Monday, April 12, 2010

A Very Polish Conservative

Remember Lech Kaczynski.

By Charles Crawford
April 12, 2010 4:00 A.M.

In 2005 I attended a smart Warsaw dinner party not long after the Kaczynski twins and their Law and Justice party (PiS) had triumphed in the Polish elections. The assembled Poles, distinguished Warsaw intellectuals, united in noisy disgust: The Kaczynskis were pathological extremists, and Poland was hurtling to ruin, even dictatorship.

Attacks on the Kaczynski phenomenon from many Poles (including Solidarity-era colleagues) spurred many journalists to label them with one or more of the following adjectives: extreme, nationalist, homophobic, anti-German, anti-European, ultra-Catholic, xenophobic, reactionary, divisive, populist, right-wing.

The worst adjective the patronizing Warsaw elite threw at the Kaczynskis was Polish-specific: They were provincial. Too petty and pedantic, too truculent and self-righteous, too wrapped up in Poland’s proud myths, too worried about all those uneducated, primitive Poles out there. In short, too Polish — but in the wrong way.

I found all this baffling. I had met the Kaczynski family on numerous occasions. They came across as smart, amusing, private, determined, and far-sighted Polish patriots.

Conservative? For sure. But not snooty, paternalistic conservatives. Rather, their conservatism was based on rock-hard core beliefs and unshakable private integrity. Yet it was not a free-market conservatism: They liked a strong state, and fretted in almost left-wing ways about the Polish underclass. They were uneasy with tycoons and capitalists; they suspected (presciently?) that too much easy money sloshing around would do more harm than good.

The Kaczynskis’ overriding ambition was for Poland to be strong. (Since 1795, Poland has been free and independent for only 40 years.) The Kaczynskis believed that Poland’s bleak modern history had created key weaknesses.

One weakness was the dire moral and institutional legacy of Communism. Poles’ heroic efforts to end Soviet rule had come at a huge cost. Poles had spied on and betrayed other Poles. Key state institutions had been penetrated by Moscow.

Above all, the Kaczynskis insisted that key Solidarity leaders, including Lech Walesa himself, had pulled punches when Communism ended, allowing Communist villains to sneak away from their crimes only to return in expensive new suits, whistling nonchalantly as new European “social democrats.” This argument infuriated former Solidarity personalities. How dare the Kaczynskis call into question Poland’s (and Solidarity’s) triumph in ending Communism peacefully. Heresy!

Lech Kaczynski wanted to win the 2005 presidential election primarily to see his view of this recent history vindicated, though he had no clear plan for handling it. There was no unconditional throwing open of Communist-era archives — too many Solidarity people and senior Catholic Church leaders had to be protected from devastating revelations of betrayal or private indiscretions. But Kaczynski worked hard to give proper recognition to the victims of Communism and to many elderly Polish World War II veterans, whose fight for freedom had been airbrushed from history by the Communist regime.

Lech Kaczynski was a fastidious constitutionalist. He did not want Poland slipping back into the ruinous feuding of the 1930s. By 2000, the dozens of political parties that had contested early post-Communist elections had been reduced to some ten groupings. However, too many Polish voters flirted with overtly populist leaders of a “Red-Brown” inclination. Many were marginalized Poles from families displaced from Ukraine during World War II, left “rootless” in poor rural areas.

After the Kaczynskis’ PiS party (to their own surprise) became the largest party in the 2005 parliamentary elections, the twins hit upon a strategy that scandalized many middle-class Poles: They formed a coalition government with two populist parties, the Self-Defense and Polish Families parties.

The ridiculous government wobbled along for a year or so, then collapsed. In the 2007 elections, the centre-right Citizens Platform party swept to power. Insisting on “social justice” and strong state support for the less fortunate, PiS sucked in votes from traditional leftist voters. The populists and former Communists were crushed.

The result of the Kaczynskis’ machinations has been a spectacular success. Only four political groupings are now in parliament, and all of them are committed to modernizing, pro-Western policies. Polish politics, decision-making, and institutions are notably more stable. Poland’s current economic success (while Europe as a whole struggles) is no accident.

Lech Kaczynski wanted Poland to be strong in Europe. But he also wanted Western Europe to grasp that while it had prospered after World War II, Poland had been left at Yalta to rot under Soviet misrule. The values of “modern Europe” had been formed without Poland’s rightful participation; Poland was not automatically bound by them.

One classic example: As Warsaw mayor, Lech Kaczynski famously banned two gay parades. Not because he was against homosexuality (which was decriminalized in reactionary Catholic Poland four decades before the liberal United Kingdom got around to doing so). Rather, he thought that such parades — where gays from Germany and elsewhere in Europe jeered at his authority — were just unseemly.

Lech Kaczynski accepted Poland’s membership in the European Union as the best available way to protect Poland from domineering Germany and assertive Russia. With hundreds of thousands of Poles who had suffered in German labor camps during World War II still alive, his rhetorical noises against Germany played well with his core constituency but did little to make EU processes go smoothly.

He struck defiant postures against Putin’s Russia, but lacked the diplomatic guile to build international alliances and make much of a difference. In a grim yet touching twist of fate, the Russian establishment has responded generously to the fatal crash of the president’s aircraft while en route to the Katyn massacre commemorations. Andrzej Wajda’s harrowing film Katyn is being shown on Russia’s main TV channel — a startling (and good) development by the frosty standards of recent Polish-Russian relations.

President Kaczynski made clear that Poland had not thrown off Communist Moscow to submit to petty-bureaucratic Brussels. Unlike all other EU leaders, he studied the 270 pages of the Lisbon Treaty with an expert legal eye. He accepted it only when he won a dramatic German concession: to extend Poland’s favorable EU voting weight until 2014.

Kaczynski also steered the issue of Poland’s eurozone membership into the long grass. Given the eurozone’s ongoing internal crises, this seems to have been another far-sighted move that did Poland no harm.

Lech Kaczynski fought long and hard to make Poland strong again. In foreign policy especially, he reminds me of Bill Buckley’s famous ambition for NR: to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop!” His weakness was turning his fiercely held attitudes into policies.

Yet his unwavering insistence on integrity and constitutionality made a real difference. I was asked on the BBC and CNN whether Poland would now slump into political instability, given that so many top officials died in the plane crash. I replied, “Of course not.”

Poland today is in deep sorrow, yet it is coping firmly and democratically with this calamity. That is Kaczynski’s towering achievement, for Poland and for Europe.

— Charles Crawford served as British ambassador in Warsaw from 2003 to 2007. He now writes about diplomatic issues at

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