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Poland

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Poland: The Terrible Twins

4 September 2006

Poland: The Terrible Twins

By Gwynne Dyer

“I am afraid that with Jaroslaw Kaczynski as prime minister, Poland will become more extreme, more anti-European and a more xenophobic country,” warned Bronislaw Komorowski, a member of the opposition Civic Platform party, when the second Kaczynski twin was made prime minister by his brother, President Lech Kaczinski, in July. He could have added that Poland is becoming more anti-Semitic, more homophobic, and much more vengeful towards former Communists and collaborators.

The Kaczynski twins, chubby 57-year-olds whose baby faces remind everyone that they first shot to fame as child actors in the 1960s, are identical in both their appearance and their politics. They are nationalist, Catholic, and conservative (as mayor of Warsaw, Lech banned gay parades and called the organisers “perverts”), which is why they appeal to the left-behinds of Polish society, the rural, the poor and the uneducated, who provided most of the votes for their Law and Justice Party last year.

Then they promised that they would never occupy both of the great offices of state, and Jaroslaw remained as party leader while Lech took the presidency. But the man he appointed as prime minister instead, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, showed an unexpected streak of independence, so two months ago Lech fired him and appointed Jaroslaw in his place.

Since then, it has gone from bad to worse: quarrels with Germany, with Russia, with the European Union that Poland joined only two years ago — and above all, a determined drive to punish everybody who served or helped the Communist regime that collapsed 17 years ago.

The campaign’s most prominent victim is former president Wojciech Jaruzelski, who declared martial law in 1981 and jailed about ten thousand Solidarity members. Jaruzelski has always claimed that he did it only to forestall a Soviet invasion that would have ended in a national disaster, for the Poles would have fought back, the country would have been devastated, and all possibility of reform would have been lost for decades.

Most of Soldarity’s former leaders now accept Jaruzelski’s justification for his decision, though they spent years in jail because of it. Former president Lech Walesa, Solidarity’s founder, was publicly reconciled with Jaruzelski last year in a joint television appearance. But Jaruzelski is now charged with being the head of an “organised criminal group which aimed to perpetrate crimes that consisted of the deprivation of freedom by internment,” and at the age of 82 he faces a possible eleven years in jail. Hundreds of thousands of other Poles also face reprisals under the new law introduced by the Kaczynskis.

Under the old rules, members of parliament, judges, and top civil servants and security officials were required to state whether they had collaborated with the Communist-era secret police, but they were not automatically banned from those jobs. Under the new law, all persons in “positions of public trust” who were over seventeen when Solidarity finally brought down the Communists in1989, including diplomats, local officials, school principals, lawyers and journalists, will lose their jobs if they cannot produce a certificate (to be issued by the Institute for National Remembrance) showing that they were not collaborators.

Employers who do not demand certificates from their employees will also lose their jobs. The secret police files of people who held public office under the Communists will be published on the internet, together with the names of all former secret policemen. And of course thousands of individual will be punished in this way because of false or misleading information in those files.

Similar things happened in other countries of the former Soviet bloc just after the Communist regimes were swept away by the revolutions of 1989, though nothing so extreme. But to institute such a witch-hunt 27 years later, when most of the targets of this revenge are retired or nearing the end of their working lives, is vindictive and pointlessly destructive.

It is the same resentful obsession with past wrongs that caused President Kaczynski to cancel a visit to Germany recently after a small-circulation German newspaper satirised him as a “potato-head.”. It gives rise to demands that Poland erect a memorial to the 1940 massacre at Katyn, in which Soviet troops murdered at least 15,000 Polish reserve officers, directly across the street from the Russian embassy. And it turns a blind eye to anti-Semitism, gay-bashing and other relics from the darker parts of Poland’s past.

Poland is highly nationalist because it has had a dreadful history of partition, conquest and oppression at the hands of its far bigger neighbours, Germany and Russia. It is the most Catholic country in Europe because its religion was a rallying point during the long decades of foreign occupation. It is socially conservative because almost half its people are still essentially rural. None of that is bad in itself, but the Kaczynskis know how to push all of Poland’s buttons, and they do it shamelessly and relentlessly.

Two million young Poles — over five percent of the population –have left the country for greener pastures in western Europe since EU membership made it easy for them to move. The 17 percent unemployment rate, the highest in the EU, gave them a big incentive to go, but in many cases that wasn’t all that pushed them out. There is another Poland, but quite a lot of it is currently living abroad.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“Employers…files”; and “Poland…relentlessly”)

Defending “The Life of Brian”

6 February 2006

Defending “The Life of Brian”

By Gwynne Dyer

“Without this there would be no Life of Brian,” said Roger Koeppel, editor-in-chief of the German newspaper Die Welt, claiming that his decision to republish the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that have caused such offence to many Muslims was a free speech issue. “It’s at the very core of our culture that the most sacred things can be subjected to criticism, laughter and satire.” That is true, but it is not the only truth.

Europeans did not overthrow the power of Christian religious authorities to kill people who disputed their version of the truth just to hand it to Islamic religious authorities several centuries later. There is no contradiction, however, between asserting the right of free speech and condemning those who use it to inflict gratuitous pain on others. Particularly when it is the powerful abusing the vulnerable.

Jyllands-Posten, which originally published the series of twelve cartoons about the Muhammad over four months ago, has the largest circulation of any Danish newspaper. Denmark’s Muslim community, only 170,000 strong, is one of the most marginalised and beleaguered in Europe, and the governing coalition includes a large party that is explicitly anti-immigrant and implicitly anti-Muslim. The paper’s culture editor, Flemming Rose, claims that the decision to commission twelve cartoonists to lampoon Muhammad was just an attempt to start a debate in Denmark on self-censorship in the media, but he got a lot more than that for his money.

The cartoons were neither clever nor funny, and two of them were blatantly offensive. One depicted Muhammad himself as a terrorist, his turban transformed into a fizzing bomb; the other showed him speaking to a ragged queue of suicide bombers at heaven’s gate saying “Stop, stop, we’ve run out of virgins.” They deliberately implied that Islam is a terrorist religion, and Denmark’s Muslims quite reasonably demanded an apology. It was still a storm in a very small teacup — but then the usual suspects got to work.

The newspaper refused to apologise, and Denmark’s prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, sucked up to the anti-immigrant vote by refusing even to meet ambassadors from Muslim countries who wanted to protest about the cartoons. So a group of imams from the Danish Muslim organisation Islamisk Trossamfund toured Saudi Arabia and Egypt in November and December with copies of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, and included some others that were even more offensive and showed Muhammad as a pig and a child molester.

It took a lot of time and effort to build this into a real confrontation, but the Norwegian Christian monthly Magazinet helpfully republished the cartoons in January, Saudi Arabia and Libya withdrew their ambassadors from Copenhagen, and indignation built steadily in Muslim chat-rooms and blogs on the internet. By the end of January Danish flags were being burnt and Danish goods boycotted in the Arab world, and both the Danish prime minister and the editor of Jyllands-Posten went into reverse, publicly apologising for the offence that had been caused. But it was too late.

Various right-wing newspapers in Europe including Die Welt and France-Soir saw the Danish apologies as a failure to defend free speech, and republished the offending cartoons on their front pages. This gave radical Islamist fringe groups in European countries a pretext to stage angry demonstrations — the slogans at the London demo called for more terrorist bombs like those of last July and urged the faithful to “Butcher those who mock Islam” — and the confrontation finally achieved lift-off.

Late last week mobs attacked the European Union’s offices in the Gaza Strip and the building housing the Danish embassy in Jakarta. Incensed by text messages saying that Danish right-wingers were planning to burn copies of the Quran (though they didn’t, in the end), angry Muslims burned the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria and the Danish consulate in Lebanon during the weekend. The idiots, the ideologues and the fanatics on both sides have the bit between their teeth now, and it will take some time for the fury to burn out. But it is important to remember that most people have NOT lost their heads.

Inayat Banglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said of the demonstrators who had urged more bomb attacks in Britain: “It is time the police acted, but in a way so as not to make them martyrs of the prophet’s cause, which is what they want, but as criminals. Ordinary Muslims are fed up with them.” The 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference warned that “Over-reactions surpassing the limits of peaceful democratic acts…are dangerous and detrimental to the efforts to defend the legitimate case of the Muslim world.”

Similarly on the Western side — you can’t really say Christian any more, except for the United States and maybe Poland — the great majority of newspapers did not publish the cartoons. In Britain, in Poland, in Russia, in Canada and (with one exception) in the United States, none did. It is not self-censorship to refuse to publish these abusive images that link Muslims with terrorism, it is simply common courtesy.

It does not mean that no Western cartoonist may ever use Muhammad again (though they will doubtless be more cautious about the context in future). The ban on images of Muhammad is a Muslim tradition, not a Western one. But we live in a joined-up world where everybody can see everybody else all the time, and being polite to the neighbours is a social obligation. Jyllands-Posten and its emulators were very stupid and very rude.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5.  (“Europeans…vulnerable”; and “The newspaper …molester”)

Yalta, Truth and Tact

8 May 2005

Yalta, Truth and Tact

By Gwynne Dyer

Presidents aren’t expected to know much history, but their speech-writers are — and even presidents are expected to be considerate of their hosts’ feelings. President George W. Bush’s speech in Riga on Saturday did not measure up.

It wasn’t Bush who started the quarrel about whether the Soviet Union “liberated” or “occupied” Eastern Europe after 1945. It was the presidents of Lithuania and Estonia, who refused to go to Moscow for the ceremonies on Monday commemorating the Soviet defeat of Germany 60 years ago, and the presidents of Latvia and Poland, who only agreed to go with great reluctance. But Bush jumped into the argument with enthusiasm, insensitivity, and considerable ignorance.

What he did was to condemn the Yalta agreement of February, 1945, signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt for the United States, Winston Churchill for Britain, and Joseph Stalin for the Soviet Union. It didn’t actually “carve Europe up” between the victors, but it did give each of them responsibility for getting certain liberated countries (mostly the ones their armies already occupied) back on their feet and restoring them to independence.

Bush condemned Yalta, claiming that the Western allies had needlessly sold the Eastern European countries into forty years of Communist rule and Soviet control. “We will not repeat the mistakes of other generations, appeasing or excusing tyranny, and sacrificing freedom in the vain pursuit of stability,” Bush promised, implicitly accusing Roosevelt and Churchill of just those crimes — and then he flew off to Moscow to shake the hand of his host, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Bush was going to Moscow to commemorate Russia’s sacrifices in the struggle against Nazi aggression, which were far greater than America’s. The two countries had roughly equal populations at the time, but about 27 million Russians died in the war, compared to only 405,000 Americans. Moreover, it was the Soviet army that tore the guts out of the Nazi military machine.

When the US, British and Canadian armies landed on the Normandy beaches in June, 1944, they were faced by about fifty German army divisions; at the same time the Soviets were facing over 200 German divisions. Moreover, the Soviet army beat the Germans because by the end it had better equipment, better fighting skills and endless determination. (Its numerical superiority over the Germans was less than two-to-one, lower than the advantage that the Western allies usually enjoyed.)

By 1945, the Soviet army was the strongest ground fighting force in the world. It physically controlled the Eastern European countries that became Moscow’s responsibility at Yalta. Moscow later installed Communist regimes there (partly because it wanted a buffer zone of friendly regimes between it and Germany, and partly just because it could) — and there was absolutely nothing that Roosevelt or Churchill could do about it. President Bush is in favour of wars to overthrow undemocratic regimes, or so he says, but against the Soviet Union in 1945? That’s just crazy.

As the war turned against them, the Nazi leaders began to fantasise that they could persuade the Western allies to switch sides and join them in a campaign to destroy the Soviet Union and wipe out Communism, but nobody in Britain or the United States ever considered it. If they weren’t willing to do that, however, how were they going to prevent the Soviet army from both liberating AND occupying Eastern Europe?

Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were especially upset about this week’s ceremony in Moscow, for they were the victims of the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 that was the starting gun for the Second World War. Stalin got German assent to his annexation of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and eastern Poland (thus restoring the borders of the pre-1914 Russian empire), and Germany got the rest of Poland.

When Hitler invaded Poland in September, 1939 to collect his share of the deal, Britain and France declared war on Germany in Poland’s defence. They did not also declare war on the Soviet Union, though in strict morality they should have, because they had their hands more than full just dealing with Germany. And the United States, safe behind its oceans, did nothing.

Two years later, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, and effectively signed his own death warrant. Six months after that, the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour finally drew the United States into the war, and American industrial strength played a big part in hastening the defeat of the Nazis during the latter half of the war. But it was the Russians (and the Chinese, who tied down most of the Japanese army) who paid most of the price in human lives for defeating the Axis.

That deserves respect, as does the fact that the Red Army actually did liberate Eastern Europe from something far worse than Communism. By mid-war, the Nazi regime planned not only to exterminate the Jews and the Gypsies, but to starve 35 million “useless eaters” in Eastern Europe to death to make room for German settlers.

Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians and Poles have a right to resent both what Stalin did to them and the present Russian government’s refusal to apologise openly for the past. President Bush has the right to support them, though they face no threat from Moscow and this was not the week to pour fuel on the flames. But it was simply not fitting for President Bush to talk like this while he was on his way to Moscow to join the Russians in mourning their 27 million dead.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“When…enjoyed”; and “As the war…Eastern Europe”)

Poland’s Dilemma

15 July 2004

Poland’s Dilemma

By Gwynne Dyer

“We’re interested in becoming a concrete part of the arrangement,” said Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Boguslaw Majewski, after it was revealed on 10 July that Poland has been in secret talks with the United States for the past eight months on locating elements of the US ballistic missile defence system, including interceptor missiles, on its territory. Then it came out that the US has also been talking to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria about it, but Poland is definitely the leading candidate.

Poland’s main problem has always been its geography: sandwiched between Germany and Russia, it was regularly conquered by them or partitioned between them. Poland lost twenty percent of its population in the Second World War, mainly in Nazi death camps, and then spent the next forty-five years under a Communist dictatorship imposed by its Russian liberators. You can see why it wants close links with a great power that isn’t in Europe, and giving the United States military bases that Washington sees as important is one easy way of doing that.

The project to protect the United States from ballistic missile attack is one of the great boondoggles of all time. After 20 years of development, there is still no evidence that it will ever work reliably — even though the Pentagon is going ahead with the construction of two missile interceptor sites in California and Alaska, presumably to shoot down the ICBMs that North Korea doesn’t have, tipped with the nuclear warheads that it probably doesn’t have either. The main function of ‘Son of Star Wars’ in the US political system has been to serve as a kind of social welfare system for needy aerospace companies and recently retired Air Force generals.

The Poles don’t care whether the missiles work or not, and most of them don’t even believe the story that the Pentagon wants a site in Eastern Europe to intercept nuclear missiles fired at the United States by Iran or Syria. (Iran and Syria don’t have missiles that could get even a quarter of the way to the US, or any nuclear warheads to put on them, either.) They suspect that Washington really wants to intercept Russian missiles just after they launch, but that’s okay with them, too. Poles mistrust the Russians almost as much as they do the Germans.

All the Poles want is an important American base on their territory, so that Washington doesn’t forget about them in a crisis. They’ll make do with radar stations if they have to, but, as former defence minister Janusz Onyszkeiwicz put it, “an interceptor site would be more attractive. It wouldn’t be a hard sell in Poland.” It’s a very understandable Polish reflex, given the history — but it could greatly complicate Poland’s foreign relations closer to home.

Germany and France are not at all pleased to see the US seeking missile bases in Eastern European countries that have become, since this spring, part of the European Union. They see it as part and parcel of Washington’s strategy of splitting off the recently ex-Communist countries of Eastern Europe that Defence Secretary Don Rumsfeld described last year with typical sensitivity as ‘new Europe’ (good and strongly pro-American), to be distinguished from France, German and other parts of ‘old Europe’ (bad and allegedly anti-American).

It’s working, too. Most of the Eastern European states have sent token contingents to Iraq to curry favour with the United States, and most of them would be happy to have American bases on their soil (though they’ll never outbid the Poles). And it’s practically a cost-free strategy at the moment: the Germans and the French haven’t been nasty to them, and the Russians have been positively saintly about it all. But it could get ugly further down the line.

If the United States remains on a unilateralist course after this November’s election, failing to consult with allies, ignoring the United Nations whenever it gets in the way, and frequently violating international law, all the other great powers will start to respond by trying to create counter-balancing centres of power. They are on hold for the moment, because none of them really wants to go down that road, but it’s clear what they will do if they conclude that it is necessary.

They will start building up their arms, of course, and in the case of China that is probably all they will do. In Europe, however, the great powers will also start to come together in what won’t be called an alliance, but will gradually become exactly that — and its chief members will be France, Germany and Russia. That’s the only combination big enough to say ‘no’ to overwhelming American power.

If it comes to that, five years down the road, life will get very hard for Eastern European countries that have become too closely bound to the United States — especially if they have American missile interceptor sites on their territory. And if you think that this scenario hasn’t already occurred to the chief American negotiator on the potential deal with Poland, Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton, then you are seriously underestimating the man.

The real question is whether it has occurred to the Poles.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 3. (“The project…generals”)