Poland: nostalgia for socialist principles

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu Feb 15 14:25:34 MST 2001

Le Monde diplomatique
February 2001

Poland counts the cost

The Poles expected economic dividends from their political courage in being
the first to break free from communism, helping to release the West from
the costly Soviet threat and paving the way for German reunification. Yet
now they are being asked to foot the bill for joining Nato and taking on
board the acquis communautaire, the accumulated legislation of the EU.


Poland is the only member of the former Eastern bloc to boast a gross
domestic product well above the 1989 level. Most western observers regard
it as the good pupil in the unruly class of countries in "transition" to
capitalism. There are certainly plenty of enthusiastic businessmen, but
under the surface the public mood after a decade of restructuring is
sombre. The children of Solidarity are now in power and it is their turn to
be disillusioned, while the ex-communists draw support from those who are
nostalgic for the good old days of the People's Republic as well as from
some business circles.

To understand how President Aleksander Kwasniewski came to be re-elected in
the first round last October with 53.9% of the vote, and why Lech Walesa
polled only 1.1%, we need to realise that 44% of Poles have good memories
of the People's Republic. Indeed, according to another survey, 47% think
that socialism is a good idea that went wrong in practice, while only 41%
think capitalism is a better system (1).

These views are based on the real social cost of transition. It is not
surprising that Kwasniewski did best in areas with high unemployment. And
if Poles show a healthy scepticism for the almost uniformly excellent
macro-economic indices published in Warsaw, it is because the effects of
globalisation and adjustment to the Maastricht criteria, far from bringing
some respite in the process of "reform", require them to make even greater
efforts. Pervenche Berès, Socialist MEP and rapporteur, says that "new
members of the European Union must brace themselves for a considerable
economic shock in the first few years after accession" (2).

In Warsaw, the 1998 Russian crisis did not really halt growth (3) and the
zloty has not suffered from predatory speculation. Inflation is down,
industrial production is up and health is improving (4). In 1998 Poland
attracted about 40% of all direct foreign investment in Central and Eastern
Europe, representing more than $22bn at the end of 1999 (5). According to
the forecasts, growth is expected to be between 5% and 6% in future years.

This rosy picture has a dark side, however. Unemployment has risen again to
more than 13% and there are plans for restructuring in farming, mining, the
steel industry, telecommunications, oil refining, electricity, public
transport, etc. The elite are worried by the rising tide of discontent, as
growth has been accompanied by social polarisation and a return of regional
inequalities. In some areas unemployment is more than 20%.

The reduction in transport subsidies also makes commuting difficult and
people cannot afford to move to the major conurbations where the work is
because no reasonably priced accommodation is being built for rent. The
principles of social justice and solidarity, proclaimed by the communists
and Solidarity, are being abandoned. Not only that, the Poles are
discovering that national sovereignty is meaningless in the new world of

Foreign capital now controls 76.9% of the banking sector, in terms of own
resources. The best firms have often been sold at less than their true
value - sometimes production plant has simply been broken up. In a shop in
the village of Sufczyn, near Warsaw, one of the saleswomen said: "Hortex
fruit juice has become undrinkable. The Americans bought the factory, kept
on 300 of the 3,000 workers who used to be employed there, and started
importing and bottling concentrated juice from the United States. Now our
fruit-growers have no market for their produce."

Developments like this explain the nostalgia for socialist principles and
the resurgence of nationalist tendencies. Social budgets have been pared
down, the only thing that is going up is the cost of buying
"Nato-compatible" western weapons, incorporating the acquis communautaire
into the legal order, and keeping the borders tight shut.

Ten years after "transition" started, it is becoming hard to maintain that
the increase in the trade deficit - from $2.955bn in 1992 to $18.522bn in
1999 - is simply caused by the need to invest in infrastructure. A senior
official in the ministry of labour and former adviser to Lech Walesa says:
"We are taking out loans just as we did under Gierek, but at least he
invested some of the money he borrowed. Today only 15% of the trade deficit
is down to expenditure on infrastructure, only no-one dares say so for fear
of frightening off western investors."

A safe haven ?

The impoverished Poles are living on credit. This poses a threat to the
macro-economic balance and debt repayments are set to rise from $2.8bn in
2000 to $4bn in 2004. Is that why the government wants to accede to the EU
in 2003? All the major parties want to speed up the process of integration,
which they believe will guarantee stability for the economy, the
institutions established since 1989 and the elite who run them. With its
trade outlets, its jobs market and the massive injection of capital
attracted by cheap skilled labour, they see the EU as a safe haven. But
this is by no means a sure bet.

Fifty-nine per cent of Poles are in favour of accession, 25% against.
Forty-four per cent think the EU will gain most from the change, 8% think
Poland will, and 29% think both will benefit (6). Some artists are thinking
about the repercussions of opening Polish culture to the world market. Film
actor Wojciech Siemion supports the campaign for culture to be regarded as
a special case, while the president of the painters' association, Geno
Malkowski, says: "I have always believed that any culture that was cut off
from life was dead and would never make its mark in history." The
editor-in-chief of the daily Trybuna, Janusz Rolicki, launched the idea of
a congress of intellectuals for the defence of culture but has since been
forced to stand down under pressure from the ex-communist Democratic Left
Alliance (SLD), which takes a liberal-social line on this issue as on others.

The European Phare programme has not so far been subject to democratic
scrutiny, but the expenses incurred in adopting EU rules already exceed the
funds that have been obtained (7). In the course of the exercise to
incorporate the acquis communautaire, Warsaw will have to comply with more
than 100,000 pages of European directives and adopt more than 180 laws
between now and 2002. Some Poles are asking why, without massive subsidies
from the Fifteen, their country has somehow managed the changeover better
than the former GDR (German Democratic Republic). The East Germans
benefited enormously from the move - even though they have had to put up
with the consequences of submitting to the wider European market and the
injunctions of their fellow Germans in the West.

Germany's insistence on pushing Polish accession through quickly is
beginning to look suspect. The more so, as the negotiations will be much
more difficult than with the smaller countries, such as the Czech Republic
and Slovenia. Having increased customs duties in 1999 to restore its trade
balance, Poland has now been warned by the European Commission's
director-general responsible for agricultural relations with aspiring
members of the EU: "We think raising duties is going down the wrong track.
What is needed is restructuring, not avoiding the reality of competition"
(8). Following delicate negotiations, it was finally agreed last September
that customs duties on 75% of agricultural products would be abolished in
2001 (9).

By last June the files had been "provisionally" closed in 11 areas, but 18
remained to be negotiated, including free movement of goods, persons and
capital, company and competition law, taxation, agriculture, fisheries,
customs, energy, culture and the environment, not to mention the thorny
problem of Schengen.

The Poles are unwilling to be cast in the role of policeman, acting as a
filter for immigration between the "poorer part of Europe" and the third
world on the one hand, and the "tight-knit coterie of the wealthy" on the
other (10). Businessmen in Bialystok have come out strongly against this
policy. Former Solidarity leader Henryk Wujec sums it up: "All the EU
leaders want is to keep the border closed" (11). Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, who
represents Poland in the negotiations with Brussels, says: "We are not
interested in continuing to be the last outpost on the outer edge of the
EU. The eastern border should be a bridge, not a wall" (12).

In fact, the Poles are well aware that Europe is a Eurasian peninsula and
that no real progress will be made without bold joint policies to establish
safe, rapid and open channels of communication between Paris and Beijing,
via Berlin, Warsaw, Minsk and Moscow. The United Nations Industrial
Development Organisation (Unido) is to open an office in Warsaw this year,
which will be responsible for aid to Europe's "developing countries"
(Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, etc).

The EU, in particular France, advocates tighter controls, with computerised
data, stealth helicopters and detention camps (13). Such moves would be
bound to provoke nationalist reaction among the Eurasians. Warsaw has
already helped to arouse this dangerous response by joining Nato and
supporting the bombing in Yugoslavia.

Many Polish farms depend for their survival on cross-border trade with the
former USSR. Products are obtainable on favourable terms from traders in
all the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Many
shops would go out of business without the 10m CIS citizens who cross the
border into Poland each year. A flourishing subsistence economy on both
sides of the border would disappear if visas were introduced.

A peasant woman in Chelm is dismayed. "Who will buy our vegetables if the
border is closed? I'm against it. After all, the Belarusians, Russians and
Ukrainians are closer to us than the Germans. We understand them." The
extreme right made no impact in Poland after 1989, but insidious campaigns
in the public TV networks and supposedly liberal newspapers appear to be
exploiting a sense of insecurity and a fear of epidemics to encourage
distrust of incomers from the east. Genuine liberal impulses may
unfortunately bring a xenophobic backlash, and conscience-salving
anti-racist campaigns only help to foster distrust.

* Senior lecturer at the Institut national des langues et civilisations
orientales (Inalco), Paris.

(1) See Le Point, 6 October 2000, and the CBOS survey in Le Sondoscope,
Paris, July 2000.

(2) "Economic 'shock' warning for new EU member states after accession",
European Report, Brussels, 2 September 2000.

(3) The growth rate rose from 2.6% in 1992 to 7% in 1995, dropping back to
4.1% in 1999. Patrick Lenain, "Poland's successful transition", OECD
Observer, 10 April 2000, and UN Economic Commission for Europe, Economic
Survey of Europe, Geneva, June-July 2000.

(4) The rate of inflation fell from 45.3% in 1992 to 7.4% in 1999, UN
Economic Commission for Europe, op.cit.

(5) Patrick Lenain, op.cit., UN Economic Commission for Europe, op.cit.

(6) CBOS survey, op.cit.

(7) Stephen Holmes, "No quick fix", Unesco Courier, Paris, November 1999.

(8) Helmut Stadler, European Report, Brussels, 5 July 2000.

(9) "Accord agricole entre la Pologne et l'Union Européenne", Le Figaro
économie, 28 September 2000.

(10) Gilles Lepesant, "La Pologne et son Est", in "Les confins de l'OTAN",
Nouveaux Mondes, Geneva, no 9, autumn 1999, pp. 241-256.

(11) Natalie Nougayrède, "Les travailleurs au noir de l'ex-URSS affluent en
Europe centrale", Le Monde, 12 October 2000.

(12) Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, "Nous voulons une vraie politique orientale de
l'Union Européenne", Le Monde, 8-9 October 2000.

(13) Robert Graham, John Reed, Michael Smith, "France takes tough line over
Polish border security", Financial Times, 18 May 2000.

Translated by Barbara Wilson

Louis Proyect
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