Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Racism and EURO 2012

In recent days there has been a lot of controversy after a BBC documentary reported the level of racism in football in Poland and Ukraine, who are hosting the EURO2012 football championship this month. 

Racism and anti-semitism in Poland and Ukraine have been a problem for many years. The documentary showed the extent of this problem in many stadiums. However, it is not the case in Poland that racism exits in all stadiums and by all fans. I know for example, that the journalists making the documentary visited the stadium of Warsaw's second club Polonia Warszawa and found no examples of racism. They chose to leave this out of the film however, probably due to the fact that it was not newsworthy. 

One of the problems I have with films like this is that it shows Eastern Europe as being a backwater where racism is rife, compared to the civilised West which is more advanced. Now, it is true that in stadiums in Britain for example you would be unlikely to hear racist chants nowadays, which is completely different to when I was growing up when I remember commonly hearing racist chants. This does not mean that racism no longer exists amongst football fans in England. The fact that one of the most active far right groups in England at the moment - the English Defence League - is connected to organised football hooligans shows this.

There is nevertheless a particular problem in countries such as Ukraine and Poland and hopefully the policy of zero-tolerance will be enforced during the tournament and beyond. Anti-racist campaigners have long been campaigning against racism in football here and have organised a number of events to encourage diversity and tolerance at EURO2012.

Below I reproduce an article that has been published in the Guardian this week by Remi Adekoya, a Nigerian born journalist living and working in Poland: 

As European nations gear up for Euro 2012, the spotlight is turning to one of the host nations and its attitudes to foreigners. England winger Theo Walcott's brother has tweeted that he and his father won't be travelling to the tournament, due to fears over racist abuse. Earlier this month, the BBC ran a long report on racism in Polish football and, according to the Daily Mail, the Foreign Office has warned England fans to "expect racist attacks in Poland and Ukraine". Read more......

Monday, 28 May 2012

Youth Unemployment in Bulgaria

A very informative article by Yordan Dimitrov on youth unemployment in Bulgaria has been posted on the Social Europe website: 
This is a brief presentation of the latest developments of youth unemployment in Bulgaria. It aims to address whether or not the recent trends are a continuation of the impacts of the economic crisis on youth participation in labour markets. The only data used is from the Bulgarian National Statistics Institute Labor Force Survey (NSI LFS) and targets the 15-24 age group. Read more........

Saturday, 26 May 2012

In answer to recent anti-union campaigns in Poland – An Open Letter

Below is a translation of an open letter that has been published in protest at the growing campaign against trade unions in Poland.

We the undersigned wish to express our support for recent protests organised by the “Solidarity” trade union and other organisations which have taken steps to oppose our government’s anti-social and illegitimate “pension reforms”.

Recently we have witnessed an intense heating up of anti-trade union activities. Various public figures have openly condemned the Solidarity trade union for its campaign against raising the age of retirement and in particular its decision to blockade the parliament building during a debate on this matter. Read more....

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Repeating Old Myths

Leszek Balcerowicz appeared last night on the political chat show hosted by Tomasz Lis, where he repeated his long-held mantra that only further liberalisation and austerity could ensure Poland's long-term economic success.

In the interview Balcerowicz repeated two old myths, that are used to show that there really is no alternative to the policies of economic liberalism:

- Firstly he argued that one of the biggest threats to the Polish economy is its high level of public debt (presently around 54% of GDP) and budget deficit (over 7%). He explained that 'despite' Poland's positive economic growth over the past few years, its deficits and debt have continued to grow. 

Perhaps we could turn this around, and state that Poland has grown because it has allowed some expansion of its debts/deficits? These are still way below the European average, and the ticking of a debt time-bomb sounds loudest in the heads of those who are focused almost entirely on this one aspect of economic policy. During the past few years public investment has risen from 4.2% of GDP to 5.6% and the government has avoided an all out policy of austerity (much to the disgust of Balcerowicz) similar to that being pursued in other European countries. 

With Balcerowicz ruling out any return to more progressive taxation policies in Poland, his anti-deficit programme relies almost entirely upon cutting public and social spending. This policy would lead to social and economic regression, not development. 

- The second myth being spread by Balcerowicz is that if the country does not act fast and decisively, then the bond-markets will punish Poland and the cost of its borrowing and thus overall level of debt will rise. The assumption is that bond-markets reward public spending cuts and punish over-spending. However, when we move away from the text-books of dogma, we find that this is actually not the case. For example in France since the election of Francois Hollande, bond yields have actually fallen; as they have in Germany that itself has diverged from the policies of austerity. In contrast the GIPS economies (Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain) the bond markets have fallen (causing their interest rates to raise) after introducing harsh austerity programmes. 

A programme of austerity in Poland would most likely lead to an economic contraction that in turn would see the country's bond markets decline. 

For more on the bond markets in Europe, see this interesting article from Socialist Economic Bulletin.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Eastern Europe's neoliberal disaster provides a warning for the Arab spring

A thought provoking piece by Neil Clark in the Guardian:
I wonder if David Cameron spent any time in eastern Europe in the 1990s.Judging from his recent remarks about the Arab spring and international aid, the British prime minister seems to believe that having a more "open" and "free", ie privately owned, economy is the key to both economic development and a successful transition from one-party rule.
The evidence from the former communist countries gives lie to that neoliberal viewpoint. In a recent study entitled Mass Privatisation, State Capacity, and Economic Growth in Post-Communist Countries, published in American Sociological Review, sociologists from the universities of Cambridge and Harvard claim to have established a "direct link" between the mass privatisation programmes followed by around half the countries of the region – enthusiastically urged upon them by western economists and western financial institutions – and the "economic failure and corruption that followed". The more closely the countries followed western advice, and the more they privatised, the worse things became.

Read More

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Lech Wałęsa - Trade Unionists Should Be Beaten with Truncheons

Lech Wałęsa is of course most famous for being leader of the Solidarność movement in the 1980s. The man who stood up to the Communist authorities, led a social movement that claimed 10 million members and eventually paved the way for the end of the Communist system in Poland.

 Despite his CV Wałęsa has shown that he no longer even pretends to stand on the side of working people. Whilst the MPs in Poland's parliament last Friday voted for raising the retirement age to 67, members of the Solidarność trade union demonstrated outside and for sometime attempted to block MPs from leaving the building.

Perhaps this was not the most elegant way to behave, but then pushing through a bill that is opposed by around 80% of society and which the trade unionists had collected over 1m signatures calling for a referendum is hardly the height of political decorum.

In an interview this week Wałęsa argued that such actions by trade unionists may have been acceptable during Communism, however they could not be justified under a democratic system. He went on to say that if he had been Prime Minister he would have given the order to beat the demonstrators with truncheons. Not only this, he added that he would have started by beating the leader of the trade union and that if he had been the Police Officer in command he would have done this himself!

 Now ok, Wałęsa is Wałęsa. He is a long way from being the young electrician that jumped on the wall at the Gdańsk shipyard. He has since been a poor President who helped usher in the shock-therapy reforms and then suffered a series of election defeats in the 1990s. But still! The demonisation of trade unionists - protesting against the issue of raising the retirement age - has reached new heights.

Unfortunately Janusz Palikot, who had previously been presenting himself as the new leader of the left, has joined in on this. On his blog he argued that the trade unionists had been violent and that they wre drunk.  Palikot has shown that by voting for the raising of the retirement age  he does not stand on the side of working people. In order to justify this he has to join the chorus of derision directed at these trade unionists. How long before he too will want the police to beat them?

Friday, 11 May 2012

Parliament Agrees to Raise Pension Age

A bill to raise the age of retirment to 67 was passed in the Polish parliament today. 268 MPs voted in favour, 185 against, with one abstension.

Outside the parliament building members of the Solidarność trade union confederation held a protest. As I write they are blockading the entrance in order to prevent MPs - who are presently debating the issue of removing pension privilleges for uniformed workers - from leaving the building. Despite this the demonstration of trade unionists was relatively small and unlike the large demonstration at the end of March only included one of the three major national trade unions. The trade unionists were also not joined by other demonstrators from Warsaw, underlining a continual problem of the trade unions failing to reach out beyond its own ranks, even on issues which the vast majority of society are in agreement with them.

The bill to raise the age of retirement was opposed by the main opposition party the Law and Justice Party (PiS) and the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). Once again the Palikot Movement (RP), who ostensibly are challenging the SLD to be the major party of the left in Poland, voted with the governing coalition. This is the second time in two days that RP have voted with the government in parliament, after opposing the resolution put forward by PiS yesterday that, in line with the country's constitution, any ratification of the EU's Fiscal Pact would have to be backed by at least 2/3 of MPs. The resolution was defeated, with the SLD abstaining in the vote.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Europa socjalna odpowiedzią na kryzys

Autorzy: Gavin Rae, Michał Syska

Błędne jest przekonanie, że głównym źródłem kryzysu w strefie euro są nadmierne wydatki publiczne i zadłużenie, a rozwiązaniem tego problemu mogą być tylko radykalne programy oszczędnościowe, na straży których powinny stać instytucje europejskie. Odpowiedzią na kryzys nie może być także okopanie się w granicach państw narodowych. Szansą na przetrwanie projektu europejskiego oraz powstrzymanie fali nacjonalistycznego populizmu jest budowa Europy socjalnej.....więcej 

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Marching in the May Day Sunshine

Spring seems to have been bypassed this year in Poland. After enduring a generally cold and gloomy March and most of April we were suddenly catapulted into a summer heat wave. And so on May 1st – international workers day – the left gathered in the sunshine in numbers probably greater than during any May Day over the past two decades.
The largest gathering of the left in Warsaw was organized by the two veteran organisations of the Polish left: the trade union confederation the OPZZ and the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). Earlier in the week the SLD had held its conference and the former PM – Leszek Miller –elected as leader of the party.
This was like no other May Day parade that I can remember. It wasn’t just the amount of people on the march (15,000 is a truly impressive number) but also the composition of the participants. These were not just the old die-hards, clinging onto the memories of past glories. No, here were large numbers of young people, families, trade unionists, party members and independent activists. The core organisations of the left were showing that they were no spent force and that they maintained roots in sections of Polish society that run deep.
The other difference this year was the political character of the march. After a period of greeting the delegations of trade unionists and party branches from around the country, the demonstrators first sang the Polish national anthem and then the Internationale. The sight of the leaders of the left – who have spent the last 20 years trying to disassociate themselves from any reminisces of the past – attempting to remember the words to the hymn of international socialism was truly a sight to behold.
The star of the show was Leszek Miller. The great survivor of the Polish left, who only a few years earlier had been excluded from the party, was back in the frontline. His speech signaled a significant break in the politics of the SLD leadership. Its focus was on the economic hardships felt by large sections of society, how the left had to stand up for these people, how it had proved its credentials by voting in parliament against raising the retirement age and (wait for it) how he supported introducing a 50% income tax rate for the highest earners in Poland.
What exactly has happened to Mr Miller? After all this is the same person who in recent years has waxed lyrical about the benefits of a liberal free-market economy, who had propagated the introduction of a flat-income tax rate whilst PM and who had aligned himself closely with the Business Centre Club. The answer is probably not very much. Miller is a technocrat, a pragmatist, a politician with a nose for survival. And this wily operator has scented that for the left to survive and grow it has to reconnect with its base and challenge the right-wing monopoly of the political scene from a clear left-wing perspective. There is no talk nowadays from Miller about learning from Blair and Zapatero, rather he is looking for inspiration from Fico in Slovakia.
One of the reasons that Miller and the SLD have taken a left turn is that their very existence was under question after the Palikot Movement (RP) usurped them at last year’s parliamentary elections. For a while it seemed as though Palikot may manage to hegemonise the left, and May 1st was set as the date for a congress of the left organized by RP. Former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski openly supported this project and urged the SLD to participate. Yet thankfully Miller and the SLD turned down these latest overtures for the left and liberal camps in Poland to unite, and the independence of the social democratic left in Poland was maintained.
So Janusz Palikot and his ‘movement’ spent the afternoon alone in the grand halls of Warsaw’s iconic Palace of Culture. Although around half the size of the OPZZ/SLD gathering, the numbers were still respectable. The show was impressive and included Janusz himself emerging through a rapturous crowd as if at the start of rock concert. In recent weeks RP’s claim that it is a ‘party’ of the left has been severely questioned after it voted with the government to raise the age of retirement. The suspicion has risen that RP represents a Trojan horse on the left, that seeks to create a liberal party that will provide a respectable future coalition partner for PO. However today – on May 1st – it was time for Palikot to talk left once again.
The slogan of the conference was for ‘zero unemployment’. He argued that the free market is not able to correct all of the ills of capitalism. He criticised the ‘junk contracts’ on which millions of young Poles are employed and even suggested that the state should consider building factories when the private sector is not able to do so. He also argued that rate of social insurance should be cut, although little mention was made of how this would affect public finances and future pension payments.
Alongside him Palikot has managed to recruit the long-standing left-winger in Poland, Piotr Ikonowicz. Ikonowicz had been an MP for the Polish Socialist Party (standing on the SLD’s slate) in the 1990s. Since losing his seat he has campaigned hard against poverty and social exclusion and has been particularly active in the movement against people being evicted from their homes. In recent years he has created the Office for Social Justice (KSS), as an organization to campaign on such issues.
 It has been traditional for Ikonowicz and his supporters to organize a separate gathering of the so-called ‘radical left’ on May 1st. Although it used to be the case that they would then join the main march, in recent years they have not done so. This year, Ikonowicz received some criticism from parts of the crowd at the gathering for his decision to align with Palikot. In the afternoon, he and his supporters joined Palikot in the Palace of Culture and he addressed the audience, talking about the problems of poverty and inequality in Poland.
I’m not sure what attracts Ikonowicz to RP so strongly. Perhaps he sees an opportunity to influence a growing political movement and win support for his ideals in parliament. Or perhaps he views RP as a means to return to front line politics. For years Ikonowicz had rallied against the so-called ‘red bourgeoisie’, although he now seems very willing to align himself with its orange version. Whatever his reasons, he is playing a risky game which could result in him losing credibility amongst those politically closest to him.
May 1st in Poland proved a number of things this year. Firstly, is the fact that the left has not disappeared in Poland, but rather remains a strong force who can organsze significant numbers. Secondly, is that the present competition on the left has pushed the SLD to adopt a clearer left stance on socio-economic issues. Thirdly, it showed that the strongest party on the left remains the SLD, which maintains strong support amongst sections of society. It is difficult to forgive Miller on many issues, but the fact that he has fought to retain the independence of the left at time of intense difficulty should be commended. Finally, May 1st showed – and I write this with no satisfaction and with a certain regret - that nothing of any significance exists in Polish politics to the left of the SLD.