Poland’s Golden Age of Scandal and Corruption

Last week saw the Polish Parliament vote on motions of no confidence in the interior minister and the ruling coalition as a whole. These motions, which were tabled in the wake of a massive corruption scandal involving politicians at the highest level, were both defeated. However, surviving the votes of no confidence will do little to rebuild the reputation of the ruling coalition and the ideas they represent in the eyes of Polish people. They are rightly being seen, now more than ever, for the corrupt clique they really are.

Ironically at the same time as this scandal, The Economist magazine in Britain ran a special feature on the ‘economic miracle’ of Poland which heralded the country’s ‘second Golden Age’. It’s true that, of all the former Soviet countries, Poland has benefitted the most from capitalist restoration. But this has been at the expense of the working class. The recent insight into the corrupt practices of the highest officials in the country is revealing the rotten foundations upon which this ‘Golden Age’ is built.

Corruption at the highest level

On Monday June 16 Wprost magazine published a recording of a conversation between the governor of the National Bank of Poland Marek Belka, interior minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz and former transport minister Slawomir Nowak in a restaurant in July 2013. In the course of the conversation Sienkiewicz asks Belka for help in propping up the economy in the run up to next year’s general election so that Sienkiewicz’s Civic Platform party might win the elections. In return Belka asks for the then finance minister Jacek Rostowski to be sacked from the cabinet, which he duly was in November last year.

This is a flagrant and colossal breach of the constitutional separation between the National Bank and the government. Much more importantly however, it has exposed the cynicism with which bourgeois politicians are willing to manipulate economic figures in order to maintain their power. While this elite clique quietly stitch up Poland’s future in expensive restaurants, millions of ordinary people are suffering under a right wing government, slow growth and attacks on standards of living. It exposes bourgeois democracy as a complete sham.

After the incriminating tape had been made public the reaction of Prime Minister Donald Tusk and other senior figures both at the National Bank and in the government was heavy-handed to say the least. Tusk immediately claimed that his government was the victim of an attempted coup, while his foreign minister denounced the recordings as the work of “organised crime” gangs. More recently Tusk suggested a conspiracy involving Russia and the energy distribution networks in Poland. The internal security services raided the offices of Wprost in an attempt to confiscate any other recordings that might exist, and the police arrested Poland’s richest man in connection with the tapes. Even the leader of the parliamentary caucus of the junior coalition party has had his home raided in conjunction with unspecified corruption allegations.

Such a disproportionate reaction suggests a lot of nervousness among the Polish ruling class about further incriminating evidence that could surface in connection with this ‘tape scandal’. Whatever the truth of the claims of organised crime and conspiracy, it is clear that Tusk and his government are just as immersed in shady skulduggery as we have come to expect from capitalist governments all over the world.

Poland, Ukraine and the USA

The scandal does not stop there. A few days later Wprost released further recordings, again taped at an expensive restaurant, in which the Polish foreign minister is heard to describe Poland’s relationship with the USA as “worthless” and the British Prime Minister David Cameron as “incompetent or reckless” for his handling of Eurosceptics in his Conservative Party.

This comes at a time when relations between Poland and the USA are warming up as a product of the crisis in Ukraine. For example, NATO is seeking to station troops in Poland. The Polish government has offered its backing to the Maidan movement and the unelected Poroshenko government, which relies heavily on fascist elements to prop it up. Anti-Russian rhetoric and good relations with the West are an important factor in Polish politics, not least because Poland is the largest recipient of EU funds, to the tune of 106 billion euros from 2014 to 2020. But revelations like this suggest that, for all their friendliness in public, serious tensions exist between the various national factions of the ruling class.

This is particularly the case at the present time thanks to the Ukrainian situation. When the Euromaidan movement began in Ukraine Poland aligned itself with Germany, its largest trading partner, and the USA, to support the movement and the overthrow of the elected President Yanukovich. The government continues to support Poroshenko’s unelected government and the ‘Anti-Terrorist Operation’. However, this means that Polish foreign policy is to support a Ukrainian government that relies on fascists. These fascists recognise as heroes the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, led by Stepan Bandera, who fought alongside the Nazis and murdered 100,000 Poles in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1943.   

The comments by Radosław Sikorski (the foreign minister), are an expression of the difficult position into which the Polish government has contorted itself in pursuit of good relations with Germany and the USA. Increasingly dependent on Germany as Poland’s main trading partner, Sikorski can see the Eurosceptic wing of the British bourgeoisie as a threat European harmony, hence his attack on Cameron.

Furthermore, there is a certain element of Soviet nostalgia in Polish society as the working class begins to recover from the effects of the capitalist counter-revolution in the 1990s and draws the lessons from that defeat. In fact, a recent CBOS poll commissioned by Kozminski University in Warsaw suggested that just 33% of Poles think that a free market is better than a planned economy – a clear condemnation of the conditions being endured by working class people under capitalism in Poland today.

When coupled with the likely antipathy towards the fascism that is currently terrorizing the people of Donbas there is strong potential for popular disagreement with the government’s foreign policy among a layer of Poles. Under such circumstances this contradiction will inevitably find an expression among establishment figures which, when made public, exposes the conflict between national bourgeois groups.

A Golden Age for the rich; a bleak future for the poor

It was in this context that The Economist published its special report singing the praises of Poland’s financial policies and good governance over the last 25 years. The Economist argues that since 1990 Poland has been on the “right track” with its policies of removing price controls, cutting wages and subsidies for basic goods, and exposing the economy to foreign investment and privatisation. This began in the early 1990s as the infamous ‘shock therapy’ during which international finance capital lost no time in ravaging the new ‘free’ economy of Poland.

As was the case in many former states within the Soviet Union, it was a small clique of former bureaucrats who benefitted most from the restoration of capitalism under these conditions. For example Aleksander Gudzowaty, who died in 2013, was one of the wealthiest men in Poland following the ‘shock therapy’, during which he acquired substantial industrial assets through dodgy privatisation deals. His transition from the Soviet regime to the capitalist one was so smooth that he achieved it without even having to leave his job – he remained as Director General of PHZ Kolmex S.A., a railway sector company, all the way from 1978 to 1993. This rapid concentration of private wealth in the hands of a small number of people has continued ever since the restoration of capitalism in Poland.

Needless to say the accumulation of great wealth at one pole of society was only possible thanks to the accumulation of great misery at the other. The ‘shock therapy’ of the early 1990s pushed Poland into a three year recession, with the economy shrinking by 15%, and it cost 1.1 million workers their jobs, pushing unemployment to 20%. The Economist says that “the cure [for a planned economy] was painful” but fails to point out that this pain fell exclusively on the working class. Ordinary people who, despite all the deficiencies of the bureaucratic regime in Poland, had been guaranteed a job, a house, education and healthcare under the planned economy, were plunged into a new reality in which the whole country was torn open and sold off to the highest bidder.

The Economist’s conclusion to its analysis of Poland’s development over the last 25 years is that it has been a resounding success. It even goes so far as to say that “if [European leaders] had run their countries half as well as Poland, Europe would not be in such a mess”. It is certainly true that Poland has had fairly constant GDP growth of between 0-2% each quarter since the late 1990s and GDP per capita has increased from $4,379 in 1992 to $10,569 in 2014. Both industrial production and productivity across the whole economy have also increased in this period. In that sense, Poland stands out as a success story among the so called ‘transition’ economies, a status confirmed when it was the only European country to avoid a recession in 2009. But all of this, at what cost to the working class? This is not a question that concerns The Economist.

Poland’s economic position has largely been achieved by riding on Germany’s coat-tails, the country to which it exports most and from whom it imports the heavy machinery required for its industry. In fact the ties between Poland and Germany are so close that Lech Walesa, former president of Poland, made the bizarre suggestion in 2013 that Poland and Germany merge to form one state. But at a time when instability in the Eurozone is far from over; the German economy is not showing particularly strong signs of growth; and even the most optimistic bourgeois economists are saying that it will take 20 years to solve the problems in the European economies, the foundations of the Polish economy look a little less solid than the figures might suggest.

Crucially, what the economic figures do not show is the exploitation and inequality of the working class in Poland, from whose oppression the ‘economic miracle’ has been created. The last 25 years have seen a staggering increase in inequality in Poland, with the poorest in society currently having a life expectancy 15 years lower than the richest. Exploitation of the workers is steadily increasing through greater use of cheap and flexible labour. Labour costs in Poland average EUR 7.60 per hour as against the EU average of EUR 23.70 per hour, a position that has improved little from the late 1990s when just 44% of GDP went to labour rather than capital, while the figure was around 63% on average across the OECD. With capitalism in crisis in Europe and across the world the ruling class will need to preserve their profits with even more vigour than previously. This can only mean an even greater wealth gap and further exploitation. 

Faced with such a bleak future, corruption scandals like the one that has rocked the establishment so hard in recent weeks are infuriating for ordinary people. It provides the clearest evidence that they have no real democratic control over the government or the economy and yet are expected to suffer the policies of right-wingers determined to protect the wealth of a handful of the super-rich.

This is the reality of Poland’s ‘second Golden Age’ – an economy that looks healthy on the surface but whose foundations are being weakened by the ongoing global crisis of overproduction and by the corruption and scandal in the government and the National Bank.

For years Poland’s politics has been dominated by the Right who have been riding the wave of capitalist restoration. This has represented 25 years of counter-revolution in which all the social gains made under the planned economy – full employment, housing, medical care etc. – have been lost. They have been replaced by some of the most reactionary social laws anywhere in Europe, for example on the question of abortion which is now banned in all but exceptional circumstances, having been completely legalised before the counter-revolution. The ruling class also leans heavily on the intensely conservative Catholic Church, whose influence cannot be underestimated in a country where church attendance stands at 50-60%.

Clearly the restoration of capitalism was an enormous defeat for the Polish working class, one that has taken two decades from which to recover. But now cracks are beginning to appear in the concrete dominance of bourgeois ideology. A ‘general strike’ in the industrial Silesia region in March last year, and massive trade union demonstrations in Warsaw last September are indications of this.

Scandals like this contribute to the undermining of bourgeois politicians and ideology, as well as bourgeois democracy as a whole. The difficult economic times that are already coming into sight for Poland will further seriously undermine faith in the capitalist system as a whole. Altogether this makes a recipe for revolution but it requires a revival of the genuine communist traditions in Poland to turn this potential into reality.