We Need Maturity
January 30, 2014
Aleksander Kwaśniewski, Poland’s former president, talks to Andrzej Jonas and Witold Żygulski. Kwaśniewski was head of state from 1995 to 2005. Earlier, he represented the communist government during the 1988 Round Table talks with the democratic opposition that paved the way to the fall of communism in Poland.
This is the latest in our series of extended interviews with key figures in Poland’s transition from communism to a free-market economy, which began in 1988/1989, the period when The Warsaw Voice itself appeared: the first issue of this magazine hit the newsstands Oct. 23, 1988. As part of the series, we have also talked to Lech Wałęsa, Bogdan Borusewicz, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Leszek Balcerowicz and Aleksander Kwaśniewski.
The interviews with Wałęsa, Borusewicz, Mazowiecki and Balcerowicz have already been published.
Is the Poland of today the kind of country you envisaged when you were sitting down for the Round Table talks on the communist government side in the fall of 1988?
Poland has certainly exceeded our wildest dreams, both my own and those of everyone who took part in the preparations for the Round Table talks and in the negotiations themselves. What happened in Poland and around the world was much more and much better [than we expected].
Sometimes I even get the feeling that if we had had the imagination back then and if we had been able to predict that things would look this way, then I don’t know if we would’ve been so brave in making the decisions that gave rise to all these changes. For the Polish United Workers’ Party [the communist party], the vision that the party would have to collapse would’ve certainly been strongly discouraging. On the other hand, the vision of victory followed by the rapid disintegration of Solidarity could’ve dampened the enthusiasm of some representatives of the other side [Solidarity] as well. The prospect of the collapse of the Soviet Union could have actually motivated negotiators on both sides, because this entity [the USSR] was never seen in a positive light. In turn, the prospect of the reunification of Germany could’ve easily put the brakes on the drive for change.
But our imagination did not extend that far. There was only a dominant belief that changes were needed, that the system in Poland had come to an end in terms of its potential, that slogans such as “democratization” or “socialism with a human face” would no longer work. That we needed to start talking about real democracy and a new political, economic and social system.
What goals did you have in mind when embarking on the Round Table talks? What kind of concessions was the communist government prepared to make and what model of the state was supposed to emerge from these negotiations?
This model was expected to be temporary. The assumption was that the Round Table agreement would bring about reconciliation between the feuding parties and result in the adoption of a political plan that would give Poland a new parliament in which the real—Solidarity-led—opposition would be represented. The next few years were expected to be a time of gradual reform in various areas in the state. The discussion consequently concerned an interim model, albeit one with a number of important elements. One of the topics best prepared by the Solidarity side—one that quickly entered into force later and proved to be one of the sources of the Polish success story—was the part of the agreement related to local government and decentralization of the state. The entire economic part, on the other hand, proved to be completely absurd. If, God forbid, Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki had decided to carry out the demands of his own Solidarity side at the time, it would all have resulted in a “beautiful disaster.” At the table, when economic issues were being negotiated, a battle was being waged between pragmatic reformers within the PZPR [communist party] and a team of socialist, statism-oriented people from Solidarity. The latter, in their demands, did not depart far from the 21 demands adopted at the Gdańsk shipyard in August 1980; reading these demands today, we can see just how absurd they are in a situation where there has been a return to a market economy and capitalism.
How did you get to take part in the Round Table talks in the first place?
I was the youngest of the Round Table talks leaders. I found myself at such a senior level primarily because the prime minister at the time, Mieczysław Rakowski, with whom I had long worked, wanted very much to have me at his side. In those days, I was sports minister, fresh after the success of the Polish squad at the Olympics in Seoul [in the summer of 1988]. When Rakowski called and offered me the position of head of the Sociopolitical Committee in the new government, I wasn’t that keen because I really liked dealing with sports matters. But even [Polish communist-era leader] General Wojciech Jaruzelski told me then that it was time to deal with problems of greater weight. At the government Sociopolitical Committee, we had serious tasks that in a sense portended the Round Table talks, such as changing regulations on associations. At the time we drafted the first law that removed all the barriers and enabled the free establishment of what are now known as NGOs. Back then the bottom line was to pave the way for civic initiatives, which the Church was especially pressing for. The law came into force after the Round Table talks ended.
In those days, without being a deputy prime minister, I actually had all the powers [associated with such a post] and was a member of the government presidium [group of senior Cabinet ministers]. When preparations began for the Round Table talks, Rakowski suggested that I take part in them in the same role I played in his government.
Let’s go back to 1980 for a moment. Why do you think those events did not end with blood being spilled, in contrast to Gdańsk 10 years earlier?
It’s hard for me to speak on behalf of Poland’s communist authorities at the time, because in those days I was only a student activist and editor-in-chief of a student magazine. But I think that—even though within the communist party there was a group of people pressing for the use of heavy-handed methods—among the actual leaders of the party and the state a belief dominated that every effort should be made to avoid a showdown. I think this belief also resulted from the fact that the party was aware that it did not have sufficient resources to effectively control the situation if blood were shed. In previous decades when violence was used against protesters—during the Poznań events of 1956 or during the tragedy in the [Gdańsk-Sopot-Gdynia] Tri-City in 1970—the Polish communist party was far more powerful than in August 1980. The army couldn’t be counted on 100 percent. Besides the protests were not limited to just one or a few areas, but covered virtually the entire country. A multi-million-strong Solidarity structure had emerged, which also gained the support of many party members. Notably, these included Mieczysław Jagielski and Tadeusz Fiszbach, senior party officials and the PZPR negotiators during the August strike in Gdańsk. They were strong supporters of [reaching] an agreement. They believed, like thousands of PZPR members, that it’s better to give up some of your power and privileges than risk a civil war.
Which side had more trouble in keeping a tight rein on the radicals within its ranks?
Both sides had their radicals who were quite a pain in the neck for other participants in the negotiations. In Lech Wałęsa’s camp, this became evident very quickly, actually right after the August Agreements were signed; he immediately found himself forced, as he now puts it, to “tour the country and extinguish fires”—meaning signs of discontent within his own trade union. He had to convince people that the agreements made sense. The communist party was, of course, less democratic and less spontaneous, so similar signs of discontent did not appear as rapidly as in Solidarity, but were nevertheless evident, for example at the meetings of activists or at plenary sessions of the Central Committee of the PZPR. Of course, this [discontent] reached its peak during the martial law period, when many party hard-liners decided that their time had finally come and that it was time to end the softly-softly approach.
When we embarked on the Round Table talks, after several days of negotiations it was clear that an agreement would have to be reached. Because if we failed to strike a deal, the days of the leaders on both sides—Jaruzelski and Wałęsa—would’ve been numbered. They would’ve been unable to maintain their position within their own ranks. Because radicals were still a major force on both sides and were waiting for their next chance. Luckily they never got it.
Returning to your expectations with regard to the Round Table...
After a few years in government, I had no doubt that the road [the country had been following up to then] was a dead-end street. By way of an anecdote, I can quote the words of the communications minister at the time, who said at a government meeting that Poland would take until 2054 to catch up with the rest of Europe in terms of average availability of telephones. I remembered that date because it would have been my 100th birthday. As a man in his thirties, here I was learning, as a member of the government, that my country would catch up with Europe no earlier than by the day I’ll be 100 years old! I broke into cold sweat then because I realized that, as residents of Poland, we had no chance unless something changed rapidly. The impotence of the system was completely evident to us, especially as most of us were also aware of what things were like in the Soviet Union—you did not have to be an enemy of communism to see how behind Big Brother was in terms of development.
So there an absolute need for reforms. As a participant of the Round Table talks I had the feeling that something was beginning, that new roads were opening up—perhaps roads into the unknown, but still better than what we’d been stuck with for decades.
I also had no doubts as to another issue, namely the fact that the Round Table marked the beginning of a process of the PZPR giving up power. In fact, many of the party leaders taking part in the negotiations were also aware of that.
Meanwhile, a large part of the opposition saw the Round Table talks as a scheme by the communist regime, a method to outwit the enemy...
For obvious reasons, the Solidarity negotiators approached the talks with a huge amount of distrust. Later, due to reasons including the duration of the Round Table talks—which lasted a long two months and involved endless negotiations from morning to night—this distrust steadily subsided and more and more hope appeared. However, a new problem surfaced that not everyone was prepared for: the problem of taking responsibility for the final form of the agreement. It was increasingly evident was that, as a result of the talks, Solidarity would no longer be able to be merely a reviewer and critic; that it would have to take at least part of the responsibility for the country.
If, on the basis of the Round Table talks, any theories were to be built about the political negotiations between the government and the opposition, you have above all have to put forward one thesis: that such talks succeed only when both parties are weak. A weak PZPR sat down at the table together with a weakened Solidarity. That’s why it’s difficult to imagine that the Round Table talks [could work] at any other time, for example during the Solidarity euphoria of 1980 or at the beginning of martial law, when the authorities were triumphant. Practically speaking, in the late 1980s and early ‘90s the situation of those in power mirrored that of the opposition—we had the same problems and similar weaknesses and neither of us knew what the future would bring and to what extent it would meet our expectations. Paradoxically, these weaknesses combined to produce a strength—we managed to strike a deal and launch historical changes.
Twenty-five years have passed since then. What has not been achieved over this time?
Let me start by restating that a quarter of a century ago, even the greatest optimists could not predict just how much we would manage to achieve. Briefly put, we changed the political system—without blood being spilled and with minimal losses; we changed the economic system. We did that in unprecedented conditions; the Polish experience became the basis for the first books on how it’s possible to move from authoritarianism to democracy and from central planning to a free market economy. We worked without having been instructed and, certainly made a lot of mistakes in the process, but these mistakes did not harm the ultimate goal.
We are a democratic country. We often complain about our democracy, but as a politician who has traveled a lot and visited many countries that have gone through or are undergoing a similar path of reform, I can assure you that it’s not at all that bad.
We found ourselves in a unique situation at a crossroads in history. We are probably the only country in Europe that has changed all its neighbors without changing its own borders by a centimeter. The Soviet Union is no more, and the same goes for Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic—our neighbors from the days prior to the Round Table. We had three neighbors, now we have seven, and with all of them we have managed to arrange good mutual relations. Over the last quarter-century, Poland has been an exporter of stability. Someone may say that’s not much—let’s go to Belgrade then and see that things could have been completely different.
We got entrepreneurship off the ground in this country and created local governments. Progress is visible everywhere, in the smallest towns and districts.
And what has gone wrong?
In general, while assessing the changes positively, it has to be said that Poles do have a certain tendency that can lead to their own undoing. Namely, their inability to seize opportunities that present themselves. I always say that this is easy to notice during matches played by Polish sports teams, for example. There is a chance to score a goal but they miss and then that comes back to haunt them.
I think the national effort peaked in 2004 when Poland entered the European Union. After that, in a sense, there was no longer a big goal that could drive us all. I once talked with Lech Kaczyński [Polish president from 2005 to 2010, who was killed in a plane crash near Smolensk, Russia], who said that my presidency was easier because my term saw the adoption of a new constitution, entry into NATO and accession to the European Union.
He asked me what he was supposed to do in such a situation, and I replied that it was necessary to be as careful as possible to ensure that we didn’t squander what we had achieved. But exercising care and being diligent is not that spectacular. Developing what we have requires hard work, perhaps even more intense than fighting to join international organizations.
When I look at Polish businesses, small and medium-sized, I’m amazed: people are doing fine, fending off the crisis, manufacturing, selling... Someone from BMW in Poland once asked me if I knew what was the ratio between what the company sold and bought in Poland. It turned out that the ratio was 1 to 12! This best illustrates how strongly we’ve become part of the European economy, how well we’re coping.
But in areas that should have been effectively managed by the state, things are not that rosy. I really do not see any reason why 25 years after the Round Table talks there are still no decent freeways in Poland, and why we don’t have beltways around large cities. There is no excuse for that.
Mistakes have also made in another very important area—education. Of course, it’s a very good thing that many private universities were established in the ‘90s and the number of students in Poland has reached 2 million. But at a certain moment the state should’ve intervened because it was obvious that we were producing an excessive number of young people with an education in areas such as marketing at a time when an acute shortage of people with a secondary technical education was beginning to emerge. Today we have a “lost generation” of people with university degrees who have no guarantee of getting a good job.
Another issue related to young people is demographics. Fewer and fewer children are being born in Poland these days, and more and more out of wedlock. Young women do not want children because they are afraid of losing their job or have not yet managed to carve out a professional position for themselves. This is a very dangerous situation. I think changes in labor law are needed, for example regulations modeled on those in the Scandinavian system, where women after childbirth are guaranteed a return to work at the same or better terms.
What is your diagnosis of the state of Polish politics today, both domestically and internationally?
When it comes to international affairs, Polish politics should to a far greater extent take into account what is likely to happen in the future. This applies to both funds from the European Union and the certain political vacuum with which we are dealing in Europe today. This should actually encourage us to become a new driving force in European politics, alongside France and Germany, which need a good, efficient partner today. This, of course, means that we need to address the issue of Polish entry to the eurozone.
Another thing, on the domestic front, is democracy. This is of course a process that requires patience. But I can see that something is not quite right. When watching political debates abroad, in Germany, for example, I get the feeling that we will take a further 20 years to reach this level in terms of maturity. Polish democracy has ran out of breath. Our politicians are too set in their ways, our leaders are getting older, there are fewer new and interesting things happening. Most of today’s political leaders are the children of the Round Table—it’s high time that new faces appeared.
The involvement of experts in Polish politics is also clearly weaker; there is no longer such a mushrooming of top economists that we saw in the early ‘90s, for example. Today’s world is changing at a fantastic, unprecedented pace, and new, young experts would be able to understand it better, anticipate trends, and channel work in the desired direction. If I were to be president again today, I would set up a team to analyze issues such technological change in the world and the consequences of that for societies. The iPad we have in front of us is changing the world—in a little while we may have a system of online elections, which will radically change democracy, the role of parties, and the position of voters.
A separate issue is the role of the media. Once it was said that the media is the fourth estate. Today I would risk the statement that it’s the first or second estate. The media is capable of starting and fanning and subsequently phasing out topics of public debate, and is becoming a part of the political show, instead of sticking to its role of explaining the world to people. Today when I hear that there’s no time for serious political debate in the media, because there is not enough of an audience for such a debate, I cannot help feeling that we have become highly destructive.
To sum up, politics in Poland should return to being about wise leaders and stop being guided by PR issues. I think many bad things have happened in Poland in this respect in recent years.
You’ve mentioned the need for a generational change in Polish politics. Do you think today’s young generation is capable of replacing the “children of the Round Table”?
This will, of course, be an inevitable process. The young generation today is different. For the first time in decades we are dealing with young people who can really get a good education, can feel at ease in the world at large, and are naturally open-minded. We remember the sometimes humiliating procedures when Poles had to get visas to travel to Western European countries in the ‘70s or ‘80s; for today’s young people this is an abstract concept; they are full-fledged citizens of Europe. No one from my generation entered adulthood with their own apartment, a car, foreign trips and so on. The fundamental question is how well this generation takes advantage of this unprecedented opportunity. My observations suggest that young people, who know their way around the world of business and finance, for example, are still shying away from politics. There is a lack of interest among young people in politics. This of course in part stems from the fact that politicians themselves are good at making politics look bad.
So politics only attracts either crazy types or those who are addicted to it—and both these types are dangerous. If I were asked by a young person about the most effective way into politics, I would unfortunately have to say that they need to become an assistant to an “adult” politician. It’s less of a problem when someone’s good, then you can learn things from them. But if they’re not, then another clone of a bad politician will inevitably emerge.
It’s been 25 years since communism ended in Poland and the country embarked on market reforms. What do you think the country will look like a quarter of a century from now?
As always, there are two scenarios: a positive one and a negative one. Regarding the former, I believe Poland has every chance—with good governance, involvement of the public and positive economic trends being taken advantage of—to be a leading country in Europe, with most indicators at least at the average EU level. In some areas, such as culture and in part science, we even stand a chance of leading the charge in Europe. After the crisis Europe will need new vitality. Poland is able to offer just that; it is a large, centrally located country, with colossal human capital and ready to take on challenges. This will require two basic things—maintaining stability and continuing to press ahead with an ambitious modernization program.
The negative scenario is if we pass up our opportunities. If, God forbid, after the next elections Poland veers toward some kind of Euroscepticism or into conflicts with its neighbors, this would amount to wasting time. The same goes for any further brutal internal bickering or account squaring at home, sidelining people not linked to the winning political group in culture, media or business.
Of course, there are radicals in many European countries. However, I’m less worried about the possible impact of Marine Le Pen [French politician who is the leader of the Front National, the third-largest political party in France] on French politics than about the political activities of groups with a similar bent in Romania or Bulgaria. Western European countries have a stable and well-established system with respected state institutions that are much more difficult to destabilize, and are therefore safer.
In today’s Poland, I do not see a threat involving radical nationalism. My concerns stem from the fact that politicians may become so heavily entangled in internal battles in the coming years that they will fail to see that they’re squandering the biggest opportunities. Using a sports analogy again, the arguing about who should take a penalty kick can go on so long that the players will fail to notice that the game is over. Therefore, I’m still waiting for maturity in Polish politics.