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Poland--The Taste of Ashes | The Nation

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Poland--The Taste of Ashes

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From your very first encounters at the modernized Warsaw airport you know that you have entered the kingdom of private enterprise. The operator at the money exchange hands me $30 worth of zlotys, though I gave her $40; when I protest, she adds the difference without a fuss. A cabbie offers to take me downtown for 200,000 zlotys, explaining that the cheats in the taxi stand outside will charge more because their meters start at 50,000. When I reply that the radio taxi coming to collect me will cost less than a third of his "reduced" fare, his knowing smile and shrug say, So not all new arrivals are suckers. But you have to try to get on in this world.

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

Returning to Poland after a year, I wanted to see how the patient was faring after nearly three years of "shock therapy" introduced by Leszek Balcerowicz, the former finance minister, and sponsored by the International Monetary Fund. My first impression was that things are the same, only more so. The image of Western prosperity is striking. The heart of Warsaw is packed with cars. They may not be more numerous but they are bigger, Western Europe's compacts replacing the tiny Fiats made in Poland. "Marketing is an art" says the slogan at the railway station advertising a magazine called "Businessman". Across the street, outside the Marriott hotel, the bellboys wear pith helmets; inside, the gambling casino is open twenty-four hours a day. The latter is mainly for foreigners, but along the city's two most elegant avenues, New World and Krakow Suburb, the smart shops displaying expensive cars, elegant amber jewelry and other luxury goods cater to the natives; and these stores have customers. The upper crust is visibly rising.

On my last visit I wanted to know how fast this buying spree could produce a capitalist class, so I looked at the new rich [see "Poland's New Men of Property," November 11, 1991]. This time I wanted to know how the rest of the country lives, including the much-faster-spreading new poor. To see them, you don't really have to leave the capital, yet I advise those who still echo the hymns to the "Polish miracle" of Harvard free-marketeer Jeffrey Sachs and his ilk to make a short train journey from the Marriott to the city of Lodz.

Down and Out in Lodz

With foreign capital and the huge czarist-era market for its textiles, Lodz grew like a mushroom in the second half of the nineteenth century to become Poland's second-largest city; its population is 850,000. Its factories are spread haphazardly across the metropolitan area. My wife and I walk along one such proletarian fortress--building after building behind a brick wall--stretching, it seems, for miles. At the end, along Weaving Street, is a grim block of flats for the workers; opposite, next to a lake, is a white gem of a palace, yesterday the home of the manufacturer, today a textile museum. With such a socially eloquent landscape the inhabitants may not require a long refresher course to grasp the nature of capitalism.

Poland's textile capital, however, is not what it used to be. Deprived of the Soviet market and attacked on the home front by cheap imports, Lodz is in crisis. Although restructuring, so far, has led to the closing of departments rather than whole enterprises, unemployment, by official count, has already reached 18 percent of the labor force. The contrast with Warsaw hits the eye. Even in the upper parts of the main thoroughfare, Piotrowska Street, the shops do not have the chic of the capital's. At the other end of this very long road poverty sweats through the walls. The nearby flea market, with peddlers from Vilnius or Kiev, is miserable not only by Western but also by Polish standards. Anka Rozanska, a sociologist prominent in the local League of Women, knows a great deal about this wounded city. Usually, she works with single mothers or distributes contraceptive devices received from France. She has much to say about the growing shadow of the Catholic Church (of which more later), but to hear about unemployment she takes us to the horse's mouth.

The Committee for the Defense of the Jobless, at the end of a labyrinthine courtyard, has two bare rooms and a dozen people inside. Although men are more numerous, it's chaired by a woman, Lucyna Kosterkiewicz. She speaks in bursts, with passion: "Without family or friends we couldn't survive.... Dispersed we're nothing, lower than dirt." Another woman, who used to work in a glass factory, was unable to pay for coal to heat her house. So she ran up a large electric bill and now the Electricity Board is threatening to cut off her power. Couldn't she go to a special welfare office for a subsidy? I asked. She did, she said. It was like going to confession, only they wanted to know about her "riches." A man proclaims: This is no capitalism with a human face. It's a more bloodthirsty variety. There's a black market for labor; employers hire for less than twenty-eight days so they won't have to pay for social benefits. Another man claims that for the jobless it might as well be the guillotine at age 40. Women say economic demise comes even earlier for them, since to get a job "you must be young, childless and have a big bosom." Lucyna raises the tone: "We forget the taste of butter, the smell of ham.... I wrote to [President Lech] Walesa and heard not a word.... Ours is a voice in the desert."

We move from the committee to the employment office, where the jobless must report to get their unemployment benefits (35 percent of the average national wage for a year, eighteen months in depressed areas, and then you go on welfare). Today is men's day, and we see a line of them wearily standing on the staircase and continuing out into the courtyard; it's like an old newsreel from the Depression. The last time I was here was eleven years ago, during a Solidarity-sponsored "hunger march." Anka, who was among the marchers, says in parting, "Today, if we staged a march, the slogan would be less metaphorical."

`A Nation of Shopkeepers'?

Lodz, with its many factories, is not the gloomiest area. The situation is much more desperate in smaller towns like Mielec or Swidnik, linked to one industry and often connected with arms making. Yet to focus the light only on these sore spots would distort the picture. The plentiful supply of goods--the fact that, if you have money, you can buy anything in Poland, ironically including kosher food, without standing in line--is described as a great conquest even by those who find it difficult to make ends meet.

The unquenched thirst for consumer goods is a notable feature throughout Eastern Europe.The heart of Warsaw is a vast bazaar. Next to the Palace of Culture, a skyscraper in Stalinist gothic, there are now two tentlike stuctures, one housing a supermarket, the other, small shops. The vast terrain is surrounded by a wooden fence decorated with painted trees. Inside is Eastern Europe's souk, a warren of booths, stalls and kiosks offering cheap manufactured wares from all over the globe. The novelty is the spread of decent restaurants, not just McDonald's, as well as the emergence of sex shops. Otherwise, despite the development of a normal commercial network, one can still see in Warsaw, say, lavatory fixtures being peddled at a street corner straight off a truck or meat sold in the open from a table on Wiejska Street, next to the houses of Parliament.

This commercial revolution was designed, successfully, to break the state's control over trade. But what about the next stage on the agenda--capital investment? Statistics published while I was in Warsaw provide some economic and social background necessary to tackle this question.

For now at least, the economic downturn has bottomed out. Since April, production has even been rising slightly, and for the year as a whole it should equal the volume of 1991. Foreign trade shows a surplus. But this is as far as the good news goes. Even if the fragile recovery continues, unemployment is expected to climb from the present 13.6 percent of the work force to 18 percent by the end of next year. And the long-term decline in production has been halted at a very low level: Industrial output is one-third lower than in 1989, and real wages have dropped by 30 percent. Even if slightly exaggerated, because of the mysteries of the private sector, the figures are dramatic. How has the post-Communist regime survived three years of such belt-tightening?

It went through the big economic transformation of 1990 driven by the euphoria of victory and squandering the good will of Solidarity. Last year the discontent grew. This past summer Poland experienced a wave of strikes: thirty дeight in July and thirty-five in August, most notably in the copper mines and in the car factory taken over by Fiat. The stoppages, I gather, were not as unsuccessful and unpopular as depicted in the Polish media (the Western press--guess why?--is no longer keen on Polish strikes).

This interpretation was confirmed by many sources, including Ewa Spychalska, the new leader of the ex-Communist union confederation, the O.P.Z.Z. (with a membership now more than twice that of Solidarity!). Tall and fortyish, Spychalska started professional life as a teacher and switched to become a building technician when she became the main breadwinner in the family. She did belong to Solidarity, like so many millions, but was also a Communist Party member and has no intention of "apologizing for it for the rest of my life." She argues that, while the workers did not get all they had asked for, the summer strikes strengthened unity of action among the rank and file and forced the government to seek a dialogue with all unions, not just with Solidarity. The government, while unyielding during the strikes, may have been prompted by the discontent to look for a deal with the unions through an enterprise pact. Which brings us back to the transfer of ownership and the search for new forms of capital accumulation.

Power and Property

Even before 1989 the bulk of land belonged to smallholders. Now 80 percent of retail trade and about three-quarters of the building industry is also in private hands. In manufacturing, however, the proportions are still the other way around. The Ministry of Property Transformations is putting the last touches on Poland's version of "universal privatization." The plan should involve 600 of the country's most attractive state enterprises. Ownership of these will be divided among twenty or so National Investment Funds to be run by management teams, quite a few of them foreign. Adult Poles will be allowed to buy a voucher for shares in these funds at a fixed price equivalent to a tenth of their monthly wage. The purpose of the operation is to create capitalist interests, to get foreigners involved, to give some people a real stake in private industry and to give the bulk of the population the illusion that they were not completely robbed.

For other companies the government is introducing a "pact on the state enterprise in the process of transformation." This is expected to give labor unions some say in the way their plants are privatized and, during the transition period, to limit the handicaps public enterprises suffer (unlike private companies, they must now pay a "dividend" to the state and a special tax on certain wage increases). The project, still to be voted on by Parliament, is sponsored by Jacek Kuron, the veteran dissident who is now Minister of Labor and Social Affairs. Kuron has given up his old socialist ideals, but not his way of life. The plain-speaking minister dressed in blue jeans is still the country's most popular politician. He admits that to combine a "social contract" with "primitive accumulation" is not easy. He believes he can win over the unions, including the O.P.Z.Z., but he also believes they have little influence.

Let there be no illusion. This is not Solidarity returning to its egalitarian origins or its ideas of self-management. Indeed, Kuron is backed by the most monetarist ministers in the government who, like himself, opted for the Balcerowicz shock-therapy plan yet fear that privatization will run into trouble if it is seen by the workers as daylight robbery.

It's `Them' Again

The transfer of property has obvious political as well as economic purposes. The parties throughout Eastern Europe speak, in a sense, for classes in the process of formation, and this is why they often speak with strange voices. The Parliament's lower house, or Sejm, with its twenty parties (of which none captured more than 14 percent of the vote in last year's elections), provides a good example of such a dissonant chorus. But one of its most prominent members, the historian Bronislaw Geremek, gave me another explanation of the political confusion. The main conflict in Eastern Europe, he argued, is between the reformers who want to lead their societies toward the Western model and the opponents of change. The snag is that the Western consensus politics is based on the existence of a large middle class, absent in Poland. Some, therefore, wish to reshape society by authoritarian means. He maintains that big changes, notably in property relations, can only be carried out with popular consent.

Geremek's interpretation was the only possible one to justify the coexistence in one government of his party, the vaguely secular and leftish Democratic Union, with the jingoist and clerical Christian National Party. The "reformist" link between the coalition partners is the acceptance of the Balcerowicz line and of the pattern prescribed by international finance. The price paid for the shock therapy, however, is a heavy one: the divorce of the former Solidarity leadership from a people who barely three years ago had swept it triumphantly into power.

The fatal flaw of the "communist" regimes throughout the area was their alienation, the fact that the population thought in terms of "us" and "them." In Poland today most ordinary people talk once again about "them"--the crafty ones, the profiteers--lumping together Lech Walesa, the government and the parliamentarians into this category. This is no rehabilitation of the old regime. It is a condemnation of the new one.

The current governmental coalition was brought together last July, partly by the fear of a McCarthyite purge prepared by a crazy interior minister. The present Prime Minister, Hanna Suchocka, was picked because she was sufficiently unknown not to offend prominent rivals and sufficiently Catholic to have the blessing of the church. Most deputies fear an election and thus don't want to challenge Suchocka, but her government could collapse in a conflict with President Walesa. Yet more worrying than the prospects for the government is the almost immediate loss of legitimacy of the new system.

In Warsaw, as in other eastern capitals, those loosely called democrats warn that, if their road to capitalism fails, the alternative is more likely to be semifascist than socialist. They forget to add that their policy feeds dangerous forms of populism. Discontent in Poland strengthens not only the converted ex-Communists, who are still too discredited to become the main alternative, but also parties like the jingoist Confederation of Polish Independence, which nonetheless appears proletarian compared with the Democratic Union, born of Solidarity. More valid is the claim that the so-called democrats, while no longer leftist in economic matters, are better than their rivals on such issues as nationalism and the rule of law. Even this, however, must be qualified because of a Polish peculiarity--the political power of the church.

The Black Web

"The antiabortion law will be passed," Basia Labuda tells me upon emerging from a parliamentary commission meeting. The bill she refers to will forbid abortion even in the case of rape and will sentence doctors and women involved to two years in jail. Basia, whom I have known as a leftie, has long been converted to capitalism. But she has remained a radical fighter for women's rights against the clerical invasion and was recently attacked by Jozef Cardinal Glemp himself. She says the law will pass partly because of the conduct of her colleagues (she, too, belongs to the Democratic Union): They will bravely vanish on the day of the vote or abstain; even those who will vote against do not have the courage to stand up to the church publicly.

From Basia and many women activists I hear the same story of a Catholic Church spreading its web over society. The church emerged under the new regime in an exceptionally strong position, which it is now trying to institutionalize. It first obtained a decree that religious instruction should be given during school hours, then insisted that it should count as a subject. Now it demands that a church teacher be put on every school council. The abortion ban will be particularly harmful in a country where sex education and birth control lag behind the West (many women are still using the rhythm method, known here as "Vatican roulette"). Once the bill is passed, the clergy is expected to switch to a frontal attack on contraception. Will divorce be next? The church is trying to impose its "values" everywhere, including radio and television.

Occasionally, it goes too far. For example, it claimed a university building in Warsaw seized by the Czar after the insurrection of 1863. The Constitutional Tribunal had to remind the church it can only reclaim property seized after World War II. Indeed, some optimists stress that the tide is turning, that the church is losing popularity. The clergy refuses categorically a referendum on abortion, knowing it would be defeated. There are other developments antagonizing the people: the greed with which the church seizes clinics or grabs land destined for children's playgrounds; the ostentatious wealth of the prelates in poor parishes. The church's struggle is ultimately a losing one against the modern age; if it continues making mistakes, it will soon lose the moral authority it gained in opposing the Communist regime. Poland will cease to be peculiar. Should one look hopefully to such a normal future or worry about the dark ages in between?

Blues in the Night

It is our last night in the capital. We have come back from a visit with Zbyszek Bujak, the underground leader of Solidarity in the days of military rule. He has now joined the Union of Labor, a budding social democratic party whose main spokesman is the economist Ryszard Bugaj and that can rely on the prestige of another veteran in the struggle against the old regime, the historian Karol Modzelewski. Bujak, who started as a workers' leader at the Ursus tractor factory, could help them on the shop floor. It is not easy, he argues; people are tired and, disappointed by collective action, are only out for themselves.

We go to the Palace of Culture. Yes, it now boasts a gaming house called Queen's Casino, with lackeys in tails--"penguins," my wife calls them. It is incongruously situated between socialist realist statues carved in the wall, representing a mighty workman and an intellectual carrying Marx's works. What a sad mixture of symbolic associations: the palace itself, Stalin's gift, standing for revolution betrayed and exported; Marx's aspirations distorted in Zhdanovite fashion and then, poison breeding poison, the greatest workers' movement in the postwar period producing a gambling den.

Am I too harsh? As I was walking earlier in the week along the memory trail to Umschlagplatz, from where thousands and thousands of Jews were sent to their death in Treblinka, I was probably already saying goodbye to the town of my early childhood, to the country I returned to in 1980, full of vague hopes that the workers of Gdansk had opened entirely new vistas. It was a historic beginning, even if it did not fulfill all its promises.

It didn't take me three years to find this out. Yet something did snap as I was having lunch in the Sejm with a man for whom I had great sympathy, a student gone to live with the workers--these students were called "colonizers"--somebody who played a key role in setting up the independent labor unions, in organizing the strikes, in the underground political struggle, and who even today is unspoiled by money. Asked, maybe too bluntly, how the capital of Solidarity was squandered so quickly, he replies, "It wasn't. It was invested--invested in the future of our country." Christ almighty! Unbribed and untwisted, but already talking in the wooden tongue of an apparatchik! Is that the fate of all successful revolutions?

But it was not a revolution. In 1980-81 the openings were many. In 1989, deciding there was no alternative, the leadership of Solidarity reduced them to the Thatcherite road to capitalism. This resulted in the Polish paradoxes: In a semirural country, peasants eagerly awaiting capitalism are going to be swallowed by it; the leadership of Solidarity, brought to power by the workers, chiefly by the proletariat from the big plants, accepts as its task the destruction of that movement. Not a pretty sight.

No wonder that Modzelewski, maybe the brightest among these leaders and one of the few who, while changing, remained true to himself, pondered publicly whether the many years he had spent in jail were worthwhile. No outsider can answer such a question. One may, however, suggest that his struggle was not in vain and that the great battles fought by the Polish workers will not vanish without a trace. One of these days the Palace of Culture will be part of the Warsaw landscape as the Sacré Coeur is in Paris; old cleavages will be replaced by new ones and socialism will cease to be a dirty word. This, judging by the ugly face of capitalism in Eastern Europe, may happen sooner than we think. I was repeating this to myself, not just for consolation, as I was leaving Poland, for a long time, with a bitter taste in my mouth.

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