Adam Michnik: “Neo-Soviet Putin culture and the Berlusconi-type mafia culture have come to co-exist in Ukraine”

22 January 2013, 15:30

Polish civil and political activist, spin-doctor behind Solidarity and founder of the influential Polish daily Gazetа Wyborczа, Adam Michnik, was recently invited by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict to speak at the US Institute of Peace. Mr. Michnik and Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a well-known Egyptian dissident, who criticized the Mubarak regime for decades and was his political prisoner, shared their experience of protecting liberty in their two countries with US diplomats and experts. The lecture revealed several aspects of Solidarity’s struggle for Polish democracy in the 20th century that could be of interest and use to Arab Spring activists, as well as to Ukrainian civil society. Adam Michnik talks to The Ukrainian Week about the outlook for democracy in Ukraine.  

UW: More and more activists, journalists and intellectuals think that it will be a movement like Polands Solidarity rather than a political leader that will take Ukraine to a new level of development. Could it be too late?

Your country’s politics is at a difficult stage in history. But I don’t agree with many Polish colleagues who have a pessimistic view of Ukraine’s democratic outlook. The recent parliamentary election proved that Ukraine is not Russia. It’s a different country with a different society and a different system of values. The outcome of the election showed that your country is pluralistic and will remain so. Yanukovych does not have Putin’s status and will not gain it in the near future. What is going on in Ukraine at this point is the birth – albeit very painful – of a democratic country and society. This is always a difficult process: in the UK, France and even more so in Germany, just as in Poland. In Ukraine, there are still grounds for optimism.

The fact that the ideas of a civil movement are being born at this point is interesting. It is a motion of no confidence against political elites. In addition, civil society is maturing, moving to a higher level. I don’t know whether this idea will come to life or fade away, but its very existence signals hope for a change in society.

UW: In your opinion, what is the biggest obstacle in the development of Ukraine and its society?

Just like many other post-Communist countries, your country has developed two extreme cultures: Putin’s neo-Soviet and a Berlusconi-type mafia. The latter believes that money buys everything, from politicians and the media, to voters. It’s a huge problem that cannot be resolved in the short term. But it should be clearly diagnosed so that society is aware of it. Civil society should build institutions to resist these corrupt and authoritarian mechanisms.

UW: Will civil activists turned politicians help solve the problems you mentioned? Quite a few activists and journalists ran in the last parliamentary election. This fueled a debate about where a journalist is of more use: in parliament or in the media, revealing the government’s wrongdoings…

Of course, a journalist can become a politician but he stops being a journalist as soon as he enters parliament. It’s impossible to combine the two.  

UW: But, for example, Mykola Kniazhytsky, former Executive Director at TVi where you are member of the Supervisory Board, was elected to parliament but wants to continue his Evening With Mykola Kniazhytsky show.

This is unacceptable. The tension and conflict between the worlds of politics and the media are completely natural. Clearly, a journalist can have his or her own political preferences. If one wants to gain power, he or she should leave the media. One cannot be a prosecutor and a judge at the same time!

Journalists rarely go into politics in Poland. More often, politicians become journalists or columnists after leaving the political arena.

UW: At the turn of the 1980-1990s, a new elite took the helm in Poland. They were mostly representatives of civil society, including you. Is this transfer to democracy irreversible?  

Doctor Saad told us that Mohamed Morsi, the newly-elected current President of Egypt, had been in jail with him, he was Mubarak’s political prisoner, a democrat, an intellectual and a professor. After his release from prison and being on the other side of the fence, with power in hands, Morsi has been sliding towards dictatorship and acting just like Mubarak. This was the problem with Lenin, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, and me too. I never wanted to be a politician, but I had been deeply involved in politics, struggling against a dictatorship. Then I ended up in parliament. That was the first convention of the Sejm, right after Poland moved away from Communism and began to build a democratic state. It’s like a war, I told myself: every architect, plumber or journalist puts on a uniform and goes to the front for the duration of the war. The first parliament in post-Socialist Poland was my war. After we won the election I returned to civil life and stopped being a politician. Many of my colleagues stayed in politics and never took off their uniform. Their philosophy was: “Until now, we were ruled by Communists ruled; we are now in power”. “We” were Solidarity and Catholics. I saw this as a danger. I called it “anti-Communism with a Bolshevik face”. What we needed after the dictatorship was average temperatures and compromises, even if they were unpleasant. It was a time of a harsh debate about taking Jaruzelski (the last Communist leader of Poland – Ed.) to court in Poland.  He not only introduced martial law but was also the one who brought Poland out of it and helped in its transition into a democracy. I was among Jaruzelski’s advocates, although I was his prisoner for many years. My reasoning was that we could not start another civil war immediately after the ending another. Communication should involve everyone, from right-wing nationalists to Communists and religious fundamentalists. After what happened in Poland, we have no right to be pessimistic. We have to believe that people can change for the better. It’s risky. But we, the dissidents, have been telling ourselves the following all our lives: he who does not risk, does not go to jail.

UW: You talk about a possible downslide in democracy throughout Central and Eastern Europe, similar to that in Hungary under Viktor Orban and in Ukraine under Yanukovych. How can the younger generation, which has never seen authoritarianism in action and is not immune to Communist dictatorship, resist it?

I don’t have an obvious answer for this. I don’t know how young people behave. They don’t know who Brezhnev and Shcherbytsky were. They are very cynical. This is typical for any post-revolutionary situation. Revolution involves tension, risk, emotion, idealism and sacrifice. When all of this ends, another slogan comes into being: “It’s time to enjoy life!” Today we can freely fly to the Canary Islands, have exotic drinks, buy cars, etc. It’s is a typical post-homo sovieticus generation. Who knows which way it will turn – this is something that’s impossible to predict. Take Russia. Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a model of a smart former Komsomol member who built a business worth billions. At a certain point, he became an idealist. For me, he is one of the moral role models in Russia. An extraordinary man – a Rockefeller turned into Nelson Mandela! Who would have thought that such a thing is possible?  

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