Apr 15th 2010
From The Economist print edition
Lech Kaczynski, president of Poland, died in an air crash on April 10th, aged 60
CHARMING in private, awkward in public, scrupulously honest and a bit out of touch, Lech Kaczynski exemplified the strengths and weaknesses of the political milieu from which he came. His formative years were the long bleak decades of Poland’s communist era, first in Warsaw and then in provincial Gdansk. He and his twin brother, Jaroslaw, idolised their father, a veteran of the Polish Home Army, which fought an underground war against the German occupiers, only to be persecuted by the Soviet “liberators”. Each night at bedtime, the two boys used to sing the country’s national anthem: “Poland is not yet lost, while we still live.”
As 12-year-olds the twins starred in a popular Polish fantasy film, “The Two Who Stole the Moon”, though in real life the swotty duo had little in common with the scamps they portrayed. Both became academic lawyers, Lech specialising in labour law. That proved useful during the Solidarity era, when he advised the opposition trade union’s leaders in their talks with the communist boss-class. After the imposition of martial law in December 1981, he was interned for ten months.
He helped negotiate the communist regime’s surrender in 1989 and was one of the victors in the electoral triumph that followed. Soon after, he became security minister, developing a lasting distaste for the continuing influence of old communist spooks in public life. He resigned after falling out with his former friend, the Solidarity leader-turned-president, Lech Walesa, whom he later accused of having collaborated with the communist secret police. He was a crime-busting justice minister and then mayor of Warsaw. His legacy there is the capital’s haunting museum of the 1944 uprising, crushed by occupying German forces while a nearby Soviet army kept aloof. Both his parents fought in it.
But few saw him as a likely head of state. He was the less prominent of the twins: their all-but-identical appearance (Lech had a mole on his cheek; Jaroslaw did not) belied big differences. Lech was the younger and shyer, Jaroslaw the brainier, the bossier and the mastermind of the Law and Justice party (PiS in its Polish acronym) which they founded in 2001.
A surprise victor in 2005, Lech Kaczynski proved an uneasy president. He looked nervous at public occasions. Foreign ambassadors in Warsaw traded horror stories about protocol snafus in his chaotic chancery. His public relations were awful, consumed by suspicion of media plots against him. But content as well as form was adrift.
His grasp of economics was hazy, but that of foreign affairs was weaker still. Before his election Lech (like his brother) displayed scant interest in them. He spoke no foreign languages and had travelled little. His worldview was fixed: America, good, Russia and Germany, bad. Fellow-victims of communist imperialism, such as Lithuania, Ukraine and Georgia, needed help against the ex-KGB regime in Russia. Poland should always support Israel. The EU was overmighty and too secular. Most other countries did not matter at all.
Those views were popular among many Poles. But Mr Kaczynski pursued them clumsily, sometimes disastrously so. His performances at European summits were petulant and destructive. Repeated attempts by Angela Merkel, the polonophile German chancellor, to build a strong relationship with Poland were rebuffed. He told Germany to give Poland voting rights to reflect her wartime population losses. He cancelled his attendance at a trilateral French-German-Polish summit in 2006 in protest at an insulting German newspaper article. Bemusingly, he demanded a government apology.
Such gaffes and inexperience made Mr Kaczynski easy to lampoon. So did his socially conservative views. As mayor he banned gay parades in Warsaw. His stance was mainstream in Catholic Poland but shocked secular European opinion. Hostile journalists at home and abroad enjoyed ridiculing him.
But his critics often missed his virtues and overstated his faults. He was a patriot, but not a nationalist. He was no bigot: his daughter divorced, and then married someone active in Poland’s left-wing party, the SLD, which has its roots in the former communist party. Mr Kaczynski treated his new son-in-law with impeccable kindness.
Nor was he simply right-wing in the traditional sense. If anything, his views were those of Poland’s pre-war Socialist party. He was rather sceptical of big business (not least because of his concern for workers’ rights). Free-marketeers found him frustratingly unsympathetic to demands for more liberalisation and less bureaucracy.
Honest to a fault
His great concern, and that of many founding members of PiS, was corruption. Scrupulously honest themselves (his brother Jaroslaw does not even have a bank account) the twins could hardly have been more different from the sleek cronies who populate large parts of the Polish political spectrum. The Kaczynskis’ real failure was overzealousness: their anti-corruption crusade too often trampled over the rule of law that they wanted to uphold.
Mr Kaczynski was trailing badly in the re-election race due in October. Poles like honesty. But they like competence, effectiveness and modernity, too.
Thursday, April 15, 2010