4 June 1989 in Poland: A date to celebrate or to forget?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Representatives of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) organisations and their supporters take the street for a peaceful 'Equality Parade' in in Warsaw. Poland, 3 June. [Radek Pietruszka/EPA]

Under PiS Chairman Jarosław Kaczyński (hailed “Naczelnik” by supporters – a title, meaning “Chief of State”), the country is turning away from the EU’s liberal-democratic values the Poles so painstakingly won in 1989, writes Martin Mycielski.

Martin Mycielski is a political commentator and Brussels correspondent for Poland’s leading daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.

Last Sunday Poles celebrated the 28th anniversary of their first semi-free elections – a day marking the end of communism and Poland’s return to independence. This event is a historical fact. But, as we keep learning lately, facts can be interpreted in various ways. With enough time and effort, seemingly obvious and undeniably positive historical events can be turned into a murky mix of reinterpretations, prompting new generations to question the monumental accomplishments of their forefathers.

That’s why stating that Poles were celebrating their first semi-free elections is only semi-true. Roughly half of the nation is unsure as to this event’s significance, if not outright blaming it for any shortcomings of their lives in the recent decades. Despite the fall of communism opening the country’s path to freedom and prosperity unimaginable for their grandfathers, a significant part of society claims “Poland only regained independence in October 2015” (an actual quote from an educated, Warsaw translator in her early 30s).

Fortunately for this group, and unfortunately for everyone else (including Poland’s EU allies), this is also the stance taken by the current Polish ruling class. The Law and Justice (PiS) party and – more importantly – the de-facto leader of Poland, PiS Chairman Jarosław Kaczyński (hailed “Naczelnik” by supporters – a title, meaning “Chief of State”, most recently used by Marshal Piłsudski in the 1920s) never outright vocalised it, but their actions speak for themselves.

This clear division, the crack in the nation, is easier noticeable on occasions like this one. While there are no official celebrations or commemoration of any kind organised by the government, the democratic opposition from left to right urges for this date not to be forgotten. In a joint letter, all three former post-1989 presidents, Lech Wałęsa (right-wing), Aleksander Kwaśniewski (left-wing) and Bronisław Komorowski (centre-right) called for their compatriots to recognize 4 June as “one of the few joyful occasions to celebrate in Poland’s recent history”.

In their appeal, published in the country’s leading newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, those three tenors point to “joining NATO and the EU, building a democratic country, governed by the rule of law, with functioning local governments and an economy rebuilt from scratch” as a “joint achievement of all the political elites ruling Poland since 1989, and all Poles in general”. Instead of appropriating selected accomplishments, rewriting history and dividing the people, they simply encourage all citizens to rejoice, “fly flags, celebrate together, underscore how important a value this regained freedom is to them”.

The letter of the “political elders” is echoed at society’s ground level. The Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), Poland’s grassroots civic movement formed by anti-communist oppositionists, which encouraged nearly a quarter of a million people to join a pro-European march in Warsaw last year, published their own statement. KOD activists are understandably less “presidential” in their approach. They remind us that “freedom and democracy are not granted forever and need to be defended every day”. But they go further, focusing on perhaps the most touching threat posed by the “Chief of State” and his party – their disregard for human rights.

Alluding to Saturday’s Equality Parade in Warsaw, in their concise statement KOD calls on all political parties to include three important points in their programmes – all of which may seem obvious to the Western European reader. Firstly, KOD implores parties to ensure the respect for the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and, secondly, for the Istanbul Convention against domestic violence (the latter of which the government hinted of revoking). Thirdly, they advocate for “immediate commencement of a debate on the possible ways of including civil partnerships in the legal system”, clearly appealing to participants of Saturday’s Pride parade.

In the meantime, the Kaczyński-led regime doesn’t seem to slow down in its charge towards totalitarianism, away from the EU’s liberal-democratic values so painstakingly won by Poles in 1989. Their first year in power saw a brutal takedown of the Constitutional Tribunal, the country’s highest court – an issue still on the European Commission’s agenda, with Vice-President Frans Timmermans recently accused of embarking on a personal, anti-Polish vendetta by Polish foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski. Law and Justice further consolidated power by politicising state media, at this point universally deemed nothing more than state propaganda, evoking direct parallels to TV under the pre-1989 communist regime. Soon after, they sparked worldwide so-called “black protests”, following an attempt to limit women’s rights by criminalising abortion – to this day the only significant instance of the regime backing down following society’s reaction.

Kaczyński’s second year as “Chief” marks further consolidation of power and continued clashes with Brussels. In their quest for total abolishment of the checks-and-balances system, PiS introduced a law politicising the National Judiciary Council – the state body responsible, among others, for nominating the country’s judges. With another legal act they expanded the powers of the justice minister, already merged by PiS with the office of Prosecutor General, giving him direct control over courts’ finances. Their educational reform, panned as rushed and unprepared, restores an archaic schooling model, puts emphasis on patriotic education in line with the regime’s own view of history, while leaving thousands of teachers unemployed. Then there’s also a new law regulating the freedom of assembly, or – as the Supreme Court, Ombudsman and the OSCE put it – simply limiting it.

It would seem all these blatant attacks on democracy, the rule of law and human rights should incite every citizen with even a rudimentary understanding of freedom to oppose Kaczyński and manifest their appreciation for the road Poland embarked on 28 years ago. Yet recent polls show a stable 30-40% support for his vision of their country under his fist.

Only time will tell if united Europe has lost liberal-democratic Poland for good, or if the next generation will again proudly remember their heroes of 1989: Wałęsa, Mazowiecki, Geremek, Kuroń, Frasyniuk, Michnik and so many others (if you’re a young reader from Poland, Google them while you still can…).

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