PRYWATNA POLSKA - TRIO, Warsaw, 2007
The Private Poland, a Quarter Century Later
"I’m saving all the newspaper clippings," Mama said, speaking to me from across the ocean. "We sure have been through a lot together, here on Plac Mirowski." On and off since 1982, I had boarded with her in downtown Warsaw in her three-room apartment near Saski Park and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The aforementioned clippings recorded a bizarre new episode that brought memories flooding back of what seemed to be otherworldly happenings to which we had been party through tumultuous times. Now, I had unwittingly become the center of a new controversy. The events of the past week seemed emblematic of the life I had led in Mama’s household nearly a quarter of a century earlier.
The affair began on Tuesday, September 12, 2006. Sitting at my desk in Washington, D.C., an e-mail message from Basia, a friend in Warsaw, sprang across my screen. She said that while channel surfing, she had flipped onto something that had appeared 10 minutes earlier. "We think you should know ASAP," she warned. Someone on a major television network was repeating my name—and in an aggressive tone. Closer listening revealed a member of Parliament interrogating a polite and poised woman, as if she were standing trial for murdering her children.
It was a hearing of a controversial parliamentary commission investigating corruption in the Polish banking sector. The woman was being queried about her familiarity with the work of Janine Wedel and the professor’s book about foreign aid (the title of which the questioner got wrong). The woman was asked if she was familiar with the fact that Janine Wedel showed how the money granted by the United States and USAID, the government agency through which much U.S. assistance is channeled, was misspent and that Professor Wedel had testified before the U.S. Congress on the matter.
Fierce questioning went on for about 10 minutes. Thus, on that Tuesday afternoon, I was inadvertently drawn into the controversy that had the Polish media buzzing. My involvement was not of my own making and certainly not of my own choosing.
Why me? Why now? I had written extensively about Poland during the 1980s and 1990s—several books, scholarly articles, and many op-ed and analysis pieces for respected Western publications. During the early 1990s, I had even done freelance on-air reporting for National Public Radio, America’s premier radio outlet for foreign news. After the fall of communism, I had embarked on a study of Western advisers and aid to Poland and Eastern Europe and published a well-received book, Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe (Palgrave, 2001).1 The part of the book that had attracted the most attention was the analysis of U.S. aid to Russia and the troubled role in it of advisers from Harvard University who had worked closely with Russia’s Chubais Clan. However, I had immersed myself in other subjects and written little about Poland or foreign aid issues for several years.
Yet, here it was. My name and writings were being cited, repeatedly and ferociously, by a member of parliament who appeared bent on destroying his witness, Ewa Balcerowicz, an economist. The Commission’s interrogations proceeded on Wednesday and Thursday, and my name was again invoked several times. As the visibility of the proceedings developed, my fame—or infamy—spread. I was near to becoming a household world in Poland, my friends told me. A Web site featuring a section entitled, "Who is Janine Wedel?" appeared and my name was all over television and radio.
At first glance, it might appear that the members of the Commission were simply demanding accountability from public officials. It would make sense that legislators in a young democracy, now a member of the European Union (EU), would try to curb corruption. The World Bank had waged an international anti-corruption campaign in the late 1990s directing many such efforts to the states of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. "Accountability" had become au courant around the globe. The activities of the parliamentary Commission, it would seem, were right in step.
But that was on the surface. My work, and Mrs. Balcerowicz herself, were but minor players in a larger game ongoing not only in Poland but on a grander geopolitical scale.
Long ago, life in Poland had taught me that, unlike in the United States, much could not be taken literally or at face value. One had to maneuver through many layers of information to interpret an ongoing story. Subtext was everything. An intelligent, astute observer embedded in well-positioned networks and thus well-informed could arrive at plausible analysis but, even so, rarely be certain whether he had got it right. In my explorations in the 1980s, I was always struggling to get to the bottom of an issue. Years later, even in a democratic Poland, penetrating the intrigue engulfing the parliamentary Commission seemed a daunting task. The investigation clearly was about much more than the minutia of Polish politics; it suggested a cosmos of Russian power moves and ex-KBG agents that seemed a throwback to long ago—but was not. Unwillingly drawn in, I felt intimidated by this brush with a menacing world I had almost forgotten.
The political intention of those who had created the Commission seemed to be to discredit the people who presided over the banking sector and its privatization. Mrs. Balcerowicz was a target largely because of her husband, Professor Leszek Balcerowicz, a former minister of finance, now president of Poland's central bank. Through her, the members of parliament who convened the Commission were trying to discredit her husband and, with him, the entire previous era of transformation in which he had crafted many of the country’s economic reforms. Mrs. Balcerowicz heads an internationally known non-profit consulting institution that is a beneficiary of foreign aid. My analysis of assistance to eastern Europe was being (mis)used to smear Mrs. Balcerowicz and other aid recipients and projects connected to her husband about which I had never studied or written such as the Polish banking sector. A Commission member from the populist party Samoobrona, insinuated connections and suggested arguments that I had never made.
Although my work was cited in connection with arenas not in my research portfolio, someone obviously had been studying my writings over the past 10 years. References were frequent to my congressional testimony, book on foreign aid, and various articles I had produced. Obviously, the Commission member had not done the homework himself—he, in fact, continuously mispronounced my name. Not being an English language reader himself, someone else had prepared questions for him.
When PAP, the Polish newswire service, contacted me and asked for my reaction to the hearings, I issued a statement making these points: I have never commented on the Polish banking sector, its privatization, or any aid that it might have received, nor have I ever written about Mrs. Balcerowicz. I have never written about the projects of Mrs. Balcerowicz’s foundation or its use of foreign aid. Further, I have never written about Professor Leszek Balcerowicz in any negative way. I also asked that I and my work be excluded from this blatantly partisan political game. That statement was published by PAP and also ran on Friday in Gazeta Wyborcza, Rzeczpospolita, and Dziennik. With my statement as the basis, Gazeta Wyborcza printed a longer article. The headline reads: "Janine Wedel: Protests against the misuse of her name by MPs of the investigatory committee."
Following publication of my statement, the Commission shied away from further misuse of work. Blog commentary was friendly and favorable. (One even heralded me as a "hero"!) Soon after, the Commission was disbanded after the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that the Commission’s existence was illegal.
This episode recalls a surreal gestalt embedded in the national experience that I had first encountered in the latter 1970s when I began visiting Poland. Under the pretext of investigating corruption, the September 2006 hearing gave the impression of rationality and the façade of democratic process. It was reminiscent of the "anti-corruption" campaigns of communist regimes, such as the "war on corruption" waged by General Wojciech Jaruzelski not long after he declared Martial Law in December 1981. (While the campaign singled out former high-ranking Communist officials for "economic crimes," they were in fact punished for political reasons.) The episode recalled the many levels of action and interpretation and of ambiguity about who served as instigator and who was the provocateur in many episodes. Like the machinations of the communist 1980s, it bore the distinct quality of theater. People even spoke about it in the same terms: "kino."
Kino of an Earlier Era
I virtuously complied with the terms of my Fulbright fellowship after I arrived in Poland in early 1982, when it suffered under the stark conditions of martial law. Borders were virtually opaque; curfews were imposed; phone lines, cut. I proceeded along the path I had set. As an aspiring social anthropologist, I participated in courses and activities in the Institute of Sociology at Warsaw University. I lived with a family—the woman who took me in whom I came to call Mama, and her daughter, Ela—and recorded detailed notes of the amazing goings-on around me. Mama was a "Siberian" survivor, having been deported by the Soviets together with her heretofore well-to-do family from the Polish city of Vilnius (Wilno). Upon repatriation in August 1946, she began to work in various official institutions of the PRL married another young volunteer tied to the same institutions, and settled in Szczecin on Poland’s new Western border. After the death of her husband, who had worked in the Communist Party apparatus, she and Ela moved to Warsaw. Ela was now a vivacious, attractive physician pursuing a doctoral specialization in dermatology.
With the two women as my daily example, I was drawn into their interactive culture in which everything seemed possible, though nothing certain. The state and its rules set up constant obstacles and life was about creatively eluding them—and even enjoying the interplay and scheming that was necessary to affect the outcome.
I saw that, with reason, people did not trust—or depend on—the official world of bureaucracy, economy, information, and officials. Under a centrally planned system in which economic decisions were determined in the political arena and with demand always outpacing supply, Poland was a case of what the Hungarian economist Janos Kornai (1980) has called an "economy of shortage." In such an economy, I wondered, how did people manage, and some of them, it seemed, so well?
I watched Mama shopping in the market across the street, a complex of stands lodged in a colossal prewar warehouse-like building that had somehow remained standing after the Nazis destroyed the city. Mama got what she wanted through under-the-table deals with the clerks—"gals" (baby) behind the counter whom she always sized up and buttered up. Under the impact of her charms, they brought out scarce items they were saving for special deals.
One day about 5 a.m., there was a knock on the door. "Stay in your room," Mama whispered as I emerged from my tiny room to see what all the commotion was about. Four policemen, one a major and the only one in uniform, had come to search the apartment. Ela was the target of their suspicions. As I would learn six or so hours later after they had completed a "routine" and, by the standards of the day, "mild" search of the entire apartment, that same morning, Ela’s husband, an anesthesiologist from whom she was separated, had been arrested for underground activities. (We later learned he had been sent to Rakowiecka, the prison that holds people under investigation by the Ministry of Internal Affairs.)
Mama did not leave the outcome to fate. She had acquired wondrous skills, not only at wrapping around her finger the clerks across the street but also Siberian Soviets (where she had been transported as a young teenager). She was equally adept with Communist Party comrades, whom she played with pizzazz. When the major began to scrutinize the books on her shelf, Mama quickly concealed the underground literature that had lain on it in her hand. Speaking their language, she skillfully quizzed him and soon established people and venues that they knew in common, including the Polish-Soviet friendship society. Meanwhile Ela, a respected physician, came on as fashionable, flirtatious, and flighty, as she "worked" the three cops searching her room. When it came time to inspect my room (As far as we know, I wasn’t a suspect, even though an American), Ela came to my door, with her arm around one of the plainclothesman, exposing part of her shapely leg by gathering up part of her robe (all there was time to put on), and teasing me, while flattering him: "Janine [Janeczko], you have the advantage," she said. "The best-looking one of all will search your room."
During the course of their search, the policemen gave the two women all sorts of advice, probably not typically offered up freely, to protect themselves. The phone would be tapped for such and such a time, they said. Stay clear of so and so. When the four left at mid-morning, Ela and Mama waved heartily and appeared to be saying goodbye to old friends.
As soon as the door was shut, the two women collapsed, indignant and exhausted. For the first time, Mama sent me across the street on the daily hunt for milk, eggs, bread, and meat but only after I had promised not to tell a soul, not anyone, about what had just transpired.
The episode was laced with irony. The major was interrogating a fellow Communist Party operative. The operative was subtly defending her son-in-law, although he was out of favor with both Mama and her daughter. Both women could have been arrested on the spot and put away indefinitely. Other less quick-witted people may have reacted with outrage that would have got them undesirable outcomes. Some Poles might even have seen the two women’s behavior as "compromised." But Ela and Mama were resourceful and highly skilled survivors. Their handling of the policemen was the only recourse that people have when they do not have any recourse.
Poles, after all, had endured repeated travails: concentration camps, deportations to Siberia, shifting borders, martial law, material scarcities, skirting the system for mere survival. All this was "normal," in one meaning of the word—the way things are—but not at all normal in the other meaning—the way things should be, as I record in The Private Poland. War, revolutions, and hardships were a part not only of the history of Poland, which had been smashed by so many occupiers, but of immediate experience.
Given such happenings around me, these kinds of questions drew me in: Whom did people trust, and how did they mobilize networks of associates to get by? In The Private Poland I observe that survival under trying economic and political conditions meant that people had to continually present different faces. As consummate survivors, they had learned how to say one thing, do another, and not go mad living with the ambiguity. They displayed keen abilities not only to live with the contradictions of their society, but also to manipulate them creatively.
I spent much of 1982-1986 in Poland. After six months of intense, volatile times, I reviewed my daily notes. I discovered a fascination with the vocabulary of daily life such as "zalatwic," "kombinowac," and "organizowac." Such terms are only roughly translatable into English and can be accurately conveyed only in context. As I note in The Private Poland, they obscured agency and masked the nature of the matter or transaction at hand. These terms built ambiguity into everyday activities and enabled people to work out their existence while keeping up pretenses.
I saw, in Poland, a complex, ingenious society quite different from the communist police state that was being portrayed in the Western media. I observed a state with rules that were treated more as inconveniences to be overcome than a state that the populace was bent on destroying. I observed what sociologist Adam Podgorecki called "dirty togetherness"—his term for the cliquish networks through which people coped with scarcity and distrust of the state.2 The Poles had developed an elaborate system of informal distribution of goods and services that paralleled and often overshadowed the official economy. Collective collusion created to elude the constraints of communist rule rearranged society in profoundly uncommunist directions.
Out of these seeming contradictions came The Private Poland and my Ph.D. dissertation on informal social and economic networks, how they enabled citizens to survive in an economy of shortage, and how they facilitated the very workings of the formal bureaucracy and economy under state socialism. In The Private Poland, I attempt to capture these patterns through tales of hardship, finagling, camaraderie, and humor.
If the necessity to finagle—to zalatwic sprawy—was a crucial part of the Polish tapestry, life of the spirit (zycie duchowe) was another. Life of the spirit provided an escape from the psychological weariness produced by the realities of the constant need to scheme. As I explain to English readers in The Private Poland,"duchowe is an adjective that means at once spiritual, intellectual, moral, mental, emotional, religious and ‘of the soul.’ English has no equivalent concept." Duchowe life could be found in the intense discussion of romantic or political mishaps; the meaning of a classic novel or the latest play; the lessons of history as seen in the experience of the previous generation; the interpretation of the latest political events; or the fortunes of friends or relatives who had emigrated. Duchowe life was often nourished by vodka and food, encouraged by the dearth of approved gatherings outside the home.
The 1980s in Poland were, for me, a laboratory in life fundamentals. I acquired admiration for people who are adept at interaction, masterful at maneuvering their circumstances, and, through it all, remarkably resilient. I developed deep respect for people who make tough moral choices in the face of adversity, often at enormous personal cost. I developed my own sense of the absurd.
Poland of the 1980s also schooled me in secrecy. When I published The Private Poland in 1986, I was not free to write about the apartment search and other such episodes—of which there were many. Communication was hazardous. Telephones were tools to be used only to set up meetings, if at all. It was necessary to send my notes out of the country through diplomats in Western embassies. When publishing, identities had to be disguised. As I relate in the preface, the actors in the book are composite characters made up from the various people I encountered. Stories of individuals could not be told without exposing them to risk.
Poland drew me in again. After a year and a half in the States, I returned, to spend much of 1988-1992 once more on Fulbright (and other) fellowships.
The nation’s legacy of close-knit informal groups, undergirded by networks of mutual trust that I describe in The Private Poland, would prove to be invaluable in understanding how it moved away from communism. These reference groups had provided identity, intimacy, and reliability; they had been crucial to economic and political existence. When I arrived in spring 1988 after several years’ absence, I was surprised to find a flurry of activity that was based in these informal groups and networks. People from all sides were turning their political energies into economic efforts, mostly still subterranean.
Solidarity intelligentsia circles had spawned a new economic elite. Many once jobless activists who had languished in jail under Martial Law had earlier honed their business skills by running clandestine publishing houses. They later launched limited liability companies to trade in computers, electronic equipment, and information. Some enterprisers, for instance, found themselves meeting their compatriots in the streets of Singapore, where they were buying computers for sale back home in the informal economy. One day I invited a friend to obiad, intending to pay for it—in the tradition of the supposedly "rich American." A 20-something doctoral sociology student interned for underground activities under Martial Law, he had returned to live with his parents after his release. But he picked up the bill instead, revealing that he had made $80,000 the previous month and hence could splurge.
In 1989 I wrote that "’entrepreneurship’ and private ‘organizing’ have rapidly become tickets to influence in public life. Leaders in the Communist Party and solidarity alike have been jumping on these bandwagons."3 Both Party and Solidarity-affiliated circles were forming clubs and lobbies and financing them through entrepreneurial activities. I began following the voluntary associations that were cropping up everywhere, even in areas for which the socialist state claimed exclusive responsibility, including housing, pre-university education, and the environment. As one of a few Western scholars and journalists tracking these developments, I traveled to Krakow, Katowice, Lublin, Rzeszow, and the towns and villages around these centers, to interview leaders and members of their organizations.
The state authorities were tolerating these activities as never before, albeit inconsistently. The ultimate test was whether the authorities would allow the budding organizations to gain legal status by registering them with the state. Doing so, of course, would dilute Communist authority.
The story of the Economic Association, an organization to support private enterprise, is a study in the mixed signals of an authoritarian regime losing its grip. Initiated by Aleksander Paszynski, deputy editor-in-chief of the influential weekly Polityka (from which he resigned in protest after the declaration of martial law), the Economic Association had been seeking state registration for two years. While the application was pending, Paszynski was offered a cabinet-level position in the communist government. He declined, rationalizing his decision in an illegal newspaper the following week. Then, upon his return from a brief trip to West Germany, Polish authorities strip-searched him at the border, which seemed to indicate they wanted to put him in his place. But then, several days later, the government registered his Economic Association. The event was announced enthusiastically, and Paszynski appeared on the state-run news. (Paszynski would later become the first post-communist minister of housing, with the Economic Association as his political/societal base.)
In the months I spent studying voluntary associations and their rejuvenation of the nation’s political, economic, and social landscape, I was most moved personally by the "Siberians" I met. They were members of the Association of Siberians, a newly formed organization of Poles once deported or exiled to Siberia or, indeed, any place in the Soviet Union. With Soviet big brother looming large, the Siberians had not been able to talk openly about their experiences or claim their tumultuous life stories. Now, in 1989, old people lined up to join the organization that most had heard about only through word of mouth. The Siberians’ cause was so compelling that the association was one of the few in Poland able to attract a broad membership, stretching beyond class boundaries. In only nine months after authorities allowed its registration, the organization grew to more than 50,000 members, becoming one of the largest voluntary associations in Poland at the time.
I spent the better part of a day with an elderly couple, the Czarnowskis, in their cramped, two-room flat. Together, they had logged more than 20 years in a variety of Soviet camps, where both spent their young adulthood. They had once communicated through smuggled letters to each other between a men’s and a women’s camp; later they were allowed to marry. In 1955 they were pardoned by the Soviet government and sent back to Poland. Mrs. Czarnowski’s mother, who had believed her child long dead, fainted when she saw her daughter. Because of their extensive sojourn in Siberia, the Association of Survivors had chosen the couple to evaluate the claims and verify the documents of each application for membership. Their living space was filled with faded black-and-white photos; deportation, work, and repatriation identification cards; Red Cross papers; and letters from witnesses.
Something unprecedented in Eastern Bloc history was clearly afoot. Even before the revolutions of fall 1989, I published an article in the Christian Science Monitor (February 1989) with the following introductory line: "Pluralism has already emerged in Poland."4 The explosion of initiatives penetrating virtually every corner of society had gone too far to easily be eviscerated.
Poland’s legacy of subterranean groups paved the way for the Roundtable negotiations between representatives of the Communist Party and those of Solidarity. Out of those talks, the Party agreed to an unprecedented deal: the first semi-free elections in the Eastern Bloc. Solidarity’s subsequent landslide victory in June 1989 was the precursor to the revolutions that capsized the communist regimes of the region that coming autumn.
Some personal highlights from the time:
• Traveling with candidates as they campaigned for the June 1989 elections, hanging out at Solidarity headquarters, and spending many hours in private apartments interviewing leaders close to the inner circle. They acted more like a handful of the chosen calling upon the nation to follow them than like the leaders of a broad-based de facto political party. (Noncommunist groups were still not officially recognized as political parties.) My favorite campaign slogan of the era came from a post-communist successor party: Our Faults Are Known."
• Talking with students at KUL, the Catholic University of Lublin, where I was a visiting Fulbright professor. I sent them to study the inception of political clubs, parties, and other burgeoning associations. The maps they constructed of the social networks of people in these groups helped illuminate the emerging structure of power and influence.
• Playing guitar and singing with some of the young priests in my classes. One priest, who traveled to the thawing Soviet east to forge links with the populace described giving mass in the Polish-Ukrainian part of the Soviet Union. Old people still knew the liturgy from more than 40 years earlier.
• Covering the "funeral" of the Polish United Workers Party for NPR, held in Warsaw’s Stalinist-era Palace of Culture and Science in January 1990, where activists from another age ceremoniously folded the Communist Party flag. Back-room dealing during the three-day event birthed Poland’s two successor post-communist or "socialist" parties.
• The October 1990 conference that I co-organized (with Dr. Sergiusz Kowalski) in Zaborow that brought Polish sociologists together with scholars from Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the then-still Soviet Union, to talk about recent developments. For many, Poland was their first trip to the "West." Professor Ernest Gellner, the eminent British social anthropologist, participated in the week’s activities and served as our keynote speaker.
• Interviewing Aleksander Kwasniewski, a post-communist leader who, as a young rising star, had served as minister of sport in Poland’s last communist government and as a Party representative to the Roundtable. He explained the understanding he had developed with Oppositionist Adam Michnik, a Solidarity representative, during the vodka-drenched Roundtable.
• Visiting Krzysztof Kozlowski, the new vice minister of the interior (MSW), in June 1990. His spacious new office, complete with a balcony, Persian rug, and fresh strawberries on offer, contrasted sharply with his old one. His office at Tygodnik Powszechny, a weekly production of the Krakow-based Catholic Intelligentsia Club—a stronghold of progressive Catholic opposition to the communist regime—had been sparse. Kozlowski had been deputy editor-in-chief there. When I ribbed him by asking if the new job was similar to the old one, he teased back: It’s "a little different," he said. The first thing Kozlowski did at the MSW, he told me, was to ask for his dossier from his staff—the very people who had been in charge of spying on Oppositionists like him. The file "could not be located."
The political tables, it seemed, had turned. Solidarity was on top. But as Aleksander Kwasniewski, leader of the foremost post-socialist party told me, "We’ll be back," although the next few years "belong to Solidarity." Correctly assessing the Poles’ continued socialist expectations for housing, jobs and education, Kwasniewski meant that Solidarity’s proposed economic reforms likely would leave many people longing for the old state provisions. Instinct told me he was right—and he was. Kwasniewski would serve as president of Poland, from 1995 to 2005.
It was to be expected that transformation away from communism would be rocky. Often called "transition to democracy," Professor Jacek Kurczewski dubbed it "TD"—a joke on the instant lightweight theorists and advocates who had come into vogue, especially in the West. They did not understand that no nation, not even a collapsed regime, is a blank slate. During precarious moments of legal, administrative, political, and economic transformation, old systems of social relations could become crucial instruments of change. The long-standing informal institutions and social networks honed under communism that I analyze in The Private Poland did not disappear with the entrance of the free market and democratic rule. In fact, these informal mechanisms both facilitated and impeded the reforms of the era and Polish version of capitalism and democracy that emerged.
To help argue this case, in 1992 I designed, edited, and published The Unplanned Society: Poland During and After Communism (Columbia University Press), a collection of articles by Polish sociologists, writers, and journalists.5 Collectively, these analysts challenge prevailing views of "transition to democracy," particularly by Western Soviet "experts," who built their understanding by studying formal institutions such as Communist parties, the defense establishment, and central planning. But those institutions had since disappeared or were undergoing overhaul. Bereft of understanding of the role of informal institutions such as social networks, scholars found themselves without ready tools for comprehending change. By contrast, the study of informal institutions, either by insiders or outsiders, became ever-more relevant.
For example, sociologists Antoni Kaminski and Joanna Kurczewska, observed the appearance of "institutional nomads," key players in developing Poland’s post-communist system.6 To achieve concrete goals, institutional nomads put their fingers in many pies—government, politics, business, foundations, NGOs, and international organizations. These scholars noted that the nomads place their primary loyalty to other members of their group above that to any formal organizations with which they are affiliated. They circulate among and traverse the spheres of state and private and the domains of politics, economics, and law—all the while principally serving their fellow nomads. Their mutual loyalties are cemented not only by the access to resources and opportunities that their pooled efforts reap, but also by the awareness that they are all involved in what Podgorecki called "dirty togetherness."
During the intense era of early 1990s transformation in Poland, I charted some of the workings of institutional nomads and also begun to theorize about a broader phenomenon that I have come to call "flex groups" or "flex nets," whose members flexibly move between state and private spheres. A flex net is a self-propelling multiplex and dense network. Its members pursue a shared agenda by working at the interstices of state and private power and conflating their own interests with those of the state. A flex net’s membership is drawn from a limited circle of players who continually resurface in different roles, both inside and outside government, to achieve their group’s goals over time. Members of the flex net pool their efforts, resources, sponsors, and roles. They circumvent and/or reorganize standard government processes and structures and create alternative not-quite-state, not-quite-private entities and authorities. The strength of the flex net lies in its interpenetration of state authorities and organizations and in its ability to reorganize them for its own ends.
Flex nets engender what I have called "flex organizations,"7 so-called in recognition of their impressively adaptable, chameleon-like, multipurpose character. These organizations emerge precisely at the state-private nexus. In the mid-1990s, having identified flex organizations in Russia, I recognized them in Poland as well. I followed up information that began coming to light of the existence of state-private hybrid organizations called agencies (agencje) and targeted funds (fundusze celowe). Having embarked on a study of how informal structures were shaping the nature of the Polish state and the institutionalization of what some might call "corruption," I became interested in the potential role of flex organizations in that institutionalization. I conducted interviews with officials and gathered materials from NIK, the government’s chief auditing body, which has performed an impressive array of investigations on the subject. I also carried out interviews with people involved in the organizations.
The ambiguous state-private nature of flex organizations, I concluded, is not only a bi-product of their activities; it helps those who empower them to achieve their goals. The defining feature of these entities, as professor Antoni Kaminski has explained, is their unclear responsibility and functions.8 They do not have the same legal status as state bodies, but they use state resources, rely on the coercive powers of the state administration, and have broad prerogatives that are supported by administrative sanctions. Moreover, some of these entities have been authorized by the state to conduct and receive moneys from commercial activities, invest in the stock market, start new companies, spawn new agencies, and manage foreign aid funds. Yet the entities have been subject to limited public accountability. Piotr Kownacki, deputy director of NIK, told me he sees them as part of the "privatization of the functions of the state" and that they represent "areas of the state in which the state is responsible but has no control."9
Agencies and targeted funds came to play a major role in the collection and disbursal of public funds; some one-fourth of the state budget was allocated to them in 2001, according to NIK.10 While a few analysts, journalists, and notably, NIK, have tracked these entities, their workings have been largely hidden from public view. In 1999 I interviewed Lech Kaczynski, former NIK director and now president of Poland (with frequent interruptions from his brother Jaroslaw, now prime minister). He acknowledged that, under the system of agencies and targeted funds, "much taxpayer money flows to private hands on a large scale."11
My focus on informal institutions and social networks was also excellent preparation for grasping the dynamics of foreign assistance. With the arrival in eastern Europe in 1989-90 of myriad foreign advisers bearing promises of gifts, many heretofore informal groups positioned themselves as "NGOs," "foundations," and/or political parties, to take advantage of the new largesse. Much Western assistance was built on the backbone of these energized groups.
Having witnessed countless on-the-ground encounters between East and West and with excellent access to both local and foreign parties to the aid process, I embarked on a study of the politics and impact of foreign assistance. I focused on priority projects, as defined by the donors, and their most commonly employed strategies. As I show in Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe,12 aid can have both positive and negative consequences. Undeniably, Poland has undergone great economic, political, and social development. Over time, East-West contact changed many practices through new opportunities and the adaptation of Western procedures and standards to Polish circumstances.
Polish experience has helped to illuminate processes that today are occurring around the globe. My analysis of self-starting players and flex nets in Central and Eastern Europe forms the framework for my forthcoming book, Shadow Elite: The Privatization of Power.13
A Quarter Century Later
I was 23 years old when I came to Poland for what turned into an extended stay and the development of a whole new life away from home. That adventure shaped my formative adult years; indeed, it is difficult to imagine what my life would have been like without it.
A quarter century later, the changing positions of both Poland and the United States has altered the dynamic between the two peoples. With Poland’s new place in Europe and the world, the nation’s attitudes toward foreigners has naturally changed as well.
America has long occupied a special role in the Polish imagination. In The Private Poland I observe that, in the view of many Poles, Americans lived a particularly unfettered, enviable life. The Polish nation was among the most pro-American in the world; an otherwise sophisticated and clear-eyed elite used to greet with scorn any disparaging comments about President Ronald Reagan. Western Europeans often criticized the United States for its meddling around the world, but to Poles, America, that land of immigrants (including many Polish ones), was a well-meaning, albeit clumsy, arbiter of democracy, freedom, and prosperity.
That the world had changed for Americans also seemed a blow reverberating among some of my Polish associates. The United States had, after all, occupied a revered symbolic and strategically crucial place in the Polish world view during communism. How could America, that hallmark of invulnerability, that pillar of military, technological, political, and democratic strength and the world’s only superpower, be open to such potent attack by a handful of hijackers with box cutters?
In an earlier age, Americans, seen as blissfully oblivious to the world, were almost revered for that quality. In The Private Poland I chart the Polish view of the naive American, accustomed to a life of security, and, however respected, believed to be fundamentally ill-equipped to understand the rest of the world or maneuver within it. "This is the reason Poles try to ‘take care’ of foreigners," I note. The conception of an innocent abroad was reinforced by visitors, trying to comprehend the country’s particular socialist path.
In Polish eyes, the green American is still struggling to make sense of the unaccustomed newfound insecurity of post-September 11. I found this almost paternal concern for the guarded American replayed after September 11. How, friends wondered, were Americans, who knew little true hardship and certainly not an attack on their territory, coping?
In recent visits to Poland, the conversation turned not just on war in Iraq, but to the new climate of insecurity and the corporate scandals sweeping America. Not only was personal safety threatened, but so too were people’s pensions, life savings, and plans for their "golden years." My friends seemed almost like parents wondering how a child going through puberty would emerge from adolescence. "The world is completely changing for them," they said. "What will Americans be like when they are finally forced to grow up?"
In many ways the tables have turned. Poles, when confronted with corruption in their own country, may not look to their own legacies, both of the communist past and, by now, 15 years of permanent "reform," but instead speak in terms of "Enronization." The United States no longer enjoys the image of unfettered democracy. And, in search of a safer haven in the face of American decline, I, myself, have actually investigated the possibility of becoming a Polish citizen.
With Poland’s makeover into a market democracy and member of the EU, money and opportunities today overshadow life of the spirit. The fortunes of many people, especially from intelligentsia backgrounds, are strikingly altered from 25 years ago.
A few examples from among friends:
Malgosia, a scholar, turning down an invitation for a fellowship in the States. It’s such a long flight, she says. Visiting professorships in, say, Italy, France, Germany, or the UK, are much more convenient.
Grzegorz, earning millions of dollars with the sale of the underground publishing effort that morphed into the company that publishes Poland’s most widely circulated daily. He built a house and lives on his windfall.
Grazyna, in charge of a multi-million Euro EU assistance portfolio on entrepreneurship, lamenting the pressure of having so much money to give away. She asks if my university might like to apply for funds to do training in Poland.
The same friend gently putting me in my place when I ask her about the possibility of an interview with the head of the ministry of European Integration. "Today you have to prepare such requests long in advance," she says. "It’s no longer those times (juz nie te czasy)," when an American with some standing could arrive almost like a rock star and easily get appointments with high officials.
These circumstances would have been unimaginable in the earlier times, just as were today’s bold advertising billboards and luxury homes.
I have had the rare privilege to follow dynamic changes in the life of a nation at a crucial juncture through the experiences of friends and acquaintances. I am eternally grateful to those friends who have stuck with me through all these years, even as circumstances have shifted. It has been a rare privilege to be part of their lives: Mama and Ela, Adam and Basia, Michael and Irina, Jacek and Joanna, Antek and family, Aska, Stefan, Wlodek, Wojtech, and Sergiusz. They know who they are. Poland may be more "public" these days, but it is my hope that the private Poland I knew will endure, and, with it, at least some adaptation of zycie duchowe.
Janine R. Wedel, November 15, 2006
1. Janine R. Wedel, Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe, 2nd edition, New York, N.Y.: Palgrave, 2001.
2. Podgorecki, Adam, “Polish Society: A Sociological Analysis,” Praxis International, vol. 7, no. 1, April 1987.
3. Janine R. Wedel, “Lechs Labors Lost?” World Monitor: The Christian Science Monitor Monthly, November 1989, p. 46.
4. Janine R. Wedel, "The Polish Revolution Turns Economic." In The Christian Science Monitor, February 13, 1989.
5. Janine R. Wedel, ed., The Unplanned Society: Poland During and After Communism, New York, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1992.
6. Kaminski, Antoni and Joanna Kurczewka, “Main Actors of Transformation: The Nomadic Elites,” Eric Allardt and Wlodzimierz Wesolowski, eds., The General Outlines of Transformation, Warszawa: IFIS PAN Publishing, 1994, pp. 132-153.
7. Janine R. Wedel, Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe, 2nd edition, New York, N.Y.: Palgrave, 2001, pp. 145-153, 156, 172.
8. Kaminski, Antoni, “Corruption under the Post-Communist Transformation: the Case of Poland,” Polish Sociological Review, vol. 2, no. 118, pp. 91-117.
9. Interview with Piotr Kownacki, Deputy Director of NIK, July 26, 1999.
10. Interview with NIK official Andrzej Lodyga, July 24, 2002.
11. Interview with Lech Kaczynski, July 14, 1999.
12. Janine R. Wedel, Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe, 2nd edition, New York, N.Y.: Palgrave, 2001.
13. Janine R. Wedel, Shadow Elite: The Privatization of Power, New York, N.Y.: Palgrave, forthcoming.