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.
Solidarity election poster
The iconic images of people enthusiastically tearing down the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 have become a symbol of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. But it is important to remember that this momentous event was preceded by an equally significant – if somewhat less photogenic – occurrence: elections held in Poland exactly 20 years ago today. They were the outcome of the “Round Table” negotiations between Poland’s communist government and the Solidarity movement and brought a crushing defeat to the regime. Although the elections were not entirely free, Solidarity easily won all 161 seats it was allowed to contest in the Lower House of the Parliament (Sejm) and it took 99 out of 100 seats in the freely contested Upper House (Senat). Subsequently, the first non-communist government in the region since WWII was formed under Solidarity’s leadership.
These events marked the beginning of a democratic transition in Eastern Europe. Yet that transition required much more than just holding elections: institutions of democratic governance had to be built and, crucially, institutions of market economy had to be put in place to ensure the survival of the new and fragile democracies. That is precisely where CIPE was able to help. In 1989, CIPE began to work with one of its first partners in a former communist country, the Krakow Industrial Society – Poland’s first private business association, to encourage, educate, and aid private entrepreneurs.
Bronisław Geremek, historian, philosopher, politician, hero of the Solidarity movement, Minister of Foreign Affairs who in 1999 signed the treaty under which Poland joined NATO, and most recently European Parliament Deputy was honored today at the NED memorial gathering. Geremek died in a car accident on July 13, his life tragically cut after decades of work devoted to advancing the cause of freedom and democracy in Central Europe.
He once said, “If I were in the West, I would probably not be involved with politics because it is simply an exercise in power. Here in Poland, however, an intellectual must be engaged, because we’re fighting for the very right to think.” A survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and later a dissident persecuted by Poland’s communist regime, Geremek was a stalwart champion of liberty. In 1980, he was advising the workers striking in Gdańsk shipyards and helping them articulate their demands that mounted a fundamental challenge to the communist rule. Then in 1989, he participated in the Round Table negotiations that dealt the final blow to communism in Poland and triggered historic changes in the region.
Today, he was eulogized by a distinguished group of friends and colleagues, including Senator Richard Lugar, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs and Democracy Paula Dobriansky, Ambassador of Poland Robert Kupiecki, Zbigniew Brzezinski of CSIS, and others. For me, a fellow Pole, he will always remain a symbol of the greatest transformation of our times.