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The Kaczynski Legacy

I attended a smart Warsaw dinner party in 2006, not long after the Kaczynski twins and their Law and Justice party (PiS) had triumphed in the 2005 Polish parliamentary and presidential elections. The assembled Poles, distinguished Warsaw intellectuals, united in noisy disgust. The Kaczynskis were portrayed as belonging to that part of the political spectrum which ranges from pathological extremists to the far side of the antichrist. Poland was hurtling down the road to ruin, even dictatorship.

Feverish attacks on the Kaczynski phenomenon from many Poles (including Solidarity period colleagues) quickly turned into an international liberal media "narrative" drawn from a pick 'n mix list of disobliging adjectives which is surfacing in some obituary analysis: extreme, nationalist, homophobic, anti-German, anti-European, ultra-Catholic, xenophobic, reactionary, divisive, populist, right-wing.

The worst adjective the patronizing Warsaw elite threw at the Kaczynskis was something much more subtly Polish: they were so provincial. They were not "one of us" -- too petty and pedantic, too truculent, too self-righteous, too wrapped up in Poland’s own myths, too worried about all those uneducated primitive Poles out there. In short, much too Polish -- but in the wrong way.

In my four years in Warsaw from numerous meetings with the Kaczynski family including their mother Jadwiga Kaczynska I drew my own, very different conclusions. They came across as smart, amusing, private but determined and far-sighted Polish patriots who had "attitudes" rather than specific policies.

The Kaczynskis overriding ambition was for Poland to be strong. (This might sound a curious goal for non-Poles, but remember that since 1795 Poland has been substantively free and independent for only 40 years.) The Kaczynskis looked uncompromisingly at what they saw as key weaknesses in Poland as it had had emerged from its bleak modern history. They identified three themes.

Communism’s Corrupt Legacy

One was the dire moral and institutional legacy of communism. Poles’ heroic heave to end Soviet rule had come with a huge cost. Poles had spied on and betrayed other Poles. Key state institutions had been penetrated by people on the Moscow payroll. Far too many people had prospered dishonestly since communism ended. New foreign investment flooding into Poland was welcome, but it brought too many temptations to cut corners.

Above all, key Solidarity leaders including Lech Walesa himself had pulled punches when communism ended, allowing numerous communist villains to sneak away from their crimes only to return in expensive new suits, whistling nonchalantly as new European "social democrats." It was this argument which so infuriated former Solidarity personalities -- how dare the Kaczynskis call into question Poland’s (and Solidarity’s) supreme moral triumph in ending communism peacefully? Heresy.

In my view Lech Kaczynski wanted to win the 2005 presidential election primarily to see his view of this recent history vindicated, rather than with any clear plans to do much about it. In particular there was no generalized throwing open of the communist archives -- some commentators close to the Kaczynskis told me that key Solidarity people and many senior Catholic Church leaders had to be protected from devastating revelations of betrayal or private indiscretions.

As the postcommunist Left reeled under one scandal after another, Lech Kaczynski campaigned against corruption at all levels of the state (with sly swipes at unwholesome "foreign" influences), first as justice minister in 2000-2001 and then as mayor of Warsaw.

As mayor he set a new style. Official processes were meticulously if not painfully respected. Unspectacular but steady improvements were made. Corruption scandals faded away. This unassuming if not boring style went down well with the public.

And, yes, Mayor Kaczynski banned two gay parades. Not so much because he was against homosexuality (decriminalized in Poland decades before the United Kingdom got round to it), but rather because he thought that that sort of thing was just unseemly. The fact that many German and other foreign gay-rights activists wanted to use the parades to challenge his authority made him more defiant.

Political Instability

The Kaczynskis also fretted over political instability itself; they did not want Poland slipping back into the ruinous feuding of the 1930s. By 2000 the dozens of political parties which had contested early post-communist elections had been reduced to some 10 groupings. However, a quarter or more of Polish voters flirted with overtly populist leaders of a "Red-Brown" inclination. Many were marginalized Poles from families displaced from Ukraine in World War II and now somehow "rootless" in poor rural areas.

After the Kaczynski PiS party (to their own surprise) became the largest party in the 2005 parliamentary elections, the twins hit upon a strategy which scandalized many middle-class Poles: they formed a government with these populists, the Self-Defence and Polish Families parties led by Andrzej Lepper and Roman Giertych respectively.

This ridiculous government wobbled along for a year or so then collapsed, prompting the 2007 elections. The main center-right party Citizens Platform swept to power. Far from banging a "right wing" free market drum, PiS talked about "social justice" and strong state support for the less fortunate. PiS sucked in votes from different parts of the left spectrum. Self-Defence and Polish Families were crushed. The former communists struggled to get into double figures.

The result of the Kaczynskis’ crafty machinations has been a spectacular success for Poland and for Europe. Only four political groupings are now in parliament, all committed to EU membership and modernizing pro-Western policies. Polish politics, decision-making and institutions are notably more stable -- Poland’s current fine run of economic success while the rest of Europe is faltering is no coincidence.

Poland and Europe

Finally, Lech Kaczynski wanted Poland to be strong in Europe. But he also wanted Western Europe to grasp that while it had prospered after World War II, Poland had been left at Yalta to rot under Russian/Soviet rule. He insisted that the values of "modern Europe" had been formed without Poland’s rightful participation, so Poland did not see itself as automatically bound by them. Yes, Poland would join the European Union. But it had not thrown off communist Moscow to submit to petty-bureaucratic Brussels.

Thus Poland’s tenacious negotiating positions over the 2005 EU budget deal and the Lisbon Treaty. Other EU capitals saw the Kaczynskis as blustering amateurs who would quickly fold. I warned London that the Kaczynskis would be stubborn and skilful negotiators, and privately advised Tony Blair how to work with them.

Lech Kaczynski duly played on Angela Merkel’s desperation to get EU voting reweighted in Germany’s favor and extracted a remarkable concession, namely that Poland’s excellent voting weight under the Nice Treaty extend until late 2014. This gives Poland a stronger hand in the 2012/13 EU budget negotiations. Kaczynski also steered Poland’s eurozone membership issue into the long grass – again, a perspicacious outcome which has done Poland no harm.

Lech Kaczynski’s Legacy

Lech Kaczynski reminds me of Bill Buckley’s famous ambition for U.S. conservatives, to "stand athwart history, yelling Stop!" His weakness was turning his fiercely held attitudes into policies. Far too often, especially in foreign policy pronouncements, he came across as heaving large lumps of attitude into the river of current affairs, making an impressive splash but doing nothing to stop the water simply running past again.

Attitudes and policies come and go. For now let’s remember and respect what Lech and Maria Kaczynski did over more than 30 years to build a strong, honest Poland.

Yesterday on BBC and CNN I was asked whether Poland would slump into political instability, with so many top people being lost in this disaster. I replied, “of course not.”

Poland is in deep sorrow, yet coping firmly and democratically with this calamity. Lech Kaczynski helped make that happen – a towering moral and political achievement, for Poland and for Europe.

Charles Crawford served as a British diplomat in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and subsequently as ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade, and Warsaw. He now writes about diplomatic issues at The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL