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From one big change to many small changes

Published on August 24, 2009 by: in: Thought

Twenty years ago a big historical change in central Eastern Europe inspired hundreds and even thousands of people to act. Many young people started their own companies at that time; many became lawyers, consultants and public relations specialists. Most of these professions were not really present during communist times. Over twenty years, these young people have developed professionally and have gathered experience. This 20th anniversary is a good time to look back in order to understand our current position better and to look forward in order to know where we should be going.

1989 – 2009

I am one those many young Poles that entered adult life in 1989. I was 19 at that time. Since then, the pace of my life and the life of my peers has been similar to that of a train. We were put on the tracks in ‘89 and are still running as fast as we can. Although none of the “new” European states have the TGV trains yet, we were the TGVs of Central and Eastern Europe. 20 years is a long time, but looking back sometimes it feels like a year or two: not a very long time. In 1989 we didn’t have to ask ourselves many questions, because most of the answers were obvious. Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Romania, Bulgaria were places where chances were lying on the street. Talent was enough, one did not need experience or even knowledge to start a business or other careers. It was not a “thinking time”, it was an “acting time”. We were all making the most of our freedom: economic freedom and social freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of self-expression. When we look around today and ask what has to be done in the coming 20 years, the answers are much more complicated. The easy answers for the future of our region have been already given.

It is good to remember how much we have achieved. All the countries of the region are in the European Union, which is a historical success. Focusing on Poland, which I naturally know best, this country has become the 6th largest economy in the EU. It enjoys a free market, stable currency and vibrant stock exchange. GDP has grown in 2009, a year of global recession. Poland is a democratic state with free parliamentary elections, free local government elections and strong local governments. Poland is a member of NATO and has good relations with all its neighbouring countries, except Belarus. Young Poles can work and study in most of the European countries. Women play an increasing role in business and political life. Gay communities have emerged from the shadow. Poland clearly is a success, a great success, although not for every Pole. The past 20 years might have been the best 20 years in the history of modern Poland.

Looking back 20 years ago, the change is striking. In 1988 I was 18, so I remember it well. There was no freedom of speech, though it had changed for the better in mid 80’s, but still for saying publicly what one thinks, one could go to jail. The West was a dreamland. Poland was grey, and for us the West meant colours, colourful brands only seen in parcels sent by our families “abroad”. Nice houses, good cars, great vacations, good working conditions. We all knew that in Germany, every worker had a car, a good German car. After 20 years, most workers can afford a German car in Poland. These may be used cars, but they are still good. For people of my age from Western Europe, it is probably hard to imagine the magnitude of change in 1989 – the eruption of positive emotions, the energy to build democracy. We worked without vacations, we hardly slept. It was a long run, but it was worth it for most of us.

Freedom and responsibility

Over this time, we have come to understand that with freedom comes responsibility. In the communist system, most choices were made for you. On the contrary, in democracy you make the decisions. For example, who do you vote for? Or how do you help to manage the school of your children? What can you do to provide opportunities to all those who were not successful? In the communist economy, every company was a part of a utopian central plan. This is not the case now. If you have a choice, you are responsible for the outcome. If you vote, you are responsible for those who you voted for. If they do not perform, you have to react. If you do not vote, you are responsible for not making a choice. Responsibility for the common good is our new experience. How would we vote in the coming elections then? What is crucial for the development of Poland and the CEE? Should we “use” the EU only for our benefit, only caring for how much European funds we get? Or should we take some responsibility for the future of the EU? The EU is a global player, thus maybe we should share some responsibility for what the EU does globally? These are all rhetoric questions; however, they are new for the societies of CEE states. So, who do we vote for then? What programmes do we choose for the next 20 years? Here comes a more critical review of present-day Poland. I presume some of our problems are shared by our neighbours.

We still have huge bureaucracy, complicated tax laws and complicated labour laws. We have many companies yet to be privatised. We have not set a credible date for entering the Euro zone. Our civic society is weak. We do not trust each other. Poland is at the very end of the trust index in Europe. Trust constitutes social capital, and social capital determines the strength of civic society. Poles very rarely take part in NGO’s, associations or foundations. In this area, we also are at the very far end of the EU. Lack of tolerance and xenophobia are still deeply rooted in society. The Catholic Church is strongly involved in politics. Catholicism is being taught in schools instead of being preached in churches. Suspects are kept in jail without trail for months. Prison conditions are very poor in most cases. Who will take responsibility for change? Who will make the Polish economy more effective and Polish culture more open? Polish parties naturally should do that job. Unfortunately, Polish parties are not developing real programs, but public relation skills. They are focusing on getting into power and keeping power. They are neglecting the obligation to create think-tanks and develop workable solutions and programs. This is why we have created Projekt Polska – Project Poland. We try to voice issues that need to be changed. Our focus is the future.

Liberalism in the next 20 years

We want Poland to become a more liberal country in the next 20 years, with more freedom in economy and a more open society. However, we do not use the word “liberalism”. In Poland we do not have a long tradition of liberalism. We have a socialist tradition and a Christian one. We have patriotic tradition, and we also have to admit to having a nationalist tradition. However, in our history, we did not have strong liberal movements. Moreover, today, any word ending with –ism, such as liberalism, evokes the memory of communism. It sounds political, party like and ideological. After 50 years of communism and the domination of Polish United Workers Party (the communist party), Poles have a social allergy to words ended with –ism. Does this mean that it is difficult or impossible to promote liberal values in Poland? No. We just need to find the right words; words that convey the meaning we want. This word may be freedom. Poland has a large tradition of freedom movements. Poland did not exist from the end of the 18th century until 1914. As a result of the Second World War, we fell under Soviet domination. Our history of the last 200 years has been a fight for freedom. It was a fight for freedom to simply be a Pole, a fight for freedom of speech, freedom to act and to organise. Last but not the least, Solidarity was created to give people freedom. Unfortunately, in the Polish language, “freedom” and liberalism do not come from one word as in English – liberty and liberalism. Freedom in Polish is wolność and not liberty.

If we ask people on the street a simple question, “do we have freedom in Poland?”, everyone would respond “yes, of course, we do have freedom”. Posing the question “what is freedom?” would result in a more inspiring answer. Many people would probably have to think long and hard before answering. This is where we should start. Looking forward to the next 20 years, we should understand the deeper meaning of freedom. How much more freedom do we need in economy and for each of us? How does the freedom of one person relate to the freedom of others? We have to understand that freedom for ourselves implies freedom for minorities. Social understanding that if one wants freedom for himself, one has to guarantee the same for others is crucial. There is no freedom if women have only equal rights but not equal opportunities. Freedom is compromised if religion is taught in school just as mathematics, making a free choice of children’s religious life questionable. We have to build a culture of dialogue. We have to openly discuss issues to find a common ground. Since I am free to express my views, I have to accept the right for other views to flourish in my town, on my street, in my apartment bloc and in the school where my kids go. Social change to dialogue culture can be done without politicians at the grass-roots level. This is what we can all do.

This is why liberal communities in Poland should also find a platform of dialogue with the Catholic Church, whose role will remain strong in the next 20 years. In this respect, Poland is different than other European countries. Even if we succeed in taking religion out of schools, the Church may remain a political power, which can not be accepted. The Church will unfortunately use this political power against increasing freedom in social life, as it is against equal rights for gay communities. On the other hand, the Church plays an important role in small towns and villages. It is the first place where people learn to cooperate and understand the importance of caring for others: old people, people that are alone, the seriously ill, poor, unemployed… There are many open-minded priests who understand that the political involvement of the Church destroys its credibility. The Church could do a lot for positive social change. There is a vast common ground between liberal values of freedom and Christian values. Finding a way to exploit this might bring social changes in Poland quicker and might also strengthen reformative movements within the Church.

There is a lot we can do ourselves, but there are things that we have to focus the attention of governments on. Education is key as it is absolutely crucial for our future and cannot be developed without governmental decisions. We need a new system of coaching and teaching teachers. They should not only be competent in their field, but they should be open, tolerant people, able to pass on to children the spirit of cooperation, a passion for knowledge and a dream of innovation. Education today will decide where we go tomorrow. It is simple, but many people in Poland do not understand this. There is one thing that has to be consequently and constantly made better – education. We also have to focus our governments on innovation and technology, on the idea of a knowledge-based state. Not everything can be done by private companies; there is a need for a relevant legal framework and infrastructure. Innovation and technology goes hand-in-hand with education.

Thinking of the coming 20 years, we have to remember that we are part of the EU. We have to make sure that the EU is getting stronger. We do not need a strong Europe to compete, we need a strong Europe to cooperate and to contribute to the new worldwide equilibrium. The EU should be more active in solving global issues. Climate change, poverty and lack of water in Africa, relations with Islam and Islamic states are obvious examples. We need a strong and effective Europe to be a working symbol of open democracy, proving that people with different cultures, different languages, different histories can live peacefully and develop together. The importance of a strong Europe is not understood in most European states, and the current recession is not helping to change that perception. This is why countries like Poland, with a living memory of communism, should advocate a strong Europe of freedom.

Taking into account the historical perspective, the change 20 years ago in Central and Eastern Europe was a liberal change. It was a change from a state-controlled economy to a free economy and from a state-controlled life to freedom and democracy. Not everyone, however, perceives democracy and economic freedom as good. Naturally, democracy brings unsolved issues and problems. On this background, populist and extremist parties grow.

Slogans of antidemocratic, either extreme left or extreme right, movements often relate to the selling of Polish assets to foreign companies. Unemployment is another theme. Rich people are shown as responsible for poverty. Thinking about the next 20 years, we have to find liberal, rational answers to the issues brought on by democracy. Liberals have to decide whether they want to take responsibility for liberal solutions to democratic problems or remain along the sidelines of main political life, just giving advice and presenting their point of view. We can either leave the problems of an open society, democracy and of a free market to socialists who would like to regulate the economy, giving more power to the state and right wing politicians wanting to solve all social issues by giving more power to the state in the area of private life, or we may try to give liberal answers. We should not fear to discuss the flaws of democracy. In countries where democracy is new and has come after 50 years of communism, voters are not yet fully aware of the mechanisms of a free market and a free society. We have to show that strengthening the state would bring even bigger problems. Instead, we have to promote new rules and a good legal environment. Road lights are a relevant example. Road lights do not limit freedom, they protect everyone’s freedom to move around and go in different directions. If we do not have road lights, we are bound to have more accidents. Road lights sometimes result in traffic jams. However, is it not better to have traffic jams than to have accidents? Every driver knows that bringing in a policeman to help with a traffic jam can eventually create a bigger traffic jam. We need more roads, motorways and junctions to have less traffic jams. This is a liberal philosophy. This simplistic, if not childish metaphor, is an example of how we can discuss liberal ideas with the people. Wherever there is a problem, we have to think of new rules and better infrastructure, be it a physical, legal or non-governmental infrastructure, any that will not need state control. Eventually, the areas controlled by the tax paid to state institutions can be made smaller. We will not achieve this if we do not admit that democracy brings problems that have to be solved in a democratic way.

I will discuss this using a very delicate example: the free media. Freedom has brought free mass media to Poland as to all other countries of the region. Free media are one of the most or maybe the most crucial change that we had in Poland 20 years ago. It is thanks to free media that our democracy develops, and it is thanks to free media that we have social control over our government and parliament. Unfortunately, the media struggles with a clear conflict of interests. Maximising ratings – number of viewers in time does not necessarily coincide with quality of information. The truth is often compromised, either because it is not attractive or it is just too expensive to produce. Mass media creates a social environment. Quality of information is a serious problem. There are many journalists and media owners who are aware of this fact. We should help them in finding an effective solution. We can not leave this problem to right-wing politicians. It is better to protect the media as they are than to limit their freedom in any way. No state institution can be responsible for the media. This is why it is such a big challenge. How could societies demand more quality and truth from the mass media without compromising freedom of speech, which is a fundamental right of democracy? Let’s compare this to another fundamental right – the right of ownership. The phenomenon of mass media emerged in the 20th century. On the contrary, issues linked with ownership have been present for thousands of years. Humanity had time to develop the rules of regulating ownership without compromising the rights of the owner. We understand that for the benefit of the global financial market, the supply of money needs to be regulated. Currently, many specialists say that in order to prevent market bubbles from growing too big and causing a global crisis, as happened in 2008, the world also needs to regulate credit supply and credit terms. Similarly, we need solutions for the mass media. But we have to remember that where freedom of speech is limited, freedom ends. What we need is more responsibility from the media for information that is being presented to millions of viewers. It is difficult to build a wise society without access to the truth. Striving to be as close to true reality as possible is not what drives the media today. The internet is a possible solution and a problem in itself. The internet is probably the biggest and the best innovation of the 20th century. We live and work on the internet. Most of us spend many hours a day on the internet. We learn, we play, we communicate and search information. We can find independent views on the internet, but we can also waste time on low quality, untrue information that stays in our heads. Together with the media community, we should inspire the creation of non-governmental organisations that will monitor the free media. We should also make people aware that when they watch TV news, they can treat everything that is being said as reality. We have to show that it is good to check other sources. Access to the truth is a fundamental human right. We have to protect it. Understanding the importance of the free media on one hand and their limits on the other is an element of social change we in Poland need.

There are no easy answers for the coming 20 years. Life in Poland is better now, but it is more difficult to determine what has to be done to make it even better in the future. It is not one big change as 20 years ago that will bring the desired change, but it is hundreds of small changes. It is those small changes that will constitute another big change in the history of our country and also in the history of our region. The change to an open society in a strong European Union, where everyone is free to develop. We are responsible for these small changes.

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About Szymon Gutkowski

President of Projekt:Polska association. Entrepreneur, co-owner and Managing Director of one of the leading marketing and advertising groups of companies in Poland

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