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Former Solidarity leaders, scholars dissect Polish transition

STANFORD -- Academic training as a medieval historian had not prepared Bronislaw Geremek ­ an architect of Polish democracy ­ for the 20th-century world of paid political advertisements and public opinion polling that came after the fall of Communism. It turned out, he said, that Poland's former Communist Party leaders, sensing the stakes better than the democratic revolutionaries who ushered in the post-communist era in 1989, were quicker studies in the modern techniques of electoral politics.

Geremek led off an unusually confessional academic conference at Stanford Nov. 1 and 2 in which leaders of the Solidarity movement analyzed the mistakes that led them to lose control of the Polish government in the elections of 1993 and 1995 to former communists. Their mistakes, they said, were at least partly the result of listening to simplistic advice from western experts in democracy, constitution and free-market building. The Polish leaders were joined by some of the western advisers and other academic observers of post-communist transitions in a conference organized by Wiktor Osiatynski, a visiting law professor and Hoover scholar from the University of Chicago.

Osiatynski was an adviser until recently to one of a half-dozen groups of Polish constitution framers and is the brother of Jerzy Osiatynski, an economist who implemented much of Poland's so-called "shock therapy" transition to a market economy. Wiktor Osiatynski said he planned the conference to be a union of theory with experience, and cited his own experience applying constitutional theory in Poland as "a lesson in humility."

Adopting a constitution is never easy, but it became an especially awesome challenge in Eastern Europe in 1989, Stanford President Gerhard Casper, a constitutional scholar, said in opening the conference. After 45 years of communist rule, the challenge occurred "at the same time as the reorganization of what were bankrupt economies and the redefinition of national, ethnic and other cultural identities." The Polish case, Casper said, "also continues to illustrate the tension between practical politics and constitutionalist ideals, the short term and the long term."

That tension was obvious as the members of the original Solidarity brain trust, as well as Polish critics in the audience, switched back and forth from discussion of practical political considerations to the larger ideals that fueled their beliefs and actions.

Geremek, Solidarity's chief negotiator at roundtable talks with the Communist regime in 1988 and '89, was the first to admit that he did not foresee the complexities of replacing a centralized communist regime with a western-style democracy. If he had it to do over again, he said, he would press Lech Walesa and other Solidarity leaders to undertake massive reforms before the "feast of freedom" dissipated. He would have given up on his goals to educate the public to the deeper meanings of a democracy through a slow, public process of constitutional debate ending in a referendum. That ideal, he said, had been pressed upon him by some of the advisers to post-colonial African nations who said that the polities there needed more time to absorb democratic values.

In Poland, however, the rush to economic change caused a sudden drop in the standard of living that ultimately ended the window of opportunity to get a consensus on constitutional changes. "At the beginning, everything is possible," he said.

Not everyone at the conference agreed that something was lost by Solidarity's decision against quickly adopting a constitution. Hoover fellow Larry Diamond, for example, cautioned against drawing too heavily from the Polish experience. South Africa, he said, took three years to approve a constitution with a bill of rights ­ raising the level of citizen involvement in the process ­ and democratic revolutionaries did not lose control of the government. Others questioned whether a legal document was absolutely necessary, noting that Israel had survived 40 years without a constitution and that Great Britain, at least technically, still does not have one.

Electoral politics

Issues of balance of power and maintaining a stable democracy were of prime concern to Geremek and other former Solidarity activists who regretted that Poland has adopted only an interim or "little constitution." In roundtable talks early on, communist negotiators insisted on a strong presidency because they perceived it as a means to maintain Poland's involvement in the Warsaw pact, before the collapse of the Soviet Union unexpectedly ended the pact. Solidarity, meanwhile, negotiated for a bicameral legislature so it could expand its power through the introduction of an upper house, or senate, in elections. Now the country is stuck with a strong president who can disband parliament without having the ability to form a new government, a mistake that Walesa made when he was warring with parliament. The potential still exists, Geremek said, for Polish presidents to surrender control of the government "behind the scenes" to a political faction.

Only the United States has started a lasting democracy with a president, while 22 countries have done so with a prime minister, said Wiktor Osiatynski. Yet Polish constitution drafters had been too ambitious in trying to write an all-encompassing document. Successive and competing drafts became embroiled in partisan politics, he said, including the heavy involvement of the Catholic Church in issues such as the definition of life that were not part of the original constitutional debate.

Hungary succeeded, he said, by enacting a constitutional court with final authority over the other branches and by adopting mini-constitutions covering eight or nine issues separately. "Hungary has good constitutional protection of rights because they were not too ambitious from the beginning. So what is the lesson? The lesson is humility," he said.

Osiatynski and Geremek disagreed on whether issues of social justice were a problem for Poland's constitution builders. Constitutions should define the relationship between individuals and the state and should not include principles of one's responsibility to the other, Osiatynski said. "Constitutions should permit people with different principles to agree," he said. "Our culture never taught us the difference between rules and principles because we survived somehow on our moral values."

Geremek, on the other hand, said the Polish moral tradition makes it appropriate for a constitution to embrace "philosophies of social justice" that are not promises by the government, say, to provide a home to every Polish family, but to express a general orientation that can guide it. "What is dangerous is to introduce concrete social demands and rights," he said, noting that some western European constitutions include social justice principles without politicians feeling an obligation to pass policies to implement them.

Both seemed to agree, however, on the need for minority rights.

"I learned personally something quite bitter for me," Geremek said. "The rule of the majority can be a despotic rule of partisanship. The rule of the majority is not enough to be a democratic system. What matters is to preserve the rights of minorities. In institutional terms, we were unable to do it."

Praise came from some former advisers and scholars who observed the Polish transition. John Davis Jr., the former U.S. ambassador to Poland who used his home as a meeting place for Solidarity leaders when they were banned by the Communist government from 1985 to 1989, contended that Solidarity leaders should be given credit for collapsing the whole communist system.

"We spent $4 trillion fighting the Cold War and we looked up one day and the war was won by a small group of people in Poland without firing a shot," he said.

Davis chose instead to criticize American foreign policy for not providing more than "a Marshall Plan of advice" for the Polish transition. Solidarity's negotiated settlement with the communist leaders of Poland before the collapse of the Soviet Union should have been a "signal to the West to come to the rescue of central Europe," he said, much as West Germany came to the rescue of East Germany later. "What did we do for central Europe? Frankly, very little, and the signals we sent were even worse."

Not everyone involved in Polish politics was as critical of Solidarity. Lech Garlicki, a judge of Poland's Constitutional Tribunal and a representative to the parliament's constitutional commission, said that within 20 years, historians will give credit to democratic reform leaders for making it impossible to go back to a non-democratic system of government.

The defeat of the democrats in 1993 and 1995 was "unavoidable," Garlicki contended, because "Solidarity was a kind of historical myth." A federation of trade unions, its peak membership of 10 million shared only an opposition to the communist regime. Once communist rule was gone, he said, Solidarity's leaders did not have the "sense of danger and vested rights" that former Communist Party members had and were therefore not as good at organizing themselves and financing successful political campaigns.

Party formation, from the bottom up, many speakers said, is what Poland's fledgling democracy most lacks. "Party" was a dirty word within Solidarity circles, Geremek said, because it reminded people of the Communist Party. "We had a feeling that political parties would be imposed, not created by a natural process," he said.

Solidarity splinter groups lost so badly in 1993, Garlicki said, that in a strange way, their defeat limited the power of the former communists who now control the government. Because it has a two-thirds majority in the national assembly but represents only 35 percent of the voters, he said, the parliament suffers from "an internal crisis of legitimacy" and appears unwilling to enact large reforms, such as a new constitution, without at least the acceptance of the main opposition party, the Union of Liberty, of which Geremek is a leader.

Vedat Milor, a Stanford law student from Turkey who previously worked as a World Bank economist with the Polish transition government, said the absence of constitutional "rules of the game" was symptomatic of a larger malaise ­ the absence of legitimate authority in general. Scholars have long noted that strong market economies need strong states to begin, he said, and that includes "an autonomous group of civil servants, well paid, who have the capacity to implement laws, which means insulation from political pressure." In his experience with Poland, he said, the country did not have such civil servants, so that "the minister of finance had a hard time convincing commercial banks to initiate bankruptcies" against non-competitive, non-reformist enterprises.

Shock therapy

A session on Saturday devoted to the economic transition featured praise for Polish accomplishments from Michael Bernstam of the Hoover Institution, who has advised leaders of former communist countries. Poland's transition was more successful than others because it didn't follow "standard" Western economic advice, Bernstam said. Wage controls in the form of a tax on excess wages, in particular, had played a major role in returning Poland to a growing economy by 1992, he said. "I would also add that Poland, the Czech Republic and others used bank-specific credit ceilings to control enterprise finances ­ the same policy that China employed," Bernstam said.

In a comparison of the changes in the gross domestic product of 24 transition countries, Bernstam said he found that "countries that did everything by the book have experienced an endless contraction in income." Poland and other more successful countries implemented non-standard curbs on what he called discretionary government subsidies that have deep roots in formerly centrally planned economies. Nearly all of the economic growth in these countries, he said, is attributable to new enterprises, mostly small businesses, that were not part of the central planning network.

Jerzy Osiatynski, who was minister of planning and then finance minister for the democrats, said, however, that "one of our mistakes was that the safety net was far too generous for the unemployed." Polish people expected their standard of living to raise immediately under democracy and the income gap that was hidden under the old communist system became visible under democracy, he said.

But economist Martin Carnoy of the School of Education said that election results showed that Solidarity leaders paid the price for not doing more to cushion the public from transitional shocks. In an analysis of 1993 election results, he found that the former communists and their allies won in areas with the highest unemployment rates and lost in those with low unemployment. The results suggest that "the transition state, in the medium run, will be more interventionist" on social welfare issues than was the first democratic government, Carnoy said.

The reformers were excellent critics of communism but had done little preparatory work on devising specific programs that would aid a transition, Jerzy Osiatynski stressed. For example, they failed to devise constraints on cronyism. "Interlocking non-market relationships" still exist between various government agencies, large enterprises and former state banks, he said, making it difficult for newer, smaller businesses to compete for loans and for the government to ignore political pressure to transfer taxpayer funds into private hands.

"A large proportion of shares of those banks are owned by large former state-owned enterprises that, at the same time, continue to be heavy but bad borrowers from these banks. The ambiguity in ownership and control often makes the management of those banks grant loans not on market criteria," he said. And privatized enterprise managers still spend more energy pressuring governments to secure preferential treatment, such as import controls or tax breaks, than on market research and product development, he said.



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