In Poland, Democracy Is Deeply Rooted

A conversation with Rafał Dutkiewicz about the logic of nationalism and populism, the value of European solidarity for Poland, the state of Polish democracy and the relationship with neighboring Ukraine.

Polen Parliament Demokratie
Foto: Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The Second World War came to an end 75 years ago. In your speech to the German Bundestag, you said that Europe is the future and nationalisms are yesterday’s news. We are now experiencing a time that lacks European solidarity. Would you stand by your words?

Yes, I would. It is true that COVID-19 has caused borders to close and that there is a wave of nationalism and populism. But these reflect an old order that emerged in the nineteenth century. The national state is still important, but problems can only be solved in a broader community. For us, that is the European Union.

Is falling back on nationalism normal in times of crisis? Will Europe emerge from the crisis stronger or weaker?

While populist and nationalist tendencies predated the pandemic, COVID-19 has reinforced them. But the coronavirus cannot destroy the positive effects of European integration. The example of Poland and of my city, Wroclaw, shows what a fantastic role the European Union has played. Although Dublin and Prague take top ranks in terms of economic development in a comparison of all major European cities with populations of more than 250,000, Wroclaw is already in third place! Without Poland’s membership in the EU since 2004, this wouldn’t have been possible. European solidarity will also be crucial in dealing with the consequences of the pandemic. On its own, no single European nation state can solve migration, climate change, or security-related challenges. Of course, populists are using the crisis to emphasize that only the national state can bring salvation. At the same time, in countries like Hungary or Poland, they are undermining the basic rules of democracy to secure their power. The disregard for justice in my country is appalling. That is precisely why we need European standards and the support of the European family.

What determines the logic of nationalism and populism?

The philosopher Jürgen Habermas said that if nation states did not exist, they would have to be invented. Historically, nations and nation states have played a positive role. We are now much further along, but to some extent we still live in the paradigm of the first half of the 20th century. In the 19th and 20th centuries, humanity lived from the exchange of goods. Today, greater emphasis must be placed on the exchange of ideas. That is the future. This is why we need an open and international society, because only this society can be creative enough to come up with something better. Part of the reality is also that many people are xenophobic, especially in a country as ethnically homogeneous as Poland. Unlike West Germany, we have not yet been able to gain experience with immigrants. Unfortunately, the pandemic supports the rejection of foreigners because distance has become official policy, even though cooperation would be the order of the day. Recognizing this is a question of education and experience.

Aren’t nationalism and populism also countercurrents to the cross-border exchange of ideas and goods, which triggers fears?

Yes, they are. The speed at which the world is changing has encouraged many people to fear losing their roots and their homeland. Moreover, the urban-rural divide has become more pronounced, as gains in wealth have tended to be concentrated in the big cities. In the countryside and in the smaller towns, people think differently. Poland is also deeply divided, both in psychological and political terms. For example, the leading political party “Law and Justice” (PiS), tends to be supported in the countryside, but not in the big cities, which are more openminded as university towns. Despite nationalist resistance, we are headed toward more openness and exchange. The pandemic and resulting economic crisis are merely delaying this process. Unless there is a war, we will continue in this direction.

What role do urban areas play in this regard?

I was very friendly with Benjamin R. Barber, the American political theorist who died in 2017. He founded a global network of urban mayors. With his bestseller “If Mayors Ruled the World”, Barber gave new impetus to the discussion on the future of democracy. I met him in Berlin and persuaded him to write this book. For him, the nation-state was conceived to compete with other nation-states, while cities, by their logic and constitution, tend to stand for cooperation. This is particularly important in today’s world, which should be a world of networking. This not only promotes economic development, but is also a question of social progress. Of course, there are countercurrents to this development everywhere in the world, with Donald Trump at the helm. He has damaged transatlantic relations and attacked the European Union. Brexit has shown the resistance within Europe itself. In spite of all this, I am optimistic.

In view of the polarization of societies, is there a common denominator?

There was, but nowadays in Poland, it’s impossible. The ruling PiS party has crossed the boundaries of democracy by compromising the judiciary. I myself would no longer be willing to cooperate with the party. It must be voted out.

Now the ruling party is quite successful in combining a national policy with a pseudo-socialist policy, for example through child or shorttime work benefits. Isn’t the prospect of it losing power wishful thinking?

No, I wouldn’t say that. The ruling party is successful because the previous government under the Civic Platform left two problems unsolved: state institutions were not strengthened and insufficient attention was paid to social issues. This is what paved the way for the PiS’s success. But politics in Poland has a short half-life. It’s not as if the PiS is going to govern forever. Even the effects of the economic crisis can be dangerous for the PiS. The PiS is an enemy of European unification. Its party leader Jarosław Kaczyński and President Andrzej Duda have created a terrible dynamic. The president believes that EU institutions in Brussels have the same effect on Poland as the Prussian, Austrian, and Russian occupiers had in the past. This comparison is insane! European solidarity is especially important for Poland in times of crisis. People will understand that.

How strongly is democracy rooted in Poland?

Democracy has deep roots in Poland. It is resilient and offers a vision of how the future can be actively shaped. For example, in 2010 I conducted a survey among 5,000 inhabitants of Wroclaw. It focused on an open question: “What would be important for Wroclaw?” We already knew at the time that the European Football Championship would be held in Poland and Ukraine in 2012. Of all the answers, the new airport won. The new stadium took second place. But a knowledge-based economy took third place with more than 2400 votes. This demonstrates a democratic citizenry’s ability not only to identify priorities, but also to make decisions on its own perspectives.

Not many mayors have the courage to ask open questions. But where in today’s Polish society is the discussion about a knowledge-based society and its corresponding value chains?

Initially, Prime Minister Morawiecki tried to address the topic, but then he went in a different direction. He and his party see governance as power, whereas governance should be a service. That is the difference. To achieve progress, one must not only follow a rationale, but also have a vision of how to implement change. If you see yourself as a service provider for the people, then it works quite well.

Isn’t the reality of official Polish politics that you define yourself through a friend-foe relationship? Berlin, Brussels, and Moscow are considered enemies to fight against. Does this reflect the spirit of Marshal Piłsudski, whose Three Seas Initiative sets the strategy of the future?

Yes, that is exactly the way in which Kaczyński and his supporters operate. But this way of thinking is a relic of the 19th century. The world no longer works that way. Today, transnational networks are important and you have to move within them. There have been attempts to turn back time, but they will never succeed unless these people start a war. The populist’s goal is power for power’s sake. With Kaczyński, this is now completely obvious. The way he deals with the presidential elections in Poland clearly illustrates this.

How strongly is the fate of Ukraine linked to Poland?

We are not only neighbors, but relatives. However, Ukraine is in a more difficult situation economically, demographically, and in terms of its relations with Russia. Corruption is strong and the state is weak. Nevertheless, there have been three positive social developments in Ukraine’s recent history: the Orange Revolution, the Maidan, and the recent presidential elections, which made a new start in the presidential office possible. Ukraine’s terrible problem is that all three upheavals to date have resulted in disappointment. The demographic upheavals are particularly dramatic in Ukraine. Fifteen million fewer people now live in Ukraine than during the Soviet era. There must be deeper reasons for this. It is mainly the young people who are leaving. Many of them come to Poland. Wroclaw has very strong links with Lviv because its inhabitants have been resettled in the city formerly inhabited by Germans. Not only is there a partnership between the cities, but in the history of Poland Lviv has played a similar role to Wroclaw in German history. In 1990, the two cities were on the same level in economic terms. Now, Wroclaw has a 20-year lead. This is thanks to the European Union, not so much to financial support, but mainly to higher standards and a new outlook. Being a member of the European family has made people think more broadly. That is why the future of Europe is critically important for Ukraine.

During your time as mayor of Wrocław, tens of thousands of Ukrainians lived in the city as workers and students. Why is that?

In 2004, the BBC invited me to London as a guest on the talk show “Hardtalk”. At that time, I was asked whether there were enough laborers and skilled workers in view of Poland and Wroclaw’s economic development. I simply didn’t understand the question, because unemployment in Poland stood at 20% and at 13% in Wroclaw, and many young people were entering the labor market. Meanwhile, we have more jobs than people to fill them. Of the 276 regions of the European Union, the Wroclaw region is number one in Europe in terms of the number of jobs. We created more than 400,000 jobs in the sub-region shortly after the EU expansion. This has benefited many people, not only Ukrainians. Before the pandemic, there were around 200,000 foreigners in the Wroclaw conurbation, half of whom were Ukrainians. The other half were people from 120 other countries. For the Ukrainians, the higher salaries were a major factor, but for young people from northern Italy or Spain, Poland’s dynamic development meant a greater number of professional opportunities than they had at home. You may earn less than in the West, but you can develop your career more quickly. I don’t know what the world will look like after the crisis. My biggest fear is that the tense situation will lead to isolation and small-mindedness, because I really wanted to make Wroclaw an international city.

How would you describe the relationship between the Polish and Ukrainians?

Before the Second World War, Poland was multicultural, also in ethnic terms. After the war, Poland became very homogeneous and increasingly hostile toward foreigners. That’s why the Ukrainians have presented an opportunity for us to turn this corner as well. The Ukrainians look like us, they are also Christians, they also speak a Slavic language, and they learn to speak Polish quite well within a few months. As mayor of Wroclaw, I asked the Ukrainians whether we should found a Ukrainian school there. But they didn’t want to. They preferred – and this is typical of new immigrants – that Ukrainian children be taught in Polish, so that they could integrate more quickly. Thanks to people from Ukraine, the locals could see that foreigners are not that different, that they are our brothers and sisters, and that they are here to help us. That is why Ukrainians are very socially significant for Poland and for Wroclaw.

What are Poland’s interests with regard to Ukraine?

It is in Poland’s interest to have good cooperation with Ukraine and to eventually bring it into the European Union. In both cultural and geographical terms, Ukraine is a part of Europe. The European Union is essential for the country’s existence, security, and development. Unfortunately, Ukraine will certainly not make it on its own.

Does this also apply to Belarus?

Yes, in a broader sense it does, but President Lukashenko is a different case. Poland joined NATO in 1997 and the European Union in 2004 on the condition of an independent judiciary and functioning democracy. At the time, we fulfilled these conditions. Belarus is not a democracy and has a long way to go. The pandemic has made any enlargement of the EU more difficult. Nevertheless, Belarus should be given a long-term prospect of joining the EU.

Do you think it is possible that Polish- Russian relations will improve and that common interests will come to the fore?

While this is a matter of great importance, with President Putin it is out of the question. There are also deeper historical and psychological problems in Polish-Russian relations. There is an anecdote that best describes what the Poles think about Russia: it happened after the First World War. A commission was responsible for defining the border between Poland and the former Soviet Union. In a field, it was discovered that the new border would run through a house. The Commission said: “No, that is not possible, we must move the border a little, but in which direction?” It was decided to ask the farmer: “Mr Farmer, once the border has been mapped, would you rather live in Poland or in Russia?” And then the farmer immediately said: “In Poland, please.” So we moved the border fifty meters to the east. When the farmer was asked why he chose Poland without hesitation, he said: “The winter is much colder on the Russian side”.

But that doesn’t mean the summer is warmer on the German side. Relations with Germany have worsened under the current government and the country is now seen as an enemy on the Russian side. How can we move away from this?

German-Polish reconciliation has been achieved. I did my best. You can feel that most directly in the border towns. Five-thousand Poles already live in Görlitz and there is a common labor market. Kaczyński really thinks that the Germans are our dangerous enemies. He told me himself the story about his meeting with Helmut Kohl during a state visit to Poland. At that time, Kaczyński was State Secretary to President Walesa. Kohl said to Kaczyński: “You know, Mr. Kaczyński, first of all I am a human being, secondly I am a Christian, thirdly I am German. But Kaczyński’s reaction was: “My priorities are completely different: Firstly, I am Catholic, secondly, I am Polish, thirdly, I am a human being.” Completely the other way round. But both Poles and Germans are human beings first and foremost. That someone who thinks like Kaczyński has been given power is dangerous. By the way, even for the much younger Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, the history of the Second World War - the Germans started it - is still important. He feels deeply connected with Polish heroes and talks about it constantly. I too know our history, but openness and reconciliation are much more important. Reconciliation has indeed been achieved, but it must be constantly supported, as the Robert Bosch Stiftung does. This is something you have to work on all the time, especially if you have such political leaders.

The Polish Prime Minister’s attitude is all the more surprising because not only did he do an internship at the Deutsche Bundesbank, he studied European law at the universities of Frankfurt and Hamburg. If he isn’t a representative of Poland’s young, cosmopolitan, liberal generation, then who is?

There are two possible explanations. Firstly, he is probably mentally older than his years. Secondly, he is cynical. Power plays an important role for him. The rhetoric about the German and Russian enemies is used for domestic politics. He doesn’t consider that he is setting something in motion that could put Poland’s future at risk. I see unfortunate parallels to the United Kingdom. When then-Prime Minister of Great Britain, David Cameron, announced years ago that he would hold a referendum on leaving the EU, he never thought that Brexit would actually happen. And then it did. In that sense, the country reaped what Cameron sowed. His country and the whole of Europe will suffer as a result.

What does Kaczyński think of the European idea?

Here, too, I can answer with an anecdote. When Lech Kaczyński was president of Poland, he came to Berlin, where there was a meeting with the president of the Bundestag. At the beginning, Kaczyński said: “You know, Mr President, we always have problems with Germany. First, the Second World War, and now we had to enter the European Union because of Germany.” The President of the Bundestag then said: “It’s true about the Second World War. We were guilty, and we will apologize honestly. But it is not true about the European Union, because it is not compulsory. I am pleased about Poland’s accession to the EU, but that was your decision.” So Kaczyński stood up and said: “Then I will say goodbye. Goodbye.” Anyone with such an attitude is voted out of office. Poland will continue to develop as a member of the European Union. I am sure of that.

What is the responsibility of companies investing in Poland? What is the relationship between investments and politics?

That is a difficult question. Many years ago, foreign investment brought the Western capitalist model to Poland. We did not have a free market economy, so foreign capital was important for the process of opening up. Even the way the Polish eat changed after the investments. In the past, people didn’t eat much yoghurt or salad – their diets only became more diverse thanks to international trade. Investors now earn good money in Poland, which does not always stay in the country, but they also create jobs. This is important, because income tax remains in Poland. Work is also a value in itself. This has become even more evident during the pandemic. A successful policy is not possible without sufficient jobs; I saw that clearly during my time as mayor. Building a functioning economy calls for a combination of financial, human, and social capital.

From a German perspective, what opportunities have been ignored or remained unseen with regard to Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus?

Fortunately, Chancellor Angela Merkel brought an understanding of Central and Eastern Europe to the table. Her home, the Uckermark, is close to the Polish border and she knew the people from her studies and travels. But Merkel’s time is coming to an end. My concern is that her successors, most likely from the western part of Germany, will be more distant from Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine. They probably have little knowledge or feeling for the region. When the Germans close their eyes, they dream of Russia. There is also Ukraine, Belarus, and the three Baltic states. Fortunately, they are already in the European Union. Germany is clearly the most important state in the EU. That is why it has a corresponding responsibility for Central and Eastern Europe, which it must also fulfil.

Thank you very much.

This interview was first published in Bosch Megatrends Report 10.

Rafal Dutkiewicz rund 30p


Dr. Rafał Dutkiewicz is the former mayor of the city of Wrocław (2002-2018) and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy. He holds the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta and is a member of the French Legion of Honor as well as of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

You might also be interested in

AHEAD OF THE CURVE – Learn more about the results of our workshop here

From 10-20 May, 2017, the Robert Bosch Academy in cooperation with the German Commission for UNESCO hosted a workshop on cultural diversity. Mike van Graan, Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow, and Christine M. Merkel, Head of Division for Culture, Communication...

Read more

Pandemic as a Historical Turning Point?

How will the COVID-19 pandemic shape the way government, business, and life unfolds once the health emergency subsides? – Doug Saunders in an online talk show with the Canadian TV network TVOntario 

Read from an external site

Peaceful Societies are linked to the Status of its Minorities

Worldwide the number of inner state conflicts rise. Its implications affect regional but also global structures and power relations, in particular the relations between different ethnic or religious groups. Israel is an example which illustrates the...

Read more