Of all the post-Communist nations in Central Europe, Poland's protest politics were most intense, yet its democracy was thought to be the most consolidated, well past the point of no return to an authoritarian regime. "By contrast", write the authors, "Slovakia, the country with a low level of strike activity and the least disruptive repertoire of protest, has been commonly perceived during the same period as the least consolidated democracy in Central Europe."
How could it be that disruptive actions in the streets in fact benefited a new democracy? Rebellious Civil Society provides a convincing answering.
The authors focus on the first four years of the transition period in Poland, from the roundtable talks of February 1989, when the Communists agreed to hold free elections and had a domino effect on the rest of the region, to the disgraceful fall of the Hanna Suchocka right-wing coalition government in May 1993 and the subsequent electoral victory of the Social Democrats (or revamped Communists, as some prefer to put it) in September of that same year.
The politics of protest
It is not, however, another book that marvels at the peaceful shift of power finalized behind negotiation tables, or at the boldness of the Balcerowicz Plan that put Poland on the track toward a free market economy. Obviously, these themes are present –and even are discussed in a separate chapter– but Ekiert and Kubik focus on what they consider a grossly underanalyzed aspect of the period 1989 through 1993: the politics of protest and their role in shaping the newly acquired democracy – which remains novelty in Poland.
Even to the untrained eye, it was evident that Poland's postwar history was, to 1989, a continuous degeneration of the state socialist system. This degeneration was the result of intertwining factors: an ailing (and finally failing) economy, the "ideological collapse" of Communist thought among the then ruling elite and, finally, people who took to the streets in protest. Characteristic of Poland, the erosion of the state socialism was marked by the dates of subsequent people's protests, initially against aberrations in the system, then against the system itself.
In one interesting chapter, the authors give a brief account of those protests. For those unfamiliar with postwar Poland, it is a compact view of the slow demise of state socialism beginning with the 1968 students' protests over the closing of a play that had some anti-Soviet cues to the tragic 1970 workers' revolt in Szczecin and Gdańsk.
This trend reappeared in the post-1989 period of political transition, although with alterations that resulted from that very change in the political system. The early transition period was marked by a brief spate of enthusiasm in which society expected rapid improvement of virtually everything, starting with the economy. Before anything could improve, however, the economy began to collapse as prices rose and the standard of living declined.
Lack of solidarity
To this, one should add the decomposition of the Solidarity movement and the (in)famous "war at the top" declared by Lech Wałęsa in the context of the presidential rivalry with his former associate Tadeusz Mazowiecki. Both ran for president, and their antagonistic campaigns were pricking symptoms of the disintegration of once monolithic "Solidarity" movement.
This downgrading of the 1989 revolution was a major disappointment to many of the people who supported Solidarity in the 1980s, and ignited an unprecedented growth of civil society.
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But mistrust of the new political elite was born as well. Ekiert and Kubik show that Polish society felt very uncomfortable with the new times and, possessed of a tradition of street protests against state socialism, they took to the streets again, this time more often, with more people who had a plethora of demands.
Their conclusions are supported by sound empirical data as they give a synthetic account of "street politics" using a very detailed data collection protocol in which they analyze the different protest strategies and even mottoes and slogans used by protesters. As the authors suggest, the politics of popular protest, even though a seemingly destructive factor, in fact contributed to the consolidation of democracy in Poland as what was once an action of last resort became a factor in rooted in democracy.
"We conclude," Ekiert and Kubik write, "that if protest does not involve violence and if protestors do not promulgate antidemocratic
In other words, Poles' stereotypical hot-headedness, often considered to be a cause of many national failures, became one of the important factors that allowed democracy to settle in their country. Rebellious Civil Society is a good memento for today's governments, and not only in Warsaw: Central European change has not been an elite-only affair.
People out in the streets do not endanger new democracies, but rather make them better.
Wojtek Kość, 12 June 2000
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