Dark And Dynamic, A Tale Of Two Polands

Much has and hasn't changed in Poland since the fall of Communism. But while the country's economy is rolling, sharp differences in ideology bring real risks for the future.

Anti-government protester in Warsaw on June 24
Anti-government protester in Warsaw on June 24
Laure Mandeville

WARSAW — It's incredible how much Warsaw has changed since the fall of Communism. While its inhabitants were always colorful and free-spirited, the city itself was dull and bleak. Nowadays, though, the Polish capital is full of hip restaurants, outdoor cafés, sophisticated shops and brand-new, car-free streets.

"Poland's economy is flourishing," French lawyer Jean Rossi notes, explaining that the pace of the country's growth "remains stronger than in the rest of the European Union" and with unemployment levels at around 5%.

But despite these undeniable achievements, the mood in the Polish capital is dark. Warsaw's residents are very pro-European, profoundly liberal and clearly committed to the opposition parties that were thrashed two years ago by the now governing Law and Justice party, PiS. Since then, the capital's residents have been on red alert, convinced that the country is sinking into authoritarianism.

Lucifer of Polish politics

Roman Kuzniar, a professor at the University of Warsaw, is one of them. We meet in one of the university's sunny squares. "This isn't a political crisis, but rather a political group in power that wants to change the system," he explains. "The Law and Justice party is a party of Bolshevik revolutionaries who want to build an authoritarian system comparable to that in Belarus, and European safeguards are the only thing holding them back."

Kuzniar, an advisor to former president Bronislaw Komorowski (2010-2015), calls PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynsk "the Lucifer of Polish politics' and explains how the "revolutionary wind" translated into radical changes. He worries particularly about the general judicial reform, which has already altered the composition of the Constitutional Court and how its members are named, and now promises changes to the Supreme Court.

The power of elitist clans that have been controlling the courts for years.

"We used to have people who were trusted. Now, the new president of the Constitutional Court is a female judge from some obscure local court. Her presence at this job has rendered this authority meaningless," the professor complains. Kuzniar also talks about how local authorities have seen their powers reduced, how the government has tightened its grip on state-owned TV broadcasters and how it's trying to re-nationalize privately owned media groups as a way to, in his opinion, gain control over the last bastions of the independent press.

Academics aren't alone in their concerns about the government. Recently, massive demonstrations were organized across the country, forcing the Polish president, Andrzej Duda (also from the PiS), to veto a controversial judicial reform.

Taking on the elites

The PiS and its allies, of course, have a different take on the situation. Chris Czabanski, a PiS lawmaker and former activist from the Solidarnosc trade union movement, is "unimpressed" by accusations of authoritarianism and recalls how the previous government illegally named new judges to the Supreme Court to gain influence over the judiciary.

The reforms are needed to shake up "the power of elitist clans that have been controlling the courts for years' and allowing "many cases of corruption," Czabanski claims. "These elites always considered themselves to be above the law. They must be subjected to parliamentary control."

PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński — Photo: Piotr Drabik

But these arguments don't explain why the executive would take on the prerogative of having the Justice Minister name Supreme Court judges. During the campaign, the PiS also talked at lengths about the necessary decommunization of state institutions. The new government is indeed convinced — some would say paranoid — that former pro-Kremlin Communists are infiltrated everywhere in Poland. Even the hero of Solidarnosc, Lech Walesa, found himself accused of being a traitor and a spy for the old Communist regime.

But Chris Czabanski says that his ruling party is there "to serve the interests of the common people" whose values and interests are looked upon "with contempt" by the elites who jumped on the globalization and EU bandwagon. "The Christian conservatives, people from the smaller towns, all of those who have little education, have been abandoned," he says. "The opposition simply told them we would enter a paradise of wellbeing with the EU. We started building big highways, but nobody made any proposals for the communities that were not connected to it … Nobody except for the PiS."

The new Poland woke up to find itself very unequal.

Tomasz Zalewski, a former Washington correspondent for the center-left magazine Polityka, agrees that the opposition abandoned the field of social policy to the PiS, adopting instead a very liberal vision of market economics and social issues — such as LGBT rights — that have shocked traditional Poland. "The opposition also deserted the field of patriotism. Remember that former Prime Minister Donald Tusk once said that someone with a strategic national vision should go see a psychiatrist," Zalewski says.

Different worlds

The problem, according to lawyer Jean Rossi, is that the PiS gives patriotism an often revanchist and conspiracy-theorist tint. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the party leader, continues to harp on, almost religiously, the tragic plane crash that killed his brother, then president Lech Kaczynski, near the city of Smolensk in 2010. "You killed my brother!" he shouted at the opposition inside the Parliament just last month, suggesting that they had conspired with Moscow.

For Professor Karol Modzelewski, an 81-year-old medieval history specialist and one of the most important faces of Solidarnosc, the PiS bears a great responsibility for the gap that's growing between these two Polands. But he also sees the current situation as a consequence of "the liberal shock therapy" imposed on the country after the fall of Communism. "The heroes of Solidarnosc were used as political cover" for the painful reforms, but "the new Poland woke up to find itself very unequal, in a post-Communist country where egalitarianism remains strong," he says.

"There are now two Polands. We don't get the same news. We don't read events in the same say. Nor do we have the same values. It's as if we were losing our common language," the professor explains in terms that are strikingly similar to what is often said about the US under Donald Trump. "We no longer listen to one another, and we no longer talk to each other. Worse, we don't even want to talk to each other."

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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