Matthew Kaminski: From Solidarity to Democracy (on Adam Michnik and the end of the Cold War)





[Mr. Kaminski is a member of the Journal's editorial board.]

'Fantastyczne!"

That's the word Adam Michnik, the man who played one of the starring roles in bringing the Cold War to an end, exclaims in Polish as he thinks back over the two decades since the Berlin Wall fell that Nov. 9 evening. He repeats it in rapid fire, each time flawlessly, with no hint of his trademark stutter.

"Fantastic! Fantastic! Poland has not had such 20 years in its last 400 years, 300 years. We are on the side of the West. We are sovereign. We have all possible civil rights. Democratic elections. Open borders. No censorship. That is simply a fantastic change."

So too is the story of his own transformation.

Mr. Michnick was born into the communist establishment. His father, a Polish Jew, was a leader of the illegal pre-war Communist Party. As a teenager, Mr. Michnik took part in leftist discussion groups with names like the "Crooked Circle" or the "Seekers of Contradiction." A believer, he wanted to reform communism. At 18, he was arrested for the first time for writing a protest letter to the government. And in 1968, he was jailed for a year after student protests in Warsaw.

The experience thrust him firmly into the opposition. The next two decades were spent publishing samizdat, advocating for worker's rights and then helping lead, from its founding in 1980, Solidarity, the trade union that morphed into a national movement...

... Trained as a historian, Mr. Michnik says he harbors no illusions about the inevitability of anything. He notes that Central Europe's democrats could have been crushed as the Chinese students were at Tiananmen Square the same year the wall fell. So who is to say now that Western liberalism will prevail in the future? Even of Poland—now a member of the European Union and NATO—he says that: "We are headed in the right direction, but on a narrow path. One false step and we become Russia."

If the new cliché is the "return of history," then the danger isn't a second coming of communism but of authoritarianism. Russia is the region's most worrying bad pupil. It tasted civic freedoms in the chaotic 1990s. Then, under Vladimir Putin, the KGB colonel who took over in 2000, the country veered backward. Political liberties were decimated and the rule of law was trampled. In their place came aggressive nationalism, "sovereign democracy," and the promise of "order." Meanwhile, the economy was hijacked by a rapacious state and privileged oligarchs.

Much like the Soviet Union and Czarist Russia, this new illiberal Putinstan poses a danger to those in its periphery: His Russia has used armed force against Georgia and Chechnya, and energy blackmail against Ukraine and countries further west in Europe. The rise of Putinism has showed how easily a society—particularly a frail one lacking the traditions of democracy or liberalism—can be suborned into signing away freedom in exchange for an illusive stability.

But Mr. Michnik worries as well about the threat of the "inner Putin" in many European leaders on both sides of the old Iron Curtain. To him, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, also the country's richest man, is a variation on this theme. By flouting corruption charges and owning the media, Mr. Michnik believes Mr. Berlusconi epitomizes the danger of "legal nihilism." At the same time, nationalist politicians push separation for France's Corsica, Spain's Basque region and Northern Ireland, often by subverting free choice with terrorist violence. "Nationalism is always—always—a danger to democracy," he says...



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