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What I Saw at Poland's Election

A Polish-Canadian goes home to find Big Brother spying, a politician's suicide, and Bush with painted on horns.

By Christopher Grabowski 7 Nov 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Grabowski is a widely published, award-winning photojournalist who contributes photographs and words frequently to The Tyee.

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25 years after Cold War's end. Photo by C. Grabowski.

The concrete plaza in front of the massive Warsaw building once named for Josef Stalin has seen its share of anti-American demonstrations. At the height of the Cold War, "spontaneous" massive outbursts of public outrage against the "imperialist United States" were regularly staged there by the communist regime.

At the same plaza a quarter century later, on October 12, 2007, a few hundred demonstrators braved a cold drizzle. And once again there were posters of an American president with a devilish smile on his face and painted on horns.

Bush never came through

This time the demonstrators gathered to denounce the conservative Catholic, nationalist government of Jaroslaw Kaczynski for its support of American military invasions as well as its plans to install in Poland elements of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system.

The planned system is allegedly aimed to protect the U.S. against Iran, which doesn't possess any long-range ballistic missiles. As many analysts point out, it is more likely a component in a global chain of American military bases and installations now encircling Russia at close range.

Members of Kaczynski's government claimed no high moral ground for Polish involvement in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan or in the missile system. They adopted a pragmatic stand. The alignment with American foreign policies -- they claimed -- would lead to an increase in American investment in the Polish economy and end increased military assistance. None of those, however, have materialized.

If not terrorism, corruption

Kaczynski's government seemed to be infatuated with the Bush administration in more than one way. It adapted, quite creatively, some characteristic neocon policies to Polish realities.

How does one create an atmosphere of a permanent threat in a country never targeted by any terrorist groups? Kaczynski's government fashioned a massive program to fight corruption.

A new, Central Anti-Corruption Bureau was established, invested with sweeping powers. The bureau used SWAT teams and acquired its own dedicated cable to the national statistical agency where it had unrestricted access to citizen's personal data, including income and health information. Some constitutional rights of individuals were either suspended by the ministry of justice or simply ignored.

No costs were spared on the PR campaign. The whole country was plastered with anti-corruption billboards, the latest version of which depicted a monstrous mousetrap with a wad of bills in place of the bait. For some reason, the bait money was not Polish currency or even euros but American dollars.

The suicide of Barbara Bilda

To be fair, corruption exists in Poland and annoys the average Pole, but it is not on the scale that could even remotely threaten the economy or structures of the state.

The Central Anti-Corruption Bureau engaged in a string of sting operations directed primarily against the members of the opposition. As the leader of the main opposition party pointed out in a TV debate with Premier Kaczynski, no single legislative initiative came from the Kaczynski's government or his Law and Justice party to curb corruption. "You create thieves and then you chase them. This game could last forever," said Donald Tusk.

Kaczynski's anti-corruption stand also took more farcical turns. He proudly announced that he didn't have a bank account and used his mother's account to discourage corruptors from depositing unsolicited money in his name.

Some of the PR stunts of the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau ended tragically. When, on April 25, 2007, agents of the bureau entered the home of member of parliament Barbara Blida with a TV crew on their heels, the woman went to the bathroom and committed suicide. No proof of her corruption or even a convincing accusation against her was ever presented to the public.

Time for a witch hunt and alarming headlines

In another effort to raise tension, Kaczynski's government tried to invigorate the witch-hunt for the alleged informers of the late communist regime. It was met with a lukewarm response from a public more interested in economic indicators than in looking for skeletons in the closets of public figures.

On Oct. 3, 2007, less than three weeks before election day, several dailies linked to the governing party covered their front pages with big, red colored headlines: "Poland Attacked" and "Attack on Poland." That certainly sent some elderly citizens to the windows to look for the German tanks on the streets. As it turned out, the headlines referred to the explosion of an IED near the armored cavalcade of the Polish ambassador in Baghdad. The ambassador, General Edward Pietrzyk, was injured and his bodyguard killed.

Altogether, Kaczynski's Law and Justice party, during its two-year-long stint in power, provided no positive policies aimed at resolving Polish economic and social problems or improving her relations with neighbors, Germany and Russia. It simply pushed Poland to the far right fringe of the European Union with its crusade for capital punishment and against gay rights.

It governed with the aim to stay in power, but eventually its efforts to frighten the population into running for nationalist/populist cover and electing it to continue governing Poland, failed. The majority of Poles easily deconstructed the media-based reality in which their government wanted them to live and on Oct. 21, 2007, voted for the opposition.

Filtering out propaganda

To see through their government's propaganda was a relatively easy task for the Polish electorate. Polish democracy is still quite young. The process of convergence of the political, economic and media elite have not yet advanced very far there. Particularly in comparison with let's say, U.S. or Canada. Also, media concentration in Poland is not significant. Almost all political orientations, from very far right to far left have some representation in the mainstream media and are able to participate to some extent in the national debate.

Lastly, the lessons learned while living under a totalitarian, pro-Moscow regime, are not easily forgotten by Poles. They've developed a degree of intellectual immunity in response to a propaganda-saturated media environment. The more condensed propaganda they are exposed to, the less attention they pay to it. This phenomenon was best described by Jacek Kuron, a former Communist Party member, who became a Solidarity union adviser in the 1980s.

"The situation is now such that if there should be an announcement that the government had laid a golden egg, the people would say: first of all, not golden; secondly, not an egg; and thirdly; it didn't lay it but stole it."

Even today, if you tell somebody in Poland that a newspaper published certain information, an inevitable and immediate question is asked: which newspaper? The bare message without the identity of the messenger means little there.

Canadian connections?

It remains to be seen what Poland's new leaders are going to do about their military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and an American missile base planned on their land.

On a number of occasions in the past, however, Poles have proven to be a politically smart citizenry.

They've managed a relatively peaceful transition from a totalitarian to a democratic system that triggered the domino-like fall of pro-Moscow regimes across Eastern Europe.

They've market-ized their economy without entirely handing it over to a few oligarchs.

And now they've sent packing a government that was determined to exploit their chauvinistic impulses.

I returned to Vancouver believing my visit offered a few lessons, cautionary and hopeful, to share with my fellow Canadians. After all, Canadians and Poles are currently brothers in arms in the American-led great game in Afghanistan.

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