Poland Assesses Its Values ; Politics Veer Rightward, and Citizens Debate Role of Europe to the Country

By Smale, Alison | International New York Times, August 12, 2016 | Go to article overview

Poland Assesses Its Values ; Politics Veer Rightward, and Citizens Debate Role of Europe to the Country


Smale, Alison, International New York Times


Many Poles are questioning whether the European identity and freedom that meant so much after the fall of Communism hold the same value today.

Mayor Rafal Dutkiewicz of Wroclaw has presided over city hall in the magnificent old center since 2002. As he watches Poland's politics take a rightward and nationalistic turn -- a phenomenon playing out to varying degrees across much of Europe -- Mr. Dutkiewicz, an early supporter of Solidarity, cites history ancient and modern to argue that Europe is good for Poland.

"It makes everybody bigger," he said in an interview. "We don't need to be alone -- we are Europe."

In Poland, the biggest former Communist nation in the European Union and NATO, the question is whether the liberty and European identity that meant so much to those who toppled Communism carry the same value today. The question applies especially for young people with no memory of divided Europe and Soviet bloc oppression.

The debate is playing out in various ways across the country. It has a special resonance in Wroclaw, a city of 630,000 that brims with tourists, Polish and foreign, and is home to more than 130,000 students. This year, it is a European capital of culture, a title bestowed by Brussels on one or two cities each year that brings publicity, hundreds of millions of euros in subsidies and scores of special events.

Two stand out for the mayor. One is an exhibition honoring the city's former archbishop, Boleslaw Kominek, who in 1966 wrote a then- utopian vision of a federal Europe that would bring peace and prosperity and bury the bloodshed of the past.

The second is the United Nations' designation of a local medieval script, the Book of Henrykow, as world heritage.

Building history is important in Central Europe, the scene of so many shifts of fate and governance through the centuries. So the mayor likens the United Nations honor to an Oscar nomination for the manuscript, which he said was written mostly in Latin by a German monk who also penned the first sentence written in Polish: a remark from a Czech peasant to his Polish wife.

That early multiculturalism is the essence of a city like Wroclaw, until 1945 perhaps better known by its German name, Breslau. It was one of the largest cities to undergo population exchange after World War II, with Germans expelled and Poles brought in.

Krzysztof Mieszkowski, the director of Wroclaw's prominent avant- garde theater, is quite clear about where he sees Poland going and who is taking it there.

He says that Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the Law and Justice party, which won both presidential and parliamentary elections last year, "likes authoritarian rule and is in love with dictatorship."

Mr. Mieszkowski, who is also an opposition lawmaker in Parliament, added, "He has always been dreaming about this."

Critics inside and outside Poland say Mr. Kaczynski, who holds no elected office, and his camp have moved decisively to undo the constitutional court, curb the news media, make abortion harder to obtain, and fan a new chauvinism that could cause social conflict and hurt one of Europe's few vibrant economies.

Like Prime Minister Viktor Orban in post-Communist Hungary, Mr. Kaczynski is depicted as a dictator by his foes. In the view of his many supporters, his government helps poorer Poles with welfare subsidies and is rediscovering vital national values when the notion of a united Europe seems more distant and less appealing.

Like governments across Central and Eastern Europe, Poland's has been opposed to resettling substantial numbers of refugees from Syria and other poor and war-torn nations, another point of stress in its relations with Brussels. …

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