- OPINION: THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW
- NOVEMBER 6, 2009, 8:12 P.M. ET
From Solidarity to Democracy
A Polish dissident reflects on the liberation of
Eastern Europe 20 years later.
That's the word Adam Michnik, the man who played one of the starring roles in bringing the Cold War to an end, exclaims in Polish as he thinks back over the two decades since the Berlin Wall fell that Nov. 9 evening. He repeats it in rapid fire, each time flawlessly, with no hint of his trademark stutter.
"Fantastic! Fantastic! Poland has not had such 20 years in its last 400 years, 300 years. We are on the side of the West. We are sovereign. We have all possible civil rights. Democratic elections. Open borders. No censorship. That is simply a fantastic change."
Mr. Michnick was born into the communist establishment. His father, a Polish Jew, was a leader of the illegal pre-war Communist Party. As a teenager, Mr. Michnik took part in leftist discussion groups with names like the "
The experience thrust him firmly into the opposition. The next two decades were spent publishing samizdat, advocating for worker's rights and then helping lead, from its founding in 1980, Solidarity, the trade union that morphed into a national movement.
As the Polish intellectual architect of communism's collapse, he was arrested so often in the years of struggle before 1989 that he lost count. But the time since has been good to him. He's built the largest independent newspaper publishing house in Central Europe, the Gazeta Wyborcza, which he heads up, and through his frequent essays and public appearances has remained an influential voice in Poland and beyond.
Dressed casually in an open brown shirt at a friend's
In offering his positive assessment of
Elsewhere in the region, the global recession has soured people on free-market democracy. In countries like
The triumph of liberal democracy in 1989, which inspired talk of the "end of history," no longer looks so permanent. Authoritarian regimes from
Trained as a historian, Mr. Michnik says he harbors no illusions about the inevitability of anything. He notes that Central Europe's democrats could have been crushed as the Chinese students were at
If the new cliché is the "return of history," then the danger isn't a second coming of communism but of authoritarianism.
Much like the Soviet Union and Czarist Russia, this new illiberal Putinstan poses a danger to those in its periphery: His Russia has used armed force against Georgia and Chechnya, and energy blackmail against Ukraine and countries further west in Europe. The rise of Putinism has showed how easily a society—particularly a frail one lacking the traditions of democracy or liberalism—can be suborned into signing away freedom in exchange for an illusive stability.
But Mr. Michnik worries as well about the threat of the "inner Putin" in many European leaders on both sides of the old Iron Curtain. To him, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, also the country's richest man, is a variation on this theme. By flouting corruption charges and owning the media, Mr. Michnik believes Mr. Berlusconi epitomizes the danger of "legal nihilism." At the same time, nationalist politicians push separation for
The response, he says, must be to stay vigilant about democracy. "Democracy is a daily plebiscite. Every day we decide whether we want to live in democracy or we don't want to. Whether we will defend it or we won't defend it."
Beginning early in the transition to democracy from communism, Mr. Michnik has militated on behalf of what he calls "gray democracy." By that he means that messiness is preferable to perfection, disorderly freedom in a state bounded by law to the orderly strong hand of a populist leader who ignores the law.
Along with the former Czech President Vaclav Havel, Mr. Michnik wanted their free and united
For him, the accession of 10 former Soviet satellites into the European Union in this decade secured the dream. Of course, others see the EU as an undemocratic bureaucracy. But Mr. Michnik considers it insurance against creeping authoritarianism. "Why am I such a Euro-enthusiast? Because I knew it was an anchor of democracy. Who is against the EU in [central and eastern European] countries? The enemies of democracy and authoritarian governments. Why? The fundamental idea of Putinism, 'sovereign democracy', means that I can sovereignly lock up my enemies and no
Yet Mr. Michnik dismisses a deterministic view of
"Russia could never reconcile itself to the fact that for the next 50 years she should take care of herself, modernize, democratize," he says. "
Mr. Michnik seems to understate the threat to Poland and the region, I offer, and the readiness of the West to meet the challenge. Europe's weak response to
The timing of the announcement was "scandalous" and "idiotic," Mr. Michnik says, but he notes that most Poles won't miss the shield. As for himself, he considers "Obama and
Mr. Michnik argues for a living, so I press again on whether a West that so often betrays his region, starting with Yalta in 1945, has enough moral mettle today. He sounds impatient. "I am a Pole.
Though their revolution was bloodless, the '89 generation was willing to use force on behalf of freedom. In the "Letter from
Mr. Michnik and other former dissidents, including Vaclav Havel, backed the invasion of
With the West struggling to come up with a response to
"You have to support in a smart way those forces in
The end of communism brought freedom, and with it, confusion.
But broadly speaking, Mr. Michnik has led the camp in
Gen. Jaruzelski, who allowed the first domino to fall in the Soviet bloc, has for years fought against prosecution for past sins. Mr. Michnik, though he was imprisoned by him, calls Mr. Jaruzelski the Gorbachev of
From the other side comes the argument that democracy also needs to make space for justice and accountability. Mr. Michnik's opponents argued that
"Coś za coś," he says, a term that roughly translates as quid pro quo. "Politics is the art of realizing what there is to realize." The Polish revolution, he says, was a negotiated one. "We said we'll try to do this by civilized means," says Mr. Michnik, who took part in the so-called Round Table talks in early 1989 that paved the way for free elections.
"We have to change
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs