Aleksander Kwaśniewski: Poland suffers from social schizophrenia

We speak the same language, but have two different histories - says the former President of Poland.

Former President of Poland Aleksander Kwaśniewski talks about tensions between the EU and Poland’s government, the role of president Andrzej Duda and his vetoes of the governmental judiciary reforms, the influence of „illiberal democracies” for the EU, and the dangers of rewriting Polish history.

One of the main tasks of your presidency was to drive Poland to the European Union which was accomplished in 2004. How do you see the EU today?

Frankly speaking, it was a different time. It was a time of optimism. Historical enlargement was accepted by the West as a chance to create a bigger space for the same values and standards. Optimism. This is the main difference between 2004 and now. We have much more pessimism today. Why? First of all, because of the economic crisis in many old EU countries like Greece, Portugal, Italy or Spain. Second, the migration problem, which in my opinion, will influence European policy for a long time. We are talking about two phenomena here: aging societies in Europe and a democratic boom in Africa. It is obvious that immigrants want to come to Europe and the European market needs them. Migration is a sensitive topic; influencing very much the political situation. We are facing rising populism and nationalism in many EU countries like Hungary and Poland. The third issue shaping Europe is the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Aleksander Kwaśniewski is the former President of the Republic of Poland (1995 – 2005). Fot. Adam Jagielak, facebook.com/aleksander.kwasniewski.

These factors have created a new situation and it is necessary to prepare new policies. We have two approaches today as I see. On the one hand the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker’s concept of same directions and deeper integration into the EU and its common policies. On the other hand, the Orbán-Kaczyński concept: keeping the leading role of national states, not so deep integration and less common policies. In my opinion, we should be closer to the Juncker-concept. Europe needs common policies, especially in terms of security, migration, and the relationship with partners like the United States, China or Russia.

Few weeks ago a protest was held outside the European Commission office in Warsaw. The protesters demanded that “Brussels bureaucrats” stop interfering in Polish affairs. Many of them held caricatures of Mr. Juncker.

I mentioned Mr. Juncker’s concept because his plans are something concrete. I think we will have new plans for the EU soon after the German elections. Maybe it won’t be called the Juncker-plan but Macron-Merkel plan. The substantial question here is if Europe is able to accept today deeper integration.

There are multiple disagreements and disputes between the EU and Poland’s National-Conservative government. Within the political opposition there are people saying that the EU should respond forcefully and even sanction the Polish government, although one cannot exclude that such action by the EU could easily strengthen the Eurosceptic attitude in Polish society. What is your opinion about this matter? How should the EU act?

This is a big problem for the European Union. The EU was based on crucial values like protecting democracy, human rights, rule of law, market economy, free exchange of goods etc. European institutions are obliged to protect these values and we as members are obliged as well after we joined. All in all, the EU should react. I have no doubt about this. Another question is how deep, strong, and dramatic these reactions should be. Sanctioning is not a new phenomenon in the history of the Union. Remember, sanctions against Austria were considered in 2000 when Jörg Haider Post-Fascist Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) participated alongside with the government lead by Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel.

But it is true, a too strong reaction could be counterproductive and call forth the consolidation of this very conservative and Eurosceptic attitude like back in 2000 in Austria. I think, the EU should use first of all soft methods with elements of harder methods. Generally speaking, for the EU, such a case like the Polish judiciary reforms, are extremely complicated as to how to react correctly, but I have no doubts they should react. They simply cannot say that everything is alright with those bills when not only do they not conform to the Polish Constitution, but also the main rules and standards the Union is based on.

Can Poland be Sanctioned by the EU? Not Unless Hungary is Sanctioned Too

Another conflict is the protection of Białowieża Forest. In an interim decision, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said logging should stop immediately as it could cause “serious and irreversible damage”. It seems however, that for the first time in history a decision of a EU top court was ignored by an EU member state. How do you see the Polish government’s stance in this matter?

We have a decision from the European Court of Justice and according to the rules, Poland as a member country of the EU should fulfill this decision. That is quite obvious for me. I think everything what this government is doing in this case is wrong. In this particular situation, I have no doubts that the EU should react, even if it means hard reaction like imposing financial penalty., The conflict between Ministry of Environment and the Polish public opinion is partly an ideological one. An ideological conflict between the environmental activists and Minister Jan Szyszko who calls them representatives of European „political correctness”.

How would you describe German-Polish relations today?

I worked very hard on the Polish-German relationship because, historically, this has been a very complicated issue. We are neighbors and we have had hundreds of years of complex and painful history. What we have achieved in the last 27 years is truly fantastic. Germany is our biggest trade partner and Poland is an important trade partner for Germany. Politically, we have a lot of interests in common and we are not only neighbors, but now allies in NATO and in the European Union. Also a very important point is the process of German-Polish reconciliation. If today you want to ask ordinary Poles from the border regions of Poland and Germany they would have very friendly opinions about the Germans and vice versa.

But there are definitely new elements in the dialogue between the two countries. One is the issue of war reparations that, according to some recent statements by Polish government officials, the present government of Poland may seek from Germany.

Everything that is good in the Polish-German relationship today could be harmed.

Reparations are a bad idea. First of all, in my opinion, it is very unrealistic. Secondly, Germany speaks about Nazi crimes openly and has strong morals concerning World War II. This war was organized by the German State, by the Nazis, and Poland was one of first victims. We lost 6 million Polish citizens, among them 3 million Polish Jews. Polish cities were completely destroyed. It is good that the Germans understand this moral responsibility, and frankly speaking, they showed this during our accession negotiations with NATO and the EU. Not many remember, but one of the first people to speak about NATO enlargement and mention Poland as a possible member was the Secretary General of NATO, Manfred Wörner, a German citizen. I remember these talks from the beginning of the 1990’s. The idea of the enlargement was not popular at that time, but Mr. Wörner was courageous enough to insist on the enlargement of NATO to the countries of Central-Eastern Europe.

So I have to repeat the idea of reparations as unrealistic. Everything that is good in the Polish-German relationship today could be harmed. It is very easy to open Pandora-box with historical sentiments, but it could be dangerous and I am very much against it.

The ECJ’s quite recent decision about migrant quotas was officially not ignored by the Hungarian government, however, the government’s communication to Hungarian society of this matter was different. If you would decide to let Hungarian acquaintances of yours both from the right and the left know of your opinion about the current situation in Hungary, what would you tell them?

I do not want to comment on the Hungarian situation in detail, as I am not familiar with everything. I know Mr. Orbán quite well. We met for the first time at the beginning of the ‘1990s, we are old colleagues let’s say. I observed his evolution from a very liberal to a quite conservative position which he represents today. In the case of the ECJ’s decision, I could say the same what I said about the Court decision concerning Poland. If we are members of the same group, the same organization, and we signed some treaties, and we know about the rules, we should respect the decisions of the Court. A member country simply cannot say, “Well okay, we accept those treaties which are good for us and do not accepted the ones which are inconvenient.” If it would be like this the whole system of the EU integration would collapse. The main risk for the EU and European integration is not Brexit. The position of the Eurosceptics, member countries which are not interested to respect the common rules of this community and the distraction which is coming from within, could complicate much more the future of Europe than the final decision between the UK and the EU.

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How do you see the role of the Visegrad Group? It seems Slovakia and the Czech Republic are not backing Hungary and Poland in various matters.

I know this group very well, I was inside for ten years! I remember a Visegrad meeting in 2005. It was the last year of my presidency. Mr. Václav Klaus, President of the Czech Republic said we should terminate the Group’s activities because we had achieved our main goals of joining NATO and the European Union. He was right, but I argued with him, saying it is better to have such a group for other policies in the future. If something happened, it could be easier to deal with, since there would be some structure ready and there would be no need to organize another group if it is necessary. Finally, Mr. Klaus accepted my point of view and we did not close the Visegrad Group. Now Poland decided to use this group as a special body of concerted actions against ”Brussels”. I do not believe that this concept is realistic or would have a significant role or influence in European politics. Most importantly, these four countries have different concepts and ideas in many fields. Firstly, we have a group with four different concepts about what to do about and what kind of relation should we have between Russia and the EU. Secondly, only one country out of the four is part of the Eurozone. All in all, the Visegrad Group does not have strong identity, and concerning Russia and the euro, they have more differences than similarities.

What is your opinion about the Hungarian government and several right wing political formations demonizing Mr. George Soros, the 87-years-old financier and philanthropist, whom they charge with having masterminded a plan to send Muslim immigrants to Europe?

First of all, I am against this kind of conspiracy theories. I personally know Mr. Soros and I think he has helped a lot in the last 25 years in the transition process of Central Eastern European countries with his NGO’s and universities. His role was absolutely positive. Even Mr. Orbán had some scholarship from the Soros Foundation. So, he personally has something positive from Mr. Soros in his life. Probably Hungary has a much more emotional attitude to Mr. Soros than we have in Poland because of his Hungarian origin. The problem of migration is absolutely serious, but the crisis itself is not connected with Mr. Soros. The source of the crisis is the demographic situation of the world, the conflicts in Africa and in the Middle East, and the problem with aging societies what we talked about. Attacking Mr. Soros is not a good reaction to this crisis; he is a substitute target. My point of view is that, Europe should support financially African countries to develop their educational system, emphasizing the rights of woman etc. Of course, it is not easy, mostly because of the high-level of corruption in many African countries, but an “African Marshall-plan” is something what should be discussed by top-level of the European leaders.

Aleksander Kwaśniewski
Aleksander Kwaśniewski. Featured image courtesy of Piotr Drabik on Flickr.com.

Your presidency (1995-2005) was the longest presidency in Poland since 1990. The atmosphere was not as tense as it was, e.g., in 2007-2010 or since 2015. What is your opinion about the Polish presidency in general?

Before my presidency, I was the chairman of Constitutional Convention and a co-author of the Polish Constitution. We chose a so-called mixed model between the President and the Government. Maybe it was not the best, but I think it was a necessary decision to share the power between these two institutions. Before the Polish Constitution was introduced in 1997, we decided, around the beginning of the -‘1990s that the Polish President should be elected in general elections. Now you could ask why we did not decide to create a Presidential system later in the Constitution. We saw how easily the President could abuse his power as Mr. Wałęsa did as a President between 1990 and 1995. The President cannot be weak because he is elected by the people, but at the same time he should not have all the power in his hands.

The President cannot be weak because he is elected by the people, but at the same time he should not have all the power in his hands.

On the other hand, we did not want to have a Chancellor system either. In the first years of the transition, the Polish political situation was extremely unstable. We had sometimes 23 parties in Parliament. We had prime ministers only for few months. So, we created this „checks and balances” system with a strong President and a strong Government. If we have from the Government’s and from the President’s side, enough good will, it can work. As a president, I worked for five years with a government from my political family and another five years with a government from another political family. We had some tensions, sometimes with a lot of discussions, but it worked. Unfortunately, we have had periods when this political culture was simply missing like, as you mentioned, between President Lech Kaczyński and Prime Minister Donald Tusk between 2007 and 2010 or Andrzej Duda and Ewa Kopacz from August 2015.

Do you expect President Duda in the coming months and years to get into serious disputes with PiS?

We will see. It will be easier to answer to this question in the coming ten days. President Duda promised that he will reveal his own proposal for the judiciary reform this week*. It will be a real test for him. If his proposal will be different from what PiS proposed, well that is good. It would mean we have a more and more independent President. Of course, I have some suspicions that his proposals won’t that far away from the PiS’ concept. Maybe we will see only some cosmetic changes in a few elements like who will nominate the judges. But his decision to veto the bills in July was correct. To be honest, that was his last chance. If President Duda had decided not to use his veto power his role would have been absolutely limited for the coming years. Of course, his decision was unexpected and created a lot of negative reactions within PiS. I think, when he decided not to sign those bills was the real inauguration of Duda’s presidency.

* On the 24th of September (three days after the interview), President Duda presented his own concept for a reform of the Polish judiciary. His proposals give the president the power to appoint and dismiss judges. They call for a large majority of lawmakers to choose members of a key judicial body, the National Council of the Judiciary. They also reject the justice minister’s plan to immediately fire the country’s current Supreme Court judges. According to experts President Duda main goal with his proposals to break or at least weaken the sole claim to power of the PiS, from whose camp he himself originally comes from.

The Puzzle of Poland

You were talking about the Constitution which was signed in 1997. This year is its 20th anniversary. The government has already referred to the possibility of replacing it with a new one as the founding document of their so-called “Fourth Republic”.

There is a danger that they could do it, of course, but legally it is not an easy process. First of all, they do not have the majority in Parliament necessary. Secondly, according to the current Constitution, a referendum would be held and a referendum is a risky business anywhere. But it is not a debate that I am really afraid of. It is quite natural that after 20 years, people discuss what is good in the Constitution and what parts are not working, what should be changed, what is necessary to redefine and rethink. I am much more afraid about what PiS is not talking about concerning their plans for a new Constitution. Many years ago, they had their own Constitutional plan. And frankly speaking, this plan was absolutely regressive compared to the Constitution what we have now. There was huge regression in protecting human rights, the relation between the Church and the State and so on. Their plan for a new Constitution and the concept of their “Fourth Republic” would take us back to the 20th century. But generally speaking, this question is theoretical. I do sincerely believe that the current Constitution, which was accepted in a referendum in 1997, will survive.

What do you think about the campaign against Former President Wałęsa?

This conflict started decades ago. This is another Polish paradox because the main supporters of Wałęsa’s presidency were the Kaczyński brothers. Cooperating with Mr. Wałęsa is not easy, but they were very close to each other. In my opinion, the Kaczyński brothers even tried to manipulate Mr. Wałęsa using files and documents signed by him when he was a young worker in Gdańsk. And I think, that is why Wałęsa decided to dismiss both of them after only a few years of his presidency. There is nothing new in this conflict between them.

What is more disturbing for me is the of Polish history.  When I recently heard that Lech Wałęsa was not an important leader of Solidarity and the role of Lech Kaczyński, who was his vice-chairman at that time, was more important, I was really disturbed. First of all, it is not true. Secondly, it is very unfair to Lech Wałęsa. Creating falsifications like this could lead us to writing school books for students with fake history and with fake heroes. That is the shortest way to create some kind of social schizophrenia. We cannot live in a country where we speak the same language, but have two histories.

Opublikowany przez Aleksander Kwaśniewski na 8 grudnia 2010


We are not only talking about the role of the Solidarity and Lech Wałęsa. For example, we can take the scandal of the World War II Museum in Gdańsk, where PiS has won a court ruling that will enable it to take over and reshape its exhibition to fit a narrower Polish perspective, or the case of Jedwabne, where you made a speech in 2001 as a President. Can you speak about PiS’s attempts to rewrite some elements of Polish history?

Yes, such fears exist, of course. Unfortunately, today in “the world of fake news” this is a typical phenomenon and the Gdańsk museum is a very representative example. Have you visited it?

Objects have the power to tell history

No, not yet.

Well, you have to go there before they change the exhibition. Very objective, very well done museum about the War with a very important message: no more war. We will see what will happen to this museum. The opinion about Jedwabne expressed by the Minister of Education was absolutely unacceptable. (In July 1941, during the German occupation, at least 340 Jews were slaughtered by local Polish citizens. The exact number of victims could not be determined, but Jan T. Gross in his book, Neighbors, wrote about appr. 1600 victims.  PiS declares that it wants to do away with a “pedagogy of shame,” as it calls the remembrance of the crimes committed by Poles against Jews. The ruling party’s politicians, including Minister of Education Anna Zalewska, do not want to admit that Poles were the perpetrators of the murders.) We know very well what happened there and we have already discussed it during my presidency. It was a painful discussion, very difficult issue, but for us I think, for the Polish people it was very important. It is good to live in a black and white version of history that everybody else was bad in the war and we are the only heroes. Unfortunately, the reality is more complex. Of course, Poland was the victim of the war, and we should never forget the heroes of the Ghetto and the Warsaw Uprisings. But there were terrible crimes too, like the Jedwabne massacre, and it is important to have enough strength to talk about it openly and say “yes, in this case we are guilty.”

With the failure of SLD (Democratic Left Alliance – Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej) in the 2015 elections there is no political party in the Polish Parliament that would represent the classic Leftist politics. How do you think the Polish political spectrum will change in the next 2-3 years?

It is very difficult to answer to this question. PiS has very a consolidated base. I do not expect that they will lose many voters before the next election. I think 30-35% of their supporters are quite stable. The opposition is divided. It is still a question whether they can organize some kind of coalition before the election. The lack of Leftist parties in the Polish politics is a big problem and the SLD limits itself by being a party of nostalgia.

Was it a mistake to create the coalition of United Left,for the 2015 elections?

(In the run-up to the 2015 parliamentary election, Polish leftist parties formed an electoral alliance Zjednoczona Lewica. ZL received 7.6% of the votes, below the 8% electoral threshold for electoral alliances, leaving the alliance without any parliamentary representation.)

The coalition itself was not a mistake, but the timing was a tactical mistake. They decided to do it too late. If they had made the coalition six months before, for the European Parliament elections, what I had proposed to do, I am almost sure the result reached by the coalition would have been much more than 8%. But they made the coalition right before elections and they lost. They are not in Parliament and with their absence PiS has even more seats there. Considering the Polish political left briefly, we have two parts. One part, as I said, is based on nostalgia represented by SLD. And then there is Razem, a new party of young socialist with around 3 or maybe 3.5% of support. There is no chance at all for unification, there is not even a real dialogue between them! But I would like to point out something very important that could be a big chance for Poland in the future. In my opinion, Poland has the most developed and organized civil society in Central Eastern Europe. You could see how strong it was last July during the huge demonstration against judiciary reform, or last year, in October when thousands went to the street to demonstrate against the abortion law. These demonstrations were spontaneously organized without any support of Mr. Soros, Mr. Wałęsa or anybody else. It was a strong signal to Kaczyński and PiS because they understand the logic of street demonstrations. This civil society, in my opinion, will look for some formal representation later. In any case, the next two years will be thrilling politically to watch!


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).

1 Comment

  1. So, you ask a Communist if it’s true about the Communists strangling democracy in the cradle … and you can’t see the inherent logic problem!! Kwaśniewski’s father tortured people as his profession. The father of his chief of staff tortured people as his profession. I wonder where Danuta Huebner is today … . These people have formed a caste and are clinging onto the last vestiges of power and influence through anti-democratic means … and you somehow think this is right. Unbelievable. If it was a question of just a few people, then who your parents are/were is relatively unimportant … but we have an entire army of people whose network was largely provided by Communism, a system that was fundamentally criminal. Does it matter? Yes. That’s why we didn’t have child benefit until the rich, vested interests were voted out. 500k children went hungry every week according to official stats in 2014. That’s ended now.