Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Catholic Church-Backed Polish Nationalist Neo-Conservatives Loudly Reject European Project-Backed Liberal Globalization

..."[N]early 17 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and two years after Poland and other former [Central European and Baltic] Soviet bloc states joined the European Union, it is a surprising time in Europe. On the very heels of what could certainly be deemed a historic achievement, the defeat of Communist dictatorship and the merging of [parts of] Eastern and Western Europe into a 25-member club of peaceful, secure, and solidly democratic countries, Europe is in a strange and sour mood.

In the West, ever since the rejection by France and the Netherlands of a proposed constitution that was supposed to put enlarged Europe into its next phase of integration, there seems to be no energy and no political will directed toward what used to be enthusiastically called the European project.

Instead, the European Union is experiencing what the Center for European Reform in London has called an unprecedented malaise, signaled by a retreat into a narrow defense of national interests.

Meanwhile, members of the former Eastern bloc, though objectively in better shape economically and politically than at any other time in their histories, appear to feel lost, bereft of the purpose that inspired them when their only goal was to topple the Communists and, with that accomplished, to join the Western clubs open only to fully democratic countries.

The paradox is that neither the old members of the Union nor the new ones seem to be celebrating what really is a historic achievement, uniting a continent that for centuries was rent by war. Instead, in several countries — Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in particular [as well as non-EU Ukraine] — the politics of lofty ideals and general high-mindedness has been replaced by a politics of bickering, accusations of corruption and ever changing coalitions.

“That was a very romantic time in Eastern Europe,” Krisztian Szabados, director of Political Capital, a political analysis organization in Budapest, said of the immediate post-Communist period. “But the romantic time is over. Now politics is more professional, and professionalism means corruption and the dirty side of politics.”

In Poland, a lesser zeal for Europe has coincided with an increased commitment to tradition ...

Workers have restored the ruins of a ninth-century Romanesque church that was a predecessor to the Gothic basilica [in the small Polish city of Wislica]. A small museum depicts Wislica’s history as one of Poland’s medieval settlements, a crossroads visited by early kings.

But the government itself is not so solid. The coalition in Warsaw has had a rocky tenure since it came to power last fall. Some moderates fled the government as the Law and Justice Party eventually linked up with populist and far-right parties to stay afloat.

In early July the moderate prime minister, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, stepped down. To fill the post, President Lech Kaczynski appointed his twin brother, Jaroslaw, the leader of the Law and Justice Party, which the brothers created several years ago. The move gives the Kaczynskis a dominance in Poland unseen since the days of Communist rule.

President Kaczynski is well remembered in more liberal Europe for having banned a gay pride parade in Warsaw when he was mayor there two years ago. But more recently he reacted so vociferously to a parody of him in a leftist German newspaper — demanding that the German government investigate the newspaper and apologize for the article — that some German commentators argued that it had been a mistake to have allowed Poland into the European Union.

“The new Polish leadership stands for a negative trend in European politics,” Süddeutsche Zeitung editorialized after Mr. Kaczynski’s comments about the parody. “Nationalism and chauvinism are on the rise.”

At home, Mr. Kaczynski has put loyalists into key government commissions supervising radio and television, and he has declined to speak out against what many people here have described as the growing power of a conservative Catholic nationalist radio station, Radio Maryja, which some people say is broadcasting a message of coded anti-Semitism.

And then there was the coalition with two populist parties that gave their leaders the Ministries of Education and Agriculture and made them deputy prime ministers to boot.

For some people inside and outside the country, the conservatism and pugnacity being shown in Poland signal an abrupt step backward in the direction of an aggrieved Slavic nationalism that was supposed to have disappeared with European Union membership.

The European Parliament, disturbed by the presence in the Polish government of the League of Polish Families, which echoes the Poland-equals-Catholicism nationalism of the 1920’s and 30’s, and noting a rightward turn in other parts of Central Europe, blasted the government for what it called “the general rise in racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic and homophobic intolerance in Poland.” It also accused the leaders of the League of Polish Families of “inciting people to hatred and violence.”

That statement was rebuffed by the Polish leaders and Parliament as exaggerated and alarmist. Indeed, while some league officials have made statements highly derogatory of homosexuality, and while the country’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, was assaulted on a Warsaw street this spring, many Poles say those are isolated instances of bigotry that are not representative.

“The general tone of Polish opinion is that this was an overinterpretation of the situation,” said Andrzej Jonas, editor of the English-language Warsaw Voice, referring to the European Parliament’s resolution.

But while they think the European Parliament may exaggerate the degree of public intolerance and the government’s complacency about it, many people say something worrisome is taking place.

“It’s true that some of the demons of the past have returned,” said Zbigniew Lewicki, a professor of American studies at Warsaw University. “I blame the leadership for it. They keep talking about the last 17 years as a time of dishonesty, a time that has to be accounted for, a time we should be ashamed of, and when these words come from a president, people say, ‘Well, maybe they are right.’

“And people also ask, ‘What do I believe in?’ If they can’t believe in the last 17 years, and they can’t believe in the Communist tradition, they turn to the prewar tradition. And the only strong prewar tradition is nationalism, a sense of Polishness.”

Indeed, the new government led by the Law and Justice Party has railed almost constantly against its predecessors, charging that they were corrupt domestically and failed to defend Poland’s interests properly abroad, especially in the negotiations leading to European Union membership. The new government has evinced a good deal of animosity toward Poland’s two larger and more secular neighbors, Germany and Russia.

And there are almost daily calls for a parliamentary investigation of the entire process by which Poland was transformed into a free-market economy.

A member of the coalition government, Andrzej Lepper, head of the Self-Defense Party, is emblematic of the complaints. He bitterly opposed Poland’s joining the Union and argued that Poland’s state assets had been sold off to private individuals and companies for “peanuts.” He has criminal charges pending against him connected with anti-European Union, anti-globalization campaigns in the past.

Other shifts in the mood have resulted in some small but important changes in matters of everyday life, like a pledge to include questions about religion, meaning Catholicism, in the test that high school students must pass to get their diplomas. There is also a proposal to use government funds to build churches, but that is being contested in court.

It is the adoption of Catholicism as a sort of unofficial state religion that may have changed Poland’s atmosphere the most.

“The reality is that we are like other European countries with our low birthrate, our divorces and abortions and all that,” said Marek Ostrowski, an editor at the weekly magazine Polityka. ...

Mr. Ostrowski said, “Many people are happy that we finally we have a president who goes to church, and who doesn’t avoid a church connection with major ceremonies,” in contrast to recent past presidents, who were thought to represent the secular and international values of Western Europe.

For 17 years, he said, the political mainstream did not pay attention to the resurgent religious values. “Now that has changed,” he said."

Richard Bernstein "After Reaching Outward, Poland Looks Back to Its Roots" New York Times July 25, 2006


Sculptural detail from Romanesque Church, founded in the ninth century C.E. -- the predecessor of the later Gothic church on the same site-- in the small Polish city of Wislica.

Wislica, Kolegiata na rynku, podziemia Rytowana posadzka romańska z XII wieku, ok 1170, wykonana z gipsu jastrychowego zapewnienie odpowiednich warunków klimatycznych dla odsłoniętej w czasie prac archeologicznych posadzki.

Photo credit: Inter-Academy Institute of Conservation and Restoration of Work of Art, Warsaw - Krakow. With thanks. [Click on link for multi-media introduction to the Institute's work.]


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