Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Poland’s Problem with Eco-Terrorists

This isn’t quite as fishy as it might look at first sight. According to the Gazeta Wyborcza more than two million people have left Poland since it joined the EU three years ago, a large majority of them under 35. It is not unreasonable that the provinces which are losing people faster than anywhere should seek to make themselves attractive to the sort of investment which might keep some of their young people at home. Investors are put off by the state of Poland’s infrastructure. Unemployment remains high. Feelings of frustration and stagnation grow.

So governments like the present one get elected, largely on the back of provincial disaffection with a post-Communist ‘boom’ in which such regions have little share.

An ugly streak in the political culture begins to make itself felt. Anti-Semitic, anti-German, anti-Russian, anti-European and homophobic sentiments had been ‘out of the closet’ here already for some time before the recent outbursts in Brussels. So unsurprisingly perhaps even more of the young want out, particularly the brighter ones. And so on. We maybe shouldn’t marvel then that a provincial capital fights tooth and nail to have a major road running past it.

You might think that the elephant in this room would be railways but you would be wrong. As elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the climate change debate is much lower-profile than in the West. Again, understandably, given that these countries, for now, pollute less and are richer in wildlife than their western neighbours. Consumerism’s thrills and spills (its car culture in particular) are still relatively new.

But the resulting complacency could cost them dear and the Natura 2000 legislation, to which they signed up on accession, comes not a moment too soon. All the more lamentable, then, that even such improvements to the rail network as are proposed likewise run into trouble – with the EU! A high-speed rail-link to Germany, and another from

Poznań to Wrocław, have both been halted, by the EU, because of potential damage to sites protected under its own Natura 2000 legislation. It sounds as if EU departments, as well member-states, need to talk more.

The result, predictably enough, has been name-calling in all directions. In Augustow – the town still awaiting its by-pass – I listened to environmentalists being denounced over megaphones as ‘eco-terrorists’ at a protest organised by the local office of the currently governing party (Law and Justice Party).

It was on the day that her government was taken to court over Rospuda that I went to see Barbara Kondrat, Under-Secretary of the Ministry of Transport. In her spacious Warsaw office she explained to me, in what was a lecture rather than an interview, that the European Commission ‘must learn to listen’. Polish environmentalist NGOs, furthermore, were at best amateur naturalists, motivated chiefly by hunger for power and funding. The government had sent its professors into the forest at Rospuda, to seek out capercaillies, a kind of grouse, which the NGOs claim is present. They had not found so much as the droppings of a capercailly. QED.

The ‘eco-terrorists’ for their part are no less exasperated. They see Natura 2000 as a tool empowering civil society in Poland as never before and surveys suggest that the country as a whole supports them in this particular instance at least. They see the government’s attempts to discredit them as the over-reaction of an immature political culture.

Such cases serve to demonstrate that this has become a bitterly divided society. And the divisions run very deep. Small wonder perhaps that parties like Law and Justice have found such support for a platform which promises to clear up all this confusion. The outside world and foreigners generally are restored to their status as Evil Oppressors, with ethnic minorities, homosexuals – and now the EU – on hand to act as Fifth Column. Poland a Christ among nations once more.

You think I exaggerate but examine the Rospuda debate in this light. At issue here are highly complex and contradictory feelings about the role of civil society itself and its role in monitoring the way Poland develops. To the mainstream it may be academic whether the development will be determined – as it was in Western Europe – by car culture and advertising generally, or whether it will retain some critical distance from that model, the flaws in which are by now obvious enough to climate scientists and psychiatrists alike. The television sets of this majority sell them the first alternative for several hours each evening. It is rare enough that the second ever makes itself heard at all, for all its credentials. What chance, then, a productive dialogue?

If the mainstream culture fails, as it has here, to offer the majority a sense of wellbeing, it will be sorely tempted to demonise its critics, thereby disrupting the mechanism, the dialogue, which makes civil society meaningful. One of the criticisms levelled against environmental NGOs in Poland is that they are well organised to the point of being downright sinister (as the TV networks are presumably deemed not to be.) It is also clear that the support base of these NGOs, in general, forms a relatively small, relatively well-educated minority, instinctively international in outlook, often with little leverage on the state other than that provided by the new EU legislation. Legislation which still feels, for many Poles, like a foreign imposition.

But it hardly follows that the minority in question here should accept the role of defencelessness being offered it. The Rospuda Valley was taken up by the Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s foremost liberal paper – as part of its wider critique of the present government, its policies on education and homosexuality in particular. Such campaigns are, and should be, both well chosen and well organised. Because on their outcome depends not just the route of this or that by-pass, or this or that curriculum, but the very possibility of getting an alternative idea of development across. By calling attention to the government’s plans for the valley they tapped into widespread unease at the environmental destruction of recent years, and set that damage more generally in the context of other governmental short-sightedness.

In a country often too hungry for development of any kind to pause and distinguish between the reckless and the thought-through, such campaigns are invaluable. ‘Of course Europe is watching this closely: they want to know what sort of EU members will the new countries be?’ Adam Wajrak, a writer for the Gazeta who lives in the Bia łowie ża National Park, told me. ‘This argument about Rospuda is not about left versus right, or young versus old, or educated versus un-educated. We have support from all kinds of people. The argument is between an open-minded Poland and a Poland with its mind closed. It’s a question about whether the state will protect the public good in the public’s interest, or exploit it for short-term benefits.’

A quarrel, perhaps, then, ultimately, between those for whom, on the one hand, freedom is formulaic – something a society agrees has now ‘arrived’. Then you didn’t have it, because of the evil foreign oppressor, now you do, because of the advertisements on TV. It’s a fixed quantity. You have political independence – that means you are free to pollute as much as you like and insult your neighbours and exhume your war-dead to make your ghoulish point at an EU summit. You have privatisation and political witch-hunts – that means you are ‘free’ of the Communist past.

W.H.Auden contrasted ‘new styles of architecture’ with ‘a change of heart’ in the post-war world – and post-Communist countries, not just Poland, have found themselves in a comparable dilemma. There are, moreover, plenty of ‘neighbourhoods’ in Europe, east and west, with a troubled past to contend with: Flems and Walloons in Belgium, England-Scotland-Ireland, Slovakia-Hungary-Romania, Serbia-Bulgaria-Macedonia. All happy family it ain’t and nothing comes more easily to a certain sort of European than historical grievances. Rising above all that, or at least trying, is why the EU was set up.

And that is why, for others, freedom is a condition which must remain in vital contact, yes, with memory – but also with changing circumstances, fresh data. It must remain always able to re-define itself accordingly. So whatever the historical misfortunes that have caused the under-development of, say, this particular province, or of Poland more generally, that cannot be a valid reason for repeating all the environmental mistakes made by Western Europe over the past 50 years. In this surely the defenders of the Rospuda Valley were and are right: their sensitivity to the actual is both what makes freedom difficult, and what makes it worthwhile.

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