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The Fall of Post Communism Transformation in Central and Eastern Europe

In order to talk about the decline of post-communism, one must first describe the system and explain where it came from. Without going into much historical detail to introduce to us its complex origins and the process of its formation, which continued for years, I will only say it emerged as a form of political system due to certain negligence.

In the communist system, democracy virtually did not exist, nor did any democratic institutions, despite a democratic facade which differed from one country to another (in Poland, once referred to as "the jolliest block in the camp", the facade had some minimum and yet noticeable importance, even though only occasionally). Neither market, nor market institutions existed; there was, however, state machinery subordinated to the communist regime, including powerful policing forces and elaborate machinery of secret services. Last but not least, there was a social hierarchy—seemingly rather complicated, actually quite simple from the important point of view for the communism that is participation in power. The dominant group was the Party 'nomenklatura,' i.e. a group of people who, in exchange for absolute loyalty to the system they declared and practised, would wield power on different levels of the integrated socio-economic structure (its integration achieved through the Party machinery). The group in power would also derive material gains from their position; the gains being legally derived within the framework of specific legalism of the communist state, but also—all too often—illegal. Later on, the gains would be associated with early inter-systemic privatisation which would advance discretely and not without remissions. At the end of the Eighties, the people already had and were fully conscious of their vested economic interest. The group was also characterised by a high degree of cohesion perpetuated by the mechanism of inheritance which rather than to particular positions, pertained to the very fact of membership in the `nomenklatura.' Strong social, and frequently also family ties, further reinforced the cohesion. Another factor that contributed to that cohesion was the sense of being separate from the rest of society. One more element of the late-communist social structure must be mentioned at this point: in its decadent form, the communist system clearly turned towards material values. In the case of Poland, the result was an attempt at creating a certain form of a consumer society. We might well call it a crippled consumer society. Such a situation promoted a rapid growth of an enormous sphere of pathologies which proliferated with particular intensity on the interface of business and public activity. Pathologies often took on the form of organised or even highly organised criminal activity which frequently involved participation of secret service representatives.

To cut the long story short, the negligence I have mentioned before can be reduced to the fact that the process of system transformation only encompassed the establishment of democratic procedures and abolition of checks on civic liberties, the formation of free market and fundamental market institutions, money notwithstanding, as well as the establishment of the elementary economic freedom. What it failed to encompass was the elimination, or at least radical transformation of the old state machinery—it failed to form a new state. Not even an attempt was made at changing the social hierarchy and downgrading the 'nomenklatura' which retained its social advantage despite the loss of power and, worse still, was mostly able to transform the power into property. Not an attempt was made at any activities to put a curb on pathologies. What is more, for years criminal provisions that could combat such pathologies were abolished and many other provisions of law were changed into legal fiction (e.g. through the symbolic amounts of cash penalties for misappropriation of funds), which fed the enormous growth of pathologies.

At the very heart of the negligence I have just outlined was the failure to reconstruct the state: the lack of a new state. Without building a new state, any attempts at social reconstruction or combating pathologies were doomed to failure. In order to introduce my audience to the practical dimension of the lack of changes I have referred to before, I would like to concentrate now for a moment on the issue of secret services. At the end of the Eighties, three types of secret services, i.e. civil secret service, military secret service and the least influential border guard secret service employed approximately 30,000 officers and at least 150,000 to 200,000 collaborators. They had great expertise and powerful connections in many different areas of life, including economy. They also had an extensive network of international contacts, including but not limited to financial institutions, which helped them gather funds in hard currencies. Special forces of the People's Republic of Poland were the foundation of an oppressive system, not only on the single country scale, but also as part of a greater whole of the entire Moscow-controlled system.

Let us have a closer look at the history of the secret services during the first years following 1989. The most numerous of them, namely the civil secret service, was formally disbanded. However, before it happened, a substantial portion (about 30-40 percent) of its staff was moved to the police, most of them to managerial or professional positions. Another group underwent verification and formed a new service which employed thousands of officers. Out of those who were removed or left of their own accord, many found jobs with major security firms or private detective agencies with operational capacity comparable to that of secret services. It might well be said that, even though disbanded, the Civil Security Service continued in a way. As for the less numerous, though more efficient military secret service, which back in the Eighties played a special part as a backbone of generals' regime—it continued virtually unaltered. Its restructuring and a change of its name were not accompanied by any staff verification. The third type of secret services, which had but minimum importance, was the only one to disappear, though its staff, too, found jobs in different parts of state machinery.

Then just as now, this situation has had a great bearing on the course of events in our country, on the shape of our economic life, the shape of our media and, consequently, the shape of our public life. We must keep it in mind that verification has never taken place in courts or any other structures within the judicial system, nor in any other part of state machinery, for that matter.

Such a state of things would give the 'nomenklatura' an advantage in any situation; in the situation of ownership transformations and the emergence of a new social class of property owners, the advantage was overwhelming. Relations with state machinery, access to information and decision-making processes resulted in what we might call a dramatic inequality in the process of acquiring ownership positions, both as regards privatisation of state-owned property as well as the so-called 'founding privatisation'. The course of that process as well as the entire structure and moods that prevailed in society were largely influenced by the lasting tension or even confusion that grew between the opportunities and offer of the emerging market, and the offer the budget had for a civil officer. In view of the non­existent civil service ethos and the fact that the service lacked a mission, such as, e.g. building a new state as a new value, the tension had to result in more entrepreneurial individuals moving from state machinery to business environment and taking their information resources and contacts along with them. It had to result also in civil servants combining two functions, i.e. working for both the state and business, or, last but not least, in plain bribery and corruption.

And yet, 'nomenklatura' domination could not continue without satisfying the elementary need of a social system, i.e. the need for legitimisation. The need was particularly pronounced in view of the fact that the system had given up resorting to force for staying in power, restored civic liberties, abolished censorship etc. Such a legitimisation was achieved, though we should remember it was not without reaching for so-called 'other' methods. To explain it in plain words it is worth adducing the concept of counter­elites developed by Vilfredo Pareto. In countries where counter-elites did not or hardly exist, the issue of ensuring political balance was relatively simple. Opposition against the emerging post-communism could not be articulated in a politically conclusive way. In Poland, however, counter­elites did exist. They were deeply rooted in society and enjoyed considerable political experience which resulted from decades of political activity. There was also the Catholic Church which had maintained much independence and in the Eighties already played a major political role. What is more, the eighties witnessed a fierce political struggle and related deep social divisions which re-emerged after many years of discontinuation only occasionally interrupted by short-lived crises. Consequently, there were reasons to believe power would be fully taken over by the counter-elite, and the'nomenklatura' would be ultimately downgraded.

Such postulates were indeed set forth on the political level. If they were not met, it is only due to the fact that the most influential portion of the counter-elite consented to the shape of transformation I have described before. That consent was a response to a proposal of co-optation, followed by an offer to participate in power and finally an agreement to yield power in part on condition of certain guarantees for those giving it up. The consent was concomitant with a portion of the former counter-elite being co-opted to the socially privileged sphere. Regardless of the fact, it must be emphasised that some of the communist system opponents consented to the version of transformations described above because they feared—for biographical or ideological reasons—that the Polish political scene would become dominated by the tradition-oriented part of society and the Church. Consequent upon that consent was a situation in which the heritage of oppositional activity, or a part of that heritage, to be specific, contributed to building of a specific charismatic legitimation. At the same time, a platform for ideological cooperation between the post-communist and the liberal forces was formed. That fact was very important because, to a considerable extent, it defied the political division of the Eighties and put radical checks on the pace of reconstruction. That deceleration could not be complete without other measures being taken. Perhaps the most important of them was the continuation after 1989 of social engineering oriented towards demobilisation, which was typical of the preceding regime. It consisted in focusing public attention on the sphere of social and ludic issues and defining the essence of the political conflict in such a way as to make it seem related to a great, if not the deciding extent, to the issue of liberties. This way a platform was created for cooperation between the 'nomenklatura' or, specifically speaking, its political representatives involved in the parliamentary sphere and especially the mass media, and the representatives of liberal circles who opposed the People's Republic of Poland. That union was not translated into open parliamentary cooperation (even though it was reflected in frequent and politically effective covert cooperation in 1989-93) but helped build legitimation of power through promoting a belief that freedom is in danger and must be defended.

Those activities were accompanied by other measures directed against the Church and consequently, against all traditional values, most prominently, patriotism. The campaign was so powerful that one is tempted to venture a thesis it was the fundamental ideological message of those first years of independence. The structure of system legitimation was obviously much more complex. It appealed to the need for peace, deeply rooted in Polish people, recalled the negative experience of the former system and all the nuisances of everyday life associated with it, which were quickly eliminated after the reforms of 1990 (problems with provisions were controlled only at the cost of a major decline in the standard of life). The campaign was also strongly supported by specific legitimisation of prospects for the future: a concept which could be reduced to the statement that the market, democracy and the state of law as well as the prospect of accession to

European structures would quickly and effortlessly solve all problems.

All such communications and social narrations would never suffice, had not it been for the fact that the attempts at system legitimisation were accompanied by other activities. First, secret services continued to operate and played a pivotal part in disintegration and conflicting of the portion of the Solidarity movement which questioned post-communism. Much-talked ­about and still focus of interest, the case of invigilation of right-wing politicians is nothing else but a case of a campaign aimed at causing such divisions and conflicts. It is worth mentioning that, notwithstanding the different roles of individual participants in those events, the very essence of the war at the helm which broke out in 1990 and resulted in the division of the Solidarity movement was a conflict around post-communism (even though this term would not yet be used at that time): a conflict about whether to accept or to reject it. The breaking up or complete debilitation of anti-communist forces consequent upon that conflict actually decided about the emergence of a certain peculiarity which sustained, or shall I say, strengthened post-communism. What I mean is the double profit situation, i.e. a situation in which the communist 'nomenklatura' was the main beneficiary of the ownership transformations and at the same time—through its political representation—the main beneficiary of discontent with those transformations. Both the voters whose loyalty to post-communism stemmed from their biographies as well as ordinary people who were afraid of unemployment and the dramatic situation of the Polish countryside were ready to vote for a party formed by the 'nomenklatura.' The obvious information that post-communist parties benefited from considerable privileges unavailable to newly formed parties and were beneficiaries of the transformations were kept away form and put in doubt in publicly available and received communications. This is how the union I have mentioned before would operate.

In 1993 post-communists regained power and in 1995 they further strengthened their position by filling the post of President with their own representative. The system reached its maturity, which was reflected in a specific structure of the Constitution adopted in 1997. The system was hardly upset by the four-year term in office of the right wing, which started in 1997 and was partly obstructed by the opposition of President and the need to form an alliance with a formation which actually approved of post-­communism. The weakness of the media and the continued activity of the secret service were among the many reasons for negative candidate selection among the right-wing politicians. There is no doubt that it was mostly due to this last fact that despite anti-communist declarations and certain measures taken in this respect, the right wing actually adopted the modus operandi of the post-communist elite.

In 2001, post-communists returned to power and the system seemed to be ultimately reinforced. But it turned out otherwise. In order to explain it, one should have a closer look at the system's characteristics. Post-communism preserves democratic rights and liberties while obviously failing to meet the requirements of true democracy. The domination of ‘nomenklatura’ is such that we cannot speak about social equilibrium. It maintains absolute inequality with respect to access to mass media. Their largely dominant part—due to capital control and correctness-enforcement mechanisms—serves purposes imposed by the system, selecting information and repudiating communications which might seriously undermine the existing status of relations. The domination of the ‘nomenklatura’ and its allies extends to courts, which results in unequal situation related to defence of honour. One might say that its defence is just as unequal as the distribution of prestige. 'Nomenklatura' domination in the area of material assets is also overwhelming, and leads to dependency of certain institutions from the outside of the system, e.g. certain parts of the Church. Primarily related to the 'nomenklatura's' prevalence in the sphere of power and administration, this imbalance greatly disturbs market mechanisms. Being situated somewhere within the social system of privileges was much better a guarantee of successful business than good entrepreneurial skills. What is more, individual success which consisted in growing rich was often achieved through activities that involved taking over state or private property at non-equivalent prices rather than producing any goods. A major ownership shift which occurred at that time and was generally inevitable took place in deficient market conditions in a way characterised by wastage and little social effectiveness.

It is this sphere that conceals the answer to the question about the principal reason for the decline of post-communism. The deficient market proved to be a mechanism incapable of ensuring sustainable economic development, not even with the impressive entrepreneurship of society. After a decrease which continued for two years, Poland's domestic product was quickly on the rise. Due to fundamental economic freedom and the impressive entrepreneurship of society which I have mentioned before, several million companies were established. For a few years economy developed at a fast pace, but a majority of the new capitalists soon used up all their possibilities, faced with barriers they could not overcome and unable to make their way into the sphere of medium, and especially great­scale business. The system also proved to be completely unable to make major collective investments such as motorway construction or general access to housing.

Social blockade of most entrepreneurs had not only purely economic, but also political effects, which exacerbated system contestation. The contestation assumed different forms —from populism (Samoobrona RP) to radically liberal (Platforma Obywatelska). It struck directly at the political interests of SLD, depriving it of a portion of its electorate (Samoobrona RP) or questioning the consensus achieved by liberal and post-communist elites (Platforma Obywatelska). The crisis of the state and the economic decline which resulted, among other things, in a significant growth in crime, helped create a new platform centred around state order, on which to revitalise and reorganise the anti-communist forces which were defeated in the battle at the beginning of the Eighties and later, first without much effect, called for intensification of the fight against crime. This is how Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc came into being. Privileges the Church had gained as part of the compromise at the turn of the Nineties yielded fruit in the form of the establishment of Radio Maryja broadcasting station which ever since 1993 has effectively animated and unified the most traditional part of society. Radio Maryja contributed to the victory of AWS in 1997 and, in 2001, was instrumental in the formation of a new party which contested the post­-communist system, namely LPR.

The new confidence displayed by post-communists after their return to power in 2001 made the characteristic features of the system more visible. A phenomenon which became particularly ostentatious was oligarchy formation. A small group of entrepreneurs who had gathered enormous wealth, mostly owing to their political relations, and at the same time gained a great influence in this sphere. That specific form of system personification undermined its legitimation and sharpened its rejection.

And yet, the rapid transition to the stage of sharp crisis was primarily attributable to two events which were related to the post-communist bloc. The first of them was associated with the characteristics of the system which was ultimately formed in 1997. In such a system, a strong position of the government is combined with a relatively strong position of the President as compared to a classical system combining parliamentary and presidential rule. What results is two political centres within the executive power, which compete with one another for most of the time. This is exactly what happened to the post-communist system. The period 2001-­2004 witnessed fierce competition between the governmental and the presidential centres, which seems to have ensued, among other things, from different economic connections of each of the centres. The conflict grew more evident and fierce, involving the opposition, disintegrating and exposing the system, not least because in the course of the conflict both sides used information which was harmful for the rival. However, the factor that contributed most to the final onset of the crisis was the sense of power that possessed the winners of the 2001 campaign and drove some of them to attack the media, and especially "Gazeta Wyborcza" which had a great influence on and much importance for system legitimisation. An attempt to levy a corruption tax on "Gazeta" and to control the daily resulted in the so-called Rywin-gate which ultimately compromised the system and led to its de-legitimisation. The attack waged by "Gazeta" and supported by other media as well as the activities of the Sejm Investigation Committee resulted in a shock—it led to legalising criticism of particular manifestations of evil, as well as criticism of relations in the public and social life as a whole. It also led to demands for major changes being formulated by the circles which had previously accepted the system. (Years before, the same demands formulated by anti-communist forces never made it beyond the system margins.) The decline and de-legitimisation of the system were accompanied by gradual but systematic return of a major part of society to traditional values annihilated in the Nineties, but only in part, and only temporarily. Even the most powerful media could not ignore injustice, including historical injustice related to the amnesia imposed on society in the early Nineties. Requirements associated with Poland's accession to the European Union and in particular the opening of the press market helped build competition in this field, too, even though the situation in this area is still far from satisfactory. A factor which was especially important in bringing about the change was also the financing of political parties from the state budget and the transparency of expenditure involved in electoral campaigns, first introduced under AWS rule. These solutions greatly increased the chances of parties which questioned post-communism.

In 2005 something happened that was unimaginable for the previous dozen years. Forces which openly questioned post-communism right from the start and were truly willing to reject it finally came into power. History is seldom simple. It is by no means simple in this case. It turns out that the ultimate rejection of post-communism means a different thing for each of the groups that have questioned it. The differences, though, are so complex that I would not venture discussing them here. The fact remains that Poland is currently undergoing thorough transformation of state machinery. It is also a witness to a tempestuous process of reconstructing social awareness, restoring history and exposing post-communist legitimation myths. There is no doubt: the history has got off the ground.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski is the Prime Minister of Poland. This speech was delivered to the Heritage Foundation on September 14, 2006.