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Still Deeply Stuck in the East

March 26, 2013 - Ziemowit Szczerek - Articles and Commentary



There are places which do not fully fit the region in which they are placed. American journalist, Robert D. Kaplan, believes that Greece is closer to the Middle East than Western Europe. Following this path, we can say that Georgia in some ways resembles the Balkans more than other countries of the Caucasus, while Albania is closer to Northern Africa. The same can be said about Poland.

We like to call our country a Central European country and this is the way in which we like to describe our place in the world. However, when you look at our cultural profile it becomes clear that we are closer – unfortunately – to our neighbours in the East: the Russians and Ukrainians than to the Hungarians or the Czechs. Poland is slowly moving from Eastern Europe towards Central Europe, but it is still deeply stuck in the East.

A “Third World” public sphere

A street in an average Eastern European city does not differ that much from a city in India. There is, of course, a difference in the social structure, but Polish society, which is undeniably well-educated and enjoys a higher standard of living than the Third World, still has not succeeded in developing a well-functioning public sphere. Look at an average street in Mumbai, Simferopol or any Polish city: nothing matches, the colours of the roofs don’t match he colour of the walls, one building is covered with some cheap-looking cladding, other with a fake marble, gaudy billboards lurk at you from everywhere, and up in the sky you can see a tangle of wires. If there is anything that makes these places different it is the intensity and quality of the traffic. And, maybe, the scale of neglect.

The revitalisation of Central European Hungary and the Czech Republic has been taking place in a well-thought out and orderly manner. The public sphere of these countries clearly reveal the thinking of the urban architect as well as the taste of the residents who would not allow any kitsch to ruin their place of residence. In Poland things are different.

The public sphere is wild and barbaric. And characterised by the same phenomenon as we can see in the Third World: the oases of luxury (hotels, shopping centres, mansions) surrounded by chaos and disorganisation, at times close to the point of being slums. Of course in Poland we don’t have slums like the ones in India, Mexico or Brazil (to just name a few), or even in Russia and Ukraine where there are whole neighbourhoods which could easily fit into the definition of a slum, but the newly built residential areas are becoming slum-like areas.

The dwellings are so cluttered together that it does not take much effort to check what your neighbour is having for dinner on a particular day. There is no trace of any responsible and aesthetic urban development. Poles don’t build cities any more. What they build are modern slums. The same thing is happening now in Russia, Ukraine and the Third World.

Centres of cities which were built at the turn of the 20th century look as if they were taken over by a new nation, one that does not know how to use them. And in fact, for most of them, such is the case. The bourgeois (both Polish, Jewish and German) which was here before the Second World War disappeared. Its place was taken over by provincial newcomers who are still learning how to use urban infrastructure; the last two generations had already been born in the cities, although they are not descendants of those who had built these cities in the past. Hence, nobody gave them a “manual” on how to use this space.

Socialists “people’s palaces” and high-rise estates (which were actually built with quite sensible plans, although with very poor quality materials and limited care of their builders) are proof that it was not enough to “give” the cities to these new residents. It was also necessary to teach them how to use them. Here too (different than in the Czech Republic or Hungary), Poland looks like Russia or Ukraine – which have also attracted many rural dwellers.

As a result, many Eastern European cities look like old French quartiers (districts) in Tunis which, after the departure of the French, was inhabited by the locals, who are using the city differently than its original creators. In Eastern Europe one can see similar tendencies.

Law and order

The Polish police, just like the police in Russia and Ukraine, shows little respect to the rule “protect and serve”. The police systematically abuse their power and pay little respect to citizens’ sensitivity. The Polish police is an Eastern European police. The practice of respecting the dignity of a citizen is limited to written word, while in the courts, the word of a policeman, at times clearly abusing its power, is put on a higher level than the word of the citizen.

The work of the Polish police is not about reacting to real threats, where they emerge, but a cool adherence to the letter, not the spirit, of the law. In this way, the police (and the authorities) not only create the problems but also the criminals. Students who are sitting in a city park with an open bottle of beer do not pose as much of a threat as drunk hooligans do with the same open bottles, although both groups are the same for the police, even though the ban on drinking alcohol in the streets was created with the latter in mind.

A hipster moving around the city centre under the influence of one or two beers is also seen as a threat, as it is hard to find aggressive people among road users against whom a major police initiative was directed not that long ago in Krakow, Poland. Its result? An overflow of useless red tape, long lines in already overcrowded courts, and hundreds of new street signs prohibiting cyclists to enter. Has there been any increase in the residents’ safety? No. But, for sure, an increase in the city’s budget from hundreds of tickets issued to cyclists for breaching the law.

But this is the Polish understanding of law and order. The citizens are kept on a leash Poland is not a modern state which presupposes that its citizens will adhere to what we like to call a social contract. This is why the situation in Poland resembles what is going on in other countries of Eastern Europe. In Poland, just as in Russia or Ukraine, the execution of the law is much more strict than it is for example in the Czech Republic or Western European countries. And yet, the crime rate is higher. This is partially because citizens constantly come across useless, although strictly executed, rules.

In Western Europe emphasis is put on the citizens’ own civic reactions and strengthening the sense of personal dignity. Citizens are encouraged to feel that they have influence over the work of the government, from the local to the national level. In Eastern Europe this right to dignity often encounters difficulties, especially in face of the disrespectful and aggressive actions of law enforcement authorities. Social order, in turn, is established by a squeezing the citizens into a narrow framework of stiff (and often idiotic) rules and regulations which decide on how they should function.

In other words, the state kills individualism in its citizens and turns them into a more easily controllable mass. Consider these two very different images: in the “West”, the authorities are close to the citizens and their role is to protects the freedom of movement by intervening (and only there) when somebody disturbs it. In the “East”, the authorities place citizens in clearly marked areas and make them follow the strictly established rules. Those who disobey are punished.

Forced pride

In Eastern Europe (especially in Russia and Belarus but also in Central Asia), the authorities force their citizens to “love” their country, regardless of what it is like. Little attention is paid to increasing the attractiveness of the country and how the citizens feel about it. A citizen of an Eastern European state is spoon-fed a heavy dose of patriotism, blackmailed, and forced to develop patriotic feelings. In the West, on the other hand, the way the government functions encourages citizens to manifest, at the grass-root level, their patriotism.

In Poland, in general, people have a tendency to strongly associate themselves with their homeland along with a healthy criticism of their country. However, there are also political groups whose mission is to teach the citizens, in the most primitive and simple, way what it means to be a Polish patriot.

And that is why the Polish state has still much work to do to become attractive to its citizens.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

This text was originally published on the Polish internet portal Interia.pl. It is republished here as part of our cooperation with the portal’s Środek Wschód Report o Europie Środkowej i Wschodniej. Read the original Polish text here.

Ziemowit Szczerek is a journalist who works for Interia.pl. He is completing his PhD at the Institute of Political Studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences. He covers Central and Eastern European issues.

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