Friday, November 20, 2009

Interview with Polish dissident

  • The Wall Street Journal

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."

So too is the story of his own transformation.

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 "Crooked Circle" or the "Seekers of Contradiction." A believer, he wanted to reform communism. At 18, he was arrested for the first time for writing a protest letter to the government. And in 1968, he was jailed for a year after student protests in Warsaw.

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 Manhattan apartment the other day, he looks the part of dissident emeritus at age 63. It's well before noon when he lights the first of a chain of cigarettes and asks for a cup of coffee and a glass of whiskey to perk up. The previous night some old friends from what he calls "the Anti-Communist International" stayed out late at a hip restaurant in Greenwich Village.

In offering his positive assessment of Berlin's legacy, he knows that not everyone finds it so "fantastic." Many Poles complain that Mr. Michnik and other senior Solidarity leaders who drew up the terms of the transformation gave the old communist establishment a free pass to dominate the politics and the economy in the new era, breeding graft and bitterness. "We are a normal country with normal problems—normal corruption, normal scandals," he says in defense.

Elsewhere in the region, the global recession has soured people on free-market democracy. In countries like Romania, nationalist parties are being revived. Others, like Belarus or Azerbaijan, turned back from or never took the road toward democracy from Berlin. Some, like Ukraine, are wobbly.


Ken Fallin

The triumph of liberal democracy in 1989, which inspired talk of the "end of history," no longer looks so permanent. Authoritarian regimes from Russia to Venezuela, China to Iran, feel emboldened to challenge the West.

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 Tiananmen Square the same year the wall fell. So who is to say now that Western liberalism will prevail in the future? Even of Poland—now a member of the European Union and NATO—he says that: "We are headed in the right direction, but on a narrow path. One false step and we become Russia."

If the new cliché is the "return of history," then the danger isn't a second coming of communism but of authoritarianism. Russia is the region's most worrying bad pupil. It tasted civic freedoms in the chaotic 1990s. Then, under Vladimir Putin, the KGB colonel who took over in 2000, the country veered backward. Political liberties were decimated and the rule of law was trampled. In their place came aggressive nationalism, "sovereign democracy," and the promise of "order." Meanwhile, the economy was hijacked by a rapacious state and privileged oligarchs.

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 France's Corsica, Spain's Basque region and Northern Ireland, often by subverting free choice with terrorist violence. "Nationalism is always—always—a danger to democracy," he says.

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 Europe to strive for constitutions and institutions and abandon the dream of utopias that invariably lead back to totalitarianism. This view has its roots in his influential 1985 "Letter from Gdansk Prison," written after he, Lech Walesa and hundreds of other Solidarity activists were imprisoned by Poland's communist strongman Wojciech Jaruzelski. "Solidarity has never had a vision of an ideal society," he wrote. "It wants to live and let live. Its ideals are closer to the American Revolution than the French."

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 Brussels can tell me what I have and haven't the right to do."

Yet Mr. Michnik dismisses a deterministic view of Russia. He is, after all, a man of the political left, and in a nation more often than not associated with inveterate Russophobia, a happy contrarian. Though Russia's identity is distinctly un-Western, he thinks this can change.

"Russia could never reconcile itself to the fact that for the next 50 years she should take care of herself, modernize, democratize," he says. "Russia always thought she should play the role of global empire." So the Putin regime views the West as the strategic adversary. Threats from America are seen everywhere. "I call it detective materialism, not dialectic but detective," Mr. Michnik laughs. "They are like Sherlock Holmes, always looking for who did what to them."

Can Russia move toward political openness? His answer: "The threat to Russia isn't liberal Europe or America. It is nonliberal Islam and nonliberal China. Russia has to change. It can't be otherwise. It will take time. You have to be patient."

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 Russia's energy shenanigans and the Obama administration's "restart" were hardly encouraging. On Sept. 17—a different sort of anniversary in Poland, that of the 1939 invasion by the Soviet Union under the secret terms of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact—the U.S. dropped plans for missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic in deference to Mr. Putin.

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 America the best chance the world has today."

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. Poland's history is the digging out from under rubble. I have that in my genes. Of course I see it. From the one side you are right that the view of the West is often naïve, overly optimistic. But your point is also Manichean. Putin is not Stalin. He is different. To see him as a Stalin hinders rational thought about what is happening in those countries."

Though their revolution was bloodless, the '89 generation was willing to use force on behalf of freedom. In the "Letter from Gdansk Prison" Mr. Michnik wrote: "Pacifism as a mass movement aims to avoid suffering; pacifists often say that no cause is worth suffering or dying for. The ethos of Solidarity is based on an opposite premise—that there are causes worth suffering and dying for."

Mr. Michnik and other former dissidents, including Vaclav Havel, backed the invasion of Iraq. "I don't regret it," he says, though he criticizes the execution of the war. "When there is a conflict between the United States and a wicked, barbaric, murderous totalitarian, then my duty as someone who has always called on the U.S. to act in defense of human rights is to side with the U.S."

With the West struggling to come up with a response to Iran's nuclear ambitions, Mr. Michnik cites Ronald Reagan's approach to Poland as a useful model for President Obama. The day after martial law was imposed in 1981, the U.S. publicly sided with the Polish people against their regime.

"You have to support in a smart way those forces in Iran that aren't like that crazy president, that Islamo-Maoist Ahmadinejad," he says. "What is important for them is to see in America a friend. In Poland it worked; today there's no more pro-American country in the world." The violent repression of democratic protestors in Iran since June, he adds, indicates that "the ayatollahs must feel the breath of history on their backs."


The end of communism brought freedom, and with it, confusion. Poland's Solidarity and national solidarity both quickly broke up. Mr. Michnik himself broke with Lech Walesa in 1990, and to the horror of the political right, befriended Gen. Jaruzelski and other leading communists. Poland's a messier democracy that most. Only half in jest, Mr. Michnik defines the national character as "radical, maximalist," and its various scandals are numerous and hard to explain.

But broadly speaking, Mr. Michnik has led the camp in Poland that argues—in somewhat self-flattering terms—that a newly free society be founded on compromise and reconciliation. He says he abhors the thirst for revenge against ousted leaders. Old secret police files have been used to out and discredit alleged past "collaborators."

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 Poland and condemns the hunt.

From the other side comes the argument that democracy also needs to make space for justice and accountability. Mr. Michnik's opponents argued that Poland has to deal with its past in order clean up its present and move on into the future without baggage.

"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 Poland and Poland's habits. It can't be the case that whoever wins locks his antagonist in jail. These are Bolshevik methods." Artists, columnists, students—they can settle accounts from the past. But not politicians, he argues. "When politics enters the courtroom, then through the other doors exits justice."

Mr. Kaminski is a member of the Journal's editorial board.

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