As Poland gears up for its Presidential elections this October, expected by all to be won comfortably by incumbent Aleksander Kwaśniewski, the British press seems unable to move its focus on from Kwaśniewski's predecessor.
The shadow of Lech Wałęsa, Polish president from 1990 to 1995, still hangs over our perception of post-1989 Poland, despite his marginalisation in domestic politics these days. Several recent articles here have seemed to bear out this tendency. For instance, when both Kwaśniewski and Wałęsa were cleared last month of charges of having spied for the secret police in Communist times, it was the latter who dominated the headlines in Britain.
Granted, it would have been an incredible story had the hero of the Solidarity movement been found to have been a double agent working under the codename "Bolek" in the 1970s, as his accusers claimed. The charges were flimsy, lacked credibility and were defeated. But the relative lack of interest in today's dominant figure of Kwaśniewski demonstrates that the media is more intrigued by familiar personalities than by present-day realities of power. In this they both reflect and reinforce the attitude of the British general public which, on the rare occasions when it thinks of Poland, still thinks of Wałęsa, the Pope, Solidarity and the Revolution. Or football.
Matthew Day in the Daily Telegraph remarked this week on the standing ovation granted to Wałęsa at Solidarity's 20th anniversary celebrations, held on 30 August ("Solidarity hails its forgotten hero," 31 August), commenting sympathetically: "Mr Wałęsa is, to some extent, a victim of the forgetfulness which has afflicted every east European country since communism collapsed."
And yet, of course, Poland has changed, and Wałęsa has no chance of victory in October's election. As the Telegraph reported on 13 August (Philip Sherwell and Bruce Konviser, "Defiant last stand of an unpopular hero"):
Like the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr Wałęsa is much more popular abroad than at home. It is hard to find a Pole who will criticise his role in defeating Communism and just as hard to find one who has a word of praise for his five-year presidency - a period that was characterised by his intransigence, belligerence and paralysing disputes with parliament.
It has been observed by Timothy Garton Ash, among others, that many who were seen as courageous patriots in the Communist eighties came to look like crude petty nationalists in the post-Communist nineties. The Economist now judges of Wałęsa that, "Poles compare his unpolished populism unfavourably with the measured soundbites and natty suits of Mr Kwaśniewski." ("Off the hook," 19 August).
Another figure from the old times is also due in court shortly: General Jarużelski, the subject of a profile in the Economist last week ("Wojciech Jarużelski, revisiting Polish history," 26 August), is to be tried for his role in the bloody suppression of the 1970 shipyard strikes in Gdańsk and Szczecin. The Economist used the personal history of Jarużelski in order to reflect on change in Poland: it quoted Jarużelski's own feeling that the trial is an irrelevance, a mere stick with which to beat contemporary ex-Communists who are competing in (and expected to win) the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. "I'm a person of yesterday," said 77-year-old Jarużelski, "outside of politics, old, sick. I exist only in the past."Time plays funny tricks and old enemies start to seem less polarised. "These days," according to the Economist, "Mr Jarużelski is relaxed about the new, capitalist Poland. He has no problem with billionaires, he says, only with exploitation. Indeed, listening to Mr Jarużelski talk about poverty is not so different from listening to his old Polish nemeses, Lech Wałęsa and Pope John Paul. The three men touch the same simple theme: the winners in the new Poland should not forget the losers; the spirit of Poland should reach beyond flashy consumerism."
Winners seem likely to emerge from the new spirit of enterprise. Kate Connolly's article in the Guardian highlighted a new use for former Soviet bases ("Poles transform Soviet camps into capitalist beacons," 26 August). She reported on a base in Borne Sulinowo from which the Russian military had, upon their departure in 1993, removed absolutely anything useful: "some rooms were even stripped of their wallpaper." Now landmines and fuel spills have been cleared, and a new community of 3,600 has arrived. A complete social mix, growing at the rate of 500 every year, has been attracted by low costs and the beautiful setting, and there is an adventurous and productive spirit at large.
A far less happy use for an ex-Soviet base, and a far less happy story of transition, reached the UK from further east. On 30 August Moldova achieved the rare distinction of a full front page in the Daily Express, which deemed the story "the case that shames Europe." Under the headline "A Life Behind Bars," a report detailed the appalling conditions at an orphanage, the Bendery Institution in Tiraspol, "a rotting building that was once part of a Red Army camp". Filling the front page was the pitiful picture of a 13-year girl who has lived in a cage since she was a toddler. Her parents, still alive today, placed her in the institution when they could no longer cope with her; it was her father who built the cage.
Tellingly, the newspaper's editorial could only offer words of despair. "The easiest reaction perhaps would be to dismiss this dreadful story as happening in a far away country. Easiest, but wrong. Moldova is only a matter of hours away from us. The days should long ago have disappeared when we were able to shut out the horrors of other countries with a smug complacency that it could not happen here. That is no longer the point (although we should not lose sight of some of our own horror stories from children's homes). The point is that this is happening today, in our own continent."
The Express printed the contact details for the British charity which discovered the girl through its work at the institution, suggesting donations could be made. Though the piece as a whole echoed the Romanian orphan campaigns of a decade ago, and a follow-up story two days later told of donations being sent in, this was not an appeal on the same scale as those of 1990. A feeling of helplessness permeated the paper's coverage. For the Express to run this story is to be welcomed since we rarely hear news of Moldova in the national press. But the editorial, while asserting that this was an issue for us, could not suggest what exactly should be done.
Oliver Craske, 4 September 2000
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