A chance for unity – former President Kwaśniewski

Former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski talks about the challenges facing Poland and its new president, Andrzej Duda, in this exclusive interview with Poland Today editor in chief Richard Stephens
President Duda just took office in August. What advice would you give him in his role on the international stage?

Let me start with his role in Poland. Firstly, I really hope he will act on his promise that he would work to build unity. He has rightly pointed out that
Poland is divided, that the political scene full of conflict. That’s why I think he should work to be president of all Poles, as he said he would.
Unfortunately, the first days of his presidency have shown that while the slogan was good, the implementation of the idea has been poor. I’m dismayed by the lack of contact between the president and prime minister.

You believe the lack of contact is President Duda’s fault?

Yes, and I think it signals that he is not interested in unity, though he said he was during the campaign. After the election, he should have invited the prime minister to discuss the problems facing the country, especially when it comes to international issues. It is too early to see what he wants to do internationally, but I’ve seen some positive elements. His first visit to Estonia on the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, especially under the current circumstances, was a nice gesture. I feel the same way about his visit to Germany, which is not only the most important
country in the European Union, but Poland’s main trading partner. But I haven’t seen good ideas from him for solving Europe’s refugee problem.
I don’t see enough solidarity. Instead, I see a kind of Polish egoism, which is wrong. Poland is not on the front line of the refugee problem, but we should state that we are ready – within reason – to support those who are.

President Duda has said that Poland has its own problem on its eastern border, with the Ukraine crisis. Isn’t that true?

In my view, we should look at it from another perspective. At the moment, we don’t have a problem with Ukrainian refugees, but we could have one in the foreseeable future, so it’s necessary to show our solidarity with Europe now. But if we say to Europe what [opposition party Law and Justice chairman] Jarosław Kaczyński said, that Germany created the problem and so it’s up to Germany to deal with it, then later if we do have to cope with Ukrainian refugees and ask for help from the EU , the Germans might say: “Poland supported the Maidan protests, so it’s your problem, not ours.” Of course it’s necessary to defend the country’s interests, but today that should be done by recognising that we are part of the European Union and so the problems of Italy, Germany or Greece are also ours.

What would you say to those Poles who believe that bringing in refugees might be a threat to their national identity?

This is, of course, a problem for Polish society today. Poland has never in its history been as homogeneous as it is now. Before World War II Poland was one of the most multicultural, multi-religious countries in Europe, with huge Ukrainian, Jewish, Belarusian, Lithuanian and German communities. During the war the Nazis killed three million Polish Jews, and then Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill changed our borders. Now we are the most homogeneous society in Europe and we have difficulty managing multireligious cohabitation and multicultural co-operation.
Many years before this refugee crisis I proposed to former President Lech Kaczyński, then to former President Bronisław Komorowski, that the presidency should start a public debate about migrants. Poland’s demographic trends are worrying – it is necessary to accept migrants for economic reasons. Moreover, because of the Ukrainian crisis, we have to accept migrants from Ukraine. Now we have the refugee crisis
and it’s very important to talk about what it means for us in Poland; how to be open but keep our cultural identity. The West has experience, and it would be great to invite some expert voices from France, Germany, Italy or the UK to help manage this situation. Poland has the chance to do things right because the pressure to take in migrants right now is relatively weak – any pressure would come from Ukraine, and that is not such a problem since over 100,000 Ukrainians already work in Poland. I believe the strong Catholic Church and our extremely difficult language
will preclude a huge wave of migrants. It is much more a question of helping the countries that are affected by migration.

President Duda is relatively inexperienced. Do you think he is his own man, or are there other politicians behind him pulling the strings?

Duda wasn’t one of the leading personalities in his party – it would be difficult even to find him among the 10 most influential people in Law and Justice before the election. I think he will soon realise that being president of a big country like Poland brings with it a lot of power. He has enough instruments at his disposal to be strong and influential. He can be the lead person in foreign policy, in defence, in a dialogue with Polish public opinion. If he understands that the president must be independent and must be a strong personality with his own ideas, ready to debate these
ideas with people, he can be successful.

Poland’s relations with Russia seem more complex than its relations with Germany. How would you advise President Duda to deal with Russia?

Germany is more important because over the last 35 years Poland and Germany have fostered very good relations. So my main advice for Duda
would be for him not to spoil that relationship. With Russia, it’s both more and less difficult, because it’s hard to imagine how relations could be much worse. In my opinion it would be too much to expect new initiatives from Duda’s side. However, because Russian diplomacy and politics are tricky and devoid of sentimentality, I could see a situation where Russia might be interested in improving relations with Poland. If Poland becomes a troublemaker in the EU, then it could be an interesting partner for Russia, because Russia doesn’t like the EU . But that is probably the worst
scenario imaginable at this point.

What are the main challenges facing Poland now and in the future?

I think Poland, after a very successful 25 years, needs some new ideas. I think the main problem is that after a quarter century of success we have
new challenges and to some extent our resources, like low labour costs, and well-educated workers, things that have helped us grow, are now nearly exhausted. Now we need to think more about high-tech capacity and education that is more relevant to the labour market. We don’t need more lawyers, we need more engineers, more IT specialists. Young Poles are dynamic and we should develop top-notch universities for them. At the moment even well educated people have trouble finding a job. We have to convince young people that they have a chance to stay and
work in Poland.

Speaking of young people getting jobs, President Duda was in the UK recently and was not particularly positive when talking about opportunities for young people in Poland. What is your take on what he said?

His approach is confusing, because during the campaign he said he would do everything possible to make Poland a promising place for young people. Now that he’s president he says, “As long as we have this government we can’t change the situation.” It’s the second time he has said something negative about the country abroad, because in Germany he said that Poland has a problem with justice. My opinion is that the president should rather showcase Poland as an attractive place for investments, for tourism and for travel – not talk about its weaknesses. In many parts of the world people still don’t have any idea about modern Poland.

If you were in charge of a marketing campaign for Poland, what would you say?

First of all, it’s not as bad as it was. When I first visited the US years ago, people didn’t know Poland. I met a rich man in Miami who said he knew Poland, and he loved a certain city there. I asked which one – Kraków? Gdańsk? No, he said, Budapest! But this has changed, first because of Pope John Paul II , then Solidarity. Now it’s not such a complete unknown. The image of Poland has been good for the last few years. That is why I am concerned about what is happening now. The negative attitude towards refugees that we hear from some people is totally counterproductive. It is a return to Western stereotypes about Poland as some kind of nationalist state. If I were responsible for marketing Poland I would show how much we have changed, that it is an interesting place with huge potential and very energetic young people. We have to promote our modern culture: Polish film, Polish music, an excellent art scene.

President Aleksander Kwaśniewski

Aleksander Kwaśniewski was president
of Poland from 1995 to 2005. He was known
for his active role in foreign policy, helping to
manage Poland’s relationship with Russia as it
reeled from the collapse of the Soviet Union,
pushing for NATO and EU membership and
leading Poland’s activity in helping to negotiate
a resolution to Ukraine’s Orange Revolution
in 2004-2005. He also helped to bring about
a new Polish constitution in 1997 which
replaced the modified Stalinist document
that had been in use up to that time.

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Written by: Richard Stephens

Richard Stephens founded Poland Today in 2012 to help bring Poland to the world and the world to Poland. Before this he was editor of Eurobuild CEE magazine in his first stint with the company, and then returned to conceive and establish The Eurobuild Awards, organizing the first two editions. He has a degree in Theology & Religious Studies from Bristol University in the UK.