Poland's Communist Legacy: Distrust, Disgust and Alienation

WILLIAM PFAFF

October 31, 1991|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- Poland now has a parliament which accurately reflects the crisis of Poland's society. It is the crisis of all the ex-Communist countries, and is responsible for the confused struggle to discover terms upon which people can not only solve their practical problems but also go on living with one another after what they have done to one another in the past.

In the parliamentary elections held Sunday, the major parties representing both of Poland's post-Communist reform prime ministers were rejected. Unheard-of parties prospered, including the Party of Polish Beer-lovers. The party close to President Lech Walesa got well under 10 percent of the vote.

The Democratic Union of former Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki got 12 percent, the best result of any party although 20 percent had been foreseen. The whole bloc of parties which emerged from the Solidarity movement got less than one-third of the overall vote. The renamed Communist parties got more than one-fifth, a great surprise.

The real winners were indifference, alienation and anger, since half the electorate refused to vote at all.

Alienation is a product of the government's inability to work miracles, as against a part of the public's willingness to believe in miracles. The party which promised miracles in last year's presidential campaign, ''Party X,'' created by the Polish-Peruvian-Canadian businessman-demagogue, Stanislaw Tyminsky, pushed Lech Walesa into a second-round run-off in that election.

Party X was disqualified from Sunday's parliamentary election in most districts for falsifying qualification petitions. Had it not been put off the ballot, it might have emerged with the largest individual vote total. Its supporters are thought either to have abstained or to have voted for the renamed Communist parties.

The outgoing government has drained the Polish economy of hyper-inflation (down from 2,000 percent annually last January to 40 percent today) and given it a solid currency.

A year or so ago, dollars were all that anyone wanted in Poland (as in the ex-Soviet Union today). The zloty now exchanges freely with the dollar. This has been accomplished, however, at the cost of unemployment and a grave slump, and the savings and other investment resources that might turn the purged economy around are not there.

De-industrialization has been taking place, closing down obsolete and polluting state enterprises that manufactured nothing anyone wanted. GNP is thought to have fallen by 10 percent this year.

Re-industrialization is far from taking off. There is money about, but much of it comes from unproductive forms of commerce, including obvious profiteering, and it is not being invested in industry. There still is little foreign investment.

As in Russia, capitalism risks becoming identified in popular opinion with racketeering, swindle and hard times for the common man -- validating what the Communists had always said.

The two former reform prime ministers, Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Jan Krzysztof, both high-minded intellectuals, followed economic plans of extreme market orthodoxy where the light shines dimly at the end of a very long tunnel.

But anger is the worst enemy of Polish democracy. A sociologist who was also a parliamentary candidate, Jacek Kurczewski, observed before the election that ''this electorate is filled with perverseness, aggression and nationalism.''

People want to pay others off for what happened to them in the past. They want to get what they can now to make up for what was kept from them in the past.

People have lost, or never learned, a sense of the permissible limits of political controversy in a democracy.

The Catholic Church has been a bad example in this respect. While the episcopate itself behaved correctly, there were all too many who thought themselves acting on its behalf in calumniating the moderate parties and figures that came out of Solidarity, notably the Democratic Union party of Mr. Mazowiecki.

Even though most of the Democratic Union leaders are themselves professing Catholics, they defend the separation of church and state. They resist the installation of Catholic moral teachings on abortion, birth control and divorce as law of the land, against the will of minorities (or of a Catholic majority which takes a less rigorous view of these matters than the episcopate would like).

To the more aggressive Catholics, this is betrayal. There also are Jewish intellectuals prominent in the Democratic Union. This has invited the hostility of those Catholics who combine a traditional anti-Semitism with that specifically Polish political anti-Semitism inspired by the fact that Jews were prominent among those who imposed communism on the country after World War II. (The fact that the Polish Communist Party subsequently purged its Jewish members and in the 1960s conducted its own anti-Semitic propaganda campaigns, does not count for these people).

These Catholics were certainly not the only ones guilty, but they were perhaps the most influential among those who attacked opponents as morally disqualified rather than merely wrong -- holding that their opponents were un-Polish or immoral or representatives of international conspiracies hostile to Poland.

This kind of thing has lethal effect even in mature democracies, as Americans have reason to know. It is rife in the ex-Communist societies, which actually have been the victims of one international conspiracy or another, Fascist or Communist, for as long as any adult can remember.

Repairing this state of mind is harder than repairing the economies of countries like Poland, but is more important. The question is whether it can be done in time. Yugoslavia shows what otherwise can happen.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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