The polish Model

When President Bush landed here yesterday, he found himself in a completely different city from the one his father visited as president in 1989. Back then, Warsaw was still run by communist bureaucrats. The broad, Stalinist-era avenues were virtually empty of cars. The only visible signs of private enterprise were the makeshift street markets, at which it was sometimes possible to buy exotic goods–like bananas.

In advance of the elder Mr. Bush’s arrival, the American Embassy temporarily imported a vast satellite dish, which it installed, at great expense, in what was then the only international hotel. This was to enable the White House press corps to phone home, a feat that would otherwise have been impossible: At that time, the telephone system still required all international calls to be booked in advance, and even that didn’t guarantee a connection.

These days, Warsaw still has a long way to go before it resembles Lisbon or Athens, let alone London or Paris. But nor does anyone any longer worry much about whether the city, and the country, are “on the path to reform.” The building that used to accommodate the Communist Party Central Committee is now home to the stock exchange. The massive traffic jams–the result of the explosive growth of imported cars–have forced a grumbling public to use the brand-new subway system. The great telephone dilemma is not how to call abroad, or even whether to buy a cell phone–seven million have them, or one in three Polish adults–but whether to have an ISDN line installed, and how quickly.

You wouldn’t necessarily know it to listen to the Poles themselves, but by any measure the past decade has been Poland’s most successful in 300 years. Thanks to its membership in NATO, Poland is strategically integrated with the West, really for the first time ever. Thanks to its growing trade with Western Europe and the U.S., the country’s economic integration continues apace.

It is true that the rapid changes have been very uneven, leaving deep pockets of unemployment in the countryside and small towns, and deep dissatisfaction among those who now aspire to live like the Western Europeans and Americans they see on television. It is also true that enormous mistakes have been made over the past 10 years, that important opportunities have been missed. But there is more hope for the poor now than at any time in recent memory. At least there is now a middle-class for them to aim to join.

As a result of these changes–and because of a tradition of emigration and contacts dating back more than a century–Poland is also one of the most pro-American countries in Europe, if not the world. The current center-right government shares none of the doubts about President Bush’s domestic agenda that abound elsewhere on the Continent. Whatever government rules Poland will probably support American plans for missile defense, just as past governments have backed American policy in Kosovo and in Iraq (where the Polish Embassy has long represented American interests). In opinion polls, America always ranks highest among countries that Poles admire.

All of which explains why it is now time for the West in general, and for America in particular, to stop seeing Poland as a supplicant–and to start thinking about what role Poland is now to play in the Western alliance. When President Bush arrives here tomorrow, he will, after all, find himself in a country the size of Spain, with a long military and diplomatic tradition. Poland is precisely the country that his administration should choose as its partner in the next great project for the region: spreading the Polish model of reform to the east.

The notion of Poland as a “bridge between East and West” has, it is true, been around for some time–as a metaphor used by Polish philosophers and poets. But it is now imperative that diplomats and politicians give it more substance. For if the extent of Polish success is sometimes not appreciated in the West, the extent of the economic and political disaster in Ukraine and Belarus is virtually unknown.

How many realize that Belarus is now led by a semifascist regime–that its president, Alexander Lukashenko, has shut down the free press and the political opposition, cut off ties with the West and frozen his country’s economy in the centrally planned past? Or that, as a result, the wages of the average Belarussian are one-tenth those of the average Pole? Ukraine, while not quite so disastrous, is far from stable too. Ukrainians have lately witnessed the mysterious murder of an overcritical journalist, the mysterious firing of a pro-Western prime minister and the mysterious arrival of Viktor Chernomyrdin, former Russian prime minister and gas industry oligarch, as Russian ambassador. Mr. Chernomyrdin’s mandate, Ukrainians suspect, is to place whatever remains of Ukrainian industry under Russian control.

Yet both Ukraine and Belarus are countries with deep cultural ties to Poland–and anyone desiring to dispense aid and advice to these countries should put those ties to use. I mean this in the most concrete sense possible. Instead of sending Western investment bankers to advise on economic reform, for example, how much better to send Poles, who have already been through similar changes. Instead of inviting East European politicians to New York or Paris for exchanges or seminars, invite them to Poland, where they’ll be able to see first-hand what democracy and capitalism can achieve, in a recognizable cultural context. Aid organizations for the region should be based not in Washington, but in Warsaw; the Polish government and Polish foundations should be encouraged to set up aid institutions of their own.

The Poles aren’t used to thinking of themselves as being in a position to help or advise others. A little bit of American persuasion, backed by very small amounts of American money, might help them see that they can. With a little imagination, the Russians could benefit too. Although some ill-will toward the Poles persists in the Russian elite, a surprising number of democratically minded Russians already see Poland as a model for their own transformation.

Not long ago, I was in the White Sea port of Arkhangelsk, in the Russian far north, where I met a local human-rights activist. Upon hearing that I had come from Warsaw, she begged me to ask someone from Solidarity to come and visit. The city’s teachers and dock workers were just beginning to form their first independent trade unions–an experience Poles went through in the late 1970s–and needed advice and moral support. While the Russians sometimes bristle when given lectures on democracy by Americans, they might be more willing to listen to subtler messages from Poles. We are likely to hear more such requests. Although not inevitable, it is perfectly possible that both Russia and the countries that line its Western border will become poorer over the next decade, as well as more authoritarian and less friendly to the West. Instead of being caught out by these changes, we should, for once, anticipate them. We should reshape our outdated image of the Poles, rethink what they could contribute to European stability, put them to use as missionaries of democracy in a part of the world that badly needs them.

Scroll to Top