Poland's bravery is lost on Putin's poodles
By Edward Lucas
It's easy to caricature Poland as a country of dim, superstitious peasants. I
remember CNN's Ted Turner doing his unfunny impression of a "Polish
mine-detector"- putting his hands to his ears and hopping clumsily. A Polish
Deputy Foreign Minister, Radek Sikorski, forced him to apologise.
émigré who has now become Poland's new defence minister and is making waves
again. He has declassified his country's Warsaw Pact files, handing them over to
the national archives. But the international reaction to this reflects another
caricature of Poland, no less offensive, and much more dangerous.
There were plenty of snide remarks about Sikorski's move, but the Financial
Times will serve as an example. It wrote that Poland "risked inflaming tensions
with Russia" and was "prepared to incur Moscow's wrath". Leaving aside the mixed
metaphor (a tendon can be inflamed, but not a tension) this seems a perverse
spin on the affair.
Russia has made no public protest about the opening of the archives. Nor,
according to Sikorski, has it complained privately. So Western opinion is
annoyed not because Poland is picking a fight with Russia, but because it is
doing something that might just possibly at some point annoy the Kremlin - with
the subtext that this would always be the wrong thing to do.
That's a strange way of looking at things and one that is increasingly prevalent
in Western capitals. Poland and the Baltic states are seen as faraway places
with incomprehensible habits, values and grudges, bent on disrupting the
important business of getting lots of cheap oil and gas from that nice Mr Putin.
If Russia hadn't thought about complaining about the declassification before, it
certainly has every opportunity to do so now.
It doesn't really matter what is in the archives; Soviet plans for nuclear war,
plus the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia will probably be the most interesting.
Other countries - such as the former East Germany - have already declassified
their bits of the files.
The point is that the new Polish government is serious about wanting to clean up
the remains of the country's Communist past. It is doing so promptly, to a
deafening lack of applause in the West. I find that baffling. Imagine if a
former Nazi-occupied country - France for example - still had a large pro-Nazi
party that had managed to block the release of the Wehrmacht's wartime archives
there. How cross everyone would be about it, and how glad if a strongly
anti-Nazi party came to power pledging to open the German military files (and
the Gestapo ones too, for that matter). That, roughly, is what has happened in
The real reason why bien-pensant Western opinion-formers hate this sort of thing
is that it sabotages the cosy, sloppy, moral equivalence that marked their
thinking during the Cold War years. If you are confronted with incontrovertible
evidence that the Soviet Union was both a monstrous dictatorship and an
aggressive imperialist power, it becomes much harder to maintain that "the USA
and the USSR were as bad as each other".
The fact is that if it wasn't for America, Western Europe would have had a hard
job withstanding Soviet belligerence. Patriots like Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski -
NATO's top spy in Communist-ruled Poland - knew that, which is why for a decade
they risked torture and death to work secretly for the West. But that part of
history is something that many people whose freedom he helped preserve would
much rather forget, if they ever knew it in the first place.
# Edward Lucas is Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist.
Sunday, November 20, 2005
Poland's bravery is lost on Putin's poodles
Compare and contrast in order to catch up
By Edward Lucas
Reading the latest annual survey from the European Bank for
Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) of the progress of the
ex-captive nations in economics and institution-building, I wondered
about an ideal world where the engineers are Czechs, the chefs
Hungarian, the soldiers Polish, the bureaucrats Estonian and the
musicians Russian. And in a nightmare world, the bureaucrats are
Russian, the soldiers Czechs, the chefs Estonian and so on. Such jokes
are a good way to make friends - and lose them. No country likes to
dwell on its weak points (and I should say quickly, before my inbox
starts bursting with protests, that I have had many delicious meals in
Tallinn, know some very brave Czechs and highly efficient Russians).
But behind the more-or-less amusing stereotypes is a serious point
about the right way to look at the post-Communist world. There are two
traps. One is defeatism, the other arrogance. The best example of the
latter came in the 1990s, when Russia was the unfortunate beneficiary
of a great deal of enthusiastic and intrusive Western advice and
scrutiny. Locals and others complained with some justice that it was
wrong to expect the country to meet Swiss standards of administrative
efficiency, German altruism in foreign policy, American workaholism
and Dutch openness to foreign trade. It would be fairer to expect, at
least at first, Italian standards of public-sector efficiency, French
political maturity, German flexibility and Swiss cultural openness.
Such critics had a point. It was ludicrous, for example, to expect a
huge country emerging from decades of totalitarianism and isolation to
develop in the space of a few years the financial system of an
advanced capitalist country. The attempt to do so meant that hot money
sloshed round weak crooked institutions, leading to an inevitable
financial bubble that cost millions of Russians their savings in 1998.
But it is wrong for two reasons to take the opposite view and say that
post-communist countries are doing very well if they meet the worst
standards of old Europe.
The first is that the collapse of Communism did give the chance of a
fresh start. In countries like France and Italy, many people still
sincerely believe that the system of past decades can work, with a bit
of judicious tweaking. It was very hard, almost impossible, to believe
that about Communism in 1989. Different countries approached that
fresh start in different ways and with different starting points, but
it was there. Good policies paid off; bad ones brought a high price in
lost time, wealth, jobs and happiness. Hungary got it right with
privatisation for example; the Czech Republic got it wrong. Slovakia
wasted time under the dreadful Vladimir Meciar. Ukraine dithered,
while Russia at least tried to privatise and liberalise.
Second, post-Communist countries don't have the luxury of hanging
about. Italy can still just about afford its comic-opera politics, for
the same reason that it can afford grand opera at La Scala: because
it's a big rich country. Ukraine, if it wants to catch up this
What I'd really like from the EBRD is a detailed comparison that
includes old Europe as well as new. It's good to see that in some
respects ex-Communist countries' business environments are nearing
those in Germany - a country the report uses as a benchmark. But it
would be even more interesting to see further comparisons. How does
Hungary stack up against Austria? Or Estonia against Finland? That
would spur the ex-captive nations to greater efforts - and perhaps on
some fronts be a salutary shock to the richer countries' comfortable
Monday, November 14, 2005
The Communist tool-box still comes in handy
Some of the tools are rusty; others are just plain useless. The skills
I struggled to acquire in communist-era Eastern Europe now seem as
quaint as the ability to hunt a woolly mammoth or sharpen a flint axe.
Or do they? My biggest stumbling blocks: visas, communications and
staying fed, have all but vanished. Bluffing and subterfuge were
essential to get inside places like Ceausescu's Romania, Communist
Czechoslovakia, or the Soviet Union, and to work once there. Not any
more. I no longer envy colleagues for being dab hands at the telex
(remember that?), or for their wiles in getting planned-economy
restaurants to provide food.
Thankfully, it is no longer necessary to know the ins and outs of
Marxist theory, The ability to swap Lenin quotes with Communist
apparatchiks counts for nothing. Languages matter less too: in
pre-revolutionary Eastern Europe, you simply had to stumble through
your irregular verbs, suffixes and declensions. The alternative was to
talk only to a tiny bunch of polyglots; or else rely on a small pool
of imperfect interpreters who were easy targets for secret police
Most importantly, there's no risk to life and liberty. Nobody beats
you up. I no longer feel overwhelmed by the moral courage of my
interviewees. Even the most unpleasant post-Communist politician is
unlikely to be as revolting a liar and bully as, say, a Soviet-era
But some things have stayed the same. Despite a decade in the
limelight, plus EU and NATO membership for the lucky ones, much of the
region is once again below the Western editorial horizon. I remember
beseeching my bosses (I wasn't at The Economist then, I should add) in
the late 1980s to take Yugoslavia seriously.
Now the frozen conflicts of the Caucasus and Western Balkans are again
too complicated and faraway for Western public attention to focus on.
And ignorance is still amazing. Last week BBC World reported,
straight-faced: "Poland is struggling to catch up its richer
neighbours, Germany and [sic] Russia."
More importantly, history is still the key. Understanding Polish
politics is impossible without knowing the difference between the
London and Lublin governments, or the difference between Pilsudski's
and Dmowski's concept of nationhood. Russia is stuck in the cloven
pine of its history. In every country in the region, the simplest but
most revealing question is still: "What were you doing before 1989?
And what did your parents do?".
That touches the biggest similarity: Communism may be dead as an
ideology, but its psychological legacy lives on. Below a thin layer of
post-Communist polish, anyone with a background in the old regime is
likely to have a different emotional, social and moral wavelength:
more hierarchical, more suspicious, more verbose, more rigid (and
perhaps less principled) than the naive outsider might expect.
Cutting through that still requires sharp thinking. As Raymond Smith
explains in his classic work on the communist mindset, Negotiating
with the Soviets, the trick is to decide quickly whether to befriend,
bully or beg. A haughty approach (done with conviction) gets you
almost everywhere: kow-towing to higher authority is deeply ingrained.
If you can stomach it, getting friendly may work too - though you may
have to do a favour in return: personal connections were, after all,
the fuel that kept planned economies functioning. If all else fails,
grovel: humiliation is cheap if it gets you what you want.
It varies, of course. Belarus, Transdniestr and the like are the
worst. They just happen to be where I find my flint axe quite useful too.
Sunday, November 13, 2005
Bringing back Eastern promise of brainy émigrés
By Edward Lucas
I first came across them in the 'Infobiuras' of the Lithuanian
pro-independence movement, Sajudis, in early 1990.
Young, bright-eyed Americans, Canadians and Australians, steeped by
fervently patriotic parents in the history of countries they hardly
knew, bent on fulfilling their historical destiny. They translated
documents into English, briefed journalists, advised politicians and
generally brought a blast of optimistic, confident radicalism to the
nervous, blurry world of collapsing Communism.
Sometimes the results were more spectacular than productive. During
one of the hairier moments of the Lithuanian independence struggle,
when it seemed as though the West, with the honourable but minor
exception of Iceland, was going to abandon Lithuania to the mercies of
Soviet stormtroopers, I remember hearing one beefy young Lithuanian
émigré bellowing down the phone "Don't be such a f***ing jerk!" I
asked him who he'd been talking to. "The American ambassador in
Moscow," he replied tersely.
There were grown-ups too. The most impressive, Stasys Lozoraitis, ran,
unsuccessfully, for president of Lithuania in 1993. He had spent his
whole life as ambassador to the Vatican and United States, in quixotic
service to a country that most of the world thought had disappeared in
1940. He was urbane, polyglot, amusing, and charismatic, with an
Italian wife who added a rare touch of glamour and sophistication to
the drab, stodgy world of Lithuania. Elsewhere, these high-powered
émigrés included a deeply impressive Canadian-Latvian professor of
linguistics, a forceful young man who ran the Estonian section of
Radio Free Europe and an ambitious Polish refugee-journalist, who
after studying at Oxford in the early 1980s spent time in
Soviet-occupied Afghanistan with the resistance.
The galaxy of talent had some black holes too. There was one adviser
to a Baltic foreign ministry whose sole qualification was a diploma in
bar management and a hard-drinking old bat in an economics ministry
whose previous job was as a junior public relations woman for a theme
park. One of the most energetic and engaging Lithuanian émigrés turned
out to have been working for both the KGB and the Americans (in what
order was never completely clear).
But the presumption then was that even the most modest émigré talent
was badly needed. Even the most superficial knowledge of the way the
West worked was a big advantage. Knowing how to use a computer, handle
phone messages, talk politely to strangers in English and organise
travel to faraway places were all rare skills.
That changed quickly. But the best émigré talent is still around. The
Canadian professor, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, is now president of Latvia
and one of the few East European politicians with a claim to world
status. The young man from Radio Free Europe, Tom Ilves, is now a
leading member of the European Parliament. The Anglo-Polish
journalist, Radek Sikorski, has just been sworn in as defence minister.
But the political balance has changed. Now the diaspora appears
provincial and out of touch. In Toronto, Ealing and the Chicago
suburbs, they are still baking the old recipes, learning folk songs,
sending children to Saturday school and keeping the church afloat. But
the diaspora is no longer the political lungs of nationhood: the
source of free ideas and discussion, a constant reminder that the
Communist version of the past, present and future was an evil fiction.
In politics, it's the homeland that's humming.
But not in economics. A million East Europeans or more have gone
abroad in search of jobs and education. That raises a big question for
the ex-captive nations: can they ever attract these bright, mobile
people back home?
Saturday, November 12, 2005
Belarusaitis used to be a rare affliction. One symptom is visiting
Minsk frequently, a clean and spacious city, but not distinguished by
its aesthetic attraction, to put it mildly. Another is a love of
inflicting obscure details of Belarussian history on unsuspecting
people. "Did you know that there used to be two rival Belarussian
governments-in-exile? One dates from 1918 and the other—which has now
folded—from 1944". As my eyes light up and start swivelling, my
interlocutors look increasingly puzzled and start edging away.
That's just embarrassing. But a more dangerous symptom is wishful
thinking about the chances for political change. I know: I was so fed
up with the bureaucratic, corrupt regime of Vyacheslav Kebich that I
longed for Alexander Lukashenka to win the presidential elections in
1994. To my lasting embarrassment, I even wrote favourably about him
in The Economist. A populist with a strong anti-corruption message,
who genuinely engaged with people when he campaigned, seemed a welcome
breath of fresh air.
It soon became clear that things were going wrong. A couple of years
later I interviewed the president, when Ford opened a car plant
outside Minsk (they soon had to close it). His answers were so erratic
and off-the-point that it was hard to fit them into the article. Even
the bits I could use didn't make it into print: the Economist crunched
them into the anonymous "Some top Belarussians think this [the plant]
is the start of something big". His press people, who had been
expecting a cover-story, have never allowed me near him since.
Now I worry that other people have Belarusaitis worse than me. A
country that used to be a black hole is now attracting a lot of
western interest. This chiefly manifests itself in a rich programme of
seminars and handouts for Belarussian opposition organisations. The
aim is to present a real challenge to the Lukashenka regime in the
elections next year.
It's easy to see why excitement is growing. The opposition has agreed
on a single candidate, the multilingual physicist Alexander
Milinkevic. When I met him a few years ago I found him not just clever
and honest, but sane and sensible—which is more than can be said for
many of the chancers, scroungers, losers and nutters who have made up
much of the Belarussian opposition in the past.
He faces formidable obstacles—and not just that the election campaign
and count will be rigged against him. Another is the Belarusaitis of
his own foreign supporters. What many westerners fail to realise is
that support for Mr Lukashenka and a close alliance with Russia, plus
suspicion towards Poland, the West, and the opposition are not just
the product of the regime's propaganda, but also the sincere feelings
of a large chunk of the population. There is evidence to show that
these feelings are eroding (for which three cheers) but they are still
The Belarusaitis-driven enthusiasm of Mr Milinkevic's western
supporters threatens his appeal to potential voters at home. The
regime is longing to present him as the representative of a Polish
fifth-column that wants to bring Belarus under the cultural, political
and economic domination of the west: ie joining not just the EU but
Nato, fighting in Iraq, sponsoring Chechen terrorism and being an
Al-Qaida target (no it isn't logical, but that's never bothered them).
Plus he supposedly wants to sell the country to foreign speculators.
Which (caricatures aside) is pretty much what Belarus needs. But
saying it loudly won't help the good guys win.