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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » April 28, 2011
Special Section - Politics & Society
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Lessons From Our Legacy
April 28, 2011   
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Polish President Bronisław Komorowski talks to the Voice.
A modern Polish state: What do you think this notion should mean in light of the legacy of Poland’s historic constitution of May 3, 1791?
A nation needs its own state just like every family needs its own home. We Poles know this best, since we were deprived of one for many generations. But it is difficult to overestimate the importance of how that state is organized. For want of anything better, you could live in a mud hut, but it’s much more comfortable living in a home of modern structure and fitted with all the advanced utilities. A modern state is precisely this kind of organism, ensuring the national community optimum conditions for development in terms of society, the economy, culture but also politics.

For its time, the May 3rd Constitution was a very modern political project. It was the first constitution in Europe and the second, after the U.S., in the history of the modern world. It gave rise to modern Polish constitutionalism. This tradition was continued by Poland when it was reborn after World War I. Its first constitution, from 1921, guaranteed women the right to vote, for example, which was not common in Europe. France and Italy, for instance, enfranchised women in 1945, and Switzerland in 1971.

Just like all those years ago, today a modern state is a well organized state that works efficiently in even the most difficult situations, like the crash at Smolensk.

I also believe that a modern state works in such a way that its citizens feel and know that they need it, that it makes sense, that it is living proof that by operating within its framework we achieve more, better protect the things important to us and can look more boldly into the future. At the same time, though, it should not be an omnipresent state, a behemoth constraining and stifling citizens’ energy.

I would also like to add that, apart from this spirit, atmosphere and philosophy of the state, modern procedures pure and simple are no less important—procedures followed by all regardless of their official function and social status.

In such a state, what should the relations be between the state and its citizens and between central and local government?
Apart from the obvious task of ensuring security, one of the fundamental tasks of a modern state is to foster the empowerment of citizens, their activity and self-government. The idea of self-government is especially close to my heart. I believe it to be the essential factor for a civil society to continue existing and developing. I want to work for the benefit of a state that is not strong because it is omnipresent, because its institutions want to regulate all aspects of life.

A modern state is strong through the strength of its free citizens. It has the good of the citizen and the good of the whole civic community at the center of its activity. It is also able to protect the individual from the dictatorship of the majority that can sometimes be dangerous. However, these issues cannot be decreed from above or unambiguously defined. Here, we are touching upon the area of civic culture, understanding what tolerance, social life and human freedom are.

What about the state as a safeguard of the interests of citizens on the international arena— how should Poland fulfill this task?
Certainly in a globalizing world, a world in which borders are marked not so much by barriers and posts as ideas, laws and efficient management, concern for the interests of one’s own citizens is not limited solely to ensuring them security within the borders of their country. The state’s tasks in this area are growing continually with the development of means of transportation and trade but also cultural exchange.

Polish people are traveling more and more, often spending a lot of time outside their home country. They want to be, and in many cases are, citizens of the world. However, everyone needs a safe haven. Citizens staying abroad, whether on business or simply on vacation, must have a sense of security. They should know that in case of problems or danger, the Polish state will seek help for them and take care of them.

For the state to help or protect its citizens effectively around the world, it has to be efficient but also credible. I think this is an attribute of a modern state—the ability to represent its citizens well and support their activity outside the country. The private interests of citizens can also serve the interests of the country. Many Western governments equally enthusiastically support their state-owned enterprises abroad as they do private businesses. We still lack this policy, unfortunately. Our experience in terms of relations and cooperation between private capital and the public administration is insufficient. Unfortunately [in Poland] these are often two mutually exclusive worlds.

The May 3rd Constitution was adopted 220 years ago. How can we take advantage of historical experiences like this one?
The May 3rd Constitution is and most likely will continue to be a source of inspiration for the Polish people for a long time. It is also a source of our faith in our own powers and capacity, faith in Poland and its ability to accomplish great positive changes. Furthermore, these are not just changes of domestic importance but in a sense also a legacy for the entire free world.

The modern structure of the May 3rd Constitution contradicted the duplicitous claim of the partitioning powers that Poland had collapsed as a result of anarchy and its own ineptness. It was exactly the opposite. Poland’s treacherous neighbors crossed the country off the map of Europe because they were afraid of its internal rebirth, of which the Constitution was key evidence. Remembering the Constitution, which over time acquired the status of a revered national icon, gave Poles hope for another rebirth. In the darkening gloom of bondage it was like a star leading the nation toward freedom.

That was why in 1918, when free Poland was reborn, no one was in any doubt that the day of the adoption of the May 3rd Constitution should be a national holiday.

Today it is obviously impossible to invoke the political stipulations set down in the May 3rd Constitution directly, because they were dictated by the late 18th-century reality. However, its innovative, freedom-oriented and civic spirit is absolutely worth fostering and continuing.

First and foremost, it can teach us respect for the state, something that—due to a long lack of sovereignty—we are not too good at. We are patriots but often don’t like the state and its institutions, even perceiving them as unfriendly or not very useful, just like in the times when we had very little influence over the state.

Recalling the legacy of the May 3rd Constitution also sends the message that we should learn not only from our mistakes but also our successes. Precisely on May 3, we should recall our victories, not just military but also cultural, spiritual and in terms of ideals; the work of our artists, scientists, engineers, politicians, humanities scholars who have contributed positively to the history of Poland, Europe and the world. The May 3rd Constitution is an example of such a positive legacy, which to my mind is valuable not just for Poland but for all of humanity.

Let us keep this legacy in mind and celebrate it, for it is well worth celebrating.
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