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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Adam MICHNIK: We need two things, freedom and truth

19 June, 2001 - 00:00

Adam Michnik, editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, can be surely called the legend in today’s Poland, a part of its current face. I stress face, not image, for image is an artificial thing that does not always correspond to reality, while Gazeta Wyborcza is nothing but an honest and straightforward look at all most acute and painful problems of a dynamically developing country.

Born into a family of communist party functionaries, Adam Michnik was an ardent fighter against the communist regime. The very fact of his eighteen year political imprisonment speaks for itself. In contemporary Poland, after the election victory of Aleksander Kwasniewski, Adam Michnik has become sort of a bridge between the old opposition and the new regime, a bridge that was, incidentally, made use of by very many politicians. Mr. Michnik enjoys tremendous moral authority, his opinions are heeded by the entire political elite, including President Kwasniewski himself. And this moral authority of the most popular newspaper’s most popular editor is very important for the Poles when they are to solve very difficult problems, such as screening the past political activities of Party functionaries or the ongoing trial of Wojciech Jaruzelski. Mr. Michnik’s far Right opponents sometimes criticize him for his alleged current pinkness. Meanwhile, his idea is that neither the authorities nor the opposition should manipulate human destinies for any purpose. We can say the Polish opposition was lucky to have a figure of this scale. But we can also say Polish authorities deserve precisely this kind of an opposition figure. Yet, there is no air of conceit in Mr. Michnik. When I entered his office, he was extremely agitated by the scandal over the frescoes by Polish Jewish artist and writer Bruno Schulz, which Polish and German journalists unearthed in Drohobych, while local authorities allowed the owner to sell the frescoes somewhere in Israel for a song. There is a lively sparkle in his eyes, and in general he is very lively indeed.

“Mr. Michnik, my question is to you as a person called No. 1 dissident for a long time. So of special interest is your opinion on what the opposition can and cannot do in order not to lose certain moral advantages in the dispute with the authorities.”

“It can do everything, but only in a constitutional way.”

“For example, if the regime resorts to black PR, should the opposition do the same in reply?”

“No, obviously, this must not be done. But the whole problem is that all regimes say that all the opposition is doing is engaging in black PR. Lying is not the best method of political struggle. For example, we do not do so in our newspaper. I am talking about my own newspaper. And if you ask my opponents, they will say Michnik piles up lies on every page. So it is very difficult to say in detail what should not be done. Clearly, moral and financial corruption is a bad thing. And to speak about this is our stand and the stand of the media because we know that corruption is part of the system. When I look at Poland and see newspapers daily reporting on such facts, I understand this is just the malady of a democratic system. And not only in the postsocialist area: just look at Italy, Germany, at the Kohl affair.”

“Some of the most scathing critics prove hardly able to create something by themselves, but this is, of course, not in your case. When Solidarity won, you had a chance to take any key position in government. But, unexpectedly, you quit politics. Why?”

“I always reiterate that if many of my colleagues had followed my example, we would now perhaps have a lot of good lawyers, chemists, or historians. Instead, we have bad ministers, bad deputies, and bad senators. I prefer being a good editor rather than a bad politician. Politics requires a special gift. I don’t have this gift. In politics, you have to speak roundabout and confusing phrases. But I always speak the truth, I speak unpleasant, even very unpleasant, things. In politics, I would always have been a destructive force. But, luckily, I made a good newspaper. Gazeta Wyborcza plays a special role in Poland, that of a democratic institution. Many people tell us that Poland would be a totally different country without it. I think this is exactly the contribution my colleagues and I personally have made to Polish democracy. Everything does not depend on the narcotic of power or the that of professional politics. No, I’ve never wanted to be a politician. I went into politics during the dictatorship because it was the question of my morality and my temperament. But I don’t think I need be rewarded for this. This is what you said before: everything should be justified, including one’s competence in politics as well.”

“Your opinion on the current trial of Wojciech Jaruzelski?”

“I would say as follows: it is a very complicated and difficult problem. There is something like a trap in the Jaruzelski case. I personally demand that everything comply with the constitution. But this is a political, not juridical, affair. I have been saying repeatedly and publicly that, from the political viewpoint, a court action against Jaruzelski is absolute idiocy. He is a person with a very complicated life story. But in a critical moment — in 1988-1989 — Jaruzelski did very much good for Poland. It is mean and inhumane to summon to court a person who has turned 87. I never criticize court rulings before they have been passed. I also believe it is the court, not politicians or journalists, that should return a just verdict. This is why I refrain at present from making statements on such topics in Poland. The only exception I made was the problem of lustration (screening — Ed.), but that was an exceptional situation. I think Poland saw a lustration-based coup attempt, in the course of which Kwasniewski was accused of cooperating with the secret services, only to debar him from running for office. I was simply indignant, that was unacceptable! That was the instrumental abuse of a very bad law. It had been bad well before it was passed. The Sejm (Polish parliament) adopted a law setting aside the statute of limitations. Thus the crimes of that period were put on the same rung with genocide. In 1970 I was on the other side of the barricades, I was on strike in Warsaw, I hated that regime. But even at that time I did not consider it genocide. This is entirely different. It was a small-scale street unrest or a revolution. The authorities were on the defensive. But this must not be judged the way Eichmann or Hitler were. I am sorry, but this is senseless! First, this law was passed to become an instrument of political struggle. Secondly, this is a routine fake, for the government in fact does not rule in a communist state. Our Communist state was run by the Politburo first secretary. Jaruzelski was a minister but not a Politburo member. The decision to open fire was made by Gomulka. There is no doubt about that.

“As to the public mood, the situation here is different. This is a different point. Now many feel nostalgic about the past Poland. Earlier there were children’s summer camps, kindergartens, and so on. Nostalgic because we were young and beautiful. Now we are only beautiful. Many miss that system of absolute security, even if it was prison security! Now the mentality is quite different. Now an individual lives with the risk and fear. Yet, who in Poland wants the return of one party, the power of political police, closed borders, and censorship? Nobody! Simply nobody! Even the postcommunist leaders do not want this. Judging by all the polls, they now enjoy overwhelming support. They are sure to win the next parliamentary elections, but, naturally, Leszek Miller prefers to be the prime minister of a government elected by the people, not appointed by Moscow. And our president! Ask him if he misses the times when he was minister of sports in the Messner government. Undoubtedly not. The current democratic system is just better, more effective. although it also has some drawbacks.”

“Do you think Poland is crazy about the West?”

“I would not call it a craze. It is how we identify our interest. We just look East with alarm. We are watching with alarm what is going on in Ukraine. This is why we think that if we stand firmly in NATO and the European Union, we will live in security. This is not enmity toward the East: there is no such thing in Poland. Tens of thousands of people come every day to Poland from the East to trade. And there are no incidents or conflicts here. Believe me! Naturally, there are small criminal groupings. For example, there are Chechens. But this occurs everywhere. There are no anti-Russian sentiments at all in Poland.”

“And anti-Ukrainian?”

“Our country is very sympathetic toward Ukraine. Sometimes we sympathize with Ukraine even more than the Ukrainians themselves do. Sometimes even too much. But we can do nothing instead of the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians must carry out their transformations by themselves. Besides, it requires a tremendous effort to overcome this age-old enmity. Just the other day a friend of mine published a book on Ukrainian problems. Miroslaw Czech, a Sejm member and deputy chairman of the Union of Polish Ukrainians, said after reading it that the author Skoniecki deserves a monument, for nobody else has ever written so well about Ukraine. Naturally, there are people who remember the war and harbor certain traumatic grievances. But the overwhelming majority of these people are already elderly. What works here is the deliberate policy and efforts of our elites, irrespective of who is in power — Kwasniewski, Miller, Buzek or Bartoszewski — that relations with Ukraine should be as good as possible. There is a stable consensus about this, to which, incidentally, the Catholic Church also contributes. I am even surprised at this. I thought it would be worse. I have always loved Ukraine: my father lived in Lviv, I was born and raised here. But anti-Ukrainianism was imposed in Poland by the official authorities and official propaganda. Naturally, the current radical change of the situation is impeded by some unnecessary things, for example, the disputes over cemeteries. This is silly. It is common knowledge the Poles feel attached to the Lychakiv Cemetery. Who do they harm when they come to lay flowers? All this is stupid. It jeopardizes our relationship, while both Poland and Ukraine are interested in having the best possible relations.”

“The Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita, commenting on the consequences of the European Union’s eastward expansion for some regions of Ukraine, points out, quote, ‘that a view has gained currency lately that Galicia, i.e., Ukraine’s western part, should drop its mission of a motive force promoting the westward orientation of all Ukraine. Otherwise, pro-Western sentiments can gradually come to naught in Galicia itself under the pressure of the complacent and Russified eastern part of the country. Galicia ought to find independent chances to move in the western directions. This makes more and more acceptable the idea of establishing a Ukrainian federation. Some representatives of the Lviv intelligentsia even call for piecemeal integration of Ukraine in the European Union, claiming that this would fit in with the federalist development of the EU itself.’ What do you think this is: a super- advanced idea or an adventure?”

“This is pure and simple nonsense.”

“Is the gas pipe bypassing Ukraine an economic or political project?”

“A very interesting question indeed. I don’t think there can be, as usual, a single and simple answer to this. I don’t understand many things here. There are two aspects in this deal. First, a purely Polish one: there is a firm whose owner is 100% economically dependent on Russia. In other words, but for Russia, he would go bankrupt overnight. I think it dangerous if Polish energy security depends on one vector only. Secondly, the pipeline problem coincided in time with the scandal surrounding President Kuchma. There could only be one result: Mr. Kuchma became weaker than ever before. In addition, the Pope is going to visit Ukraine. From the political angle, this is a very important event. It means recognition. The slogan of Ukraine without Kuchma would mean today that John Paul II could not come to Ukraine. This again raises a question of who is interested in this and why. Further, deeper, wider. And the third point: Poland comes out in favor of Ukraine. But Ukraine conducts a dialogue with Mr. Putin. We cannot be more pro-Ukrainian than the Ukrainian government is. We have no alternative here.”

“It is not only we who have a dialogue with Russia: you also do. This is normal. The problem is that, while Russian business is present in Ukraine, we have practically no investment from Poland and the West.”

“True. We are afraid. I have even been thinking over making some investments in the Ukrainian media market. I talked to people. I requested an expert study. So the study said that if a newspaper criticizes the executive power today, the latter has enough instruments to close this newspaper. Normal business is just afraid to go to you under these conditions. The Russians feel at home on the local (Ukrainian) Mafia market, while we feel as if we were on the moon.

“I am not criticizing the Russians, nor am I against Russia. On the contrary, I like the Russians very much. But when I look at the ratio of interests, I can’t help seeing that we must be very vigilant here. We are interested in a strong democratic Ukraine. But, in the long run, it is you who elect the authorities. I have not yet heard that Ukrainian elections were fixed. I haven’t heard this. This situation differs from one in Peru, where the elections were fixed. I think the people are wise enough. They can be deceived only temporarily. The people can always change power and all other things. History shows that television is not omnipotent.”

“You are a person with a rich life story and of independent viewpoints. Even the president heeds your advice. You can come wearing sandals to see a king. But still, are you afraid of anything?”

“I personally? I am personally afraid of myself. Afraid of doing something stupid or indecent. A man must always fear something. But in general I am a happy man. I have lived to see these times... We are perhaps the first generation over the whole century which can say our life is drawing to a successful close. For I was first imprisoned when I was 18. It was after 1965. Which of us could say at that time that we would see all that we have today: a free Poland, free Ukraine, and so on? We level a lot of criticism, but, whatever you say, Poland is a steadily-developing country. Naturally, we have difficulties. Unemployment is at crisis proportions. But, obviously, we are on the right track. Nothing terrible has happened over this period. Have we carried out reforms unwisely? This can be corrected. But the present power has done nothing that might impair the security of citizens and the state. Excessive role of the Catholic Church in the state? Nothing terrible here either. In other words, there is no more menace on the part of the Left who used to claim that everything would soon change radically again, which I was really afraid of in the first four or five years. The Communists no longer say that everything will change. They only say it will be better. But what can we do? This is the inalienable right of the opposition.”

“What do you say to the young journalists who begin their careers in the newspaper you edit? What should they know?”

“Two things. Freedom and truth. This is our policy. We are called upon to defend these two values: freedom and truth.”

By Larysa IVSHYNA, The Day, Kyiv—Warsaw—Kyiv

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