Thursday, 30 June 2011

Balcerowicz's Tragic Revolution (Part 2)

Below is the second part of Piotr Szumlewicz's article published on the website Labour Notes.

In the years 2001-2007 Leszek Balcerowicz was the chief of the National Bank of Poland and because of that position he had to tone down his comments. Shortly afterwards he went back to political quarrels. Without any particular position in government Balcerowicz was still present and active in public debates. Even though he had a lot of experience in handling the economy Balcerowicz during this time as well presented himself as an economist who made one mistake after another in most of his diagnosis.

Hardly anyone remembers that just before the economic crisis in Ireland, he was praising the achievements of the Irish government; that the Baltic republics — just a few months before the gigantic collapse — were an example to follow. A number of times he prophesied the collapse of Scandinavian countries at a time when these countries were leading and still lead in the rankings of competitiveness, technology development and the standard of living. For a number of years Balcerowicz has been misleading the public, talking about the supposed high spending on social security in Poland, though the amounts of money put aside for such purposes are amongst the lowest in the European Union. He gives also false information on the huge fiscal loads, the GDP is 6% lower than the European Union average.

Balcerowicz has become to be known as a dogmatic ideologist who defends compromised ideas, not caring about the consequences of their implementation. The main objects of his attacks are those who are under social welfare, the jobless, pregnant women, mothers, workers in the public sector. In every quarrel he was on the side of the strong against the weak, he promoted unequal redistribution, his solutions were to reward those who are already successful and take welfare from those who did not make it.

In the last few years the popularity of Balcerowicz has been on the wane. Continuously repeating the same things, he is not attractive anymore even to the liberal media given the fact that the same ideas have been announced by government representatives. With the help of Balcerowicz there is a crisis. The private sector disappoints and without the intervention of the state it is difficult to work against negative trends. This is when the ministers in Donald Tusk’s government admitted that there was a need to undermine the neoliberal dogma and raise taxes as well as expanding the role of the public sector in the pensions system. In this situation Balcerowicz became one recognizable defender of neoliberal orthodoxy. A number of journalists speak about the big quarrel between “old liberals” and Balcerowicz. Everyone can see that Balcerowicz’s views are a sign of free market fundamentalism, which no one treats seriously in Western countries. How can you defend OFE in a situation when, in only a space of one year they have lost 20 billion PLN and their servicing is much more expensive than ZUS? How can you defend the lowering of taxes in a situation where the deficit in public finances is going up and the taxes in Poland are among the lowest in Europe? How can you demand cuts in social spending, when it is one of the lowest in Europe and the indicators of poverty among the highest? How can you demand that there has to be a reduction in aid and for the tightening of the criteria for giving aid when it is already the lowest and the most selective in the European Union? How can you demand for a reduction in the minimum wages despite the fact that they barely pass the social minimum? How can you dogmatically campaign for the privatization of public companies which bring in millions for the country every year?

More than twenty years have passed since Balcerowicz started his career in big politics. His present proposals are not in any way different from those that drove the country twice into economic and civilizational regression. Balcerowicz wants to limit the worker’s rights again taking help from the jobless, farmers, pensioners and the sick. At the same time he wants to support businesses, banks, pension funds. The rich are to get richer at the expense of the poor. Do we really need that model? Is it worth our time to treat Balcerowicz’s views as a sensible programme for reform? One of the advantages of a democratic system is the ability to learn from mistakes. Leszek Balcerowicz has already had two chances. He has not used even one of them and he has not learnt anything. He does not deserve another chance given the fact that he will not propose anything new.

Piotr Szumlewicz
Translation: Marlon Nziramasanga

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Climate Change Deniers

True the floods last year were not as bad as some experienced in areas of China or Pakistan. There were no mud-slides and thousands were not killed. Nevertheless Poland experienced a series of floods, especially in the south of the country, that should remind everyone of the urgency facing the world over climate change.

It is never possible to convince everyone. Despite the consistency of climate change projections and the increasing regularity of unpredictable weather patterns, some will prefer to claim a form of conspiracy is at work. By whom and for what reason no one is clear.

One of the region's great climate change deniers is the Czech President Vaclav Klaus. Klaus is a conservative in the tradition of Hayek and Thatcher. He believes that ‘freedom’ is most threatened by the political ideologies that seek to control and regulate the market. He refers back to the experiences of communism and social welfare capitalism as examples of constructivist ideologies that promoted equality and non-discrimination but led instead towards totalitarianism. In the modern world Klaus identifies a number of new enemies: what he calls humanrightism and NGOs, political integration within Europe and also environmentalism. For Klaus the environmentalists are the new party commissioners - demanding controls, setting targets, interfering with people's individual freedom to consume and pollute as they wish.

Klaus has a friend in the European Commission: Janusz Lewandowski. Lewandowski is a strange breed. He emerged out of the Gdańsk Liberals along with Tusk during Communism. During the 1990s he was a leading advocate of extreme Thatcherite economics in Poland. An example of this was his claim that the Polish intelligentsia will be able to fulfil its historical mission only by supporting the “empire of capital” and that it would betray this task if it concentrated on caring for the needs of the losers of the transition and socially excluded.

So after spending two decades explaining why there should be no economic redistribution in Poland he became the EU budget commissioner in 2010. In this job he has been doing his best to convince the richer states to maintain their payments into the EU budget so that funds can be - yes you guessed it - transferred to the poorer states in the EU, not least Poland. A noble task indeed, but quite why economic redistribution works at a continental and not a national level is anyone's guess.

Perhaps Lewandowski's sense of economic fairness and redistribution extends yet further nowadays. EU environmental ministers met last week to discuss the European Commission's 2050 roadmap towards a greener economy. The roadmap had agreed to cut carbon emissions by 40% by 2030, 60% by 2040 and 80% by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. All were agreed except one country: Poland. Now there is a case that poorer countries such as Poland, which is heavily reliant upon coal, should be receiving help in meeting the targets set in this package. However, when expressing his support for the Polish government's decision Lewandowski remembered his Thatcherite roots and claimed:

We already have overambitious agreements on CO2 emission reduction. There is a notion that the thesis that coal energy is the main cause of global warming is highly questionable. Moreover, more and more often there is a question mark put over the whole [issue of] global warming as such.

As a spokesperson from Greenpeace stated: "It's terrifying that the man in charge of Europe's budget is someone you might expect to see in Sarah Palin's Republican party"

Friday, 24 June 2011

Those Who Hold Power

‘Those who hold power’ was a derogatory phrase commonly used during the term of the last SLD government. It reflected the feeling of many that the SLD was made up of people who were primarily concerned with maintaining their positions of influence and privilege, rather than on matters of principle or changing society for the better. It related to the belief that a network (układ) dominated public life – bringing together politicians and business people in an unholy and dishonest alliance.

It was in this atmosphere that the two parties of the right that currently dominate Polish politics – PO and PiS – rose to prominence. Both claimed that they were opposed to corruption and that the problems in the country were primarily due to the corrupt elite that control public life. Prior to PiS forming a government in 2005, both parties supported the creation of a new Fourth Republic out of the ashes of the decaying Third Republic.

Much has changed since this time. PiS became discredited due to its authoritarian style of government (2005 – 2007) and its willingness form a coalition with the extreme right-wing party - the League of Polish Families (LPR). In these circumstances PO was able to take up the mantle of the defenders of democracy and, now opposing the project of the Fourth Republic, galvanise the opposition to the PiS government at the 2007 parliamentary elections.

PO was formed in 2002, bringing together a range of personalities and currents that were looking for a home after the break up of the Solidarity Electoral Alliance (AWS). It claimed to be different from other political parties, presenting itself as a citizens’ movement, formed from the grass-roots that would bring a new quality to Polish political life. The party combined liberal economics and democratic politics with social and cultural conservatism. Behind the leadership of Donald Tusk and co was a strong ideological conviction, emerging as they had from the ‘Gdansk Liberals’ – a small opposition group formed during Communism that reproduced the works of Hayek and Friedmen and believed that ‘capitalism without democracy would be better than socialism with democracy’.

Political power always brings with it responsibilities and also the need for compromise. When in government Tusk and his main advisor and mentor Jan Bielecki have proven themselves capable of understanding this reality much better than their neo-liberal predecessors, who are now confined to throwing criticisms from their well-funded Think Tanks. The fact that the PO government could stand back from its previous convictions and introduce a positive – although limited – reform of the pension system reflects this reality. However, this pragmatism has another side.

Since 2005 PO’s major selling point has been that it is the only viable alternative to PiS. It therefore tends to highlight the negative features of Kaczynski’s party – of which there are many – and attempt to gain from the fear of a return of PiS to power. Even its main attack against the SLD nowadays is the fictitious claim that it would like to form a coalition government with PiS after the next elections.

Beyond this the party attempts to show itself as being competent and trustworthy. Tusk presents himself well, shows a humour and self-distance in public and appears confident on the international stage. At times he reacts proactively and aggressively to perceived (or created) threats: such as the spread of the sale of ‘smart-drugs’, football hooliganism, gambling corruption and so forth. He attempts to skirt ideological issues and present his government as one of pragmatic stability. Primarily it promises to use the opportunity presented by an inflow of EU funds and the up-coming 2012 European football championships by investing in the country’s infrastructure and pushing forward Poland’s development.

Just as hangers on and opportunists flocked to the ranks of the SLD ten years ago – so the same is happening to PO. It’s membership has increased to above 50,000 (from around 30,000 in 2008) – small in comparison to many parties in Europe but large in Polish terms. The leadership of PO has also engaged in a number of high profile political transfers in recent weeks. As reported previously, the former MP connected to the SLD – Bartosz Arłukowicz – has been given a symbolic post in government in order to provide PO with a left face at the forthcoming elections. During the recent PO convention Arłukowicz was sat – resplendent in his new blue tie – alongside two new recruits: Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska and Dariusz Rosati.

Kluzik-Rostowska rose to fame as the manager of Jarosław Kaczynski’s Presidential campaign last year – as she attempted to present the former Prime Minister in a positive and more centrist light. She then led a break away from PiS – forming a new party under the ludicrous name: Poland is the Most Important. The party predictably failed to make any impact in the opinion polls and now Kluzik-Rostowski has jumped ship and is looking for a safe seat to contest as a PO candidate. She now claims that the main priority for the next election is to keep Kaczynski out of power (sic). Rosati had been advisor to the last PM during Communism and became a strong advocate of the Shock-Therapy reforms at the end of the 1980s. In 1989 he naively claimed that there would be no serious problem with unemployment in Poland – 2 years later those without work had soared above 12%. In 2004 he was elected as MEP as part of the Social Democratic Party of Poland (SdPL) – but then lost his seat in 2008 after running on a joint slate with the liberal Democratic Party. After helping take the left down a blind-alley he also is seeking to enter parliament as a PO candidate.

PO has now become the party that holds power. It has sought to avoid controversy and attract support from different political currents in order to create a party of the centre-right that can dominate and hegemonise the Polish political scene. Many fear that a new form of political system has been created, where there are no real choices between the political parties on offer and where principle and conviction have been replaced by technocratic manipulation. Such an opinion was recently aired by the leader of Krytyka Polityczna: Sławomir Sierakowski. Sierakowski’s thesis states that politics has been reduced to a façade, where there is no true political pluralism in the country and PO are creating a ‘post-political’ party in which public relations has replaced political programme. Sierakowski writes that PO has given up its political ideals in order to create a pact with society by showing they can deal with issues such as the economic crisis and road building.

There is much to agree with in this opinion. However, its weakness is that it assumes that PO will be able to manage the practical issues of government and therefore maintain political power. Sierakowski compares the project of Tusk to that carried out by other European leaders such as Berlusconi and Sarkozy. Yet leaders such as these are now facing grave political problems and it is highly likely that they will lose power at the next elections. All governing parties in Europe are facing the quandary of how to maintain political support in a period of economic crisis when it is not so easy to buy off different sections of society. So-called post-political democracy will difficult to maintain in the post-crisis age.

The Tusk government is trying to delay facing up to this contradiction until after this autumn’s parliamentary elections. However, cracks are already beginning to show. As mentioned above one of this government’s main selling points has been its claim to be successfully managing the inflow of EU funds and carrying out investments in the country’s infrastructure as part of the preparations for next year’s European football championships. However, a report produced last week shows that this claim is far removed from reality. Last year only 1/3 of all planned investments were completed (instead of ZŁ95bn only ZŁ35bn was spent.) The report predicts that more than 403 km of roads will not be completed as planned by the start of the tournament. The A2 highway, due to link Warsaw and Germany, is unlikely to be ready for the tournament and there have been insufficient investments in the rail networks.

The problem for PO is that their economic strategy is unviable. They are attempting to carry out one of the largest investment programmes in transport and sports facilities in the country’s history, whilst also endeavouring to bring down the budget deficit from nearly 8% this year to around 2% next year. Quite simply, these two simultaneous projects do not add up and is leading to less money being assigned to these investments (especially through making local governments reduce their spending) alongside more pressures to cut expenditures in other areas of economy and raising regressive taxes such as VAT. With inflation rising, unemployment remaining high (particularly for youth) and the government planning a new round of spending cuts, then PO’s attempt to be the ‘party for all’ will become increasingly difficult.

In these circumstances it is worthless for opponents of PO to bemoan its successes and gripe about its popularity. Rather it should be highlighting the failures of PO to actually deliver what it promises and preparing its own programme of economic development that can unite different social layers. Investment not cuts and protecting low and middle wage earners from further economic hardship can form the basis of such an economic programme. For behind the gloss and PR, PO is promising economic solutions that will divide and not unite.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Baltic Collapse, Polish Growth

An article contrasting the economic performance of the Baltic States and Poland can be found here. The article does not cover all areas of this topic but it is an interesting read.

In light of the crisis in Greece and the eurozone at the moment it is worth reflecting on what has happened in Central-Eastern Europe. The article shows the economic catastrophe that occurred in the Baltic States , which was partly due to the huge credit bubble that had been inflated prior to the global financial crisis crisis. These countries then carried out extreme austerity policies (pushed by the EU) leading to soaring unemployment and collapsing economies.

In contrast in Poland, there had been no such credit bubble prior to the crisis (although there are signs that this is now being inflated) and once the crisis impacted on the country it carried out a devaluation of its currency instead of maintaining a currency peg to the euro as was done in the Baltics.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Balcerowicz’s tragic revolution — The failure of Polish transition (part 1)

I reproduce the following article by Piotr Szumlewicz from the website Polish Labour Notes

From the beginning of the transition in Poland (1989) Leszek Balcerowicz plays a very important role in Polish public life. It just so happens that the political career of the “father of Polish reform” above all has been characterized by failures and tragic mistakes with far reaching consequences.

The most spectacular act was the beginning of systemic transition. At that time Balcerowicz initiated and unfortunately was successful in putting into practice his plan free-market reforms. The effects of the Polish “economic miracle” were terrifying. In the years 1990-1991 the Gross Domestic Product fell by about 18%, the level of inflation was in triple figures, in the space of two years unemployment went up to above 2 million. Already in the first year of transition, the number of people living under the social minimum more than doubled — from 15% in 1989 to 31% in 1990. In the first two years of transition production, investment, production capacity as well as labour productivity went down radically. Production drastically fell in all sectors of the economy. In electromechanical industries it fell by 37,8% in light industries by 40,7% and maybe most importantly in the grocery industry by 25%. Wages for farmers were reduced by more than half in the space of two years.

The transition led to a number of other negative results of which a lot of people talk about even today. The reduction in the number of apartments built, mass liquidation of libraries and cultural facilities, closing down of a number of pre-schools, kinder gartens and nurseries. Huge number of suicides, alcoholism and explosion of prostitution followed. All of these events and phenomena are presented by Balcerowicz’s people as the necessary effects of change for which the state cannot be held accountable for. The pauperization of society, lack of jobs and life perspectives, segregation in education, lack of cultural finance… The guru of Polish liberalism was not interested those types of things.

Balcerowicz’s defenders like to repeat that there was no alternative for the neo-liberal reform. This time even the International Monetary Fund proposed three scenarios for reform in which Poland chose the one that had the most drastic effect on society. The strategy that Balcerowicz chose was no necessity at all. For example the government itself increased inflation by raising the price of energy six-fold. For unknown reasons customs control was removed and this caused a number of national companies to go bankrupt. Balcerowicz was stubborn in his quest to destroy the public sector, so taxes for state companies were two times higher than that of private firms. A significant part of the social infrastructure was liquidated, the money to fight poverty and tackle social exclusion was reduced and mass unemployment was seen as a necessary consequence for the transformation to a free-market.

In 1989 the Polish People’s Republic did not lose its potential to develop, nor was it on the edges of breaking up. In the mid 1980’s the economy started to expand relatively quickly. Production as well as consumption went up and the infrastructure was developing. The budget at this time was balanced and there was no threat of experiencing a deficit. In foreign trade exports were more than imports. A lot of other countries in the region had far much smoother transformation than Poland. In Czech, Slovenia, and in Hungary the level of unemployment was by far lower than in our country. Smaller also was the area where there was poverty, lesser also was the social stratification level.

Balcerowicz played an important part not only in the very begining, but also in the years 1997-2000 when he became the vice-premier and the minister of finance. Again the effects of his policies just like for the first time affected a large part of Polish society. The politics of ”cooling the economy” reduced the dynamics of development. In 1993-1997 the GDP rose by above 5% annually, however in 2001 only by 1%.The second edition of Balcerowicz’s government brought about a drastic rise in the level of unemployment. In 1998 1,83 million people were unemployed and four years later 1,3 million people more. In accordance to his declarations Balcerowicz did not do anything to fight against poverty. In effect the number of people living under the minimum existence level rose from 5,4% to 9,5%. The number of people living under the minimum social subsistence went up considerably from 50,4% to 57% of the population.

At this time the stratification of income went up, the social spending was limited and state property was intensly commercialized, at the same time taxes for firms were reduced although that did not have a positive effect on the macroeconomic indexes. It is also important to note that in between 1997-2001 the national debt went up considerably. From 22% of the Gross Domestic Product to 25,6% and the deficit of the public financial sector went up from 2,9% to 5,1%. The politics of “cutting” and “cooling” did not correct the state of national finances — very much on the contrary.

Jerzy Buzek’s government in which Balcerowicz steered the economy also made four unsuccessful reforms. They brought fatal effects, which up to today, successive governments have not been able to deal with.

Piotr Szumlewicz
Translation: Marlon Nziramasanga

Sunday, 12 June 2011

WikiLeaks on CIA Prison Allegations

The following article has recently appeared on the WikiLeaks Website:

Poland is under increasing pressure to investigate fully whether the CIA operated secret torture and detention facilities in Stare Kiejkuty. As Peter Kemp predicted, the European Parliament has now intervened. In a resolution from the eighth of June it says that it:

"5. Reiterates its call to the US authorities to review the military commissions system to ensure fair trials, to close Guantánamo, to prohibit in any circumstances the use of torture, ill-treatment, incommunicado detention, indefinite detention without trial and enforced disappearances, and reminds the EU institutions and Member States of their duty not to collaborate in, or cover up, such acts prohibited by international, European and national law;"

"7. Calls on the EU and Member States authorities, as well as the US authorities, to ensure that full, fair, effective, independent and impartial inquiries and investigations are carried out into human rights violations and crimes under international, European and national law, and to bring to justice those responsible, including in the framework of the CIA extraordinary renditions and secret prisons programme;"

In the meantime, former MEP Józef Pinior reiterated his allegations against former members of the Polish government, claiming that there was a document signed by the then prime minister Leszek Miller regulating the operations of a secret CIA detention facility in Stare Kiejkuty, also defining the status of corpses inside the facility.

Pinior admits that he never saw the document with his own eyes, but credits a very trustworthy source with this information who he refuses to name. Asked whether this was a source from within Polish intelligence services, he refused to comment. He added that with 30 years experience in politics, he was fully aware of the implications of such a statement.

He describes the document as brief, outlining logistics, and being addressed to the Polish Secret Service, who operates the base in Stare Kiejkuty.

Pinior also claims that Zbigniew Wassermann and Zbigniew Ziobro, who were part of the PiS government succeeding Miller, saw and discussed this document along with four other officials, and that there are minutes of this meeting.

During his work on a European Parliament investigation into CIA rendition, Pinior states to have spoken to members of the Polish Secret Service, who were uneasy about the fact that their facility was used for purposes which were not in their interest.

These revelations, and the new European Parliament resolution follows a turbulent month in which lawyers acting for Abd al-Nashiri filed a complaint against Poland with the European Court of Human Rights, Warsaw prosecutor Jerzy Mierzewski planned to file charges against former members of the Polish government and was subsequently removed from the case, documents were leaked to daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, Gdansk prosecutors opened an investigation against the paper and President Obama visited the country and promised the deployment of F16 as a protection against Russia.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Secret Prison Allegations Cloud Obama Visit

And so the Barak Obama show came to town; and then went away again. After sprinkling his gold-dust in Ireland, Britain and France the US President then headed through the mainly empty, although heavily policed, streets of Warsaw. Once he arrived at his destination he proceeded to once again say the right things and make his hosts feel special. Poland, he reminded us, is an example to the rest of the world, a success story and the leading country in the region.

His words were carefully chosen although only delivered to the select few. There was no mass rally – as when Bill Clinton spoke to an enthralled throng in 1997 as Poland was about to join NATO – but only specially arranged meetings with politicians and their alike. The major shock was Lech Walesa declining to meet the most powerful man in the world – declaring, nonchalantly, that he had better things to do than take part in a photo opportunity. How he could have passed up the chance to have been told he was an example to the rest of us, a success story in his own right and the leading example of freedom in the region is anyone’s guess.

On the nitty-gritty of policy matters nothing much seems to have changed. Obama once again promised that he would be seeking to address the issue of visas for Polish citizens visiting the USA and that he hoped that Poles would soon be free to shop on Fifth Avenue (sic). The expected signing of a military agreement between the two countries has been delayed. This would have allowed for the permanent stationing of 20 US soldiers in Poland, servicing F-16 and C130 Hercules airplanes, with the agreement that Polish pilots would also be able to have a go on them 4 times a year. The proposed agreement would also include plans to build a missile shield in Poland (SM3 rockets are due to be placed in the country from 2018) – although this time with the agreement and participation of Russia.

So with nothing to sign Barak again praised everyone around him, smiled, said everyone was great, smiled, reminded everyone that they were his best friend, smiled, and jumped back on his plane to head home. Despite the banality and consistency of form, this meeting did reveal some of the differences that exist between the Bush and Obama administrations. For sure, if a US President named Bush had arrived in Poland engaged in at least 2 wars (I’ve kind of lost count) in the Middle-East and proposing to station more troops and military equipment on its soil; then the protests may have been larger and louder than the hundred or so demonstrators that greeted Obama and were met with tear gas by an over-the top Police determined that no one would spoil the party atmosphere. However, two fundamental things have changed– that are more to do with pragmatism than anything else – in US-Polish relations.

One of the first decisions of the Obama administration was that it would seek to reduce tensions with Russia. The USA was already over-stretched both militarily and economically and only the most rabid Republican hawks could really conceive that it was in a position to take on its old Cold-War foe. The re-set button was pressed, the Star-Wars Two programme in Central-Eastern Europe scaled back and adjusted and Russia brought into a new strategic alliance with the USA against Iran. America’s leading ally in Central-Eastern Europe had to adjust itself accordingly. Fortunately, the more Russophobic government in Poland had already been replaced by 2007, with the new government better understanding changed Realpolitik. Although the Smolensk tragedy has opened up old wounds between Poland and Russia – the Tusk administration has done its best to soothe them and allow some ‘normalisation’ of relations.

The second related issue concerns the USA’s role in the Middle-East and its relation to the evolving Arab Spring. This was a perfect opportunity for Obama to spin the line that America has been at the forefront of supporting the Arab uprisings and the movements for democracy. In order to accept this new historical truth, one has to forget how for decades the USA backed up the region’s dictators, how it sat on the fence throughout the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions until the last possible moment and at how it has continued to cave into an Israeli administration that refuses to make even the slightest concessions towards a lasting peace and justice in Palestine. Yet the invasion of Libya has signified one important shift in America’s foreign policy. This is not that it no longer supports regime change in foreign countries through military intervention, but that it is no longer prepared to do this alone. Bogged down by wars, recession and debt the US administration has insisted that the leading military powers in Europe (primarily France and Britain) take up some of the slack. And Poland – having actively participated in the Afghan and Iraqi wars – has decided to sit this one out too and let ‘Old Europe’ get its hands dirty.

Side by side in Warsaw, Obama and Tusk waxed lyrical about the great democratic opening in the Middle East, how both countries supported this process and at how Poland provided a great example for the Arab world. Despite this attempt to gloss over reality, history refuses to give up its ghost. Obama is still engaged in the wars started by Bush and he has even failed to close down Guantanamo Bay. Also, Poland’s own murky history of collusion with the Bush administration continues to rear its ugly head

It is worth reminding ourselves about what was happening in 2003. Poland was then governed by the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) – the Polish representative of the Socialist International. While the majority of European social democracy turned away from supporting the US-led invasion of Iraq, the Polish social democratic Prime Minister (Leszek Miller) and President (Aleksander Kwaśniewski) followed Blair’s example by giving the USA their full support. It was in this context that Donald Rumsfield famously coined the phrase ‘New Europe’.

Beyond the recent platitudes exchanged between the leaders of the USA and Poland, lies the lingering controversy about whether Poland hosted CIA prisons on its territory in which torture was carried out. Despite denials by the Polish side, these allegations have been circulating since 2005. A European Parliamentary report in 2007 revealed that CIA prisons had existed in Poland between 2002 and 2005; and last September the Associated Press produced information that it claimed proved that torture had been carried out in these prisons.

On the day that Obama departed Warsaw, the daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza (hardly a bastion of anti-Americanism) carried new information about this affair on its front page. Referring to information from secret documents that it had obtained, the newspaper revealed that the prosecutor leading the investigation in Poland has recently been replaced, just as he was preparing to charge government officials (including possibly Miller and Kwasniewski) of having committed crimes against humanity.

One politician who has consistently sought the truth on this issue is the former MEP Jożef Pinior. Pinior had been a member of the European Parliamentary commission investigating the possible existence of CIA prisons in Europe. In an interview in this weekend’s Gazeta Wyborcza he explains how he has had access to a classified government document that contains instructions concerning the regulation of the secret CIA prisons in Poland. According to Pinior there is no doubt that the Polish government was aware of the activities of the CIA in these prisons.

Pinior also explains how the investigations carried out by the European Parliamentary commission was continually impeded and blocked by the Polish government. Furthermore, this was happening after the SLD administration had fallen and when PiS was leading a new coalition government. Therefore, according to Pinior, information about the existence and activities of CIA prisons in Poland was known by the PiS government who helped to protect its predecessors from investigations. The fact that PiS has never wasted an opportunity to condemn the ‘post-communist’ left for betraying Poland’s national sovereignty, one can only speculate as to why it may wish to protect them over this issue. Leszek Miller has reacted strongly to the accusations made by Pinior, claiming again that there were no such prisons based in Poland and that Pinior is a ‘liar’ and a ‘scoundrel’. The suspicion remains that the whole Polish establishment is closing ranks on this matter.

Whatever the actual truth may be, a cloud of uncertainty continues to hang over this topic. Next month Poland takes over the Presidency of Europe and has identified the promotion of democracy in areas such as the Middle East as one of its top priorities. It’s claim to be a bastion of hope for all those struggling against repression and dictatorship can only be harmed as long as this issue is not resolved.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

PO Attempt to Delay Civil Partnership Reform

In recent weeks Citizens' Platform (PO) has been acting left. In an attempt to stem the threat of the SLD, PO has both tried to poach some of its politicians and present itself as a progressive left of centre party.

After defecting to PO, Bartosz Arłukowicz claimed that he would be attempting to win support for left policies within the government and PO. In particular he argued that he would be seeking to gain its backing for the state funding of in-vitro treatment and for a new law on civil partnerships.

Well now PO has a chance to prove its new left credentials, as the SLD has put forward a bill in parliament on introducing civil partnerships in Poland. These would include the right (including those in same sex relationships) to form civil partnerships - giving joint property rights, joint taxes and the right of inheritence. The SLD prepared the bill in cooperation with the Campaign Against Homophobia in Poland and it is based around the French system of civil partnerships (Pacte civil de solidarite).

The problem for PO is that its move to the left is more cosmestic than real. For sure, there is a section of its membership that would like to see PO take up the centre-left ground (at least on cultural and social issues) and most of its young, urban electorate are supportive of policies such as introducing civil partnerships. Also Polish society as a whole is becoming more open to such policies. A recent opinion poll showed that 54% of Poles are in favour of civil partnerships being introduced in Poland, with 41% opposed (in 2003 only 34% were in favour and 56% against).

The problem is that PO contains a strong conservative wing that opposes any such reforms. Its programme states support for the traditions and customs of the 'traditional family'. Previously PO politicians have actively supported and even introduced the banning of gay parades in Poznań and Kraków (thankfully it seems this shameful period of banning such marches is behind us). Last year the President of Warsaw and PO member Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz refused to back or support the Europride parade that was held in the captial city. This is not to mention the openly homophobic comments made by PO politicians such as Robert Węgrzyn. The list is long and for those who can read Polish it can be found here.

PM Donald Tusk has indicated that he is prepared to consider the issue after the election - as he tries to avoid such potentially devisive controversies before this autumn's parliamentary elections. MP Jarosław Gowin - the leading representative of PO's conservative wing - has stated that he will do all he can to prevent a law on civil partnerships ever being passed. The SLD are correct to push the issue at this time, primarily because it is important that Poland comes into line with the majority of EU countries on this question and provides rights to those who are presently unprotected by the law. It also exposes the empty gestures made by Tusk and his party as they attempt to widen their appeal to their left through cosmestic changes rather than substantial political actions.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

It's A Bad Time to Be Young and Polish

An interesting article by Adam Leszczynski on the situation facing young people in Poland was published in the Guardian today. Read here