The main attraction in the Polish capital is no longer just Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science as it used to be twenty years ago and even though it still stands there, the city has changed. Tens of skyscrapers are reaching the heavens, the National football stadium is towering over the river, streets are filled with restaurants, bars, coffee shops, pubs, wine bars, shops and other services. I cannot even count the amount of vegan restaurants I have passed by. I am watching the news on Polish state television while eating my breakfast. Polish broadcasting gives off a very professional impression. The graphic design, flow and the confidence exuberated by the TV anchors reminds me of the British BBC, except for the colors (they are blue). The upcoming elections have been hotly debated since the morning. Clips from the political meetings could pass for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. A blond woman in a blue dress is beaming in every direction and waving at people who are waving back at her with small Polish flags. The Poles seemingly care about the European Union. It is, therefore, difficult to believe that since 2015 about 160 people have left the Polish television, mostly due to political reasons. The Polish state broadcaster was taken under control by a former Euro MP and a professional politician with a very turbulent past Jacek Kurski. For example he has become a member of the political party PIS multiple times (he had been excluded from the party and was subsequently accepted on several occasions). According to our guide, NGO professional Tadeusz, the State television has transformed into a political tool of the ruling party PIS which spreads unverified news under the leadership of Jacek Kurski. People´s confidence in television has dropped under 50 %, resulting in loss of ad revenue. However, the government has compensated it by granting them higher state funding. All representatives of residents’ association that we have encountered during our visit in Poland talked about Polish media share the same opinions. Bad experiences have taught them only to accept invitations to appear on live debates but those do not come very often. All representatives avoid commenting or going on record because those get edited. It happened in the past that they saw themselves on TV supporting new government proposals despite being critical of them in the TV debate and then they would receive texts from their friends saying how disappointed they are in them.
A curiosity in the Polish media are the brothers Kurski. On one hand, Jacek is the Head of the State TV Network, his younger brother on the other hand, is in charge of the opposing network “Gazeta Wyborcza”. According to various sources, the brothers do not communicate with each other. The public discusses whether they at least meet on the Christmas Eve. But they also rarely criticize each other directly in the public eye. However, the polarization of the society is picking up steam.
Various organizations that we came across during our visit aim to connect people with different mindsets in places where they could get to know one another and engage in discussions. These organizations speak of democratic drinks or public dialogues in libraries. The most successful is a group of journalists who have created an initiative of five different media outlets, which have all agreed to publish opinions of different currents of opinions. The author of this idea Jedrzej Malko explained this concept with great enthusiasm. His goal was to set up a platform for polite public discussion that enabled authors from across political, philosophical and ideological spectrum to express themselves in one place. Malko was able to unite rightists, leftists, conservatives as well as liberals. They have agreed to write about the same topic a few times a month whether it is current economic reforms, European elections, educational reform and other polarizing matters such as a right to life from the moment of conception or migration. According to Jedrzej the crucial moments were the several face-to-face meeting of chief editors from all five magazines. Together, they have set the rules but the mere personal engagement improves their writing. It is a lot more difficult to write intrusive articles about people you know and will have to look in the eye in a few months’ time. Kurski brothers are a prime example of this. Who knows, perhaps they confront each other at least once a while.
The problem of Polish non-governmental sector is similar as it is in Hungary, the constant accusation regarding foreign funding that is perceived as evil with unclear intentions. The label of Soros has its reach in Poland, as well. A funding is seen as foreign even when it comes from the EU despite the fact that EU is still more or less popular and has a more positive image among Poles. A thorn in the side of Polish government are still NGOs, devoted to helping people by providing legal advice. One of them is the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights that holds a very peculiar position in Poland. It was co-founded by the chairman of the ruling party PIS and one of the most influential politicians in Poland, Jaroslav Kaczyinski. Since its establishment in the year 1989 and until this day, it employs people who personally know Kacyzinski. That is probably the reason why this particular organization is not the target of such severe public critique that other similar organizations have to face.
A new community foundation called Fundusz Obywatelski found a different solution for these accusations and is exclusively funded by Polish sources - 1% tax assignments and from individual donors. One paid employee is in charge of the finances. However, the foundation is represented by strong public figures that have more or less neutral political views including former Chief Justice or several professors. Such bulletproof finance strategy and expert backing enables funding of projects such as helping refugees, or legal protection that would otherwise never receive any financial support from the Polish government. Yet, some conspiracies have occurred in the Polish state broadcaster claiming that financial support is provided by Soros and other secret organizations. These rumours gave the foundation an unexpected publicity boost and people became upset. During the year 2016 the foundation was able to collect only 100.000 €, whereas in the year 2017, after the series of accusations the Poles bankrolled the foundation by giving them twice that amount (approx. 200.000 €). Despite the state propaganda in Poland, there are still people who refuse to believe the disinformation and are willing to come together for a good cause. The fact that Poland, unlike Hungary, does not prohibit independent media and the sources of information are still at least partially pluralistic.
Three Hungarians are also a part of our group – two women and a man. Those are the least optimistic among us and responded to the presentation of our Polish colleagues with sad remarks, that it is nice but such efforts are no longer possible in their country. Expensive government campaigns targeted against non-governmental sector and everything foreign have reached such monstrous proportions that families as well as friend circles are divided by an imaginary line, just like it is in the case of Kurski brothers in Poland, or Okamura brothers in The Czech republic.
One researcher from Hungarian think-tank that focuses on European integration speaks of worried family members and of pressure to change profession so that she would not work for “Soros’ foundation”, despite the fact that her organisation is membership based, people work there on voluntary bases and it is primarily funded by different international donors. Her friends, on the other hand, question the moral integrity of employees of state institutions. This causes an increasing distrust and uncertainty among old friends.
During the evening, we are watching a BBC interview with Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó. His English is excellent, behaviour is confident. Moreover, his answers seem to be prepared from the moment the interviewer starts asking a question but he maintains an expressive smile on his face and politely waits his turn. However, he never directly answers the asked question. For example when he is asked about the level of corruption in Orban’s government which made millions of euros off disappeared Structural Funds that Orban’s government needs to return to the EU (from the pockets of tax payers, of course). Szijjártó states the westerners have no right to bash them because Hungary opened its market to the West and its companies are greatly benefiting from it: “Did you know that 70 cents from each spent euro end up in western companies?” says Szijjártó aggressively to the BBC interviewer. No mention of corruption or the lost Structural Funds.
Link for the mentioned BBC video/interview: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/n3ct4fbn
After two days spent in Warsaw, we continue our journey to university town Lublin which is roughly the size of Brno. The charming old town is filled with unplastered or unkept, empty houses. We are surprised by a huge group of Cyprus high school students in the hotel lobby. It is nine p.m. and most girls are wearing pyjamas and holding their phones. The kids in their nightwear are walking back and forth in the hotel. Going from one room to another, chatting in the corridor while holding their phones the entire time. They are so attached to them as if it was an evolutionary, inseparable part of their physical anatomy, despite the fact that when they were born, their parents did not even know there was such thing as a phone. I quickly got the impression that a child without a phone would get lost in the hotel. The moment a phone battery dies or loses signal, the rest of the group would launch a search party without noticing they are standing right beside them or that they simply went to the toilet or to take a shower. It seemed as though their whole lives only took place in these small boxes, but who knows? Maybe they were just playing some kind of a game. Perhaps they were made to look for their daytime clothes that someone had previously hidden. Or perhaps they were searching for donuts that the Polish are willing to stand in long ques for, in front of their favourite bakery, during the so called “Fat Thursday”. The whole Poland goes on a donut binge right on the last Thursday before lent.
Photo 3: Charming Lublin
In Lublin, we meet a couple of two chaotic, energetic women wearing woollen caps from the organization Homo Faber. Their organization has undergone a transformation from a professional into a volunteer one in the last 15 years. All volunteers have their own job and organize a film festival or help foreigners to integrate into the society in their free time. These volunteers want nothing from the government. During their work on the last project they were audited no less than five times and on the last attempt they found a mistake for which the organization had to pay a fine of 2000€. Other organizations have also experienced similar bullying from the state offices, which motivated them to reach for different forms of fundraising. The community of lawyers is of huge help as they meet in various watchdog organizations and offer pro bono legal advice in similar cases. Homo Faber is one of the lucky ones. It seems that for now, they have won the court case. However, the ministry got what they wanted. Neither Homo Faber, nor other similar organizations will ask for grants in the near future. The Polish government is developing its own network of non-governmental organizations that get their support while the other ones are discouraged.
According to scholar Julia Rybniczka, the non-governmental sector has responded with forming a net of fragmented groups that work on local rather than national level. They focus on creating stronger sense of unity and more intense communication among the working individuals. The activities are not organized consistently and professionally, but have a more amateur, enthusiasm-fuelled approach. Both organizations we have met in Lublin are a good example of this shift. Apart from Homo Faber another organization called “For Earth” that initially started by building an eco-village, is currently working on integration of refugees and the Ukrainian minority. Their response to a question whether they faced any attacks due to the focus of their work strongly resonated. Eva Kodrzaj answered: “Those who know us - people in Lublin and people who have come across us on different events - support us. We get hate only in the online world from people who have never even met us and are unfamiliar with our work. It is a strange feeling and we would like to invite them to some of our events. They would surely find out that we pose no threat.” Organization “For Earth” has also published a textbook in Arabic.
Although, the political and social situation in Poland is somewhat suffocating , there is a simmering dissatisfied civil society that knows what is does not want but is uncertain what the united vision ought to be. Only time will tell, where the stream of Kurski´s media-leaders will steer the country and how will the civil society continue to be tested.
Translated by Mária Široká, final edits by the author.