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Who Gets to Claim History?


In a divided Poland, the trajectory of liberal democracy over the past 30 years is seen as a success by the liberal left. The ruling national conservatives have a very different narrative.

© Krzysztof Miller/Agencja Gazeta/via REUTERS

In 12:08 East of Bucharest, a 2006 film directed by Corneliu Porumboiu, an alcoholic professor and a pensioner go on a local television show to debate whether or not there was a revolution in their city, Vasliu, in eastern Romania, in 1989. Over the course of the show, it turns out that history is rarely straightforward. The film’s original title in Romanian, “A fost sau n-a fost?”—roughly translated as “Was There or Wasn’t There?”—reflects a broader point about the memory of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe. Thirty years on, there are still competing narratives about the events that brought down communism in the region. Today’s political disputes have been projected onto the anniversary, making it less about the past than about competing visions of the future.

This is very much the case in Poland. These days, there is little that Poles agree on, from gay rights to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, who served as Poland’s prime minister from 2007 to 2014. 1989 is one of these things, as this year’s milestone anniversary shows. From an outside perspective, this might seem surprising, given Poland’s role in the collapse of communism and its trajectory since then. For years, the country’s peaceful transition to democracy and reintegration with the West, culminating in joining the European Union in 2004, was regarded as a success story. Poland was held up as a model for countries further east, such as Ukraine. Yet rather than unite Poles, the 30th anniversary of 1989 has been subsumed in the political conflict between the ruling, right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) and the centrist opposition led by the Civic Platform (PO), Tusk’s former party. Ahead of parliamentary elections this autumn, both sides have used the anniversary to attack their opponents and promote their vision of Poland.

This split was visible this summer on the 30th anniversary of the first partially free elections in Poland, held on June 4th 1989, which resulted in a government led by the Solidarity trade union. The opposition marked the date with celebrations in the northern city of Gdańsk, the home of Solidarity. In his speech there, Tusk, who was visiting from Brussels, drew parallels between the political struggles of the 1980s and those of today’s anti-PiS opposition. “You cannot let yourself be outplayed, even if you have lost the first match,” he said, alluding to the approaching elections in Poland. The government was not present; instead, it held its own muted ceremony in the parliament. A long-anticipated cabinet reshuffle was held that day, which some commentators interpreted as an attempt draw attention away from the opposition’s celebrations in Gdańsk.

Anti-Communist Roots

To be clear, neither side regrets the fall of communism; indeed, both PiS and PO have their roots in the anti-communist opposition of the 1980s. Rather, the dispute over 1989 has three dimensions: personalities, historical narratives, and worldviews.

First, the split is about the heroes of 1989. The central figure in this dispute is Lech Wałęsa, the legendary leader of Solidarity, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and went on to serve as president from 1990 to 1995. These days, the 75-year-old Wałęsa is a contested figure in Polish politics, amid allegations that he was a paid informant for the communist secret police in the early 1970s. For part of the population, he remains a hero; for others, he embodies what (in their view) went wrong in Poland’s transition from communism. Meanwhile, Wałęsa has positioned himself as a strong critic of the PiS government.

Second, the two camps have different narratives about Poland’s transition from communism. For years, PO has presented it as a success story: Poland went from Soviet satellite state to a democracy, a market economy and a member of NATO and the EU. However, PiS has challenged this narrative. Instead, it claims that the transition was stolen by former communists and crooks. In the past, PiS’s leader Jarosław Kaczyński has called for the Third Polish Republic established in 1989 to be replaced with a new, “fourth” one, which would represent the country’s political, moral and spiritual renewal.

The party has successfully appealed to Poles who feel excluded from the country’s spectacular growth since 1989, including the elderly and people outside the big cities—groups that felt neglected by the PO government. According to a poll after the European elections in May, almost three-quarters of voters with only a primary education voted for PiS. Among voters with a university degree, the PO-led opposition coalition was well ahead of PiS. Geographically, PiS’s support base is in the country’s more rural, traditional east, which is less connected with western Europe. “If it could, Warsaw would fill it with forest,” a trade-union activist in Lublin told me shortly before the 2015 elections, referring to the PO government’s attitude to eastern Poland. This kind of resentment among parts of the population, rooted in a sense of social injustice, propelled PiS to power that autumn.

No End to History

This also explains PiS politicians’ dismissive attitude toward 1989. On June 4 last year, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki tweeted that the 1989 elections were “boycotted by many Poles, only partly free, with rules changed during them to save the national list and Communist Party candidates.” In a second tweet that day, he added that “the road to freedom was long and winding, so let’s appreciate the fact that today we can enjoy life in a democratic and safe country.” This echoes the party’s narrative that Poland owes its position and growing prosperity to PiS rule, rather than decisions made by successive governments throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

Third, the split over 1989 reflects a deeper difference in worldview. Even though PO and PiS both have their roots in the anti-communist movements of the 1980s, today they represent different visions of Poland and Europe. Since coming to power in 2015, PiS has countered the mild, pro-European liberalism of the previous, PO-led government with a populist nativism, which echoes that of Viktor Orbán in Hungary. At home, it has presented refugees from the Middle East and gay people as a “threat.” Internationally, it has emphasized “sovereignty,” which has been visible in its more confrontational attitude to Brussels and Berlin. Speaking on stage together in 2016, PiS chairman Kaczyński and Orbán pledged to wage a “cultural counter-revolution” to reform the EU after Brexit.

More fundamentally, PiS has challenged the idea of 1989 as “the end of history.” In his famous article published that year, Francis Fukuyama suggested that the end of the Cold War means “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” In Poland, PiS has rejected this vision of Western liberal democracy as the end-point. Instead, it has been rebuilding the political system on its own terms, which includes a tighter grip on the public media and judges. Economically, PiS has sought to counter the more market-led policies of previous governments with a more statist approach, including an emphasis on social justice. This includes new welfare policies; its flagship program offers families 500 złoty (€120) per child per month. Mateusz Morawiecki, the prime minister (and a former bank CEO), has described his government’s vision as “a social capitalism, pro-social but also creating good living conditions for entrepreneurs and companies.” According to PiS’s supporters, “liberal-leftists” are to blame for Poland’s and Europe’s problems. Shortly after PiS won the elections in 2015, a government minister told me: “I grew up in a socialist democracy, then we had liberal democracy. Now I just want democracy without adjectives.”

As the trajectories of Poland, Hungary and Russia show, 30 years after the end of the Cold War, liberal democracy is not the only game in town. The elections in Poland this autumn will be between its supporters and opponents.

Despite the fraught political situation, limited agreement between Poles about specific events in 1989 may be possible. Almost two-thirds of Poles consider the elections of June 4,1989 a success, according to a recent poll (one-quarter of respondents see them as a failure). Even among PiS voters, the figure is 40 percent, with 40 percent holding the opposite view. Yet as long as there are elections to win, politicians in Poland and beyond will continue to talk past each other and use history for their own purposes—much like the characters in Porumboiu’s film.