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11 October 2007

Oh brother

Our special focus on Poland with analysis of politics and society. Plus over here

By Roger Boyes

Anyone who has visited a Catholic church in Britain recently will be aware of the Polish enthusiasm for prayer. The Polish plumber, it seems, also spends Sundays on his knees.

Now, say Warsaw wits, Poles everywhere are offering up a prayer of gratitude: “Thank you, God, that Jadwiga did not give birth to triplets.” Jadwiga’s twin boys, Jaroslaw (prime minister) and Lech (president) Kaczynski, have done quite enough without a third brother coming along. The tandem has become Europe’s most bizarre ruling partnership and a source of squirming embarrassment for many young metropolitan Poles. Jaroslaw, in particular, has been ranked as the least successful of Poland’s post-communist leaders.

On 21 October, Poland faces a general election prompted by the almost farcical collapse of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s coalition with a permatanned pig farmer (who boasts of his “success” with prostitutes) and a gaunt ultra-nationalist who, as education minister, tried to ban from the classroom the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky (Russian), Franz Kafka (Jewish), Joseph Conrad (Pole who wrote in English) and Witold Gombrowicz (homosexual). The past few months of infighting have brought claims of bugged conversations and the arrest of the former interior minister and the ex-head of police by masked counterterrorist units – a plot worthy of the satirical playwright Slawomir Mrozek and a clinical casebook of political paranoia.

The election could put paid to the twins, at least in their present political constellation. Despite Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s personal unpopularity, his Law and Justice (PiS) party has a comfortable lead. But the betting (though strenuously denied) is that PiS will have to form a grand coalition with the main opposition party, the centre-right Civic Platform (PO).

“Most voters want a strong and good government,” says Kazimierz Michal Ujazdowski, deputy leader of PiS, making clear that anything but a grand coalition would be wobbly. If that were to happen, Jaroslaw would withdraw from the front line and try to steer the government from behind the scenes; this has always been his strength. His brother is due to stay in the presidency until 2009.

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The established elites of the European Union would be overjoyed if even one of the Kaczynskis left the public stage. In Brussels and Berlin it is hard to find anybody who has a good thing to say about the brothers: they are the awkward squad, the terrible twins. One diplomat calls them the “history men” because of their readiness to stir the embers of the Second World War for political advantage. They enraged Germany before the last EU summit by saying that Poland would have had a larger population, and therefore more voting power, if the Nazis had not slaughtered so many of the Polish people.

Upsetting, perhaps, but EU mandarins should listen more carefully to the undercurrents of debate in Poland. Whatever government emerges will be sceptical of Brussels, suspicious of Germany and hostile to a Russian leadership that uses gas supplies to bludgeon its way to regional dominance. The Kac zynskis may not be charm school graduates, but they have crystallised the fears of many Poles about being pushed around by neighbours. A new-look Polish government may have softer diplomacy but the agenda will be the same.

Across central Europe, the newer EU entrants have been formulating nationalist responses to global processes. For most of the new boys, the enlargement of the EU was a project prepared by the managerial elite, with the most zealously pro-European being communists-turned-social-democrats. EU membership remains broadly popular, but there are lingering questions about the legitimacy of a project that has been administered by a tarnished political class. Who now controls the pace of modernisation? Brussels or elected leaders? For whose benefit? In Poland, the fabled protest movement was called Solidarity. Now many Poles – and not just those left stranded by market reforms or those at the precarious edge of a widening income gap – bemoan the atomisation of society, the loss of solidarity with a small “s”.

And they vote for the Kaczynskis. In Slovakia, a similar constituency voted for Robert Fico’s socialist-led coalition, which depends on a nationalist anti-gypsy party to stay in power. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán, leader of the Fidesz opposition, refuses to draw clear boundaries between his conservative party and the far-right groupings, which hark back to the prewar fascist past. They are populists because they address directly the concern of ordinary people in transition econo mies: the fear of losing sovereignty that has only recently been won back from the communists. The 1989 revolutions, in their revisionist version, were not so much revolutions as a negotiated handover of power between competing elites. Communists lost direct influence but emerged instead as the bosses of newly privatised companies. The Kaczynskis have become the most determined of the central and eastern European state leaders to challenge this.

The twins’ aim has been to create a conservative consensus, centred on the Catholic faith and based on an agreed definition of Polish identity. So far, they have failed. The Polish church is uncertain as to how closely it should align itself with a radical right wing. Some bishops distrust the xenophobic demagoguery of Radio Maryja, which has made common cause with the twins; others see it as a force for evangelisation in an increasingly consumerist society. The twins’ main contribution to the shaping of Polishness has been to set out their country’s common enemies: the “network” of old secret agents and communists, the Russians and Germans who want to reclaim Polish land. But their chosen method – an endless Jacobin purge of enemies – has brought them further from, rather than closer to, their goal. Is the failure of their mission a reason to marginalise Poland within the EU? That is how some German officials appear to interpret it. Yet the same officials who loudly abhor the supposed chaos across the border once held out the prospect of Poland becoming a member of the Big Six, heavyweight deal-brokers of the EU.

Wally Olins, the skilled PR expert who rebrands countries, was called in by Poland before the advent of the twins. He came up with a persuasive slogan for the country: “Creative tension”. There is no denying that Poles seem locked in constant argument – but it is this combativeness that has made Poland so lively and interesting, a welcome contrast to the moribund societies of Old Europe. Then the twins moved in and Olins put his rebranding on ice. “We have called a pause,” he says, “at least until we see what happens in the election.”

This may have been a wrong call: even if the Kaczynskis have embarked on the path of Permanent Revolution, Poland remains fizzy, bubbling with ideas and enterprise.

The economy is surging: it grew by 7.4 per cent in the first quarter of this year, the best performance in a decade and well ahead of the EU average. The jobless rate has dropped from 20 per cent in the immediate post-communist years to 12 per cent (though emigration may have prettied up the figures). Foreign investment is flowing in and EU funds of about $60bn should be arriving over the next five years. Wages are rising fast, as are property prices.

The result is an expanding middle class that will resist tub-thumping populism but may welcome a watered-down version of Kaczynski conservatism. There is agreement across much of the social spectrum – from the grumpy pensioner I met on a Warsaw park bench to the architecture student in a Kraków pub – that Poland has to fight harder for her place in the global order. German policy in eastern Europe has always been based on sucking the smaller neighbours in Mitteleuropa into economic dependency, in the hope of winning political support for German goals. Poland is too big, too confident to play skivvy to German presumption. It is German Ostpolitik that has to be rethought, rather than Polish Westpolitik; enlargement has changed the terms of neighbourliness.

There is agreement, too, in Poland that the Kaczynski line on Russia is correct. Poland’s eastern border is the EU frontier and that brings new responsibilities and conflicts. The Poles quietly help the Belarusian opposition and champion Ukraine in EU debates. Most of all, they are trying to raise awareness about the dangers associated with the Putin succession. Russia is committed to investing $220bn in upgrading the Russian army over the coming five years. Vladimir Putin will be at the helm of a government that is introducing the biggest rearmament programme since the height of the Cold War. Meanwhile, the blurring of business and politics means that a Prime Minister Putin will be ready to play pipeline politics on a grand scale. Little wonder the Poles feel nervous – especially when Germany and Russia clinch gas deals that bypass Polish terrain.

We should all be concerned. There is no longer any sensible division between the interests of western and eastern Europe (though German politicians were quick to talk of a two-speed Europe as soon as Poland failed to fall in line on EU voting rights). The Kaczynskis may not be natural dinner-party guests, but they have articulated real problems. Even if one of the twins has to leave office this month, the brothers will remain part of the political equation. National conservatism is a reality in the east. We have to deal with it, try to understand it and not see it as something nasty in the woodshed, an excuse to ignore Poland and the other central Europeans who are beginning to feel vulnerable and unwanted.