The Court and the Family: Elite settlement and the transformation of the political system in Poland

Tr@nsit Online

Even compared to other socialist countries, the Polish path of transformation from one system to another was exceptional. Political scientific literature indicates that the kind of breakthrough initiated by the Round Table talks was one based on negotiation and was a settlement among the elites. The agreement we are talking about is of course the agreement of the elites: the elite of the ancien régime on one hand and the opposition elite on the other.

The change came from above, at the beginning without the active participation of the citizens. The side of the authorities was represented by the most important persons in the state: from the Party’s leadership to the directorship of Security Service (SB). On the opposition side – the prominent and respectable persons who joined the Citizens’ Committee with Lech Wa??sa in December 1988. These elites considered themselves representative for both sides and therefore allowed voters to vote for them in the so-called elections in June 1989.

The main condition of agreement between the two sides was the change of the political language. This change was a signal showing readiness to agreement, openness to compromise, and also indicated that new political goals were shared by all the negotiating sides. Opposition was now no longer called “counter-revolution” or “the power of destruction”. The ideology of the “conspiracy of imperialism and capitalism” was abandoned. From 1988 onwards, opposition leaders were allowed to publish their texts, openly speaking in favour of system changes, in the official press. During the academic year 1988, I conducted a seminar at the university in which dozens of students participated. I invited leaders of different factions of the opposition. It was already possible to say a lot publicly.

On the other hand, the opposition no longer spoke about honour, traitors, and totalitarian power. The moralistic rhetoric had been discarded. Open and uncompromising anti-communism was no longer seen positively. Decommunization, or the long proclaimed “local Nuremberg” – a trial of the communist leaders – was no longer considered. The former elite showed its readiness to renounce at least a part of its power, announcing free and proportional elections for 1993. The opposition counter-elite, concentrated around Wa??sa, back down from their aim to take over full control of the country immediately.

Compromise and negotiations also meant divisions between moderates and radicals in both political camps. Those opposing talks with the opposition were called hardliners. On the opposition and Solidarity side, those who rejected negotiations with the “Reds” were called extremists or radicals. Of course, the communists needed their hardliners to frighten the opposition in the following months, saying that there were forces ready to repeat martial law and to forcibly stop the changes. The authorities used this bugbear readily and frequently: after their election defeat on 4 June 1989; while proposing Jaruzelski for president in summer 1989; and during the creation of Mazowiecki’s cabinet. On the other hand, the radicals among the opposition were a serious danger for its negotiating elite, since they undermined the latter’s political mandate. The negotiators were not confident enough to claim that they had a full social mandate, and that they represented the whole opposition. The authorities moreover stressed this constructive character of “good” opposition, contrasting it with “unproductive” opposition, sometimes claiming in official statements that they had chosen to have negotiation partners. While the conflict among the opposition slowly increased, the conflict within the party between hardliners and so-called liberals vanished. At the beginning of 1990, the communist party was dissolved, following Gorbachev’s advice, and its successors called into being a political body that still exists today as a social democratic party.

In any case, both sides negotiating at the Round Table were able to portray themselves as moderate, willing to compromise, and oriented towards ending rather than intensifying the conflict. It to some extent guaranteed that the changes, even if limited, would not be reversed and that it would be extremely difficult for the authorities to annul the agreement. The communist government had failed to keep its promises in 1946, 1956, 1971 and 1981, and the experience of government’s deception still existed in collective memory. As Jacek Kuro? said, no one ever had worked with such a script before. There was no experience of a peaceful process emerging from a communist and totalitarian regime. The opposition side welcomed the decisions of the authorities, but, not trusting them, sought guarantees that the goals would be possible to accomplish (for instance, the semi-democratic election on 4 June). Moreover, the goals were not entirely clear at that time. At any rate, they were not clear to the citizens. Public opinion polls at that time – which I consider reliable and to have been conducted by competent people – indicate that the majority of citizens were uninterested in the Round Table talks, and were not very optimistic about their results. It is probably the case that distrust of the authorities was advanced and that most of the leaders were not well-known publicly. Neither did the talks themselves seem entirely credible: conducted beyond the view of the cameras, the decisions were rather unclear and imprecise. The most unclear of all was the agreement concerning the economy.

The situation already began to look different during the parliamentary elections in 1989, which the communists, to their complete surprise, lost. In the first round of the elections they won only 6 seats. The opposition won a landslide victory, but we have to remember that more than 40% of citizens did not turn out. The public mood changed only at the end of August 1989 with the appointment of Mazowiecki’s cabinet. At the beginning, the prime minister and his cabinet had 90% public support, yet by December 1990 it was down to a bit over 20%. In the presidential elections, Mazowiecki not only lost to Wa??sa, but also to an unknown politician with openly populist tendencies, Stan Tymi?ski

The agreement between the elites, and the power structure that arose from this agreement, determined the Polish political divide that manifested itself at the end of 1989 and exploded with great intensity the following year. Political scientists use the term “path dependency” to describe a situation in which arguments that arise at the beginning of changes, along with solutions chosen early on (e.g. the Round Table), determine the axis of political divide and conflict for years to come. These arguments provoked strong emotions. Former colleagues and friends quarrelled. Emotions and the persistence of the conflict were further intensified by events such as the appointment of the new government, the announcement of the planned economic reforms, information about the destruction of security service records, and finally the creation of the first political parties. Hostile political milieus arose that were separated from and suspicious towards the others. And following them were the ideological arguments.

The milieu concentrated around the prime minister, the citizens’ committees, and Gazeta Wyborcza formed the so-called “Family”. Those that were concentrated around Lech Wa??sa and his collaborator and future competitor Jaros?aw Kaczy?ski, the “Court”. The differences between these two groups were not only of a personal character, mere rival “coteries”. Each had very different views on the pace and path of the forthcoming changes.

The terms “the Family” and “the Court” of course have nothing to do with the mafia. They are humorous terms coined by the press, especially by the journalist Piotr Wierzbicki’s (a Wa??sa sympathizer at that time). They are quite accurate. Social relations in the Family were less formal and the hierarchy variable. Cooperation in the Family seemed to work better and was not the cause of terrible conflicts. The Court organized itself around Wa??sa, and it was him who – depending on the circumstances, the structure of power and personal sympathy – gave or denied his support and favours. No one in his surrounding had a strong and permanent position. Rivalries between members of the Court were permanent, sometimes even brutal. The way the Court worked is to be seen in biographies of Kaczy?ski brothers, Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, or Mieczys?aw Wachowski. Jaros?aw Kaczy?ski, who from the middle of 1989 until the end of 1990 was the second most important person after Wa??sa, lost his position in the hierarchy, becoming Wa??sa’s biggest enemy. Jan Krzysztof Bielecki was “discovered” by the president elect and, to everyone’s surprise, most of all his own, was appointed prime minister. Wachowski, who was suspected of collaborating with the security services, had a relatively permanent position over the years.

From its many utterances, speeches and actions, the Family’s ideology could be summarized as follows:

The most important was deep, revolutionary economic reform. As a result of this reform, the country would cease to be a socialist shortage economy; processes of hyperinflation would be stopped and economic activity stimulated. The Balcerowicz Plan was the most important systemic and political project in Poland during those years. The Family was afraid of the socially painful consequences of the reforms. The bankruptcy of the state-owned companies and the necessary liquidation of the state farms (PGR), which made 20% of arable land, would lead to the social and economical “death” of small villages. The rate of unemployment would rise dramatically, bringing with it strikes and activism by anti-establishment groups. Only after some time would western capital come. In 1991, a further problem arose: economic exchange with the Soviet Union – which made 70% percent of all international exchange – collapsed. Therefore, there were reasons to believe that democratization would fail and that many people would blame the new system. In 1993 the rate of unemployment reached 15%.

Economic reform, supplemented in 1990 by local government reform (which reinforced the municipalities), were presented as unavoidable. Objection was politically suspicious and treated as an irrational attitude held only by populists. The new, free-market economy (part of the liberal rhetoric adopted by the main political forces, even the democratic Left) would lead to the modernization of Poland in a much deeper sense: not only opening the country to economic exchange, but also (and as a result) an exchange of ideas about rights and civil liberties.

Decommunization was understood not exactly in personal categories, rather in systemic ones. It was stressed that the market and the modern environment would eliminate persons and milieus that were politically and socially maladjusted, rendering the former nomenklatura redundant. Nobody from the political circle around the prime minister and the chairman of the Civic Parliamentary Club (Obywatelski Klub Parlamentarny, OKP), Bronis?aw Geremek, proposed an early election nor stipulated president Jaruzelski’s resignation. The old personnel stayed in the administration and judiciary, as well as in the army, the military and civilian intelligence services, and the security services. The position of old journalists and executives within the mass media remained intact. The same applied to the banking system. There was little involvement of a new team in the changes to the state’s organization system. The Council of Ministers was reorganized only at the end of 1990. The only thing that rapidly changed was the state’s name and the Polish emblem – the eagle was restored its crown. The new constitution was proclaimed eight years after the June elections.

In the first months of the new government, the Family proposed an interesting political project: to create a national “Solidarity” party, which meant changing the pluralistic union into an organization that would politically support the existing government. Of course, the Family had no doubt it should take control over such a movement. As Adam Michnik wrote, such a party would combine rightist and leftist traditions, Christianity and atheism, ideas of modernization and traditionalism. Journalists of other respectable newspapers evoked ideas from India or Mexico, where large parties such as the Indian National Congress or The Institutional Revolutionary Party had dominated the political scene for years. This party was supposed to overcome three dangers allegedly threatening post-communist Poland: nationalism together with clericalism, populism, and the temptation of authoritarianism.

Opposing the political plan of the Family was the Court’s idea that the changes be accelerated. This idea had several dimensions.

Firstly, the conviction that both the parliamentary and presidential elections had to be conducted much sooner. The fact that the majority in the Parliament at the time represented not only the communist group hostile towards democracy and Poland’s independence, but also a party that no longer existed, seemed ridiculous and undemocratic. A preliminary but necessary condition for stimulating the political process was to differentiate the Solidarity movement and to establish political parties. Maintaining fictional unity and establishing a single, nationwide Solidarity party was, for the Court, unrealistic and unnecessary.

Secondly, the Court believed that acceleration needed instant and possibly deep changes of administrative and judicial personnel. Especially important was the issue of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Attention was paid to the necessity of a far-reaching lustration of officials of the Militia and Security Service. Much was written about the destruction of the archives by members of the former state apparatus.

Thirdly, opposition to the so called “soft state”. This, the Court believed, would allow corruption serving the interests of the former communist nomenklatura on the basis of old personnel and bad law. It would legalize their enterprises, appropriated according to laws passed at the end of 1980s enabling the easy privatization of national assets.

Fourthly and perhaps most importantly, establishing a free market. This, they argued, depended to a large extent on equality before the law and in access to ownership. Meanwhile, the former state apparatus had control over the process of change, having at its disposal the banking system, a significant number of enterprises, as well as the land. Given this situation, the Court demanded rapid decommunization. According to them, the free market, being an absolute value, demanded support from a strong state that was independent from the communist apparatus. As it was said at that time, the communists exchanged political power for economic power.

Clashes between these both positions were very harsh and led not only to a symbolic, but also to an actual split within the Solidarity movement. Paradoxically, the attitude towards the communists, or more precisely the heritage of communism, was the main reason for it. From the Family’s perspective, the conflict was (and still is) the conflict between evolutionists, politically moderate but in favour of radical social and economical changes, and radicals, fundamentalists and nationalists. To defend his position, Adam Michnik, the ideological leader of the group, evoked Edmund Burke’s views on the French Revolution, pointing out the negative outcomes of the fanatical pursuit of justice. There was no room for decommunization or the delegitimization of post-communist parties in the evolutionary perspective, according to Michnik; what remained was the conviction that peaceful change demanded the cooperation of political forces that act rationally, regardless of particular parties and political biographies. Keeping the peace and softening axiological arguments with the church and the nationalists was essential.

The opponents of the Family thought (and still think) that by starting the Round Table talks, the communist authorities did not really want to change the system, but aimed to incorporate a part of oppositional forces into the system, thereby gaining stronger political legitimacy. It was said that “the Reds” wanted to share to the power but not to give it away. According to the Court’s politicians, the communist authorities wanted with this manoeuvre to accomplish two goals: to carry out with the support of oppositional leaders drastic and expensive economic reforms, at the same time maintaining control over the process of political change as well as privatization. This would enable the communists to become post-communists.

This conflict continues up to the present day. Old oppositionists and anticommunists quarrelled about communists. From the Kaczy?cy brothers and the point view of their milieu, the transformation, despite 20 years of democracy, has not been fully accomplished. For them, it is as if Poland were still on the threshold of great change. Their opponents, no matter where they were 20 years ago, or whether they did or did not support Wa??sa, Mazowiecki or Geremek, currently take an evolutional, pro-Balcerowicz position. The gravity of old conflicts and traumas is stronger than reality.

To put it in another way: the Polish political scene is punctured from time to time by so-called “war at a higher level”. This is a conflict not between the former opposition and the post-communist Left, but between a Right in the broad sense (including all the successors of Solidarity, or post-Solidarity). The first war or a battle at higher level took place in the spring of 1990, with Wa??sa directly attacking his critics from political and intellectual milieus (among them persons from Gazeta Wyborcza and Tygodnik Powszechny ). The second time the war broke out was because of the Lustration Bill in the Sejm in June 1992. At that time, Wa??sa had the support of Geremek, Kuro? and Mazowiecki; against them stood members of the Court like Jaros?aw and Lech Kaczy?ski, or prime minister Jan Olszewski. The first saw lustration as a political mistake, whereas their opponents asked the single question, “to whom does Poland belong?”, suggesting that the forces of the ancien regime had taken over. The parliamentary election of 2005 started the war for the third time, when politicians from the circle around the Kaczy?ski brothers clashed with sympathizers of Donald Tusk (who was supported by Wa??sa).

These high-level conflicts (or conflicts within the political elites) cause very strong social emotions. Often, emotions outweigh political reasons. The word “war” has a meaning in this context. It indicates that these conflicts go beyond the logic and emotions even of heated parliamentary debates. The word “war” signifies that these conflicts are exceedingly harsh, and that when they are over, neither of the participating sides (at least for the long time) is able to have a serious conversation, let alone cooperate.

It turns out after twenty years, nothing is left of the heritage of Solidarity except anniversary celebrations.

The conflict at the ideological level between the Family and the Court continues until today, revealing itself not only in the distribution of political sympathies, or attitudes towards events from the past, but above all in the approach towards lustration and the communist past in general.

The Family will point out, in each and every situation, the limitations and the pitfalls inherent in lustration procedures, and will always defend people accused of cooperation with the security service, regardless of who they were or could have been before 1989. There have been three cases worth more detailed analysis.

The first one was the case of priest Micha? Czajkowski – a person connected with the opposition movement, and chaplain of the monthly magazine Wi??, edited by Tadeusz Mazowiecki. Czajkowski played a great and positive role in building mutual understanding between Judaism and Catholicism. When preliminary data showing that Czajkowski had collaborated with the security service was revealed, Gazeta Wyborcza, the Family’s newspaper, refuted it. When, in 2007, the priest himself admitted to having collaborated, Gazeta did not comment, nor did it refer to its previous opinions.

The second case is that of Lech Wa??sa. After 1989, Wa??sa was considered by the Family and by Adam Michnik personally as the biggest threat to democracy. Michnik accused Wa??sa of intending to create an authoritarian state à la Horthy or Antonescu. However in 2008, when a book was published that proved Wa??sa had collaborated with the SB, the founder of Solidarity turned out to be a loyal supporter of democracy and his critics the destroyers of social peace.

Finally, when Zyta Gilowska, finance minister in Jaros?aw Kaczy?ski’s government, faced a lustration trial, the Family defended her although it was not politically convenient. The Court (already without its sovereign, Lech Wa??sa) claims up to this day – referring to sociological research pointing to growing support for lustration – that understanding the past is a matter of the highest importance.

It can be said that the ideological conflict between the two sides has become somewhat ritualized and rigid. The journalistic clashes of both sides are predictable and reproduce the same arguments used for the last 20 years. The emotional tension of these clashes remains very intense. Both sides are victims and hostages, so to speak, of their attitudes towards communism; both the logic and the style of their reasoning .

The conflict between the Family and the Court has lost its significance in the political domain. This happened for many reasons.

Firstly, the post-communist political group lost power and stopped playing an important role in the economy, the administration and in the media. Current conflict is between two political groups that before 2005 both claimed that the problems of post-communism and lustration were serious and needed radical legal-political action.

Secondly, too much time has passed since 1989 for it to be possible to explain the country’s current situation, the condition of the economy or political scene, by circumstances from the communist period. It would be ridiculous still to think that privatization processes between 1988 and 1990 are more important to our economy than more recent international investments or connections with European Union.

And thirdly, the category of political capitalism received a great deal of recognition in the beginning of the 1990s. It has been claimed that many political and economic processes can be explained by the fact that Polish market is deeply dependent on political games (for instance the distribution or sale of important economic parameters such as customs, taxes, export allowances). However it is worth remembering that the phenomenon of political capitalism has lost much of its significance, as has the term “transformation”. There are many indicators that Poland’s current situation, and that of other countries in the region, should be formulated in “post-transformation” language.

The conflicts belonging to the 1989-1991 changeover of power have lost their political significance. They now belong to history, and the generation that still uses them as a source of vigour has lost its importance.


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