The Polish dictionary

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski
22 August 2007

Once upon a time, the twins Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski convinced Polish voters their country needed thorough reform. They promised Poles a new life free of corruption and a government that displayed more concern for those who had been at the sharp end of of the difficult economic transformation of the 1990s. With the help of a discredited government, and by drawing on the aura of their own modest part in Poland's cultural firmament, they won parliamentary (September 2005) and presidential (October 2005) elections which brought Lech to the presidency and (eventually, in July 2006) Jaroslaw to the prime ministership.

Two years on, Poland is more divided than ever and the quality of its public debate is embarrassing. No political party in post-communist Poland has demonstrated such allergy to the voices of its opponents as the Kaczynskis' ruling Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (Law & Justice / PiS). Their continued attempts to take nearly all walks of Polish life under the party's monopolistic control led to embittered confrontation with other political forces. Now, the degree of political instability and opposition (including among their former strongest supporters) they have generated has forced the twins to agree to hold new elections for the Sejm (parliament) in October or November 2007 - two years before they are due.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Poland's politics and governance:

Adam Szostkiewicz, "The Polish lifeboat"
(22 September 2005)

Karolina Gniewowska, "The Polish minefield"
(23 September 2005)

Neal Ascherson, "Poland's interregnum"
(30 September 2005)

Marek Kohn, "Poland's beacon for Europe"
(25 October 2005)

Krzysztof Bobinski "Poland's populist caravan"
(14 July 2006)

Neal Ascherson, "Catholic Poland's anguish"
(11 January 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The Polish confusion"
(22 June 2007)

There are many ways to try to make sense of the Polish complex for the benefit of those (the majority of openDemocracy readers, it might be guessed) outside the maze. But if, as George Orwell wrote, changes in language illuminate what is happening in politics, then a search for comparison real meanings beneath the surface of Poland's public vocabulary might be one of the most useful.

Here then are the first few items - work in progress only - of the Polish dictionary, 2007 edition.

Bad pseudo-elite

The Kaczynski twins and their supporters saw their main task as putting an end to rule by Poland's "pseudo-elite". This was the nefarious coalition of liberals and post-communists - and their intellectual supporters - that had mis-governed the country through most of the sixteen years after the collapse of communism: privatising the economy, blocking the "lustration" of old-regime secret-service agents, monopolising the media.

It did not matter that this pseudo-elite had brought Poland into the European Union and Nato, transformed a ruined post-communist economy, and built respectful relations with European neighbours. For the Kaczynski brothers and their allies, the pseudo-elite's neglect of Poland's historical experience had made it impossible for Poland's young people to be educated in a patriotic spirit. Worse, the group displayed a servile attitude towards Germany and France, and fear of Russia.

The pseudo-elite's best-known representatives are Adam Michnik, legendary dissident and Gazeta Wyborcza editor-in-chief; Bronislaw Geremek, European parliament deputy and Poland's former foreign minister; and Leszek Balcerowicz, father of the Polish economic miracle and former head of the central bank. The Polish radio-stations Inforadio runs a self-promoting jingle asking listeners if they feel themselves to be members of the pseudo-elite: if you do, the jingle says, then Inforadio is exactly for you.

Only now, two years after the Kaczynski twins and their Law & Justice party took power, it is becoming ever more clear that the "pseudo-elite" they hate so much is the real - liberal, educated and enlightened - elite of Poland: one that still has fresh ideas about how to continue reforming post-communist Poland and one that is still highly respected by the international community.

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski is a Polish journalist and writer who has reported on Russia for leading German, Swiss and Polish newspapers since 1989. He is the author of Planet Russia, published in Poland in 2005

Among Zygmunt Dzieciolowski's recent articles on openDemocracy:

"How Russia is ruled"
(14 March 2007)

"New Russia, old Russia"
(5 April 2007)

"Boris Yeltsin, history man"
(24 April 2007)

"Russia's unequal struggle"
(18 May 2007)

"Russia's immigration challenge"
(15 June 2007)

Boom, economic

The Polish economy is growing by 6-7% annually. The rate of unemployment, 20% and more in the 1990s, has fallen to 12%. Polish exports are at record levels companies even the strengthening Polish zloty has not affected it. Shares at the Warsaw stock exchange have reached record levels.

In economic terms, the Kaczynski brothers could not have had better luck. They came to power in 2005 just as the Polish economy was accelerating thanks to the painful reforms of the 1990s and accession to the European Union in 2004. The therapy had been harsh, but the biggest success of Polish reformers such as Leszek Balcerowicz was to have made the economy immune to political intrigues and follies. This has allowed the Kaczynski twins to boast of "their" economic achievements.

Chief historian

The Kaczynski brothers view history as the most important source of inspiration in their political endeavours. This makes it surprising that they have not yet asked the Sejm to create the office of the Nation's Chief Historian. The main task of this esteemed figure would be to document how Poland suffered in the past.

The list of those responsible is long - indeed, it embraces the world. Germans, Austrians and Russians partitioned Poland more than 200 years ago; the first (in the form of Hitler) and the third (Stalin) divided it again in 1939; Britain (Churchill) and the United States (Roosevelt) betrayed it, allowing Stalin to install a communist puppet-regime there after the second world war.

They may be the chief villains. But Turks, Tatars and Swedes also invaded Poland many times in the past; Spain's sin was that it invaded south America instead of helping Poland to fight Russians and Swedes; the Japanese and Chinese also could have fought more with their Russian neighbours.

The Poland of the Kaczynski brothers has its gaze fixed on the past, whose selective, distorting images make them blind to the present's challenges of the present. In the twins' mind, Germans and Russians still conspire to destroy independent Poland. It is hard for them to understand that history doesn't always repeat itself and that change is possible: that, for example, Germany has made great, sincere efforts to reflect upon its 20th-century past and its tragic errors and crimes.

This strong orientation makes it odd that the Kaczynski brothers have accepted an American offer to build a military base to host part of the US's anti-missile shield. After all - as a friend of mine commented - surely the power of the husaria (the traditional Polish cavalry with great eagle-wings attached to it) should be enough to defend the country against even the most dangerous of enemies and weapons?

Civic Platform

The Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform / PO) is is the largest opposition party, headed by an ex-anti-communist dissident (and presidential candidate in the 2005 election), Donald Tusk. His party expected to win everything in 2005 and ended up with nothing: Donald Tusk himself lost the presidency to Lech Kaczynski, and the party's candidate for the prime ministership Jan Rokita lost to Jaroslaw.

After the election, it seemed that Civic Platform and Law & Justice might form the government coalition. Both had condemned the previous leftist coalition's indulgence of corruption, and shared determination and to continue economic reforms. But a clash of personal ambitions led to the breakdown of negotiations.

In opposition, Civic Platform came to seem more liberal in its economic programme than conservative Law & Justice. At the same time, Donald Tusk's party supported a number of controversial government initiatives: war with European Union over its new voting system, the savage lustration law, the deployment of Polish troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. In many other areas its position has been weak and unconvincing.

In the current political crisis, Civic Platform pressed for - and eventually won - an early election. Opinion polls promise its victory. But even some of its founder-members (such as ex-foreign minister, Andrzej Olechowski) are among those disappointed with its performace; if this group can't bring itself support the post-communist Left Forces Union, they will hardly have anyone to vote for.


This is the most important instrument of Polish foreign policy under the Kaczynski twins, especially in relation to the European Union. When it begins to negotiate with Brussels, Poland's approach is to propose solutions unacceptable to other nations and warns it will commit suicide if they are rejected.

The last time Poland attempted such tactics was at the European Union summit in Brussels in June 2007, where it wanted to change the union's voting procedures so that the Polish vote would carry more weight. The Polish delegation led by Lech Kaczynski failed to achieve its demand, but the twins generously decided to delay the national suicide. After all, with Poland dead they would have no chance to apply their preferred tactic in the future.

Democracy, the Polish way

The parliamentary election of 2005 saw only 40% of those eligible turn out to vote. Political analysts are afraid that the disastrous quality of the country's political life could reduce this figure even further in November 2007.

Polish voters see the politicians of all major parties as a disappointment. They are concerned only about their own jobs, wages, bonuses, promotions, media profile, and securing jobs for their relatives and friends; rivals exist to be destroyed, negotiating compromises with them is out of the question; state institutions with funds to distribute must be controlled by executives loyal to the ruling coalition. A favourite instrument for the Kaczynski regime is the politicisation of the judiciary; prosecutors are chosen who will launch investigation, select cases and suspects, according to the potential to inflict maximum damage on the political opposition.

Digital recorder

This is the cherished toy of Polish politicians, businessmen and journalists. A contemporary fashion is to secretly record conversations that can be leaked to the media. Adam Michnik, legendary dissident and editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, was the pioneer in this regard; in 2002, he recorded a conversation with film producer Lech Rywin, who, speaking on behalf of senior figures in the then government, requested a huge bribe from the newspaper in exchange for support for a law allowing its owner-publisher Agora to acquire the national TV channel.

Many followed Michnik's example. The gas-oligarch Alexander Gudzowaty recorded Michnik's own opinions on the quality of Polish politics, and did the same with ex-prime minister Jozef Oleksy (who scorned former president Alexander Kwasniewski and the whole leftist camp). An unknown student recorded a lecture given by the head of the ultra-nationalist Radio Maryja (Father Tadeusz Rydzyk), who said that Lech Kaczynski's wife was a witch and that the president himself did too much for the international Jewish lobby.

The masterpiece of the genre was Renata Beger, MP for the populist peasant party Samoobrona (Self-Defence). She recorded offers by top Law & Justice officials to offer her and her colleagues government positions if they defected from their leader Andrzej Lepper's camp.

European Union subsidies

Oh, sweet subsidies, billions of euros, more than 10 billion every year! Poland's receipt of €67.3 billion ($91 billion) from the European Union budget from 2007-13 gives it a once-in-a-lifetime modernisation opportunity.

Even the Kaczynski twins, who do not hide their lack of enthusiasm for the European project, welcome European money. But it would be much nicer for them if they did not have to listen to the instruction of Brussels bureaucrats about how to spend it. Poland's radical Eurosceptics say that after decades of Soviet domination they do not want to see Polish sovereignty crushed under the heel of European integration. Polish ultra-nationalists are worried about receiving money from an organisation whose "charter of fundamental rights" does not recognise the Christian roots of the historic European world.

Polish citizens, in contrast to their government, are enthusiastic about an integrated Europe. They know well that it allows them free travel, gives them access to the European labour market, and provides money for the modernisation of their country. Being part of Europe is the best treatment for the old Polish inferiority complex. Euro-enthusiasts believe that EU membership is the best guarantee that Poland will observe internationally recognised standards, for example opposition to the death punishment and an end to discriminate against sexual minorities.

Euro 2012

In April 2007, the European football association (Uefa) named Poland and Ukraine as the organisers of the 2012 soccer championship. Even though some other competing countries (Italy for example) were much better prepared to hold the tournament, they lost to the skilful diplomacy of the Ukrainian business magnate Hrihory Surkis. The very next day, the shares of construction companies rose sharply on the Warsaw stock exchange; investors well understood that Poland should be transformed into a gigantic construction-site to build stadiums, roads and hotels to host the event.

But with so little time available for preparations, Poland has chosen to do nothing in the last four months. It is clear that if this continues, no miracle will save Poland from Uefa moving the tournament to another country. One smart businessman has already suggested that that could be a wise decision, because it will allow Poland to avoid the hassle of building so many sites in such a short period - and to sell the right to co-organise the tournament to another former candidate country. Italy is a prospective buyer as it was most upset by the initial Uefa decision to choose Poland and Ukraine.

Kaczynski, Jaroslaw

Jaroslaw Kaczynski is the prime minister of Poland. He is unmarried (for many years he lived with his mother in the northern Warsaw district of Zoliborz, but after his election he moved to the government residence in the heart of Warsaw).He doesn't have a bank account and receives his salary in cash (in case anybody is able to corrupt him via a money-transfer); what he saves he gives to his mother. He speaks no foreign languages and has no time to learn. His fellow party members call him a strategic genius. The former president Lech Walesa says that Jaroslaw Kaczynski's skill is to make intrigues and to provoke people to fight among themselves.

If he cannot achieve his goals it is because of the powerful pseudo-elite determined to protect its interests and to destroy Jaroslaw's dream project. This is to create a new Poland - conservative, Catholic, patriotic, full of respect for its historical past and heroes, democratic, just, free of corruption and recognised as a big European power, an equal partner with Germany, Britain and France, respected by the US and Russia (Jaroslaw Kaczynski has not yet said that Poland should be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council).

With something as big as this at stake, petty matters such as health-service reform, budget management or delays in road-construction can only distract from the best use of his precious time.

Kaczynski, Lech

Lech Kaczynski is the president of Poland. He is married (to a woman criticised also for her alleged support for euthanasia and abortion by the ultra-nationalist Catholic priest, Father Rydzyk). Their only daughter married the son of a post-communist party apparatchik.

His predecessor Alexander Kwasniewski has praised Lech Kaczynski for his survivor-skills. In two decades, the fortunes of this former advisor to the Solidarity leader Lech Walesa have resembled a roulette-wheel. The president works late at night, studying documents; he may order a glass of red wine from his presidential staff. He speaks no foreign languages. He was very angry when the leftist German newspaper Tageszeitung compared him to a potato; he was even angrier when the satirical column author apologised to the potato for comparing it to the president of Poland.

Kwasniewska, Ola

The daughter of Alexander Kwasniewski, who spent the period of his two-term presidency as a modest student of the Warsaw University psychology department, trying her best to avoid the media. When his second term expired she accepted the offer from a private TV channel (TVN) offer to appear in their programme Dancing with Stars. The channel bosses, surprised by her stunning success with the viewers, quickly offered her a full-time contract. Now Ola is conducting live interviews with the country's most popular stars. Perhaps Alexander Kwasniewski's popular daughter could better assist him in returning to politics than his famous wife Jolanta, friend of the Spanish and Belgian queens?

The Polish left was crushed in the 2005 parliamentary and presidential elections, and now hopes that Alexander Kwasniewski could be help it in its attempt to recover. Some of its leaders want him to be its candidate for the post of prime minister (the constitution would not allow him to run for the presidency again). Lithuania and its president Algirdas Brazauskas has set a precedent in this regard. If Alexander Kwasniewski did make up his mind to try to head the post-election Polish cabinet, his daughter Ola would be the best candidate for the job of minister for dancing and interviews with stars.


After the second world war and the establishment of communism in Poland, London was the centre of the (unrecognised) Polish government-in-exile which represented continuity with the independent, pre-war Polish state; many Poles who had fought in the war also chose to remain there and in other parts of Britain), becoming exiles in turn.

It seemed that when communist dictatorship fell in 1989, "Polish London" would become history. Instead, a younger generation of Poles is making a new history in the metropolis - and, again, throughout Britain - as hundreds of thousands of them have taken advantage of the freedom of movement afforded by Poland's entry into the European Union in 2004 to settle and work there.

The result is that the Polish language can be heard everywhere in London - streets, buses, cafes, offices, building-sites, shops. The flight benefits both the workers themselves (who include highly qualified professionals such as medical doctors and financial analysts as well as the famed plumbers) and the British economy, but the effects on the homeland are more mixed. A paucity of workers in key trades has encouraged the Polish government to look east for immigrant labour, as well as to offer incentives for Poles to return from their sojourn in the west (which many of them will in any case do, in time and of their own accord). But Polish households and the wider economy already benefit from the expatriates' remittances - much of it carried in the pockets of returning Poles in order to avoid high banking costs. The favoured note of choice seems to the £50 note, which (to the Bank of England's astonishment) is becoming ever harder to find. In Poland, the notes appear to be replacing wool, hair, or straw as material to stuff mattresses.


This is currently the hottest issue in the always tense Polish-Russian relationship. In 2006, Russia claimed that Polish meat was of poor quality and that its import involved frequent violations of customs regulations; as a result it placed an embargo on Polish meat imports. The European Commission's attempt to help Poland resolve this conflict has been

There is a history here. In the 1970s, some Polish friends possessed books written by Russian authors, published in the west but forbidden in the Soviet Union. Russian guests in Poland were afraid to take them home, so spent entire nights devouring fat volumes by (for example) Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Boris Pasternak. Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost lifted the censorship in the late 1980s, but the failure of his perestroika to deliver made Polish meat products the new item of longing for Russian visitors.

The fresh cuts of ham or deliciously smoked Krakowska sausage at breakfast-time can leave no doubt that Moscow banned Polish meat exports solely for political reasons. "You angered the Kremlin by your intervention during the Orange revolution in Ukraine. That is why we cannot eat your meat and sausage. You have got to do something!", a Russian friend from St Petersburg overwhelmed by powerful nostalgia, exclaimed to me.

Michnik, Adam

Adam Michnik is a Polish dissident icon, a hero of the anti-communist opposition and the Solidarity movement, who for eighteen years has been editor-in-chief of the most popular Polish newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza. Michnik, whose forensic intelligence is voiced in a barely controlled stutter, drives his rightwing opponents crazy. They have, it seems, used against him the entire lexicon of insults available in the Polish language.

For the right, it doesn't matter that Michnik spent nearly a decade in jail under communism. He is responsible for all Polish evil in the last two decades - the failure to punish communist-era secret-service agents, to protect the national wealth during the privatisation period, to protect Polish youth from contamination by cosmopolitan, anti-patriotic ideas. The more aggressive nationalist radicals invoke Michnik's Jewish background and his family's communist tradition.

His critics may reach for every weapon to deplore Michnik: that he drinks alcohol, enjoys flirting with women, writes articles that are far too long, is friends with the martial-law-era leader General Jaruzelski, and... is a Russophile. What they ignore and perhaps one day will learn, is that without Adam Michnik - his imagination, creativity and courage, his ability to forgive, and his wide European vision and horizons - Poland would long ago have become a colourless province, full of xenophobia, and overwhelmed by an inferiority complex, of the kind the Kaczynski twins seem to want to create. Adam Michnik's contribution to independent Poland is immense.

Never say never

This is a favourite maxim of Polish politicians. It helps them to explain their most unexpected alliances, decisions, and statements. For years, Jaroslaw Kaczynski could hardly hide his disgust for Andrzej Lepper, leader of the populist peasant party Samoobrona; yet in 2005, Jaroslaw invited Lepper to join the government coalition. He forged another exotic post-election alliance with the ultra-nationalistic party League of Polish Families. In two years this movement has installed its puppets in nearly all state institutions; it did not matter that the appointees to these state jobs were incompetent, only that they had friends in the coalition partner's leadership.

But politics in Poland is circus, merry-go-round and maze. In August 2006, the coalition "allies" are at war. Kaczynski calls Lepper a corrupt crook, Lepper brands Kaczynski a dictator who loves intrigues. Polish viewers, and voters, look on aghast as the dirt is thrown - daily entertainment, free of charge, that - however - degrades the country's public life.


Scandal is an essential part of the Polish reality in the period of the Kaczynski brothers. It is the Polish obsession: news about scandal - major and trivial, national and local, money ones and sexual ones - is broken nearly every day. Politicians and media people would not be able to function without them.

There are countless examples of minor scandal. One involves Przemyslaw Gosiewski, deputy prime minister of the Law & Justice party who helped procure funds from the state budget to construct a shiny new railway station in his native town of Wloszczowa. Now, the fast Warsaw-Cracow intercity train stops there regularly. Why, no one knows.

The second most serious scandal of 2007 so far is the suicide of Barbara Blida, a well known former MP who served as construction minister in the centre-left cabinet of Leszek Miller. Blida was investigated for alleged corruption, in an inquiry given wholehearted support by the Kaczynski brothers (keen to see leftist, post-communist politicians convicted). The evidence was unconvincing, yet agents of the internal security service (ABW) were sent to arrest her at her home. The intention was to film the operation for national TV - with Blida shown handcuffed and humiliated by her arrest - as another success in the coalition's heroic campaign. The politician had other ideas; during the search of her house she asked for permission to use the toilet, and once there killed herself with a shot to the chest from a gun she possessed.

"Shit, what we should do now?", was the response shouted down the telephone by justice minister and prosecutor-general Zbigniew Ziobro (a Kaczynski crony) to then interior minister Janusz Kaczmarek. Kaczmarek was to be fired for his pains, only to reveal the nature of Ziobro's involvement into the Blida operation. Now the post-communist Left Forces Alliance wants parliament to set up a special commission to examine the circumstances of Barbara Blida's suicide.

"Without scandals, our life would become unbearably boring", a Polish satirist has written. Luckily, he added, we are far more interesting than tedious Luxembourg or Switzerland; and our politicians will ensure we have more such entertainment in the future.

Vodka (made from fruit)

In the eyes of the public, the Polish government's biggest loss of prestige and respect was when it lost its vodka case in the European Commission and parliament. For months, Polish diplomats tried to convince Brussels officials that Poland's national drink can be produced only from grain and potatoes. Even though they were supported by EU member-states in the Scandinavian and Baltic region, they failed; European regulations now stipulate that vodka can also be produced from fruit such as grapes, peaches, or plums. Poles, who would never have their tipple of vodka without a pickle or piece of marinated herring, regard this as almost the ultimate absurdity. The Kaczynski twins' distrust for European institutions is here more than justified: now we have reason to believe our leaders!

Zoo (political)

The aforementioned Samoobrona (led by Andrzej Lepper) and the League of Polish Families (led by Roman Giertych) are leading occupants of the Polish political menagerie. Their involvement in the post-election negotiations in 2005 was a turning-point, when the Kaczynski brothers' failure to build a coalition with the Civic Platform led him to turn to these populist, egotistic, shallow and incompetent forces.

In their TV appearances, Giertych and Lepper talk endlessly about their concern for Poland and the need to strengthen its patriotic values. As minister of education, Giertych's way of promoting the latter is to fight "homosexual propaganda" in Polish schools or trying to remove books by "unpatriotic" writers (among them some of Poland's greatest, such as Witold Gombrowicz) from the curriculum. The collapse of the coalition does not mean that the ex-boxer Lepper or the super-tall Giertych will be forgotten; the risky experiment in which marginal, radical and bizarre politicians were allowed to cavort to their will in government and public life may be far from over.

Appendix: early parliamentary election

An unknown guest arrived at the office of deputy premier and agriculture minister Andrzej Lepper early in the morning of 6 July 2007. "The special services are running an operation against you. You will be destroyed", he warned.

In mid-June, Lepper and other coalition partners had signed a new agreement promising to continue their joint effort to build a just Poland. At the time, a trap was being prepared for the Samoobrona leader which had been approved by prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The ostensible justification was the need to fight corruption even at the highest level; the political one was the hope that after Lepper was sent to jail, his leaderless MPs would support the government until its term expired in 2009.

It didn't work. A saga that began in January 2007 - when secret agents approached a businessman friend of Lepper's, offering him a bribe for a land-deal that they hoped would lead to the minister's arrest with a suitcase full of cash - ended when Lepper heeded his guest's warning and refused to meet his friend.

The trap-that-failed has instead caught its architects, as opposition parties (as well as Lepper himself) question its source and legality. The scale of the scandal exceeds even the Barbara Blida affair, as the daily drip of detail first led the exotic governing coalition to fall apart and then left Lech Kaczynski with no choice but to invite Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk for a meeting in the presidential palace. After four hours, the two men agreed: the country was drifting like a drunkard on an unknown course, and the only way out is an early election.

A people proud of its pioneering role in the peaceful destruction of the communist system can only regard Poland's predicament as an international embarassment. Now, the election in October or November 2007 is an opportunity to open a new path. If Poland takes it, this first edition of the Polish dictionary will become nothing more than a collectors' item of two years of national political madness.

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