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From a British Perspective

February 24, 2012 - Hayden Berry - Interviews

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An interview with Robin Barnett, the British Ambassador to Poland. The second part of this interview can be found on the Krakow Post website.

NEW EASTERN EUROPE: You have worked for the British Government for over 30 years, and first came to Poland in 1982. What are some of your personal experiences of living under martial law?

ROBIN BARNETT: First of all, I would like to be clear about one thing. I do not claim to have experienced the same deprivations and difficulties of martial law as ordinary Poles did. Being a diplomat the authorities could not arrest me and I also had access to supplies that were not available to others. However, a very good example of what it is was like in Poland under martial law happened to me when I was sent with a colleague to monitor the demonstrations in Gdańsk on the second anniversary of the signing of the Gdańsk Agreement in August 1982. We were two young guys in our early twenties who had never been to a demonstration before. We were not allowed to stay in a hotel in Gdańsk and were based in Gdynia. They had also cut all telecommunications in the Gdańsk Voivodeship so we were not able to communicate with the embassy in Warsaw. On the morning of August 31st 1982, we went to the demonstration, parked in a quiet place and went for lunch at the Hevelius Hotel. We had just got our “pieczarki z patelni” when the demonstration started, so we went out and tried to monitor the scale and the way in which it is dealt with. It started to get pretty brutal and I can confirm first-hand that whether it was alcohol, drugs or something else, the ZOMO (paramilitary police – editor) were definitely fired up. We began to realise that the security forces were trying to squeeze the protesters into one small area, and then suddenly had the horrible realisation that the epicentre of where they are trying to squeeze everybody into, was where we had parked our car. So we returned to the car with riot police and demonstrators coming one way and a line of ZOMO coming the other way. We quickly made the decision to drive towards the ZOMO until one of them climbed onto the bonnet of our car and started interrogating us. I told the leader of the ZOMO that we were lost, and although I don't really think he believed me, they eventually let us through and allowed us to drive through the square next the shipyard, which was full of tear gas by this time.

What happened next?

We drove back to in Gdynia and, as we still had not had lunch, ordered “pieczarki z patelni” from the hotel restaurant. Just as we were starting to eat our mushrooms people start running past the glass rotunda of the hotel pursued by the ZOMO. We ended up watching the events from the safety of a hotel room overlooking the railway station, from where we were able to see all the events quite clearly and acquire a great deal of important information. That day, we learnt that there is a right and wrong way of dealing with a demonstration, but more importantly it was the day when I really realised how brave people were to come out and demonstrate, and the lengths that the authorities were willing to go to crush the demonstrations. It was a real education for me, both in terms of freedom and actually how many people were willing to help and support us in both an active and passive way.

Did you have any contacts within the Solidarity movement?

It was my job to make contacts with the opposition and it was an extremely fascinating time to be a young diplomat. I personally knew Jacek Kuroń and Janusz Onyszkiewicz. I also had contact with the Church, whose role was both spiritual and political. And it is well-known that the existence of the Catholic Church and, most crucially, the election of a Polish pope was pretty decisive with what happened later.

What was the general mood amongst the Poles you met during this time?

I must make one important distinction here: many people I met were active in politics or the opposition, and they had more hope of change than ordinary Poles did. I always found the opposition much more hopeful than I was at the time. My heart wanted change, but my head told me that there was still a long way to go. Happily, I was wrong. However, many of the people I talked to believed  that communism was on its last legs. By 1985 I had already participated in the beginnings of discussions on a free economic policy for Poland, and this was one of things that gave Poland an edge over countries such as Romania. With the help of the opposition and the Church it was possible to have these kinds of discussions in a way it simply wasn't under Nicolae Ceauşescu's Securitate. And Poland was really able exploit that opportunity. However, for many ordinary Poles, they just concentrated on getting on with their lives under quite difficult circumstances. I would not say they were happy times, but one of the characteristics I admire about Poles the most is even when they are resigned to the fact that things are not great, they do not lose hope. At no time did I ever feel I was in a place where life was hopeless. It was during this time that my “love affair” with Poland first began.

What are some of your memories of Kraków during this time?

During the 1983 papal visit, I was amongst the millions of people on the Błonia in Kraków, and was also present when the pope blessed the church in Nowa Huta. Diplomats had been banned from the event, so we managed to sneak in by joining an army convoy. However, it is difficult to imagine what the main square in Kraków looked like in the early 1980s: there were very few people, they didn't stop to chat, and the effect of the Nowa Huta steelworks meant that all the buildings around the square were black. I also had the feeling that Kraków was a sadder place than Warsaw at this time, which was more to do with the system than the people. This was why I was so shocked when I came back in 1998, because I had remembered an empty, black place.

How do you think young people in Poland today view the events of the 1980s?

I believe that young people are beginning to forget the events of the 1980s, and that they are already beginning to be consigned to history. I feel that this is extremely positive because while it is very important for all countries to respect their history, honour their heroes and remember the sacrifices that were made, we also need to focus on the future. Most young people have exactly the same concerns as their counterparts in London or Manchester: Am I going to get the right university place? Am I going to get a good job? Should I spend some time abroad? And this is not because they live in Poland, but because they are Europeans and want to take advantage of the opportunities to travel. This is not about what happened before or just after 1989 when people just wanted to get out of Central and Eastern Europe and go to a country where the situation was economically better. The present reality is a much more complex picture where a lot of people simply want to develop and learn new skills.

Does this have any negative aspects?

Although it is important that we have ways of remembering the past and commemorating history, we also need to remind future generations that the PRL (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa, the People's Republic of Poland) was not some golden era when everyone had a job and nobody did any work. Places like the PRL museum in Nowa Huta and the Oskar Schindler factory in Podgórze continue to be excellent at doing this. The only slight fear I have for Central and Eastern Europe is that a degree of ost-nostalgie (nostalgia for aspects of life under the socialist system in former communist countries of Eastern Europe – editor's note) might come back, particularly in some countries where economic times look likely to be harder than here in Poland.

Are young Polish people generally optimistic for Poland's future?

I believe that young people are optimistic because, for so many years, Poland has demonstrated its real economic progress. Although people like me look back and see thirty years of amazing progress, young people are quite rightly questioning the government and saying, “Where's the progress? Let's get on with it! It takes longer to get to Kraków from Warsaw than it used to. This isn't good enough.” I think this balance is extremely important and I love getting into discussions with groups of young people in Poland about these issues, because they have great creative energy, great ideas and real enthusiasm. I am all for the impatience of youth but still think the older generation has something to offer because we must put all of these things into some kind of perspective.

How will the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship change Poland?

Euro 2012 is for Poland what the Olympic Games are for the UK, and it is a fantastic opportunity to show the world that things have actually moved on in Poland. The image has been all too often that Poland is a communist country, but Euro 2012 is a really excellent opportunity to market how Poland has already changed and is continuing to change. It is a great opportunity for both countries to show a bright, new image, and we are looking at ways in which we can bring these two great events together. I would also mention the Paralympic Games because one of the ways in which the UK and Poland have collaborated the most in recent years is working together to improve the conditions for disabled people in Poland. A lot of the new legislation that is coming out in Poland has been based on UK legislation and I have already met a key member of the Sejm to discuss the next steps in its implementation. And finally, for a football fanatic like me, Euro 2012 will be a fantastic occasion and I am going to really enjoy the feast of football that will take place here in June.

Finally, what do you see as your main goals as British Ambassador to Poland?

The main goal of my term is quite straightforward: to strengthen, even further, the relations between the UK and Poland within the framework of the EU and NATO. There are so many areas where the UK and Poland strongly agree, for example, the importance of the single market, the importance of the growth agenda and the importance of competitiveness. If Europe is to have a successful long-term sustainable pattern of growth, this agenda has to be completed, and the UK and Poland are absolutely as one on that. In terms of wider foreign policy issues, the UK and Poland are again very much in the same place: the importance of a strong EU Neighbourhood policy, the importance of an effective security policy with both a European and NATO dimension, and support for the transatlantic link. Another area where our common position is well-known is on the question of EU enlargement, where there is not much difference between the UK and Polish view.

My second task is to help encourage more British businesses to take advantage of the fantastic opportunities in Poland and also help it on its path towards even greater economic development in the future. I also want to build on a fantastic shared past between us. If you look at the things we did together in the Second World War, and what has followed since including well over half a million Poles now living in the UK, doing jobs in all walks of life and making a really positive contribution. We need to build on that really powerful link between us which can help to deepen our cooperation.

Finally, my third and this is a very personal objective. Last time I left Poland ten kilograms heavier than when I arrived: this must not happen again.

Robin Barnett first came to Poland in 1982 to work at the British Embassy in Warsaw and experienced Poland under communism and martial law. He returned to Poland in 1998 as Deputy Head of the British Embassy witnessing Poland's transition to democracy and their membership into NATO. Mr Barnett's latest posting sees him return to Poland as the British Ambassador.

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