Wednesday, May 24, 2006

European Voice column

The prickliness of some powerless Poles

By Edward Lucas

"So what do you think of our country?" It is almost impossible to answer that question truthfully, interestingly and politely (though any two of the three are manageable).

It used to be easier. In the days of the evil empire, themes such as the dreadfulness of communism, the tragedy of history, and the west's shameful weakness prompted either pleased assent, or an enjoyable ding-dong.
Now it is a lot harder. Real things have happened - economic reform, EU membership, emigration and so forth - and there are real disagreements about them. Any outsider's comment can be taken as a sign of glib insensitivity if it's positive, or ignorant prejudice if it's not. Whatever you say risks angry contradiction.
Some countries are worse than others. Hungarians' stock response is that you can't possibly understand what is going on because of the language barrier. If that doesn't work they may hint that you are anti-semitic (if on one side) or that you've been nobbled by the Jewish lobby (if on the other). Romanians show patronising amusement at the idea that anyone would take their country seriously. "Oh my dear, you can't really be trying to understand our comic opera," tittered one doughty Bucharest lady, barely disguising her scorn for the intruder.
The smaller the country, the more flattered people are if an outsider knows anything at all, particularly if it is a bit obscure. I find that a mention of August Sabe (the last Estonian partisan, who died escaping from the KGB in 1978) unglues any conversation in that famously taciturn country. It may not be relevant, but it shows that whatever other points you make do not stem from complete ignorance.
Another good tactic is to pre-empt any talk of double standards by criticising the west, or your own country, first. That's particularly useful in Russia and Poland, where "what-aboutism" is a very common form of argument. (You mention Chechnya, they say "What about Iraq?" You mention corruption, they say "What about Blair selling peerages?"). Getting your self-criticism in first defuses that.
All this is on my mind because my Economist survey of Poland got quite good coverage in the press there and attracted reaction from people who don't normally read the paper. I've been ploughing through scores of letters, emails and postings on my blog, and trying, with mixed success, to answer everything politely.
Some of the letters were well-mannered and sensible. They picked up minor errors and omissions (as, indeed, did some of the rude and silly ones). That's a useful illustration of the wisdom of crowds. I wish articles were like software. I could have issued a "beta" version first and included all the improvements in an "alpha" release later.
The biggest lesson is that there are still a number of Poles with a strongly held and slightly neurotic belief that no foreigner can ever have anything sensible to say about Poland - and a surprising desire to express it publicly. One such correspondent, a professor at a foreign university, insists, in splendid defiance of fact and logic, that no native English-speaker could ever learn more than basic Polish. Only a "native Pole" could really write properly about Poland.
This is odd. Even the most pompous Frenchman, or redneck American, or bigoted little Englander, is willing to accept that a foreigner's view might be worth something. This intense prickliness stems from powerlessness: the feeling (all too justified in Poland' s case) of having been silenced by history. That was once an excuse, but, thank goodness, is now an increasingly poor one.


bokanon said...

Did you notice any correlation between the type of reaction to your survey and political association? I bet the biggest criticism would come from leftist 'intellectuals'. Saying that Poland is improving or even that it does better than before 1989 causes their outrage (with lots of preaching about inequality and neoliberalism). And the left takes great comfort in foreign press bashing of the current government. Your one was an odd one out. They must have been upset.

Edward Lucas said...

Yes you are right. I was talking to one such Pole in Warsaw the other day about the middle classes, and he said "oh you mean the middle classes who were eradicated by the reforms in the early 1990s". I was speechless (unusual for me)

The two kinds of hostile reaction I have got have convinced me that I was broadly right. One lot is "how dare you sympathise with these ghastly hicks and bigots?".

The other is "how dare you, a mere foreigner, criticise this country?"

regards, and thanks for your comment

FlyingOko said...

Ed - I go along with your views on Poland, but the 'eradicated middle classes' is a powerful point. There's a vast swathe of 'impoverished intellectuals' in Poland who, by dint of their education and professional status, would have formed the bedrock of middle-class England. Doctors, lecturers, civil servants. All of whom are on tuppence-ha'penny a month in Poland, while their UK equivalents live in relative comfort.

Reasons for this of course, not simply Balcerowicz (who'll have streets named after him a hundred years from now), more to do with the failure of the Polish public sector to restructure at the same pace as the private sector.

Pawel Dobrowolski said...


Perhaps the public sector is not restructuring because the "impoverished intellectuals" insist on no reforms taking place?

Take a look at Poland's universities. The faculty are the biggest obstacle to reform of these outdated and wasteful institutions.

Pawel Dobrowolski

Adam Kovacs said...

Don't know about Poland, but Hungary has a very similar class of impoverished intellectuals, as described by flyingoko.

Although resistance to reforms might be part of the reason that these public sector employees have been left behind, it is far from the only one.

Sadly, they got the worst of the shift from communism to a market based economy, as they (for the most part) were too far along in their careers (in their 50's and older) when the changes took place. So unless they were had the right contacts (e.g. party membership), they were never really able to benefit from the changes as the other younger generations were (and are). Their incomes not only stagnated, but disappeared due to increasing inflation.

Adding insult to injury, they now face retirement on a very meager pension after 40 years of work, while they get to see communist careerists take home the big bucks, thanks to corruption.

If that isn't a prescription for populism, I don't know what is.

Edward Lucas said...

This is interesting, although one shouldn't ignore the intergenerational transfers. A lot of these impoverished intellectuals have children who are doing very well (turning the social capital they inherited from their parents into money, in effect)

Adam Kovacs said...

No doubt.

Regarding this younger generation, however, IMO many are unable to fulfill their full potential as many sectors of the Hungarian economy remain closed to one degree or another to real competition. Like France or Greece, who you know counts for far more than your abilities. This, I think is the principal reason behind the continuing brain drain.

As far as Hungary goes, I don't see it getting any better, especially if the good times on borrowed money are about to expire.

Edward Lucas said...

I strongly agree with you about the lack of competition. As Pawel Dobrowolski (who posted earlier in this thread) likes to say about Poland, what is needed is "more competition, less privilege". He is entirely right, and not just for Poland. The big tragedy of the past 15 years is that the initial economic freedoms (admittedly not supported by legal and institutional infrastructure) have not developed but instead gone backwards. CEE economies are now cartelised and rent-seeking in a way that reminds me sometimes of Austria 20 years ago. But a lot less rich

best regards