Monday, September 01, 2008

Polish Enigma

Life was frustrating (in Poland), but that certainly wasn’t the full story. My experiences that evening, the surreal and incomprehensible swing from stagnation and irritation in the hypermarche to bliss and exhilaration ten minutes later on the streets reflected the complicated reality of life in Poland. It is full of inconsistencies, bureaucratic mazes, masked faces, false hopes, and intense pride, but also an enchanting aura wafting through the crevices, a sorrowful but angelic aria permeating the nation’s soul. In order to completely understand its mystery, one would need to spend a lifetime peeling back the layers, painstakingly deciphering its clues. Poland, I was discovering, was an enigma.

I was in good company as I tried to resolve its riddles. My first months in Krakow were a tumultuous period in Polish domestic as well as foreign relations- a time when European Union leaders and Poland’s own citizens would become increasingly confounded with the status quo.
Particularly within the EU, a swelling “Poland fatigue” came to dominate all diplomacy like an omnipresent and obstinate cloud. Having expanded to include Poland in 2004, the former member states complained increasingly vocally that Poland seemed to mistakenly believe that the EU had joined it, rather than the other way around.

Resenting the march of European history that had nearly obliterated and then forgotten it, and realizing its geopolitical leverage for the first time, Poland overplayed its hand in round after round, alienating nearly every ally. The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) retaliated over the most minor infractions with Germany, at one point cancelling a high level visit due to an unfavorable newspaper editorial. As the EU attempted to wrap up the Lisbon Treaty negotiations, an increasingly mercurial and sanctimonious Polish posture towards Germany threatened to unravel years of international effort. Warsaw also impeded Brussels’ efforts to thaw relations with Moscow, raising concerns over Russian energy shipments to the subcontinent as winter rapidly approached.

An overwhelming and self-defeating paranoia and victimization in combination with an intense messianic mission drove Warsaw’s self perception and policy. Acidly hostile towards Germany due to unresolved disputes from the Second World War and distrusting Russia following the Cold War; still bitter at the opulent “West” for its perceived abandonment of Poland twice to its enemies; convinced of its fraternal and moral mission to lead the nations of Eastern Europe to freedom; and finally, certain only of the military backing of the distant United States, Poland lashed out at its past and nearly lost its foothold on the future.

The situation was at least as bad on the home front. Besieging its opponents with allegations of corruption, mafia ties, sex crimes and communism, PiS found itself caught in its own avalanche and lost control of the political implosion it had set in motion. Championing the interests of its primarily elderly, agrarian, impoverished and staunchly Catholic supporters, the President and Prime Minister (coincidentally, twin brothers) failed to inspire the hope of young, educated workers with upward aspirations and experience abroad. Clinging to a sense of moral superiority and confident in a victory, the majority party voted to dissolve itself in September.

Weary of PiS’s overzealous political machinations, the EU held its breath for one month. When the results of the snap elections were tallied, it, and much of Poland, was able to finally breathe a sigh of relief. Donald Tusk, of the pro-business Civic Platform, had persuaded voters that the time for a new course in domestic and foreign policy had arrived. Young, attractive and athletic, well educated and articulate, hopeful and charismatic, he appeared the John F. Kennedy to the Nikita Krushchev. Immediately shaking hands with EU leaders, he promised to revive Poland’s relationship with the supranational body, and promptly set to work on ironing out old problems. Particularly with Russia, cracks appeared in the ice if not a thaw, as Tusk sent high level delegations to discuss bilateral issues. And with the US, Tusk has held a firmer line, delicately attempting to balance the wishes of its former champion with its geopolitical reality.

In spite of the greatest turnout PiS had ever seen by its supporters, Tusk carried the election due to tidal wave of support, primarily by younger citizens, many of whom cast their votes from abroad. Whether Tusk will be the answer to Poland’s heartfelt prayers remains to be seen; what is clear at this point is the desire of the nation’s younger generation to make peace with the past and take its proper place on the pedestals of Europe.