The Mixed Fruits of Poland’s Freedom
Editor's Note: This piece is part of a full report, "Reassessing 1989," which looks at the major events of that year, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square protests, and the breakup of Yugoslavia.
On June 4, 1989 Poles had their first, partially, free election since the Second World War and peacefully removed communists from power. What followed were over 20 years of spectacular and thorough transition: from authoritarian, semi-military rule to a thriving democratic state that is an independent regional player; from a rundown, centrally commanded economy to an open-market capitalist powerhouse; and from a closed, agrarian society to a Europeanized modern nation. Initially the laggard leader of reform in Central Europe, a decade ago Poland emerged as the poster child of Western success – proof of which could be found in the Economist, which finally stopped adorning articles on Poland with black and white pictures of horsedrawn carts and instead featured Warsaw’s shining skyscrapers.
The year 2008 was a turning point for Poland’s international image and self-perception. As the world reeled from a global financial crisis, the country avoided a recession. Warsaw started to punch above its weight in EU politics and positioned itself as a regional ally of the United States in Central Europe. Donald Tusk became the first Polish prime minister to win re-election, unlike his predecessors who were thrown out of office by voters weary of so much reform. Around 2013 Poland seemed to be defying historical gravity, bullish in a bear-market world, and avoiding political turmoil. For the international observer it appeared to have become a mature liberal democracy. Some even expected it to provide a fresh political impetus to a crisis-ridden Europe.
And then Tusk was appointed president of the European Council.
Opinions differ on whether his departure for Brussels initiated Poland’s liberal breakdown or if he just anticipated what was coming his way and wisely chose an exit. Voters’ fatigue with his party and the leadership void he left certainly contributed to the landslide victory of illiberal forces under Jarosław Kaczyński in 2015. But there were three other factors driving the shift. First, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine undermined the sense of physical security that Poland had enjoyed since 1989. Secondly, televised images of chaos in Hungary, Austria, and Germany as large numbers of refugees entered the EU rekindled connections to ethnic, cultural, and religious identity. And thirdly, though Poland avoided the recession that followed the global financial crisis of 2008, the near miss resurrected traumatic memories of 1989.
Fear is a prerequisite for populism, but the key to Kaczyński’s political success was his reappraisal of Poland’s transition. He promised to set right the perceived injustices and inequalities of the past 30 years. This is the unifying purpose of his project, which binds together a rejection of misguided liberalism with an adjustment of national priorities. The correction of the injustice of recent years thus entails an attack against the liberal elites that have held power since 1989, including the judiciary that still purportedly carries a communist legacy, and a rejection of progressive values allegedly imposed by the EU, as well as family-oriented social spending and redirection of public investment toward domestic companies. Kaczyński caters to that part of the electorate that has felt economically left behind, politically unrepresented, and socially alienated as a result of the changes that followed 1989.
The Cost of Transition
There were two distinct parts of Poland’s transition: evolutionary political transition and revolutionary economic change. The architects of 1989 subscribe to a different narrative – of a sudden political breakthrough and gradual capitalist reforms. In reality, while free elections and sovereign statehood were achieved gradually, the initial privatization of the economy and removals of price controls happened instantly. Liberal democracy was established over several years, free-market capitalism in a matter of several months. Economic changes were faster, more forceful and destructive to the preexisting order than political changes. They also had an incomparably bigger impact on individual destinies of people.
Poland’s transition was impossible to plan or control fully, even though it was undertaken with the best of intentions following the best available blueprints. But it also was an experiment on a living organism – the collective Polish people, professional groups, local communities, families, and, finally, individuals. There is a strong case for this being morally correct and historically inevitable, and even a triumph for democracy and capitalism. But this does not erase the fact that it was first and foremost a social transition that carried a human cost.
There were cities that the changes of 1989 pushed into decline, whole professional groups that were made obsolete and jobless, and families who lost hope for their future. Łódź, Poland’s second-largest city and the country’s industrial hub, lost tens of thousands of jobs as local garment factories were shut down by market competition from Asia. As a result, Łódź has seen severe depopulation, losing about 16% of its population between 1990 and 2015, followed by social decline. The same happened to smaller localities like Bytom, Słupsk, or Łomża.
Herein resides the unintended and overlooked failure of Poland’s Third Republic: the state born out of 1989 was unable to critically assess the transition that made it. The avoidance of critique enabled the transition republic to fulfill its mission, but at the same put it on a path toward its demise. The Third Republic was not brought down by Kaczyński – it fell to pieces several years before his victory, as its arc was complete, its values moribund, and its elites worn out. Kaczyński captured the moment of fatigue and combined the resentment of different groups into a wholesale critique of post-1989 Poland. The fact that he cleverly exploited these social sentiments for political gain does not negate their veracity or legitimacy. The decades-long neglect of these feelings is the source of today’s social conflict in Poland.
Solidarity Died in its Homeland
Due to the abruptness and sheer scale of change, anyone alive in 1989 suffered psychological stress. Those who climbed the social ladder and prospered may have forgotten the insecurity and fear of the future those early years brought. For those who were not lucky enough to find social advancement and wealth, that same insecurity, fear, and wistfulness for a lost world have become a formative trauma. The traumas varied. For thousands of workers of closed factories, it was sudden unemployment and penury. For thousands of civil servants, teachers, and managers of the state-controlled economy, 1989 meant social demotion as the transition brought in a new, capitalist middle class. In the end, the vast majority found their place within the new system – but the experience of 1989 shaded their view of transition and of Poland as it is today.
What they longed for was respect. They did not receive it from the new state, which could not afford large-scale social assistance, nor from the new elites, who were preoccupied with building a new state and blinded by their own success. But most importantly, respect for the disadvantaged, underprivileged, or needy receded from daily life: in the race for a better, richer, and stronger Poland we somehow lost the capacity for compassion. Solidarity died in its homeland. Thirty years on, Poles woke up in a community of strangers bound together by a trauma nobody wanted to speak about. Until Kaczyński brought it into politics. And it is no accident that he was the one who did. A senator and long-time MP, Kaczyński was highly influential in the early 1990s as chief of staff to President Lech Wałęsa , but then his conservative camp was sidelined by the liberals who shaped Poland for the next 20 years.
To address and channel the trauma, Kaczyński waged a counterattack that is both his reflex and his preferred political method. He could retaliate against the same elites that had rejected him and dismantle the Third Republic that he had been sidelined out of building. He made that choice from a place of political exclusion where impotence breeds anger and anger transforms into power. This anger has driven Polish politics since 2015 – Kaczyński’s personal anger and through him that of thousands of voters unhappy with the distribution of power, wealth, and prestige since 1989. One might think events from 30 years ago have no bearing on young voters of today, but traumas are hereditary. Kaczyński attracts not just those hurt by the transition but a broad representation from all generations of voters who share his hunger for retribution.
They also share something beyond resentment, something much more important: a longing for community, which the Third Republic failed to deliver. What defines Kaczyński’s politics is not populism, conservatism, or authoritarianism – it is communitarianism that brings Poles to vote for his party. Similarly, what defines the leader of the opposition, Grzegorz Schetyna, is not his love of technocracy, liberalism, or democracy – it is individualism, the political promise to create conditions for personal advancement and prosperity.
The tension between communitarianism and individualism is the key fault line in today’s Polish politics. After 30 years of policies promoting individual well-being, Poles want more concern for the common good. The economic transition is complete; the country can afford to attend to its needy and its social fabric again.
Kaczyński builds a community that is to be identical with his political tribe – that part of Poland which espouses traditional values, supports autocracy, accepts a statist economy, and fears closer ties with Europe. His party does not build an inclusive community for all Polish citizens. This is his weakness.
The speed and determination with which Kaczyński is transforming Poland has an air of irrevocability, but in truth his project is very fragile. It is impossible to change a country thoroughly or durably while avoiding social dialogue, aggressively imposing solutions, acting in haste and without respect for the law. Kaczyński’s mistakes will culminate in another wave of tribal anger, but this time directed at him. It will sweep away his project only to replace it with another politically divisive and socially exclusive proposal.
Thirty years after communism was felled, Poland faces the final challenge of 1989: how can it build a political community to sustain democracy and buttress the achievements of the transition? The backlash against the post-1989 failures was inevitable, but it is about closure with the past, not opening a new future. Further polarization will result in political violence (as seen with the murder of Gdańsk’s liberal-minded mayor, Paweł Adamowicz in January) and ultimately civil strife. Poles are too wise to go down that road. At its core, democratic politics is an attempt to shape a common destiny for a diverse group of people – it relies on the assumption that they share a basic sense of community. For that community to emerge, common values need to be articulated, in an empathic and compelling way, probably by a new generation of politicians.
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