Thursday, May 11, 2006

Poland survey conclusion: prickly psychology

Prickly to a fault
May 11th 2006
From The Economist print edition

It takes time to become normal

POLAND is a country that foreigners criticise at their peril. Even the mildest mention of habitual unpunctuality, brusque telephone manners or bad roads can prompt a lengthy and emotional review of the outside world's insensitive and ignorant attitude to the country's tragic history.


Don't you dare call me prickly

Never forget that the country was divided up between three foreign powers (in the late 18th century, admittedly, but the wound remains livid). Remember that Polish heroism in blocking the Bolshevik advance into Europe, in the 1920 battle known as the “miracle of the Vistula”, stopped communism marching westwards. Bear in mind Poland's betrayal by Britain and America at Yalta, and the failure to support the Warsaw uprising of 1944, when a Soviet army stood by as the Germans destroyed the capital city. And make allowances for the destruction of Poland's elite, leaving it without the middle class that helps stabilise and guide its luckier post-communist counterparts.

Acknowledge also that Poland's tragic history is not just neglected, it is sometimes actively distorted. Careless references in the Western media (including, once, this paper) to Auschwitz as a “Polish concentration camp” (when of course it was built and run by Poland's hated Nazi occupants) provoke furious protests.

Bear in mind, moreover, that Russia, especially when allied with Germany, still menaces Polish security. Poles seethe with indignation about their two big neighbours' plans for an undersea gas pipeline that will bypass Poland, leaving it vulnerable to the Kremlin's whims.

Admit, too, that every country has its problems, many of them just as bad as Poland's. Doesn't Italy suffer from excessive bureaucracy (as well as wonky governments) and Greece from corruption? Surely France breaks EU rules and gets away with it? Doesn't Poland also have the right to be wrong? These are fair points—though Poland might do better trying to overtake western Europe rather than catching up with its worst bits.

What is rather odder is that praising Poland can go down badly too. A mild remark about the variety and excellence of the country's media or the growing strength of its private sector can be taken as being insensitive to poverty, unemployment and the inadequacy of public services, let alone the country's historical tragedies. A pampered Westerner cocooned in a comfortable hotel may prattle about progress—but it shows how little he knows about the real Poland.

Such prickliness remains, but it is diminishing. Living in Poland 20 years ago, your correspondent often found himself accosted by total strangers intent on having angry conversations on past wrongs such as Yalta. That still happens, but only rarely. For younger Poles, particularly those who have spent time abroad, history is water under the bridge, and the dark and steamy world of Polish exceptionalism, particularly the quasi-mystical notion of national martyrdom, is a fading relic of an unhappier age.

Yet the deeper problem remains. Wally Olins, an expert on branding who has worked on Poland's image at home and abroad, says Polish prickliness stems from “a tremendous lack of self-confidence”. Historical misfortunes, he says, have left Poles mistrustful of their ability to run their own affairs. That complicates the great task of modernising the country, and particularly of creating decent jobs. Mr Olins thinks Poland should try to follow Spain, another Catholic country on the edge of Europe that emerged from totalitarian rule and worked hard to achieve modernity, stability and prosperity. That is a fine aim—and for the first time in Poland's modern history, there is no real reason why it should not succeed.


Alma Kadragic said...

Hi Edward,

This is a voice from the past. I enjoyed reading the special Poland section from my current location in Abu Dhabi, teaching journalism and media at Zayed University where I have been since last August.

Interestingly, I find many similarities between the Poland I knew in the 1990s and today's UAE. A developing economy is a developing economy despite all the obvious differences in culture and starting points.

Enjoyed the special Poland section very and totally agree with your conclusion. When I was in Poland, I always felt that my role as a foreigner was to provide optimism which the Poles seemed to lack. Congratulations on a fine job.

Best wihes,
Alma Kadragic

Edward Lucas said...

Dear Alma

HOw lovely to hear from you. I still remember how you stopped us getting beaten up in Prague in the summer of 1989 by saying "spokojne spokojne" to the goons.

Thanks too for your kind words. If you look at the previous postings (especially the one with 120-odd comments) you will see that I have been experiencing rather a lot of criticism, mostly from what seem to be unemployed mad people.

Do let me know if you are ever back on your old stamping ground. It would be great to have a beer or three with you