Saturday, April 7, 2007

Who becomes Page One news is easy to guess. However, the rest of the world is not standing still, and a look at some medium-size players serves as a reminder that the world does not end with Iran and Iraq.

Poland is such a player: several thousand Polish soldiers went to Iraq and Afghanistan, many died, and the Polish government has not declared (as have many other allies of the United States) that it intends to withdraw Polish forces from these two countries by a certain date.

The Polish economy is growing briskly. Given the country’s size and population, Poland has a good chance of playing a greater role in peaceful Europe than under communism. When its leftist intellectuals lament the present conservative government’s policies, it is important to respond.

On March 25, Adam Michnik, one of the icons of the Polish Left, compared Polish President Lech Kaczynski to Russia’s Vladimir Putin (New York Times, March 25, 2007, Op-Ed). While both Mr. Michnik and Mr. Putin once shared a belief in communism, Mr. Kaczynski never fell for such illusions.

There are two Kaczynskis. One of them was elected president of Poland in 2005. The other was appointed prime minister at a moment of crisis in 2006. Polish lawyers did not split hairs over equal opportunity for brothers of presidents.

Within a year the entire security apparatus — largely a carryover from communist times — was cleansed of Russian agents and former Soviet agents. There were squeaks and cries, and the man in charge of the operation, Antoni Macierewicz, was tarred and feathered in the left-liberal press. Yet the job was done, to the advantage not only of Poland but also of NATO, of which Poland is a member.

In March 2007, Polish journalists and university professors were asked to submit statements clarifying their involvement (or lack thereof) in spying on their colleagues in Soviet-occupied Poland. The communist system lived by informers, and at some universities, as many as 20 percent of scholarly personnel reported to the secret police, according to the archives of the Institute of National Memory.

Admitting to collaboration would not be tantamount to firing; the professors only had to come clean. The vetting’s supporters reminded Poles that in some countries, visa declarations ask whether applicants have ever supported terrorism or have been prostitutes or pimps. But the vetting’s opponents issued a unanimous outcry. Their civil liberties were being taken away, they charged.

They invoked Thoreau, Martin Luther King, and civil disobedience. They convened meetings and refused to surrender. As I write, name-calling continues and cries for help are issued to the world media: the Kaczynskis are building another Gulag.

Such ideological vetting was done in Germany twice: first, after World War II, to cleanse the administration of Nazis; and second, after the Soviet-occupied East Germany joined West Germany in 1990. In Poland, it was overdue.

While this has been under way, the Kaczynski twins remain staunch supporters of the United States. Polish presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has already been mentioned. Poland weighed in on the European Union’s muted response to America’s ventures abroad. Many Poles oppose the Polish presence in Iraq, but the Kaczynski government (and the previous government of President Alexander Kwasniewski) wisely decided that it is in Poland’s best interest to cultivate close relations with the United States. The issue of the American nuclear shield to be built in Poland and the Czech Republic exposed Poland to Russia’s wrath, yet it is likely to be resolved favorably for the United States.

The conservative Kaczynski brothers have resisted pressures from the right. The ultraconservative segment of society, some 20 percent of the population centered around Radio Maryja, have demanded an unconditional ban on abortions. A representative of the small ultra-right party, Roman Giertych, wants such a ban introduced in all of Europe. Such proposals are among the stones the Kaczynski brothers have to sidestep to remain effective politicians.

Poland is a strongly Catholic country where access to abortion is restricted, though not categorically forbidden. The Kaczynskis declare the law should not be changed. The president’s wife, Maria Kaczynska, tried to weigh in on the issue: she invited a group of feminists to the presidential home and made a statement confirming her support for the present law. The ultra-right immediately denounced her.

The Kaczynskis follow their own judiciously conservative agenda. They opt for the EU being a confederation of nations rather than a one-size-fits-all. They are in favor of proclaiming the Christian roots of Europe in the future EU constitution — if it is ever redrafted and approved. They have been dealt a limiting set of cards: Polish gross domestic product is $7,100 per person (in America, it is $43,740), while Polish market capitalization is $2,432 per person (America’s is $57,165).

Within the skimpy resources at their disposal, they try to promote a good-neighbor policy with their wealthier and more powerful neighbor, Germany, and their poorer and less advanced Ukraine and Belarus. Both the Kwasniewski and the Kaczynski governments have actively supported Ukraine’s and Belarus’ struggle to achieve Western-style democracy.

The Kaczynski government strives to persuade European countries that the EU should speak with one voice regarding Russian gas and oil. Russian policies concerning energy are clearly designed to hurt European unity.

The February 2007 Levada poll disclosed that more than 70 percent of Russians do not feel they are Europeans and do not identify with Europe. Here Polish can voices serve as Virgil’s reminder, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis: One should be watchful of the Greeks even when they bring gifts.

Polish poet Adam Zagajewski wrote a poem titled “In praise of the mutilated world” in which he wisely proclaimed his belief in the value of trying. The Kaczynski brothers deserve a similar comment. Their government has a narrow maneuvering field and a great deal of postcommunist ballast to get rid of. They are doing extremely well under the circumstances and deserve an occasional “three cheers.”


Research professor of Slavic studies at Rice University.

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