Friday, May 27, 2005

European constitutions

As the political elite of Europe collectively scratch their heads and wonder how to inspire a disinterested electorate about the wonders of the European Constitution, it’s a good time to look back to Europe’s first ever written constitution, created in Poland on 3 May 1791.

“The public happiness of the community lies in the private happiness of individual subjects… All citizens are born equal and have equal rights".

Those words are taken from Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, written in 1776. But, if he had written those lines today then his lawyers would probably receive notice that he was going to be sued for infringement of copyright.

These words were actually written by a Polish bishop two hundred years before Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

British historians like to point to Westminster as the Mother of Parliaments. But the oldest democracy in European history took root in 15th and 16th century Poland. The Polish equivalent of the English Habeas Corpus was proclaimed in 1430. All the monarch’s powers were transferred to the Polish parliament in 1505 – long before the Glorious Revolution in England, one hundred and fifty years later.

Poland elected its own kings in those days – the electorate being made up of the landed gentry. Poland at that time was a multiethnic state and the most democratic in the world – bar none.

Much of this progress was based on the philosophical work of the Bishop to Poznan in Poland, Wawrzyniec Goslicki. It was he who penned the words about equality of man that would later so inspire Thomas Jefferson.

Goslicki was the radical catholic philosopher who wrote those lines in his 1568 tract, De Optimo Senatore. When this was translated into English as The Accomplished Senator in 1588, Queen Elizabeth of England had a red haired, flaming fit and immediately had it banned.

This is not surprising. A document that proclaims, “All men are equal” would not be to her taste at all. The Common Man for her was useful for fighting wars and exploring far off countries and bringing her back things like potatoes and tobacco. But they were not equal to Her at all.

Other parts of Goslicki’s treatise got her even more outraged. For instance, he says: "Kings are created not for themselves but for the good of their subjects".

Blimey! This was radical stuff, and if Goslicki had been an Englishman then he would - if Queen Elizabeth had been in a good mood that day - have found himself doing a bout of solitary in the Tower of London. If she had been in a bad mood then his head would have been propped up on a spike outside the Tower.

But Queen Elizabeth was not alone in her dislike of this sort of talk about equality and the duties of the monarch to her subjects. Eventually, the Polish bishop, like Galileo, was excommunicated by Rome for his ‘sins’.

Meanwhile, back in Poland, the forces that were driving these democratic reforms were unstoppable. By the late 1700s, the growing middle classes and the peasantry wanted some of the action, too. This process culminated in the drawing up of what would become the Polish May 3rd Constitution of 1791.

Jan Matejko’s famous painting tells the story of this revolutionary event. Supporters of the constitution, particularly the emerging middle classes who stood to gain from the document as it officially recognized their rights to owning property, crowded the chamber of the parliament and the public galleries. And much of the sprit of bishop Goslicki’s words, about equality and all that stuff, would be enshrined in the Constitution.

When it was formerly passed thorough parliament it became – after the American Constitution of 1787 - only the second ever to be proclaimed in the world, and the first in Europe.

Unfortunately, this was the swan song of multiethnic, Polish democracy. A few years later, the three competing Imperial powers of Russia, Prussia and Austria carved up the state and Poland stopped existing for over one hundred years.

Poland has had three constitutions since then, the last being ratified in 1997.

The primary function of a constitution is to lay out the limits of power the state has over the individual. But the European Union constitution doesn’t appear to do that at all. It’s about 250 pages long and is full of ‘eurospeak’, with words which normal people don’t understand at all, and most care about even less.

And that’s the problem for the Euro political elites today. France will be holds its referendum about the document this weekend, and if opinion polls are to be believed, then the French are all set to vote a resounding ‘Non, merci’!

This would be a disaster for the French elite. The document is the product of the work of that old French aristocrat and former President himself, Valerie Giscard d'Estaing. The constitution, and the old EU in general, is very much a French project. Since Poland and the others joined last year, however, much of western Europe feels that it is loosing control of that project. Political leaders can’t seem to make people in those countries care about that.

You get the feeling that if the French do vote against the constitution, as seems likely, then there will be a lot of British and Polish politicians who will be mightily relieved.

The purpose of the constitutional treaty was - apart from necessary rule changes now the EU has grown from 15 to 25 members - to connect a free-floating political elite with the voters. It has tried to manufacture a consensus of values in Europe from the ivory towers in Brussels. The Ideas about Europe – its expansion eastwards and further political integration between its members has not come from the societies and people that make the Union, but from the elite itself. Consequently, the project of making the people of the EU feel more involved in the project has been doomed to failure from the start.

If the EU wants to inspire the people of the EU then it has to come up with an inspiring constitution that has roots in Europe, and not just in Brussels. The Polish Constitution of the 3 May 1791 was such a document, expressing as it did the aspirations of sections of Polish society.

Even the French voter might have even said: “Oui, monsieur” to that one!

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Chernobyl: the myth

Late last year the Polish government announced a plan to reduce the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels and cut down emissions of greenhouse gases. But environmentalists are none too pleased about the new initiative.

The Polish government’s deputy economy minister, Jacek Piechota, announced that by 2023 Poland would have its very first nuclear power reactor. He said, by that date, Poland’s demand for electricity would have almost doubled from what it is at present. And nuclear power just could be the answer.

The energy minister did say that alternative sources of energy would be developed – like wind power, hydro-electric power, and something called biomass – which appears to be refining energy from biological substances, such as ‘cow’s emissions’ - but building a nuclear power station was one of Poland’s main contributions to cleaning up the planet.

This is not the first time that Poland has decided to ‘go nuclear’. During the 1980’s the communists had plans to build quite a few of them, such as one near Gdansk.

Many countries in the old Eastern bloc did have them and still do. Of the 10 countries that joined the EU last year, seven, all from this part of the world, have nuclear reactors. During that period, Bulgarians for instance, received about 40 percent of her energy requirements from the nuclear power industry.

But the Polish communists just couldn’t get their nuclear power policy together. And then something happened outside of Poland that buried the plans, quite literally, under a few meters of concert.

At 1.23 A.M on 26 April, 1986, the night shift made a routine shutdown of Reactor 4 at the nuclear power station in Chernobyl. Taking advantage of the reactor’s inactivity, the chief scientist on duty decided to make a little test. A huge explosion was then heard in the area and, well, we know the rest.

Or do we?
According to the International Agency of Atomic Energy, (IAEA), the main cause of the accident was faulty construction of the reactor. One hundred and thirty-four people working at the reactor, and emergency staff who came to the site after the accident, suffered from radiation sickness, 28 later died from irradiation, and two others from scolding.

The radiation from Chernobyl, which is about 70 kilometers from Kiev in the Ukraine, reached Belarus, Russia and parts of northern and southwestern Poland. The Soviet government managed initially to stifle reports of the disaster and the world only heard about what was going on when a scientist in Sweden noticed a suspicious rise in radiation levels in the area where he was working.

What has happened since is contested. Estimates of how many people have died vary widely. When Chernobyl was finally closed down in December 2000, the BBC reported that, “several thousand [have] died from radiation related illnesses.”(1)

At the same time, a story in the Polish current affairs magazine - Wprost, headlined the ‘Chernobyl Con’ - disputed the claims that thousands had died.(2) They quoted from a report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), which found that radiation exposure in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus had little effect on the health of the local populations. One of the UN report’s authors, Polish scientist Zbigniew Jaworowski, told Wprost that, “There is no scientific evidence of increased cancer incidence, increased mortality or the occurrence of other diseases attributable to radiation."

Mortality rate had increased in the area, and so had the rise of what UN scientist Jaworowski calls ‘psychosomatic disorders’, including digestive, repertory and nervous complaints. These were not due to radiation, said the Polish nuclear boffin, but from the fear of getting sick from radiation. The UN report calls this condition ‘vegetative dystonia’, including cultural and social reactions to the nuclear accident, but which are not radiological in origin.

But what about the 1800 children in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus that have since been diagnosed with thyroid cancer? The United Nations report says that, “These increases should be attributed to the Chernobyl accident until evidence proves otherwise.”

That said, Jaworowski thinks that this increase could be attributed to something other than exposure to radiation.

No such increase in infant thyroid cancer has been observed in Poland.

So, according to the UN, the reports immediately after the accident and since have been greatly exaggerated. The most crazy of these reports came, not surprisingly, from America’s National Enquirer, which reported that a 2-meter high chicken had been seen wandering around a forest in northern Ukraine.

So if you are coming to visit Poland in the year 2023, the year of the completion of the nation’s first nuclear power station, and you do see people walking around with three heads glowing luminously in the dark, then the probable cause might be something to do with the vodka they’ve just drank, or a psychosomatic disorder – and nothing to do with nuclear power.

(1) Chernobyl shut down for good

(2) Chernobyl myth - English translation

Roll of honour

To cash-in on the run up to the General Election in September in Poland one firm of printers has decided to manufacture toilet rolls with the faces of leading members of the top political parties in Poland printed on them.

All the well-known faces are there on the toilet rolls. See ex-prime minister Leszek Miller, who took Poland into the EU last year and then promptly resigned the next day. See Jan Rokita, head of the centre/right Civic Platform and someone who is favourite to be the next Prime Minister after the election. See the orange, perma-tanned face of Andrzej Lepper. leader of the radical farmers union Samoobrona. And there too is the current Prime Minister, Marek Belka, who tried to stand down from his post this month but has had to stay on in the job after President Kwasniewski refused to accept his resignation.

In fact almost the entire Polish political elite are on these new toilet rolls made by McTommi Polska printers. You could say that these novelty bathroom accessories are political ‘Rolls of Honour’.

This is not the first time that someone has thought of putting politicians faces on toilet paper – it’s quite an obvious idea in its way. But in Poland the link between toilet paper and politics has a long and sorry history, and so will strike a particular chord with the toilet tissue buying public.

There are 5,000 manufacturers of toilet paper worldwide producing over 30 billion rolls every year (that’s 2.7 rolls a second!).

But toilet paper is not something that we think about very often, is it? The only time the subject leaps into our consciousness is when we are sitting on the can and suddenly discover, to our horror that we have run out of the stuff. Then the matter takes on the gravitas of a life and death struggle.

So imagine what it would be like to live in a country where toilet paper was quite often in short supply. Well, that’s what it was like in Poland during communist times.

The economy in those days was actually out of control. The communist authorities did not have command over their own command economy. Coming up with the essentials of life was often quite beyond them. So people were forced to come up with alternatives to things such as toilet paper. The favourite solution around that particular problem for many was using the official communist party newspaper, Trybuna Ludu as the medium of choice – which probably helps explain its wide circulation and readership.

In a recent autobiography by Jerzy Urban - the communist press officer during the marshal law period - and today the very controversial editor of the satirical NIE magazine - recounts how on a trip to West Germany in the early 1980’s he noticed that German toilet paper was narrower than Polish toilet paper. In fact it was 15% narrower. When he got back to Warsaw he found out that the shortage of toilet paper at that time was, coincidently, 15%. So the obvious solution to the problem, he mused, was to make Polish communist toilet paper 15% narrower.

An orange alternative
The shortage of bathroom tissue, as well as many other essential items, continued until the late 1980s. In 1988 on International Women’s day, a protest by the situationist political grouping, the Orange Alternative, involved walking down the street handing out toilet paper and sanitary towels to passers-by. A harmless act, you might think. But not in communist Poland where toilet paper had become a political issue (or should that be, a political tissue?). The police quickly swooped on the protestors and confiscated their toilet rolls and escorted them to the police station for an interrogation. (they were probably eager to know where they had got the stuff from? Was it black market toilet paper?)

Thankfully, those shortages are a thing of the past today. You can pop into the supermarket and by the top-end, luxury triple-ply for extra strength, scented stuff, or opt for the bottom of the range stuff made from recycled paper.

But the association between toilet tissue and politics remains. Last summer, Warsaw played host to an international economic forum. The authorities were terrified that this might attract the attention of the anti-capitalist, anti-globalists that so ravaged Seattle a few years ago. Security in the capital was tight. Whole areas were cordoned off to the public. Quite literally these days, the gap between the political elite and their public is total.

On the day of the conference I went along to the protest march to see what would happen. Only a couple of thousand anti-globalists turned up and we walked peacefully along the major roads of the city on a bright and sunny afternoon. The main police presence – which outnumbered the protestors by about 3 to 1 – centred on the MacDonald’s in the centre of town. The restaurant was boarded up with metal sheets. It looked like a hamburger fortress (with extra cheese). The atmosphere turned a little tense. But the only action by the anti-globalists was to throw toilet rolls ever-so-gently at the police.

Today toilet tissue has retained its political significance once again with the issue of the special toilet tissue with the faces of our much-loved politicians on it. And the product is sure to do well. Not least because the general public are absolutely convinced here that everything Polish politicians say is a tissue of lies.

See the toilet roll of honour here

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Ding ding-a-dong: the politics of Eurovision

The final of the 50th Eurovision Song Contest last Saturday in Kiev, Ukraine was the usual mixture of kitsch, karaoke and craziness. But where was the Polish entry?

I had better explain to those of you who don’t live in Europe and have not had the unique privilege and pleasure of ever watching Eurovision, what it actually is.

The competition was founded in 1955 by the European Broadcasting Union – an organization that pools the resources of public broadcasters in Europe when they are covering live sports events and the like. In order to help justify their existence the EBU had the great idea of setting up a song contest where all the member countries could send along a singer or group and compete in an atmosphere of fun and harmony.

That was the theory, anyway. In the early years singers in sensible outfits would sing nice little songs with titles like, Ding ding-a-dong or Boom bang-a-bang.

In the last few years, however, the song has taken a back seat in the contest. Eurovision has mutated into a contest to see who can come up with the most outrageous performances.

For instance, last year the competition was won by Ruslana from the Ukraine. The song was so unmemorable that even an elephant would have trouble recalling it. The performance, though, consisted of a scantily clad singer surrounded by butch looking men banging very large drums.

This year every other performance consisted of a scantily clad singer, or singers, being surrounded by butch looking men (and women) banging very large drums.

The contest has also expanded in size – as the European Union has done – mostly in an easterly direction. This year 39 countries took part, with a semi-final on the Thursday, which eliminated some of the most obvious and hideous crimes against musicality, and then 24 countries took part in the final on Saturday.

The most memorable performance this year was from Moldova – a tiny country between Romania and Ukraine. The song was called Grandma bangs the drum, and the performance consisted of what looked like Iggy Pop and the Stooges being accompanied by their Grandma who was banging a drum. I kid you not. Grandma spent most of her time sitting in a rocking chair, only to emerge, center stage, during the last chorus, where she banged her drum like crazy for Moldova.

Another trend over recent years has been that the voting process has become much more interesting than the songs or the singers.

Europe votes for its favorite via text-message. Geo-political alliances form as a consequence. Scandinavia and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, etc form one voting block and the Balkan countries including Greece form another.

The reason why Poland wasn’t in the final was because it failed to get through the sem-final.

But why?

The song was called Foxy Lady and it was sung by a group called Ivan and Delfin and the singer is the Russian born Ivan Komarenko, who also stars in a very popular soap opera here. The song, such as it was, was no worse than most of the other entries – lots of big drums banging away in the background, etc. But Poland failed to get into the final by just four votes. Poland was four text-messages from the final.

Could this be because Poland lies between the Baltic and the Balkans but is not actually part of either?

Does the nasty world of politics encroach on what is supposed to be a harmless little song contest?

Well, of course it does. And this favoritism is often blatant and shameless.

The contest this year was even more political than normal due to the fact that it was being held in the Ukraine only months after the so-called Orange Revolution. Ukraine’s entry was actually an eastern European rock version of a chant that rang out of Independence Square in Kiev during those heady days last December and January. It was sung by an over weight, middle-aged guy wearing a denim jacket.

But this was too much for the Eurovision text messaging, voting public, who refused on mass to vote for it. Perhaps if Ukraine had included a few scantily clad ladies and a few big drums in their act they might have done better.

The only country to give Ukraine full marks was Poland – a country deeply involved in the Orange Revolution from start to finish.

Half way through the semi-final the time came for the Belarusian entrant to make her mark. Before Angelica Agurbash came on stage you could cut the tension with a plastic spatula. Belarus is a country that is frozen in time. No advertising hoardings color the city of Minsk, which is as drab as it was during the Soviet Union. The country has been described by Condoleezza Rice as being, “the last dictatorship in Europe.” The president of Belarus is Alexander Lukashenko, a Charlie Chaplin look-a-like who seems intent on turning his country into a pariah. Even President Putin seems embarrassed by him.

So would Angelica Agurbash look as drab and as weird as Belarus? Well, no. Not at all. She burst on stage with flaming red hair, dressed in a gold lame cloak – which made her look like a particularly glamorous oven-ready turkey.

But hardly anyone voted for her. Belarus simply has no friends at all.

In the final on Saturday, all eyes were on how Belarus would vote. Of course, they gave top marks to Russia.

The final was eventually won by Greece. I didn’t vote at all. But I did vote in the semi-final on Thursday. In fact, I voted twice, which is apparently allowed in the rules. I voted once for Denmark, because it had the best song, and I voted for Belarus because it has no friends.

But voting twice as I did reminded me of something. And then I remembered. It reminded me of an old style, pre-Orange Revolution, Ukrainian election.

When is a journalist just a dirty blogger?

Answer:when his name is Bronislaw Wildstein

The top Internet site in Poland earlier this year was not one of the usual suspects - such as sex or gambling - but a list of names taken from the Polish National Institute of Remembrance.

As the British writer Nick Hornby once pointed out in his novel High Fidelity, men, especially young men, like to make lists. The favorites are things like My Top Ten Greatest Rock Albums of All Time, or My Top Ten Girlfriends, or even My Top 100 Things To Do With Blue-Tac. While women make shopping lists so as not to forget something, many men make lists to reaffirm their existence – a kind of modern day version of Descartes: ‘I make lists, therefore I am.’

But lists can have darker purposes. Think of the mania that the Nazis had for listing imagined races or perceived undesirables. Or think of Schindler’s list, whereby a name’s inclusion could mean escaping the consequences of being on one of the Nazi’s lists.

The mania of totalitarian regimes for making lists has survived those regimes, and has gained impetus from the expansion of the Internet. For instance, many web logs are just basically lists of things individuals like or dislike.

One list - in fact a list of 240,000 names of Polish people – was uploaded onto the internet in January and quickly became he most visited internet site in Poland.

The list – which has become known as Wildstein’s List after the rightwing journalist, Bronislaw Wildstein, the man thought to have put it on the net in the first place – contains names of those being looked at by the National Institute of Remembrance, a government body which investigates communist-era spies, informers and collaborators.

I have to admit that when the list was uploaded onto the Internet I wanted to put a link to it on our web site. My editor – who hardly ever stops me doing anything around here - said that if I did do this then he would do various and nasty things to vital parts of my personage.
And of course, my editor was right (for once).

I hadn’t thought the situation through, at all.

The list – and more to the point, its release onto the Internet - is one of the most controversial lists in the history of list making. Wildstein’s list doesn’t just include alleged communist spies and informants, but also those who were being spied on and informed about. The release of the names into the public domain has possibly smeared the reputation of many who are included.

Poland, unlike many other countries, never banned communists from public office after the fall of communism. They were incorporated into the new democratic Poland. Many got rich from getting hold of the newly privatized companies, and many are still in government today. If Poland had banned these people from public life then today’s president of Poland might just possibly still be working as a sports journalist, or something.

Many rightwing politicians think that this was a mistake and have been campaigning to ban these people, belatedly, from entering government or the civil service. The far-right League of Polish Families has suggested, for example, that today’s Third Republic of Poland should be scrapped and a Fourth Republic be made, without the inclusion of former communists.

For some time now they and others have been demanding that the list of names be put on the Internet so that everyone could see who was being investigated.

And that’s where the journalist Bronislaw Wildstein comes in. It is alleged that he - or someone working in the National Institute of Remembrance - copied the names on a disk and put the whole lot on the Internet. The broadsheet newspaper that the guy worked for – Rzeczpospolita – promptly sacked Wildstein, and he could possibly be charged under the Data Protection Act and other privacy legislation.

Now that the list is on the Internet, hackers have been entering the site and putting names in or taking names out. The list is quickly turning into a farce, and doesn’t really tell us very much about anything at all. As an act of journalism, this has not been one of Wildstein’s better ideas.

And that’s the thing about journalists that makes them different from bloggers. Journalists work as part of a company or cooperation; they work under editors and with other journalists. Bloggers work on their own and don’t have the external controls that journalists do. What Wildstein effectively did by unilaterally outing all those names on the web was not an act of journalism at all, but simply an act of blogging.

The list is about as much use to the public as me telling you what my Top Ten Types of Underwear are.


Monday, May 23, 2005