The transformation as a learning process
A conversation with Andrew Nagorski, journalist, writer and chairman of the board of the Polish-American Freedom Foundation. Interviewer: Iwona Reichardt
IWONA REICHARDT: Let us start with the memories of a reporter. For many years, you were working for the American press. When was your first encounter with the communist system here in the region?
ANDREW NAGORSKI: My first encounter was as an exchange student at the Jagiellonian University in 1968. After graduating from college and teaching history in the United States, I joined Newsweek in 1973. Eventually I ended up being stationed in Moscow from 1981, but after 14 months the Kremlin decided they did not want me and expelled me. At that point I went to Rome where I was covering the Vatican, including Pope John Paul II. As lovely as that assignment was, I really wanted to get back to covering this region. I ended up going to our regional hub in Bonn in 1985 and from there I started going in and out of all the countries of the then Soviet Bloc.
We tend to assign the transition to 1989, but of course it started with perestroika and glasnost. Nowadays the assessment of Gorbachev’s reforms is mixed, especially in Russia. How do you remember this period?
First of all I would say the real changes started even earlier. Poland and 1980 were key, as well as all the failed revolutions before: the Prague Spring, the Hungarian Uprising, and so on. I believe the Solidarity movement was formed from a real pressure to change the system at a time when the system still did not want to be changed. There was the whole philosophy of Václav Havel to build up the power of the powerless, and smaller dissident movements like Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia and the democratic opposition in Hungary. You could see change brewing in this region. I remember coming back to Poland for some time in 1985 after being kicked out of the Soviet Union. I had the chance to do an interview with Zbigniew Bujak, a leader of the underground Solidarity, who at that point was still one of the most wanted men in Poland. I was instructed to show up on such and such a street in Warsaw at six in the evening. So I went out to one of the street corners and somebody showed up, a man whose name I would find out only later – Zbigniew Lewicki. We went to a building on one side through the courtyard, on the other side a car pulled up, we jumped in, drove around and they let us out in front of another building. We then went through the courtyard and undertook another series of manoeuvres to throw off anyone who was following us. By the time we got out to some apartment buildings I was not quite sure where we were. I went up to this apartment and after a couple of minutes this young man with a big beard came in. His face looked familiar: it was Bujak, with a fake beard.
That was 1985, and despite the amount of political repression, the Jaruzelski regime would later try to say that they were “managing the transition”. I remember being here during the main strikes in 1988. We had a small Newsweek office overlooking Plac Zamkowy, the castle square. I had gotten up at seven in the morning to make some coffee and was looking out of the window, and I saw these buses coming full of plain-clothes men, evidently militia, waiting all day, because they knew there were going to be demonstrations after mass. When the mass ended, people started coming out of the cathedral and some of them started shouting “Solidarność, Solidarność!” You could feel there was something strange about this, some of the people were not part of the crowd. They started beating people and rounding them up in militia cars. In other words, at that point there was still an attempt to completely suppress the movement.
Many years later I was interviewing Stanisław Ciosek who was one the leading figures of the Round Table representing the government. He said that during that period it was as if they were flying a plane and supposedly in charge, but suddenly one engine went out, then two engines, three engines, four engines, and at one point they were just trying to land the plane without killing themselves. It was not that they wanted to have this transition, but they knew that something had to change politically and economically, the whole place was imploding.
In 1995 I had the chance to spend a few days with Gorbachev when I was stationed in Moscow again. During his tenure he had satisfied no one: the people who were driving for reform and radical changes felt he was not doing enough, and the people who wanted to maintain the Soviet system felt that he destroyed it. Gorbachev played a huge role in history, but what is remarkable is that I think he never understood it. His idea was that countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia or Hungary could have their own mini-Gorbachevs and their own versions of glasnost and perestroika. He simply wanted to loosen the system a bit, to make it more humane, to add a little more economic elasticity and ease the repression. What he did not understand was that in this part of Europe, if you withdraw the threat of Soviet tanks, people will not stay quiet. This turned out to be true for the Soviet republics as well. To Gorbachev’s credit, he did not use force on any massive scale even when he saw the system unravelling. There were individual cases like Vilnius and some other places, but on the whole, he was able to reluctantly accept that things were spinning out of control at a much faster pace than he expected. But again, this was not his intention, and he even told me in 1995 that he could have saved the Soviet Union. Thank God that he had this illusion, because it meant he was not like the old-school who would have just crushed anything by force. It’s good to remember that in 1989, while Solidarity elections were taking place here, Tiananmen Square was happening in Beijing. There were a lot of people who thought there might be a similar scenario here.
Once the transformation began, it was viewed with a lot of optimism. Where do you think this came from? How do you assess the “end of history” mentality of the 1990s from today’s perspective? Were we naïve at the time, or were all the signs giving us grounds for such optimism?
I think there were grounds for future optimism in the sense that no one expected things to happen so fast, including figures like Havel and a lot of people in Solidarity. Sure enough everyone knew that this system could not last, but you always thought of it as something that would happen sometime in the hazy future. Havel gave a wonderful statement shortly after becoming president where he said that he would not have been surprised to wake up in the morning in a prison cell and it turned out that the past few months had all been a dream, and he would tell his fellow inmates about the dream they would all laugh about how crazy it was. It was almost too good to be true.
The transformation was also psychological. I remember being here just after 1989 and being amazed about how quickly people’s mind-sets changed. The same people who had been routinely complaining about how there was nothing in the shops were suddenly complaining about how they couldn’t afford what was in the shops. Another thing that shocked me was how quickly young people in the 1990s and early 2000s forgot about such basic things as kartki, rationing, things like this became ancient history. The positive things became assumed very quickly, which in turn made the negative things grow larger.
Foreign actors also played a huge role in democracy-building in the region. These included the United States, agencies like USAID, German foundations and so on. Thirty years later their role seems to be criticised more than back then. How do you assess the role of external actors in democracy-building?
There was the famous “Marriott Brigade” of consultants who stayed at this hotel in Warsaw, and that group included people with both good and bad intentions. Whether it was Poland, Ukraine or Iraq there are always people who are trying to profit from a transition. But I think there was also a lot of very sincere efforts to help. In the very early days some of them were perhaps overly naïve, for example they might send an American graduate who had just finished college to advise the finance ministry. But by and large, I think there were a lot of good efforts in the fields of economics, education and so forth. A huge player early on was Lane Kirkland and the labour movement of the United States.
There were many things that did not need to be invented from scratch such as financial institutions or how to organise a stock market. The key was to adapt these concepts to the local conditions and to see what works and what doesn’t. It was not simply about copying everything: there were many dedicated people working here who had respect for their local counterparts and did not try to impose a model. Of course you can be critical of some of the reforms. There are people who say that the Balcerowicz Plan and the economic transformation went too far too fast, while others say it didn’t go far enough in certain areas. In my opinion, it was a really bold move. Balcerowicz and his team consulted with western economists and financial advisors and then made their own decisions, as it should be.
You mentioned Kirkland, so let us now move on to an even more complex region, the post-Soviet countries. Twenty years ago the Kirkland program was set up to help these societies in their transformation. At that time Poland was perceived as a role model for these societies. Do you think Poland was really advanced enough in its transformation to be a role model? Or maybe being the right role model came from the fact that the transformation was not yet completed…
Lane Kirkland was very dedicated to working with Poland and supporting the Solidarity movement. He saw Solidarity in the 1980s as a natural match for what he, as a labour leader in the US, was trying to achieve. Frankly, labour unions were losing some of their influence in American society at that time. Kirkland was also something of an internationalist, he thought that what we had learnt in America could really help in a society like Poland where they were struggling to get even basic labour rights. Kirkland died in 1999, and in 2000 we started the Lane Kirkland Program. The programme was meant to work in the spirit of the AFL-CIO who helped Solidarity with tools while at the same time leaving it up to them to decide what to do with those tools. Poland was first in its transformation, being the first to get rid of the communist regime and launching major economic reforms which then triggered all sorts of changes in society. Therefore I think Poland worked well as a place to learn for people from post-Soviet countries. The collapse of the Soviet Union only happened in late 1991 and early 1992, so there was a time lag. The reform programmes were nowhere near as bold, and the old nomenklatura was still very much in control. A perfect example of this is Ukraine where in theory many of the elements of society and economy were parallel to Poland, but the country was still being kept in a stranglehold by a very corrupt and strong nomenklatura. I think our programme has two purposes: one is to learn from the Polish experience which I think is still a very legitimate thing, and second, the participants should learn from each other. Someone from Georgia can compare their experiences with a person from Ukraine, Moldova or Azerbaijan. The participants are scattered around Poland in different institutions and universities, but we make a point to bring them together several times during their stay. The alumni network is also quite active, and from what I gather, they really do maintain contact with each other and compare experiences. We do not necessarily organise this, we just help facilitate it by maintaining this alumni network.
You suggest that Poland still has a role, but that there is also huge potential in the post-Soviet societies and between them. Is the focus now on co-operation between them, or is Poland still the primary point of reference?
When I was travelling around this region before 1989, everybody said that the dissidents in each society knew a lot about their foreign counterparts. In Charter 77 people would be extremely curious about Solidarity, and they actually had secret contacts. The movements faced very common problems. But after the transformation each of these countries had their own particular issues, and often they were so preoccupied with them that they were less aware of what was going on abroad. However, there were still a lot of things in common, for instance how to get into the European Union or NATO. I think these are questions which still face post-Soviet republics: how to define relations with Europe, both institutionally and in other ways. Here, they can still learn from Poland because Poland went through that process.
Of course you can say that Poland has done well in certain areas but it is facing problems in others. For example, in politics. It is one thing to have normal competitive democratic processes and another to have a real deep divide in society. But that is not only true of Poland and countries in this region, it is true also of the US right now. In the United States you have people both in the pro-Trump camp and the anti-Trump camp who are convinced that they are completely right, they can’t stand to talk to each other. You have this here in Poland and in Ukraine too, and we could all benefit from a bit of standing back. Even if you have plenty of objections to the current politics and current politicians, you should not demonise them because by doing that you hurt society. In fact, you are showing that you have no faith in democratic institutions. I think all of us have to regain that faith here, on both sides, so that we don’t see our political opponents as enemies but as political opponents, and recognise their legitimate grounds to fight for what they think the proper boundaries of political, executive and judicial power should be. On balance, the fact that we can even have these debates is a testimony to the success of the transformation.
The US was undoubtedly the point of reference and a role model for the whole transformation, starting from Poland and Central Europe but also for the post-Soviet space. Do you think it still has this soft power position today? Is the country still an ideal for this region even though the US itself is torn by a similar internal conflict as the one we are experiencing in the region?
Of course it is not to the same extent as 30 years ago. However, I would argue that in a way this is healthy too. I remember that before 1989 intellectuals and workers in Poland idealised America. America was everything that Poland was not at that point. It stood for freedom and prosperity, and while that contrast was obvious and legitimate, it also meant that people did not understand that America had always been a complex place with both positive and negative sides. I always remember this story about a Solidarity activist who in the early 1980s travelled to America, at a time when the Jaruzelski regime started letting Solidarity activists travel because they just wanted to get them out. Since everything he read in the communist press in Poland about Poland was a lie, he thought that all the articles about the high crime rates in New York City must also be a lie. So he gets there, checks into a hotel and asks: where is one of the highest crime areas in the city? I think they said Bedford–Stuyvesant, which was a pretty rough neighbourhood. So he takes the subway, goes to Bedford–Stuyvesant, gets out of the subway and gets mugged. Right away. He comes back and says: just because everything about Poland was a lie does not mean that everything about US society was a lie too. Nowadays when people from this region visit the US, it is not like they think they are going to the Promised Land. They are going to a society which many people still admire in many ways, but they also see its normal failings and limitations.
How is the Kirkland Programme adjusting to all of this? The transition is a complex process, and right now it is probably reaching a turning point. What is the vision for the future?
I think there is certainly still a need for the programme. First of all the Kirkland Program adjusts to the changes in the participating countries. Lithuania, for example, is no longer part of the programme because, clearly, the transition has progressed beyond the objectives of our programme. On the other hand, we have added new countries to the programme such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan from Central Asia. There is something similar with this and the closing of our permanent Newsweek office in Warsaw back in 1995. My Polish friends would ask me how Newsweek could do such a thing, how could they close the Warsaw bureau? And I said look, there are a lot of European countries like Spain, Portugal and Belgium where we don’t have a full-time office. This is because we consider these to be normal, boring countries. In other words, successful countries. Take that as a compliment, it is not a country in crisis. And so in the same way, if we end the Kirkland Program in one country, it should be taken as a compliment.
But I would say that there are still a lot of places such as Ukraine where this transition is obviously going to go on for quite some time, so there is definitely a need for the programme. Besides, the learning process goes both ways: I think Poles are becoming much more acquainted with their neighbours now thanks to the programme. After 1989 there was this natural period when everyone focussed westwards. They would go to Paris, London, New York and so forth, but what about seeing your neighbours? It is a chance to get to know some really interesting societies with a lot of familiar patterns of behaviour, mentality and challenges. The Kirkland Program can still play a role in that, which means that it can still continue for quite a while. The fact that Poland is still not a perfect society is clear, but I think that is not necessarily a problem. In a way it is an opportunity, because there are also learning points: once we make certain transitions it does not mean we have solved the problems and can now we lean back and say okay, mission accomplished. It is always an ongoing process. And if we as the Polish-American Freedom Foundation, the Kirkland Program, the RITA – “Region in Transition Program” and the “Study Tours to Poland” can at least contribute in a small way to maintaining these encounters and stimulating these interactions, then I think we are really adding something to the region and offering some positive opportunities.
Andrew Nagorski is a journalist and writer who spent a significant time in the region of Central and Eastern Europe reporting for Newsweek. He is also the chairman of the board of directors of the Polish-American Freedom Foundation which administers the Lane Kirkland fellowship programme. His most recent book is titled 1941: The Year Germany Lost the War.
Iwona Reichardt is the deputy chief editor of New Eastern Europe. She has a PhD in political science from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.