Veronika Pehe: In the recent elections, the Poles seem to have voted for change, giving Law and Justice (PiS) an overall majority in Parliament. Yet the new government features several controversial figures who are hardly new to politics – so what kind of a change is this?
Jan Kubik: I was asked after the elections – what happens next? My answer was: I cannot tell you until I see the new government. PiS is like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. You don’t know which one will appear in the streets in the evening, or in this case, which one will form the government. It looks like it is a bit of both, Dr Jekyll seems to have appeared in the economic ministries, while Mr Hyde sprang up in Defence and Justice. Everybody observed that during the campaign, PiS managed to hide Antoni Macierewicz and yet he is now the Minster of Defence. Both he and Zbigniew Ziobro are controversial in the sense that there is a kind of agitated energy around them, which I think is extremely unhelpful. One thing that the previous Civic Platform (PO) government deserves credit for – though they certainly weren’t a very able set of politicians in the last two years or so – was that they presided over enough political peace so that people could go about their business largely undisturbed, and therefore the country’s economy could keep going. It is not the government who builds the economy, it is the people. But if you mess with the people’s minds too much, they begin to get distracted. The previous period of PiS rule was a period of distraction. Quite a few of their actions were distracting people and disturbing various routines. For instance, PiS’s efforts to get rid of ex-communists in various positions: there are good reasons to engage in what is called transitional and retrospective justices, but it is better done right after the revolution, not 17 years later. The cost of it, when it comes so late, is not worth it. And the way they went about it was disruptive; I saw a lot of people shaken by what was going on. That is simply not helpful if your main goal is to rebuild the country. The biggest task after the fall of communism was the rebuilding of infrastructure. This takes a lot of time and energy and Poland is very successful in that respect, but it could have been more successful had it not been for these cultural disturbances. I am worried that the country will go through the next period with a similar amount of disruption.
Can these “cultural disturbances” you refer to also help explain what is behind the reactions of Poland and other Central European countries to the refugee crisis?
An extremely ugly face of those cultures was shown. But I don’t think that is the only face of those cultures, some positive things emerged as well. For instance, take the case of the Syrian man beaten up in Poznań, who turned out to be a Christian. The hooligans who attacked him did not even bother finding out that he was a Christian, maybe they don’t even understand that there are different forms of Christianity. I don’t know what’s in their heads, this is just a horror. But there were counter-demonstrations to support this man, the archbishop went to see him in the hospital. It shows that the cultures of those countries are torn, nothing unusual. But I am blaming right-wing politicians, and in the case of Poland at least some PiS politicians, that they do not clearly condemn many actions by that part of the political spectrum that could be termed football hooligans. Every year on November 11, people are nervous what they will do. This year the level of damage and disruption was luckily not that high, though rhetorical aggression was intense. Perhaps they are beginning to “behave” because they have “their” government in place. But their vandalism should never be glossed over in silence and should always be publically condemned, as such behaviour is absolutely unacceptable. Unfortunately, too often PiS leaders do not want to alienate them, because they form a substantial part of their support base. And that is just horrific for the quality of the public space in the country.
Take Britain – I was watching the Remembrance Day celebrations which took place on 8 November, commemorating the victims of the First World War. I have to admit I was moved. My excitement about the royalty is modest, but as an anthropologist, I understand how important public ritual is for a society and this was absolute perfection. The British excel at performing large public rituals. There were very simple things like David Cameron standing next to the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn. They walked together, they laid wreaths together, and for the time of this celebration, their differences were suspended. In Poland this is rare, often unthinkable – in past years, PiS top officials were reluctant to take part in celebrations organized by the previous government.
For the first time since 1989, the left, including the post-communists, did not get into Parliament in Poland. Some commentators have seen this as the end of the post-communist era. Does this signal such a significant shift?
That of course depends on how you define post-communism. If you define it as a system in which at least some actions still reference the communist period, then the end of post-communism will be when this reference point completely disappears. In this sense, we are very far from the end of post-communism. In fact, I would say there was a period right after the fall of communism that was less post-communist than now, in the sense that nowadays, a lot of activity across the political spectrum is still driven at least partially by dealing with the ghosts of communism. The memory of communism looms huge over the political spectrum. This is especially the case in countries where economic issues and concerns are not the only concerns of politics, where there are a number of broadly cultural concerns. In places like Poland, these are often related to religion, and they are related to the understanding of the past, which is filtered by a mixture of nationalist and religious interpretations. Wherever you go, you will find politicians, as well as many “ordinary” people, who invoke some specific interpretations of the communist past as political weapons. For example, there is a trope of an incompleteness of what happened during and after 1989.
Is it this shared communist past that defines Central Europe as a region?
Yes. There are many elements that can be used as criteria of what constitutes an area – in this case, one of those elements is precisely that communism happened there, and it has left a very strong legacy. It is inconceivable that this legacy should just disappear, particularly since many people do not want it to disappear.
Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland have been spoken about in one breath in the past months. What else connects these countries?
They were put together in this bag because of the position they took on the refugee crisis. I think the level of understanding, of knowledge of what is actually happening, who the people coming to Europe actually are, has been extremely low. People felt they could say ethically horrible things, often under the banner of religiosity. It always puzzles me if they understand that at the centre of their religion is Jesus Christ with a message of compassion and love and understanding…That is another thing about the region – of course there are places that are quite secular in terms of official religiosity, such as the Czech Republic, which is a bit of an outlier in this case – but in the other countries, the religious establishment has taken some extremely dubious ethical positions. Those countries are divided and the top religious governing bodies are also divided. There are some issues that, regardless of your political sympathies, you should stand firmly for. Instead, we have seen the invention of bizarre cultural constructs of various “threats” – in Poland, it was famously the “gender threat”. Yet these are very vague – you can sense that religious establishments are against something that could be called liberal cosmopolitan values. This is a position they can certainly take, but they could take that position without this kind of idiotic language, and in more articulate and sophisticated ways that do not compromise on certain basic principles, like showing compassion, or trying to understand what is happening, so that people can participate in the refugee crisis in a compassionate and informed way. That should be the rule of religious organizations, but many religious figures are doing exactly the opposite. And that is very disturbing.
The various European crises have been discussed as crises of values. What this often implies is that there are European values which are in fact “West European” values and Central Europe is not conforming to them. This brings us back to the language of the 1990s and ideas of transition: Europe’s post-communist half as moving towards the West. But why, in fact, should we expect Central Europe to adopt West European values?
We have to be specific. Research has shown that the cultural distance in terms of values between Central Europeans and West Europeans compared to the distance between West Europeans and Southern Europeans is in fact shorter in some respects. We can complicate this thinking in terms of East/West only – there is also the North/South axis, and this becomes much more interesting. There has never been a moment when it was absolutely clear what this set of European values actually is. Any such values emerged over a long period of time and they were always the subject of contestation. And there was a lot of hypocrisy about these values as well. You had colonial powers presenting a set of European values, such as tolerance, understanding of other human beings, and a growing commitment to the protection of basic human, political, and civic rights, but at the same time, you had colonies. Putting aside the complex discussion whether the British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese empires were the same – they were not – there is clearly hypocrisy, contest, change over time, and differences in the ways that people imagine those values. On the other hand, when you simply look at the results of recent surveys – and at factors such as the existence of values such as tolerance, the acceptance of alternative lifestyles, homosexuality, the position in the pro-life/pro-choice debate –there are clear divisions between the Eastern and Western part of the continent. A cosmopolitan liberal culture by and large tends to be found in the West rather than the East. But on the other hand, support for more radical right-wing parties across the continent goes up and down without a clear pattern that aligns it with East or West. This complexity does not map out clearly onto the East/West divide when you really seriously think about it. If you start looking at the details, some things you think belong to the East are actually equally pronounced in the West, and vice versa.
And complicating the picture in this way is necessary, as discursively the division between East and West is alive and being reinforced all the time. Who benefits from a vision of Europe divided into two halves?
In short: Putin. The benefits for the people on the ground in the Eastern part of Europe are not clear. Very few people in Central Europe before 1989 – in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and I suspect to a large degree also Romania – used to think in terms of being in the East, they thought they were in some version of the West. There was never an Eastern Europe, I really do not recall this term. The West was the reference point, but it wasn’t that “we from the East” thought about the West, it was “we from here” who thought about “the West,” quite a bit as an imprecisely defined object of desire. The argument that dividing Europe is beneficial to Russian foreign policy is very convincing. The Russians have a very high level of foreign policy thinking and they strategize very well. Of course, there are some crazy ideas that inform this policy on the margins, e.g. some “Eurasian” philosophers around Putin, but the policy itself is, I think, very systematically planned. The old rule of divide et impera – divide and rule – is one of the major cards of any seriously thinking foreign policy establishment. I think there is no other way to explain those strange bedfellows of right-wing parties on the right-wing fringe of Europe and Putin, who on one of his rhetorical levels is extremely anti-right-wing and anti-fascist, yet has allied himself with neo-fascist groups. It doesn’t make sense unless you look at it as a strategic calculation to keep stirring things up and dividing Europe. So not too many people in Central and Western Europe benefit, but the Russian foreign policy establishment does.
Jan Kubik is an anthropologist and political scientist who has published widely on the interplay between politics and culture, protest politics and social movements, and post-communist transformations. He is Professor and Director at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. His books include The Power of Symbols against the Symbols of Power and Postcommunism from Within: Social Justice, Mobilization, and Hegemony (with Amy Linch).