Raped by Hitler, ravaged by Stalin and now a victim of Europe's latest dictators

By PETER HITCHENS, Mail on Sunday
October 19, 2003

The first time I went to Poland, in 1980, there were Russian troops at the frontier, meat queues in the streets and secret policemen everywhere. This brave, proud, unlucky country was in the frozen grip of Soviet power and it was dangerous even to think, let alone say what you were thinking.

But there was also incredible, almost miraculous courage. Like a fire burning under water, the desire for liberty was too powerful to be overcome by oppression.

Inspired by the first Polish Pope and led by the indomitable Lech Walesa, the shipyard workers of Gdansk behaved as if they were free men and women and - after a long, hard battle - they got their country back.

I have never seen anything so heartening. So it is sad now to return and find a country which is reluctantly accepting a new foreign yoke.

The secret police have gone and so have the meat queues. The great, sinister Stalinist skyscraper in the heart of Warsaw which symbolised Polish subjugation is now plastered with hoardings advertising American magazines, a typical piece of Polish defiant mockery.

But the new threat is not so easy to see or to fight. This time it is not the steel and iron of Kremlin domination but the flabby, stifling embrace of the European Union, which destroys independence with mounds of documents rather than tanks but destroys it just as surely.

And it is shocking to find that the Prime Minister is Leszek Miller, a former Communist --and not just a foot soldier but a one-time Politburo member famous for his concrete-headed defence of the old order right up to the bitter end.

More shocking yet, in a strange mirror image of the battles of 23 years ago, the workers who once protested against the Kremlin now riot against Brussels decrees which threaten to throw them on the dole.

Warsaw's new middle class were astonished and scared last month when miners - revered as heroes of the struggle against Russia but widely viewed as peaceable - erupted into the city centre hurling Molotov cocktails and attacking police with pickaxe handles among the city's expensive new boutiques.

The authorities, taken by surprise, eventually put down the protest with tear gas and water cannons, but not until the miners had smashed the windows of the ruling 'Democratic Left' Party, the direct descendant of the old Communist Party.

How did this happen? For decades Moscow imposed its alien will, forcing the Poles to follow stupid Marxist policies that Stalin himself admitted were about as sensible as a saddle on a cow.

The countryside was laden with disastrous collective farms, while cities were blackened by crude heavy industry. A grim elite of Party henchmen explained there was no choice. Poland was so weak she had to accept the 'protection' of the USSR.

Now the EU plans to ravage the farmlands yet again by exposing them to heavily subsidised competition from Germany and Austria. It is also demanding that the old heavy industries are deprived of state aid, meaning thousands of coal miners will head for the dole.

And a smartly-suited new elite, led by Mr Miller, explains this is all necessary because there isn't any choice. Poland is so weak she has to welcome the embrace of federal Europe.

It gets worse. Poles, and other East Europeans, are beginning to realise the new EU constitution means they have lost their independence just after regaining it.

The new voting system will leave them powerless against France and Germany on any major issue. Mr Miller is noisily complaining that the constitution is so different from what Poland voted to join that he may have to hold another ballot.

In the neighbouring Czech Republic, President Vaclav Klaus has said: 'After this there will be no more sovereign states in Europe. Basic matters will be decided by a remote federal government in Brussels.' So much for the ludicrous pretence by our own Government that this document is just a minor tidying up that doesn't require a referendum.

But Poland - broke, crumbling and in debt - cannot fight on its own. Nor can the tiny Czech Republic. Both have bitter experience of waiting for help from the West that never came.

Witold Pawlowski, deputy editor of Poland's influential Polityka, says: 'Our attitude was an attempt to choose between loving Mummy and Daddy, the EU and the USA, thinking we can love them both.'

But Mummy and Daddy are in a fierce divorce battle. France's Jacques Chirac, infuriated by Poland's pro-American stance over Iraq, has snarled that Warsaw acts like a badly broughtup child. Mr Pawlowski, who lived through the old era, accepts that Poland will have to behave in the Franco-Germanruled EU.

He says it will be futile to fight over the constitution, though he makes no attempt to deny that it means a serious loss of sovereignty. 'We are in the EU for a long, healthy life. It is better not to die at the beginning,' he warns.

'In the EU, there are many ways to be punished. They have thousands of rules. France and Germany decide. Of course it's unjust, and we are not in the union to join a new Kremlin, even if it is to be dictated to by two friendly countries.'

But they are being dictated to. Chirac and his increasingly close friend, Germany's Gerhard Schr¿der, have made it clear that the debate on the constitution is linked to next year's EU funding - a serious threat to Poland's hopes for generous aid to modernise its economy.

But Mr Pawlowski is resigned to this, hoping that aid will at least benefit the next generation.

Poland's short moment of freedom has been a mess. What many Poles seek now is security and, they hope, help from the West. The economy is wobbly, almost everyone is deep in debt and while there is a rich elite, most struggle by on poverty wages. One of the few expanding industries is selling cheap sex to visiting Germans along the Western border.

The country has used up its politicians at a frightening rate, as all have failed to deliver the prosperity everyone hoped for when Communism fell. The great hero of the 1989 shipyard strikes, Lech Walesa, was an unsuccessful, petulant President. The current Prime Minister's popularity has plunged.

The hard truth is that Poland must choose between the EU and the more sinister group of nations to its East. 'You have either Brussels or Moscow, and we can see what is going on in Belarus and the Ukraine. We don't want to belong to this Eastern club,' Mr Pawlowski says.

Who would? Vladimir Putin's Russia is rapidly abandoning all pretence of democracy or free speech, and things are even worse in the other states of the former USSR. Mr Miller, too, is not a reassuring figure.

Damputting aging stories about him are not pursued by the state TV station. His government is tangled in scandal and widely accused of corruption. If he's a Western democrat now, then it is because that is in fashion. How would such a man behave if Poland switched its allegiance to Moscow?

When I travelled to Katowice, Poland's vast, grimy and depressed equivalent of Barnsley, I expected to find fierce criticisms of this dubious premier. But it wasn't quite like that.

The miners' leader, Waclaw Czerkawski, who organised last month's protests, turns out to be a member of Mr Miller's party. Mr Czerkawski is in an awkward spot.

He recognises that the riot scared the government and may help save the mines but does not want to take the blame for the violence he insists was the work of outsiders.

'But aggression caught on, because how many times can you do things peacefully without having any effect?' he asks. And surveys show that 70 per cent of Poles supported the rioters. 'They support the determination not the violence,' says Mr Czerkawski, adding that the government is fantastically unpopular. 'The only group that have yet to go on strike are the politicians themselves. Even the police have been demonstrating.'

It is not hard to see why. In Warsaw a glossy new skin covers the country's wounds. But in Katowice the landscape is the same dirty wasteland of diseased concrete, polluted air and gloom that I remember so well from the Communist era.

True, there are more cars, the clothes are better and the shops are brighter. But old woes have been replaced by new ones. There is crime, unemployment, capitalist corruption, debt and prostitution instead of fear, censorship, Communist corruption and shortages.

The people here had almost limitless hope that their country, for so long suppressed and divided, was about to see a new birth of freedom. It was a hope that was hard not to share.

It is heartbreaking to see the sordid new Europe we have created, where Poland's liberty has been just a brief interval, and even British independence, which then seemed solid, is now in danger from the actions of our own Government.

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