“Kremlin trolls,” “Putin’s useful idiots,” “Russian 5th column in Poland”, “threat to national security” – these are the epithets maliciously hurled at the two-year-old Polish political party Zmiana by the Polish mainstream media and government officials. “Russian spy,” “Chinese spy,” “Iraqi spy,” “agent of Putinist influence,” – these are the non-existent and baseless slanders for which Zmiana’s leader, Mateusz Piskorski, has been imprisoned in solitary confinement in Warsaw since May 2016.
But Piskorski has been behind bars for more than nine months, and on February 7th he was sentenced to another three, despite the fact that no official charges, indictment, or evidence have been presented. Zmiana, meanwhile, has to this day still been refused registration as a political party. At the time of this article’s writing, the mass media has launched a new campaign denouncing Zmiana for being “linked to ISIS” on the grounds that one of its leaders is Syrian-born and supports the Palestinian liberation struggle.
What is Zmiana? Who is Mateusz Piskorski? Why are they so feared and repressed by the Polish regime whose ruling party is so hypocritically named Law and Justice? The answers to these two questions are long overdue for Western readers.
In Polish, zmiana means “change.” Zmiana’s first programmatic declaration after its founding in February, 2014 reads: “Change – we all want it! […] Our goal is a change of politics, not a cosmetic surgery, but a deep uprooting of the disgraced structures of the anti-social system. Change means replacing this system with a new order built for the people and by the people. Citizens must once again have control over their destiny and have the final say in public affairs.”
For Zmiana, change means regaining Poland’s sovereignty from the clutches of the US, NATO, and perfidious transnational corporations, and using Polish sovereignty to guarantee dignity, justice, and livelihood to Poles. Only on this basis, Zmiana affirms, can Poland play a peaceful and constructive role in international relations.
“But,” the uninformed but well-intentioned Western reader will ask, “didn’t Poland already regain independence and justice when communism fell?” Zmiana, like nearly half of Poles according to the most extensive surveys, would say “no” or “not exactly.”
The topic of the People’s Republic of Poland is an entirely unfamiliar one in the West. Perhaps the only “milestone” of the period known to American readers is its overthrow largely contributed to by the “trade union” Solidarity. Of course, the “detail” is omitted that Solidarity was infiltrated and funded to the tune of $10 million by the CIA and itself remains one of the single most scandal-riddled entities in Polish history which subsequently betrayed Polish workers to brutal austerity, privatization, and Western corporations in the blink of an eye. Rather, the history of socialism in Poland is one of a country ruined by war and genocide rebuilt into an industrial power whose wealth was used to guarantee Polish workers socio-economic guarantees unknown to people in the West. The socialist experience in Poland displayed all the gains of 20th century socialism for nation-building and popular welfare. Against all odds, Poland not only re-emerged on the map, but made a comeback as a country in which illiteracy was rapidly eradicated and employment, housing, education, healthcare, leisure, and other socio-economic conditions written off in the West as “privileges” were guaranteed to all Polish citizens by law. In terms that are impossible to understate, within two decades of the Second World War, life expectancy for Poles skyrocketed from 46 in the 1930’s and 25 (!) during the war to 70. Not only was People’s Poland a Poland of reconstruction and attaining new socio-economic and scientific heights, but it was a defining period in which the post-war generations built from scratch a Poland here to stay whose development benefitted not a minority of capitalists, but its working people who played an active role in determining their country’s future and wealth. Despite all of the problems which later plagued Polish socialism, it was a Poland of growth and social justice unparalleled in its history.
After 1989, not only were these socio-economic rights stripped away, but the very foundations that made them viable or in the very least potentially achievable were demolished.
To let Poles speak for themselves on this matter, according to a Pew Research survey, a hefty 43% of citizens over 40 (i.e., those who lived at least two decades in the People’s Republic of Poland) say that Poles are economically worse off now, and a considerable 25% of Poles ages 18-39 say the same. Poles who say life is “about the same” account for another 25%. While this may stand out as less favorable compared to other former socialist bloc countries’ assessments of life under and after socialism, it still speaks volumes, especially in contrast to the ruling elite and the media’s daily slandering of anything and everything in Poland before 1989.
With the collapse of the Polish People’s Republic and Poland’s entry into the Washington-dictated European Union and NATO, Poland did not “regain” sovereignty, much less justice, but forfeited such to the Atlanticist project. Poland was transformed from a country of growth into a country of self-destruction. Every year, college-educated Polish youth emigrate en masse in search of a livelihood only to end up as a cheap labor source for Western corporations. Poland itself, meanwhile, has been de-industrialized, and thus deprived of the capacity to pursue independent and effective social and economic policies which in People’s Poland were guaranteed and, even if not always realized, remained the goal.
On the level of foreign policy, Poland has been encouraged to work against its own interests and security by purposefully aggravating relations with its Eastern neighbors and participating in US wars of aggression. Now, with the deployment of thousands of US-NATO troops, tanks, and missile systems on its soil and the Polish government’s relinquishment of jurisdiction over foreign armed forces on its territory, Poland is de facto under occupation. This occupation is not a mere taxation on Poland’s national budget – it is an undeniable liquidation of sovereignty and inevitably turns the country into a direct target and battlefield in the US’ provocative war on Russia. Mateusz Piskorski admits: “Comparing these two periods, whether we like it or not, it turns out that things are in favor of People’s Poland.” Zmiana’s General Secretary, Tomasz Jankowski, has cogently compared the supposedly “patriotic” Polish regime’s invitation of US-NATO occupation to Duke Konrad Mazowiecki’s invitation of the Teutonic Order to Poland in 1226, a move perpetrated under the pretext of thwarting threats from the East that ended in embroiling Poland in war with its Teutonic “protectors” for two centuries.
In a cogent appeal to uphold Polish sovereignty, Jankowski wrote: “[D]ear compatriots, it’s not the Russians who are going to occupy us now – they left here voluntarily 24 years ago. It’s not the Russians that have ravaged Polish industry since 1989. It’s not the Russians that have stifled Poles with usurious debt. Finally, it’s not the Russians that are responsible for the fact that we have become the easternmost aircraft carrier of the United States anchored in Europe. We ourselves, who failed by allowing such traitors into power, are to blame for this.”
Zmiana, therefore, rejects the current objectification of Poland and is committed to regaining Polish sovereignty and affirming a Polish raison d’etat. This manifests itself on three main fronts.
Zmiana: Work – Peace- Patriotism
1. Multipolarity and the Geopolitics of Peace
Poland as a state has disappeared from the map more than a handful of times in history, at one time for more than a century. For Zmiana, therefore, it is time to learn history’s lesson: the Polish people must base their security on friendly relations with all countries, especially their more powerful neighbors. Poland cannot afford to base its security on fulfilling the whims of a foreign power, and it cannot afford to pursue an imperial mission which pits it in a war against all. Both such traditions in Polish history have led to catastrophe and are illogical and counterproductive in the changing geopolitical and cultural arrangement of the 21st century.
In the 21st century, Poland’s bet is therefore on multipolarity and peace. This does not mean relinquishing “Polish interests,” however they might be defined (more on this below), but means realizing that Poland offers a unique place on the map and in the heritage of Europe and Eurasia, and should strive to preserve its integrity by playing the role of a constructive partner in mutually beneficial relations. In today’s conditions, according to Zmiana’s foreign policy program, this means that Poland must exit NATO and “engage in the construction of a European Security System from Vladivostok to Lisbon.” Otherwise, Zmiana says, “NATO’s geopolitics turns Poland into the foremost staging point in Eastern Europe aimed against the nuclear power that is the Russian Federation.” By exiting NATO, Poland frees itself from the “guarantee of war” offered by the alliance in North Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and by engaging in a common security project involving both Europe and the burgeoning Eurasian Union, Poland can promote mutually-assured peace from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In order to play a sovereign role in any such project, Zmiana’s program posits that Poland must develop its own military capacity. Intertwined with this is Zmiana’s demand to withdrawal Polish boots from all the places that the US and NATO have dragged them, refuse the purchases and contracts which keep Poland’s armed forces tied to the Pentagon, and ensure that Polish soil will never again be home to CIA torture facilities. Zmiana’s program clearly states the need for “an unconditional ban on the stationing of any foreign armies or military installations on the territory of the Republic.”
Zmiana poster: “We don’t want American bases and rockets”
Contrary to the commonly held misconception, Zmiana is not unconditionally anti-European Union. Rather, Zmiana believes that the current European Union – characterized by submission to Washington, binding to NATO, neo-liberal economic policies, an interventionist Brussels bureaucracy, etc. – needs to be reformed, as do Poland’s association agreements with this union. In the words of Piskorski from a televised debate that has since disappeared from the internet, Zmiana wants “more Europe in Poland” – not a Washingtonian and Brussels Europe, but a “Europe of Fatherlands” and “Social Europe,” i.e., a “construct intended to provide benefits to all member-states, not the extension to the continent of the interests of a global hegemon from across the ocean and the dictatorship of the European Commission.” Instead, Zmiana stands for genuine European integration, for an independent, unified Europe based on sovereign countries seeking positive, productive relations with other countries and blocs, not confined to rubber-stamping enslaving agreements like the TTIP or CETA.
In Piskorski’s words: “The European Union requires deep reforms and transformation from a neo-liberal club for the rich politically subordinated to Washington into an independent, integrated bloc closely cooperating with the Eurasian Union. Beside this, the EU should return to a European social model which offers every citizen of each of the member states a defined sense of social and economic security.”
Thus, Zmiana’s program affirms: “Considering its geographical location, Poland can be a transit country, a bridge linking East and West, and this assures a favorable attitude towards the development of good, neighborly relations with major and minor entities in the region.”
Only such a Polish foreign policy outlook can work to assure Poland itself and other countries hitherto hindered opportunities and a peaceful and multipolar world order in the conditions of the 21st century. This stands in stark contrast to Poland’s current role as an agent provocateur of Washington. On this basis, Zmiana has firmly replied to all of those detracting it as “pro-Russian” with the argument that Zmiana is pro-Polish and, intimately inseparable from this, pro-peace.
Mateusz Piskorski brandishes a Polish flag at the Russian monument to the Katyn Massacre during a Polish-Russian reconciliation initiative
2. Historical Justice and Rediscovering Polishness
One of the main props of the Polish elite and obstacles standing in the way of an independent Polish consciousness is rampant historical revisionism – so rampant, that in Poland it almost no longer appears to be a “revision,” but the norm. Piskorski has identified this as NATO’s long-term campaign against historical memory. This new norm of Polish historical revisionism is predicated on two main angles, (1) transferring the blame for all of Poland’s historical difficulties onto foreign actors and consequentially (2) identifying disfavored incarnations of the Polish states as “not-Poland” or even an “anti-Poland.”
This anti-historical crusade is waged by a massive network of government and non-government institutions in an attempt to rewrite history to justify Poland’s present foreign and domestic policies. The ultimate aim is presenting Russia as meta-historically, existentially antagonistic towards Polish statehood (Russophobia at its finest) and annulling any criticisms of the Polish elite as anti-Polish and therefore pro-Russian. Freedom of speech and historical debate thus, as indicated in NATO’s new doctrine on combatting “Russian hybrid war” in Eastern Europe, are to be suppressed as inherently “destabilizing.”
The nurturing of mass cognitive dissonance among Poles is astonishing. While monuments to the liberation of Poland by the Soviet Red Army and Polish People’s Army are being systematically, physically dismantled, government campaigns promote the new line that the so-called “Accursed Soldiers” (armed anti-communist gangs during and after the Second World War) are the real liberators, even though there is nothing to show for this. Meanwhile, bestselling “histories” by the infamous Piotr Zychowicz promoted endlessly in bookshops and print media push the thesis that “if only Poles had sided with the Nazis,” then Poles would have “won” the Second World War. The logic here is clear: it is Russia, then incarnated in the USSR, that was/is existentially antagonistic towards Poles, while the Nazis’ designation of Poles as a subhuman race of slave laborers slated for ultimate extermination is merely a detail. What about the suicidal Warsaw Uprising of 1944 that ended in the Nazis’ near total punitive extermination of Warsaw’s population? Well, that’s Stalin’s fault, of course! What about the Polish People’s Republic? It wasn’t socialist Poland, but a “Russian occupation!” What about the tragic Smolensk airplane crash in 2010 that took the lives of much of then Polish officialdom? According to government ministers today, there can be no question that the Russians orchestrated it. What about the massive genocide against Poles at the hands of Ukrainian Nazi collaborators during the Second World War? The Russians organized it, Poland’s “defense” minister claims. No matter the fact that Ukrainian neo-Nazi leader Dmitry Yarosh, whose neo-Nazi paramilitaries were trained, armed, and funded by the Polish government, has openly said: “As for the Poles, we’ll do them a second Katyn massacre.”
The above are merely a handful of the monstrous distortions of Poland’s history that are not only repeatedly drummed into Poles through the education system and the media, but have received official government backing and funding as part of a deliberate campaign. Russophobia, extracted from particular historical conflicts between different incarnations of the Polish and Russian states, is elevated to the level of official ideology – to such an extent that it may very well soon turn out that Poland has had no history, because Russia has taken it all.
Zmiana adamantly opposes this manipulation of history or, as its program frankly calls it, “brainwashing for ad hoc political interests.”
“The first step towards the real sovereignty of the Polish people will be the moment that we stop assuming that our history is first and foremost dependent on external actors, and instead that we are responsible for our choices,” Zmiana’s General Secretary writes.
Jankowski continues: “We will be independent when we stop complaining to the Lord God about evil Russia, despicable Prussia, and treacherous Austria, and when we start seeing the reasons for the partitions in the weaknesses of the then Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Our independence will manifest itself when we stop regrettably remembering the Second Republic and Marshall [Pilsudski] ‘for wanting to do good but the commie maggots and Nazis didn’t allow him,’ and when we accept defeat in the Second World War as the result of the flawed doctrine of ‘two enemies’ adopted, as if from above, by Warsaw. Our thinking will be Polish thinking when the Warsaw Uprising will be seen as a failure not because the Red Army didn’t come to help, but because we ran at tanks with pistols. And finally: Poland will be Polish when we will want to build HER security, and not the ‘Eastern Flank of NATO’ or the ‘Western world’ with the ‘help’ of the Americans.”
Programmatically, the most important point of Zmiana in this regard is mobilizing Polish society’s intellectual capacity to openly debate history and its lessons and applications. Specifically urged in Zmiana’s program is establishing grants and public venues for young and non-establishment scholars, liquidating the infamous propagandistic Institute of National Remembrance, regulating the status of relevant NGO’s, and in their place “convening councils in which historians from our country will work to achieve a common understanding of the difficult stages in the history of relations with our neighbors.”
The fight for historical justice, or justice for history, is Zmiana’s great Gramscian battle. Without independent thinking, there can be no independent Poland.
3. Social Justice as the Key to Sovereignty
But Polish independence, and Poland itself, is impossible without the prosperity of the Polish people. Zmiana, therefore, – let’s call things by their names – is anti-capitalist. Zmiana not only wields its own affiliated trade union, the Zmiana Workers Unity Free Trade Union, which has done more to win gains for Polish workers in the last two years than the mythologized unions that sold out People’s Poland’s wealth over to a handful of oligarchs, but Zmiana also boasts a concrete and ambitious socio-economic program.
Poles must not be the subjects of big foreign capital, Zmiana urges, and the systematic liquidation of the industrial base that the generations of socialist Poland built from scratch on the ruins of the Second World War is depriving Poland of any future and Poles of dignity and livelihood. The post-socialist GDP growth lauded by the media and the regime’s audits, in Zmiana’s opinion, has not gone to benefit Polish workers or towards a sustainable economy. Piskorski explained in an interview: “More than 5,000 enterprises employing more than 1,000 people each were built out of the rubble of war between 1945 and 1989. After 1989, most of them were liquidated and in their place appeared only 500 new ones which violated workers’ rights and were owned by foreign capital.”
Zmiana’s program contains dozens of concrete, immediate policy proposals aimed at improving the livelihood of the majority of working Poles. But the most qualitative intended to empower the Polish working class and guarantee Poland a sustainable, just economy boil down to the following: (1) introducing the category of inalienable collective property into the constitution, (2) establishing a People’s Property Fund to coordinate the nationalizing and putting of strategic economic sectors on a planned basis, (3) withdrawing from the perfidious IMF and World Bank, (4) establishing development plans in coordination with representative workers’ unions, and (5) establishing a Reindustrialization Fund and a state-guaranteed Employment Fund. With these proposals, Zmiana strives to return Poland’s wealth to its people and unhinge the country’s political-economy from the whims of its anti-national, anti-social, and anti-Polish elite whose billions were made by expropriating the economy of former People’s Poland. Only by orienting Poland’s economy on a sustainable and just foundation can other spheres of the country’s life, such as education, healthcare, and environmental protection, be revived. Zmiana’s program stands out from other political parties’ “who are we and what do want” platforms by providing concrete budget estimates for the first five years of a potential Zmiana-led government. This, in Piskorski’s words, is a sine qua non for proving Zmiana’s accountability to Poles and a bold statement that “we are ready to exercise governance in Poland already today” beyond mere populist rhetoric. According to Zmiana’s program, this is a firm rebuff to the “constitutional fraud claiming the ‘realization of the principles of social justice’ and a ‘social market economy’” at the hands of which nearly 40 millions Poles have suffered since 1989.
In short, Zmiana’s detailed socio-economic program is a testament to its affirmation that only a Poland of, by, and for Poles can resolve the infinitely posed “Polish question.” In a Zmiana Poland, there will be no room for parasitic elites and the dictates of foreign capital.
The Piskorski Case as a Symptom
It is no coincidence that Zmiana has been targeted with outright political repression for this revolutionary vision for Poland and Poles and the protests it has led. As Piskorski proudly declared: “We will not complain, because it is obvious that the establishment reacts to us as a virus which could potentially lead to illness and death. We were aware of this from the very beginning…We will certainly not let them forget about us.”
Piskorski is a case and point of this. Two days after he publicly warned that US-NATO troops now have a mandate to suppress Polish dissent on the grounds of combatting “Russian hybrid war,” he was snatched up by armed agents of Poland’s Internal Security Agency while taking his children to school on May 18th, 2016. He was promptly imprisoned in Warsaw, where he remains with no formal charges to this day.
Security service raid of Zmiana’s office on May 18, 2016 – Even Polish flags were confiscated…
Mateusz Piskorski is a veteran symbol of resistance to Poland’s colonization. A doctor of political science, professor of international relations, and geopolitician who co-founded the European Center for Geopolitical Analysis, Piskorski first rose to prominence as the up and coming youthful parliamentarian of Poland’s Self-Defense Party. Often described as a “populist” party, Self-Defense became the “protest party”, the only major Polish political force opposed to Poland’s NATO membership and adamantly defending Poland’s ruined farmers and defenseless workers. Piskorski rose to become an advisor to the party’s famous anti-establishment leader and his own mentor, Andrzej Lepper. Frighteningly and symptomatically enough, this icon of opposition to Poland’s post-1989 course was found dead in 2011. The official version calls the incident a suicide, but inconvenient theories and unsettling coincidences abound alleging that Lepper’s death was far from his own initiative. In his prison cell today, Piskorski is supposedly writing a book on this scarring incident that claimed the life of one of Poland’s leading critical politicians.
Piskorski’s activism and intellect have made him an icon in more than just Poland. Across the post-Soviet space, he is revered as one of the few sober Polish political voices, and his expertise has been welcomed at nearly a dozen election monitoring missions and countless academic conferences.
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Piskorski launched discussions on founding Zmiana in 2014 when, returning from monitoring the referendum on Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and joining the Russian Federation, he was urgently convinced of the need for a new anti-establishment party capable of preventing a Ukrainian disaster scenario from gripping Poland. Piskorski recalls: “I had dozens of meetings and lectures in various regions of the country. We held discussions with very different people and everyone insisted that expert and journalistic activities should come around to politics. In this sense, Zmiana is an entirely grassroots movement.”
However, Piskorski has no intent of claiming the part for himself. “It is not my personal project,” Piskorski told Fort Russ several months before his imprisonment, “but a response to the specific needs of Polish society. I became the party’s face only because of the recognition and controversy which I aroused many years ago as a parliamentarian.” Instead, he says, Zmiana has a greater purpose: “The place of the party on the political scene is currently the role of the anti-system opposition, not only criticizing the current reality (as protest movements do), but also proposing a completely new system in the economic sphere, social policy, ownership structures and international relations.”
For consistently leading Zmiana’s protest movement and personally striving for rapprochement between Poland and its eastern neighbors, Piskorski is now 21st century Poland’s first political prisoner. From prison, he has written compelling letters warning against Poland’s relegation to a WWIII battlefield and urging Poland’s anti-establishment forces of both right and left to unite to save Poland from impending catastrophe.
It is no coincidence that this article is being written in English for Western audiences. As Piskorski told the author in November 2015, Poland’s colonization has led to Western voices of protest being treated with infinitely greater respect and influence. While an open letter to the Polish president signed by European Parliament deputies and demanding Piskorski’s release was shamelessly ignored by both the government and the media, there is still the chance that international attention and pressure can compel Poland’s authorities to resign from their desperate attempts to keep one of Poland’s most concerned citizens, critical scholars, and influential opposition politicians behind bars.
Indeed, as dramatic geopolitical shifts and political revolts continue to grip Europe and the United States, there is the possibility that Poland’s ruling elites will have the rug ripped out from under their feet. For the time being, a man is in jail on no charges and his party is barred from democratic processes. This political repression in itself is a testament to the burning need and importance of (C)hange.