Has the transition of Poland since 2005 been just?

In this article, we will look at whether the transitional state of Poland, since the election of PiS, the Catholic Conservative party now in power, standing strong in its anti-communist agenda, is doing a justified job in its view on cutting history with the Soviet Union.

The democratic transition of Poland from the Soviet-backed People’s Republic of Poland to an independent Poland in 1989 signalled an end to communist control of Eastern Europe and was definitely seen as an enormous step forward both by the Polish people and the world. Solidarity took the lead of transforming Poland into a democratic powerhouse of Eastern Europe, setting an example for other post-communist states to follow and joining the European Union in 2004.

However, since 2005, a Catholic conservative party names PiS, Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, translated as Law and Justice, has come into power, first through a coalition and, since 2015, by leading the government. The party has come under scrutiny throughout its time in power, especially after 2015, through cracking down on the Constitutional Court, controlling the parliament and presenting bills from individual MPs, thereby not requiring public consultation and passing laws within a day, as well as removing opposition MPs.

Nevertheless, one of the major interests of the party is its leading anti-communist stance in its manifesto. PiS has been working hard at history politics, justifying its argument to power through its claim of the need of the Poles to remember history and cleanse the state of communist perpetrators. The election of the party might well imply that that is what the Poles really want – after all, the lustration law was even supported by the opposition parties. However, is the way in which PiS delivers its transitional justice just in itself?

Looking back at our discussion of transitional justice, we can argue that transitional justice is just if it is supported through democratic values – that is, if the people say that the perpetrators must be punished. Writing on the matter, Aleks Szczerbiak does indeed find that Poland was sympathetic about dealing with their communist past, even if they did not see it as a priority, and, quoting a study of the CBOS, in February 2005, 68% of the Poles were seen to be in favour of lustration, and saw it as a step to the restoration of basic public order. A wide agreement on the lustration of Poland’s past can therefore be argued to justify the transitional justice that took place.

However, as Piotr Oseka remarks, the year 2005 marked the climax of the lustration policy with the so-called “Cleansing of the State”. Since 2005, the demand for vetting has been deceasing whilst references to the past played a bigger role in the PiS party program. Indeed, a demonstration named “Faces of Bezpieka”, taking place between 2007 and 2012 was devoted to showing the people the alleged criminals of the past, not describing their deeds and conveying a message of the unified responsibility for the crimes committed in the past.

PiS had further cracked down on Polish history by “sorting out Polish historical memory”, placing their own opinions on Polish history. In December 2016, the government had cut the pension of retired unformed services of the Polish People’s Republic. Can a policy aiming at making the life of older people harder, ones that worked for the state and believed in making it better, be considered just? Perhaps we can say that it is, if every single one of those retired men and women had made the life of the people harder, however, an objectification of responsibility hardly makes a case for a just transition of societies in this case.

Further assisting this sight, our statistical enquiry shows that the support for lustration gradually fell as the reign of PiS moved on. In 2008, CBOS found that only 38% of Poles felt that the the communist ruling party of the previous regime had played a negative role, and in 2009, a poll once again done by CBOS had found that the number of supporters for the revelation of the communist security service archives fell by 16% over the course of 4 years. 

The fall in support for the lustration and an increase in the use of the policy by PiS signals an undemocratic government, very much like the one PiS swore to destroy and punish. On the wide image, it seems like the lustration law isn’t being exercised to uphold justice in a newly formed democratic nation, but rather as a justification of the ruling party and an attempt to scrutinise anyone who doesn’t agree with them, unless, of course, PiS is governing on the basis of pseudo-meritocratic ideals with the claims of them knowing better what to do than the populace.

The argument has empirical evidence. PiS is known for its politics through delegitimisation of others and sailing with an anti-communist, nationalistic and historical message rather than a political plan. Pro-PiS media announce weekly the communist ancestors of a member of a ruling party, through what Oseka describes as “zombification” – resuscitating dead perpetrators through their living descendants, and the death of Lech Kaczynski was revealed by Jaroslaw Kaczynski as a “Russian-German condominium”, later accusing the government of treason. 

The notoriety of PiS as party aimed at accusation rather than proposition gives good reason for us to claim the transitional justice ideals in Poland following the election of PiS in 2005 as an unjust manoeuvre, not striving for a stable, just and democratic society but rather fighting for power through a political quarrel and denunciations of opposition through the proclamations of communist ties.

A wider look on Poland’s history further supports the view. In particular, we can take a look at Wladyslaw Gomulka, the leader of Poland in the years of 1956-1970. In Gomulka’s Poland, state enthroned the ideas of ethno-national homogeneity, proclaimed heroes from old stories about Polish martyrs of the past who strived for independence and provoked hate towards foreigners.

An overview of such a Poland might seem indifferent to modern-day Poland with PiS’ leadership – cries about the anti-communist rebels of the past, strong nationalism and even calls for xenophobia are all but a transformed state where transitional justice for wrongdoing in the past can be defined as a just and treatment of historical lustration.

Sources:

Oseka, Piotr, “From Neutralization to Zombification: Memory Games and Communist Perpetrators in Poland after 1989”, 2018.

Szczerbiak, Aleks, Communist-forgiving or Communist-purging?: Public Attitudes towards Transitional Justice and Truth Revelation in Post-1989 Poland, 2017.

Porter-Szűcs, Brian, “The Triumph of National Communism” In Poland’s Memory Wars: Essays on Illiberalism, edited by Harper Jo, 65-79. Budapest; New York: Central European University Press, 2018.

Ost, David, “Authoritarian Drive In Poland” In Poland’s Memory Wars: Essays on Illiberalism, edited by Harper Jo, 55-64. Budapest; New York: Central European University Press, 2018.

Image credit: Skitterphoto

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