Kijowski: “We have to become one nation again”

Interview with Mateusz Kijowski - founder of The Committee for the Defence of Democracy, a Polish civic organization created in response to the Polish constitutional crisis.

A month after the PiS (Law and Justice) electoral victory in Poland, a group appeared on Facebook with the name KOD (Committee for the Defence of Democracy). Today the movement has more than 150 thousand followers. We talked with Mateusz Kijowski, the leader of the movement, which is against the anti-democratic and closed world of the authorities, about the frustrations of Polish society, why dialogue is impossible and about future solutions.

Krisztián Stummer: I recently read an interview with Jacek Kuroń in Der Spiegel from 1980. The journalist was asking about KOR (Komitet Obrony Robotników – Workers’ Defence Committee). A comment by Mr. Kuroń, which particularly struck me was: “frustration, tension and aggression are not clearly articulated in Polish society. When people fight for wages, they are doing it not only for them but also for all those rights and freedoms which they did not have previously.” The journalist responded, “so is it a symbolic conflict?” To which Mr Kuroń replied: “Every conflict is partly a symbolic one.” Do you agree with this statement? Let me put this way: Is the current conflict in Poland partially symbolic?

Mateusz Kijowski
The leader and head of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy.

Yes, I think there is a symbolic part. I have never read the interview you mentioned, but it sounds similar to what we have occurring now. Of course, the situation is absolutely different. Back then it was impossible to speak about things like freedom, democracy or free elections. But today we have democracy, we are free and therefore we can openly speak about what is not good. I would say the symbolic part of the today’s conflict is somewhere between xenophobia and open society. The ideas behind our government are seemingly based on frustration of old-fashioned nationalism. This kind of nationalism is closed, always against somebody, in particular the people who are coming from abroad, who are different and who do not belong to us.

Do you mean the PiS’ reaction to the migrant crisis?

Yes, but not only this. The government is trying to say that Europe is bad; they are trying to interfere with our own world. They’ve said “This is our country and we want what we want.” However, Poland is part of this community; Europe is not abroad and we are part of it.

In one interview you also talked about frustration. Can you elaborate on this? What kind of frustration is growing in Polish society?

The level of frustration in Poland is very high. In 1989 we won freedom and started to build a democracy, and we had some very clear and obvious directions like joining NATO and the European Union. We had goals but without any discussion. We started to reach those goals, but one question remained: what comes next? There was a void on the level of civil society and so the political parties started to fill this empty area with their fights, just like PO and PiS have been doing for many years. The result was a huge polarization in society. Today PO is not so strong anymore, but the people continue the fight.

[easy-tweet tweet=”The level of frustration in Poland is very high.” user=”krytyka” hashtags=”politicalcritique”]

So they are not able to talk each other.

Exactly. There was no discussion among the people, we were just saying what we wanted, therefore we did not have any understanding or knowledge about how we should build the state, or what our rights and duties were. If you have a neighbour with different political views it does not mean that you have nothing in common to work together for. But if you know that his views are different than yours, you start to fight, instead of cooperating with each other. We have no idea how to listen to others. I think we have to start to remove this polarization and we need to talk to each other; all in all we have to build a civic society.

On the other hand, they call you and supporters of KOD “the enemies of the Polish nation”. Are you not afraid of a dangerous and an irreversible cleavage within Polish society?

I strongly believe that the most successful protests in the world were non-violent ones like Gandhi in India or Martin Luther King in the USA. When you use power there is always a winner and a loser. And the losers want to win. These kind of conflicts never end.

There are no irreversible things in the world. Everything depends on time. We have to become one nation again, we cannot be divided like two separate countries. You know, for many centuries we Poles were always able to build a community, especially when there was great danger. And when the danger was over, we’d start to divide again into different camps. I believe, that today we can discuss and listen to each other without it resulting in a big tragedy. We have to try to invite the people into this debate by avoiding polarization and the language of hate, and also we have to make clear we are not against people, but we are against breaking the law and the constitutional order.

You insist on peaceful protest. In the last five years we have witnessed several protests against the governments around the world which started peacefully but ended tragically. The Arab Spring, Turkey and Maidan in Ukraine, which is only few kilometres away from here. The Facebook-generation is on the streets. I do not want to make deep comparisons and I do not want to be very pessimistic, but are you not afraid of such a result?

Of course, I have fears. The radicalism could rise very easily on the streets. The KOD is coming from Facebook, which could also be a dangerous platform. I strongly believe that the most successful protests in the world were non-violent ones like Gandhi in India or Martin Luther King in the USA. When you use power there is always a winner and a loser. And the losers want to win. These kind of conflicts never end. But when you try to talk and listen to the other side, it is possible to find a solution. This is the conculsion we reached in 1989 and I believe that it has been working for quite a long time.

On the 12th of December when you saw the huge crowds, and realized the scale of the numbers, what exactly did you feel? Triumph? Fear? Responsibility?

That day was my birthday. Nobody could wish for a bigger party! But seriously, I felt a sense of responsibility. I think this is the best word to describe my feelings. I saw people who created KOD because it was not only down to me. Creating a group on Facebook takes only a few minutes. Later it blew up and loads of people came out to the streets. Honestly, I did not expect so many people. Five thousand people would have been great and ten thousand – a success. I remember, we were sitting on the bus with the politicians who were planning to speak at the demonstration. They were looking out from the windows saying, “there are not so many” and I was trying to calm them down: “we still have time.” What we saw half an hour later made us happy, but at the same time it was shocking. That was the moment when I understood what kind of protest we had organized. All of the people were smiling, they were very positive and very kind to each other. The was no aggression at all. That is very important. The people want to do something; they want to protect what is important to us and what we have reached so far.

You said you felt a sense of responsibility. Is this the leader’s responsibility? Do you consider yourself a leader?

I have to. The people gave me some kind of trust and they show it to me everyday. They believe that the direction that we are creating together is the right way to move forward. I feel a lot of pressure to not waste their energy. Not to do something unworthy like making KOD into a political party or say something which can lead us into a fight. The people do not want to be closed in small groups, ideas and frustrations. They want to be open, European and a part of the modern word.

The KOD was created more than three months ago. What is the situation now? How are you building a countrywide organisation and what kind of events you have? All in all, how is it working?

My work is communication with the media, other organizations, parties and meeting with people in the movement during my travels throughout the country. In the last wave of demonstrations, 36 Polish and 11 cities abroad took part in the protests. The organisation has not been registered yet, but it is only a question of a few days. The structure is quite effective. Of course, we have problems sometimes; mostly because we do not have enough time to prepare everything. You know, we start to work first and only later get to know each other. We do not have any headquarters; the KOD is where the people are. We are sort of based in Warsaw, but we are not giving orders, only suggestions. We are trying to give a clear message to the world about who we are exactly: in a such huge organisation like KOD we can’t allow everyone to speak differently about important issues without first consulting each other.

How many members do you have now?

More than twenty thousand people in the organization and around a hundred thousand who sympathize with us and who come to demonstrations. We are growing very fast.

How are you financing the movement?

Mostly from our pockets. At the beginning people could donate on the internet via a web page which was registered by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. We have a bank account, which people can transfer money into and we are also collecting money on the streets during demonstrations. This way is quite fast and quite effective; in the last demonstration in Warsaw in the end of January we collected more than 70 000 zlotys.

How about from opposition parties?

Of course, we do not want to take money from them. If they want to take part in our actions, that is not problem for us. They can help us in any way they like, for example we are able to use their communication channels to reach more people. They also sometimes help us with different kinds of organizational problems like printing posters. On a higher level, we are trying to exchange ideas, communicate, all in all to cooperate with each other.

I would like to ask you again about a subject we briefly touched upon before: the KOR. The similarity of the names is obvious. Do you think that after 40 years it has the same importance among the Polish youth?

Of course not. The Polish youth cannot remember, but there are ideas that can still be understood by them from those times. We are trying to use the ethos of KOR rather than its history. The history of KOR is the history of Poland, too and it belongs to the Poles. We want to use the same kind of activity like non-violence, being transparent and open and to show to the people, the authorities, and to the world itself who we are and what we are doing.

And what about the Catholic middle class who have right wing beliefs but who do not sympathize PiS’ methods?

I believe that there are many people from that part of society in our movement: people who are not agreeing with the nationalistic methods and who do not agree to destroy democracy in Poland.

You’ve mentioned fairly often the case of Hungary, and use the Orban government as a negative example. A month ago Viktor Orbán met with Kaczyński here in Poland. It was a secret meeting, and we do not know anything that they were talking about apart from the food that they were eating. How do you see the Hungarian situation now, and what can Poland learn from it?

First of all, the Hungarian situation is completely different from the Polish one. It happened much slower. Orbán was trying to talk with Europe to explain what he was doing and why. Sometimes he even took a step back, so therefore Europe did not react very strongly. To be honest, they did not do anything, just watched, waited and warned. In Poland everything is happening much faster. The Polish government have not tried to make any dialogue with the people, and as such it is much easier for everyone to react, because it is quite easy to see what is going on. Orbán was doing some kind of show and he also had much bigger support than PiS has now. Of course, many people simply supported them with their refusal to vote, but it does not mean that they have right to do anything what they want.

There have been a lot of new laws in a very short time: a new media law and a new surveillance law which as come into force recently, as well as controversy with regards to the Constitutional Tribunal. As a result the KOD has been taking to the streets, there have been huge crowds protesting all over in Poland, but so far none of the criticized laws have been repealed. So my question is: what is the real success, what has KOD achieved so far?

It is not easy to stop the government “from doing their job.” Of course one could bring a civil war to the streets, but this is not our way. Our main goals are to educate people and ourselves to get a better understanding of how a state should be working and what is wrong with the decisions which have been made in the last few months. We are preparing ourselves for a long journey, simply because we cannot see any possibility of this stopping quickly. If there was a new election now, the PiS would be reelected for sure.

You keep stressing the importance of working with politicians, even though you do not have ambitions to be a politician or to make KOD a political party in the future. After the election in October a huge void appeared in left-wing Polish politics. Can you imagine a rise of a new political strength or generation from your organization?

[easy-tweet tweet=”Mateusz Kijowski: I do not think that more political parties are needed today.” user=”krytyka” hashtags=”politicalcritique”]

I do not think that more political parties are needed today. There are so many of them now in Poland, all with different programs and ideas. We are not living in the same situation as we had in 1989 where there was only one party and we had to create a new political system with different parties. Of course, if somebody wants to create a new one he can do it, but it is certain that KOD won’t go to any election. We have to cooperate with politicians, not to compete against them.

Let me ask one more question. If we are talking about current Polish public life and politics, we cannot avoid the “scandal” with Lech Wałęsa-former leader of the Solidarity and President of Poland accused by spying in the late seventies. What do the attacks and accusation against Wałęsa mean to you and to KOD? What is going on from your perspective?

Lech Wałęsa is a symbol of the Polish fight for freedom. It was him who led our struggle when we fought for freedom and we finally won. It was Wałęsa who started a democratic revolution in Poland and in Europe. Our opinion is that today he needs our support. And we will express this support. On Friday, when he returns from his journey abroad we will welcome him cordially. On Saturday we showed our support during the March in Warsaw organized from the National Stadium to Piłsudski Square. Now this is what we can do.

The interview was first published in Hungarian on the website of HVG.



Krisztián Stummer
is a Hungarian freelance journalist currently based in Warsaw. His articles have been published in different periodicals, magazines, and dailies including New Eastern Europe, Élet és Irodalom (Life and Literature), HVG, Magyar Narancs (Hungarian Orange) and Népszava (People's Voice).