Between the Devil and the EU

By Anna Porter, May 28, 2008

Post-Communist Poland is walking a fine line — and thriving

Radek (Radoslaw) Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, is one of the most intelligent and charismatic young men in any European parliament. Tall, muscular, energetic, casually well-dressed, a former student activist in the pre-democracy Solidarity movement, an Oxford graduate, author of four books, war correspondent, adviser to Rupert Murdoch, and erstwhile fellow of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, he carries his credentials with a surprising lack of self-regard. Like many Polish intellectuals, he returned from self-imposed exile after the collapse of Communism in 1989, but unlike most of them, he immediately entered political life as deputy defence minister. The thought of continuing to enjoy the financial rewards of working in Washington had never occurred to him. Assuming responsibility in an atmosphere that Adam Michnik, Poland’s leading intellectual and editor-in-chief of its largest daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, describes as replete with “envy, intrigue, greed, suspicion, and the urge for revenge,” must have seemed the most obvious choice. It is, after all, democracy.

Michnik, who served a long jail sentence under Communist rule, is a former Solidarity leader and one of the men — yes, they were all men — responsible for bringing “shock therapy” economist Jeffrey Sachs and his “big bang” approach to economic reform to Poland in 1989. The first post-Communist government removed price controls, tightened credit, cut subsidies, sold off government assets and decided to leave retribution for Communist apparatchiks and their henchmen off its agenda. It was not until 1998 that a different government established the Institute of National Remembrance, responsible for the old secret police files and prosecution of “crimes against the Polish Nation.” It has had few successes in its zeal to “out” those who had harassed, imprisoned and ordered the killing of dissidents. Radek Sikorski thinks the files should all be made public.

The past few weeks have been particularly stressful for the foreign minister. He delivered his longest state-of-the-challenges speech in parliament — 10 hours in all, including question period. Russia, Poland’s old nemesis, blessed its new president, who is likely to be no more than Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s cat’s paw, yet Sikorski has to appear both pleased and optimistic about dealing with Dmitri Medvedev. He continues to share the unenviable task of ensuring a continuous supply of oil and gas for Poland’s burgeoning economy — and he has to deal with the United States’ increased pressure to install a missile defence system in central Europe.

With Poland still balancing, at times precariously, between competing pressures from East and West, these challenges may seem overwhelming. But signs are that the current government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk, whose centre-right Civic Platform party supplanted the right-wing, xenophobic Law and Justice party of the Kaczynski twins last October, may pull off this delicate tightrope act. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who was prime minister, and his brother Lech, who remains president, had successfully alienated both Germany and Russia. Tusk’s government is ready to lay old ghosts to rest. It will not risk angering Russia unless the risk is worthwhile. “Last week I asked the Russian chief of staff not to threaten us with nuclear annihilation more often than once a quarter,” Sikorski says with an open grin.

But for Poles, relations with their two more powerful neighbours have rarely been a joking matter. In the case of the Russians, they invaded, brutalized, deported and generally abused Poles over several centuries. The 1940 murder of more than 20,000 Polish army officers, most of them reservists — lawyers, scientists, teachers who could have become resistance leaders — is just another reason for Poles to mistrust Moscow. Although the truth was an open secret, it was not until 1990 that then-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev finally admitted that Joseph Stalin himself had ordered the massacre of the unarmed prisoners of war. They had surrendered to the Soviet army after Poland’s defeat in 1939 at the hands of both German and Soviet forces — a result of the now-infamous secret Ribbentrop-Molotov pact to divide eastern Europe between Germany and Russia.

Last year’s top-grossing film in Poland was Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn, about the murders of 5,000 of the victims in Katyn forest. Oh yes, the Poles are not likely to forget their injuries.