GEORGIE ANNE GEYER Poles reconsider costs of freedom

WARSAW, Poland -- The mood of Poland is best expressed in the typically wry words of former dissident and professional enfant terrible Adam Michnik in his Warsaw newspaper column:
"We're free and we're furious."
How do you figure this country? By any standard, it is the "miracle" of Europe -- no one could have dreamed Poland would be free of the communists' yoke, a working democracy with one of the highest growth rates in Europe, and a member of the European Union and NATO.
Yet the masses of Poles are much of the time irked. They throw out their best people from office. And now they are embracing, as a political alternative who seems to push the borders of the bizarre, Andrzej Lepper, a former pig farmer and boxer whose new populism includes denouncing the United States and the European Union and supporting the former Soviet Union.
What's going on?
Given the importance of Poland, the pivotal country in the immense experiment to bring the East together with the West, what exactly is going on that is splitting this country apart at its moment of triumph?
& quot;If we had dreamed 15 years ago of what has happened today, we would have said that a miracle has occurred," Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the respected former prime minister, says. "Yet we also have a measure of great dissatisfaction that represents a very major crisis occurring in Poland, so I don't know whether I should talk about the miracle or the crisis."
Under communism, as much as it was hated, Poles got used to a certain level of social security. Yet today, with nearly 20 percent unemployment, not only do Poles face the degrading of standards and public life, but also severe differences in social class levels, which had not been so obvious during communism.
When I again found my old friend Janusz Onyszkiewicz, who was the spokesman for Solidarity before its disbanding in 1981 and then free Poland's first defense minister, he had this to say: "The failure of the political class that we see today is the result of the changes of 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed, and we had to embark upon a process of deep change. The moral scandals today represent a total destruction of certain rules of conduct. The populist language is quite attractive to people, thus we find ourselves with 'Osama bin Lepper,' which is the populism of the political class."
Economically, although the economy is booming, it has not been able to absorb the entire population, so that many feel resentful toward the changes and reforms and seek out answers in populism. There has also been a rapid increase in productivity, so what is good for exports is not good for creating jobs. Poles swapped security for liberty, and now many are not so sure about the swap.
Thinking it through
Some of Poland's best thinkers, such as former foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek, repeat, as he did to me, that "basically we attained everything that was most difficult at the time. There was no spillage of blood, violence or hate. Our aim was to promote the ethical dimension of politics and to carry it to the idea of the common good as the necessary element of politics."
When I asked Jan Nowak, considered a hero because of his role as the courier between the Polish resistance and London in World War II, he said: "The problems today are exaggerated. This should go down in history as one of the best periods of Polish history. But Poles lived under foreign governments for more than two centuries, and that distorted relations within the government so that people become today hostile even to their own government. So many people are really alienated. Poland fought so hard. So much sacrifice to have free elections -- yet today more than half stay home and don't vote."
And the other great hero of Poland, Lech Walesa, told a small group of us: "I want you to realize what a great and incredible victory we have won -- and if we only find out how we won, then the era that we opened will be an incredible era. The fact is that most countries have the right to freedom, but not enough background to have that freedom. But I am deeply confident that we can meet the challenge.
"Revolutions can be organized and held overnight -- and legal systems can be changed. When we speak of mentality, that is the most challenging thing."
In the end, it is that Polish mentality that needs to change. Meanwhile, Poland remains in a schizophrenic transition, an ambivalent miracle.
Universal Press Syndicate

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