How the people of Poland are kept from taking to the streets

While Poland loves to boast about westerners coming to earn money, it is less open about those from the eastern part of the continent. Propaganda serves to justify almost anything.

Anyone who wants to learn about the current economic situation in Poland will encounter curiously contradictory accounts. In the Polish mainstream media, only one image emerges: Poland has growth, has avoided the financial crisis and is up to its ears with new investment, of which the tacky skyscrapers rising up in Warsaw are proof.

Take a closer look – the investment was mostly in roads and stadiums for the Euro 2012 football championship which are now mostly unused and loss-making, while schools, libraries and school canteens are being closed. Health care is free only in theory – if you can’t pay the monthly insurance or are on benefits, it is restricted or has to be paid for. Donald Tusk and his neoliberal party, Civic Platform, have raised the pension age from 65 to 67 and recently, “to fight the crisis”, abolished the eight-hour working day. Last but not least, if it was a prospering country would two million of its people be economic emigrants?

It is true that so far Poland has introduced few overt austerity measures, benefiting from a strong industrial base closely connected to Germany, EU investment and less “financialisation” than, say, the Baltic states. However, if Poland were a land of milk and honey, the migrants would be returning after raising some money. They aren’t. So, instead, the Polish press runs frequent articles bemoaning how Spaniards, Portuguese and other citizens of crisis-ridden European countries are coming to the country to get a job – although the numbers are tiny compared to the volume of those emigrating.

While Poland loves to boast about westerners coming to earn money, it is less open about those from the eastern part of the continent: Roma, Chechens and Ukrainians are treated as second-class citizens. In Białystok, in north-eastern Poland, violent attacks on Roma camps and houses are common. A recent court case ruled that the swastika, written on the city walls and worn by neo-fascists, is legal because “it’s a famous Asian symbol of happiness”.

If the right has radicalised since the Smolensk plane crash, which killed 93 officials, including the president and many MPs, then the left is in a state of decrepitude. A “tenants’ movement” fights the evictions that blight the country and there was a very small Occupy movement. At a recent “congress of the left”, there was talk of “learning from the right” and an “alliance with the middle classes”. Yet the only large party of the left, the Democratic Left Alliance, formed by the ex-communist nomenklatura and the governing party in the 1990s and early 2000s, was reduced to 8.24 per cent of the vote in the last election. Even the recent self-immolation of a 56-year-old man in front of the prime minister’s office in protest against his and many others’ impoverishment didn’t especially shake the public. Nor did his subsequent death.

What has? When public transport fares in Warsaw went up by 60 per cent, there were protests and a petition demanding the resignation of the city’s Civic Platform mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz. But Poland is not yet taking a cue from the Brazilian protests – which, with their focus on hikes in transport fares and the costs of hosting the World Cup, resemble the problems Poland had after Euro 2012.

Here in Poland, propaganda serves to justify almost anything Civic Platform does – especially as we are ritually menaced with the possible comeback of the Law and Justice party. Split between neoliberals and rightwing populists, the people of Poland are successfully kept from taking to the streets.

The Warsaw skyline. Photograph: Getty Images

Agata Pyzik is a Polish writer publishing in Polish and English in many publications in the UK and in Poland, including the Guardian, Frieze and The Wire. Her main interest is (post) communist Eastern Europe, its history, society, art. She's finishing a book on postcommunism called Poor But Sexy for Zero Books. She lives in London and has a blog.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage