The following is an interview with Professor Wojciech Roszkowski, a writer and historian specialising in Polish and European history during the 20th and 21st centuries. He is also a former MEP of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. Wojciech Roszkowski is one of the primary references among conservative Polish intellectuals. In one of his latest books, he reviewed the significant events of Polish politics in recent years.
Sébastien Meuwissen: Throughout the 1990s and until the mid-2000s, Poland was ruled almost continuously by the post-communist left (SLD). One of the most recognisable figures of this period remains former President Lech Wałęsa. In Western Europe and in many liberal and left-wing circles, Wałęsa remains a sort of sacred beast, and any criticism of him is frowned upon. What does this character inspire in you? What is your opinion of this historical figure?
Wojciech Roszkowski: It should really be emphasized that the left did not rule without interruption. There were small exceptions, such as the Olszewski government that lasted from December 1991 to June 1992 during Lech Wałęsa’s presidency. What Wałęsa says today is so self-incriminating that it is difficult to understand what his intentions were during the first half of the 1990s.
His slogans referred to the acceleration of the country’s decommunisation. He did nothing in this direction, however. During his five-year presidency between 1990 and 1995, he maintained the post-communist system as it was. It should also be noted that in the end, he was surrounded almost exclusively by members of the intelligence services.
The problem that arises is how to categorise Wałęsa. Was he a post-communist or an anti-communist? We are dealing with a huge misunderstanding here. Millions of Poles believed, and still believe today, that Wałęsa was an anti-communist while he was in fact a post-communist. He was at the centre of countless dubious affairs. It was he who presented the idea of transforming the Soviet bases on Polish territory into mixed Russian-Polish complexes. These are facts.
In order to understand the Polish post-communist governments of the 1990s, one needs to have a new perspective on Wałęsa, because it is possibly the biggest fraud in modern Polish history. I would like to stress, however, that his activity as leader of the Solidarity trade union in the early 1980s was not harmful. The worst started when he became president.
Sébastien Meuwissen: The mid-2000s represented a turning point for Polish politics. The country joined the European Union in 2004. The following year, the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party won the legislative elections, beating the liberals of the Civic Platform (PO). There was another victory for the conservative camp shortly after with the surprise victory of Lech Kaczyński over Donald Tusk in the presidential elections. The 2005-2007 period was therefore marked by a Law and Justice government that can hardly be described as successful. What is your opinion on that matter?
Wojciech Roszkowski: At that time, the animosity between PiS and PO was still significantly less than what we know today. Observers even predicted that these two political forces would join in a coalition. It did not happen. PiS’ situation was complicated given its lack of a majority in the parliament, and it therefore had to form a coalition. PO quickly became an aggressive opposition party. In this situation, the only possible coalition partners were either the right-wing populists of the Self-Defence Party or the League of Polish Families, which had dubious roots and programmes but they were determined to rise to power. It ended badly. The question is whether PiS could have done anything other than make an attempt with them. Later, Jarosław Kaczyński even apologised for this coalition attempt. The art of governing consists of, among other things, having sufficient strength, however, and PiS alone did not have the majority.
Sébastien Meuwissen: Then comes 2007, with a clear victory for PO in the legislative elections but without an absolute majority. The day after this success, PO entered into a coalition with the centre-right PSL party. From 2008, we can observe a real dissonance between the foreign policy led by the conservative president, Lech Kaczyński, and the liberal duo of Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Radosław Sikorski. This is the start of what you call a “dramatic cohabitation”. Why do you use such an expression?
Wojciech Roszkowski: As soon as the new government was formed, Tusk’s Civic Platform launched what some call an “industry of disdain” towards President Kaczyński. I don’t know how to sum it up in the best possible way. I think the question we need to ask concerning the situation we are talking about is: what are the limits on criticising political opponents? In a situation where we differ on a great number of points, do we try to cooperate despite these differences or do we try to destroy the opponent by all means?
From my point of view, in a democratic system, the best solution is cooperation, because a state torn by conflict at the top between the prime minister and the president puts itself in a situation which leads to failure. One of the most prominent examples of this period was the refusal of the Tusk government to provide President Kaczyński with a plane to go to an EU summit in 2008. He finally flew to Brussels privately to represent Poland. I felt dizzy back then, because the very credibility of the Polish state was in question.
We don’t live on the Moon. Behind our Eastern border is Russia, which, I believe, took note of this situation with great interest. Moscow saw that it was possible to destroy this country from within. My intuition whispers to me that this is when the events which would soon lead to the Smoleńsk disaster began. As a matter of fact, Donald Tusk and Lech Kaczyński travelled to Russia in two separate planes.
I think historians will sooner or later prove the truth of my thesis. Countless facts and testimonies are there, just waiting to be investigated. Several mysterious suicides also took place before and after the crash. I am thinking in particular of the Self-Defence Party’s leader, Andrzej Lepper, who was about to transmit confidential information to Jarosław Kaczyński. Not to mention Tusk’s behaviour in the hours and days following the tragedy…
Sébastien Meuwissen: The issue of the Smoleńsk crash is obviously of key importance. I would like to come back to it a little later, if you will allow me.
Wojciech Roszkowski: Yes, the only question we have to ask ourselves is how to talk about it. I suggest many things in my book. I do not speak openly about assassins and conspiracies. I try to get the reader to come to these conclusions on his own, based on the suggested elements. However, in the case of Western readers who have not the slightest idea of the Polish situation, this is extremely difficult.
Sébastien Meuwissen: I share your opinion. This is the reason why, when I tell this story to my acquaintances abroad, I try to ask questions and let the other person come to their own conclusions. But let me proceed chronologically. The year is 2008. Russia is invading the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. President Lech Kaczyński then went with several other Central European heads of state to show his support for this small Caucasian state. You assert in your book that the president’s initiative can be viewed in hindsight as a key element that may have saved Georgia.Wojciech Roszkowski: I do think so.
Sébastien Meuwissen: Despite this, however, the mainstream media’s reaction, as well as that of many figures in politics and show business, consisted of an aggressive attack on Lech Kaczyński. Lech Wałęsa then said of the president that he was behaving like “a kid in a sandbox with a wooden sword”. Worse, the future President of the Republic, Bronisław Komorowski – one of Tusk’s close partners –, went so far as to say that “only a blind sniper misses his target at 30 meters (…) A fitting attempt on a fitting president”. Indeed, it is important to underline that Lech Kaczyński was the victim of an assassination attempt during his stay in Tbilisi in August 2008. Here again, the question arises: where is the limit?
Wojciech Roszkowski: We could also talk about the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of World War II’s outbreak in Westerplatte. It was a unique spectacle. It is worth highlighting the contrast between the different speeches that were delivered that day. But the most interesting thing for me, in this case, is to pay attention to body language. You must see Tusk, Merkel, and Putin’s grimaces as they are sitting next to each other during President Kaczyński’s speech. Non-verbal cues are of great importance and give many insights, especially in politics. It is worth checking out some videos on the internet of Putin’s meetings with Tusk. The dominant-dominated relationship breaks the screen!
Sébastien Meuwissen: We are now coming to the infamous year 2010, with what many call the Smoleńsk crash, which…
Wojciech Roszkowski: The tragedy. Let’s talk about the Smoleńsk tragedy, if I may, because it was one. That we know for sure.
Sébastien Meuwissen: Indeed. So what happened on the 10th of April 2010?
Wojciech Roszkowski: The events leading up to the disaster are just as important as those that followed. The separation of visits, the maintenance carried out on the plane in Russia a few weeks before the crash, the mysterious death of a deputy shortly after a certain phone call, the erroneous information knowingly transmitted by the Russian control tower… The facts are endless. It is virtually impossible to condense all of this into a short article.
Sébastien Meuwissen: Several historians and sociologists have noticed a fairly unique phenomenon – namely, that in the first two or three days which followed the tragedy, the Polish population reconciled with each other. Even the most bitter political enemies of the presidential couple took to the streets to pay homage to the deceased. People hugged and kissed. But this feeling of unity was quickly swept aside. I would even venture to say that the hatred towards President Kaczynski ended up exceeding the level there had been before his death.
Wojciech Roszkowski: I think you are unfortunately right. I remember it like it was yesterday. Particularly striking scenes could be observed around the presidential palace. The line of people who came to pay homage to the deceased was several hundred meters long. During those few days, a crowd of several hundred people gathered in this area. There were so many candles placed on the sidewalk in front of the palace that you had to cross the street to get by them.
But very quickly, we could observe a whole series of actions that were taken in order to curb this enthusiasm and to mock these acts of mourning. It all started with the first demonstrations around a wooden cross three or four meters high, which had been spontaneously placed in front of the presidential palace. Those who placed it were the defenders of the cross against the enemies of the cross. Among the defenders of the cross, there were undoubtedly enemy agents. On the other side there were provocateurs who, for example, formed a cross out of beer cans, or who spat in the direction of the people gathered around the wooden cross, or who insulted them. Such scandalous behaviour became commonplace. But the Warsaw authorities remained passive at the time. The liberal presidential candidate – and Interim President – Bronisław Komorowski managed to get rid of this famous cross, moreover with the blessing of several bishops.
Sébastien Meuwissen: It must have added fuel to the fire.
Wojciech Roszkowski: Indeed. In Poland, it is relatively easy to polarise citizens with merely a little incident. The case we are discussing was drastic, however. After all, it’s not just the president who died in this crash. There were also six of the state’s top military officials, the former president-in-exile Kaczorowski, as well as politicians from all the parties. We often forget about that. Yet the government camp quickly seemed to forget even “its own” victims. Worse, both before and after the disaster, Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his associates behaved in a manner that was suspicious, to say the least. One of the essential questions to which we still do not have a satisfactory answer is, who made the decision to divide the visits [Tusk on the 7th of April, Kaczyński on the 10th of April, ed.]? Additionally, it has been proven that two explosions took place inside the plane. The question is therefore about who caused them, because it is certain that they did not cause themselves.
Sébastien Meuwissen: If I may allow myself a comment, I don’t think you have to be an aviation specialist to know that the wreck of a plane whose wing, according to the official version, accidentally hit a birch should not consist of several thousand pieces scattered across five kilometres, as it was.
Wojciech Roszkowski: Right. First, let’s take the scattering of the different pieces of the plane’s wreckage. You only need to compare it with other disasters, if you look at it from a mechanical point of view. Take the Lockerbie bombing as an example – all the careful analysis, investigation, and so on. Debris from the plane was collected over several kilometres around the site of the disaster. How does one then analyse such a disaster and handle the investigation? Tusk left all of that to the Russians.
Sébastien Meuwissen: The PO-PSL governments were marked by countless corruption scandals and corruption cases of all kinds. Talking about each of them would take hours. Could you please introduce two or three of these to our readers?
Wojciech Roszkowski: One of the biggest scandals of those years was, in my opinion, the VAT one. Without going into detail, the consequence of this case was an annual flight of 30 to 50 billion zlotys toward VAT violators. If we count according to the eight years of the PO-PSL government, this corresponds to nearly 250 billion zlotys [54 billion euros, ed.]. This represents approximately 30% of Poland’s annual GDP – in other words, between 7 and 8% per year. These statistics are absolutely damning.
Another thing that immediately springs to mind is the so-called Amber Gold scandal. In the context of this affair, thousands of citizens were deceived with promises of financial gain if they invested in various stocks, gold in particular. Very quickly, their money disappeared. It turned out that the money had been used to finance an aviation company based in Donald Tusk’s stronghold of Gdańsk. One of this company’s aims was to compete with the Polish airline LOT.
Finally, we should mention the gas supply contract signed by the Minister of the Economy and PSL party leader Waldemar Pawlak. This contract was to commit Poland to importing gas from Russia until 2037 at a particularly disadvantageous rate compared to those contracts signed with our EU partners. At the time, it was the European Commission that came to save Poland from 15 years of dependence on Russian gas. Thanks to the Commission’s intervention, the contract’s end date was changed to 2022. My question today is: where is Mr. Pawlak? Well, not only does he roam here and there at large, but he also goes on the radio from time to time to criticise the “authoritarian PiS government”. I like to remind my friends who share this point of view even today, however, that it is PO which is in charge in almost all the cities of the country: Warsaw, Kraków, Gdańsk, Łódź, Wrocław, Poznań, Szczecin, Lublin, Rzeszów…
Sébastien Meuwissen: On 4 July, 2010, Interim President Bronisław Komorowski won the second round of the presidential election against Jarosław Kaczyński. In the following year, Tusk’s PO won a landslide victory in the legislative elections, winning almost 10% more votes than PiS, which then failed to cross the 30% mark. PO then renewed its coalition with PSL. From that moment on, the Tusk liberals obtained what you call in your book full powers. By that you mean the fact that the liberals then dominated at all levels: the government, a majority in the Sejm and the Senate, the presidency of the Republic, and a majority in the sejmiks [regional parliaments–Editor’s note], as well as holding the majority of judges close to power in the Constitutional Court (including its president) and the benevolence of the absolute majority of the media, both public and private.
Wojciech Roszkowski: Tusk and his people took control of the public media in 2011. At the time I was a member of public television’s board of directors, and I remember very well that it was done in a gradual way. Journalists who were considered too conservative were replaced one by one. There were also many examples of this in private media. I am thinking in particular of the newspaper Rzeczpospolita, the editor of which was dismissed following the publication of an article about trinitrotoluene and nitro-glycerine, which was found in the wreckage of the presidential plane in the Smoleńsk forest. The newspaper was then taken over through gangster methods.
Another example is that of the weekly Wprost and its editor-in-chief, Sylwester Latkowski. The latter received an unpleasant visit from the Internal Security Agency at his editorial headquarters. Videos can be found online showing how the officers physically attacked him in order to confiscate his laptop, on which he had recordings incriminating several members of the Tusk government. In these recordings, one can discover all the vulgarity and cynicism of PO’s heavyweights.
Sébastien Meuwissen: In the summer of 2014, Donald Tusk became president of the European Council. Contrary to what he had announced to the media, he left PO behind him, which was falling in the polls. Less than a year later, a new chapter began with the victory of PiS candidate Andrzej Duda in the presidential election over PO candidate Bronisław Komorowski. Can we say that in addition to being a surprise, the election of Andrzej Duda was a real turning point?
Wojciech Roszkowski: Andrzej Duda’s campaign was a true phenomenon. This lawyer and MEP was little-known to the public at the time. Within six months, he managed to convince voters. A lot of people were sceptical, including me. I was pleasantly surprised. Duda was seen as an intelligent man, openly declaring his Catholic faith, and people did not associate him with the image of a typical politician. His victory mobilised the conservative electorate.
Sébastien Meuwissen: At the end of 2015, PiS triumphed hands down in the legislative elections. How was this victory historic?
Wojciech Roszkowski: There are two key elements. On the one hand, it was the first time since the fall of communism that a party obtained an absolute majority. On the other, the left then lost all its representation in parliament. It was a situation that had never been seen before.
Sébastien Meuwissen: As soon as PiS took power, numerous conflicts with the EU institutions could be observed. These tensions related to a series of problems: the reform of the judicial system, the response to illegal immigration, the LGBT lobby… It is difficult not to see a correlation with the new posting of Donald Tusk to the European Council’s presidency at the time. Tusk de facto continued his activity as leader of the opposition, but received greater tools with which to apply pressure from Brussels.
Wojciech Roszkowski: Tusk’s attacks on Poland are the reason why his own country was the only one in the EU to oppose a renewal of his term as president of the European Council in 2017. Beata Szydło’s government then proposed MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski – then from the PO – in his place. The latter was fired from PO for having accepted this candidacy. He is a brilliant man who knows how to get respect in the European Parliament, where I had the opportunity to meet him. He knows how the EU works like few others, and has always done a good job for Poland. To put it simply, he was too patriotic to stay in Tusk’s PO.
Sébastien Meuwissen: The tensions in Warsaw with the European Commission and the European Parliament did not prevent PiS from winning the legislative elections in autumn 2019. How can this be explained?
Wojciech Roszkowski: PiS has kept most of its promises. Social and family support programs have been put in place. The government has tackled issues that have value to Poles. It should be noted that this second legislative victory was less unequivocal than the previous one given that PiS no longer had an absolute majority.
Sébastien Meuwissen: One of the recurring criticisms levelled against PiS is its alleged tendency to endanger the media’s independence and pluralism. Are these criticisms founded?
Wojciech Roszkowski: Until 2015, almost all the media was following Donald Tusk’s liberal line, especially the printed press. Despite what many are saying, the media that are hostile to the government still dominate today. For example, two out of the three main Polish TV groups hold an anti-government line. The change in the public audiovisual media’s editorial line has allowed a certain rebalancing of this situation.
Sébastien Meuwissen: The next general elections will take place in autumn 2023. Are we heading for a third consecutive success for Jarosław Kaczyński’s coalition?
Wojciech Roszkowski: It is of course still early to say. I think another PiS victory is very possible. On the other hand, I do not believe in a tidal wave that will allow them to obtain an absolute majority.