I’m not a devoted fan of Rush. My husband, on the other hand, has all the Rush lyrics memorized and he recently pointed out a song that stuck with me called Heresy. The song appears on Rush’s 1991 album Roll the Bones and talks about the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe – something I experienced first hand in Poland.
The song’s opening evokes familiar images from a quarter century ago of the unthinkable becoming real: the Berlin Wall coming down…
“All around that dull grey world
From Moscow to Berlin
People storm the barricades
Walls go tumbling in”
But the song doesn’t dwell on that dramatic moment of euphoria. Instead, the mood shifts quickly to palpable anger over decades of oppression, poverty, and life in fear that spanned both sides of the Iron Curtain due to the ever-present nuclear threat.
Here is how Rush’s lyricist Neil Peart explained his reasons behind writing the song, “The deconstruction of the Eastern Bloc made some people happy. It made me mad. (…) it was all a mistake? A heavy price to pay for somebody else’s misguided ideology, it seems to me, and that waste of life must be the ultimate heresy.”
In a recent trip to Poland, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi told former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa that Poland’s path has inspired her to dream of the same for her country. She told reporters in Warsaw, “We in Burma are just at the beginning of this road that you took many, many years earlier, a couple of decades earlier, but we believe, as you did then, that we should succeed . . . It is very encouraging for me to be among people who understand exactly the kind of struggle that we would still have to go through before we can say that we are a democratic society.”
This meeting of Nobel Peace Prize laureates, important on its own, strikes me as extraordinary. Burma and Poland could not be more different culturally and historically, yet both Suu Kyi and Walesa work toward the same goal. The Iron Curtain dropped several decades ago, while Burma continues to this day to inch toward freedom. There must be something universal in the struggle for Suu Kyi to see her country and her goals mirrored in Poland and Walesa’s.
At CIPE, we talk a lot about a concept called “Democracy that Delivers,” meaning that governments should be held accountable by their citizens both during and in between elections. The success of a democracy depends on the involvement of the people under its rule. Good governments are open, responsive, and accountable to their citizens.
But, I wonder if the Burma/Poland example raises a larger question: Are democracies also accountable to those countries that continue to struggle toward freedom? Do they have a responsibility not only to their own citizens but to the citizens of the world? Should they work to uphold the tenets of transparency, accountability, and fairness because, in part, they might be the role models for a future generation? As we honor International Day of Democracy, it’s worth asking.
Julia Kindle is Publications Manager at CIPE.
Discovering Freedom book cover (image: www.for.org.pl)
While spending this holiday season in my native Poland, I added a new book to my Christmas gift wish list: Odkrywając Wolność – Discovering Freedom - by Leszek Balcerowicz. After 1989 Balcerowicz shaped Poland’s economic transformation from communism to market economy, facing difficult reforms along the way in the context of building young and fragile democratic institutions. The book is not an autobiography detailing his personal account of the transition. Nor is it a technical textbook for fellow economists or political scientists. Instead, the book is meant for every citizen as a foundation of knowledge on political and economic freedom.
As Poland’s Finance Minister in the first post-communist government during the crucial period from 1989 to 1991, then again from 1997 to 2000, and as the Chairman of the National Bank of Poland 2001-2007, Balcerowicz has been one of the most influential policymakers in the country. In recent years, he successfully tried another role – as the head of a new think tank, Civil Development Forum, or FOR (Forum Obywatelskiego Rozwoju). FOR’s stated mission is to protect liberty and promote truth and common sense in public discourse. What the organization believes makes it distinct is effectiveness. In FOR’s own words, “We do not exist to simply publish texts and hold conferences, though we use these tools. We aim to amend existing laws, influence decision-makers considering new laws and to educate the general public, because well informed citizens are the best bulwark against despotism.”
In this spirit of making the principles of liberty easily understandable and accessible to the general public, Discovering Freedom is a extensive compilation (over 1,000 pages!) of writings by the greatest free thinkers, from Adam Smith and Milton Friedman to Karl Popper and Mario Vargas Llosa. Balcerowicz made the selection and wrote the introduction. Many of these texts had not been previously widely known in Poland and the book’s objective is to popularize them because, as Balcerowicz put it, societies must constantly strive for freedom.
A still from the secret video that revealed corruption in Polish SOEs.
This post originally appeared on the TrustLaw blog.
It was a hot summer for Polish politics. Back in July, someone leaked a secretly recorded video, in which Władysław Serafin, chairman of the National Union of Farmers and Farmers’ Associations and a top member of the ruling coalition’s PSL party, talks with Władysław Łukasik, former head of the governmental Agriculture Market Agency (ARR). In the video, Łukasik lists a host of malpractices at the PSL-dominated ARR, ranging from nepotism to mismanagement of the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that the agency oversees. The abuses included what the prosecutor’s office called “numerous financial irregularities” concerning payments made to members of the board of Elewarr, a grain company owned by ARR.
As a result of the scandal, Poland’s Minister of Agriculture resigned (albeit without admitting any guilt), the head of Elewarr was dismissed, and the investigation continues. However, one positive outcome of the “PSL tapes” has been an increased debate on the issue of nepotism and cronyism. Such practices are hard to detect because they often happen on the fringe of legality and because there is little public information available on the extent to which politicians or their relatives and friends are connected to SOEs.
Gdańsk Shipyard in August 1980 (Photo: www.solidarnosc.gov.pl )
31 years ago – echoing the rallying cry of earlier mass protests in 1956, 1968, 1970, and 1976 – striking workers at the Gdańsk Shipyard in Poland were demanding “bread and freedom” from the communist authorities. The workers called their movement Solidarność (Solidarity) and formulated 21 postulates that encapsulated their aspirations for change. Along with economic grievances, their demands included important democratic priorities such as freedom of speech, freeing political prisoners and – listed as number one – legalization of independent trade unions.
Realizing that it can no longer contain strikes spreading across the country, the government delegated commissions to negotiate with the strikers and signed the so-called August Agreements granting their demands. Although the authorities later went back on their promises and brutally suppressed Solidarity during the martial law imposed in December 1981, the opposition movement survived underground and finally triumphed in 1989, spelling the beginning of the end of communism in the region.
Those early days of Solidarity, filled with hope and upheaval, were captured in many moving photographs. Yesterday, Woodrow Wilson Center in cooperation with the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, unveiled a commemorative photo exhibition The Phenomenon of Solidarity: Pictures from the History of Poland 1980-1981. Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, delivered opening remarks, emphasizing that Solidarity managed to reveal the duplicity of Poland’s communist regime which claimed to represent the workers but in reality repressed them.
Today the same is true in many dictatorships around the world. Authoritarian leaders who claim to be the voice of the people and to have their best interest at heart in reality silence that voice and deny economic opportunity through trampling on political and economic freedoms. Today the calls for bread and freedom resound as loudly across the Middle East as they did in Poland three decades ago, showing the universality of this most basic human aspiration.
The history of successes and failures in post-communist transformation of Central and Eastern Europe carries an important lesson for Arab Spring reformers. The challenge is to translate revolutionary fervor into concrete policies that bring political freedom and inclusive economic growth. Bread and freedom go together. Reforms meant to advance them must go together as well or the promise of democratic and more prosperous future will remain unfulfilled.
Lech Wałęsa signing August Agreements (Photo:gazeta.pl)
Many recognize the iconic 1980 image of Lech Wałęsa signing – with a giant pen – the so-called August Agreements that symbolized the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland and ultimately paved the way to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. However, few remember what these agreements, which represented major concessions of the then-communist government of Poland to its citizens, actually contained.
On Saturday, the news of a plane crash in Smolensk, Russia that killed Polish President Lech Kaczyński, his wife, and over 90 key figures in the country has shaken the world. The tragedy happened as they were headed to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the WWII Soviet massacre of Polish officers in Katyń. The international outpouring of grief and sympathy that followed ensures that neither the tragedy from 70 years ago nor the one from 2 days ago will be forgotten, helping Poland and Russia heal the wounds of history. But while many analyses have focused on that, there is another equally hopeful aspect of this tragedy that deserves attention.
The aftermath of the crash clearly testifies to the maturity and resilience of Poland’s still relatively young democracy. It is not hard to imagine a country where the sudden death of the president, several parliamentarians, governor of the central bank, top army chiefs, and many other key officials would cause political and economic chaos or even violent struggle for power. The fact that that’s not even remotely a consideration in Poland today is telling.