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.
A story in the current Economist captures so much that’s maddening about bureaucratic hassles facing small business. In one story from Poland (which, it must be said, has made much progress in many areas, though clearly still more to be done) a small business owner wishing to change location must go through a minimum of 7 steps involving as many government offices, multiple forms at each, and several weeks of processing between each step. None of it simple, none automated, none online.
Larger businesses, of course, go through the same hassles. They typically have people to deal with it, though, but then that cost is passed along in the price of their goods. Small businesses don’t have such staff, so their time spent on these bureaucratic excesses directly takes away from time spent on basic business issues such as customer care and product manufacturing — directly affecting their growth potential and job offerings.
There are many ways to positively change this scenario. First and foremost, “streamlining” means taking out unnecessary steps. Why must the business contract with its accountant be formally amended and notarized? A simple notification or forwarding address suffices in other places. After a true streamlining minimizes the steps to those most needed, then determine how those steps can be combined, for example by having a single notification for multiple districts. Finally, simplify the access that citizens have to accomplish the needed steps. Oftentimes, this means moving to an online system or at least a single window system. Just skipping to online processes without the streamlining, however, continues the confusion and doesn’t represent a major step forward.
If it’s all so simple, why isn’t it done more often? As usual, look for the incentives and disincentives for change. Bureaucrats rarely have any incentive to cede what is perceived as their sphere of control. Notaries love processes that require lots of stamps. As do the stampmakers, of course. Figuring out who sees themselves as giving up something in the change is just as important as understanding where the drive for change comes from. Together, these help plot the course for successfully advocating real systemic change. It may seem to be about business and economics, but ultimately it’s about the politics of getting things done.