Monday, 7 September 2009

Of drugs and men

Last Wednesday, we had a discussion panel in the Krytyka Polityczna on possible changes in Polish drug policy. With three MPs representing major political forces: Joanna Mucha (Civic Platform), Bolesław Piecha (Law and Justice), and Marek Balicki (independent left-wing MP, former Minister of Health) as well as our special guest, Ethan Nadelmann from the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, we debated if it is desirable to change drug policy in Poland, and what sort of reform we actually need. Ethan pointed to two sorts of harm that good drug policy should aim to minimize: harm caused by the use of drugs and harm caused by drug policy itself. So, one good thing is that we broadened the scope of issues discussed, to the standard question of how drugs as a social problem should be addressed adding a fresh one: how drug policy as a source of social problems can be reformed.

But, frankly, is drug policy reform in Poland possible?

The climate on the political scene does not seem open for change. Earlier this year, the Sejm added BZP and 17 other substances used as recreational drugs to the list of prohibited drugs. Only 5 MPs voted against (another 2 abstained). The policy is widely popular. Both in the political elite and in the masses the dominant feeling is that we need more, not less, repression. The majority seems to desire not a departure from, but a continuation of the trend started in 2000, when Jerzy Buzek's government criminalized the possession of even smallest amounts of illegal drugs. At that time, repressive drug policy was part and parcel of general backlash in politics, but it provoked some resistance. Now, it is considered by many the only reasonable option.

On the other hand, the public discourse has been slowly changing. The consensus over the repressive status quo begins to weaken. In Spring, when we published our book Polityka narkotykowa (Drug Policy: A Reader), the climate of opinion was almost entirely hostile to drug reform, even among liberal journalists. Everyone seemed to be basically happy with the status quo. Critical voices focused on the need to make the repressive policy more strictly enforced. But something has changed since. Inspired and supported by Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch from Global Drug Policy Program, we published the book, we organized about 30 public discussion panels in towns and cities, we started to gain allies... Mainstream media began to be interested in the topic, and a few dozen of press articles appeared during last six months. Not all of them are in favour of drug reform, to be sure, but at least there is discussion.

How much effort will it take to convince the wider public? How long will it take to get with the idea of change into the Sejm? We cannot expect to have a progressive law passed soon, but I hope there will be, after next elections, a political force in the Sejm strong enough to make drug reform recognized as a reasonable idea. Even a small change in the climate of opinion would be a great achievement. Thus we would undo at least part of Buzek's heavy legacy.

Adam Ostolski

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Radical Democracy 101

The previous week I spent at the seaside with Młodzi Socjaliści (Young Socialists). I had been invited to their summer camp to teach about social movements, ecology, gender, and other "New Left" topics. It fit well. The programme of the camp combined economic and cultural issues with lessons in the history of Socialist movement in Poland.

It was an important encounter, for me personally, especially because of the meetings with witnesses of Socialist tradition. It reminded me of my own experience in the late 1990s. It was sad times, with their overwhelming impression of "there is no alternative," and with the chronic shock therapy passing for "coming back to normalcy" (or even "to Europe"). In 1990s, I felt like Odysseus on the island of Lotus-Eaters: not remembering who I was, where did I come from, and unable to fix a direction.

And then, like Odysseus in a poet's song, I recognised myself in the history of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), with its long and noble tradition of struggle for national independence, democracy, and socialism. Established in 1892, it is the oldest political party in Poland. Until 1948 it was a major party on the Polish scene. Although now it is marginal, its heritage still matters. PPS has never been enmeshed in undemocratic regimes of any sort, either capitalist (before 1939) or -- at least nominally -- socialist ones (after 1948). Its history is a story of failed efforts to build democratic socialism in Poland: after 1918, after 1945, after 1989... But it is not just about failure. Above all, it is a reminder that our past could have been quite different. And our future still can be.

That is why I felt deep intimacy at the camp. Młodzi Socjaliści are a Polish youth movement affiliated with the European Left; they also closely cooperate with PPS. As in the sad 1990s, it still requires a substantial dose of non-conformism to describe oneself as Socialist in today's Poland. I wonder what is more difficult: to come out as gay or lesbian or as Socialist. But, as Hannah Arendt taught us, politics is basically about courage -- or it is rubbish. In the courage of young people proud to be Socialists, there is some irresistible attraction. No wonder their ranks are growing. I am smiling to the thought that this is real politics, after all.

Adam Ostolski

Friday, 7 August 2009

Soyez réalistes!

Demo for civil unions, July 14th, photo by Magda Mosiewicz
Demo for civil unions,
14th July 2009
(photo by Magda Mosiewicz)
Yesterday, I took part in a meeting of Polish LGBT activists organized to discuss the question of same-sex unions. Some activists initiated the discussion in order to establish, which legal form of recognition of gay and lesbian relationships would be preferable. Not that we have a generous offer from any parliamentary party at the moment. The political context is not helpful, to say the least, but even in unfriendly conditions it may be worthwile to take some effort and fix the direction for future struggles. And it is especially valuable that we discuss a common strategy. Ii is a new quality in Polish LGBT movement. The important decisions are less and less the prerogative of a few organizers. Approximately a year ago we started to form an anchored public sphere of our own.

Obviously enough, the question of legal recognition is controversial in the eyes of general public. But it is also potentially divisive within LGBT community itself. For some, gay marriage would be a fulfillment of our emancipation, the symbol of equal dignity and recognition. For others, marriage as such is a survival of patriarchy with no real value, and gay marriage would be a depressive sign of cooptation of once radical movement into the System. For some, the French PaCS is a wonderful, flexible, and open institution -- not limited to gay or straight couples. For others, it is an unacceptable solution, since it is not a vehicle of public recognition, and is even open for non-sexual and non-intimate, purely contractual relationships. For some, separate civil partnerships for lesbian and gay couples is a second-best to marriage, or even a proud badge of difference. For others, it would be a form of "sexual apartheid," effectively creating second class citizens. So, whatever the result of our discussions, some will be happy with it, and some will be sad, disappointed, even hurt.

Unfortunately, there are no progressive forces in power that could create an inclusive system of institutions suitable for people with different dreams, needs and self-conceptions. The question is which solution would open the process of further social change in that direction. Perhaps this is the one that should be given priority. But who really knows which one it is?

What struck me at the meeting was readiness of many activists to subordinate to the notion of "being realistic." Being realistic means not demanding too much, but focusing on small steps that hopefully might be accepted by a majority. In particular, it means not speaking about adoption or marriage. And the acceptance of the Constitution with its apparent ban on gay marriage as the unsurpassable horizon of LGBT demands.

For many people the idea of demanding a change to the Constitution seems unthinkable. I can understand that. In Poland, projects of constitutional change are the domain of the right and especially of the extreme right. They want to change the Constitution in order better to protect foetuses, to end the system of proportional representation, to trim social entitlements to free health care and education, and so on and so forth. In recent years, progressive forces have been mainly focused on protecting the Constitution. Whereas the Right does not lack courage to revolt and demand a radical change, the Left is focused on the conservative task of defending the status quo. For many left-to-the-centre people, the attitude towards the Constitution constitutes a dividing line between decent and undecent politics.

But what if one should be somewhat less "decent" in order to gain anything?

The Constitution of 1997 says in Article 18 that "Marriage as a union of a man and a woman, as well as the family, motherhood and parenthood, shall be placed under the protection and care of the Republic of Poland." It is generaly undestood -- and was meant to -- "protect" marriage as a straight-only institution. But as some lawyers have pointed, it may be understood as protecting straight marriage not only against gay marriage, but also against other forms of legal recognition of straight couples. So even a law establishing civil unions as open for both gay and straight couples deems at the moment too radical. The Constitutional Tribunal may strike it down. That is why civil partnerships as an LGBT-only institution seem to be the most realistic from the legal point of view... of course, unless it is too similar to marriage.

It is a catch-22 situation, isn't it? Perhaps we should finally stop thinking about what is and what is not constitutional, and focus on what is actually desirable. We have a chance to learn to be truly realistic, and demand the impossible.

Adam Ostolski

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Between East and West

Polish Shades of GreeenPolish Shades of Green is a collection of articles edited by Przemysław Sadura. It is an attempt to situate the condition of Green politics in Poland in different contexts: historical, sociological, and political ones. It sheds some light on the potentials and barriers for greening the Polish political scene.

The book was originally written in Polish, but now there is also an English translation available on the website of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung. I am not going to summarize it here, since the texts speak best for themselves. But I think it worthwile to write a few words about what it means for me that this book is now being published in English. It is, from my point of view, first and foremost an exercise in cultural translation. Especially the legacy of social movements is different on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and I think it gives way to many misunderstandings.

I wrote for the book a text entitled "Between East and West." My purpose was to understand, how the meaning of 1968 was different on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Although the Eastern and Western protest movements of the 1960s had a lot in common, what emerged from them was rather different. In the 1970s, the communication between "new social movements" in the West and the "democratic opposition" in the East might have been quite intensive, but their ideologies and sensibilities were at the same time more and more distinct.

The true counterparts of Western grassroot movements emerged in Poland only in the mid 1980s. In her text, Ewa Charkiewicz writes about her participation in the environmental movement "Wolę Być" (I Prefer to Be). Her focus is on how the Wolę Być (and other social movements) experienced the fateful year 1989. In her narrative, personal memories combine with sharp analysis. Environmental, pacifist, feminist, and LGBT movements had already existed before 1989, and activists of those movements experienced the fall of ancien régime in their own way, different from apparatchiks, to be sure, but also different from leaders of Solidarność. Since the political scene since 1989 has been divided between Solidarność on the one hand, and the successors of Polish United Workers' Party on the other, a space for Green politics simply did not emerge. Step by step, protest movements became parts of the "civil society." They have become "professional," turned into "non-governmental organizations," and learned how to apply for grants.

The present condition of social movements turned into NGOs is analysed by Agnieszka Graff. Being professional is not only a stage of maturity, but also a political condition with serious implications for grassroot democracy, independence from state (or market) power, and ability to articulate social anger. In all these respects there is a setback. And that explains why the basis for Green politics is so weak.

I focused on the texts by Ewa Charkiewicz, Agnieszka Graff and myself, since I believe there can be no social or political change without thriving grassroot movements. I hope the publication of this book in English will help to understand the differences in the situation of Green movements in both parts of Europe.

Adam Ostolski

Monday, 3 August 2009

Human Rights and Beaux Arts

Land of Human RightsFriends from the Austrian city of Graz have published a book entitled Land of Human Rights: Artistic and Activist Strategies of Making Human Rights Visible (edited by Laila Huber, Judith Laister, Anton Lederer, Margarethe Makovec and Oliver Ressler). It is an international collection of essays dealing with one of the most salient problems of today's world: how to make human rights visible. There are chapters devoted to issues of migration, labour, exploitation, precarity, and so on. The editors of the book state their purpose on the cover: In a world of images, visibility has become a political necessity. Whoever wants to achieve changes in society, must not only make him or herself heard but also seen.

Obviously enough, we live in the midst of a "visual turn" in our culture, social communication, and theory. It goes far beyond the notion of the "society of the spectacle." Images are neither friends nor enemies by themselves. It is rather the visual culture that constitutes another field of struggle, wherein we encounter images as our possible, or impossible, allies. We not only find ourselves enslaved in, manipulated by, or alienated into images, but also empowered by them. Wherever there is alienation, there can also be intimacy. And even visionary politics is ultimately about vision, and its visibility.

No wonder it is so urgent to think about human rights and their visibility in this new context. We need art and artistic practices as a vehicle of social change we are striving for. And I would contend that in the realm of human rights artistic practice is not just a vehicle -- it is a site of strategic intervention. We need to make human rights visible not because we do not hear about them enough. Quite the opposite, we are all too often overflooded with corrupted "human rights" discourse.

How can images be a remedy for corrupted speech? We saw it a few years ago on the occasion of Abu Ghraib. The war in Iraq was thouroughly decorated in "human rights" concerns. In Poland, many liberal intellectuals such as Adam Michnik considered the invasion as a "war to end torture in Iraq." And there was no word, no speech capable of contradicting this conviction. Only after a dozen of months, when the photographs of Abu Ghraib saw the light, did the speech of warmongers become slightly less self-assured.

We need more visual interventions of this sort. We urgently need to scatter the smokescreen of "human rights" discourse clouding the European Union's border and migration policies, especially the activities of the Frontex agency. We need to countervail the newspeak of those "free to choose" with images of actually existing neoliberalism. So we need activist and artistic strategies, and we have to further our strategic reflection. The reader Land of Human Rights is an impressive contribution to this task.

Adam Ostolski

PS. There is also a modest contribution by Joanna Erbel and myself: "The Artist-Citizen: New Directions in Political Art in Poland." We write about transformations in artistic practices accompanying the political and economic transition in Poland. We record a recent shift from a liberal and individualistic understanding of human rights to a broader vision of rights implicit in social and artistic struggles. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The Vestas occupation crucial for our climate struggle

The occupation of the Vestas wind turbine factory in the Isle of Wight is now at the heart of the environmental struggle in Europe.

We often fight for numbers, such as emission targets and quotas. We support political leaders (not many) who understand the urgency of the climate crisis. And we fight against politicians incapable of taking (or unwilling to take) urgent measures to prevent the catastrophe -- against people like Bush or Klaus. This is very important. But finally, we will not be able to lower our carbon footprint without proper infrastructure. We need wind turbines, solar panels, efficiency technologies etc. We need more people employed in green economy. We need not only clean technologies, but also economic demand for clean technologies; and both should be created with government's support, if necessary.

It would be an immense waste to shut down the factory now, when the challenge of climate crisis calls for massive investment in renewable energy sector, and the challenge of economic crisis calls for an earnest effort to create -- not destroy, Mr. Miliband! -- millions of green collar jobs all over Europe.

The Vestas occupation is not only about one factory, or about one country. It is about the sector of green energy in Europe. And about the future of our planet.

Please, take your time to visit the protest's website or to write a few words of support at: savevestas[at]

Adam Ostolski and Bartłomiej Kozek

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Free to care

I have just read my previous posts and I realized that I may sound a bit morose. Actually, I am not pessimistic at all. There are some signs of hope around, and especially within the Greens.

Oddly enough, the Green Party came out of these elections internally strengthened. The coalition was by no means a dream team, and especially the Liberals were dragging us all down most of the time. So we decided as Greens to go on with a campaign of our own. We campaigned against Barroso and for the "European dream." This helped us to take a more critical stance on European policies. When we were preparing for the campaign, we had to define for what sort of Europe we stand.

We found it is all about four basic liberties: freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. It was on behalf of those freedoms that the Allies combatted Fascism in World War II. Of course, we live in a different world now than we did 60 years ago. Nowadays, freedom of expression would be meaningless without the right to free internet, for example, and freedom from fear implies strong protection from social dumping and fighting against climate change, etc. etc. That is why we need Green politics, to redefine what all these freedoms actually mean today.

Next Autumn we are going to have municipal & presidential elections. We have been already thinking how do these freedoms translate into local policies.


On Friday, we had surprise guests in our Warsaw office: José Antonio Vergara from Chile and Mireille Grosjean form Switzerland, two Green comrades who came to Poland for the Universala Kongreso de Esperanto in Białystok. It is amazing how close is the relationship between Green ideals and Esperanto, as a language build aroud the idea of peace and equality of people regardless of their nationality. And on the principle of hope, essential to any progressive politics.

I am deeply honoured to get acquainted with José Antonio, who was an activist of the opposition under the Pinochet regime. I imagine how much personal courage it required. And I admire that he continues to struggle now for what he struggled then. It is another sort of courage, that we -- Greens, Socialists, Esperantists etc. -- need in our postpolitical era: the courage to care.

Adam Ostolski

Friday, 24 July 2009

Everyone's ally

Fakt - front pageThe front page of today's "Fakt" (Axel Springer's tabloid) brings an interesting photograph: young, half-naked man, his hand stretched in Hitler salute. It is the Acting CEO of the Polish public television TVP Piotr Farfał. The photo was made a dozen years ago. Within the issue we find more photos of this sort: young Farfał among other skinheads, their hands stretched forward in the sinister gesture.

Farfał's neo-Nazi past is hardly a revelation. The photos give graphic evidence to what has been known from the very beginning of his public career. It was already disclosed by the "Gazeta Wyborcza" soon after Farfał's nomination to the Board of Public TV in May 2006. At the time, the far-right League of Polish Families (LPR) happened to be a highly uncomfortable, and yet indispensable ally in the ruling coalition led by Law and Justice (PiS). Scandals concerning the behaviour of All-Polish Youth (LPR's youth organization) emerged from time to time, and Hitler salute even came to be re-christened as "one more beer, please!" (People trying to play down the importance of All-Polish Youth's dangerous affinities claimed that the gesture was not actually Hitler salute, but a natural pose of young men ordering another pint of beer...) Law and Justice did not seem to be happy with its allies from League of Polish Families and Self-Defense, but they desperately needed allies anyway. It was within this context that LPR pushed Farfał as their candidate to the board of TVP. Even the revelations of his neo-Nazi past were not sufficient to challenge his position.

Law and Justice lost power in the wake of snap election in Autumn 2007. Civic Platform (PO) formed a new coalition government with Polish People's Party (PSL). But Farfał could feel safe as a member of the board. PO wanted to change the Board of the Public TV, to be sure, but there was no hurry. Their ambition was broader than just a personal purge. They wanted also to "reform" the institution itself. A new media law not only enabled the replacement of the enemy's team, but was also paving the way for the privatisation of public media. In April 2008, the law was passed through the Parliament, but it was vetoed by President Kaczyński. The President was opposed to the prospect of creeping privatisation of TVP, and probably also wanted to protect PiS' control over it (or vice versa). In order to overturn the veto, PO needed support from either Law and Justice or Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). And they proved unable -- or unwilling -- to gain it. Farfał and his colleagues could still feel secure in his post.

And this was not the end... In Autumn 2008 there was a conflict within the board of TVP between members connected with LPR and Self-Defense on the one hand, and members connected with PiS on the other. Both LPR and Self-Defense, now extraparliamentary, wanted more visibility in public media, hoping it will help them to prepare a comeback. And there was also a conflict around Piotr Farfał himself. In December 2008 a mutiny finally happened, the CEO Andrzej Urbański was suspended and Piotr Farfał became the Acting CEO in his place. PiS lost control over the public TV. And for the following five months Civic Platform seemed totally incapable of taking action to replace the board.

Was it really? Let's play with a perverse thought. What if Farfał as the CEO of the public TV was a tacit ally of the ruling party once again, Civic Platform this time? As the Acting CEO he took care to have views and activities of his far-right friends appropriately covered. Six months before the European elections it was invaluable. LPR joined forces with Declan Ganley's Libertas, so Libertas gained a tool to attract public attention. It helped. TVP was quite favourable towards Libertas, whereas liberal media were definitely hostile. But both were equally unfriendly towards Law and Justice. And both talked about Libertas incessantly, much more than about any other minor party. Was it turning the attention of eurosceptic voters away from Law and Justice, the Civic Platform's ultimate enemy other? It could have done it. And if the electoral achievements of far-right proved finally so miserable, it may well be because there are not so many eurosceptic voters in Poland after all.

To the end of May, some two weeks before the elections, a miracle happened. Civic Platform decided not to tolerate Farfał any more. A new media law was passed through the Parliament, almost effortlessly. The President does not seem happier with it than he had been with the previous incarnation, and he will almost certainly try to block it. The new law is, in essence, a double invitation: let's get rid of Farfał and -- at the same time -- let's open the door for privatisation by stealth. Diabolic offer, isn't it? It would probably have worked very well in January or February, still long before the elections, when the Law and Justice's need to replace Farfał was urgent. It will probably work even now, if the Social Democrats help PO to reject presidential veto. Will they? Is SLD ready to accept the prospect of privatisation of public media? I think so, but only if they get something in exchange. Not Farfał's head, to be sure, he is nothing but a token, but some real gains for the party. If they decide to support the PO's new media law, getting rid of Farfał will serve as a good excuse to accept the dismantling of public media at the same time.

Adam Ostolski

Thursday, 16 July 2009

More of the same, or Poland after the elections

What is the result of recent European elections in Poland? The answer is not as obvious as it may seem. Each of four major parties may claim a success of its own. But the real victor is the Political Cartel itself, i.e. those same four parties considered as a whole. Though they constantly fight with each other, at the same time they have one interest in common: to prevent any political rival from beyond the Cartel from getting into the mainstream. And they proved perfectly capable of achieving this goal.

The result is a success for the Civic Platform (PO). They confirmed their position as the biggest party on the Polish scene. But it is also a success for the Law and Justice (PiS). They confirmed their position of the biggest opposition party and the only right-wing alternative for the Civic Platform. And it is also a success for the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). They proved to be the only major left-wing party in Poland. And it is a success for the Polish People's Party (PSL). They confirmed that they do have an independent position, even though they are a minor partner in the ruling coalition.

The elections proved a disaster for all other parties. The populist parties (League of Polish Families and Self-Defence) proved unable to seriously challenge Law and Justice. Both the centre-left coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals, and the anti-capitalist Polish Labour Party (PPP) proved unable to articulate (or create) electorates of their own.

Is it Polish voters that do not need an alternative? Or is it the alternative that has not been delivered to its potential supporters? Anyway, the political scene in Poland seems to be carved in concrete. I know that even a small seed of a tree is sometimes able to subvert apparently solid concrete constructions. But how to translate a metaphor into a political strategy?

Adam Ostolski

Wednesday, 15 July 2009


Recently I spent some time reading Green blogs from across Europe. I realized how important it is to have an access to news and opinion from "insiders" in different countries. So I feel like joining in...

Yesterday, Jerzy Buzek was elected new President of the European Parliament. I remember quite well Buzek's record as Poland's PM (1997-2001). It was by far the worst government in Polish post-1989 history. His infamous "four reforms" (education, pensions, medical care and administration) proved a disaster for Poland's public services and deprived many people of basic social security. Buzek's government changed the labour code making workers more vulnerable in times of crisis. And he had notoriously misogynic and homophobic ministers in his cabinet - the Minister of Education Mirosław Handke and the government's Plenipotentiary for Family Kazimierz Kapera, among many others. It was Buzek's government that decided not to introduce sexual education in schools, being strongly against HIV-prevention education. And it withdrew public funding from shelters for battered women, because they were thought to "endanger the family life" (the shelters, not wife-tormentors, to be sure!).

And one more thing... It was Buzek's cabinet that was responsible for building the A-4 motorway that destroyed parts of the Góra Świętej Anny Landscape Park. It was, and is, illegal to build motorways in protected areas near nature reserves. But when environmental activists came to defend the mountain -- and the law -- they were very violently suppressed by private security assisted by the police.

With this record Jerzy Buzek is now becoming new President of the European Parliament. It means there won't be much space for progress on the European level in next years. And it is very sad news for all progressive forces in Poland, when such a person becomes the focus of national pride.

Adam Ostolski
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