entity to have that protection. You could give it money; nobody could assail it; it had certain protections. And registration didn’t really stop it from doing radical things.

These problems of “old stuff” and “new stuff” or “insider stuff” and “outsider stuff” don’t go away. These contradictions just keep rolling along. Recently in Poland, I along with the current director of the Network of East West Women Malgorzata Tarasiewicz, who is a very radical feminist, received an invitation to visit the old Women’s Union in Warsaw. We spent the evening with them. We were given cakes and roses and this formal presentation. It was amazing. It was another world, full of congratulation and celebration. The women there were all of the Left, and they were really hated by some of the feminists in the town: really patronized and hated. And there I was. The advantage of being a stranger who is stupid and doesn’t know anything is that you can sometimes move around in ways that your ignorance enables. Yes, we were naive and ignorant and you shouldn’t do this this and this in the founding meeting. But we would never have done the meeting at all if we’d known all these things beforehand.


So you were the holy fool.


That’s it. And I write about that in an introduction to this collection of essays I’m putting together. I write that without naiveté and grandiosity, there’s no activism. Otherwise it’s too difficult and you make immediate mistakes.


When was that meeting in Warsaw?


Two summers ago.


Two summers ago? So the Women’s Union is still around 20 years later…


The apparatus is still in place. They were women wearing the clothes of that other time.


And they are of that generation?


They have more space from the state than any other women’s movement — in Warsaw, Krakow, or anywhere else where they had space during the Communist period. It’s all theirs: room after room in this space in Warsaw. We met in a big fancy room. There was the food, the roses, the ritual, and the texts that I’d written that had been translated into Polish.

And they pointed to one of the texts and said, “We don’t like the way you say this.”

And of course I was thrilled! Imagine: somebody is reading you, what a joy! So I listened and then I said, “What is it you don’t like about this?” It was actually a misreading. It had something to do with whether or not there were women’s movements in Central Europe. They thought I was saying this it was not just hard to do but impossible. So I said, “Actually what I’m talking about here is something else. This article is about the 12 reasons why it’s hard to have a women’s movement in this part of the world. I think of it as a sympathy statement.” I had to really talk it through with them. Of course that was horrifying, that misreading. But I could see how a list of twelve negatives could make people depressed, though other people were very heartened by this and said “Yes, this is what we’re up against. There is hopelessness for this movement and dangers about where it might land.”

Then they forgave me, and the conversation rolled along. I felt a lot of warmth for them. They’re all people of the Left. They’re all trade unionists. Trade unions? That never comes up in other feminist conversations I have. On the other hand I could see why some of the other women I know there are deeply offended by people who created a niche for themselves in the official world of Communism. They are seen as being instrumental, perhaps even betrayers.


One of the first things you said was the division between east and west has largely been smudged out. And I feel the same way. In this recent year of travel, many of the things that I thought were stark contrasts are no longer that way. But every so often you come across something that reveals that substantial differences still exist, whether it’s a function of culture or history. On this last trip of yours to Poland, were there other times when you came up against these persistent differences?


My friendly acquaintance Ewa Charkiewicz has been much criticized in the women’s movement in Poland. On her website, which the Network helped her set up, you can read radical articles about feminism that include economic analysis. She’s a thoroughgoing feminist leftist, and her argument is that Communism has been so demonized that you can’t even go there in your thoughts or your institutions. You can’t visit those people. I found that helpful because what it says is that real differences have been buried and obscured by the prohibition on saying anything about Communism – or, in Yugoslavia, saying anything about Yugoslavia. Do you remember the anti-Yugonostalgia movement?




If you said anything about what you were losing, you were anathema. Yugoslavia was totally demonized. I remember thinking back then, “So instead we’ve got ethnic cleansing? And now of course we’ve got seven small, poor countries that can’t do anything and aren’t even in the EU yet — and they were first in line for membership as Yugoslavia. Isn’t it interesting that we weren’t ever allowed to say a word about that or that anything was good under Communism.”

I like the formulation of Eva Toth, a Hungarian: no envy, no pity. “Since you don’t know what we have and you don’t know what we didn’t have, you can’t understand our particular construction of rage about the past,” they were telling us. “You project onto us your own notions – either that we had more than we did or poor us we had nothing and Communism was horrible.” You couldn’t say that under Communism for some years people had more. Occasionally I was able to say, “Look at this new poverty, this steep class system that was created in five years: what a triumph.”

When you ask about difference, I feel there’s buried material. It’s buried partly by trauma. Forty years is a long time, and the differences lie deep. And certain assumptions, certain wishes, certain constructions of the world are surely much more different than people are even aware of. People who can’t move fast enough are falling behind. Marcy Shore writes about some man who kills himself because he can’t make it in the new order. Those stories are in some sense repressed. You’re not supposed to be dealing with this stuff. You’re supposed to be in motion. And if you’re not in motion, you’re depressed, marginalized, suicidal, hanging onto things because you’re a peasant. When the Communists won the elections again in Poland, for example, my friends were furious. “It’s all these peasants!” they said. “The ones who lost their rights to this pension or that pension. So they’re bringing back the Communists.” And I remember thinking, “Well, they have a point.” But of course the post-Communists didn’t do anything for them either.


Or were worse.


Or were worse. But to answer your question, people are slowly going to look at those 40 years to assess what could and couldn’t have happened, to determine what’s been gained and what’s been lost. This whole world is just crumpled up and disappeared. But something is left still in people. These oral histories that everyone’s been doing — there have been several big projects and yours fits in wonderfully with all of that — to interview women in depth. Jirina Siklova did one in the Visegrad countries. Slawka’s done one with Moldovans and Bulgarians. There’s been a huge mobilization to interview people about their years under Communism. Then we’ll see how people really felt about that time and what they’ve had to do to put it behind them.

Nobody talks about trauma. When I first went there, everything was changing. A shop had been there for 50 years and now there was a new shop and then another new shop and I said, “Does this confuse you?” And they’d say, “Oh no it’s wonderful. People are building. Your can hear the banging of hammers all day, it’s wonderful.” And nothing else was said about that. Who knows: maybe it’s much more wonderful than it is destabilizing. But one thing I know is that there have be some traumas buried in there because of having to change everything so fast at the last minute. And what that all meant depended a lot on your age. So, to answer your question, not only would you have to go country by country in terms of how much has changed and how fast, but also generation by generation. The students I had in Krakow in 1992 had grown up under Communism, and the students I had two years ago in Wroclaw were born in 1989. Are these two groups estranged? Do they talk to each other? I think they do. They still have mutual support systems within the family. But how do people manage that pace?


I think you’re absolutely right: any discussion of the region has to go country by country, sometimes even town by town. I’m also curious also about these hierarchies that have emerged in the region. There was the northern tier – the Visegrad countries — that was, as countries or a region, expected to be more economically advanced or go further. Yugoslavia of course was initially expected to go much further and then it went to the back of the line, so to speak. Did those hierarchies play a role as well within the Network?


One of the big issues for us for a while was when it became clear that the Visegrad countries were going into the EU soon. We decided that the region was being split down the middle. Some countries were going into Western situations and polities and support systems, and this other group was going to be really marginalized because they were no longer part of a shared condition. We tried to theorize that. We tried to do projects that had to do with linkages, encouraging people in the Czech Republic to talk to Bulgarians. As the Network we thought it would be useful to bridge the innies and the outies. Now did we actually do it in some meaningful way? Certainly we did in terms of the flow of information, which was the main thing we were doing. We spread the word about conferences, where to apply for money to go to this or that meeting. And there was talking about this as a problem. We provided linkages, but we didn’t have the infrastructure to do much more.

Every now and then we get a weird grant. My favorite one is the Baltic Crescent. How do they think of these things? The north of Poland, one or two Scandinavian countries, and Kaliningrad. For a few years people were shuttling back and forth between these three countries. There were a couple of anomalies because actually Kaliningrad is part of Russia, and they don’t want Poles coming and going so they charge a lot for visas and the grant didn’t include any money for that. Crossing the border actually has enormous consequences. It was an EU grant, and the idea was to link people who weren’t linked at all. I liked the idea, but I would have been more enthusiastic about connecting Warsaw with Bucharest.

So, let’s put it this way: we were very aware of this new line. We had meetings about it and we talked about it and we tried to make sure that events from all locations were available to everybody. That has been a minimal achievement, but at least it shows self-consciousness that this was a new problem.


With the emphasis on joining the EU, was there a shift in the women’s movement away from American feminism and towards a Western European or simply European approach that may or may not have been different from the preoccupations of feminism here?


From the very beginning Western Europeans said, “What do you mean, U.S. women and women from Central Europe?” I’m afraid the answer was very primitive. I live in New York and Nanette Funk lives in New York, Shana Penn lived in Washington DC and Joanna Regulska was at Rutgers.


It was the Network of East Coast – Eastern Europe Women.


It was absolutely ad hoc in that way. There was also a Canadian at the meeting and a Greek. But Western European women’s movements were highly organized. Some of them did work in Eastern Europe, but we weren’t part of those networks. We worked with AWID, the Association of Women in Development. But the problem occurred at every level. What about mostly white women going to Central Europe when friends in the Czech Republic said that Black women’s writings about feminism were more relevant to them? And I thought, “I can see why that would be. There are many feminisms and you’re absolutely right that you have to pick and choose the feminism that you want.” And certainly there are some really interesting people in England who work on the region whom I admire very much.

But it’s simply that we started as an American organization that was registered here as a 501c3 so we could get money, which we only got for the first couple of years, and then it was over. We received the Ford grant that put all these people on e-mail. We did the legal project, which didn’t work as well because Shana left and there was nobody to run it. But then the money was over, so we became a network of information and conversation and exchange. We never were a foundation. We never had any money, and that was an advantage and a disadvantage, although I’m coming to believe now that it was more of an advantage.

Some western European feminists, for example West German feminists, have had extraordinary reach into various countries in the region, particularly Poland. The Frauenstiftung funded half of the things I knew, and I worshiped them. This was progressive money that came from the Austrian government. And my friends very urgently got on that gravy train. They spoke German much better than English. Our Network was a small thing, just a bunch of people. We briefly had a West Coast branch, a DC branch, and a New York branch. Now mostly it’s the East Coast. We were a bunch of women in our situation who wanted to reach out to feminists who were trying to figure out what to do in their situation — through information and conversation exchange. It’s small. Sometimes people interview me and ask, “Why didn’t you do x? Why not connect to Western Europe?” Absolutely excellent idea, I’d think, maybe next week when some time opens up. I didn’t know the Western European movement well except by fame. I had friends who were active in some exciting academic networks of which I was an admirer. But it’s also true that places like France didn’t have a mass movement like the United States. England had a great socialist movement and a number of brilliant feminists as well as great people who related to Eastern Europe. But these are different movements. The East Coast was our base, and we had a lot of feminist contacts around here. I wouldn’t like to make a principle of it. It was really just a de facto situation.


How has your own thinking on feminist questions and women’s issues in general been changed by your experience in the region? Can you give some examples of different inflection points where your thinking went off in a slightly different direction as a result of your conversations?


I don’t know how much you follow the American women’s movement, but I spent from the early 1980s to the early 1990s very much engaged in the sex wars in feminism. Even more in retrospect as I’m gathering the essays I wrote from that time, I now realize how deadly the split in feminism was on this issue. It was also a meaningful split that one really had to fight about. I never thought that we should fight as liberals versus radicals. I thought that we needed everybody, some working inside and some working outside. Many splits in the women’s movement struck me as just proliferation. But in those 10 years I would say the situation was very deadly.

I’ve done Powers of Desire, a collection about sexuality from 1983. I’ve written an article about Harlequin romances as a kind of pornography for women. I was trying to talk about women’s sexual pleasure in 1979. Suddenly I had to spend a lot of time on this issue, and I did it willingly because I felt that it really would be sad if feminist women became moralistic and on the defensive. Young women were coming into feminism and the burning exciting thing they encountered was organizing against violence, which was dear to my heart. But anti-pornography organizing was a way to express our rage about rape and domestic violence. It made sense that people were very angry. But I thought it was so misguided.

Leonard Boudin was a friend of my parents, and I remember once having dinner with them. I said, “Leonard, I have to talk to you about what’s happening in my women’s movement.”

And he said, “I’m not going to be able to discuss this with you. I’m against any kind of anti-free speech thing.”

“Leonard, stop right there. You assume that all feminists galloped off in that direction. But I’m terrified! It’s like somebody’s stealing my movement.”

It was very unedifying to fight brilliant, passionate feminists on the other side. They said we weren’t feminists. They thought we were fascists and Nazis and didn’t care about women. They said terrible things about us. But we never said things like that about them. We said, “We completely disagree with your strategy. We don’t like the way you think about sexuality and pornography, but we never said you’re not feminists, because that would have been ridiculous.” They were passionate feminists. So to be fighting people like Catherine MacKinnon, whom I absolutely believe is passionate about feminism and has a sense of the injustice that women suffer that goes right through to her bones, is no pleasure.

By the late 1980s I was pretty burned out. I continued to do stuff around abortion. At that time I was very busy trying to create a gender studies program at the New School, which was an uphill battle that took eight years. It’s hard to believe but true. Liberal resistance is the worst. It’s like swimming in treacle. They’ll say, “That’s a good idea, we should get around to it one of these days,” or they’d say, “Oh it’s so parochial, can we redefine it?” And I remember thinking “Sure, let’s start a gender studies program and let’s redefine everything.” It wasn’t like I had this narrow program for what gender studies should be, but it was so hard to even name it. Agnes Heller, our beloved and famous Hungarian, said it was all biopolitics like the Nazis, and I remember thinking, “Agnes, I adore you, but you don’t know what you’re saying!” Anyway, it took eight years. And there was the enormous number of hours that went into that and into the sex war stuff.

I was totally embedded in American feminism. It was the center of my life from 1969 onwards. So it was 20 years when, in 1989, I entered this new world. I was so excited to know nothing, be ignorant, be curious, to have people challenge me on grounds I never even dreamed anybody would even contemplate. One Czech woman said to me, “Because you’re American and I’m Czech, your life expectancy is seven years more than mine.” And I thought, “Of the many things that I’ve been accused of, this is a totally new way of facing who I am, who she is, what the world is like, what my privileges are, what my problems are. What it would it be like to have a feminist conversation with her?” I was totally fascinated, and I fell in love with the people — by no means with everyone, but with a lot of people. I met people who were in really complicated situations that were different from anything that I knew and that moved me and inspired me to think freshly and join with them.


I can sympathize with that enormously, having gone off to work in Korea. It was an opportunity to re-experience the world as a child experiences it.


It’s wonderful that you put it that way, because I’ve been writing about how I never learned how to speak Polish. I’m very ashamed about that. But I’m slightly dyslexic, and I have bad hearing. Now I’m forgetting everything, so it has become even worse. I have absolutely no talent for languages, and I only spend a few weeks there a year. And I go to other countries too. I haven’t learned Romanian or Bulgarian or Serbian either. You could make a long list of the languages I haven’t learned. So I’m writing about this and apologizing about the distance that can’t be bridged and the things I’ll never know. And then I found myself writing a paragraph that said, basically, that maybe I like not understanding. Otherwise I might have the illusion that I do understand. It also defines a distance that can never be bridged.

I describe 10 of us having pizzas in Krakow, and everybody’s chattering in Polish. I don’t understand a word. I don’t even know what they’re talking about. Often they’re very thoughtful and they speak in English and they translate for me. But we’re eating pizza and they’re chattering about who knows what, and I encountered this pleasure in not understanding. And I realized that even if I literally understood, I wouldn’t really understand. It was like being a child again. The adults were chattering all around me, and I could be ignorant since I was ignorant.


But now you’ve been involved in these issues for so long, it’s a little bit more difficult to maintain one’s childlike innocence. What is it like to combine the two worlds, the world of expertise that you’ve developed over the years and then this new world of information that is completely different? If they are two different weather fronts colliding, what do they produce?


It’s interesting that you ask me that now because I just decided to put into the book a piece about a day I spent in Shkoder in Albania. I’m a teacher above all. I’m not a proselytizer. I want to incite questions and exchange consciousness about the gender variable in people’s worlds. And in this Albanian city, I felt that what I should say was: in the texts I’d read and in the situations I’d encountered, people didn’t really think of women as people in the same way that men are people. That, to me, is what feminism is: to assert that men and women are both people in the same sense. I told a few stories about how that could be imagined and why it’s so hard to imagine it. One of my examples was housework, how it’s taken for granted the way women serve men. This wonderful girl in the back spoke up. How brave she was, because girls almost never talk there, it’s almost only men who speak on these public occasions and there were 100 people there. “I do everything for my brothers,” she said. “They tell me what they need done and I do everything. I couldn’t imagine not doing that.”

I said, “Hmmm, what would happen if you said ‘No, I’m busy, I can’t do that now.’”

She said, and she was just vibrating, “They would hit me.”

“Would they hit you hard?”

She said, “No, no, I’m putting it wrong. They wouldn’t love me anymore.”

It was like waves inundating my head. I told her, “The one thing I know in this life about feminism is that it should not be about losing these brothers. Love is love. You don’t give up the brothers.”

She said, “They send me to school, they protect me, they care about me, and I take care of them.”

“It’s a very old bargain you struck, and there is nothing in the feminism I care about that would involve your not maintaining the depth of this relationship with these brothers. The only thing I can say is that Albania is changing so fast that some of these relationships are breaking down. People are leaving, going to Western countries. A quarter of the population is away at any moment, and 30 percent of the people who are leaving are now women. So this bargain that you signed on to as a child when you were born with these brothers is under strain and under negotiation because of all these cosmopolitan elements. The other thing is that at some point you may have a family and have children, and it’s at that moment that you can think about this bargain and what would be best for both the boys and the girls that are in your family.

She’d assumed that I was going to say, “Down with those brothers.” But I said hang onto those brothers. Love is love.

Then some guy got up and said, “What about the penis?”

I said, “Good question, let’s talk about biology.” It was a very interesting and fun group of people. They were about to be social workers. When it was all over, the penis guy came up and gave me his CD of ecstatic music. He said, “I understand feminism is good, I didn’t mean to tease you.” I said, “It’s fine, you were very much on point.” And then the young woman came up. We both had tears in our eyes. We embraced, and I felt we would remember each other our whole lives.

Your question is to what extent did I change and what is the exchange like now? It’s all in motion in this region, and that’s very exciting. I dip in and out. I’m bringing stuff that I taught in America there, and stuff that I learned there back here. My teaching practice is very much interrogative. I don’t have a message other than: consider feminism.

It’s funny because in the early days when I was a teacher in these countries, I was treated with great rudeness and hostility. I’ve written about that too, and that was exciting too. I never suffered. I always thought, “This professor refuses to see me even though I’ve been invited on special grants, sent all the way from New York and this university that he admires, and he refuses to even see me. He sends a lackey who tells me how awful it is to be a lackey because now he actually has to sit through this feminist lecture, and he hasn’t even heard a word from me yet.”

And then the boys in the class would make all these insulting remarks about feminism. They thought they were going to get a lecture about feminism, but instead I was asking them, “What do you think about this or this or this.” So the faculty leaves, because they didn’t get the fancy lecture about feminism or the PowerPoint that they wanted. And the boys are suddenly set free, their professors have left, and the subject is feminism. It was fascinating and fun. This doesn’t happen anymore at home, where people are jaded but ignorant. I was like, “Okay, keep going boys.” I even goaded them a little. And then, at some point, I started to notice the girls looking at the boys. They’ve never heard misogyny like this because it’s taken for granted. At one point some of the tougher girls started to yell at their male friends. “What? Are you kidding?! That’s what you think?” They started calling the boys out by name.


There’s been this enormous body of experience built up in this engagement, this conversation, and I’m curious whether anybody at any point suggested bringing Cuba or China into the conversation?


You’ve interviewed Elzbieta Matynia, yes? She’s a genius and also a great organizer through the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies. We started out with a sense of urgency that a bunch of young people in Central Europe didn’t have any access to interesting educational discussions, so we sponsored a civil society exchange about what was happening that was not available to them in their universities. For the first five or six years, these discussions focused on Central Europe. But then she set up the school also in South Africa and started to invite South African students to Krakow, and Krakow people were going to South Africa. Then she brought in some Mexicans, some West Germans, some people at the periphery with completely different cultural experiences, like people from Kurdistan. These additions were really exciting. And it was very challenging to us professors.

I remember a wonderful class that David Plotke gave. At one point he was talking about citizenship and access to institutions in a society, and he asked the Mexican guy to give the court instructions in Spanish. And nobody understood. I think maybe one or two people in the class could speak Spanish. And it was such a perfect dramatization of the blankness of not understanding and how unrepresented in American institutions are people with real differences: how hard it was for them to participate, to vote, to get a license when they don’t speak English and have no idea what these institutions are. I was so moved by this exercise. It was one of those teachable moments, like you said. It was wonderful. And out of that came very rich discussion.

When people hear “Network of East-West Women,” they think China or Malaysia, and I get invitations from China, Malaysia, India, and Korea all the time. And I’m always a little regretful to have to say that this was the name of a historical moment connected to the fall of the Berlin Wall and East Central Europe and to some extent the former Soviet Union. So usually we say no, and the Network doesn’t connect to other regions as part of it’s structure. But anybody can come to the website and see what’s happening with feminism in East Central Europe.

I thought you were going to ask about the former Soviet Union. There were very interesting members in the former Soviet Union and conversations about new repressions there and the gay and lesbian issue and all of this. We’re less important for them; they have their own universe over there. At the beginning we weren’t allowed by Slavenka Drakulic to invite Russians. She felt the region needed to pull away from Russia. We argued with her, and she won in the end. She said, “We Central Europeans don’t want to listen to Russians anymore.”

“But these are feminists!”

“I don’t care,” she said.

Very soon, however, we said, “This is ridiculous. The former Soviet Union is definitely a part of the conversations we want to have.” And lots of Russians were part of the network for some years, but less so now and I think that has to do with another border we haven’t discussed.


I was thinking more in terms of feminist issues in state-dominated societies, like Cuba or North Korea or China.


My friend Carol Vance had just come back from China, and she’s having conversations there about sexual politics and what we were thinking in the sex wars. There are some very interesting Chinese queers who really want that conversation with us. The gay and lesbian issue became very prominent very early in the Network. Now that the issue has become global, we are still part of supporting what’s going on.


When you think back to the way you looked at the world circa 1990 or around the time of Slavenka Drakulic’s presentation at the Social Scholars Conference, what has changed in 23 years? What has shifted in terms of how you look at the world?


I’ve been reading over the symposiums that Dissent has sponsored every couple years. It’s a way of seeing how the discourse rolls along. Certainly the different meanings of globalization keep shifting, and so has what you can and can’t do in international movements. The Occupy movement meant a lot to me, because in the run up to Occupy, the discussion here about resistance to big money was so stuck, so dead-end. So, how could I go to Eastern Europe and say, “Hey, why don’t you resist neoliberalism?” I had some nerve! But then as soon as Occupy happened, I gave a bunch of talks and I wrote a piece for Krytyka Politczyna about what a difference this was making. When there was absolutely no resistance here, I couldn’t say forthrightly that I think you’re really failing to resist the new poverty and it’ll come back and bite you. I just didn’t feel that I had the authority. So I would say that there have been shifts in what I think we should be thinking and writing about because of opportunities like Occupy.

Some people say Occupy is dead. And I say, “How do you know? People have been saying that feminism is dead all the time.” Maybe in that particular form it’s dead. But the truth is that there was a huge upsurge that changed what we could say and the connections we could make. Feminism is in that mix, but it’s not the only thing in the mix. Occupy was a big moment for me. It enabled me to talk about radical discourses in Eastern Europe standing on a chair in Zuccotti Park.


Last question: I’m writing an article on Krytyka Politiczyna, so I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you what impact do you think Krytyka has had?


I don’t know them very well, but I really admire them. It’s really exciting that there is such a journal, and a couple of my radical students went right into Krytyka. I don’t speak Polish, so I can’t possibly measure who’s reading this, but it’s a location now as well. There’s the bookstore and other locations. It’s ambitious and feminism wanders in and out of there, I mean Slawek Sierakowski isn’t exactly a feminist, as he told me when he visited me here. He said, “Yes, yes, we have many women, but I am the chief.”


He’s changing his tune. I interviewed him just a month ago and he insisted that Krytyka is a women’s organization, that it is successful because of the women.


You see, change happens. I love them and I care for them and I feel connected to them and I want to have those conversations with them. And the fact they he would say this to me and then say that to you is truly delightful. And I like him and I like their effort. I like their energy and the idea that they’re the first people who are not apologetic about Left positions.


Interview with Agnes Hochberg (1990)


Hochberg visited England two years ago, met feminism there: “I came back with these ideas and wanted to talk to everyone about them,” but there wasn’t anyone to talk with. An English feminist that she had met there came to Hungary and “they tried to keep each other’s spirits up.” Together they started to talk to some other women who were part of an anarchist group. One day, they had a discussion about pornography. Some women, including the English woman, started to meet together. They decided to approach the official women’s organization. Hochberg is a member and had gone to their Congress last year. In the fall of this year, “we told them we were going to launch a women’s movement in Hungary.” The official women’s organization agreed to provide a room at their building for a tea party/meeting.

Hochberg and others discussed what topic would attract the most people and decided on “beauty.” They wrote a statement, posted it many places. The meeting, which took place on November 17, 1989, was successful, Hochberg related, though the turnout was not as high as she had both hoped and expected. The group of women who had organized this meeting then had difficulty getting the official organization to agree on another date for a meeting. So the small group met separately in various places.

At the same time, from February to May, there was also a course on women’s issues at the university–lectures on women’s psychology, witchcraft in the 16th century and so on. When the Women’s Network began to meet at the beginning of the summer, drawing on the organizers around Hochberg, the numbers were swelled by the participants in this seminar. Some women from abroad came to the initial meetings. A woman from West Germany, for example, stressed the importance of official registration: legality allowed  recognition and assistance from international women’s groups. Now, registered, the Network would like to do a number of activities, but at this early point, is rather disorganized. Hochberg though that one meeting a week was enough simply to get to know one another, not actually to start organizing work. The Network would like to establish a center including a library of women’s books and periodicals; begin to analyze women’s issues in the press; publish its own newspaper; establish a crisis hotline; translate the basic feminist literature perhaps with its own publishing house; engage in legal intervention and planned parenthood counseling; initiate public debates around the country. “Since nothing has been done in Hungary, there is so much to do,” Hochberg said, though she admits that not all of these activities can be done. But at least if the Network places these activities on its agenda, other women might be inspired to take up these projects.

The official women’s group still exists–Hochberg thought that it would really change, but it hasn’t. This organization has a nice new center: most of the same people are working there, are still travelling around and not really doing anything. There is, Hochberg admits, a lot of prejudice against the formerly official organization: “Personally, I am at a loss: to believe or not believe.” Meanwhile, the official women’s paper has become independent.

On the topic of pornography: even “respectable” weeklies resort to pornography to attract readers, Hochberg said. She and some friends did some actions against newsvenders: spraypainting anti-pornography slogans and distributing leaflets. She tried talking personally with these newsagents but really didn’t get very far.

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Making Green Cool Again

It was certainly cool to be an environmentalist in Hungary in the 1980s. Demonstrations against the government’s plan to build a dam on the Danube drew lots of young people. Opposition to the Communist government, even in the more politically acceptable form that the incipient Green movement took, attracted the counter-culture, the dissidents, and the attention of the international community. In 1985, the leaders of that movement – the Danube Circle and Janos Vargha — won the Right Livelihood award, often dubbed the “alternative Nobel.”

But that was 30 years ago. The environmental movement in Hungary has aged considerably since then. Other issues became hip, young people were drawn to other movements, and Green organizations shrank.

Then along came Zofi. Short for Green Roots (Zold Fiatolok), Zofi was founded in 2001 as an independent NGO made up of primarily young people.

“I got involved in Zofi four-and-a-half years ago,” Julia Vass (center in photo above) told me when I met with her and two other Zofi members in Budapest in August 2013. “I was interested in how people in the movement were leading sustainable lives. I wanted to meet people who thought like this, who rode their bicycles, recycled, things like that. I met them at a meeting. I thought it was cool, and I liked it.”

Gabor Csillag (left in photo above) agreed: “Environmental NGOs had this uncool hippy image. Young people couldn’t relate to them. It was all these old, boring people. We started from zero. All of this we had to learn by ourselves. We started at the grassroots level and got young people involved.”

Viktor Vida (right in photo above) was an activist in the 1980s, and became more involved in environmental issues in the 200s. “In 2002, there were two organizations that thought about the environment — Zofi and Vedegylet,” he said. “But there was a difference between the two. Zofi was younger and a little crazy. And they listened to music. In Vedegylet, activists were a little more boring. Both were doing important and exciting things. Vedegylet was known all around the country. But Zofi was cool. In those years, Green activists looked up suddenly and said, ‘Hey, what’s this? Young people in the environmental movement in Hungary, what’s this?’”

In addition to its target demographic, what made Zofi different from other Green organizations was its multi-issue approach. “We were open to other issues — to the global movement and to politics in general,” Csillag continued. “We dealt with energy, with waste, with consumption. Also, Zofi had a totally different approach. It was grassroots. I remember one of the first times there was a gathering of Green NGOs. One of the founders and I we were on a panel in 2002. We suggested that we talk about gay/lesbian rights. And some people said, ‘But we’re environmentalists. We want to talk about the environment!’ So, Zofi had a special mission: to bring in these issues and talk about the interconnectedness of issues.”

The interconnectedness of issues is showcased in Zofi’s signature event, Mirror to the World.

“It is a traveling exhibition and school workshops based on Manfred Max Neef’s human-scale development,” Vass explained. “The central theme of the exhibition: What does a human being need in order to be happy, and how do those needs affect his or her environment? To answer this question, 10 rooms have been thematically designed, following in the footsteps of the Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef’s philosophy. The names of the rooms are: Knowledge, Survival, Choice, Creation, Identity, Relaxation, Security, Love, Dream, and Participation. We invite children from school between the ages of 8 an 18, and we provide them with an interactive guide. We sit down and talk with them about the topics of the rooms. We don’t want to really guide them. We just want to talk with them and ask their thoughts, ideas…. This method – global education — is quite new for them. In school, the teacher teaches, and they don’t really ask the children anything. So it is quite new for them.”

We talked about the state of the Green movement in Hungary today, the challenges of creating a Green party, and the polarization of politics that has affected environmental issues as well.


The Interview


Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?


Julia Vass: I was four years old. I don’t remember. I am quite young.


Viktor Vida: I was 15 years old, and one of my grandfathers was very interested in politics and history. Every night when I was a child I watched the TV news with him. But that year, and in 1988, there were many more unbelievable things happening. The fall of the Wall was one of them for me, but not the biggest thing.


Gabor Csillag: For me, it was a cyclical thing. I grew up outside of Hungary. When I returned to Hungary, I went to university and got involved in student self-government. That’s actually where the present government of Fidesz grew out of, the original Fidesz. Then I ended up leaving the political sphere for a long time. Then I got involved in a couple of student protests. Obviously the fall of the Berlin all proved that this system was going to be over.


Why did you all become involved in environmental issues, as opposed to other issues?


Gabor Csillag: The older generation, the founding mothers and fathers, got involved at the earliest stage for different reasons. I belong to the second generation, and now there’s a third generation. I became involved at the turn of the millennium and that was the result of many things coming together. What we’ll need to talk about at a certain point is the alignment of the movement to politics in general. When it started, the environmental movement was embedded in the politics of regime change. After that, it became a number of single-issue NGOs focusing on waste, energy, and so on. Then there was a moment around the turn of the millennium when we stated to reformulate the idea. We were not just interested in single-issue environmental stuff. We wanted to do something like what the Germans did: to do Green politics. That’s where I got involved.

It was very symbolic that the first time that I got involved with the Hungarian young Greens, with Zofi, was at a protest when the mayor of the Third District – who is now the mayor of Budapest – wanted to expel gays and lesbians from the Sziget Festival. An NGO representative gave a very cool speech, and I started to think about how minority rights and human rights intersected with the environmental stuff that I was interested in otherwise. Then I had a chance to visit Berlin for just a couple of weeks. There I could immediately see the holism of the movement, which was something new in Hungary. Many of the NGOs were skeptical of politics. They said, “We’re environmentalists. We don’t want to have anything to do with politics.”


Julia Vass: I got involved in Zofi four-and-a-half years ago. So, I didn’t get involved as early as Gabor or Viktor. I was interested in how people in the movement were leading sustainable lives. I wanted to meet people who thought like this, who rode their bicycles, recycled, things like that. I met them at a meeting. I thought it was cool, and I liked it.


Were you living a Green life before you got involved with Zofi?


Julia Vass: Not so Green. But not so bad, either. But when I joined Zofi and learned about these things, my life became greener and greener.


Viktor Vida: The Communist regime said that environmentalism was more and more important. They said this, but they just wanted to use the issue because they were afraid of us. For example, when I was 13 years old, as a result of a group competition, I even went to an environmental camp in the countryside. And when I was in secondary grammar school, a teacher gave me many books, by Konrad Lorenz and others.

I was a punk and an activist from 1986 on. I was an anarchist. I was against the system. I wasn’t just interested in environmental issues. When I went to Budapest in 1995, I met Andras Lanyi, who gave a series of talks. One year later, in 1995, I entered a new program at university on human ecology. In 2004, Lanyi and others established Vedegylet (Protect the Future), and I became a member of that. I also became a member of the global justice movement. We went to Prague to join a demonstration against the IMF and World Bank. After that I became a member of Zofi. I also work for Radio Tilos, a kind of pirate radio station, doing a Green, anti-globalization program.


I’m interested in the development of Green parties. I remember people talking about founding a party in 1990. I understand that different parties emerged in Hungary with different political profiles. Why didn’t a German-style Green party emerge here at that time? Why did it take such a period of time before the Young Greens could organize themselves?


Gabor Csillag: I guess I should answer that since I work for a Green party at the moment, Dialogue for Hungary (PM), which split from Politics Can Be Different (LMP).

During the regime change, and Viktor knows more about this than I do, the awareness of environmental issues was not really deep. The symbol of protest was the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros dam. It was an opportunity to protest against something that was not directly political, so it was allowed. Although it sounds a bit paternalistic, I don’t think Hungarian society was really into environmental issues during that period. And the people who were vocal in that movement either went into mainstream parties and built their careers or they went into the NGO sector or they started establishing second-tier parties. There was basically a brain drain. The people who went into NGOs did really good work. Others did what I consider some shady stuff.

But the niche was not there to establish a Green Party. Our mission, at the turn of the millennium 20 years later, was to get people to understand the German Green approach to environment, human rights, and social justice issues. That just wasn’t there in the heads of people. I don’t think people were ready for a Germany-type party, maybe not even today.


Viktor Vida: When the Green activists tried to establish the first Green party in Hungary, it was already too late. They wanted to do it in 1990, but this project would have been successful if they had done it in 1988 or 1989. But 1990 was too late. As Gabor said, the most important people with a strong connection to environmental issues joined other parties by that time. When some people wanted a Green party, there was no one left.

In the 1990s, there was this little Green party, and the leader of it would go to many European countries saying he was the Hungarian Green from the Hungarian Green party. But he didn’t do any Green activities in Hungary. These little Green parties that existed before LMP, some of them were just a trick. The big parties wanted to stop a real Green party from emerging, so they established these unsuccessful parties. It kept the Greens quiet. We don’t have any proof of this, but we imagine that the Socialist Party had a CIA-like project to establish a little environmental party.


Gabor Csillag: In the elections, very few new parties were successful. Basically two parties managed to get into parliament. They set a high threshold (5 percent) for entering parliament. And they were pleased with Green parties getting one or two percent, never posing any significant political threat.


Viktor Vida: With these little Green parties in the 1990s, the same few people kept appearing again and again. I didn’t like these people. I didn’t know them. They smelled wrong.


Gabor Csillag: They never had serious credentials in the environmental movement.


Viktor Vida: And then along came LMP, which was a real Green movement, and also included human rights and social justice.


Tell me a little about Zofi. What made it different from other environmental groups?


Julia Vass: It was interesting to listen to them because I learned a lot!


Gabor Csillag: Zofi was completely unique.


Viktor Vida: The most important thing was that it was cool!


Gabor Csillag: It’s very satisfying what Julia said, that she came to Zofi and saw that it was cool. That was basically our mission, very consciously. Compared to other sectors, the environmental NGO sphere was very strong in Hungary, very well established, with a pretty good lobby, with some finances.


Viktor Vida: Zofi got cooler and cooler every year. We attracted people like Gabor who were talented and cool.


Gabor Csillag: Two things are important. We were open to other issues — to the global movement and to politics in general. We dealt with energy, with waste, with consumption. Also, Zofi had a totally different approach. It was grassroots. I remember one of the first times there was a gathering of Green NGOs. One of the founders and I we were on a panel in 2002. We suggested that we talk about gay/lesbian rights. And some people said, “But we’re environmentalists. We want to talk about the environment!” So, Zofi had a special mission: to bring in these issues and talk about the interconnectedness of issues.

The other thing was young people. Environmental NGOs had this uncool hippy image. Young people couldn’t relate to them. It was all these old, boring people. We started from zero. All of this we had to learn by ourselves. We started at the grassroots level and got young people involved.


Viktor Vida: In 2002, there were two organizations that thought about the environment — Zofi and Vedegylet. But there was a difference between the two. Zofi was younger and a little crazy. And they listened to music. In Vedegylet, activists were a little more boring.


Gabor Csillag: But much smarter than we are.


Julia Vass: They were very good, but boring.


Viktor Vida: Both were doing important and exciting things. Vedegylet was known all around the country. But Zofi was cool. In those years, Green activists looked up suddenly and said, “Hey, what’s this? Young people in the environmental movement in Hungary, what’s this?”


Gabor Csillag: It reenergized the environmental movement because there had been this institutionalization.

Another important thing to mention is the Social Forum movement, which began at the same time. When it started in Europe, in Florence, we had a chance to visit them. That was very energizing for us. I remember when we went to Florence and saw a million people on the street. We thought, “Wow! We can do this?” We had high hopes. Many people had high hopes for the Social Forum movement. It provided a bridge to start talking about global issues, like finance, and other stuff that wasn’t maybe as radical as gay lesbian stuff. It also legitimated these as Greenish issues. We organized busses to go there.


Viktor Vida: In Vedegylet, nobody went abroad to these demonstrations except me. Vedegylet was interested in globalization things and it had alternative economic opinions. But the leader, Andras Lanyi was a little bit afraid of this movement. The right-wing weekly newspaper here in Hungary did a two-page interview with me, and they couldn’t figure me out: he is Christian, but he goes abroad to this Communist demonstration; he’s a Green and he works at Radio Tilos, but he’s in this sort of conservative organization Vedegylet. After one or two years Gabor Scheiring joined Vedegylet — he’s now an MP – and he was interested in the Social Forums. But in the first years, no one went to Florence or London or Paris. The first Social Forum that Vedegylet attended was in Istanbul or Malmo.


How did you make Zofi cool? Everyone wants to know how to do that.


Gabor Csillag: I don’t think there’s a formula. You basically just need cool people — talented, creative people out there doing their stuff. You have to bring them in and get them involved. We were flexible. We didn’t have an agenda. We just asked them, “What do you want to do? Street art? We’ll do something with street art.” Eventually, you had people who were surprised to be there, like punks. The protest culture was developing in Hungary. We could take examples from the demonstrations. We also looked at media actions, at Greenpeace. We were thinking consciously and organically about how to get into the media, which was a big thing. It was difficult.

All these things brought in people with a background and creative ideas of their own. And it just started working. I don’t know how sustainable that was. When LMP was established there was a big problem. We ended up going separate ways. There had been a lot of cooperation between Vedegylet and Zofi. We did the actions and they did the research.


A creative partnership.


Gabor Csillag: Zofi grew up on partnership. We didn’t have any funds. We didn’t have any organization. We just found partners to work with, like the Energy Club, and so on. And that’s how we built an organization.


Julia Vass: Zofi changed a lot. But we acquired a good reputation. We were invited to many places.


Viktor Vida: The most successful and important project of Zofi was an exhibition about global problems called Mirror to the World. It was very cool. It started the golden age of Zofi. I am very proud that we made it. This exhibition still exists nowadays and goes to many Hungarian towns as a traveling exhibition. Many schools see it.


Gabor Csillag: It was project-based. There was no centralized planning. We said, “If you want to do a project, then go and do it.” And this was one of the most successful projects, which brought the right people together at the right time and managed to raise funds. But this was the beginning of the end. Once you become successful and want to grow, there’s a need for more structure, for specialized people who can do, for instance, fundraising. And I don’t think that we answered that question.


Can you describe the Mirror to the World project?


Julia Vass: It is a traveling exhibition and school workshops based on Manfred Max Neef’s human-scale development. The central theme of the exhibition:

What does a human being need in order to be happy, and how do those needs affect his or her environment?

To answer this question, 10 rooms have been thematically designed, following in the footsteps of the Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef’s philosophy. The names of the rooms are: Knowledge, Survival, Choice, Creation, Identity, Relaxation, Security, Love, Dream, and Participation. These rooms are meant to cause a person to think: How can one live a whole and happy life in such a way as to also live in harmony with nature and fellow human beings?

We invite children from school between the ages of 8 an 18, and we provide them with an interactive guide. We sit down and talk with them about the topics of the rooms. We don’t want to really guide them. We just want to talk with them and ask their thoughts, ideas…. This method – global education — is quite new for them. In school, the teacher teaches, and they don’t really ask the children anything. So it is quite new for them.


The interaction?


Julia Vass: Yes.


Viktor Vida: There are three very important things about this exhibition. It has up-to-date knowledge. It has a very lovely and cool design. And it has this interactive pedagogy.


Julia Vass: We went to the big cities in Hungary. We also went to Brussels and to the European parliament.


Viktor Vida: This exhibition was built from paper. It can be moved easily. The company that gave this paper helped the exhibition.


Julia Vass: We work together with a company, and Zofi does the pedagogy part. It’s been really popular and it is really professional. And it’s great for schools, because it’s free for them although nowadays it is not easy to find financial support.


Viktor Vida: If we look at these two organizations, Zofi and Vedegylet, after 13 years, we see that one is successful and the other not so successful. Zofi wanted a big global revolution in social justice. But this revolution didn’t happen. The world changed, and there came other movements after the big economic crisis, like the Occupy movement. Still, from Zofi came from many important things.

Vedegylet secretly wanted a Green party. And it successfully made one: LMP. This new Green party wanted to make connections with many people. If you want to reach enough people you need to be cool. And Vedegylet couldn’t do that by itself.


Gabor Csillag: Obviously LMP was in the right place at the right time. For the first time the environmental organizations were on board. They weren’t enthusiastic, but they were on board. They said, “We are not so enthusiastic, but we will not do anything against you.” But it attracted some key people. Javor Benedek, one of the heads of Vedegylet, had credentials. LMP needed the actual knowhow. If you want to go into politics, you need the intellectual knowhow and a political base. Vedegylet provided that — it had the scholars, the researchers. It also needed to know how to communicate with people. And Zofi was very good at that. We had to focus on communicating because we didn’t have any money. There were people in Zofi with professional marketing experience and that helped LMP very much.


Viktor Vida: There was another party before LMP — established by the leader of Vedegylet, Andras Lanyi — but it was not a successful project. That was in 2006.


Gabor Csillag: In 2006, Andras thought there was an opportunity. He tried to get all the same people on board, and it didn’t work out. He tried to get the NGO movement behind him, and that didn’t work out. Javor Benedek wrote about this. We kept writing to each other in the public sphere — is it the right time for another Green party, or isn’t it? After the flop of Andras’ party in 2007-8, we started working on LMP for the European parliament elections in 2009. By the time of the elections, we’d been working on it already for 18 months.


People talk about how polarized Hungarian politics. Even LMP, which was supposed to be the answer to polarization, itself became polarized. What do you think is the future of Hungarian politics?


Gabor Csillag: The vision of LMP, which we shared, was to transcend the Right-Left split. In Hungary, people called themselves Right but they weren’t really Right, and vice versa. It didn’t make much sense. At the global level as well, there was a restructuring of parties. So there was the idea that maybe these were not the categories that best described what was happening in the world. This was the original vision of LMP shared by Javor and myself.

And that failed. Actually, it failed miserably. It failed for structural reasons, and because it was really a mistake. The structural reason was that the two-thirds majority of Fidesz and the electoral system forced you to take sides, literally. Our plan was to be a third party that didn’t deal with Right and Left, to get people to come together and to work on a third path. But this system made it literally impossible. That was the big political split.

But there was a cultural aspect to it as well. Our wonderful idea of bringing people together from Left and Right and of developing some sort of synthesis was very good at an intellectual level, and we could do it as long as we were an NGO. I can bring things in from the Right and from the Left into a philosophy on an intellectual level. And also in person, I could bring people together from Right and Left to go out for beers. But to do that on a massive scale, you need lots of time and a structure that accommodates that. We just brought these people together who didn’t like each other, didn’t speak the same language culturally, and were very suspicious of each other. The organizational team building requires lots of energy and lots of time. We didn’t have enough time. We started LMP, and immediately we had an election campaign. We didn’t have time to have beers and talk about things. But if you don’t do that, you end up where we ended up.

To this day, I don’t have any solution for this. The timeframe of elections doesn’t allow for a lot of horizontal conversations. I still haven’t given up on the dream of getting people talking and achieving some sort of synthesis. I don’t think that Left and Right is a natural way of describing the world. But when and if this will be possible, I don’t know.


Viktor Vida: The LMP people are very clever people but not good politicians. The idea that we will save Hungary alongside the former Socialist party can’t work. Everybody sees that this was not successful. I said then that it wouldn’t work. It’s not a good idea.

I worked last year with the Heinrich Boll Foundation. They came here to Hungary and we did a project called Hungarian Octopus.


Gabor Csillag: An octopus with the tentacles of corruption.


Viktor Vida: The Boll Foundation didn’t bring here very much money, but they wanted to collect many people and organizations in one place. They wanted to help build a new movement against the Orban regime. But we didn’t know that this was the project aim. I told them that it wouldn’t work. Hungary tried be a new democratic country 23 years ago. But you can’t be democratic without a bourgeoisie, without people who are owners. In Hungary everyone fears the future and looks up to the father figure. They are always waiting for things from powerful people at the top. It’s a failed project.


Gabor Csillag: It comes down at the end of the day — and this is why LMP failed – to: can you imagine another four years of Viktor Orban? If you had told me two years ago that I would be working for the previous prime minister Gordon Bajnai, I would have laughed at you. I wouldn’t have been even angry because I would have just laughed. But in this electoral system there is just one question: do you want more four more years of Viktor Orban? If you don’t, then you have to have a coalition. And that coalition can only be on the Left because it can’t be on the Right.

Inside PM there are a variety of opinions. On one side is the opinion that we have always been Left so let’s be on the Left. Let’s go back to the new Left.


Viktor Vida: Okay, but not with Bajnai!


Gabor Csillag: Javor and I still maintain the dream that one day we’ll transcend Left and Right. But if we stay out of this whole negotiating with the former Socialists, we are guaranteed another four years of Orban, and the Greens will get blamed for it. I didn’t want to take on that responsibility. It was a personal choice for most of us. Everybody thought it was a career decision, that we all wanted was to get into parliament. I’m fine with that. Looking from the outside, maybe I would think that as well. But it just came down to whether we want to build this Green alternative or squash it. If you don’t have a chance to do that, what do you do? Stick to your guns and say we don’t care what happens in larger politics?


Viktor Vida: You can’t have a democracy without a middle class.


Gabor Csillag: But the question is whether you can go forward with the Green agenda under an Orban regime, and I think you can’t. If you look at what people are doing, it’s clear that for the Green movement, things have never been this bad. I personally distrust the Socialists, because of my personal background. But there’s no way of moving forward with an environmental program under the current regime.


What do you think of this disagreement?


Julia Vass: Three years ago I was an LMP supporter because it was quite new. Now I don’t know. I’m just trying to collect information and listen to different people. I don’t know LMP’s future.


Do you think this is an inevitable reality for Green parties? Certainly in the Green Party in Germany there was the same debate over whether to compromise, between the realos and fundos. There’s been a great change in Germany on sustainable energy, so the Greens have won on this issue: even the far Right in Bavaria supports sustainable energy. But you could say that the Greens have lost their initial multi-issue agenda in favor of winning on specific issues.


Viktor Vida: In Hungary, nuclear energy was not the main topic in the Green movement. We had a different topic: the Danube and the Nagymaros dam project. Since 1982, this is the main theme in the Green movement. And we also won. Ildiko Lendvai, former leader of the Socialist Party, gave an interview to the Hungarian station ATV, and she talked about the three biggest mistakes the Socialist Party made. The first she said was to agree in 1998 to build the Nagymaros dam. In 1998 50,000 people protested on Kossuth Square in front of parliament. This was the first thing she said. So, we won. But we are afraid that one day the government will change its mind and build this dam. But Viktor Orban said that the anti-dam movement was a very important protest against the Communist regime, so we won’t build it.


Gabor Csillag: Two points. Partly it’s unavoidable that this discussion about politics would happen sooner or later. The reason we’re having it sooner is because Fidesz drastically changed the electoral system. If they hadn’t, LMP would have been successful in building a third pole in Hungarian politics. That’s devastating for the Greens. Obviously we in PM think that we made the right decision to continue to do Green politics to create a lifeboat for environmentalists who can again get into parliament. If you ask me now to make a prediction, I would say that LMP won’t get into the next parliament. The only group will be us to take that agenda forward. If you look at the contract that PM signed with Bajnai, I could give you five examples of policies we support that we got them to agree to. You can call it pragmatic. But that’s what politics is about — specific issues and specific aims.


Viktor Vida: But where are you now? Where is PM now?


Gabor Csillag: I don’t think PM or Bajnai is doing badly.


Viktor Vida: You said that one of the biggest problems in Hungary is the polarization between Left and Right. Many people have pointed out that this problem arises out of the traumas that Hungarians experienced in the 20th century. They never apologized or said it was their mistake. When Jewish people died in World War II, when Nazis shot them in the Danube, Hungarians didn’t say to each other that “I did these things because I was afraid of being shot.” There were Hungarian Jews and there were Hungarians who were with the Nazis. And the Holocaust was just one thing. There were many other problems in the 20th century, including the Communist regime. In the 1990s, after the 1989 revolution, everybody had big hopes and dreams about political life, but this life was poisoned by this 20th-century history. And we never said these things to each other. We are still living in this 20th century.


Gabor Csillag: There was no reconciliation, no national reckoning at all. People from both sides manipulate this history all the time. We are all still in thrall to these 20th-century problems.


Viktor Vida: When LMP started, we said, “Be careful. If you choose Right or Left, you will replay again and again this stupid political game.” And they did. Gordon Bajnai versus Viktor Orban? Oh my god. I spoke to many members of LMP, and I asked one of the most talented women, a very young girl who organized the most important demonstration for PM, “Why do you want to work with Gordon Bajnaj, the former Socialist prime minister?” And she answered, “Viktor, many people have died on the streets.” Didn’t she think that people died on the streets before 2010 when the Socialist Party was in power?

The main problem is the economic crisis, which is still going on. Half of Hungarian people are living in poverty. How can we work with these people in a democracy?


Gabor Csillag: This is one of the most insensitive governments toward poor people ever.


Viktor Vida: In 2011 there was a big EU project to develop a deeper channel for the Danube so that the ships can navigate it. If this project went forward, it would disrupt the very important water basin near the Danube. This basin gives fresh water to many millions of people in Hungary. And we couldn’t stop this project with Zoltan Illes, the government minister. LMP and Zoltan Illes of Fidesz fought side by side. But who will come after Illes if he is fired? A worse man.


Gabor Csillag: How come you are so pragmatic when you are dealing with Illes? What happened to sticking to your ideals?


Viktor Vida: LMP had ideas. LMP had hope. Zoltan Illes knows the party where he is working. It’s not LMP. The main problem is not Orban and Fidesz. It’s the political culture in this country. The Hungarian people are demobilized, depoliticized. They don’t take part in politics, and not just party politics.


Gabor Csillag: In my activist subculture, they ask, “Did you do everything you could to get rid of Viktor Orban?”


Viktor Vida: The main problem is not Viktor Orban. Tomorrow, Orban will go away. Who will come after this man? If we have Gordon Bajnai, what will be changed? Nothing. The Left party implemented neoliberal politics. Many people became poor because of the neoliberal politics of the 1990s and 2000s. We need to change this. If we want to change this neoliberal politics, we can’t work with former Socialist politicians. Because we will not be successful. Because the Hungarian people are not intellectuals.


Gabor Csillag: If we didn’t make this alliance, LMP would have just dropped out of politics. People would just vote for another four years of Viktor Orban. We could be very proud of ourselves because we were true to ourselves and our Green politics. But people don’t tend to give these ideologies a second chance. Maybe something new would emerge, but it would have to prove itself, to prove that it can stick around. But the Green party could disappear for another 30 years.


What do you think?


Julia Vass: I really don’t know. I am not so deep into this debate.


We’re talking about how polarized the situation is here in Hungary. When you do your day-to-day work, do you encounter this polarization?


Julia Vass: Of course. It’s really bad and sad. People don’t talk to each other on the other side. I don’t know if this is just in Hungary. The Western world also seems divided between Left and Right.


Viktor Vida: The bad thing is that Hungarians who are in the Green movement don’t really know who is Left and who is Right.


Gabor Csillag: I don’t think that’s true. It was never an open topic.


Viktor Vida: I never met this topic in the Hungarian Green movement. The Hungarian environmental movement was never Right or Left. In the 1990s, people had enough of this stupid Left and Right and decided that they would go into the Green movement and work on many important things, like saving the trees or fighting against nuclear energy.


Gabor Csillag: I disagree with this. When we expanded the topics of Green thinking and started to talk about things besides animal protection, it definitely encountered a backlash. People said, “Why are we talking about gays and lesbians or minority rights, and what do we have to do with the poor?”

The Green movement was a good place for dialogue, to be open-minded. I personally got to know people from a completely different cultural background, and we could talk about many things on an individual level. I would go out on a limb and say that culturally Zofi was very Left because of its engagement with feminism, anarchism.


Viktor Vida: When I was active in Zofi, nobody in the environmental movement said to me stupid things like, “Why do you fight for gay lesbian issues?” Nobody. But later when some people in LMP want to work with Gordon Bajnai, Greens on the other side went crazy.


Ronald Inglehart did surveys in the 1970s and 1980s on people identifying as Left and Right. In the 1980s, people started to abandon the old identifications — in part because of the growth of Green parties, but it wasn’t just Green parties. It was partly a cultural shift. In 1992, I wrote that what happened in Eastern Europe in 1990 was in part a confirmation of this trend. There was an expectation that we would see a very different politics after the Cold War. But when I come back here I find some of the same debates as the 1980s and 1990s.


Viktor Vida: Did people in the West have hopes that people in the East would be the ones who would have a new politics? The Left-Right fight was real before the transition in the 1980s. The underground political movement fought each other. They went abroad and said bad things about each other. Anybody hoping that there wouldn’t be Left and Right in Hungary after 1989 was foolish.


Martin Simecka told me about a meeting he went to in Berlin after 1989 and everyone was waiting for him to tell them what the new politics would be. And he told them, “I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t have anything new to tell you.” I have the same hopes that you have that we can move to a different politics, but I also realize that the current polarization makes that difficult.


Viktor Vida: Because of the economic crisis in this country the democratic project has failed. Everyday I work on a different project. Some weeks I try to save trees in Kossuth Square. Other weeks I want to save the forests outside Budapest. Or to save the Danube. But I don’t have any hope about this.


Gabor Csillag: I know what to think about this. There’s a priority to get rid of Viktor Orban. The other priority is to keep the Green flame alive. Green politics can be established in Hungary on a strong basis for an enduring period of time. But the priorities have to be in that order. There is no other order. You can’t have the second without the first.


Viktor Vida: After 1989, the Eastern bloc was very proud. In Hungary we many times said that we are not Latin America. After 23 years, we wake up from our dream of democracy. We wake up from our dream that we will live like Austrians, with their big cars and big flats. We wake up and we see that we are Latin America. The leaders of the Western countries treat us like Latin American countries. If you work at Audi in Gyor, you earn five times less than if you work in Germany at the same Audi company. And this is only a few kilometers away. After the big revolution in 1989, we never imagined that this would be the reality in 2013.


And Hungary and Austria are not even two separate countries but part of the same economic space, in the European Union, an institution that was previously committed to equalizing the situation between countries.


Viktor Vida: In the 1980s, there was another idea — not just the EU but also the common European home. It was a big lie. And not just in Hungary. It was a lie for Russia. Come into the common European house! Instead it became the EU and NATO.

This year, in January, I was fired from my job — not because of Orban but because of the EU. We had five big projects in the EU funded by grants we’d gotten. Every grant failed. So, I was on the street, with a wife and children. We didn’t have enough money. I had two choices. I could go with my wife and children back to Gyor to where my mother lives in a apartment bloc. Or I could find some work. One day I spoke with Zoltan Illes in the ministry. He said to me that when he was young he was a member of many Green organizations in 1990 and 1991. He recommended that I work at this governmental institute. So that’s where I am working now.


Gabor Csillag: Very pragmatic.


How much has your philosophy changed since 1990?


Julia Vass: I come from a conservative family. Half of them are right-wing Fidesz voters, and the other half is liberal. When I started working with Zofi and meeting people, I changed my direction. I started to reexamine things. I read a lot, talked to people.


Do you feel like you’re still in that process of changing direction?


Julia Vass: I’m still in the process. But I’m much clearer about what I want and how I think.


Gabor Csillag: For me it’s two things. Politically, all the dreams that we had have failed. On the one hand, we see the organic continuation of everything that has happened. On the other hand, it’s obviously worse, no longer what a democracy should be about. For me personally I’m really a product of my upbringing. I grew up in the States where I got a different socialization than most Hungarians. I got involved in politics very late. Zofi was my initial stage. It was grassroots, a small horizontal organization. You see what works and doesn’t work, and you want to go further. I went further with Vedegylet with political lobbying and so on. Then you see that decisions are made at a different level. That’s when some of us decided to go into politics. Once you’re in politics, you see what works and what doesn’t work. Now I’m in the professional political community, with all the downsides. But I don’t see an alternative. I still believe in the grassroots. I still believe that people should be involved in democracy. I believe that people have to get active.

We have a historic responsibility here in Central Europe to make democracy work. I don’t want democracy to flop here. That would lead to a debacle. But I also see that people are coming around very quickly. Issues that we previously only dreamt about — and were laughed at when we wrote about them at first — are completely mainstream now. I’ll continue in Green politics. I just don’t know whether that’s good or bad.


Viktor Vida: I’m very proud about the LMP project. I don’t know what will happen with LMP in the next election, but I think it’s not a big problem if we have to leave parliament. The issues and ideas that were established by this party are the most important thing, not whether it’s in parliament or outside. Maybe these issues and ideas will become more and more important in the future.

I see that the businessmen and the politicians want to destroy everything in this country. I see it in Budapest. There are no rules. It’s not about Orban and Fidesz. It’s every party except LMP and PM.

When I was young, I wanted to save the world. But I am now 38 and I want to raise my children. I’ll let other people save the world. I want to save the trees on the Kossuth Square, the forests, and the Danube. The Fidesz party will win the next election. And this is not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the system. And I’m very pessimistic. I’m sorry about this because I want to be optimistic. I believe in participatory democracy, in social justice, in God. I go every Sunday to church. Three of four times Viktor Orban also comes to church and makes the old ladies happy.


When you look back to 1990s and everything that has changed in Hungary or not changed from that period until today, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?


Gabor Csillag: 5


Julia Vass: 4


Viktor Vida: 2


Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?


Gabor Csillag: 9


Julia Vass: 9


Viktor Vida: 4


Looking into the near future, the next two or three years, how do you evaluate the prospects for the country, on a scale fro 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?


Gabor Csillag: 3


Julia Vass: 4


Viktor Vida: 6


Budapest, August 1, 2013


Blog Eastern Europe Featured Uncategorized

The Future of Social Movements

Throughout East-Central Europe during the Communist period, social movements were on the margins, repressed by the governments, declared illegal. The exception was Yugoslavia in the 1980s where the women’s movement, the peace movement, and other groups not only operated in the open but had some impact on public policy. This was particularly the case in Slovenia. In 1990, for instance, I was astonished to learn that 40 groups were working on the transformation of a military barracks in the middle of the capital Ljubljana into an alternative political and entertainment space.

But when I visited Ljubljana in the summer of that year, sociologist and social movement activist Tomaz Mastnak told me that I’d already missed the heyday of the social movements. Already by that time, political parties were occupying the public space, and Mastnak was lamenting the degeneration of the political discourse.

When I met with him again in Ljubljana in the summer of 2013, I asked him about the eclipse of the social movements at that time.

“We saw the marginalization of the movements,” he told me as we sat at one of Ljubljana’s many outdoor cafes in the downtown. “I believed at the time that they had ‘fulfilled their historical mission.’ They didn’t have much potential to continue to play an important role in politics because the political space had changed dramatically. All their activities were amateur, voluntary, and strictly independent, at least among the people I was working with. The groups I was involved with were not on the pay list of any services here or abroad. It was volunteer activity. The role of the moral element was big. People thought that they needed to do them because it was the right thing to do, not for career reasons.”

The historical mission was, of course, the transition of Slovenian society to some form of democratic rule. Social movements didn’t disappear from Slovenia. Some groups became professionalized, like the Peace Institute. Other voluntary organizations continued, particularly among the younger generation. But they no longer had the prominence or influence they enjoyed during that brief period in the 1980s.

Over the last 23 years, however, new social movements have emerged around the world to address economic equality (Occupy, the indignados), authoritarian rule (Arab Spring), and a range of civil rights issues (LGBT organizing). These social movements don’t have a common political agenda but they do share a skepticism toward political elites.

“Across the globe, from Chile to the United States, from Spain to Turkey, people are angry and fed up with the current political class,” Mastnak observed. “The global political class has lost its legitimacy. I don’t remember even in the worst years of the Communist period anything comparable in terms of the disdain, the hostility, or the disgust with politics. It’s very hard to expect that any new vision could come out of this political class. Even if it did come, it’s hard to imagine that the population, which has become so disillusioned with politics, would accept it.”

These reactions have not (yet) crystalized in a demand for new political structures. “There are mental shifts in the population about what they want and what they value, which are not necessarily articulated in organizational forms,” he continued. “In Egypt what we see now is a popular uprising against democracy, because democracy has become a system that is unaccountable to the electorate. The purest form of this unaccountable politics is the drone democracy of Obama. This involves secret decisions far beyond the reach of public oversight and that have life-and-death consequences for many people. We are unprepared to think about political and economic responses when democracy, the hegemonic model for the last 200 years, seems to be in deep difficulty.”

Mastnak has published an incisive book on how the history of anti-Turkish sentiment has shaped Europe’s understanding of itself. He has also served as the director of the UN’s Office of the Alliance of Civilizations. He now teaches at UC-Irvine. I asked him whether he would ever consider entering politics.

“Given my expertise, I think that what I could do, which was more important than sitting in an office in government or parliament, has been try to guard the political language,” he replied. “The political language was treated very badly these past 23 years. My parallel is with the grammarians in late antiquity after the Christian emperors took over and dissolved all the schools. They saw themselves as the guardians of the language. They succeeded. Much of what we think and speak is due to their efforts. They saw something very far away but essential.”


The Interview


Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?


I was in Berlin.


Really? Was that just a coincidence?


It was not just a coincidence. I spent a lot of time then in the region, and it was a good time to travel around — as you remember yourself. For instance, I was in Prague for the meetings at the Magic Lantern Theater during the Velvet Revolution.


Were you there as an observer?


Yes. One of my memories, even after the Wall fell and the masses were going across the border into East Germany, I was turned back at the border by the German police. No one could believe that this could happen! There was no explanation. Perhaps it was because I had contacts with the GDR opposition. Once before I was not allowed to enter East Berlin from West Berlin — I was turned away at the border and they had to drive us back to the airport to fly us out. That was in 1988 or so. I remember the wide avenues in East Berlin at that time were all empty. It was a scary feeling. You didn’t see anyone, and you knew that you were being observed.


Yes, it was like a de Chirico painting — long streets with maybe only one person on them, usually running away. What impact did you think the fall of the Berlin Wall would have on Yugoslavia? Or were you just thinking about the German context?


We thought, those of us in social movements, about the democratic opposition as a movement across borders. Their success was our success. It was an exciting time. I don’t remember having any serious reflections on what it could mean for Yugoslavia. But it was a breakthrough. It was a vindication of the struggles of the previous decades, going back to 1953 in East Germany. But it was not a time when many people had time to reflect on the meaning of what was happening. There was also some democratic triumphalism involved. Soon afterwards, the weaknesses of the movements that triumphed with the fall of the Wall became clear. I’m not talking about secret agreements at a high level. But just looking at the moment where I was involved, there were many blind spots, and very soon those became clear. But still it was great to witness this historical moment.


I missed it. I left Poland in July 1989. I passed through Prague in August 1989, and nothing was happening. So I watched all the changes that happened in fall 1989 on TV. Then I returned to the region in March 1990. At the time I interviewed you, you were working on social movements. We talked about new social movements here in Slovenia and the relationship between these movements and the new political parties. When I was in Ljubljana in summer 1990, 40 groups alone were working on the conversion of the military barracks at Metelkova. It was such a small country and a small city, and yet there were so many civic groups. Some people here dismissed this by saying that the civil society scene had been much more vibrant before. Others agreed that it was quite remarkable. Did you see the marginalization of these new social movements and the emergence of new and different movements in the early 1990s?


We saw the marginalization of the movements. I believed at the time that they had “fulfilled their historical mission.” They didn’t have much potential to continue to play an important role in politics because the political space had changed dramatically. All their activities were amateur, voluntary, and strictly independent, at least among the people I was working with. The groups I was involved with were not on the pay list of any services here or abroad. It was volunteer activity. The role of the moral element was big. People thought that they needed to do them because it was the right thing to do, not for career reasons.

With the fall of the old regime, the political landscape changed. The marginalization of the movements was the result of the change not the cause of it. The policies from then on were going to be professional. People would soon become interested in politics in order to make a living. The people involved in the movements were for the most part incapable of doing this kind of political work, sitting in parliament and making compromises. And all kinds of people came to the forefront who had been completely silent during the period of democratic upheaval. Many of these people in Slovenia had their own vendettas to pursue or who felt that they had been victimized under the previous regime (the majority had not been). Anti-Communists came to the fore. Ironically in Slovenia, anti-Communism emerged after the fall of Communism. The social movements were not pro-Communist, but no one really cared about anti-Communism in that sense. It was irrelevant. We were alternative. We wanted to create new forms of political action. But new people came to politics who were bitter and hostile. Emigrants returned, quite a lot of them, and some of them had been collaborators with fascism. It became ugly.

There was this Ivan Kramberger, a politician. He was a humanitarian. He made some money and entered politics. He ran for president. He was a completely apolitical man, with no program. He had an ape on his arm. He was killed. They shot him.


Who shot him?


No one knows. He began to attract too much public attention and support. This was in the early 1990s. There were different stories depending on whether you were talking to followers of one party or another. It was a very bad sign. No one took the assassination very seriously either. It was just pushed aside. But it was a sign of the new realities. Life became very dangerous. Under totalitarianism, basically we were safe. I had to face a trial twice. But it was a trial. I was not kidnapped.


It was not the 1950s.


And it was not the 1990s either! The mafia came in, and all the negative sides of the transition began to appear. This was the direction in which things began to move.

I supported the formation of the parties because I thought it was a necessary step. But I was not involved in them. I pulled out of politics. I decided that I wouldn’t do that any more. I decided not to continue with the same kind of activity I was involved in before or to change and become a politician. The social movements were out. Some nostalgia about the “good old days” remained, but that wasn’t very helpful.


You said 23 years ago that social movements also had a profound cultural impact throughout the region, but particularly in Slovenia. On feminism and gay/lesbian issues, people’s attitudes changed here in a way they didn’t change in Romania, for instance. What happened to that kind of energy?


Some of that – feminism and the gay movement — was irreversible. There still are homophobic scandals. You have that anywhere. But the movements had a lasting effect. Another big issue of the 1980s was anti-militarism, which had a big impact on public attitudes toward the army and organized violence. That changed with Slovenia becoming a new state and the argument that it needed an army. In the first parliament, there was still quite a strong position that Slovenia should be demilitarized. That didn’t succeed. It was overridden by the new responsibilities of the state.

Another important change was in the attitudes toward immigrants and refugees from the war in former Yugoslavia, especially Bosnia. In the first years the welcome was incredible. People were taken in. But the change came with the consistent activity of very small parties. They changed the public attitude. On the one hand, the state administered a genocide with the Erased. The authorities were not brave enough to shed blood to tie the country together. But there was this constitutive crime that was very cohesive for the new elite. And they succeeded in building public support for the military. On the other hand, with the war dragging on and the xenophobic activities of small parties in parliament, which was tolerated by the liberal government, the public attitudes changed. There was a cultural impact, but to believe that the changes were so profound was a misjudgment.

One of the things we talked about in Slovenia, though not so much in other parts of Yugoslavia, was the totalitarian potential in civil society. And that came very much to the fore with the fall of Communism.


I talked with Marko Hren, who was quite optimistic about the potential of anti-militarist organizing in that first parliament. He believes that the only reason the movement didn’t succeed was because it lacked information that the executive had about the planned intervention into Slovenia of the JNA and the federal government. The government used that as a rationale for rejecting the demilitarization of Slovenia.


But that was not the case. The initiative for the demilitarization of Slovenia was discussed in parliament after Slovenia had established its independence. It wasn’t in response to the Yugoslav army. At that point there was no support among the parties for that option. The Greens were for it, and the Greens were quite strong still, but apart from that, all the big parties were learning what realpolitik meant. Once you are in office, you embrace realpolitik. They didn’t want to expose themselves by supporting such infantile or childish initiatives. The movements were already out at that time, and the parties were not supporting it.


Do you think public sentiment, to the extent that you could judge public sentiment, was in favor of demilitarization?


It could have gone either way. Maybe that’s an over-optimistic view. I’m speculating but it might have succeeded with a strong PR campaign, which at that time no one was able to do. The Slovene army was of course the symbol of the state. But no one really took the Slovene army seriously — even before we began to send our soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq.


The justification of the army became much different. At this point, NATO would not tolerate the demilitarization of Slovenia.


Of course not. That was also before Slovenia joined NATO. Now Slovenia is a member. Even with a strong public movement for opting out of NATO, it would have been hard to do anything.


Back in 1990, we talked about the confederation and federation options for Yugoslavia. Your position at the time was that the most important thing was to avoid bloodshed, and the question of state structure was a secondary question. Looking back, do you think that there were opportunities, between 1990 and the summer of 1991, when bloodshed could have been minimized with the transition in Yugoslavia? Or do you think it was largely inevitable as a result of the actions of Milosevic and Tudjman?


I still believe, but I could be completely wrong — though we’ll be able to find out when the archives are open — that a strong stance by the so-called international community in the last month before the war broke out could have made a big difference. But it was not forthcoming. The international community actually supported the disintegration of the federal state for very different reasons, including misinformation and stupidity. And the international community and the big international players that intervened in Yugoslavia actually incited violence. They played into the hands of those who wanted to unleash violence. It was an awful time, a very difficult historical moment. The question of war was more in the hands of the international community than in the hands of the players here in Yugoslavia. Those international players either failed or they succeeded in their aims — it’s a question of perspective whether they wanted to do certain things or whether it was unintentional.


Realistically speaking, the international community was not a well-oiled mechanism. We were talking largely about the United States and Germany.


After almost 25 years, I’m beginning to believe that the Germans had plans dating back to 1942-3 when it was thinking about how to organize huge economic spaces in Europe. They also made contingency plans for the defeat of the German army. Maybe I’m exaggerating because of my deep aversion to German politics today. But it’s worth looking at Germany’s plans for European economic organization from the first year of World War II.


There was certainly continuity in some of the people from the Nazi period to the post-Nazi period.


Yes. I’m sure Germany played a big role that was not so obvious to us as NGO actors. The United States was more on the surface, more transparent. The ex-ambassador to Belgrade admitted that he was fooled. I think he was sincere, but that’s not a compliment to U.S. politics at the time. France had very strange politics with Mitterand still in place. Mitterand was very good and brave in what he did. The Brits, with Hurd and different lords and their plans: each peace plan was a disaster and aggravated the situation. The British couldn’t get out of their colonial mindset. It was a sad chapter in the history of British colonialism.


Do you think there was sufficient precedent in international law at the time to justify an actual intervention to prevent violence? We have the precedent now with the Right to Protect, but I don’t want to project that into the past.


I would rather not project it into the future either! I don’t know, honestly speaking. But I believe — and we’re in the sphere of belief here – that a strong enough political stance from the West would have sufficed. I don’t think one would need to talk or think about intervention at that stage. It eventually came to an intervention, which I don’t think was very successful.


At the time you also said that one of the major reasons you didn’t support Slovenian independence in 1990 was because it would leave Kosovo to the Serbs. As we saw, that unfortunately transpired. Was there anything that a small country like Slovenia could have been done as Yugoslavia was disintegrating to have prevented what happened in Bosnia and Kosovo?


Slovenia at that stage could have played a much bigger in international politics because of its knowledge of the region — if it had had a clear stance toward what was happening. Instead of developing such politics and engaging with European players, our politicians began to get carried away with joining Europe and escaping the Balkans. They were caught up in the worst possible fantasies. So, it was a politics that missed an opportunity. Slovenia itself was very fortunate. But after that, it seems that it lost its compass.


Or perhaps it lost its compass because it was lucky.


Yes, because Slovenia was lucky, it had to pay for that. The goddess Fortune is very capricious.


When you look at the region right now, do you see any prospects of countries here reestablishing Yugoslavia: not in name but in an on-the-ground reality through transportation and commercial links.


I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it. It depends on what will happen with the EU. Some kind of a tighter community might reemerge in this space of former Yugoslavia. But at the same time we should not suppose that the European context will remain the same down the line. Everything might fall apart, and not just in this region here.


Yes, many people talk about this possibility, both positively and negatively. I’ve talked to people who see Brussels as overly bureaucratic, even authoritarian, the same as Moscow was for Eastern Europe. That’s the language of Vaclav Klaus and the more nationalist parties in the region. Do you think that the EU has weathered its crisis, even though the EU has seemingly abandoned its earlier principles of equitable development? Can it reestablish its equilibrium?


It can reestablish its equilibrium. The question is what will that equilibrium mean. It’s not necessarily a desirable goal. My concern is not bureaucratization. Any political community needs good bureaucracy, good administration.

Also, authoritarianism is not necessarily my top objection to the EU. If you look at what is happening in southern Europe, I would tend to agree with those who see this as a form of colonialism. Greece is a colonized state. What is happening in Greece is incomprehensible. These political moves are incomprehensible within any democratic political framework. A half-informal body somewhere appoints the governments without elections. This is not a democratic deficit. This is the end of democracy. They’re taking out the basic constitutive element of politics.

This is very serious, and it hasn’t been given the attention it deserves. They say that it’s the financial crisis. But the financial crisis is the result of a certain political economic development that has run its course, exhausted its potential. There is no one in the EU that I see who has an understanding, much less a vision, of what is going on. There is a deep need for remodeling how we live. But they are just trying to resolve a crisis. They employ more and more violence and surveillance to accomplish this. I don’t fear authoritarianism. I fear totalitarianism. When you take out the mechanisms of democratic politics, you have unaccountable politics and an attempt to maintain an unsustainable order.


Where would you expect the impulse for remodeling to come from? These days, Euroskepticism is on the rise. Where would we find people of vision comparable to the architects of European integration? Do you expect this impulse to come from a certain layer of society or a constellation of countries that have had the experience of this democratic reversal and economic austerity?


I’d like to go back to what you said about the vision of the architects of integration. The question is: how good was that vision? They started talking about coal and steel in the 1950s. But coal and steel was already a vision of the 19th century. So their initial vision was already backward-looking, behind the economic development going on in Europe after World War II, which was a big reorganization following the Fordist and partly Keynesian approach of the United States. This initial vision should be reconsidered.

The question of where a different vision can come from is a very difficult one. Across the globe, from Chile to the United States, from Spain to Turkey, people are angry and fed up with the current political class. The global political class has lost its legitimacy. I don’t remember even in the worst years of the Communist period anything comparable in terms of the disdain, the hostility, or the disgust with politics. It’s very hard to expect that any new vision could come out of this political class. Even if it did come, it’s hard to imagine that the population, which has become so disillusioned with politics, would accept it.

But there are mental shifts in the population about what they want and what they value, which are not necessarily articulated in organizational forms. In Egypt what we see now is a popular uprising against democracy, because democracy has become a system that is unaccountable to the electorate. The purest form of this unaccountable politics is the drone democracy of Obama. This involves secret decisions far beyond the reach of public oversight and that have life-and-death consequences for many people. We are unprepared to think about political and economic responses when democracy, the hegemonic model for the last 200 years, seems to be in deep difficulty.


And it’s combined with deep difficulties in the economic system. This model that was triumphant after 1989 has hit a crisis in both its major elements. At the time, many of us were arguing that there were deep contradictions between these two elements, the market and democracy, that would lead to the disintegration of the model. One of our critiques at that time was that we were embracing technocracy by ceding all responsibility to a group of professionals who would run politics, with a thin layer of watchdog organizations trying to hold these technocrats accountable. But the technocrats haven’t turned out to be honest and the watchdogs haven’t turned out to be sufficient. So where are we now with this critique of technocracy?


Now we have serious politicians promoting technocratic governments. But technocratic governments are not de facto elected. It’s not a question of electing a technocratic government through democratic methods. It’s an imposition against the democratic process. It’s a cousin to the idea that financial speculators know what they are doing with their models and algorithms. One cannot have trust in that. The results, as we can all see, are disastrous.


Do you see any promising alternatives in terms of political structures?


No. There’s a lot of talk of direct democracy, which I’m sympathetic to as applied to small gatherings. But it’s irrelevant in the broader, global context. More hopeful, especially in the countries that have been hit hardest by the crisis, is a rediscovery of solidarity structures. Maybe something will come out of that. People are also beginning to realize that the really serious issues cannot be solved or dealt with by the markets. We need if not the state then some kind of public authority that replaces the state. The potential of the market at this time is very limited. The really difficult issues require the intervention of public authority.


It requires the intervention of public authority at a time when trust in public institutions has declined significantly.


There is this anger at the politicians. But the point is often made that these politicians are destroying the state. So there is a differentiation made between the public institutions and the politicians who have hijacked those institutions, who are destroying them for their own private benefits. This to me is promising, though I don’t know what will come out of it.


Even radical anti-government activists in the United States make a distinction between the government they hate and the welfare benefits they enjoy. It sounds as though our political authorities are incapable of dealing with our modern reality. These financial instruments, in their complexity, have outstripped the ability of our political institutions to contain them.


They have also outstripped the abilities of the economic actors to control them. They are running amok.


As you said, the initial impulses and vision of the EU were in a sense backward-looking. Are we going to be able to find a vision either for the EU or political structures in general that is not backward-looking?


Those in power are defensive. I don’t see any exceptions. They are more and more willing to use repression to maintain their positions. I’m not saying they’re stupid. They’re intelligent, but they use this intelligence in a limited sense to defend positions that have become untenable. There is no leadership.


You made a decision not to go into party politics. I interviewed a lot of people who did the same thing, like Jan Urban. As soon as Civic Forum won the elections, he stepped away from politics. Many people felt, though, that the best people were leaving politics, and only the mediocrities remained. In some sense, the best people didn’t want to become mediocre, because the job demands it. Vaclav Havel was seen as the one exception, someone willing to put up with all the demands of politics and yet maintaining some of his anti-political or naive positions. When you look back, do you think you made the right decision — and I don’t mean just you but everyone who took that particular position?


I don’t regret that decision. Maybe it’s self-justification: we often try to find rationalizations for our decisions. Given my expertise, I think that what I could do, which was more important than sitting in an office in government or parliament, has been try to guard the political language. The political language was treated very badly these past 23 years. My parallel is with the grammarians in late antiquity after the Christian emperors took over and dissolved all the schools. They saw themselves as the guardians of the language. They succeeded. Much of what we think and speak is due to their efforts. They saw something very far away but essential.


During the Dark Ages.


Especially during such a period. But also during the periods of excitement. We’ve had both in the last two decades: lots of excitement and lots of darkness.


You made the same point 23 years ago actually when you said you were more interested in the language of politics than in politics itself.


Yes, I would still say that.


Slovenia is often portrayed as a winner in Eastern Europe. if you look at all the countries in the region, Slovenia has done reasonably well, for instance in terms of GDP per capita. Also, it didn’t suffer for the most part as a result of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Although there have been some unfortunate political deformations in the country, it’s not as bad as Romania or Bulgaria. To what do you attribute this success? And do you think Slovenia has gotten past the worst of it in terms of transition?


The story behind Slovenia’s success is that the country had a very energetic and able Communist government, economically speaking. The Communists developed the educational system, produced a qualified labor force, and created an economy that could export products. This model, which was set up in the second half of the 20th century, was still not exhausted at the time of independence. Economists have done research on this, and I’ve been convinced by their research.

By mid-2010, however, that potential was exhausted, and there has been nothing to replace it. The political elite we have is incapable of producing a new model of mobilizing the population for anything. They are destroying the educational system. They are polarizing society. They are bringing out ideological conflicts — actually these conflicts arise out of identity politics. At the same time, they have consolidated their positions in order to plunder what was left of the public wealth. Some of those people have been brought to trial. Looking back, it’s as though a well-organized criminal gang was in power.

The problem is not just the few individuals who have been brought to trial and who in fact committed criminal activities of different kinds but the political environment in which they were able to do this. It’s not one MP who was sent to jail who is the problem but the 80 others who were willing to sit with him in the same House. The economy is now completely devastated, and there is no alternative vision. In a way it was a success story, but that success story is over, and I’m not sure if the worst has come yet. I’m not very optimistic. Of course, things might change. We still don’t have the new government. We are implementing the politics of the former government, which were supposedly diametrically opposed to the politics of this one. We have just one politics and different executioners of that politics. The politics no longer change with the change of administration.


Some people call that stability! It’s the stability of a criminal enterprise.


It’s the stability of decline. But I might be overly pessimistic. What I see is not very encouraging.


Your description of Slovenia doesn’t sound that different from Hungary and Fidesz. You describe these advantages as a resource that had been gradually exhausted.




As if it were oil under the ground that the Communist government had preserved or built up. But you could look at it the other way around – epidemiologically – as a disease that infected the region and is now emerging in various countries and in various ways. In that way, Slovenia and Hungary are not that different although the political configurations on the face of it are quite different.


We could bring in other countries as well, ex-Communist and others. I don’t think there is so much difference in the ways the governments work across Europe today.


The technocrats would say in response that the problem is quite simple and it’s just a matter of sequence. They would say that the rule of law was not prioritized over the economic changes, so that the economic changes didn’t take place in an ideal framework. As Serbia begins to deal with its chapters of accession, the EU will prioritize rule of law so that the economic changes take place in a proper legal environment.


It’s meaningless if you don’t speak about the law concretely. The economic transformation made legal would only mean that we would legalize what we now call criminal activity. All the complaints of the lack of reform in the labor market or the delays in privatization – they call that the lack of law. For me that’s unconvincing. I’m all for the rule of law. But the rule of law can mean many different things. The technocrats, as you describe their arguments, would simply like to see their politics or their particular economic model translated into law, which to me is not the definition of “rule of law.” The rule of law should be independent of any politics.


We don’t have the same kind of corruption in Washington as in Moscow, for instance, because we have simply defined our corruption as legal. We are technically operating within the rule of law. But it still involves the transfer of resources.


I want to ask you about Turkey. It’s something you’ve been studying historically. When you look at Turkey today and how it is understood both as a perennial aspirant, sometimes an ambivalent aspirant, to membership to the EU — but also the struggle between secular structures and some kind of political Islam (though I don’t like using that phrase) in the AKP and how that is depicted in the West — how would you connect that to the way that Turks have been portrayed in the European imagination over the last several hundred years?


There are a lot of questions in here. First about EU accession with Turkey: that’s mainly the stupidity of the EU that it doesn’t make a bigger effort to coopt Turkey. From whatever angle, it would be in the interests of the EU for Turkey to be a member. How the Turks themselves feel about it is a different question.

What’s happening in Turkey today has actually very little to do with the historical imagination of Turks invading Europe. If you look at the protests in Taksim Square, they’re the same as the demonstrations in Santiago or Sacramento or Athens. The same issues, the same demands: the people on the streets are fighting the same struggles. The government in Turkey is like any other respected government in the West trying to implement economic politics that are destructive of society. The difference is only that the AKP is able to add an element of piety to it to create a kind of Islamic neo-liberalism. The issues, the problems, and the arrogance of those in power are all the same.


Are you still working on European understandings of Islam and Turkey?


Not really. It’s on the backburner.


What’s your research on now?


I’m mostly working on Thomas Hobbes and the reception of his political philosophy after his death. He had been forgotten for centuries. He was rediscovered in a very interesting political context to advance the arguments of the political Left in England, Germany, and across Europe. I’m looking at the story from the beginning of this rediscovery to the Nazi reaction to it.


You were writing about a particular German author…


Carl Schmidt. Yes, I think he’s a very dangerous political author. I’m trying to look at what he did with Hobbes in a specific political context. Unfortunately, he’s one of the authors that the Left, especially in the United States, had embraced at the moment of crisis at the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism.


The Left embraced what aspect of his thinking?


His critique of liberalism. But his critique of liberalism was from the Nazi position. It’s nice to read a good critique of liberalism, but you have to take into account the context in which he produced it.


That has a lot of resonance today, unfortunately, There are many critiques of liberalism in this part of the world coming from the extreme Right. On economics, they sound like Leftists and on social issues like Roma, they sound like Nazis.


Liberalism is in crisis. It shares the fate of democracy. The Right is perhaps not only one step but more than one step ahead of the Left in its critique of liberalism. That’s not a compliment to the Left. One cannot say that the critique of liberalism is not due. But it’s important to see from what perspective it is articulated. We, on the Left, are behind, neglectful.


We are intellectually behind. More importantly, we are institutionally behind. There is no organization that can reflect or embody a critique of liberalism with an alternative. It’s a double failing. In the essay you contributed to our book on Europe’s New Nationalism, you made an argument about Bosnia that civil society was aligned against the state, and that the state was critical in providing services to ensure the survival of the state. What are your reflections on that argument today, 20 years later, with Bosnia not being a particularly strong state today?


That’s a hard question because at the time when we talked I was following the developments in Bosnia very carefully. I had friends there. I can’t say that today. I’m out of touch. What I see is a sad story. Some people from Bosnia would say that what came after the war was in many respects more difficult than the war itself. But I don’t really know enough to make any judgments about that. I don’t know about the civil society there.


If you were to apply that argument generally, in terms of similar situations that states find themselves, would you change your argument in any way?


I am pro-state. I don’t see any set of institutions replacing the state as the primary form of public authority. The state might be undermined or downsized. But I don’t see a substitute emerging in place of the state. Without the state, in my view, violence is due to emerge, sooner or later. And I don’t see the enforcement of law as something the minimal state can handle. Nor can it deal with questions of social security and environmental protection. We’re living at a time when we need public authority. I would still insist on the state. Civil society simply doesn’t have that capacity. Civil society can feed into state action. It can challenge the state. It can set limits to state action. But it cannot replace it. In Eastern Europe at certain moments we saw the replacement of the state with civil society, which basically just produced a very disorganized state.


Your argument stays with me because the Left in the US has become so libertarian in its instincts that it too falls into this belief that civil society is a model for how society should be organized. The last question: when you look back to your arguments in that period, from the late 1980s on, are there any arguments that you’ve reconsidered as a result of subsequent experience?


To answer at a very general level, I think I was very naive about democracy and quite uninformed about liberalism. At the time, both democracy and liberalism seemed very clear alternatives to what we were experiencing. But it turned out that things were much messier. These alternatives didn’t offer the answers we hoped naively they would offer.


Did that realization come relatively quickly or did it dawn on you later?


Soon. I was critical of many aspects of democracy and liberalism even before the fall of the Wall. But I didn’t know nearly enough to fully understand what I was unhappy with: why the problems were problems. But it was clear very fast that at least part of the reason for the political problems that had emerged in Eastern Europe after the fall were due to the weakness of our understanding of democracy and liberalism as alternatives.


For people now who are roughly the age you were back then, what kind of advice would you give?


I don’t know! Again, I am very much out of touch with the groups that are doing this kind of work. But the impression I have is that they need and work as if nothing really came before them, except perhaps for Marx. I would certainly understand and support anyone who would reject being tutored by my generation. I don’t think we had any real solutions that they should keep and develop. But it would be very useful to know what happened before. Even the people who believe they are making history are cut off from recent history.


So, you couldn’t tell them about solutions, but you could tell them about mistakes.


I could certainly tell them about mistakes.


My last questions are quantitative. When you look back at what has changed or not changed since 1989 until today in Slovenia, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?




Same period of time, same scale: but your own personal life?


That’s a tricky question. Things have changed a lot.


You can play it safe and say five.


I can’t quantify that.


When you look into the near future, the next two or three years, how would you evaluate the prospects for Slovenia on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimist and 10 most optimistic?


I wouldn’t go beyond two.



Ljubljana, August 4, 2013



Interview (1990)


I first met Tomaz Mastnak at the preparatory meeting of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly where he was one of the more vocal participants, especially on the question of oppositionists turned politicians participating in the governing structures of the Assembly. He was considerably more soft-spoken when I talked with him in Ljubljana.


Could you describe some of the work that you do?


I am a sociologist by profession. I have been researching in to the new social movements in Eastern Europe and I have been involved in the discussions of civil society in this part of the world. On the other hand, I am researching the history of political languages: which focuses not on the ideas but the language in which they are expressed. Politically, I was of course a member of the Communist party in the 1970s. I left it long ago. In the early 1980s I’ve been involved in the new social movements here, the so-called alternative scene: the peace movement, mainly. At the moment I don’t belong to any political party. I’m close to the Liberal party, that’s true. As a kind of advisor. And I’m still active in the social movements here in Ljubljana. Since the military trial in 1988 and later with the results of the elections, the movement somehow disappeared. And we are trying to recreate these activities. On the international scene, I went to many meetings of the independent European peace movement. We have had contacts with people from the East at a time when it was difficult for Westerners to go there. We were in a privileged position at that time and I hope we used it well. And at the moment as you know I am active in the Helsinki Citizens Assembly.


I was astounded by the number of groups in the alternative scene in Ljubljana: 40 groups alone working on this conversion of the military barrack. When I voiced optimism at the number of alternative groups in Hungary, I was told that it wasn’t as wonderful as it seemed. Is it as wonderful here as it seems?


I would like to explain this with reference to recent history. The distinction of the Slovenian democratization was that it was initiated and carried through by the movements. And the political parties, or political organizations, joined much later, when the basic things had been achieved. Which meant that this scene was quite strong, relatively strong in number given the population of Ljubljana. It was very pluralistic, covering many fields of activities. It was theoretically and intellectually very strong since almost all the able intellectuals of the younger generation joined the movement, not to play a vanguard role but to be part of it. This means that we had a very strong tradition in this respect. And the groups that are now involved in the reestablishing of the network partly grow out of this tradition. They had been involved in the former times. There are some newer which have formed themselves within the institutions of alternative culture. So I would say that 40 groups is not such a surprise. I do not want to think in terms of optimism or pessimism. But they represent a real strength, a real power.


The scene has changed with the advent of political parties. Have the movements changed their character because of this trend?


The first result of the change in political scene was that the social movements disappeared. But this happened at the time when one cycle of social movements came to an end anyway. We were just starting a discussion on the future of the movement when the military trial and the election intervened. So this discussion of the future was interrupted. So what we are doing now is a kind of reinitiation of the movement, which means that they will partly change or will change character. The most important feature of the changing situation in my view is that the role of the public opinion has changed. Public opinion has been somehow…the parties and political interests have been imposed on public opinion. Which means that very few people listen to arguments; they just ask which party does the person belong to? So it is not a question of arguments that matter, but the question of party affiliation. Whereas in the past, words and arguments really had great strength. So now we have to find now a different way of arguing to be listened to. The other thing is that there is more or less complete freedom of the press now. Which means that there is a great deal of information now, no more taboo themes. Anybody can write or speak on whatever they think appropriate. In order to attract some attention, people have to find scandals: from private life, or they rediscover in rather disgusting way the crimes which are disgusting enough which were committed after the war. So it’s a kind of degeneration.


Several alternative movements decided to enter the elections in a coalition. Was that a difficult decision to make? I imagine a lot of people did not want to deal with party politics.


I must say that I was not in the country when this initiative took shape. I came only later. At that time, I was of a different opinion than the main protagonist of this list. I namely thought that it would be a good to form a coalition with the Liberal party. The Liberal party was ready to grant all the autonomy to the movements. So there would still be an independent list but they would compete for votes together. As the electoral system was organized such that only parties that got more than 2 or 3 per cent could get MPs, the higher the per cent the more MPs, the social movements could have gained at least 2 MPs. So what happened was a political disaster.

But on the other hand I am glad that this happened. Because politics is important; it matters. And it was a very useful experience to organize, spokespersons had the opportunity to popularize ideas on TV and in national media and so on. I would not like to see a similar thing that would happen here as in East Germany where the fundamentalist attitude toward politics was much stronger within the movement and they simply disappeared from the scene. I am not against politics. I am not against political involvement in the movement. I just think that the distinction between the two modes of activity should be made clear.


Many intellectuals told me during my travels that they thought that political parties were a thing of a past. This struck me as odd. Here in these countries, parties had just formed and some people were talking as though they had outlived their usefulness. Have people talked about this idea here as well?


I don’t love particularly political parties. But I think that they are still the best way of organizing social interests politically. They are still indispensable. Political democracy is not possible without having the possibility of organized parties. The other thing is that we have experienced here in Yugoslavia a non-party system. It was not just a monolithic one-party system but a system that pretended to be more. The party pretended to be a movement and created a non-political pluralism of interests. Which means that people were urged to say what they think and then these interests were then monopolized by the party. I think that the people whom I met in the East who were advocating a non-party political system, some of whom are in influential positions, are blocking the development of political pluralism, especially the institutionalization of this pluralism. What they have offered instead – a kind of Popular Front organization like the Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia or the citizens committees in Poland – I don’t think is good. Because the differences within these organizations are too strong and tensions are too strong. The result is that, in Poland, a person like Walesa appears on the scene advocating in my view dictatorial solutions but speaking democratic language. I’m afraid that the leadership of these popular front organizations simply overestimate their importance. They are very important, not because they have the best people in their ranks, but because other interests or parties can’t appear. The same is happening now in Slovenia. Demos, the coalition of some of the opposition parties, is now declaring itself the embodiment of the national interest. They have simply suspended the identities of the constituted parties on the one hand and on the other hand they are very hostile to all the parties which are outside their coalition. I find this a very dangerous and unhealthy development.


One of the reasons why people expressed distaste for parties was the popular disenchantment with the electoral process. People I interviewed in Hungary said that they hoped they would never have to go through another “dogfight” like that again. Is that just a question of first elections or of people having to get used to the dirtiness of politics in general?


One is of course first elections. The political scene in our country is not a normalized political scene. It is still to much influenced by the old system, not only by the power of the old forces but by the mentality of the people now in power who can’t get rid of the way of thinking, of organizing. And more or less all the new governments won on the anti-Communist vote not on their political programs. They more or less all of them speak nationalist languages so the political scene is far from normal. Then, of course, many people had invested great hopes in the new developments and they are now getting disappointed. That’s clear. They’re realizing that politics is dirty business. I agree. But that’s something that belongs to politics. One should simply not expect that there will be clean, undirty politics. This is some utopia which can’t bring democratic results. The idea of many of the antagonists of the old regime was to have an uncorrupted politics. Of course all they had established is unrestrained power. Of course the people have different idea about what politics should be regardless of their expectations. And I think that these ideas are not good guidelines to practical politics. And I think that saying “I simply dislike party politics” is not a political statement, it is an aesthetic statement. One should understand what is going on and accept it or oppose it.


One problem in this region is the creation of a new group of professional politicians. Has a new class of politicians emerged and does the new Slovenian politician resemble the American politician who has no particular skills other than compromise and self-promotion or the European politician who comes more clearly from the intelligentsia?


It is difficult to say because it has only been three months since the elections of the government. It’s clear that a new power elite has been created. If the new power holders could be named politicians is another question. As you have noted, the great majority are without political experience. And they simply have no skills. Here in Slovenia, almost all of the persons in the new power elite are intellectuals. A great number of them are intellectuals who used to be writers or poets and of course they not only don’t think politically, but not sociologically or in terms of political science. They just have their poetic ideas about life. On the other hand, the people coming from social sciences are people who haven’t made a great name in this field: so they are compensating for lack of success there. I would simply call them “ideologists.” They know the language of politics and they use it quite skillfully – but it is simply an ideology. This is again a thing that doesn’t contribute to clarification. Too many of these people are incapable of having dialog with other-minded people or can’t make any compromises with people who belong to other political organizations. They simply have great ideas and they are convinced that they have a mission.


They sound like revolutionaries.


Yes I would call them revolutionaries. It is a revolutionary mentality.


So they are interim politicians as most revolutionaries are.


One of the things that I was most upset by was the new power’s prevention of the professionalization of politics. They simply compelled people from politics, mostly from the opposition, to be amateurs. On the other hand, they are employing their MPs in the state apparatus. So they lose all their independence if they are dependent on the party bosses.


Let me return to the new social movements. Most countries I have travelled to have been rather conservative: traditional, religious and so on. And they have looked rather suspiciously on new social movements. When street theater was anti-Communist in Poland for example, it was fine, but now alternative culture is viewed rather differently. Is it a similar situation here in Slovenia?


I have been convinced that we are living in a quite secular society, relatively modern, in which movements enjoyed great support and great sympathy. Not just in Ljubljana, which is a city, but in the countryside as well. But after the election, political Catholicism re-entered the social and political scene and the Catholic ideologists have the ideology apparatus of the state in their hands. And they have become quite aggressive and intolerant. The first indication was the discussion of abortion earlier this year when Christian Democrats who demanded that a relatively liberal law on abortion should be changed. I would say that of course that everyone has the right to his or her own view on abortion. But I think that it is always a dangerous development when one derives a legal system from ideological or religious or philosophical convictions. And that is exactly what they would like to do: to have an ideological state which will be much more conservative than the older one. So that’s one side of the story. The other is that there is a part of society which is conservative, anti-democratic, intolerant, sexist, homophobic, all of this. And they feel that they can speak their minds now. So they are becoming more loud and aggressive than they used to be. And this might create the impression that they are very strong and represent a considerable segment of society. I don’t think so but maybe I’m wrong. In a way I was happy with the ease in the mid-1980s that feminist or homosexual ideas were accepted in this country. It was only the conservative politicians which opposed these ideas. But the people accepted these ideas, quite tolerably.


Why did the people accept these ideas? Because the conservative politicians were skeptical?


No. Because all these issues which were opposed by the conservative politicians were an integral part of the democratization. And the democratization was carried through by the movements. So it was perceived as elements of democratizing society. That’s what it was really all about.


Marko Hren told me that the government has done several things to rein in the new social movements like closing down clubs. How extensive is this trend?


Yes, extensive. A kind of silent repression which turned out to be very effective. People became demoralized, they had no place to go. And still there are no real clubs for alternative culture here in Ljubljana. There are many clubs for people who have lots of money and who like to live that advertised way of American life. That’s OK. That was never a problem. For people who listen to other kind of music, who behave differently, they have always had troubles. At the moment there is one club, or one building could be used for this. But the mayor of the town, who is a militant Catholic, wants to give the building back to its former owners, a Church organization. So we could lose that place as well. The idea nevertheless is to get that military barracks. And it is not surprising that so many groups joined the initiatives. There are just no rooms. It is hasn’t changed. The new regime is similarly hostile.


What are the economic views of the alternative scene here? In the U.S., it would be difficult to find punks for instance who would call themselves economic liberals.


The Liberal party here has a very social democratic program. So it isn’t a freemarketeering party. Of course it is for a market economy. But it is quite aware that regulation and a good social policy is needed. As far as the movement is concerned, it is difficult to talk of their economic ideas. Because the preconditions for their economic activities didn’t exist. Of course there was a small production of radio, tapes, posters, videos. But they couldn’t earn their living this way. Now they have to think other sources of income. The movements used to get different subsidies for alternative culture, not a lot, but at least enough not to die. And the movement as such had very good relations with the former youth organization, the Liberal party. Which meant that people could get a car could go to a conference in Budapest. Now this situation has changed. In this movement, we thought during one of the recent meetings of asking the great enterprises to help which we could then somehow repay the debt. The movement will have to think more about economics than they previously did.


What do you think the government’s attitude toward economic reform?


I’m afraid I can’t say anything important. There is a small group in Demos, the smallholders or small businessmen. They advocate the most superficial ideology of free market and they have influence in Demos. On the other hand, one of the ministers of the economy is quite close to social democratic ideas.


Let me ask you about the Helsinki Citizens Assembly. You were at the preparatory meeting in June and recently in Prague for a presidium meeting. How do you feel about the way HCA is moving?


It is still ambiguous. But I think that the project is worth it. It is the only institution of international civil society. Despite all of the features which make me and my friends unhappy, it is worth continuing.


What are some of those features?


The role of the former oppositionists who have become political leaders and they don’t reflect the change. They claim that they are the same people as before. Of course they are, I won’t question their morality. But they are different people. Most of them are doing a different job. They think that they don’t reflect this and then they impose their interests or even the interests of their parties on something which is a civil-social institution. This means of course, minimizing the roles of the movements or citizens’ initiatives which have become marginal anyway.


The major argument against this is that prominent people would lend legitimacy and authority to the gathering. How do you respond to this?


In a sense, it is of course a reasonable argument. The problem with it is that the idea behind it is mainstream European culture. And in my view, the majority of the movements and citizens simply don’t belong to this mainstream. Whatever that is. And some of our friends from Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries have uncritical views of Europe, what Europe means, and consequently European integration. I think that the moral credibility should be created by the Assembly itself and should not come too much from the prominent people who will not do any work because they are too busy.


How do you stand on the confederation vs. federation issue?


What I am interested in now is how to prevent bloodshed. In that sense, I am somewhat confused by this confederalist option which may function well enough for Slovenia but which would cause great disturbances in the south. In the same way I am not very sympathetic to the idea of separation for Slovenia at the moment because it would mean leaving Albanians to the mercy of the Serbian government. I simply can’t understand the indifference of the Slovenian government on that issue. It is simply politics. Because what happens in Kosovo has great consequences on Slovene politics. But they present it as though it is happening in a different country. I am not attached to any Yugoslav idea. I can’t imagine how a new Yugoslavia could exist. This formula for confederation will not solve any problems if the result is a new Yugoslavia. As I understand confederation, it is a way of disintegrating Yugoslavia non-violently, to have a certain control of the process of dissolution. On the other hand, talk of federation is even more futile. What I would like to see, and I will say it again, is to prevent bloodshed. I would support any institutional solution which would contribute to this aim. On the other hand, I am not interested in having a Yugoslav state or a Slovene state: this is a secondary question.


And on the question of demilitarizing Slovenia?


We would like to deconstruct military structures. The question for us is not to have a Yugoslav army or a Slovene national army. They would be equally bad. I could imagine a Slovene army would be a more dangerous option than a Yugoslav army for different reasons. I think that this solution could be put into practice regardless of the future settlement here in this part of the world, regardless of whether Yugoslavia still exists and has a federal army, regardless of whether Slovenia secedes. This could contribute the most to a non-violent solution of conflicts in general, but also non-violent dealing with existing problems. In this time and in this region, this is in my view a realistic options. Unfortunately we have revolutionaries in power who don’t think realistically.


But they would say that an increasingly independent Slovenia will need an army to defend “national interests.” Even Switzerland needs an army, they would say. How do you argue against this?


On the other hand, this is an obsolete idea of what state sovereignty is. Having an army is not a necessary attribute to state sovereignty. The idea behind sovereignty is the monopoly of the means of violence, not the army. And of course, people are getting caught in this nationalist euphoria. They would like to see everything Slovene, including a Slovene army. How would we argue against this? One, Slovenia is too small, and it would be a great economic burden. It’s such a small country, even if it had an army it couldn’t resist any foreign aggression. There is the question of international promotion of Slovenia. This would surely – if Slovenia would decide to put this idea into practice – attract great attention and support from all over the world. It would be a great experiment whose importance would go far beyond Slovenian borders. The international situation is also very favorable to this project. Hungarians, Austrians, Czechs, and Italians are all speaking of demilitarizing their respective regions. So Slovenia could be a part of this process.


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Returning Poland to Europe

Central Europe had been kidnapped, the Czech writer Milan Kundera once wrote in a celebrated essay from 1984. It had been dragged eastward by the Soviet Union after World War II. And like a displaced person yearning to return home, the region couldn’t wait until it could rejoin Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The economist Jeffrey Sachs first visited Poland in spring 1989, before the Wall fell. He met with both government officials and Solidarity representatives. Despite the compromise worked out at the Round Table, the economic prospects for the country were not particularly bright. “Solidarity was talking about hunger, the risk of civil war, breakdown,” Sachs told me in an interview in his Columbia University office in November 2013. “They were very pessimistic, very alarmed.”

As Solidarity prepared to enter parliament after the elections on June 4, it asked Sachs to prepare an economic reform plan. “I was given strict instructions by Jacek Kuron, who asked me to write this document, that this was about returning to Europe: period,” Sachs continued. “That was my vision then, and his vision, and my purpose, and it remained my purpose: Poland had to be part of Europe. It would be like the rest of Europe. It wouldn’t be some new hybrid or new experiment. The reality is that Poland is Central Europe and that’s where it belongs. The divide is artificial and this divide will end. And this is what will restructure the economy and make it possible for recovery.”

The advice that Sachs gave on how Poland could achieve macroeconomic stability and lay the foundation for further transformation has generated considerable praise and criticism over the years.

“All in all, I would not only stand by these ideas, but also stand by the results,” Sachs told me. “Poland actually transformed. I’m not a heartless guy. I’m not a free-market libertarian by a million miles. I wanted a cushion for Poland. That was a large part of my aims and a large part of their interest in me, in terms of what I could get for them. And I did this in a number of ways. I believe in supporting people in unemployment and old-age pensions and a public health care system. It was never the idea that people should sink or swim. It was the idea to build a real economic base from which you give support. And if you can’t get this economic base on your own, you beg for it and you plead mercy on the basis of old debts needing to be cancelled. I tried every bit of begging and pleading and tantrums and everything else I could think of to help, and fortunately some of it worked.”

Sachs dislikes the term “neoliberal” and refuses to accept the label. “I always wonder: how could I be described as a neo-liberal, which is the term of art, when I’m spending half my time berating the banks, trying to get the debts cancelled, trying to establish social funds, trying to make the public health care system work, and when I’m an admirer of Sweden?” he asked.

Sachs didn’t just provide economic advice. He was also make a key political recommendation after Solidarity won nearly every seat it contested in the June 4, 1989 elections. He told Bronislaw Geremek, who headed up Solidarity’s parliamentary caucus, that the opposition had to form a government. Geremek replied that this was impossible. “You can’t take a landslide and make a commission out of it,” Sachs said. “With the resounding victory, they’ll be looking for more than that.”

And then Sachs revealed his trump card. Solidarity figured that, given the huge debt the government had, the country was bankrupt. Sachs told Geremek to forget about the debt. “Do you know how big this is, what’s happening right now?” he told Solidarity. “Many countries in history have gotten the debt cancelled. You can do this. For Solidarity, the West will do this. But we can’t do this if you’re just a committee. You have to be the government.”

Poland, with Sachs’ help, was able to renegotiate its debt. “The most important question was: is there a way back to democracy and Europe and without civil war and without starvation,” he told me. “And Poland never came even remotely close to any of those things. It got its debt cancellation, got its help, got its foreign investment, and made its way through. To this day, after 40 years of experience in this field, I can’t imagine fine-tuning something more than that. That’s like asking the surgeon, oh, save the heart and all the organs and by the way I don’t want any stitches and no scars. But save my life.”


The Interview


When the Polish government initially approached you for advice, you said no. But then you had a chance to go to Poland in spring 1989 and talk with both the government and with Solidarity. At that point, how big a gap did you perceive between their positions on economic change and reform?


If I recall correctly, in April 1989, there weren’t positions. Instead people were extremely worried and were in the process of discussing what to do. The government officials I met, who were not the highest officials, talked about the need for a market economy — that was clear. Solidarity was talking about hunger, the risk of civil war, breakdown. They were very pessimistic, very alarmed. I talked with Witold Trzeciakowski, who was a senior economist, a real gentleman, an academic and a very soft-spoken and frightened individual. He was very much on the cerebral side of Solidarity. Solidarity asked him as senior academician in the country to help. A junior person in the group was Jan Krzysztof Bielecki. That was the first time I got to know him in the spring of 1989. But there was no program, there was just concern. They wanted to make a request to the West to help Poland. We called it the Brussels Project because we had a meeting in Brussels to discuss what kind of aid request Poland could make. That was basically it. There was no kind of government program at the time.


I interviewed Marcin Swiecicki at the time. He was in the Party, tasked with figuring out a program for economic reform. He told me that they started out by looking at Hungary, and that lasted for a couple months. Things were shifting so quickly, so then they looked at Sweden. But then things changed even faster. It seemed as I was talking to him that at that point they didn’t really have a concrete model in mind. They were casting around for various options – that as the case both for Solidarity and the government. If anything, I thought that Solidarity had more ideas.


For the economic reforms I thought very important — supply and demand, currency, trade, budget, debt, finance — there were no ideas to speak of. What they were interested in was ownership, an area I knew the least. The areas I knew best and where I could add some value was how a market system actually functioned in its financial, monetary, and trade relations. Instead, they were quite interested in how to transform ownership.

If you look at our proposal, we didn’t have any specific ideas on privatization, which was different from the normal discourse of reform at the end of the 1980s. One thing that both surprised and interested them was that I was talking about things like the exchange rate, where there was no ideological view, just a practical view of what should be done. They didn’t know how the exchange rate worked, or how to run the central bank. That’s where I put a lot of emphasis. For privatization, all we wrote was: “seek technical assistance from the World Bank, invite foreign investment banks to suggest schemes and prepare valuations, prepare in one year a program for extensive privatization.” Those were the three things that I could think of that night. I was not proposing a privatization plan. This, by the way is completely contrary to most of the nonsense said about me or what I was doing or what I was recommending.


That you came in with a preconceived notion.


Not just that. That radical privatization was the essence of it. It wasn’t the essence of it. I knew from the beginning that privatization was hard and complicated, and I didn’t have clear ideas about it.


One of the interesting parts of that paper was the discussion of the challenge of preserving the standard of living at a time when obviously there was going to be more unemployment. One of the hard-fought issues in the Round Table negotiations was indexation. Finally, if I remember correctly, it was fixed at 80 percent. I talked with Krzysztof Hagemejer, who worked on the Solidarity side. We worked so hard on it, he said, but then the government over the summer removed price controls. To this day, he still doesn’t know why the government did that. It threw a monkey wrench into the whole discussion of preserving standard of living. It obviously aggravated the inflation. Do you have any insights into this?


The main thing that was happening was a tremendous financial crisis, which often accompanies a political revolution. If you look at political revolutions in history, often there are hyperinflations associated with them. The government doesn’t collect revenues. The normal means of finance breaks down. The government prints money to pay the bills. In Poland in 1988 and 1989, whatever structures were there were clearly going to pieces. A tremendous pent-up monetary shock was hitting the system, but it was showing up under price controls in the form of soaring black market prices. The black market exchange rate was four or five times the official rate. There were shortages of everything except under the counter at black market prices. Everybody felt that tremendous hoarding was going on. A lot of the Solidarity people felt that there was going to be hunger very soon because the farmers would sit on their grain and not release it to the cities or the government trading firms.

So, they had to raise the prices. There was flight from the currency – people were getting out of the zloty in any way they could. There were intensifying shortages, rising black market prices, and lots of complicated financial and monetary processes that nobody could decipher ex post facto. I think the government was just reacting to this. It knew that it had to raise prices. The budget indicators probably meant that public sector tariffs were low and enterprises were squeezed. I don’t know what went through their minds, but those are all good reasons why you can’t really control things. The idea that these official prices are the real prices of transactions is wrong. If you remember, in the summer and fall of 1989, you couldn’t buy most things in the shops. In that context, the official prices were only vague indicators of what was going on at the time.


I interviewed Jacek Zakowski, the spokesman for the parliamentary caucus of Solidarity’s Citizens’ Committee, who is a journalist now. He said that they all paid a price for the economic reform. Mazowiecki lost his job; Geremek would eventually lose his position. You made an interesting comment in this document that governments never fall because of unemployment but instead because of hyperinflation, which can be very destabilizing. The Mazowiecki government did, with the help of Balcerowicz, reduce the level of inflation quite dramatically. But the issue of unemployment remained, and that did prove politically destabilizing — not for the system as a whole but certainly for that government. Was that a surprise for you? In that document, there was a more optimistic vision that private enterprise would absorb the unemployed. There wasn’t much discussion of the unemployment that would happen in the countryside, which was dramatic.


It’s really important to put this in some temporal and comparative perspective. By any standard, Poland did extremely well in the transformation. It ended up growing rapidly. The economy expanded, foreign investment came in. Compared to the other countries in the region, it soared in terms of new business, exports, and investment. Especially compared to the dire forecasts of 1989, you don’t get better than that. Looking back I’m not only very satisfied but very grateful at how favorable the outcomes were.

Unemployment is the hard question for which I don’t have a nitty-gritty and full answer. After 40 years of a system that ended up collapsing — and with the collapse of its partner institutions all over the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as well as the end of the cheap energy on which it was built — there was a lot of decrepit uncompetitive companies that had no place, given late 20th century technology. Those companies that couldn’t make it employed a lot of people, especially older people who had grown up in a given context, which included living in places with a factory that wasn’t going to survive. In the end, they got transfers of some sort. But a lot of unemployment for these older people persisted for 10-15 years. That was a generational thing, to a very large extent.

My sense is, though I can’t prove it, that it was very different for young people. First of all there was a lot of dynamism. An incredible number of enterprises were created. No doubt there were places in the countryside that were more remote, or in the east where things were broken down and jobs were not created. The east was toward Russia, and now life was going to be in the west. Wroclaw and places in the west became magnets for foreign investment, and places in the east ended up being sunset places to an important extent. That’s real economics. I don’t know any answer to that. That’s probably a lot of what’s in the data. I also never am sure about some of the data concerning unemployment benefits, which I don’t begrudge by any means. But especially in Poland, everybody I knew had a gig doing things off the record, under the counter, and around the side. A lot of this data therefore has to be taken with a significant grain of salt.

A whole system had been built up that collapsed. These factories don’t just come to life. You have to build again. No one wants to be in the situation Poland was in in 1989. I said there was a way out of this. There was a lot of pessimism at the time, so this was a debated point. But I didn’t say that there was an answer to every moribund factory and every broken-down piece of heavy industry. There never is. Economics, to the extent that it is something beyond a village, is about change. And change is not simple. Poland had bottled up a lot of change for 40 years, and later came what is called “creative destruction.” It took place over a very short space of time.


Looking back, was there anything you would have changed in terms of the question of unemployment? For instance, you spoke of sunset and sunrise regions. One example of industrial policy is for the government to direct funds to a sunset region to cushion the blow or to redirect investment. Or was it really just not possible for a government at that time to play that kind of role during a difficult economic transition?


There’s a great deal of improvisation. A political, economic, and social revolution was taking place. This kind of transformation was unprecedented and hopefully never has to happen again. I didn’t want to become a specialist in this kind of work. I was hoping this would be the one time in history, and we would do the best one could. I was given strict instructions by Jacek Kuron, who asked me to write this document, that this was about returning to Europe: period. That was my vision then, and his vision, and my purpose, and it remained my purpose: Poland had to be part of Europe. It would be like the rest of Europe. It wouldn’t be some new hybrid or new experiment. The reality is that Poland is Central Europe and that’s where it belongs. The divide is artificial and this divide will end. And this is what will restructure the economy and make it possible for recovery.

I believed in basic economic forces — that you couldn’t have a catastrophic drop in living standards between the east of Germany and the west of Poland without forces occurring such as a German plant being established in western Poland to take advantage of that gap and thereby boosting living standards. I’m not so keen for such a process to be hugely complicated by powerful anti-market moves because there’s no money. The day-to-day problems are overwhelming in terms of actually accomplishing something other than avoiding chaos. It’s so much better to have wind in the sails than not, and the wind in the sails was coming from Western Europe. I believed that the Polish economy would be heavily reshaped through deeper linkages with Western technology and economy. And that’s basically what happened. From the earliest moments, even before January 1, 1990, major western companies were investing.

ABB was the first one that came to me and said that they were thinking of investing in Poland and what did I think about it. I said I thought it was a splendid idea because Poland was going to reform and be open for business. “Are you sure?” they asked. “I am sure,” I said. “This is the way to go.” They ended up making a major investment, the first big investment in Poland, and they modernized the sector. It was very successful from Poland’s point of view and ABB’s point of view. And it was the first of hundreds of restructuring events, not by the government and not by the blind market but by the reality of Western Europe being the economic neighbor and power. To my mind, that was the right way for Poland to go.

It’s also important to understand, even though we might forget it now, that Poland was completely bankrupt. It had no idea what it was going to do. I was giving them advice on how to get out of bankruptcy not only in the literal financial sense or the economic development sense but in the sense of negotiating the debt. Was there room to maneuver where the economic situation could improve and the government could take care of all these problems? No, that was not the case.


Zakowski also emphasized that given the situation at the time — the debt, the economic situation – there was only one path to Europe. The only question was pace. Is that also something you perceived at the time?


Yes. There were a thousand analogies to nobody’s liking. One of them was: if you’re getting your tooth pulled, you don’t do it over four weeks. You pull it out. That’s not a perfect analogy. Another famous reformer said: you don’t jump a chasm in two hops. And a third was: if you cut off a dog’s tail, you don’t do it in little bits. These were the things that were discussed: what is the point of trying to keep a moribund company alive and with what and how? If you have scarce resources, do you build for the future or not?

All in all, I would not only stand by these ideas, but also stand by the results. Poland actually transformed. I’m not a heartless guy. I’m not a free-market libertarian by a million miles. I wanted a cushion for Poland. That was a large part of my aims and a large part of their interest in me, in terms of what I could get for them. And I did this in a number of ways. I believe in supporting people in unemployment and old-age pensions and a public health care system. It was never the idea that people should sink or swim. It was the idea to build a real economic base from which you give support. And if you can’t get this economic base on your own, you beg for it and you plead mercy on the basis of old debts needing to be cancelled. I tried every bit of begging and pleading and tantrums and everything else I could think of to help, and fortunately some of it worked.


In a long article Lawrence Weschler wrote in The New Yorker back in 1989, you were up front: you said you were a social democrat by disposition. So there is consistency. Going back five or six years why have there been articles about you saying that you had a conversion experience at some point in your intellectual life? Why is there an attempt to explain that you were Saul back then and you have since become Paul?


Because people who have written about this don’t understand these issues, don’t understand the context. I’ve become absolutely inured to silliness. I always said, and in fact it’s one of the favorite lines I ever wrote — which I put in Poland’s Jump to the Market Economy — whether you want to be social democratic Sweden or Thatcher free-market UK, you would do the same things right now: you want to avoid hyperinflation, you want open trade, you want your currency to work, and so forth. Other people disagree with me but I will state my strong convictions based on a lot of experience on how to work in the context. I found so much of the discussion and debate irrelevant because it was completely outside of any real context. It’s like two doctors arguing about what to do with a hypothetical patient rather than a real live patient. A good doctor treats a real patient, not a hypothetical. A good economist treats a specific historical context, not a hypothetical. Most of my peers don’t do that kind of work. Most journalists are used to talking to politicians or ideologues who try to flog a particular point of view. I’m trying to solve a problem.

I’ve been on many sides of many issues because they’re different in different contexts. For three years I said constantly that the key to reform is stabilization, liberalization, and privatization. That was a kind of mantra for three years in Eastern Europe, which I stand by. Then I went to Africa a few years later and I heard the IMF say: stabilization, liberalization, and privatization. And I said, “Are you kidding? They have AIDS and malaria, why don’t you talk about those things?”

“But Professor Sachs, we’re just quoting you!”

And I honestly did a double take. I said, “But in Warsaw, they had streets, electricity. They didn’t have malaria or an AIDS epidemic. They had fresh water, sanitation. Here it’s different. It’s about poverty, development, disease, hunger. They’re different issues.”

Professionals should know better because it’s in front of their eyes. But with journalists, I’m sorry to say, it’s much worse. It’s utter confusion with them. Of course many journalists like a narrative. They want an arc to the story. I find it quite silly. I know what I believed in at different times and why I recommended certain things. I’ve written down most of what I was doing at the moment: writing op-eds, articles, and books is part of my job. But nobody reads that stuff. So, there’s a lot of confusion.

I always wonder: how could I be described as a neo-liberal, which is the term of art, when I’m spending half my time berating the banks, trying to get the debts cancelled, trying to establish social funds, trying to make the public health care system work, and when I’m an admirer of Sweden?


As you say, there’s a narrative: at a certain point in the early 1990s neoliberalism was the reigning ideology and it has eclipsed. So, they have to find a figure who represents that.


One person wrote that story in the early 1990s about my being a neoliberal: John Donnelly. I knew him. He didn’t know the work in Eastern Europe. I brought him to the White House in the early 2000s. People picked up on what he wrote. That’s another habit, which is just laziness. Something gets repeated enough times that it becomes a fact.

The interesting and hard part about being good at this activity is context. Of course, the first time you don’t have full context, so you learn. Then you do more. And you learn more. And so on. It dawned on me after a few experiences that differential diagnosis was really at the core of being good at this — understanding what’s driving a particular crisis. I had the wonderful good luck to watch my wife probably a thousand times as she was talking to the mother of a febrile child and asking questions in order to diagnose the fever. Watching this amazing process of trying to sort out what is going on — separating the emergency from the non-emergency, the superficial from the very grave conditions. That’s a lot of what this is about.


When people talk about unintended consequences, they usually are referring to negatives. But were there any positive unintended consequences you observed in Poland after 1990? Virtuous circles, for instance.


In general, the wonderful thing to watch was the amount of energy and drive that Poles had. When I went to Germany in the fall of 1989, I met with very senior officials. The head at the Bundesbank was very negative about Poland. Every stereotype came spilling out of his mouth: they’ll never accomplish anything, what a mess of a country, everything they touch will be ruined. It was a terrible attitude, and I was scandalized, of course. But the fact is that Poland did very well in terms of how many new businesses started, how many people had relatives in Cleveland helping them to get something started, how many people had been running the underground shuttle trade with Berlin, how many people knew how to get a small construction firm going, how many people could aggregate their friends in the neighborhood to buy a machine to start a company. So there was a tremendous amount of activity. That was a thrill.

And that was completely unlike Russia. You couldn’t do shuttle trade between Moscow and Berlin much less between Omsk and Berlin, although a few people did it by train. Geography made a huge difference. Poland also had a lot of civil society activists: first-rate, original, independent-minded intellects all over the country who were strong voices. The Church was no particular friend of the market reforms, but it was a fundamental bulwark of these reforms. It created very stern oversight of government: don’t go running off with the property, don’t misbehave, you have to live up to this great historical opportunity, the Pope is watching you. Poland was obviously very tough. People say, “Look at all this hardship!” But they don’t know the mood a year earlier when people thought that it was going to be a complete catastrophe. It was nothing like that. From the very beginning, people were up and about, moving and doing things. That was an incredible thing to watch. We scoured the monthly statistical bulletins as they came out, watching the soaring numbers of self-proprietorship being registered. Hundreds of thousands of these businesses were starting.


Did you engage with this argument about “red capitalists”? On the one hand, red capitalism represented a certain amount of stability; on the other hand, people were outraged that people who had benefitted under Communism were benefitting under the new dispensation as well.


I’m inevitably more of a moralist than an economist, some people say. But I don’t like people running away with property. Maybe that’s how actually tooth-and-claw capitalism has worked over time. But I don’t like it. People accuse me of actually fomenting that kind of process, but if they would just take the care to read what I said or wrote…

I met many red capitalists and former nomenklatura in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. In the spring and summer of 1989, I met a lot of government officials who were already on the boards of enterprises that were privatizing. “Isn’t this exciting, Professor Sachs?” they asked me. And they actively wanted my blessing. I remember walking out of a meeting with David Lipton saying to him, “Can you believe that guy said those things to us?”

I was trying to think through privatization for the first time, since I hadn’t thought about it before 1989. I knew about industrial organization, which is a different topic of state-private relations, but not about privatization per se. I knew a little about what was happening elsewhere. A huge part of my concern was preventing the theft of state assets or the spontaneous privatization of these assets. That’s why I wrote a lot about what we called corporatization. The idea was at least to create a legal structure with a board and the government as a shareholder — and not to allow this to dissipate into private hands with people walking away with the enterprise or the machinery or whatever else. If you look at the articles I wrote, I was trying to find formulas and ways of doing this with thousands of enterprises, corporatizing everything in the space of a couple years. Should every manager get three percent of the shares as an incentive, or five percent? Should the workers automatically get 10 percent? We always talked about finding core investors, either foreign investors coming in or domestic banks.

These are big questions of capitalism in general. There is no consensus about how the corporate sector should be owned and operated. The United States has dispersed ownership, and that gives a lot of power to the CEOs, and in their way they do a lot of things like red capitalists. Other places have core investors or a family, which in the Polish context could not be reconstructed in most cases. But my feeling was the opposite of how I am often portrayed, that I wanted to give everything away and create the oligarchs. I was always arguing the opposite. There’s no ambiguity in my writing on this point.

By the way, this was in contrast to Andrei Shleifer at Harvard who to my mind was unacceptably cynical and believed that it didn’t really matter who owned what because then there would be private property and a market economy that could work. I never felt that way. I believe that an economy must have a moral framework, which is not necessarily a mainstream view. I was always trying to start from creating a corporate legal form, from which privatization could proceed. I was also a fan from my youth of John Kenneth Galbraith and the concept of countervailing power. I always saw some fraction of the shares going to workers as one way of keeping discipline on the management.


I used to meet with Stefan Kawalec in 1989 to talk about privatization — this was before anyone was talking about privatization, before the Round Table had even finished.


With Stefan, I had probably one of the most interesting discussions that produced one of my most novel ideas — that the currency could be convertible right away. For a lot of reasons I would take that as one of the defining elements of Poland’s success and of my recommendations. A convertible currency basically allows international trade to take place on a market basis, and I wanted that to start very early on — for all the back-to-Europe reasons and all the transformative reasons that come with international market-based trade. Stefan, who is a wonderful person and very knowledgeable, said, “But Jeff, it took Western Europe 13 years to reestablish the convertibility of the currencies from the European Payments Union all the way through the 1950s.”

“Yes,” I said, “but Poland does not have to do that. It can skip the EPU stage and go straight to convertibility.”

I hate the term, as you know, and I hate the mistaken ideas about its results, but making the currency convertible quickly was a real shock. And I would defend that as the key to getting things to move fast and in the right direction.


If you were given the opportunity to go back to that time with the hindsight of knowing what has gone on in Poland or elsewhere in the world, would you change anything in your recommendations, whether major or minor?


I don’t know. I want to describe one more part because it is for me the most intense two weeks of my professional life — the period just before the reforms started. I took a very active role in trying to convince the leaders that they could do this. This was so interesting for me. I regard it as one of my most proud moments.


Who needed the most convincing?


Everybody. The basic idea was that this was a hopeless situation and that maybe only after a few years something could be done. At the moment, however, it was a disaster and they’d be lucky to avoid starvation and civil war. This may sound melodramatic, but these were the prevailing ideas.


I remember when Mazowiecki fainted on his first day as prime minister. And that was seen as a metaphor for Poland as a whole.


Exactly. These were deeply felt ideas. Larry Lindenberg, who is a close friend, took me to see the four giants – Bronislaw Geremek, then Jacek Kuron, then Adam Michnik, and then Lech Walesa. It was very systematic. With Geremek, I had one of the most interesting and passionate conversations of my life. It was just after June 4, 1989, and Solidarity had won this spectacular victory in the elections. Geremek and I sat down and he said, “What do you think we should do?”

I said, “You should try to form a government.”

He said, “No, no, no. While we have the Senate we only have one-third of the Sejm, and anyway it’s hopeless. Let me describe to you what we want to do. We’ll form a committee, a Senate commission, and call in the finance minister all the time and keep a really tight eye on things. But they’ll run the ship. We’ll watch it, and use the Senate for all its worth.”

I said, “This was a revolution. I don’t think you can do that. You can’t take a landslide and make a commission out of it. You have to form the government.” This was June 1989. It was all a little premature. “With the resounding victory, they’ll be looking for more than that.”

And he said, “That’s not possible.”

And that was the first evening that I ever described what I thought could be done. I had a trump card as it were. They thought that Poland was bankrupt. “The debt is crushing us,” Geremek said, “We can’t do anything.”

“Forget the debt.”

“What do you mean, forget the debt?”

“It’s gone, it’s not your business.”

“What do you mean?” he said. “We owe that money!”

“Do you know how big this is, what’s happening right now?” I said. “Many countries in history have gotten the debt cancelled. You can do this. For Solidarity, the West will do this. But we can’t do this if you’re just a committee. You have to be the government.”

“But we’ll have hyperinflations and shortages.”

And I said, “No, you can do this! Do you know what happened in 1947 when Ludwig Erhard took off price controls in West Germany? The goods came back to the stores. That can happen here.”

“But the currency is worthless.”

“No, I actually converted it. It’s convertible. I gave a dollar and I got 9,000 zlotys from the taxi cab driver. On the black market.”

So we had a conversation like this for three hours. Geremek was just a gem of a man, an amazing saint, and he seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. “I am very unhappy with this conversation,” he said finally, “because I think you’re right. I think we need to do something.”

Then we went to see Kuron. And he finally said, “Tak rozumiem.” [Yes, I understand]

“We’ll go home and write this thing up and send it to you,” we said.

“No, tomorrow morning we need this.”

Then we went to see Michnik, who is a phenomenon. He didn’t argue. He just said, “Do you really think we can do this?” After about an hour, at his kitchen table, he said, “Okay you’ve filled in the final piece for me. I knew the political strategy. Now we have the economic strategy and we’ll move forward.” And a few days later came his article, “Our Prime Minister, Your President.”


That was a very controversial article.


Yes, of course. I knew that from just that conversation. To hear those words – “now you have filled in the economics piece” — was for me the real question, not the fine-tuning. Life is hard; economic policy is imperfect; revolutions are tough. In the scheme of things, Poland did very well. There were fights, but the West helped amazingly. So, I can’t get into the mindset of this little thing or that little thing. Life is not perfection. It’s about finding a way forward. The most important question was: is there a way back to democracy and Europe and without civil war and without starvation. And Poland never came even remotely close to any of those things. It got its debt cancellation, got its help, got its foreign investment, and made its way through. To this day, after 40 years of experience in this field, I can’t imagine fine-tuning something more than that. That’s like asking the surgeon, oh, save the heart and all the organs and by the way I don’t want any stitches and no scars. But save my life. In this case, the patient was moribund on the table.


Many people in the region asked me why didn’t they get the same deal on the debt that Poland got. So, why didn’t other countries get the same deal?


Because Poland asked and they didn’t. Honestly! I went to Poland and I went to Hungary a few days later. I said to Poland, “Go for debt cancellation.” I went to Hungary and said the same thing. Mazowiecki got a call from Washington: get that guy out of Poland because this is dangerous. Mazowiecki told me that, and he said, “But we want you to stay.”

Hungary said, “We’re not going to ask for that. We’re going to show that we can pay the debt back, and in the end it will be better for us.” I didn’t think so. So, they didn’t ask. And then Poland got its cancellations and within two years had a better credit rating than Hungary. The Hungarians were furious. “We’re paying the debt,” they said. “And Poland has a better credit rating?”

“Yes,” I said, “because Poland has less debt. Grow up! This is life.” They chose. There’s no more to it than that. Nothing deeper than that.


I talked with former Slovenian finance minister Joze Mencinger. He told me that he resigned in part because he felt that the government was taking your advice not his advice. He explained that it had something to do with a) privatization and b) the exchange rate (he supported a flexible rather than a fixed exchange rate). But maybe it just came down to a question of pace. What’s your interpretation?


I don’t remember any of the details. The main thing I did in Slovenia was to introduce the national currency. I worked with the group of Slovenes who were doing more. But my main focus was the monetary side because they had come out of Yugoslavia and needed a national currency. I was a monetary economist. But frankly I don’t remember the details.


It’s often presented as two paths back to Europe: the faster Polish and the slower Slovenian paths. With the caveat that Slovenia started out in a much better position: a richer country and more strategically located. Have you spent any time thinking about that?


To me, those are really fine points for academic debate, not reality. The Slovene path is through Austria, and the Polish path is through Germany: that’s the main difference. They’re both on the front line, they both did quite well, and everything else is no doubt important if you’re a local politician. But from my point of view, it mostly comes out in the wash. I don’t mean to be flip about it, but I don’t think there are these grand ideological differences.


Geography is destiny in some sense.


Yes, and the good geography for both of them is that they are neighbors to Western Europe and obviously benefited from that. Both did quite well. Slovenia was already a very sophisticated economy before 1990, and it remained so afterwards. Its links to Austria and to Europe are quite important. Geography matters so much. I have a perennial argument with people who have only looked at tables and haven’t experienced the region. The farther east you go, the weaker are the connections. You don’t get the foreign investments. The transport costs go up. The family ties all fall off. The historical traditions are also important. It makes a difference who was Roman Catholic and who was Orthodox. That’s an important divide, not because of doctrine but because of who is rooting for you and giving you assistance.

I gave some lectures in 1993 at LSE that came out from MIT Press. It’s a complete and accurate record of my thinking from then. I can’t live it down, but I can also point to it. There is one quote I wanted to show you. Whether you want to be Sweden or Poland, you have to go in the same direction. This is the diagram that I always thought about. On this end you have state socialism. On the other end, you have free market. Sweden is somewhere in the middle with the United States a little further toward free market. Poland started over here at state socialism. My point was, whether you want to end up here with the United States or with Sweden, you’re going in the same direction and making the same changes. That’s literally how I thought about it. The United States and Sweden both have convertible currencies, central banks, financial policy. Poland had none of those things in 1989. You want to debate the fine points? I don’t think so. I think you want to make these changes.

New York, November 13, 2013