Uncivil society

International | Ten years after the defeat of the communist system, Poland is a free and growing country, but not a very nice place

Issue: "Mid-term, mid-field pileup," Dec. 11, 1999

Outside the shops on Warsaw's Marszalkowska Street, a young gypsy woman seeks handouts. She is crippled and moves almost like a crab, using short crutches to support her torso while her legs catch up from behind. Thousands of gypsies have entered Poland from poorer countries in Eastern Europe. In this growing economy begging can be lucrative work. The gypsy girl unloads coins from her hat at a steady pace, keeping them from accumulating. Ten years ago this scene was unseen. Begging was forbidden in communist Poland. In the sea change that has come over this country since its iron will for democracy shook the world, street-corner gypsies are just one more transformation. The democracy revolution whose 10th anniversary was celebrated across Eastern Europe in recent weeks had its prologue in Poland in 1980. What began when a young electrician named Lech Walesa scrambled atop a shipyard wall in Gdansk led to one of the century's most remarkable events: Communism came down without an armed conflict, and 400 million people were set free. Warsaw is testament to the revolution. Shiny skyscrapers, expensive hotels, shopping malls, cinemas, new apartment buildings, and luxurious homes-once unimaginable-are becoming commonplace. Renovation and new construction are everywhere. Toyotas and Peugeots crowd streets where obsolete Polish, Russian, and East German cars once polluted the air. Teenagers sport cell phones. Shops resemble stores in America, full of meat, fruit, and imported goods. Despite stalled economic reforms, Poland in 1998 was the only former Eastern bloc country to exceed its pre-reform output. Gross National Product last year was 123 percent of the rate before democratic reforms were enacted. Although growth slowed following the Russian financial crisis, signs of progress and prosperity are undeniable. Prosperity and freedom do not everywhere spread a smiling face. In Wroclaw, 200 miles southwest of Warsaw, 68-year-old Henryk Holubek complains, "There's nothing for us now. We had work, food, everything we needed. All those years of work, and now we have nothing." His neighborhood has no shiny new complexes, only bleak communist-era apartment blocks and dilapidated pre-war buildings. For his wife Genia, who, as a peasant girl in Lithuania, watched Nazi soldiers machine-gun hundreds of Jews, communism was preferable to what came before-and after. "We had food, work, peace and quiet," she said. "You could walk anywhere at night. Now they're killing and robbing and no one does anything." Disillusionment, with lingering poverty, crime, and corruption, is typical of the Holubeks' generation. Mr. Holubek is a retired bus driver. He and his wife, who both have heart problems, survive on $200 a month in a small flat. They are part of Poland's lost generation, unwanted by the new private sector and let go by the crumbling bureaucracy and state-owned firms. Democracy was to make everyone richer. While over a quarter of Central Europeans have seen income rise since communism fell, 20 percent have suffered significant losses. With equal incomes no longer decreed from above, predictably, there is bitterness and jealousy. Also, a decade after capitalism theoretically defeated socialism, much remains unprivatized. Banks, insurance firms, the telephone monopoly, and other large firms still harbor a network of communist-era cronies. Former Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki told WORLD that under communism stealing from the authorities was not seen as something wrong. Everyone was "'combining' (scheming), as we called it," he said. Now corruption continues as "part of what Poles refer to famously as 'Polish reality,'" he added. Mr. Mazowiecki was Poland's first postwar noncommunist prime minister in 1989-90. He was an advisor to Solidarity but left the Walesa fold in 1994 to form the Freedom Union. Now 72, he is Poland's preeminent statesman in parliament, a thoughtful, professorial man, whose opinions are taken seriously. To fight corruption in this environment is like trying to drink the sea, Mr. Mazowiecki argues. Students speak of "gifts" for professors and of mass cheating on examinations. Doctors in the state system may withhold adequate service until they receive cash gifts, even when a life is threatened. Police take bribes from motorists. They collaborate with criminals in reselling stolen cars to their owners. Kickbacks and bribes among public officials are cause for concern, according to Mr. Mazowiecki. The predominance of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, some say, has done little to avert the crisis of ethics. Zygmunt Karel, rector of Biblical Theological Seminary in Wroclaw, said, "It is easy for politicians to demonstrate loyalty to Catholic symbols and tradition, but this doesn't translate into honesty and dedication to the ideals they profess. That comes from inner, spiritual strength." In spite of its role in leading the revolution, the Roman Catholic Church has not found the place in Polish society that it hoped for. "The victory of the church over communism and the effort to lead the church to the center of society has caused a strange situation," according to Mr. Karel. "On one hand the church is present in many areas of life, but on the other hand, its voice is listened to with less respect and attention." Consequently, ethical moral values are fragile, even by comparison to the United States, Mr. Karel asserts. "It is more difficult to see attitudes of respect towards bosses, which translate into strong organizations, work effectiveness, reliability of banks. It is difficult to see here the solidarity of neighbors, which in the West helps prevent breaking into cars. It is difficult to see the honesty among citizens. I absolutely don't agree that the West is more immoral than Poland. Looking at attitudes, habits, mentality, unfortunately, we are in a far worse situation." In contrast to the biblical roots of democracy in North America, Mr. Karel says, "In Poland there is no tradition of respect for law, no tradition of honoring, or ability to refer to, a fundamental document, the Bible or a constitution. Only a habit of referring to the authority of institutions and persons-king, church hierarchy, parties." Present-day American culture adds to that problem. Poles, instead of looking to the West for moral examples, are anxious about the invasion of popular culture, said Mr. Mazowiecki. Martyrs of the revolution, like Roman Catholic priest Jerzy Popieluszko, who was assassinated by the communist regime, have better reputations than some who took power. Mr. Walesa, immortalized as the leader of Solidarity and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, fell in public perception from icon of freedom to a loutish guest who wouldn't go home after dinner. A five-year term as president proved him ineffective in governing, and Mr. Walesa lost his reelection campaign in 1996 to a former communist, Aleksander Kwasniewski, who now heads a coalition government of Solidarity members and ex-communists. Even so, Mr. Walesa has announced that he will again campaign to run the country in elections slated for September, 2000.

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Troubling ties

    Under the Clinton State Department, influence from big money…