(New York Times)
WARSAW — It was 9:30 at night, under a chilly, steady rain. The Presidential Palace glowed brightly in the background as a cluster of men and women huddled under umbrellas, saying prayers, holding small wooden crosses against their bodies, facing a large picture of Jesus Christ on the cross and a lighted statue of the Virgin Mary.
They had come to protest against the president, Bronislaw Komorowski, and the prime minister, Donald Tusk, in a vigil that began in the early days after a plane crash in April that killed Lech Kaczynski, then the president, and his wife and dozens of the nation’s top political and military leaders.
As the days have turned into weeks and now months, as their demands have shifted from keeping a cross outside the Presidential Palace to building a permanent monument to replacing the president, their nightly vigil has come to represent the deep social and political cleavages threatening to derail one of the great success stories of the former Soviet bloc, a number of people here said in a series of recent interviews.
Perhaps surprisingly, Poles actually have sound reasons to celebrate: they have navigated the treacherous transition from Communism better than most of the post-Soviet satellite nations, and theirs is the only country in Europe to have avoided a recession during the financial crisis.
Instead, they are feeling insecure, pessimistic and uncertain about the future, and they have turned on one another.
“We have a beautiful face in tough times and during difficult moments, but in normal times, we are lost,” said Jan Oldakowski, an opposition member of the Parliament who was one of several members of the opposition Law and Justice Party to recently quit the party to form a more centrist coalition. “With freedom, Poles do not know how to cooperate with each other.”
The political leadership is at war with itself. Personal attacks and insults are flying. Politicians have traded accusations of drug abuse, mental illness, collaborating with the Nazis and being agents of Moscow. They have said of one another that they would be better off dead. The former prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who lost a bid to become president after his twin brother died in the crash, has refused to shake hands with Mr. Tusk, refused to attend the main memorial service for the crash this year and has turned against some of his closest allies, prompting them to quit the Law and Justice Party, which the Kaczynski brothers founded in 2001.
“Poles always feel they need to have an enemy,” Urszula Slawinska, 38, said one day as she walked along a sidewalk in Warsaw, an average citizen, headed home, uninvolved in politics, yet keenly aware of what was happening around her. “Because of our history we define ourselves, to be Polish meant to protect our country. So now that we don’t have to protect ourselves, we still need to find an enemy.”
Inevitably, in this conservative, majority Catholic country, the church also finds itself caught up in the internecine fighting. Its leadership is split, with some outspoken clerics backing the political opposition while others are trying to move the institution away from partisan politics. There is a strong anticlerical movement, and there is growing concern within the religious community that Poland will itself become a more secular society like much of Europe.
“I am very pessimistic,” said the Rev. Maciej Zieba, a popular priest here. “It is a providential moment for Poland. The political life is awful. For me as a Catholic priest, it is not good, either.”
The fighting has had little impact on Poland’s still strong economy, with predictions of 4 percent growth next year. But some economists are warning that unless serious issues are addressed, Poland is headed for trouble. Economists said that once development money from the European Union slowed in 2012, the country would hit its constitutional debt limit. That will require cutting spending, raising taxes or raiding the retirement system. They also warn that Poland could face a power shortage in a few years that could cause blackouts.
“In two or three years, we could face a disaster, truly a disaster,” said an economist, Krzystof Rybinski, who said that the political infighting had diverted the public debate from issues to vitriol. “Our society does not understand the challenges it faces. The driving force now is politics and public relations.”
He said that there were structural issues that needed to be addressed, like a bureaucracy that discouraged entrepreneurship and that had ballooned in five years by 100,000 employees to a total of 430,000, about 1 percent of the population.
The combination of success and fear has created dissonance in Poland. People understand how far they have come in just two decades, but also feel that they are stuck in the mud of politics, unable to address looming problems in social welfare spending and government finance.
“We are talking about reform, but we are not doing anything,” said Lukasz Turski, a physicist at Cardinal Wyszynski University. “All reforms ended in the 1990s.”
The crowds outside the Presidential Palace gathered in the early hours after the plane crash in April. At first, the nation was unified in shock and grief. But soon after the tragedy exposed deep divisions in society, accentuating the gulf that exists between the political classes, different sections of society (especially between big cities and smaller towns and villages), and the distance between almost everyone and the clergy.
A clash that developed over whether to keep the cross in front of the palace was not just a clash over religious values and symbols. “The people at the Presidential Palace were not fighting for the cross or the church,” said Janusz Palikot, a member of Parliament who started his own political party. “There are two visions of Poland struggling to co-exist.”
A large cross placed outside the palace became a political statement, a show of support for a vision of a more conservative, more religious, more nationalistic Poland, a Poland run by the Kaczynski brothers, many political scientists, religious leaders and demonstrators said.
The other vision for Poland, championed by the governing party of Mr. Tusk and President Komorowski, was more focused on Europe, on adopting the euro, on ending Poland’s military presence in Afghanistan and on a state in which religion would be more personal and less institutional. The church leadership adopted an official position of remaining silent on the issue, which only angered both sides. “The church was not guilty. It was a conflict between the two parties,” said Father Zieba. “But the winners are the politicians. Who was the loser? The church.”
In the early morning hours one day in September, a presidential aide slipped out of the palace and removed the cross. For a few days that seemed to be the end of it, and then the demonstrators were back, enraged. The demonstrators now say they see the removal of the cross as part of a conspiracy to cover up the real causes of the plane crash, which occurred while the officials were arriving in Smolensk, Russia, for an event honoring the 22,000 Polish officers murdered at Katyn Forest by the Soviets in 1940. The demonstrators think the Russians were behind the crash, and perhaps their own government as well.
“I feel slapped in the face that the president does not find out about what really happened at the Smolensk tragedy,” shouted Andrzej Hadacz, 49, as he slapped his hands together.
So the protesters continue to assemble, and political experts say the government continues to avoid making tough decisions in an effort to preserve its popularity in the fractured political environment, political scientists said.
The former polish president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, who served for 10 years, said the best way to describe Poland today was with a short story: “A group of children say to a rabbi, ‘Please tell us in a few words what the situation is,’ ” and the rabbi answers, ‘Good.’
“The children say, ‘Perhaps you can use a few more words, and the rabbi responds, ‘Not good.’ ”
The former president laughed, but then said that the story was not funny.