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Polish Dissident Adam Michnik: 'We Are Bastards of Communism'

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Adam Michnik is editor-in-chief of Poland's leading daily and its most prominent former dissident. In a SPIEGEL interview, he talks about the threat of authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, the decline of the region's political culture and feelings of being treated like second-class citizens in Europe.

We are sitting in a room on the sixth floor of the building occupied by the leftist-liberal Warsaw newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. There are stacks of newspapers and books everywhere, and on the walls are certificates from American and German universities next to photos of Adam Michnik with statesmen from around the world. Michnik is sitting at the table smoking an electric cigarette. He is the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's most important nationwide daily newspaper, which started being published in 1989 as the first legal newspaper of the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) trade union. Michnik, 66, is the country's most prominent former dissident. He was sent to prison several times for his political convictions, starting at the age of 19. He wrote for underground newspapers and supported the independent Solidarity trade union. When the communist regime declared martial law in 1981, Michnik was detained. In the spring of 1989, he took part in the Round Table talks, as an adviser to Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, and negotiated the first free elections. Since then, he has focused his attention on the upheavals in Eastern Europe. For Michnik, the demonstrations in Bulgaria against the corrupt political class, the authoritarian tendencies in Hungary and nascent nationalism are all the delayed consequences of 40 years of oppression and patronization under communism. Michnik has a special relationship with SPIEGEL. When he was allowed to go to Paris in the 1970s to visit Jean-Paul Sartre, he called the SPIEGEL offices in Hamburg from Paris. He wanted to know whether its editors would like to print an essay he had written, which they did. "It was the first article I was able to publish in a truly important Western publication," Michnik says. "It sent a message to Poland's rulers that they could not sideline me with force."


SPIEGEL: Mr. Michnik, for more than six weeks now, thousands of people have taken to the streets in Bulgaria to demonstrate against their country's rotten political system. More than 20 years after Eastern Europe's democratic awakening, political conflicts are still characterized by turf wars and hatred. Why?

Michnik: We lack a political culture, a culture of compromise. We in Poland, as well as the Hungarians, have never learned this sort of thing. Although there is a strong desire for freedom in the countries of Eastern Europe, there is no democratic tradition, so that the risk of anarchy and chaos continues to exist. Demagoguery and populism are rampant. We are the illegitimate children, the bastards of communism. It shaped our mentality.

SPIEGEL: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is very radical in his approach to the press and the opposition, is not without his admirers in Eastern Europe. The same holds true in your country with conservative nationalist opposition leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Is the authoritarian brand of politician characteristic of the East?

Michnik: We still have politicians who strive for a different type of country: Kaczynski as well as Orbán in Hungary. They want a gradual coup. If Orbán stayed in power in Hungary or if Kaczynski were to win an election in our country, it would be dangerous. Both men have an authoritarian idea of government; democracy is merely a façade.

SPIEGEL: Orbán says that a "centralist majority democracy" is needed so that clear decisions can be made, by decree, if necessary. Otherwise, he says, dangers like the economic crisis cannot be averted.

Michnik: Hitler said the same thing when he issued special decrees and emergency regulations. It's the road to hell. To be honest, Hungary is the country where I would have least expected this to happen, but it was the first to cut a hole into the Iron Curtain. In Romania and Bulgaria, perhaps, but not in Hungary. What is happening there now stems from a disappointment in the Social Democrats, who were in power before and drove the country into economic ruin. Fortunately, Poland quickly implemented the most important reforms needed to make the transition to a market economy at the beginning of the 1990s. It was different in Hungary. That's why the population is now disappointed and is calling everything into question, even the things it once dreamed of achieving.

SPIEGEL: Do people suddenly no longer care that someone is removing judges or editors-in-chief who are not toeing the party line? Have they forgotten what it was like under the communists?

Michnik: A part of society in our countries would still prefer an authoritarian regime today. These are people with the mentality of Homo sovieticus. But they also exist in France -- just think of Le Pen -- and even in Finland and Sweden.

SPIEGEL: Orbán is trying to direct his country into a "system of national cooperation without compromises." What does he mean by that?

Michnik: British historian Norman Davies called this form of democracy a "government of cannibals." Democratic elections are held, but then the victorious party devours the losers. The gradual coup consists in getting rid of or taking over democratic institutions. These people believe that they are the only ones in possession of the truth. At some point, parties no longer mean anything, and the system is based, once again, on a monologue of power. The democratic institutions in the West are more deeply embedded in the West than in Eastern Europe. Democracy can defend itself there. Everything is still fragile in our countries, even two decades after the end of communism.

SPIEGEL: Orbán, Kaczynski and others talk about wanting to finally finish the revolution of 1989 and settle scores with the communists. Do former communist officials still pose a threat today?

Michnik: I think it was a good thing that Poland chose the path of reconciliation and not the path of revenge. Nevertheless, I'm still treated with hostility. I was a supporter of (former German Chancellor Konrad) Adenauer. He too had several options after the war: to send the people around him who had supported Hitler to prison or to turn them into democrats. He chose the second path. We also wanted our new Poland to be a Poland for everyone. The other path would have meant the opposition assuming power immediately in 1989 and not sharing it with the old regime. We would have had to hang the communists from the streetlights, and a small, elite group would have been in charge. That would have been anti-communism with a Bolshevik face.

SPIEGEL: Many say that the old boys' networks have become re-established. In Bulgaria, several thousand people, including many members of a new, urban middle class, are currently demonstrating against their country's political class.

Michnik: Yes, but there were also free elections in Bulgaria, where the opposition has just won. In a democracy, the government is a reflection of society because people are elected. Sometimes the type of person from the old machine, who is everything but an appealing figure, happens to win an election. But democracy applies to everyone, not just the noble and the clever.

SPIEGEL: In Bulgaria, the secret police archives were opened only half-heartedly. And, in Romania, former members of the notorious Securitate are still active everywhere. What's it like to live in a society in which the culprits of the past are better off then their former victims?

Michnik: You're saying the same thing I used to say about Germany --"old Nazis all over the place." But they were ex-Nazis. Of course, Romania was an Orwellian state, and the Securitate was everywhere. All countries that emerge from a dictatorship have these problems, as did Spain and Portugal. But it shouldn't justify introducing an anti-communist apartheid.

SPIEGEL: The West is demanding that there be more of an accounting for the past. Is that too simplistic for your taste?

Michnik: Yes. After the fall of communism in Poland, we had a post-communist as president for two terms: Aleksander Kwasniewski. He was very good. He brought Poland into NATO and the European Union. The call to finally clean house is a propaganda tool of the right, which tolerates the leftists who it condemns. Kaczynski appointed a judge to the position of deputy justice minister who had once sentenced current President (Bronislaw) Komorowski to a prison term.

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1. Eastern Europe
Funtom 07/31/2013
The still fragile Eastern European democracies lost their ideals. The question is why. Well, partly due to them being treated as 2nd class citizens within EU. Some of us still remember France's president Sarkozy uttering "...you'd better shut up..."
2. The Ukraine and Belarus clearly belong into the EU...
golestan 07/31/2013
…more than Turkey and maybe even the insular Brits. However first the present financial crisis has to be overcome, the community must be more consolidated, especially in fiscal matters. An administrative oversight has to be established and there has to be a greater readiness to concede some of the sovereignty issues in most countries, before any further expansion should take place. The latter may be a bitter pill to swallow, but only relative European unity can counteract Chinese world hegemony. The US has lost its moral compass and is accordingly no longer qualified to represent western values. What is happening in Hungary with Victor Orban assuming quasi dictatorial powers should not be permissible nor possible within the EU.
3. Confused perhaps?
techno 07/31/2013
While Michnik is certainly correct that the hangover of decades of the Russian version of Marxism prevents the eastern bloc from making progress, he is most certainly wrong that one of the enemies of progress is populism. Populist has a specific meaning. It is the name the members of the People's Party gave themselves in 1892. Because the People Party was an outgrowth of the Greenback Party, its platform was almost exclusively devoted to economic issues like the abolition of the Gold Standard, serious curbs on the power of large banks, and democratic controls on the creation of money. I suppose it is possible that this economic agenda is what Michnik has in mind when he calls someone a populist, but I seriously doubt it. Because in truth, there is no programme with greater potential for solving the economic crises facing the EU than what the Pops were pushing in 1892.
4. Nato
Colin Brace 07/31/2013
I would be most curious to know exactly what benefits Mr Michnik thinks Poland has accrued from being a member of NATO, beyond of course enormous bills for "NATO-compatible" armaments and other wasteful expenditures.
5. Democracy...?
thomas 08/01/2013
In my view democracy doesn't exist anymore today. It is the reign of capitalists everywhere you look. Elections are a farce because who can not afford the best specialists and biggest campaign will not win elections... Did you know for example that in the USA never a president was elected that spent less money on the campaign than his opponent, never that is! It is the same in the Eastern European countries...the dreaming is over and it is down to business today!
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